A Monk Gave Me Homework

A post by Andrew.

Kathmandu is dusty, hot, and crowded. But also, colorful and sensational. The people are friendly and appear devoutly religious. But I will let Kelsey elaborate in another post—just know it is an overwhelming place for the first-time visitor. Fortunately, we had Monica—Kelsey’s childhood friend who lives and studies Buddhism in Kathmandu—to show us around for a few days. 

Monica let us step right into her life and showed us around her school grounds. Walking through the school gate provided instant relief from the city craziness. There were students and monks, young and old, milling around grass fields in the center of the quiet and beautiful campus.

The first building we encountered had large cracks running from the second story roof to the ground. Monica explained that the 2013 earthquake left this building—the campus temple—structurally unsound. For the time being, they use a different hall as a make-shift temple until they complete construction on a new temple near the monks’ quarters. 

The buildings are organized like a typical school, except that some buildings are monks’ quarters. We peeked into a classroom and saw low desks with floor cushions instead of chairs. And of course, shoes must come off before walking in. The rooms are plain, peaceful and have an air of academia. 

Once we finished walking around the campus, which included a quick tea break in the garden, Monica wanted us to meet the head monk, called the Abbot. Chokyi Nyiama Rinpoche is a world-renowned meditation master and famous teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, according to my Google search. 

We walked past the classrooms and up a few flights of marble stairs where Monica moved aside a curtain. She leaned in and in a hushed voice, asked whoever was on the other side of the curtain if we could see him. Chokyi is not always in or available.

Before this moment, Monica had only told us, “He is a very special person and is more than just the Abbot of the institute here—he is one of the top four people in Tibetan Buddhism in the world.” I read that Chokyi is considered one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of our time. I don’t actually know what a Dzogchen master is, but it sounds important, right? Aside from putting the pressure on, Monica didn’t say much else. She handed us each a white silk scarf to offer to him. “Just follow my lead,” she said with a wave of her hand. I haven't hung out with Monica much, but I like her style. 

We took off our shoes and walked in to see a man sitting on an adorned box at the end of a rather long room. There were family members of a recently deceased faculty member there. They lined the edges of the room. We three sat on our knees at the back of the room in silence and waited. 

 Image courtesy of Allevents.in & Google.

Image courtesy of Allevents.in & Google.

I heard, “Young man” and looked up. Chokyi gestured toward me as I sat there, probably making a dumb face. He waved me up, front and center. All I knew is that I was supposed to give him the scarf that was balled up in my hand. So, I bent down and I handed it to him. I am sure he spoke to me but I was just trying to not offend anyone, so it was a bit of a blur.

He held the scarf open in front of him. I didn’t move. This lasted for so long that Monica had to push on my back, signaling me to bow my head so he could put the scarf around my neck. He then picked up a pinch of something that looked like peppercorns and placed them in my hand. Chokyi waved me to the side. There was a man to my left who asked, “Are you a star?” I didn't understand. I tried to hand him my peppercorn pieces. Why wasn't he taking the peppercorns from my hand? I turned back to Chokyi and stayed put—kneeling on a rug, palm stretched out holding peppercorns, with a white silk scarf around my neck.

I figured out the man to my left was Chokyi’s translator, because he spoke sometimes spoke Tibetian instead of English. He was trying to say that Chokyi was asking if I was a star—like a movie star. Maybe he was paying me a compliment, but I think it was a good-hearted joke because this guy loves to laugh. 

I looked back to Kelsey, who was already wearing her scarf but looked like a deer in headlights with her palm out. Chokyi then placed the scarf around Monica’s neck, who licked the peppercorns off her hand. Thankful for her instruction, we did the same. We found out from Monica later that we had licked up mendrup, which means accomplishment medicine.

Chokyi spoke English well and began what I can only relate to as a sermon, except his sermon was brief. He spoke about life and death, joy and anger, the self and religion. He compared many religions and concluded that humans cannot rely on a savior. In my interpretation, he meant we make our own light in the darkness. This part was for the family that had recently lost a loved one. We three were still knelt before him front and center, with the grieving family, circled around us.

His words were simple and he was very welcoming. He looked at us often to check if we understood him. Before long, I could no longer sit on my knees and had to revert to good old crisscross applesauce. Then the worst fear of all new students happened—he asked us a question. Well, not us, he asked Kelsey a question.

I thought Kelsey said, “I don’t understand the question.” But, I’m not completely sure because I was desperately trying to remember what he had just said after the memory failure that follows human engagement. I determined he was talking about our thoughts, maybe about reality. But was he saying that our thoughts aren’t real? He looked right at me. “Do you agree?” he asked.

I don’t know how I pieced together his question, but I answered in a mumble. He asked me to say it again. “I disagree,” I said.

He nodded, then asked, “Do you think what you see is real? What I touch?” At this point, we are going through the translator to communicate. 

I thought hard, then said, “I think I may be deceived by what I perceive, but thoughts are all I have.” The translator relayed my answer and then they went back and forth in Tibetan with some smiles and good laughs. The translator finally said to me, “That’s a good answer.” 

Then Chokyi asked, “Do you see my face?” Feeling good about my previous answer, I tried to think of the ways this could be a trick.

He asked again, and I said, “I think I see your face.” It was a cop-out answer and he knew it too. “Why do you say ‘I think?’” asked Chokyi. Then he asked Kelsey the same question. The pressure was off me so I could take a moment to think about the question. While he humorously explained what defines our face (chin to forehead and everything in between) to Kelsey, I figured out what he was trying to convey. (Thanks again, Kels!)

It was about focus. I told Kelsey, “You can’t see his whole face.” She repeated that to him.

Chokyi asked “Why?”

“I can only focus on one part of your face; my brain fills in the rest.”

Still not satisfied, he asked “Can you see my nose?” As I thought about this he said again, “Can you see my nose?” pointing at his nose and smiling.

I muttered, “Oh I get it, he is just going to keep narrowing it down … “ and we’ll be back on the idea that perception is not real again. I get it! My mumblings were translated to him and he smiled at us.

He then asked us where we are from and how long we were in Kathmandu. After we answered, he paused and smiled. He turned to Monica and spoke to her in Tibetan. She responded in English saying, “Classes are canceled tomorrow.” Chokyi spoke to her in Tibetan again. Again, she responded in English saying, “The next day is Saturday so there are no classes and next week is finals week so there are no lectures.” 

Chokyi spoke to us again. “Right people, wrong time,” he said shaking his head. Chokyi had been asking Monica to take us to her classes to learn more Buddhist philosophy. 

Instead, Chokyi said there are some teachings I should study. He cited a line of scripture (not sure that’s the right term) that the translator quickly repeated for me. I caught a few words about emptiness and form. Chokyi again insisted that I study it. He gave me homework. I looked to Monica who gave me a confident nod—she understood my assignment.

Thinking our interaction was done, I started to uncross my legs to stand up. But, Monica happily interjected, “Chokyi, Andrew wants to go to Mars!”

Chokyi asked why, but before I could answer he said, “Why not the moon, first?” and laughed. Then he laughed about moon rocks. Finally, he said “When you get there, you will piss and shit on it” and made hilarious gestures about urinating on the moon. I love this guy! 

Chokyi preceded to wrap up quickly—but not before he answered his buzzing iPhone to talk to a buddy about lunch. He handed each of us an apple, gave his translator some instructions, and dismissed everyone in the room. The translator handed Kels and I two fliers—one for Chokyi’s online meditation course and another with a list of his school locations around the world with the school in Northern California circled. And that was that. 

Once we left, Monica said that our experience was not what she expected at all. The next day, Monica handed us each a copy of the scrolls Chokyi mentioned wrapped up in red and yellow cloth. They are long, thin pieces of paper with Tibetan, Nepali, and English written on each sheet. She told us it is rare for such an advanced text to be assigned to a new student and it was even sort of an honor to be instructed to study them.

So, while we didn’t expect to have such a rare encounter, we are thrilled we did and I will be pondering these teachings for some time to come!