Since arriving in Kathmandu and offering my observations of life here, I have commented about surprises, expectations and the unreliability of services. This “feature” of the Nepalese culture is often discussed in casual conversation with foreigners I meet (seasoned and novice) from all countries outside Nepal. We marvel at the lack of chain of command, goals and objectives and accountability to time.
As I search for ways to manage my own expectations and find a sane approach to my work here, I listen closely in these conversations. Imagine my delight when, while reading a Dharma book by Tsoknyi Rimpoche, I gained new insight into this question. I enjoyed the passages so much that I want to share it with you. I think it informs not only the Nepalese way of thinking and acting but (by contrast) the Western, task oriented and sometimes obsessive approach. I hope you enjoy this and it brings you some benefit.
From “Fearless Simplicity, The Dzogchen Way of Living Freely in a Complex World”, by Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Rangjung Yeshe Publications 2003
Well here we are in the Kathmandu Valley There is pollution, life is difficult, and all our plans are continually being interrupted. When people first fly in, they think, “What a pure land! I am arriving in a Buddha field! Whatever I planned I can carry out smoothly and neatly.” But then what happens? As soon as you try to do something, you’re told, “Not today, tomorrow. No problem… it’ll happen … but not today.” Even if you present someone with a difficult job, they will say, “No problem. I’ll take care of it tomorrow.” At some point you realize that this is not like the United States, where people just say no. Here they say, “Sure! Yes! No problem.” And you think how wonderful it all is; “In two or three days I can do a lot!” Then you find out that “all right” actually means “not all right.” I believe a lot of residents are familiar with this.
Some people come to Nepal with particulars plans and goals in mind. A Dharma practitioner may think, “Okay, I have six months here. I will meet this teacher first, next that teacher, then this third teachers. I will request such and such teachings and receive them; then I will go practice in this or that holy place. I will have such and such realizations and go home.”
If you are a foreign aid volunteer, you might think, “I’m going to carry out this particular project, which will be completed on such and such a date.” If you are a mountaineer, you might think, “I am going to climb this mountain and go trekking in that area. If there is extra time, then I’ll go to such and such a place.” You may have all sorts of different plans, but at the end of the visit you’d be doing well to have accomplished 20% of what you set out to do. There is nothing to be done about this particular situation; it’s just an illustration of the habits of the planning mind. Meanwhile, the Nepalese people are quite content. They are easygoing and happy to smile and say, “All right, no problem. Tomorrow, no problem. Five o’clock okay?” Then you wait until five o’clock, but nothing happens. They say, “Sorry, something came up. Tomorrow, two o’clock, no problem.” Also the next day, nothing.
Foreigners in Nepal are faced with a confrontation between their habit of having everything on a fixed schedule and their consequent assumption that things will happen on time, and how it actually is here in reality. Things are much looser in Nepal, not so fixed. If we somehow manage during those six months to let go of our rigid expectations just a little bit, we may actually be happier people when we go home, even though we didn’t accomplish much. But if we start to find fault and obsess about what didn’t happen, we’ll find only one thing after another that did not work out. That could make us unhappy. On the other hand, we have the opportunity to become happier by learning not to care so much.
What I would like to convey here is that if we aim to learn how to be at ease with ourselves and our surroundings in a way that is content, open, and free, then Nepal is a pretty good place to learn that. To be rigidly goal-oriented and want to nail everything down according to a certain schedule – “I want to achieve this now; I want to finish that on time.” – only makes us more stressed here. To import our rigid Westerern scheduling mind-set and superimpose it on the chaotic reality of the East is an exercise in frustration. We must know this distinction. Here in the apparent chaos of Nepal, the illusion of this world seems more obvious. It is frustrating to try and make the illusion more concrete, because it is ultimately impossible. we cannot solidify an illusion; it is not it’s nature.
While we might want to brand the Nepalese approach as flawed, I would like to offer an alternative explanation. All humans face the common challenge of making a living and maintaining our social relationships. We have various ways that satisfy us based on our upbringing and the culture that surrounds us. Wherever and however we’ve been raised sets our standard. My understanding of what Rinpoche is saying is that any and all views are constructions of our minds – in essence they are illusions. Understanding this we can choose how we want to engage with it. While it is easy for me, as a Westerner, to find fault with the Nepalese way, I can just as easily find flaws in our on the clock, overworked, on the list method. The key point is to remember that all cultural practices are a construction of our mind and should be adapted to serve us – not the other way around.
So… this morning we found that there is no water for us to use for cleaning and boiling drinking water. Every morning at 7:30, until today, we have had a 15 minute window in which to fill our allotted buckets. Of course it doesn’t always happen at 7:30. Sometimes 7:15, sometimes 7:45 and sometimes the window is shorter or longer. This is our first completely dry day. Another opportunity to practice patience and compassion.