Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Nepal Adventure: My first week in Nepal

When my plane departed the US for Guangzhou, China it was the eve of the November 4 US elections. When I landed at my final destination, Kathmandu, Nepal, it was November 5.

China to Kathmandu

I somehow missed the US Election Day entirely, and the news cycle around it. When I finally learned the election results a few days later, it was from Australian woman who had seen it on the Australian news. Welcome to my newest adventure - Nepal.

I am living and studying at Kopan Monastery, a Buddhist monastery located in Kapan village, a community perched on a hillside on the outer edge of Kathmandu, Nepal.

Kopan Monastery
I came to Nepal for the purpose of attending the month long “November course” at Kopan Monastery. The first meditation course at Kopan was held in 1971 and the course has been held annually ever since.  This year’s November course begins tonight at 5pm, and ends on December 11. Fellow students have been trickling in from around the world for the past several days, with most arriving within the past 24 hours. There should be about 270 of us here by tonight.

We all received the following email, along with a suggested reading list from the monastery last month, to help us prepare for the journey:

Dear friends,

Very soon you will be coming to Nepal to attend the course. What a wonderful opportunity – to spend one month meditating, learning, examining your life, your thoughts, your problems.

Getting new perspectives on life in general and particular on personal problems needs time – and you will have this time here during the November course.

Sometimes it will be hard – getting up early every day, not being able to chat and gossip as we are used to, enduring the cold, and the long queues at mealtimes. Sometimes you might feel like getting up and leaving when being challenged in your understanding of how things exist.

Please persist. Please be patient. Please bring an open mind for all the new information you are about to be presented with.

We will support you in any way we can.

All of us are seeking happiness, All of us don’t want suffering.

The way out of suffering and into happiness lays within your mind.

We received a bag of books when we arrived at Kopan, and checked into the office.

Kopan office - my friend Yonten at the desk on right.
Our books include the Kopan Prayer Book, and a thin November Course 2014 Material book. The November Course 2014 Material book contains Dharma Etiquette, Dharma Quotes, In Praise of Bodhicitta, Short Lam Rim Outline, Recommended Reading, Glossary of Buddhist Terms, Quotes from Lama Yeshe, and How to meditate on the Stages on the Path. We also received a spiral bound book Extended Lam-Rim Outlines: Beginners’ Meditation Guide compiled by Karin Valham, The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism by one of Kopan’s founders Lama Thubten Yeshe, and The world and Ourselves: Buddhist Psychology by our teacher Thubten Gyatso.

We were also given a Kopan Monastery: Center for Buddhist Studies and Meditation November Course 2014 booklet, which contains practical information about our stay at the monastery including our daily schedule:

5:30am – Prostration to the 35 Buddhas
6:00am – Morning tea in the dining room
6:30am – Morning Meditation
7:30am – Breakfast
8:00am – Karma Yoga
9:00am – Teaching (with 10 minute break)
11:30am - Lunch (free till 2pm)
2:00pm – Discussion groups
3:00pm – Break for ½ hour
3:30pm – Teaching
5:00pm – Tea
6:00pm – Guided Meditation
7:00pm – Dinner
8:00pm – Evening session
10:00pm – Lights out

It’s going to be a good - and busy - month.

All November course students are living at the monastery for the month, in dormitories and private rooms set aside for student use. We eat all of our meals here, and are not allowed to leave the monastery grounds during the course. I am staying in a 10 bed dormitory room, in a building that just opened one month ago. It is attractive and comfortable, with western style fixtures including electrical outlets that accept US plugs.

The monastery is home to 350+ monks, who live and study here, too. I wake up each morning when I hear the monks start their day at 5am with the ringing of a bell. The air is then filled with the sounds of monks chanting morning prayers in unison. Between the beautiful setting – Kopan monastery is perched on the top of a hill with panoramic views of Kathmandu Valley below, and the monastery activities … starting my days here at the monastery has been peaceful and beautiful.

My first morning at Kopan

Kopan Monastery - gompa where we will have classes in the background
I spent my first few days in Nepal getting to know the country and volunteering. I went straight from the Kathmandu airport to Kopan Monastery via taxi, so my starting point for exploration was Kopan Monastery. A few November course students, including my temporary roommates Manon from New Zealand and Sarah from Denmark, also arrived at the monastery on November 5.

On Thursday, November 6, Sarah and I ventured out of the monastery’s front gate to explore the neighboring village and visit the nearby stupa at Boudha, also known as Boudhanath.

About 10 minutes into our walk, we discovered Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery, home to 390+ nuns. Like Kopan Monastery, it was established by Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche for students who come from the Solu Khumbu region in Eastern Nepal. Sarah and I were invited inside to tour the gompa (temple) and campus. I had never seen very young nuns before - it was fun to exchange smiles with two young girls outside of the gompa.

After visiting the nunnery Sarah and I wound our way through the village, asking for directions to “the stupa” at almost every intersection. Nepalis speak a local language, and learn Nepali and English in school. We had some difficulty communicating, but it was a fun adventure. We investigated the local shops and wares for sale (household goods, plastic flip flops, fruits, raw meat, beauty supplies, tailoring services, hair salons, soccer balls), finally arriving at the stupa an hour later.

Kapan village, Kopan Monastery on hill in back left corner.
According to my Rough Guide to Nepal, “one of the world’s largest stupas, Boudha is also the most important Tibetan Buddhist monument outside Tibet. Tibetans simply call it Chorten Chempo – “Great Stupa” – and since 1959 it has become the Mecca of Tibetan exiles in Nepal. A Tibetan text relates how a daughter of Indra stole flowers from heaven and was reassigned to earth as a lowly poultryman’s daughter, yet prospered and decided to use some of her wealth to build a stupa to honor a mythical Buddha of a previous age. She petitioned the king, who cynically granted her only as much land as could be covered by a buffalo hide. Undaunted, the woman cut the hide into thread-thin strips and joined them end to end to enclose a gigantic area. It’s almost certain that the stupa encloses holy relics, perhaps parts of Buddha’s body (bones, hair, teeth) and objects touched or used by him, along with sacred texts and other ritual objects. The stupa has been sealed for centuries, of course, so no one knows exactly what lies within.”

The stupa
Sarah and I spent several hours walking around the perimeter of the stupa in a clockwise direction, doing coras and observing all of the stupa activities.

A group of young men were splashing water on the top of the stupa, changing out the prayer flags, repainting the Buddha’s eyes, and hanging small Christmas-style lights on the stupa. We saw many Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, Tibetan pilgrims, Nepalis, foreigners, and resident street dogs. We took a break for lunch at 3D Restaurant, recommended by my Rough Guide. I had one of my favorite local meals - Tibetan soup, Thukpa.

Sarah studying the guide book while we cora the stupa from above ground level, on the stupa

Overlooking the stupa from a perimeter temple's second story
The next day, Friday, November 7 I set off for the center of Kathmandu on a local bus in order to attend an information session at the US Education Center – Nepal. I walked out of the monastery gates and down the hill to the bus stop. A bus was pulling down the street. I jogged after it, and a young Nepali boy hanging out of the door gestured me on board. I asked “town?” and he nodded. This was the equivalent of boarding a bus in Nairobi, so jumped on board without hesitation.

Kathmandu city bus
We headed down the rough roads of Kapan village into the flatter central area of Kathmandu. I didn’t know where the US Educational Foundation in Nepal (USEF Nepal) was located, so just stayed on the bus until it looked like we were reaching our final stop, a big bus park. The bus had just driven down a road full of signs advertising “study abroad in USA, Australia, Japan” etc so I figured that I might be in the right neighborhood.

"Education street"
I walked back to that street, and started poking my nose into education-related businesses, asking for the official office that helps Nepali students apply to college and university in the US. I finally had some luck after venturing inside of the Padmaknya Multiple Campus (“Quality Education for Women Empowerment”) front gate.

I approached two women who were lingering in the first campus building I entered. They turned out to be Isabelle, an American student from Missouri attending Middlebury College, studying abroad in Kathmandu, and her friend Manisha, a Nepali college graduate who is hoping to attend the University of Calgary to study renewable energy engineering. Manisha had just attended an information session at USEF Nepal, so she knew exactly where I was trying to go. The building was on her way home, so she walked me there and dropped me off at the front gate. During our walk, Manisha taught me about the Nepali education system and opportunities for higher education. She said that government funded primary and secondary schools are easily accessible to all students in Nepal, but that the better schools are the private schools. There are many colleges for women in Nepal, including the campus I had just visited, where her older sister used to teach Population classes. Her sister is now a nurse in Calgary.

Manisha and I reached the USEF Nepal and Fulbright compound just in time for me to catch the 10am – 12noon information session for Nepali students, on how to apply to US colleges and universities. Perfect.

The session was run by Selena Malla, Educational Adviser at USEF Nepal and her colleague Priyani. I had communicated with Selena prior to my arrival in Nepal, and she had granted me permission to attend the information session. I had attended a similar session at USEF Nepal’s sister center in Nairobi, Kenya in 2011 and was looking forward to seeing what the Nepal information session would be like, and who would be in attendance. The room was almost full to capacity, with approximately 60 young Nepalis who were interested in applying to US for undergraduate degree programs, MBA and law schools, and other graduate programs. Their dedication and focus was amazing.  

Selena and Priyani walked their way through a powerpoint presentation, reviewing in detail the things the Nepalis would need to spend 12 – 18 months working on, in order to apply to the US for higher education: 1.) Adequate Funding 2.) Strong Academic Record 3.) Strong English Skills 4.) Standardized Exams (TOFEL, SAT, ACT, etc) 5.) Student Visa. I learned US higher education can cost anywhere from $12,000 – 60,000/year and that each applicant must have letters from their sponsors, and copies of their sponsors’ bank accounts, demonstrating that the bank accounts contain sufficient funds for a year’s worth of school. (I recall this was the same in East Africa – a huge feat.) I also learned that 70% of the international students studying in the USA are self-funded (do not receive any scholarships). Yes, this is all daunting, but no one left the room, and the audience continued to ask Selena and Priyani questions about necessary entrance exams.

Selena and Priyani met with me after the information session, to answer my questions about USEF Nepal and the center. I learned they receive funds from the US State Department for a program called Opportunity Funds. They select approximately 20 students per year for a cohort of promising, low income Nepalis seeking admission to US higher education. The applicants meet each week with the USEF Nepal staff to receive help and coaching with their applications, and all necessary fees (TOEFL exam fees, etc) are covered by the program. They reminded me of UNEP, and an American woman named Rebecca who started UNEP in Zimbabwe. I then recalled researching UNEP and reading about Rebecca while doing higher education access research in East Africa in 2011. Selena let me know that there is a bi-annual conference for USEF advisors to share best practices with each other. They had attended the Southeast Asia conference most recently. Selena and Priyani were interested to hear about my visits to their sister centers in Nairobi and Kampala, Uganda. We had a good time talking.

I learned that one of their program graduates is the Lehigh student I had read about, from Nepal. They said that Kabita had presented about her experience while home in Nepal last summer, and that Morgan from the Lehigh Admissions Office had visited USEF just a few weeks ago. I even saw a Lehigh pennant hanging alongside other US schools’ pennants in the USEF library. It felt like I was amongst friends, here in busy Kathmandu.

Selena and Priyani told me that the USEF library, which contains books typical to a high school guidance office – Baron’s Guide to Colleges, etc - is utilized by up to 600 Nepali applicants per day. When I was there, on a Friday morning, the library was full of students who were working on their applications to US institutions. Each year students travel alone from rural parts of Nepal to board in tiny dorms in Kathmandu, for the purpose of going through the application process with the goal of attending US higher education institutions. They board there for the 12 – 18 months it takes to go through the test taking and application process. Selena and Priyani said this is particularly difficult for the young women, and that they have seen the tight spaces in the dormitories, and are continuously amazed by the fortitude of their advisees. Contrary to the impression I was getting during the information session they led, I learned that most of the Nepali applicants are relying on scholarship funds to pay for their higher education costs. Nepali families sell off land and other assets to be able to send their children to the US for school. I walked out of the campus absolutely amazed by the odds the applicants face, and yet their optimism is contagious.

After learning that I could board a city bus back to Boudha directly from the curb out in front of the USEF building (such good luck), I explored the neighborhood. I saw crowds of young Nepalis ducking underneath a curtain hanging in front of a traditional Nepal eatery, and followed them inside. I ordered a delicious flavorful chickpea, potato, and cauliflower lunch from the staff by pointing at the pots of cooking food that I wished to eat. My total bill was 50 cents.

I then headed back to Boudha, learning upon arrival at the stupa that I could not take the bus any further. No matter. I knew where I was. After enjoying the stupa for a few minutes, and meeting a sickly looking street dog, promising to be back the following day, I climbed back up the hill to Kopan.

The following morning, Saturday November 8 I walked back down to the stupa to meet Jasmin, Street Dog Care’s Volunteer Coordinator, and the other volunteers for a morning of volunteering. I had first learned about Street Dog Care while visiting Dog Camp (a free animal medical clinic) in Bodhgaya India, last January. My friend Maria, who I had met in a Mind Training course at the Root Institute in Bodhgaya last January volunteered for Street Dog Care this past spring, and had said it would be a great organization to volunteer with while I was in Nepal for the November course.

The Kathmandu Valley is home to 25,000+ street dogs. Street Dog Care is a no-kill center staffed by a local veterinarian, staff and volunteers who run a yearly rabies vaccination program, facilitate local and international adoptions, and provide emergency and long term treatment for street dogs suffering from skin infections, life threatening injuries, maggot wounds, etc. The nonprofit was founded by a French woman named Andrea. I got to meet her while volunteering on Saturday.

Street Dog Care organizes a clinic at the stupa each Saturday. We set up a small table, covered by a beach umbrella, and went to work searching out street dogs in the stupa that needed medical attention, bringing them back to our spot at the stupa, treating the dogs, and then setting them free again. A team of five international volunteers and 2 Nepali medical practitioners provided the services for several hours in what turned out to be bright, hot sun. We treated dogs for skin infections and open wounds, and carried a dog with advancing leg problems back to the nearby Street Dog Care center for more involved medical care. I got to talk with and pet the dogs while they were undergoing treatment, and answer questions about street dogs and our work from interested tourists who were visiting the stupa. It was a lot of fun. We received heartfelt words of appreciation from many people who took photos and gave us financial donations. My favorites were the small Nepali children who stopped to pet the injured puppy and watch us take care of the street dogs. The Nepali Street Dog Care staff answered many questions from interested Nepalis about what we were doing, what was wrong with the dogs, and where they could get medical treatment for their own animals. It was so amazing to be performing services in such a public spot, where we could really accomplish so much for the community.

Street Dog Care at the stupa

Street Dog Care center

Street Dog Care center front gates

Street Dog Care at the stupa
I also got to visit the Street Dog Care clinic, and meet some of their long term and permanent residents – former street dogs who need prolonged medical attention. One of the volunteers, Carmen who is a vet nurse who has been volunteering with Street Dog Care for the past few months, is also taking the November course.

After volunteering with Street Dog Care, I met up with my friend Gilad, who studies near the stupa at the “white gompa”, Rangjung Yeshe Institute. Like Yonten, I met Gilad while he was working at the Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India. Gilad and I visited a popular café adjacent to the stupa, called Flavors. We were joined by Beth, a young  woman I had met over dinner at Kopan a few days earlier, who started a nonprofit called Himalayan Peoples Project – Nepal. It was great to get to catch up with them, learn more about Gilad’s intensive studies at the Institute, and experience a western oriented café in Kathmandu.

On my way to the stupa that morning, I had come across a sickly looking calf lying in bushes on the roadside outside of the nunnery gates. I have since learned that some Nepalis only want to keep the female cows, which produce value for them – milk. The male calves are discarded by their owners, left to wander and fend for themselves. This sickly looking calf is indeed a male.

Calf on roadside, below nunnery gates on right
My friend Yonten, a Nepali monk I first met while he was working at the Root Institute in Bodhgaya, India who is now working at Kopan, told me that this was less of a problem in the past, when Kathmandu had more open space and fields. But the rapid urban development has exacerbated the problem of abandoned male cows. That is why we now see them wandering the streets.

When I was at the stupa on Friday, I saw an adult cow walking down a very urban road. The cow’s hoofs were extremely overgrown – its back hoofs were warped, and extended forwards. Its front hoofs were very long. I thought that the cow hadn’t had its hoofs clipped in a long time, and had to look away in sadness and with acceptance that this is a different country with different practices. Now, I wonder if that had been a male cow, left to wander the city for years?

Yonten has helped me a lot, with my efforts to take care of this calf, and has offered me a lot of compassion as I try to help this calf in this unfamiliar country where I don’t know what resources are available, and don’t speak the local languages.

Although the calf continues to live on the roadside, things are improving. It has made me feel better to see that caring for the sickly calf has become a community activity. I have seen nuns, who tied a red blessing cord around the calf’s neck, pouring water blessed by Rinpoche into the calf’s pried open mouth. I have seen another nun and a monk collecting grass and feeding the calf, and putting dried grass underneath the calf for bedding. The last 2 days, when I visit the calf I have found a blue plastic basin the nuns must have placed there, full of offerings of food and milk. I also saw a Tibetan woman bringing the calf water. Just today, I found another student from the course helping the calf to stand, so that its muscles won’t atrophy, and other students bringing straw for bedding.

This reminds me of Luckypuppy from Bir, India this past spring and what Tenzin Palmo had said when Luckypuppy died – that so many street dogs die in gutters, without the love that was shown to Luckypuppy, and that he had indeed been a Luckypuppy. I think she would say the same about this calf. I am also trying to put into practice something taught to me by Gen Gyatso in last January’s Mind Training course – that we should have more compassion for the butcher than the goat. That one goat died, but the butcher kills many goats each day and is receiving the karma of killing. Also, learning about the fate of male calves in Nepal is reminding me of the importance of being vegan, including in Nepal. Incidentally there is a laminated article about why it’s important to go vegan, hang I hanging on the bulletin board in the Kopan dining hall. I haven’t yet read it, but you may be able to find it on FPMT.org in the newsletter or blog archives.

The nuns at the nunnery have said that they will look after the calf. This makes me feel better because once the November course begins this afternoon, I will be unable to visit and look after the calf. Yonten has also said that he will look in on the calf.

On Sunday, November 9 my friend Lama Dhundup picked me up at the Kopan gates, and took me by motorcycle to his home in another part of Kathmandu. Lama Dhundup and I met at Dog Camp in Bodhgaya earlier this year, and he invited me to contact him if I came to Nepal. I have since heard from both he and our mutual friend, Maria (same friend who told me about Street Dog Care) that Lama Dhundup, a 34 year old monk from rural Nepal, has started a nonprofit 6 months ago, to provide an education to 11 children ages 3 – 13 from rural villages, in Kathmandu.

In anticipation of visiting the nonprofit and meeting the 11 students, I assembled some appropriate filmmaking equipment before I left the US for Nepal, so I can make a short promotional video about Lama Dhundup’s organization for his use. My mom made the students florescent colored sock monkeys, which I brought with me to give to the students.

Monkeys on my bed
On our way down the hill from the monastery, Lama Dhundup stopped to see the calf with me, and brought it food. The calf eagerly ate the lettuce. More love for the abandoned calf.

Lama Dhundup drove me through Kathamandu, pointing out the sights on our way to the one floor apartment he shares with the 11 students and one of the student’s mothers, who serves as house mom and cook, and a young German volunteer who is here helping for two months.

We arrived at the house just before lunch. I ate lunch with the students, who said prayers in Tibetan before and after eating their food, walked them to their nearby school with Lama Dhundup, and then interviewed Lama Dhundup on video before the students returned home for tea time and then homework and tutoring before dinner, and then bed time.

The 11 students’ parents are farmers. In the rural villages, children either work on the farm, tending the animals, or if the family can afford it, then the children are sent to school in Kathmandu. The students Lama Dhundup is looking after would not be in school, if Lama Dhundup had not taken them, for free to Kathamandu. I interviewed four students for my video. All four had been to school in the past, but for a variety of reasons had been pulled out of school. It is so heartwarming to see how hard they are studying, and helping each other, as a result of Lama Dhundup’s care and efforts, all of which he funds through his own money, and some small donations from his family and a few friends. He is hoping to build a school nearby to the apartment he is renting for the students, so that he can bring children from the rural villages, who are waiting for him to have the space for him. I hope the video I will make will help him with fundraising so he can realize his dream.

The students attend the nearby monastery’s school, where they study with the resident novices (young monks). Lay children (non-novices) are not allowed to attend the monastic school, but the monastery made an exception for Lama Dhundup. Lama Dhundup shared with me that as a novice, he only learned Tibetan, and that he dreams of providing more opportunities for his students. They are studying Tibetan, Nepali, English, Buddhism, and the usual American school subjects – math, for example – at the monastic school. It was amazing to see how well some of the students, as young as age 8, speak English, and to hear the even younger girls doing math sums, whispering the numbers out loud to themselves in English.

I really enjoyed my day with Lama Dhundup and the students. At the end of the day I handed each student a sock monkey, and explained that my mom had made these popular American sock monkeys for them. Not understanding the monkeys were for her, one young student tried to hand her monkey back to me, before I left. As I was leaving, the students were sitting in a huddle on a mattress with their monkeys grasped in their arms, watching TV together.

Students with their monkeys in their apartment living room
I took the bus back to the stupa, in rush hour Kathmandu traffic. When I arrived at the stupa it was 7pm, and the air was full of a beautiful floral scent – maybe magnolia? – and many monks, nuns, and pilgrims were doing coras around the stupa. I joined them for two beautiful quiet coras, so different from the busy day time hours when the shops are open on the outskirts of the stupa, and there are many more visitors. It was my best visit to the stupa, yet. I experienced the power of the stupa that night.

I  spent the following day, yesterday looking after the abandoned calf. When I got back to Kopan later yesterday, I felt the energy had shifted – there were many more students on the monastery grounds, all getting ready for the November course. There is now an air of anticipation and excitement, and a lot more people to meet. I was excited to run into two friends from India on Sunday night, after returning from the stupa - Suresh and his wife Shubhangi. They are also taking the course.  We were allowed to pick our seats in the gompa (teaching hall) yesterday. I am sitting directly behind Shubhangi and next to my dorm mate Manon. I haven’t heard too many American accents, so far. From my unofficial survey, students are coming from all over the world – it’s a lot of fun to be meeting so many excited, interesting, friendly new people.

This morning I went down to Rangjung Yeshe Institute to sit in on a Buddhist Philosophy class that Gilad is taking. The teacher was a 31 year old Tibetan monk. We studied the importance of using this life to study Buddhism. There were a lot of American voices in the classroom. I then ate lunch in the school cafeteria with Gilad, a visiting researcher from Berkeley who is affiliated with UC Berkeley, and a Swedish student. I learned that there are at least 10 American students at the Institute. Gilad was heading off to a Tibetan conversation lesson when I walked back up the hill to check on the calf one last time, before returning to Kopan to start the course.

Entrance to the teaching hall/gompa
So this is it – my last time online before the course ends on December 11. Wish me luck with the course, and send your good thoughts to the calf for a strong recovery. 

If you are interested in learning more about Buddhism and how to apply it then check out the book I borrowed from the Kopan library. I am really enjoying it.  The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out, by The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The Karmapa is in his mid-20’s. The book is based on ongoing conversations he had with Emory University students at his monastery in India. Enjoy, if you join me in reading the book. Happy early Thanksgiving, all.

View from my seat in the teaching hall

Friday, October 31, 2014

India and Thailand video journals

I made these video journals using footage I recorded in India and Thailand this year. Enjoy.


I forgot to label one of the clips in the above video. The unlabeled clip is a Buddhism class taught by Gen Gyatso in Tibetan and translated into English, held at the Root Institute.