We’re looking for an Indian Teacher. That is all we know – no name, no description. A Buddhist teacher from India who might give us a guided tour. But we’re lost already. A sign points to the right and we turn.
We trace stone steps carved into the mountain and find more and more activity the further we walk. A prepared exhibit opening up around a modest stupa, shops haphazardly serving food and chai, trinket-laden stalls (spirituality is a business), Tibetan prayer chants shifting the air. A crowd gathers around the music, quiet except for a screaming child. We’re invited to take some fried snacks, “No, no! No money.”
Namo Buddha is one of many monasteries in the Kathmandu Valley, only three hours away from the city. We decided to hop onto a bus for a weekend getaway and that is why we find ourselves here trying to find our way to the monastery.
Away from the people, a little higher, we find a thatched hut. I lose track of how long we sit there, escaping rain, conversing in broken Nepali with newfound friends and weed-sellers, smoking and watching others. It’s an impressive layout of civilization – towns and villages, a Tibetan community in exile, at home.
[quote]Skepticism suddenly feels like a crutch[/quote]
There is certainly something in the air. But is that thought a curated one, an expectation made real by the slanting Buddhist flags, the hum of meditation bowls and instruments I cannot name, the processing of a language I’m told to associate with spirituality; or is there something inherently divine about the place? I am too quick to dismiss, too careful around the possibility of spiritual experiences, and skepticism suddenly feels like a crutch.
I walk up to the only man not wearing the traditional monk robes, Kasaya, and ask him if he happens to know an Indian teacher. “I am the Indian teacher,” he answers, unfazed. We agree to meet at 4 for a tour.
[quote]Buddha’s statues surprise you around corners[/quote]
The guesthouse we check into is made for visitors, away from the monks’ quarters. The ‘campus’ – a university, a religious retreat, a home, is a chaotic spread of rectangular buildings, blocks of dormitories, classes, prayer rooms and dining halls. Buddha’s statues surprise you around corners, prayer wheels border staircases so you find your hand grazing them as you climb up and down. It’s easy to get lost.
[quote]What happens when you live in a place so magnificent?[/quote]
But the Indian teacher knows his way around. I am still overwhelmed by the space. It is at the same time elaborate and minimal, lavish and simple, quiet yet owned entirely by sound, smell, and touch. Monks, young boys, old men, flit about, knowing exactly where to go. We had walked into a puja earlier, a stunning hall of woven gold and intricate artwork, its ceiling made of ribbons of hard metal, colours that seemed to explode in embedded space. Or maybe it was the puja: music like nothing I had felt before. An hour-long affair that felt like a few minutes, and once it was over, we had to be reminded to leave.
I wonder if the novelty ever wears off. What happens when you live in a place so magnificent? How long can you stare at something so beautiful, and after that, what do you do with it? I don’t know if I could live here, I tell the Indian teacher.
He smiles, and says: it isn’t easy. A 9-year-long commitment of strict religious practice. It’s a decision not all make, not all stick with. I ask him why he isn’t a monk himself. “The monastic life is not for me,” he replies, “But I can teach. I’m Buddhist, but I’m not a monk.”
[quote]He doesn’t betray a preachy self-righteousness I usually associate with spiritual types[/quote]
He grew up in India, Malaysia and the United States, got a doctorate from Harvard in theology and Buddhist philosophy. Taught for many years before committing to this post-retirement life: teaching young monks English. His voice, calm and often calculated, maintains a distance that doesn’t betray a preachy self-righteousness I usually associate with spiritual types. A friend wants to understand how enrolling young monks in monasteries isn’t akin to brainwashing. “It isn’t the kind of thing you just get up and do one day,” he answers, taking our questions in good cheer and some laughter, “Your thinking is too Western.”
His ‘tour’ doesn’t take us any place we haven’t already skimmed, but there is newness with his company and commentary. We aren’t, I realize, looking with the same eyes.
We stop for chai at a dhaba which the Indian teacher pays for, all the while continuing to talk. He tells us about the monastery’s history, his students, and his philosophies. A dilemma: should he stay here, or take up a second teaching offer in India? Do we know about the five Dhyani Buddhas, and have we noticed how their hands are different? “See what they each hold. What do you think it means?” Then he offers a puzzle: nine dots on paper, which you have to join in four straight lines without lifting your pen. I give up after several failed attempts. “You’re missing something too obvious,” he hints, “But it will come to you only once you realize what that is.”
Waiting for our bus back, I think of how we did not meet or converse with a single monk during our stay, except perhaps to ask for directions. We’d eaten in the same hall as them, though seated in a guest area, we’d spent a day and night on the premises, but in the tourist/visitor area, we’d walked the same grounds and even shamelessly stopped monks for photos, but still, not a single exchange. Our experiences from our stay – unmediated, uncorrected, and perhaps even unexplained – could take any shape we willed. Like countless others who visited Namo Buddha for a paltry sum every day, we could derive all the meaning in the world from our short trip, or none.