From November 14 to December 14 2017 I participated in a month long meditation course at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
The course focused on two key topics: Tibetan Buddhism and Meditation. It followed a strict schedule of classes, discussions, and meditation sessions that started at 5:30am in the morning and finished at 9:00pm at night, and sometimes later.
Before I start I need to say that I developed Pneumonia quite seriously during the course and didn’t participate fully due to time spent in the hospital and time spent recovering.
I won’t discuss the contents of the lectures themselves as it would be opinion based and would lead to a very long article, rather I will focus on the experience of attending the retreat. If you are looking for an introduction to Tibetan Buddhism then I recommend reading Wisdom Energy from Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, it is an easy-to-read book that covers a lot of the content which was presented in the course.
I will quickly mention the courses attendance rules; you must turn in all electronic devices on the first day of the retreat, you are not allowed to talk between 9pm and midday the following day, and you are not allowed to read non-Dharma material. There are several other course rules, but these were the most impactful. However, many people broke a variety of these rules; it would be hard to find anyone that strictly followed all of them. For the silence rule in particular, even if you wanted to remain silent it was often a challenge as people would speak directly to you or a group would start a chatting in your room or dorm.
I will compile a Flickr photo album taken around the Monastery soon.
To start I’ll discuss the venue itself. The monastery was established in the late 1960’s by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche on a hill at the edge of Kathmandu. It is immaculately maintained and is an absolutely beautiful setting to study in. It features the main gompa, a stupa garden, a school for the young monks, and various accommodation buildings.
All the sessions for the course were conducted in the main gompa; a beautiful airy building with wooden floors and Buddhist art decorating the walls. Being able to meditate in such a tranquil building is one of the main reasons to come to a such a course; a similar setting is hard to impossible to find in everyday life and is highly conducive to the task of meditating.
The stupa garden features two ornately decorated stupas, which were often lit up at night. You could spend your afternoons relaxing in the peaceful garden contemplating the topics covered throughout the day or chat with the other course participants.
There were a range of accommodation options to choose from, ranging from a bed in a dormitory to private rooms with their own bathrooms. I stayed in the dorm as it was included in the base price of the retreat; $510 US. I thoroughly enjoyed staying in the dorm, everyone who shared it with me were highly respectful of each another and here I could meet some new people.
For our meals, breakfast usually consisted of porridge, cereal, and a slice of bread (or naan) with homemade peanut-butter smeared over it. For lunch we had dhal bhat, embellished with soups and fruit. And finally dinner typically consisted of soup and bread; the soup was often potato soup, noodle soup with local veges, or tofu soup. There was no restriction on the volume of food that you could eat, which often meant you would see plates piled with mountains of food; however, this is not recommended due to the amount of time spent sitting. In addition to the three set meal times we also had morning tea and afternoon tea. The food generally was pretty good, however towards the end of the retreat I began to wish for some variety. The meals were cooked in bulk for 600 people, therefore don’t expect restaurant quality meals.
At the outset the course schedule may look quite strict, however there is quite a lot of time between sessions and after meals where you can carve out your own routine; often you would see people practicing roof-top yoga, for example.
Finally I want to mention sickness; for this course 250 people came together from all over the world, and we all shared the same cutlery and plates and sat in the same room together for most of the day, therefore sickness was a bit of a problem. A cold went through the cohort of students and I believe most people became sick to a certain degree. After speaking to participants that attended previous years this seems to be a usual occurrence.
The meditations were the main reason why I wanted to attend the retreat; I wanted to learn to become more reflective in my life and to find new ways to think deeply on different topics.
The course itself taught two types of meditations; concentration, or single-pointed meditation, and analytical, or contemplative, meditation.
Concentration meditation aims to develop focus in the mind; its goal is to enable control and thought monitoring, for by doing so you can better direct your attention to what is important in your life. If you have no control over your thoughts and you act upon everything that floats through your mind then you are essentially held hostage to them. If you can monitor your thoughts and consider the implications of each one then you can better control your actions, you can discard thoughts that you discover to be harmful and act upon the ones that you consider to be beneficial. The primary concentration meditation that we practiced was a breadth meditation where we had to focus exclusively on our breadth and if any thoughts arose we would discard them immediately.
Analytical meditation aims to get the mind to consider a single subject from as many different angles as possible to help better understand the subject and to more clearly define opinions towards it. For me this type of meditation helps with alleviating indecision and doubt; as you can more clearly generate opinions using the information that you have available. I also believe that it is a useful tool for decision making as you can think on a subject deeply, form an opinion about it, then arrive at a well-considered outcome.
There were many guided meditations throughout the course that were highly profound to me; they got me to question different aspects of my life and to consider things that I wouldn’t normally have thought about, or to consider subjects in different lights; such as death, the ever-changing nature of life, and attachment to people and physical objects.
I would like to one day further develop my meditation skills, as meditation can be quite beneficial to your life. Many people in the course had previously attended Vipassana courses, which I too would like to attend in the future.
One of the most amazing elements of the course were the people. The age group varied quite a lot; there were people from 20 all the way up to 80, however generally speaking it was a younger crowd. During my time there I don’t think I met a single unkind person; everyone was extremely caring and ethically minded. They were all searching for ways in order to bring happiness to themselves and to the people around them. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more genuine group of people in one place anywhere. At the start of the course there were 250 people in total, though by the end the count was closer to 200.
At the start of the course we were assigned a group where we spent one hour each day discussing the day’s topics. The discussion groups were a really nice initiative of the course and through it a lot of new friendships were formed, it also helped us to better come to grips with the information being presented. My discussion group was very kind to me during my time of sickness; they helped me to get through the ordeal with relative ease.
Finally I shared a dormitory with a fantastic set of guys, they gave me a lot of ideas about my trip ahead as there were a few experienced travellers amongst them. We spent many a night together discussing Buddhism and numerous other topics.
In the end I was happy with my time spent at the Kopan retreat, despite the fact that I was ill and missed so much of it. It gave me some useful tools through which I can consider the world, introduced me to Tibetan Buddhism, and gave me some new friendships which I believe I will carry for a long time in to the future.
Another student of this year’s course has written an article about her experience at Kopan, which you can read here.