Imagine a cute little puppy, full of energy, running around enthusiastically, sticking his nose randomly into everything and just being all over the place. It can be heartwarmingly adorable and entertaining, but having it around all the time on full-blast mode, eventually you would also come to crave a little peace and quiet. And undeniably get frustrated, when the cute fur-ball would pee on your carpet or chew on your new pair of shoes. We all live with that little puppy every day, only we call it our mind. Of course, we love it sometimes, are even proud of it and want to show off its occasional magnificence with the world … but at the same time, we have to live with its constant running around, sticking its nose into every little corner, and ruining a fair number of otherwise nice experiences with silly mood swings, frustrations, and unsatisfied expectations. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that, because just like a puppy, the mind can be our best friend, if we only train it properly.
That was just one of the precious lessons I was lucky enough to take away from the 10-day introductory course we recently took at Kopan Buddhist monastery, located on a hill at the outskirts of Kathmandu in Nepal. When we signed up for the course, I have to admit I was filled with all kinds of different preconceptions, expectations, and even some religion related apprehension. But in light of gaining new experiences I thought I might as well start off with an open mind and see what this monastery package of meditations, teachings, and silent days will bring. And did it bring a lot!
My previous, very limited knowledge of Buddhism and its notions of karma, reincarnation, and strict moral guidelines was quickly shattered with the first of the daily teachings we received from a long-term Swedish nun and a Nepalese geshe (an academic title for Tibetan Buddhist monks). As I thoroughly learned during the course, the central idea of Buddhism and its Dharma teachings (at least the Tibetan Mahayana lineage we were introduced to) is actually based on the concept of achieving unconditional love and compassion for all sentient beings, which obviously in addition to humans also includes all the animals (yes, mosquitoes and their insect company as well). Consequently, all the Buddhist practices and rituals one undertakes are aimed at cultivating this kind of compassion, while the end goal of achieving enlightenment (a state of no suffering and permanent happiness) isn’t a selfish act to benefit yourself, but serves only to share it will all the other beings through helping and teaching them how to achieve it for themselves. The Mahayana Buddhists believe everyone has the potential to reach the state of enlightenment through studying, contemplating, and training of the mind, where blind faith is replaced with logical reasoning and disciplined practice of different meditation techniques to tame our naturally wild state of mind. A great example of this is the fact that the monks spend the majority of their time thoroughly studying texts and scriptures and later engaging in energetic, philosophical daily debates about various concepts and its underlying logic, while praying is regarded as a sideline activity. They believe that without this kind of study and training we are constantly ruled by our thoughts and emotions, which are in turn mainly controlled by our negative impulses like attachment, anger, desire, hatred, and selfishness. To put it simply: to live by the Buddhist believes, you should put all efforts into eliminating your suffering (that is always a result of our negative thoughts and emotions) and replace it with happiness, tolerance, patience, compassion, and love to then benefit all sentient beings. Basically, study and train hard to become the best human being possible and help others around you as much as you can. (And for now probably forget about enlightenment, because it supposedly takes at least three lifetimes to achieve it. But we can always start trying.)
This monastery experience therefore turned out to be more of a psychotherapy session than a religious brainwashing I was quietly afraid of. The teachings were immensely interesting, filled with personal and life enriching drops of wisdom, and surprisingly liberal in terms of enforcing religious aspects – we were constantly encouraged to question everything, use our own logic, and basically believe what we want to believe or what makes sense to us (in my case, at least karma and reincarnation still require quite a bit of research to make complete sense of). We had daily discussion groups that (oftentimes unintentionally turned into support groups) and the three daily meditation sessions destroyed my preconceptions about “just breathing” and showed me a world of analytical meditation and their consequential mind-opening realisations. So, besides learning a lot about the Buddhist tradition, meeting some amazing people, and actually starting to love meditation, I mainly learned tons about myself. Of course, some introspective realisations were far from pleasant and if I’m completely honest, I was on the verge of crying on quite a couple of occasions (meditating on your selfish nature, your anger and hatred or your unavoidable death, for instance, are not things that leave you jumping with joy). Also spending every half of a day and then two whole days in complete silence, stuck constantly in your own head and filled with so much new topics to contemplate on, you’re bound to get a bit overwhelmed at times. But at the end of it all, it was an experience I am truly grateful for and has hopefully left me at least a slightly better human being – who is also determined to keep on trying to improve.