Living With Monks: 3 Weeks in a Buddhist Monastery

Two of the reasons I came to Nepal were to trek and volunteer and, seeing as I’d already done the trekking part, it was time to get involved in some volunteer work. Through a friend of a friend who I’d met in Agra and later Varanasi, I was put in touch with some nice volunteer leaders who quickly got me set up at a monastery on the outskirts of Kathmandu; here I would be teaching or, as the case may be, attempting to teach, Monks.

I’d met many Monks whilst in Dharamsala, and whilst there I had a go at teaching some older Tibetan Monks a bit of English, which you can read more about here , but the prospect of teaching younger Monks, some of which we named ‘Monkeys’, was a different situation altogether; I found it both exciting and daunting. First of all, these aren’t normal kids that are a bit unruly and need a kick up the ass, these are kids who spend the majority of their day learning how to read, write, and speak Tibetan in preparation for the afterlife; some of them are rarely allowed outside the monastery grounds, and are in contact with other boys all of the time, and so have no way of letting off steam. Of course they can play football on Saturdays and watch films on a Sunday evening (usually something like fast and furious), but I could see during classes that some of them (mostly the teenagers) are fighting some sort of internal battle as to whether they’re actually spending their life wisely.

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Why are they there?

What I learnt is that most of these boys are dropped off at the monastery when they’re 5 or 6yrs old, long before they have any real idea of what is going on, and I imagine that some of them even think it’s just normal for the first few months or years (though apparently many of them cry themselves to sleep for a while). Their parents, often poor, will drop them into a monastery hoping that if the boy becomes a fully fledged Monk or Lama, he will provide for them; this is because once monks are officially ordained, they can leave to other places in the city and actually get paid for Puja’s (prayers) but, as Monks don’t need money of their own, and only have to give a small amount back to their monastery, the rest of the money is completely useless to them, so they give it to their families. Sadly, however there are other circumstances in which children end up in monasteries; some are orphaned or abandoned, and some are simply too unruly that their parents, who hope that the monks will straighten them out (seriously). I was aware before I entered the monastery that a Monk’s life is an ascetic one, and that a strict routine is forced on the younger ones at an early age, but I had no idea how severely. However, even the younger ones’ discipline is beyond me; certain things are driven into them at a young age and, if they’re disobedient, the cane comes out, or sometimes the odd crack around the head will suffice (which I found highly amusing).

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Little guy used to bang gong at 5:30am then before each lesson!

Monks

The Monks live a simple life. They don’t own many things of their own, though some of the older ones do have mobile phones and facebook profiles (which is hilarious). They all dress the same, with the only unique clothing being maybe vests and flip flops/crocs. Of course they have pictures of family in their rooms, and maybe a fictional book to themselves that they read but, other than these ‘luxuries’ they have nothing to call their own, although they don’t really want for anything either. They don’t pay to be in the monastery as it’s run by donations and other such things (like volunteers etc), and so they can live their whole life there. The only time they leave for extended periods of time is when they’re reaching the point of becoming a Lama, during which some of them may leave to meditate for 3 years in a mountain somewhere, or during ‘holidays’ when they spend time with their family for a few weeks. One thing of note here is that if a monk leaves the monastery, they can’t join another one, and often won’t be allowed back; if you’re a monk or lama you really do belong to the monastery you started at as a young boy, and are tied to it for life; you learn there, and end up teaching there.

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One of the older Monk’s rooms.

The majority of things that the Monks do during life is in order to pass peacefully into the afterlife. Their selflessness, compassion, and overall attitude is in order to help others and become the best they can be. They aren’t selfish and, even if they’re not keen on doing something, they will help if you ask them (more often than not they just end up helping whether you asked in the first place). Any minor sins that the Monks are guilty of are made up for by praying and/or walking around the monastery a set number of times (though I think this is more punishment than anything, as they even do it in the rain).
One thing I found out is that, during the 1959 siege on the Dalai Lama’s temple complex in Tibet, in order for the Dalai Lama to escape into exile, many Monks took up arms (albeit with muskets and old weaponry) in order to protect his holiness from the invading Chinese forces. Sadly, this meant that those monks would not enter the afterlife, and so their whole lives work had been in vain. Even if they didn’t use the weapons, the intent to harm was there, and so, even though for good intentions, they had made perhaps the ultimate sacrifice, as death to them is just a part of a cycle, and for them they would not carry it on.

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Cleaning day…

Volunteers

One of the reasons that volunteers are needed is because the Monks are taught basic English and maths etc but are mainly focused on Tibetan; they need this for the afterlife and so it’s a priority. However, as everything in the monastery is ran by Monks, it’s important that they learn about money, that they learn better conversational English, and that they learn other useful things such as geography (you’d be surprised at how even the older Monks don’t know where to find Nepal on a world map). Also, when they reach their teenage years, they’re often conflicted as to what they want to do. You’ve got to remember that they don’t have girlfriends (or aren’t supposed to) and don’t have women involved in their life, they don’t drink alcohol, don’t own many things, and often don’t really know what’s going on in the outside world. Then, a long legged blonde girl turns up to teach them English, carrying an iPhone and a purse full of money, and they start to question whether an abstinent life is really for them.

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One of the highlights was taking the Monks to have immunisations. We’d never seen them so quiet and reserved!

They see other volunteers coming back sometimes a little tipsy, and are curious as to how it feels; you really can’t blame them for their curiosity and, inevitably, one or two Monks leave their life of over a decade and decide they want to be normal people but, the problem is (or was), that they can’t speak English, only know basic maths, and have no skills other than reading, writing, and talking in Tibetan; this is another reason why volunteers are needed- the Lamas and older Monks are very well aware that they can lose some of the younger Monks to the temptations of life, and so need to at least prepare some of them for it.

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Not so hard at work…

The routine

The Monks (and everyone else for that matter) are woken up by bells at around 5am, and they then participate in morning prayers, with the younger ones having a separate type of prayer to the older ones. The older ones are sat in the main prayer hall, reading Tibetan scripture, with some playing various instruments (such as Gyaling), while the younger ones are in a smaller room, usually with a couple of older ones, offering simple prayer.

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One of older Monks. This guy had the younger ones shaking in their flip flops…

They have breakfast at 7am, lunch at 11:30am, and dinner at 6pm. The time in between this is spent learning from the higher Monks or Lamas (who they respect and are in many ways frightened of), and being taught by volunteers (who they don’t respect and make fun of). The Monks, even the youngest ones, are still learning and praying until 10pm, which is the official bedtime. What is funny here is that there is a higher Monk who they call ‘the Captain’, who is like a keeper of the faith. He has many duties, some of which are fun to watch: he watches over prayers and makes sure people are reciting scripture properly, he makes sure the Monks pray before and after eating (often slapping one or two of them for talking whilst eating), and, at bedtime, he walks around slowly, tapping his cane against the floor, warning those of the rebellious type that they better get their ass to bed. One of the other volunteers was walking around at this time and bumped into one of the younger Monks; the fright on his face as he saw him was hilarious, he’d obviously mistaken him for ‘the Captain’ but, after realising it wasn’t him, gave a mischievous smile, then scuttled off to bed.

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The dining room. You can’t really see what they’re eating, but I can assure you it’s rice…

Discipline

As I mentioned earlier, a strong discipline is driven into the boys at a young age. For example, one night, after noticing that the place was swarming with mosquitoes, we managed to persuade the Monks to come by our rooms at 10pm with a smoking lantern filled with anti-mosquito chemicals. The Monks, who aren’t supposed to kill anything (and don’t get bitten by mosquitoes), justified their reasoning by saying that by killing them, they were helping us get a better sleep, which would in turn make us better at teaching them, therefore helping the monks themselves learn more and, ultimately, helping them find a clearer path in the afterlife; this, to them, was enough of a reason to murder an ‘innocent’ being. Anyway, as said, the Monks agreed to come at 10pm (which we thought wouldn’t happen), but, sure as shit, they rocked up, swaying their smoking lanterns and got rid of the pests (seemingly enjoying it too).

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This guy only got his uniform a couple of days earlier; he always walked around with a smile on his face.

Of course, the younger ones aren’t as disciplined as their older counterparts. No, some of the younger ones find it amusing to pick up cockroaches and try to drop them in volunteers’ hair, or flip them on their backs in the sun for a while, some even like to throw frogs around; this goes back to my earlier point that they simply don’t have any way of letting off steam, so they run around the monastery grounds, fighting, smashing the hell out of branches from trees, and jumping on people’s backs; boys will be boys

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The Monastery

The monastery, though stunning in terms of architecture, is a pretty simple building and so, other than teaching the Monks for a few hours a day, there was very little to do in the place itself. We often spent our evenings sat playing cards on the upper floors of the building, usually in the private room of the Lamas (where the younger Monks can’t go). The monastery has a library, though it is in need of further donations, and has space for more learning areas (such as a computer suite), or places for volunteers to go (the building has wifi, but it’s limited to the small office on the ground floor). The lower levels consist of bedrooms, small classrooms, the kitchen and the main prayer hall, the mid levels have more bedrooms (for older Monks), the higher levels have volunteers bedrooms, the library and spare rooms, and the highest two levels are made up of the Lamas rooms (which are significantly better furnished than the rest, and include a kitchen), and a small temple (which we didn’t even know existed until near the end of our stay). As I mentioned above, the Lamas have their own kitchen and nominate one of the other, lower Monks to cook for them for one month before choosing someone else. They also eat a lot better than the rest of the Monks, who eat rice 3 times a day, occasionally with vegetables and bread, and sometimes noodles. No, the Lamas have a much better diet, including lamb (to which I’d often look at the resident lamb and wonder when he’d suddenly ‘disappear’). The Lamas also don’t attend the morning prayers and send most of their time meditating in their private chambers, sometimes being seen looking down over the courtyard to see what the younger monks were up to, which, for the most part, was no good.

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Main prayer room. Alive with activity at 5am…

I’d say that the 3 weeks I spent with the Monks is something that I’ll never forget. I certainly learnt more from them than they did from me; I’m not sure how much of it, if any, has rubbed off on me, but I definitely have a higher appreciation of their way of life and what they actually give up for their beliefs, even if I don’t quite agree…