Print Edition - 2019-03-22  |  Food & Travel

A monastic experience

  • Joining the pious monks of Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery means giving up all of everyday life’s concepts, including time
- Thomas Heaton

Mar 22, 2019-

Striking a small gong, a young man in maroon robes surveys the picturesque Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery grounds and Kavrepalanchok’s distant paddyfields and outlying villages. The seemingly muted tones travel far. Monks hurriedly walk from distant corners of the sprawling campus in time for afternoon puja. The gong tolls methodically, as more and more file in.

Suddenly, the sound of a giant drum being struck in quick succession reverberates throughout the campus. And then comes to a halt. With everyone in the monastery’s main hall, the puja begins and the monks recitation of mantras crescendos. The multicoloured hall seems bigger than it is, an illusion created by the endless Tibetan Buddhist artworks that cover every surface—the walls are decorated with the lineage of Kagyu Buddhist masters, intricately hand-painted.

The sitting monks rock back and forth as they recite their mantras — some by memory, whereas others read their scriptures. The well-versed also perform various hand gestures, with eyes closed, while the ceremonial rag dung (brass trumpets) accompany the beating of vertical table-sized nga (drums). The soul-consuming music rattles the room’s every atom.

Depending on the pitch and tone of the instruments, each piece of music is dedicated to deities—high pitched, loud music is played for wrathful ones while softer, smooth music is dedicated to the peaceful. Young monks walk up and down the rows of their cross-legged compatriots, pouring steamy butter tea into bowls and divvying fruit. Everything seems to revolve in a circular motion, ebbing, flowing and following peculiar rhythms.

The music and mantras are powerful and all consuming, even to the uninitiated, including this writer. The sounds transcend any feeling garnered by other forms of music. The twice-daily ceremonies—there is one at 6am too—are when the monks put their learning into spectacular practice.

At all other times of day, however, it is distinctively serene. This Namobuddha monastery follows the Tibetan Kagyu school of Buddhist thought, and has a population between 250 and 400, fluctuating throughout the year. Since consecration of this monastery, in 2008, it has become a tourism hotspot. While many visitors visit for the day from Kathmandu, or spend the night in one of the numerous guesthouses in the surrounding area, staying at either of the monastery’s two residences gives guests a chance to take part in, rather than simply observing, monastic life. Many stay for longer periods—for monthly workshops or twice-yearly Buddhist seminars.

Nonetheless Namobuddha has been holy for an “immeasurable” amount of time, according to monk Acharya Pasang Wangdu Sherpa. Namobuddha is said to be where the Buddha, as prince Chenpo (Great Mind) in a previous incarnation, fed a starving tigress to save it and its cubs from starvation. The site of sacrifice, a small cave with a stone Buddha, tigress and cubs, is no more than 200 metres from the monastery’s main hall; the stupa containing the remains of that iteration of the Buddha is on the other side of the hill.

The views from atop the hill of Namobuddha are panoramic, revealing a tapestry of villages and farms. Post Photos: thomas heaton

Acharya Wangdu is secretary for the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, and has been a monk for 21 years. He, like many at the monastery, came to be a monk when he was young. The youngest here is six, while the oldest is the monastery’s founder, 86-year-old Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. The monastery nurtures Buddhist monks, giving them everything they need to properly pursue a life of enlightenment. They receive modern schooling along with their daily Buddhist teachings, and not a moment between dawn and dusk is wasted on frivolous pursuits. Wangdu is the first monk many visitors will come to meet, and is a font of spiritual knowledge. Like any of the affable and open monks, he will happily answer any question, and explain the meanings of every movement within the monastery.

Time as a concept is suspended in Namobuddha, rather movement is dictated by gongs, drums and the presence of light. This is a drawcard for many who elect to spend time at the monastery, to get away from the constant stresses of everyday life. Everyone who stays at either of the two residences in the monastery is encouraged to shirk everyday technological proclivities, to simplify their lives and explore Buddhism.

The freedom from time leaves freedom to explore the multi-tiered complex and its surroundings relatively uninhibited. The area encompassing Thrangu Tashi Yangtse reinforces the area’s serene aura. Flanked by wee hamlets and forests, everything is touched by the five colours of Buddhism. In two forests, east and west of the monastery, prayer flags flutter as far as the eye can see. Tangled between bushes and blooming flowers and tied to the arms of the forest’s trees, the flags frame every view. Moving with the wind, the only sound is from the flags’ flapping and the crunch of floral decay beneath your feet.  

Walking from the main monastery to the stupa perched on the precipice of the hill, one gets to see the surrounding area from a height seemingly reserved for deities. Over the swooping golden roofs and various Buddhist symbols, small villages appear as blips surrounded by a tapestry of shades of green and brown. Towards the west, there is a sea of the five colours of Buddhist flags. Fluttering in the wind, the trees’ arms share thousands of flags between them. Before reaching the flag forest, there are a few restaurants with spectacular views were people can indulge in alcohol if they see fit. But, behind the monastery on the other side of the hill, one will find Namobuddha Stupa. Through another forest of prayer flags, following a well made stone path and stairs, pictures and pieces of clothing are randomly placed on trees.

On the other side of the monastery and down the hill is the Namobuddha Stupa. One of the three most important stupas in Nepal, it is said to be home to the Buddha’s remains following his sacrifice to the tigress. It is not unusual to find devotees and monks prostrating—stepping, putting their palms together, saying their mantras, then lying flat on their stomachs. Acharya Wangdu says this is the most effective version of prayer, as it dedicates mind, body and speech, consuming every part of one’s consciousness.

Witnessing such dedication is the reason many people go, wanting to get insight into the life of a Buddhist monk. Guests are able to enter their lives in some respects, and even eat with the monks.

Breakfast and dinner times are second only to pujas in terms of intensity, where the monks fill the time they wait for their food with mantras dedicated to health and prosperity under the gaze of the 1,000 brass Buddhas sitting in the walls. Everyone eats together, whether it is steamed tingmo buns with black chickpea stew for breakfast or a spartan pasta and a thin soup for dinner. What visitors pay helps to subsidise the monastery’s food.

Visitors cannot help but be inspired as they wake with the sun, as it emerges from behind the hills and, once more, the morning’s puja heralds another day. As the gongs sound, the drums beat and the bleary-eyed monks start their puja, the sounds once again consume the sleepy monastery and another day of learning begins.

Published: 22-03-2019 10:45

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