The sun rises just after six. A soft mist settles on the valley below as you can hear the scuffling and chirping of birds in the nearby trees. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the first ray of light on the Himalayas as they peak from the green foothills that surround us. The mornings are always the clearest in Nepal, the skies burning pink, becoming blue. The air is crisp and bitterly cold.
I get out of bed and throw a thick Yak wool scarf over my shoulders. The mountain air flows through the open windows, and I acknowledge my roommates as we begin sleepwalking to the meditation hall. Across the dewy grass, past the stupa garden and main Gompa. You can hear the monastery’s monks already awake and reciting mantras in neat red rows. I slip off my shoes and take my spot at the back of the hall. Morning meditation begins.
It’s my first day at Kopan Monastery, a hilltop complex on the outskirts of Kathmandu, perched on a hill above the Boudhanath area of the city – an ancient Buddhist town. Kopan is a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery placed on top of Kopan Hill, it’s home to 360 monks and Lamas, and it was one of the first centres in the world to accept Westerners to practice the Dharma. For the next ten days, I will live and learn here, alongside 50 other travellers from around the world. We have come to this place, in a valley surrounded by the world’s highest mountains, to learn Buddhism, meditation, and more about ourselves.
Meditation is followed by breakfast, served in the main dining hall, which has wide open windows overlooking the most breathtaking view. The mornings are silent, and it’s another 6 hours until we can utter another breath to each other. I find my table of roommates, women from Brazil, The Netherlands, and Russia. Rice Porridge is on the menu, as I find it is every morning for breakfast. But laced with Himalayan honey, nuts, dried fruits and a hot cup of tea, it couldn’t be more perfect. The view looks out onto the rolling foothills, with rice paddies below, and golden light rays melting through the hills. If there’s a place to find yourself, I really think it is here.
I came to Nepal, allured by the great Himalayas and the place I was named after. It isn’t too long before I will head into the mountains, but first I have come to Kopan. Each one of my fellow students has a different reason to be here, but for me it’s to explore a fascination I’ve had with Tibetan Buddhism since I was a teenager. I wanted to learn more about myself, and how my mind works, and how perhaps Buddhism could help me in my life.
The first thing I learn is that my mind cannot sit still. We meditate several times each day, and the sessions are broken up by teachings, discussion groups, meals and small portions of free time. For 45 minutes straight we have to sit in a deep and heavy breath, focusing on our minds and the cycles of our thoughts. Some meditations are guided by a teacher who will choose a topic and speak slowly about it as we process our thoughts. Other times, it’s just us and our wandering minds. Trying not to get distracted by every shuffle of feet or humming of monks which surround us.
Lunch is served at 12pm, a delicious plate of Daal Bhat; a traditional Nepali dish of rice, lentils, vegetables and pickles. Afterwards we can speak again, and it’s in the afternoon discussion break when we can debate about the practices we have learnt with our peers. My group includes people from all over the world, with Christian, Jewish and Atheist backgrounds. It fascinates me to hear why these people come here. Some are bankers, doctors, students or mothers. Others are travellers and drifters, yet we all have come here to learn a bit more about life. And beneath the great Himalayas, we all hope to find some peace in our minds, in our busy Western lives.
As the week goes on, my mind finds it easier to still. I sleep in a basic dorm, with no hot shower and only squat toilets. We eat the same meals day in, day out. I wear the same loose clothing and plaited hair. In my spare time I pick up books from the monastery bookstore and read the words of the Dalai Lama on the rooftops of the buildings. On Saturdays, the monks have free time, the the grounds are flooded with red robes. The young boys are playful, rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek behind the blossom trees. In a mere few days my life is simplified into one of only needs and thoughts. I feel myself starting to breath in the rhythm of this place. Waking up with the mountains and sleeping with the falling sun. I’ve often believed that mountains have a tremendous power to heal, and living there, beneath the Himalayas, I felt it time and time again.
As my 10 days at Kopan comes to an end, the meditation sessions become longer, and I begin to think about life after the monastery. I will hike into the Annapurna Sanitary next, continue to eat Daal Bhat daily, and will have to navigate the chaotic Kathmandu traffic in just a few days time. What I will take away is a peace of mind which has always existed, but has been clouded with modern life. I have learnt that learning to properly breathe can really change the chaos in your mind, and a daily dose of Rice Porridge can do wonders for the soul.
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Beautiful cover image C/O Annapurna Mellor.