Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Nepal is a mecca for Buddhist study

AFP , KATHMANDU

A Western Buddhist nun and a student converse at Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, on June 21. Since the 1960s, thousands of foreigners have flocked to monasteries in the kingdom to study Buddhism.

PHOTO: AFP

Since hippies first beat the overland travel trail to Nepal in the 1960s, thousands of foreigners have flocked to monasteries to study Buddhism.

Today, despite political upheaval and a decade-long Maoist insurgency, they continue to come and there are more schools than ever, many now home to Westerners who donned Buddhist robes and never left.

Thousands of masters and teachers fled Tibet with the invasion of the Chinese in 1950 and large numbers settled in Nepal, where many Nepalis had been practising forms of Tibetan Buddhism for centuries.

Perched on a hill with spectacular views of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery was the first to start offering foreigners meetings with Tibetan Buddhist lamas from the foothills of Everest in 1969.

The tradition continues to this day, and thousands of foreigners have passed through. Some come for a one-week course, others for longer courses and a few stay and become monks and nuns.

At first the foreigners seeking teachings were those on the "hippie trail" from Europe to Asia through cities such as Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul looking for cheap drugs and enlightenment.

Today, it's not only those who have turned on, tuned in and dropped out who make their way to Kopan.

"Some students are kids who have just left university, others are business people. There is no one particular type anymore," says Namgyal, formerly known as Ray Ellis, who became a monk in 1986 and teaches at the monastery.

Laura Guera, a 28-year-old psychologist from Mexico City, came for a one-week course, choosing Kopan because she was sure she would be getting genuine teaching.

"In your country there might be centers with similar things but you don't know the right place to study, you don't know if people are qualified. Here you have that security that it is first hand," she says.

While she was enthusiastic about her course, she points out that it's not a particularly relaxing way to spend a holiday.

"If I wanted to relax I would have gone to the Bahamas and lay in the sun drinking pina coladas, but that's not what I wanted. I wanted to stop what I was doing and have a moment in my life to review what I have been doing," Gurea says.

Namgyal thinks that people come to Kopan looking for what they cannot find in developed countries.

"They have tried many things, drugs, money, a good job or whatever it is, but they have got anxieties and problems. There doesn't seem to be any answer in Western culture," the monk says.

Today there are five monasteries or other institutions offering Tibetan Buddhism classes around Nepal's capital and visitors can take everything from a seven-day course to a degree in Buddhism.

The International Buddhist Academy (IBA) is a purpose-built center for foreigners to study, near Bauddhanath, a stupa that is the religious center for Tibetans in Kathmandu.

The IBA offers a fairly intensive three-month course in Tibetan language and Buddhism, with classes and meditation from 6:30am to 6pm, six days a week.

"The majority of foreign students who come to receive training from the Tibetans have a fairly mature mental state," says Khenpo Jamyang Tenzin, who has taught at the IBA since it opened in 2001.

Nepal has been ravaged by 10 years of Maoist rebellion and April saw weeks of often bloody protests on the street of the capital.

Kirsty Chakravaty started studying Buddhism in the 1990s and has been coming to the academy since 2001. The upheaval in Nepal has not affected her study.

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