Friday, January 17, 2014

Breakfast with Khenpo

I am now finally situated in my home for the next five weeks, the Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery situated in northern India. Here, I live in the monastery with the monks, eat my meals with the monks, and will be teaching the monks English during their winter program as a volunteer.

It's quite an opportunity to live in a monastery like this, something most people would never dream of being able to do (although apparently it's actually not on most people's to do list in life, though I can't imagine why...).

I've got to get used to the daily routine here, and today, as classes have not started yet, I thought I'd catch the morning tea served at 9:00am according to the schedule given to me as a new volunteer (I'd already missed breakfast, which is served at 7:00am). As I left my room and started to head toward the cafeteria, I was stopped before I even got out of the building by the monk living in the room next to mine. Upon asking him if it was tea time, he replied... "Yes, but tea is not hot.". I told him that was no problem for me but he insisted that he make me a cup of hot tea in his own room and invited me in.

I was told by the head teacher that this monk living next to me was no ordinary monk, but one of the most well respected instructors of philosophy in the monastery. Teachers here are known as Khenpos. As he introduced himself to me, he did not refer to himself as Khenpo, but just his first and last name. I feel terrible, but I can't remember it. Maybe I'm getting older, but these Tibetan names are making my head swim. Fortunately, I'm realizing that there are many common names that you hear again and again, so maybe after a few weeks the names won't be so hard for me.

He sat me down and brought me a cup of green tea and when he realized I hadn't yet eaten breakfast he whipped me up a bowl of Indian style ramen noodles... with some sort of snack like Cheetos sprinkled on top. Then we started chatting. His English was far from perfect, but good enough to understand and chat for a while. He started telling me about where he comes from, high in the mountains of Kashmir, much further north in India, an area with large ethnic Tibetan populations (however, he does not call himself Tibetan!). He showed me beautiful photos of the first monastery where he began his monastic studies and where he grew up.

Then we started chatting about Buddhism and I asked him all my questions about how Korean Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism differ (not about philosophy, because I still am far from understanding that, but just in simple things). He explained to me about the Tibetan prayer flags. Each string of flags should represent one form of Bodhisattvas. Depending on which Bodhisattva you may need (wisdom, compassion, happiness, etc.), you can buy the flag which reflects your need, and hang it where you like, often in a holy place.

We also discussed the relics left behind by Buddhist masters after cremations. In sandskrit they are known as sarira शरीर (in Korean 사리), however Khenpo was not familiar with this word, but the Tibetan word ringsel. These are small crystal balls that are found in the cremated remains after cremation of the most holy of masters. He told me as well that relics such as these, or teeth or other matter which are saved as relics can actually grow over time.

I'm sure he tried to explain other things to me, but I am so clueless about the philosophy of Buddhism that I can not hope to understand things yet.

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