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Dreams and Whispers
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On the first night I arrived at Kopan monastery, after checking in and getting settled for a 30 day stay, I zipped up my tent and wandered down to the front entrance of the monastery, near the gates that are closed every night at dusk. Rakesh, our friendly gatekeeper slept in the small gatehouse beside the entrance (later in the course I would meet his young son who came to visit from their home in Bhaktapur, a couple hours from the monastery). Beside the gatehouse are the buildings where the younger monks have classes in the evenings. The first chants I heard at Kopan were here, outside the monks classrooms.
There were three classes being held simultaneously, two in the main building, and another classroom with the youngest monks in a smaller building a few steps across the road. With all windows open, the three groups recited their different prayers and mantras. I sat in the street between the two buildings, closing my eyes and listening to the intertwining chants. At first, the voices seemed to clash, prayers from one room colliding with mantras from the next. Then, like three separate streams of water finding their way to join each other, the voices became a single stream of sound. I found myself lost in a moment I will cherish for a long time. The voices of these children will always stay with me, and I often hear them calling out their classroom chants in my dreams.
30 Days To Enlightenment
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The Lamas at Kopan probably never thought they would have their own theme music. Various sections of this piece are featured through the documentary, and it eventually became the title track of the CD. In this piece we hear the Kopan monks reciting afternoon prayers in the background, as well as a sample of one of the Tibetan prayers sung by Western students in one of the morning classes.
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It took some time to settle into the gentle rhythm of the monastery and our busy retreat schedule. Those first few days held a strange mix feelings for me. On one hand there was much 'rushing' from one class or meditation session to another, with little free time and many new rules and lessons to be learned. On the other hand there was a sense of peace, an underlying tranquility that blanketed everything just below the surface.
And then, a few days later as though in a dream, I found myself waking up in my tent one night and wondering if I really did have a life back in Canada. Was it possible I had a job, family, three cats back in a strange place called Ontario? Had I not spent my entire life here in Kathmandu Valley in the shadows of the Himalayas? Gradually, all sense of time and life outside Kopan faded away, and by the end of the course 'real life' had indeed become somewhat of a distant dream, recalled fleetingly every so often during a meditation session.
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The days get shorter and the nights cooler as the course
moves on into late November. Although the temperatures in the Kathmandu Valley don't usually go below freezing in the winter time, the nights do get cold on top of Kopan Hill. Monks and students wrap themselves in wool or pashima shawls, hurrying from the last meditation session of the evening to the dining hall, where chai tea is served before lights out. In the crisp night sky, the stars shine clearly and are truly a wondrous sight, lighting up the valley with a canvas of twinkling planets.
I would often meet fellow stargazers on top of the hill that rises from the center of the monastery grounds. Pulling our shawls around our ears, we would hold quiet conversation under the brightly lit canopy above, reflecting on the teachings and our ongoing experience at Kopan. My greatest teachings may have come from these nightly meetings. Great friends were met under the winter stars of Kopan, and there's comfort in knowing the same stars still shine above every person in our small stargazers group, scattered throughout the globe as we are.
This piece features the Kopan monks chanting prayers at an outdoor puja held nightly in the courtyard just outside of the main Gompa. Lasting over two hours, the chants often include prayers requested by local villagers for their loved ones. Dide, a friend of mine at the retreat offered a small donation for this puja. Her prayers and family names are included in the long list of names being chanted. I loved being outside under the stars and listening to the chanting monks. Their voices starting quietly, slowly swelling to a sea of voices, calling out the names one by one, building to a great crescendo across the usually quiet Kathmandu valley. Because this puja took place during our evening meditation session, I often found myself 'skipping' class and having my own meditation under the moon and with the monks.
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I think this piece captures some of the mystery and unique energy that can be found at Kopan. Many times during our 30 days at Kopan a 'tangible' energy could be felt, usually during a puja or after a particularly enlightening teaching. Although the feeling itself is somewhat indescribable, it would usually happen while sitting cross-legged in the Gompa with 200 other students. A small buzz felt in the bottom of the stomach, growing steadily across the hall. Building greater and greater, the feeling is subtle at first and people find themselves starting to smile, first with their eyes and then the smile slowly spreads across their face. And then the energy begins to course through the hall, jumping from one person to another like an electric current, the Gompa pulsing with warm, positive energy. At the end of such special pujas or teachings, students are unusually quiet and seem to have a particular glow about them that lasts for hours. Well, at least that's how I saw it during meditation one afternoon. ;)
Tibetan Buddhist Prayer
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This is a short Tibetan prayer that is usually sung at the beginning of a teaching session or group discussion abut the Dharma. It helps 'cleanse' the palette of the mind and is believed to facilitate clear and open understanding.
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There are times in our lives when we are introduced to new, life changing experiences. Sometimes it happens in a dramatic fashion, other times it happens a much more subtle manner. Early on in the retreat I experienced some direct conflict with the teachings and had difficulty with some of the Mahayana Buddhist teachings.
With the continuous ringing of the huge prayer wheel bell near the front entrance of the monastery, and monks chanting puja as a backdrop, I spent a bit of time reading and looking up books in the great library at the monastery. At times, the library seemed more open minded than the teachings we were being taught in the Gompa. I was surprised to find many interesting and unlikely titles including books by Carlos Casteneda, Herman Hesse, Dan Millman and Richard Bach. There were also several H.P. Blavatsky and other Theosophical works in the library, which was interesting as I had been studying with a Theosophy centre in Canada for several months prior to the retreat. Somehow it was comforting to curl up with some familiar books and authors. It was a treat to burrow into my sleeping bag and re-read Hesse's "SteppenWolf" by candlelight.
I tried to put my ideas on hold during the retreat, stowing away my western beliefs and philosophical notions about things, carefully placing everything on a shelf to collect and re-examine at the end of the retreat. As the retreat progressed my shelf was rattled, and from time to time an item or two would drop off with a loud crash.
Subtlety is one of the mysterious charms of Kopan monastery. As time passes and the more I reflect on the teachings we learned at the Lam Rim retreat, the clearer they become. I'll be going about my day with Kopan and Nepal the furthest things from my mind, and suddenly a teaching that did not make any sense to me two years ago becomes instantly clear. The day suddenly becomes brighter and my step a bit lighter.
For me, spending time at Kopan monastery was truly a life changing experience. It's a subtle, yet powerful change that is continuing to this day, like a memory that grows and changes somewhat over the years, getting softer and warmer as time moves on. And it's when we learn the precious art of stealing moments, that we can pause long enough to replay these slices of life that are so close to our heart, and relive a moment in it's entirety. Memories, held in our hearts and reviewed in quiet, stolen moments.
Many memories have been sewn for me in Kopan's sacred soil.
A Whisper In The Crowd
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As students learn and debate the teachings in the Gompa, monks also have debates
outside in the courtyard. The usually passive monks hold loud, animated discussions,
and the debates are often centered around a specific philosophical question or idea.
One or more monks are presented with a philosophical question and they must present
a solid, arguable answer or solution. If their answer is not satisfactory, the other
monks clap their hands, shaking their fingers at their opponents and shouting loudly
"shame" or "not good enough".
I was in my tent on my first night at the monastery, exhausted from the day's events,
both nervous and excited to start the retreat, when I heard the monks
start yelling. I must admit I was a bit shocked because it sounded like a terrible fight,
and I was picturing the monks shaking off years of religious studies and meditation,
gearing up to riot across the monastery. After getting up to investigate, I realized there
was no reason to call in the Royal Army and peace was restored on it's own after a
couple hours of some of the most serious debating I've ever witnessed. Thankfully
everyone is still good friends after the debates are over and the monastery again
becomes quiet for another night.
Dreams and Whispers
Excerpt from 30 Days To Enlightenment:
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One month before the 30 Days To Enlightenment documentary was filmed,
Geshe Lama Konchog, a high spiritual master who lived at Kopan for several years,
died and was cremated at the monastery. Lama Konchog was one of a long
lineage of high Tantric spiritual masters and teachers. Spending over 26 years in
retreat, including ten years in solitary meditation, Lama Konchog came to Kopan
in 1985, where he spent the remainder of his life.
Sometimes, holy objects called relics are found in the ashes after the cremation of a
Spiritual Master's body. Relics will often include the heart, eye, and tongue,
unscathed after days of burning. This is believed to be the physical embodiment of
body, speech and mind. Sometimes, relics even more miraculous in nature are
found including jewels, lotus flowers, and in a bowl of sand
placed in the cremation site specifically for this reason, footprints pointing in the direction
of the expected reincarnation.
Geshe Lama Konchog is said to have remained in meditation for seven days after his
death. Sitting cross-legged, his body did not grow stiff with post death rigamortis but
stayed soft to the touch, his skin emanating a soft glow. For one week, the body
remained in pristine condition, until Lama Konchog left his body on the seventh day.
On a sunny afternoon day in October, villagers, students and monks gathered on Kopan
hill for the cremation ceremony. The pyre was lit, and as the flames grew, eagles circled
overhead. And then, a silence as a drizzle of flowers began to float down from above.
Several hundred monks and visitors looked up to see multiple rainbows arching their
way across the clear afternoon sky, far and beyond the black smoke circling and rising
into the crisp Himalayan air.
After several days of burning, the ashes were inspected to see if they
contained any holy relics. The monastery held it's breath as not only the three
auspicious relics (heart, eye, tongue) were discovered, but also many relics,
including a living lotus flower, fresh footprints, and dozens of precious jewels
and multicolored stones.
Over the course of the next two months, and during our one month meditation retreat,
the relics continued to grow and multiply in the small glass jars that held them on the altar.
Although I was not present during the cremation, I did view the relics several times
during the retreat. The relics were held in small magnifying jars
set up on an altar in Geshe Lama Konchog's former small cabin. Multicoloured
Christmas lights were draped around the room and over the entire altar, blinking on
and off. The monks have an affinity for decorative lights and tinsel, the main
Gompa also lavishly adorned with decorations usually reserved for the holiday season
in the West.
The relics did, in fact appear to be multiplying. In a piece of jaw bone, I observed a
shiny pearl-like stone that appeared to be forming, growing on the inside of the jaw.
Other perfectly round, red stones were forming on pieces of bone and dropping,
collecting like marbles at the bottom of the jars. The Lamas call these 'blood stones'.
From these left over bones, dozens of new jewels and relics were recorded appearing
over a period of 60 days from the cremation. On display in the center of the altar
was the bowl of sand with distinct footprint. Many anxiously await
Geshe Lama Konchog's return.
These are the dreams and whispers of Kopan.
* * *
Last minute preparations are made for the final day of retreat.
Inside the Gompa, prayers are chanted and puja is held for several hours.
With Geshe Lama Konchog's relics on display in the background, hundreds of monks
and students fill the room, waiting until it's time to line up and receive a blessing from
the head Lama, Lama Lhundrup.
Students meditate and spend their final hours at Kopan
as the puja continues, uninterrupted into the afternoon.
Finally, students and monks line up to offer Tibetan katas to Lama Lhundrup.
Katas are long, white silk scarves that are offered in greeting as a demonstration
of respect. The white color of the Kata represents the pure mind, a mind without
judgement. The kata is received, blessed and returned, Lama Lhundrup
draping the kata over each monks head. The lineup is long, but the virtues of
such a blessing is well worth the wait.
After the blessing have been received, Ani Karen, a nun who teaches at Kopan,
passes objects to Lama Lhundrup to be blessed, including prayer flags, Tibetan bells
and other holy objects. The chanting increases, the last objects are blessed, and as
the ceremony draws to a close, an excited energy begins to sweep through the Gompa.
The Lamas and monks don their traditional Tibetan yellow hats and rise to signal
the end of the puja. The monks and students prostrate three times in respect of the
teachers and the Buddhist teachings. Lama Lhundrup follows the procession through
the center of the Gompa to the exit. Hundreds of monks bow their heads low to the
ground as he passes, unable to see his bright smile shining from ear to ear as he passes.
The moment Lama Lhundrup is past, they leap up and join the crush of bodies eager
to leave the Gompa after so many hours of puja. Pushing, jostling, and all the time
smiling and laughing, a sea of orange and maroon robes press their way to the exit.
The Lam Rim meditation retreat at Kopan monastery has ended for another year.
Next year, more students will travel to Nepal and live at Kopan for one month to
meditate and learn the Dharma.
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