Expectations – Happiness

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.

Boudha – Sept 15 – 17

Last weekend Joni and I made our way into the city again. This time we traveled into Thamel to do a bit of shopping and on to Boudha where we enjoyed 2 nights in the Shabaling Hotel, within easy walking distance to the Boudha Stupa. Our primary shopping goal was the Tibet Book Store in Thamel. I have seen many Tibetan Buddhist book collections but I have never seen one as extensive as we found here. Due to baggage limitations we didn’t bring many books with us so this was a great opportunity to get a Dharma book to study. The proprietor was very, very open to conversation and not only gave us a good tour of his collections but gave us tips for exchanging money.
Because it was getting a little late, we didn’t wander around Thamel as much as I would have liked. Instead we found a Taxi to take us to our hotel in Boudha. Surprisingly it took about an hour to get through Friday rush hour but, once delivered, we were greeting with smiles, Katas (white scarves place around our necks) and a refreshing glass of juice at the hotel reception desk. The staff of the Hotel were very helpful with directions and the atmosphere provided a nice respite from our busy schedule and the construction at the school and Gomba (monastery). I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a hotel where there was so much consideration.
In our room, we enjoyed a hot shower and cool water. Unbeknownst to us, we are at the end of the off season so we were one of only 3 parties staying in the hotel. Due to this shortage of demand, we were given ample attention at dinner where we had more protein than we’ve eaten in 3 weeks. While the meal wasn’t out of line with portions we typically have in the States, one shared meal would have been plenty (that’s what we did the following evening). With our dinner we also enjoyed a beverage from the bar (mixed drink for Joni, Everest Beer for me). Eating outside in the courtyard added to the enjoyment, leading us to relax until dark when the lights came up.
After enjoying another fine meal of breakfast, we wound our way through an alley and narrow street, into the large courtyard of the Boudha Stupa. Surrounding the Stupa are restaurants and shops filled with religious objects (prayer beads (Malas), singing bowls, mandala plates, Thankas, and more), assorted food vendors, electronics stores and more. Surprising to an outsider, this shopping circle mixes naturally with Buddhist and Hindu worshippers circumambulating the Stupa, prostrating, spinning mani wheels, stopping to ring bells and lighting candles of devotion. Joni and I took time to join the turning of the wheel; first for photographs, the in silence and finally as shopping tourist-as.
The most outstanding shop we visited was that of a 3rd generation Thanka painter who gave us a 45 minute explanation of the process and meaning of the Thankas he, his father and grandfather had painted. I intend to return to his shop with our Thanks painting friend, Bella, to make a purchase before we leave.
We purchased very little but wore ourselves out with window shopping. Finally we found a coffee shop/restaurant on the 3rd floor of a shop overlooking the Stupa. The restaurant and the Stupa were dotted with Western faces.
Though we had a planning day at school on Sunday, we stayed another night in the City in order to secure travel permits for an upcoming trip. Having risen early we decided to return to the Stupa around 6:30am for some quiet contemplation of this holy site. Little did we know that rush hour at the Stupa must begin at sunrise, as it is a favorite stop for old and young, traditional and modern practitioners. There were old men and women prostrating around the Stupa, hand boards sliding over the stone walkway. There were men and women in traditional Tibetan clothes, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum with their Malas (prayer beads) sliding through their fingers. There were Hindu devotees, ringing bells and placing offerings at stops around the Stupa. Moving faster than anyone were men and women power walking around in new running shoes. Surrounding the entire procession were the poor, blind and disabled people with hands out for an offering. I was happy to see aid workers delivering food to them where they sat. Once again we found ourselves surprised by Nepal. Rather than disappointed by the crowd we were awed by their devotion and their acceptance of the intensity of it all.
Back at the Hotel our friendly desk manager, Depak, had arranged a taxi with a reasonable fare to deliver us to the Nepal Tourism Board Office where we stood in line to get 2 permits; one for the Annapurna Conservation Area and one from the Nepal Tourism Board. In fairly typical Nepali style we had originally been told that we could get get the permits without appearing in person but later found out that we needed to make the trip to their office. With the trekking season approaching, the lobby was filled with tourists, Asian and European, on their quest for permits. 40 minutes and 40.00/person later we had the documents in hand.
Having met our Gompa friends at the NTB Office, we had a skilled driver to take us back across town to our home on Chobhar Hill. On our way we had to make a stop at the money changers for our friends which required a cruise down the narrow streets of Thamel (the area we had gone on Friday). 4 of us crammed into the back seat of a truck where we got a quick view of the multitude of shops in the Thamel district. I have yet to figure out how people navigate these streets. First, there appear to be no street signs. Second, there isn’t a straight street in the city. Third, there is construction everywhere. Fourth, the the traffic includes cars, pedestrians (a hand signal and a prayer is your passport to cross the street), rickshaws, motor bikes (favored by most), taxis, and buses. It is rather like a flock of birds that intuitively knows which way to turn based on the other birds subtle gestures. It can also feel like a game of chicken, with each driver pushing to see if the other will yield. I am amazed that I haven’t seen a collision yet (knock on wood).
By 12:00 we had landed back home, though too late to get a serving for lunch. Another plan B…

First Weekend – Sept 9 & 10

Joni and I enjoyed our first weekend “off” here at TGL Admittedly we have been pretty reserved in our movements around the neighborhood. We haven’t established tried and true methods of transportation or an understanding our surroundings. This weekend we began to learn about these things. We managed to “get our wheels” and see quite a bit while also having time to relax as well.

Our first outing on Saturday was a walk to Fionnuala’s house where Joni was treated to a hot shower. The water system here at the school has been compromised due to a well problem so we have been limited to 10 minutes of flowing water per day. This allows us time to fill 8 buckets and a large trashcan with water (we just got upgraded to 3 trashcans this evening). While this has been plenty of water for dousing ourselves for a cold shower, cleaning hands, teeth, dishes and clothes, a hot shower is a welcomed event. Fionnuala lives within a 15 minute walk through the village of Chobhar so this outing was very do-able. I had already doused myself on Saturday morning so while Joni enjoyed her shower I was treated to real brewed coffee and conversation with Fionnuala and her friend Bella. Ahhh… simple pleasures.

Walking back after our outing, we were a bit late for lunch but our friends from Malaysia who we share facilities with had set aside our portion. Immediately after we finished eating, they spread the table with treats of candy and cakes and invited the Anis of the Shedra to a short reception. The 3 Chinese Malaysians (2 women and a man) have been coming to TGL for retreat ever since it has been habitable for visitors. They are great supporters of TGL and have befriended the Anis over the years of visits. The gathering was filled with appreciative smiles and laughter. Joni and I were so thankful that we got to witness the event. These Anis are grown women, not part of the TGL school. They live very simple and disciplined lives here in the dorm where our rooms are. They rise at 4:30am for prayers and study the the traditional Tibetan Buddhist Dharma throughout the day. Despite the fact that the table was filled with treats, they limited themselves to a single sample of each item. While their eating was restrained their enthusiasm for seeing their friends, talking and looking at photos from past visits overflowed.

On Sunday Joni and I set out on our first solo journey into the city by bus. Fionnuala had invited us into Sanepa, a neighborhood in the city, for brunch at the “Yellow House”. In preparation for the trip we spent quite a bit of time talking with Fionnuala and mapping out the route to understand the roads and the bus connection to get there. Joni and I had even walked along the path to our bus stop to make sure it was where we expected. In addition we checked Google Maps to get a rough sketch of the roads. All of this may sound silly to someone who hasn’t been to Kathmandu. We ARE more conservative than we might have been when we were younger. But given the heat, the distance, the traffic and the elevations we have to climb, our preparations minimized our suffering in the end.

Our planning paid off and we made it to Chobhar Gate where we met the bus. A young man was kind enough to confirm our location for the bus stop. He told us that he was catching the same bus and welcomed us to follow him. The bus came and off we went, packed like sardines, standing room only, with a bus full of locals. The only hazard was the fact that my head touched the ceiling of the bus, so I had to crouch in anticipation of a likely bump in the road. 10 minutes later we climbed off and into the crowds at the end of the stop. Crossing the busy “Ring Road” we made our way toward the bridge into Sanepa. To our surprise, as we approached the bridge we bumped into one of the teachers from our school and enjoyed a quick hello. Amazing that among the millions we found a familiar face.

Past the cows, the people and the motorcycles on the unfinished side of the bridge, we walked the bridge into Sanepa. Guided by a screen shot of the streets on our phone, we wound our way to the Yellow House. Entering a gate we found a green courtyard full of white faces, English, German, French and Swiss language (among others) reflected the western diversity of the crowd. Below the restaurant sat vendors for a market of vegetables, fruits, cheese, honey, and to my surprise beer. A bigger surprise was to find that one of the beers (Yeti) was from Denver, Colorado.

After a time Fionnuala and her friends Bella and Helena arrived and we sat for a wonderful breakfast of brewed coffee and tea, eggs, potatoes and vegetables. It was a special treat to take the time to eat and chat. We share experiences for over an hour and a half in that little oasis. It was interesting to learn about their many years living in Nepal and their endeavors in writing and painting and travel.

After our meal the ladies took us to a local hotel and showed us a swimming pool. Once again, I was struck by a hidden corner of comfort and luxury tucked away from the intensity of the street. I expect that we will return to lounge in this oasis.

After the pool viewing, Bella pointed out a small shopping mart packed with a diversity of food and other necessities and then she showed us the studio where she is learning the art of Thanka painting. She introduced us to her teacher, showed us a painting he is currently working on and how the paint is mixed for the work. Her teacher showed us a painting of 1,000 Buddhas that took him 2 years to complete. It is hard to imagine the patience and skill that is required to complete a work that is so ornate and magnificent.

After the tour the ladies left us to go shopping at the Mustang Mart where we found a few comfort items to have at the school. After searching and wandering for a time, we stopped at a hardware store for a tub to do our wash and a pharmacy to get some vitamin C and hydrogen peroxide for cleaning.

Tired and ready to be home we decided to try a taxi for our return. After a miscommunication about where we were going, the driver made his way through the rush hour traffic and finally delivered back at the Chobar Gate. We’re guessing that we were overcharged for the fare since we didn’t ask for it to be metered but we had successfully made it home full circle.


Introductions at Tsoknyi Gechak Ling – September 4th

September 4th – Today marked our first day at school. While we spent quite a bit of our time getting some orientation from Fionnuala Shenpen (TGL School Director), we were also introduced to all of the children and teachers. Tomorrow and Wednesday we will visit most of the classrooms and do observations so that we understand the process the teachers are using for instruction.

Among other topics, Fionnuala gave us an overview of the system of education here in Nepal. Though this is a Gompa (monastery) school, they are expected to follow the general guidelines of the Nepal system for levels, assessment, curriculum and the like. In this system, just as in the US, educational legislation and policy are out of sync with the realities faced by schools. Testing mandates appear to be pushed for symbolic reasons inconsiderate of the practical application. This sounds all too familiar to me, having dealt with Colorado’s mandates and all the repercussions it had for students, teachers and overall instruction. Every good teacher appreciates assessment, when it informs instruction. Teachers should be treated as professionals; empowered rather than inundated with institutional requirements. </end soap box>

The Routine
While it is too early to tell what our responsibilities and routines will look like here, the ongoing pace and activity of the students, teachers, monks, nuns and administrators is incredibly busy. There is the activity of the school, with 120+ students, providing 7+ levels of instruction, housing, and the 24 hour welfare of all the children. The Gompa, providing a Buddhist education (Tibetan Language and ritual instruction) for the nuns enrolled in school and some that are not. There is a regular flow of visitors (including Joni and I) from all over the world visiting the school and the Gompa who also require consideration. On top of this activity, there is the ongoing construction of the Main (new) Shrine hall rising up in the middle of the grounds. This means that workers and large trucks of sand, brick and water come and go. The noise of workers yelling, concrete mixers, lifts, horns, and tools bang about. Like the rest of Nepal, we have to become accustomed to multiple things happening at the same time – polyphony (not exactly Bach).

Fortunately there is an ebb and flow to the activity with some very peaceful and sweet moments. For instance, there is sound of early prayers. At 4:30am Nuns gather in the old Shrine hall to recite prayers and perform traditional rituals. Amid random sounds of distant (and sometimes close) barking dogs, the nuns quietly gather in the hall at 4:15. At 4:25 the sound of the gong calls all to come and soon the room is filled with their beautiful voices. While the dogs and the hum of the city are ever present, their voices settle it.

September 9th
I have been here at TGL for only one week now and have just begun to adjust. Despite all the inconvenience, periodic discomfort, and shortage of english speaking companions, I feel at home here. Though she just returned from the US and is recovering from jet lag, Fionnuala has gone out of her way to help Joni and I get our basic necessities together and get the layout of the town of Chobhar. While we don’t speak Tibetan or Nepali, the Anis smiles are a treat. Slowly but surely their shyness is melting and they try to speak English.

Today is our first day off after a week of orientation, observation, familiarization and scheduling. Next week we will begin our regular schedules in the classroom. The schedule appears pretty demanding to me now. We’ll see.