Meeting an American Friend at Kopan Monastery

Tri and I visited one of my mom’s friends from back home, an American Buddhist nun who comes to stay at Kopan Monastery every once in a while. I wasn’t sure if we were going to get a chance to visit her because we’re all so busy and life has been traveling at quite a hectic pace, but my mom insisted that we see her, and I’m so glad we did. I treasure opportunities to talk and spend time with Americans because they come so infrequently, and she grew up in the town right next to mine, so meeting her was especially meaningful.

Right now she’s leading a meditation course for foreigners who have come to stay in Nepal for 10 days. If you know Kathmandu, Kapan Monastery is above Chahabil in the hills, surprisingly close to Budhanilkantha (I think within walking distance).

It was nice to hear about her experiences with Buddhism and how she became interested in it. About 25 years ago, she was working in politics but took a 6 month leave to travel. At one point, she ended up in Nepal to go trekking but hurt her leg and was stuck in Kathmandu. She saw an advertisement for a meditation class at Kopan, decided to try it out, and loved it. Eventually she quit her job to become a nun.

The shelf on which they keep relics from the monk

She showed us around Kopan and introduced us to some of the other monks and nuns.

A few months ago, one of the senior monks (with whom she felt very close) passed away, and his body was cremated. Apparently, in this sect of Buddhism (they practice Mahayana) holy people are supposed to have things grow from the ashes of their cremated bodies. The monks at Kopan have been and still are collecting little relics from this monk’s ashes.

She showed us what they have gathered, including the monk’s teeth, tongue, and heart as well as a rock with some kind of green mineral growing on its surface….

Sorry for the glare. Those little green dots in the top right-hand corner of the rock are the green mineral

They even found a small conch shell among the ashes…

A small conch shell found in the monk's ashes

When I was in fifth grade, my parents took me to Italy, and we ended up visiting quite a few churches. My brothers and I loved looking at the relics from the saints’ bodies. There was something grotesque but magical about being in the presence of those body parts from holy men and women, and I felt the same way today.

A playful picture of the Rinpoche with our friend on the left.

We also got to see Tibetan Buddhism’s  take on reincarnation in action. A monk named Geshe Lama Konchog used to reside and practice at Kopan but died  in 2001. Soon after, one of his disciples started searching for his reincarnation. Our friend explained the process they went through to find him. They had to consult some kind of astrologers who told the disciple that the child would be living in a certain area, have a father with a name starting with a certain leter, etc. The disciples soon found someone who fit all of these characteristics. After testing his knowledge to see if he remembered things from his past life, they decided that he was indeed the reincarnated lama. As a final step, prior to confirming him as the Rinpoche (reincarnated lama), they took the boy before the Dalai Lama. Then they brought him to Kopan. There was a movie made about the process of finding this little boy called “Unmistaken Child.”

We met him today. He lives on the monastery grounds with an aunt and cousin, and his immediate family comes to visit every once in a while. He was a very happy child but a little lonely. Our friend goes to play with him when she can because he doesn’t have much access to kids his own age.

She told us that when people come to meet him, they often act reserved around him because he’s a holy figure.

I’m not going to say that I don’t believe in reincarnation or that this kid isn’t holy, but he is just a kid. And he should be treated like a kid, allowed to laugh, cry and just act silly sometimes.

Visitors comes from all over, and one had brought him a really fun book called Look Now with facts about a whole range of subjects, including natural disasters, population growth, and birth and death rates around the world. After arriving, we started going through it together.

I thought we would be at Kopan for just a short visit, but we ended up staying at the monastery for over two and half hours.

I was in another world the whole time. The grounds are exquisite, with trimmed lawns and a pristinely painted stupa, a far cry from the polluted streets of the Valley. And the monks are mostly Tibetan, so their culture is very different from the dominant one in Kathmandu, what I interact with and experience on a daily basis. I liked being up in the seclusion of the monastery for a bit, but it felt very removed from what’s going on in the rest of the Valley. When we drove our car back down the hill, I couldn’t help but enjoy the traffic, noise, and jostle in the streets. It’s good to get out of that once in a while, but I guess the Buddhist nun life just isn’t for me.

Anyway, thank you so much to our amazing friend for taking time out of her day to show us around! 🙂