Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
Nepal is full of spiritual seekers looking to find enlightenment in hashish or gurus or weekend retreats. Nobody achieves enlightenment in a weekend or even after a few years of meditation, but Kathmandu is full of schools and monasteries where you can pretend you are learning something. The monasteries and gurus are quite fond of cash. And North Americans think we can buy anything. I smelled hypocrisy, but still I went to take a look.
The Kopan Monastery sits majestically high atop a steep hill just north of the city. Aside from being home to several hundred Tibetan monks, it also opens its doors to foreign seekers of instant enlightenment who may be short of time but long on cash.
A notice posted inside the silent retreat cells reads: "Welcome to the Kopan Monastery, a quiet environment conducive to learning and meditation. We ask that you avoid singing, dancing and playing of music. Be mindful of your neighbours who are in retreat or meditating."
Silent meditation is rumoured to be good for the soul. Why, you hear people talk about it all the time. Evidently you can acquire some wisdom in a weekend.
But there were obvious technical difficulties involved. The monastery lies directly underneath the flight path of intercontinental jets. Planes take off and zoom directly over the monastery every five minutes. This information is not mentioned on the Kopan website. The road to enlightenment may be paved with good intentions, but here it's best experienced with quality earplugs.
At 5 a.m., extremely vigorous drumming emerges from the temple on the hill, colourfully reminiscent of the rhythm section in Carlos Santana's band. Then several workmen arrive to construct a new wing. (Evidently the instant enlightenment business is expanding.) One of them turns on a radio full blast, requiring all the workers to yell at each other.
In the meditation garden, signs clearly state that total silence is required, but evidently such dictates do not pertain to Kopan's younger monks, who whip out video games and start to scream in excitement.
Still, I sit here and listen. Workers are hammering nails in a shed that's under construction. Someone is cutting sheet metal. A car alarm has been ringing for five minutes. Hundreds of dogs are barking in the valley below. An ambulance klaxon shrieks endlessly. A tourist bus wending its way up the steep road pounds its horn on the corners, on the straightaways, at other vehicles and in between for practice.
At the dining hall, meals of some vague watery substance are on offer along with yesterday's stale chapatis. The attendant has assumed an amusing habit of snatching bowls away the instant the contents have been consumed, and the cleaning lady briskly attacks sandaled feet with a broom as a signal to leave. Discipline, butterfly. Stoicism is the first step on the road to wisdom.
Back in the tiny silent retreat cells, seekers of instant enlightenment can count the number of ghetto blasters booming from the dormitory next door. When night finally falls, the first of thousands of wild dogs begins to howl in the streets below, and soon hundreds of vicious dogfights will erupt.
For seekers on the weekend plan, the real lesson is that spiritual peace is a slow and continuing process.
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