One Tuesday afternoon, waking up late from a nap, I mustered all the nonchalance I could and walked through the gates of a Tibetan monastery in Kathmandu, acting as though I hung around Tibetan monasteries and chatted with monks all the time, which, for the past two months, I had. The roster for English conversation classes that I had handwritten and tacked onto the bulletin board in the courtyard filled up almost as soon as I’d posted it — so in demand were my native English speaking skills.
My first impression of my partner today was that he was intelligent, and bold, and had little patience for ignorance. He was young, only a few years older than I was, and he was studying here from Darjeeling, India. His friends here in Nepal called him Darjeeling, he said.
Almost immediately as we started talking, we somehow got deep into an intense conversation. He spoke animatedly in broken English, pausing in his rapid-fire speech every now and then in obvious impatience searching for the right word in English. He’d pound his fist on the table, snap his fingers and suck his breath in through his teeth as he racked his mind for the words. “Concentration!!” he declared, a triumphant grin lighting up his face. “The fifth quality of bodhisattva is concentration”. I got the impression that he was an impressive conversationalist in whatever his mother tongue might be. So far I knew that he spoke Nepali, Hindi, Bengali, English, and of course Tibetan — the language all young monks are trained in during schooling in the monasteries of Mahayana Buddhism in order to read the original scriptures.
We were talking about dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. “Your job is first to act with compassion. If you do not act with compassion you are not Buddhist. Just because you are born into a Buddhist family does not make you Buddhist. The second you harm others in any way then-“ BAM! He smacked his fist down on the table so hard I jumped , “you are not Buddhist”.
I liked how down to earth he seemed. It was something that I had noticed very early on in my conversation with the monks; they were all so genuine, so quick to laugh. It was one of the most welcoming places I’d ever traveled, and the more I learned about the country, the more I could understand why these people were so willing to welcome strangers. Most of the men living in this particular monastery were refugees from Tibet, exiled from their home for following the Dalai Lama- they were strangers to this place too.
They were studying to become Tibetan teachers or translators. For most, English was their fourth or fifth language. I was here to help them with their language skills as they translated Tibetan scriptures into English for distribution in Western dharma centers. From what I had learned so far, many of their families were back home in Tibet, yet they could not return to see them. Some had left voluntarily, but others had left in fear, sometimes via dangerous routes through the Himalayas, having had no voice or rights in Tibet.
I looked forward to my afternoon classes with them all day. After a few weeks of casual conversation a mutual candidness began to emerge, and we were able to talk in depth about both their personal lives and Buddhist philosophy, and the intersection between the two. There was Tenzin and Gyatso from the Mustang region of Tibet — one of the most gorgeous places on earth. When they showed me family photos of their childhood homes, high in the Himalayas surrounded by fields of bursting wildflowers, I was shocked at the beauty of the landscape. Over chai and samosas Tenzin told me in quiet tones how he had crossed dangerous passes under the cover of night, dressed in laymen’s clothing to avoid being identified as a Buddhist monk. Upon arrival in Kathmandu his passport had been seized from him. He had tried three times to get a visa to return to his home and visit his parents, but he was turned down every time. I asked him what he was going to do next. Keep trying, he said.
I didn’t understand how he could be sitting here calmly telling me his story over tea, how he wasn’t going mad tearing his hair out at the unfairness of the situation. To refuse someone to visit his aging parents before they pass away- this was a human rights abuse. In the company of these men, I felt ashamed of my easy and unrestricted mobility. This time, the refugees weren’t displaced persons far, far away who were convenient not to think too much about, they were Tenzin and Gyatso sitting right across from me in the tea room, people I’d learned from and sipped afternoon chai with and gotten to know and care for over the past few months. Their problems suddenly seemed much more urgent and terrible.
Today Darjeeling was not so quick to answer my pointed questions. Just a few months ago, someone he knew in Kathmandu had protested the Chinese occupation of Tibet using his own body: he had lit himself on fire in self-immolation. I could sense the pain in his voice and behind his eyes. He, like the other monks I had spoken to about this, was deeply affected in a way I would never be able to truly grasp. He described to me how no one really knows how bad the situation is because the government so thoroughly oppresses any media getting in or out of Tibet. Protests involving self-immolation are common, but the evidence needs to be smuggled out to share with the rest of the world. Stripped of their right to political protest in Tibet, some activists choose to come to nearby Delhi or Kathmandu to make their final statement to attract global attention. To my dismay I would witness a self-immolation firsthand in Bodhnath stupa in Kathmandu just weeks later- right outside a popular tourist café serving cappuccinos and milkshakes to foreigners.
We changed the topic. It was depressing, Darjeeling said, and he wanted to talk about the future- about hope. He wanted to do social work and spread the message of compassion and nonviolence to people of all religions and castes, and he could do that here. He asked me why I had chosen to visit Nepal. I searched for an answer. I thought about how I felt I connected with Buddhist philosophy in a way I had never connected to other religions that demanded a belief in one god, how whenever I read the dharma I felt relief and recognition seep into my mind, as if finding my own murky spiritual inclinations were shared by others. Truthfully, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My presence here felt frivolous even to me some days. I was thrilled to be learning so much and studying in such a serious manner, but I knew that some lamas who teach Buddhist philosophy frowned on such extreme behavior, thinking it was the behavior of a fanatic, a monkey mind in search for external fulfillment. In Buddhist thought you are supposed to cleanse your mind from the inside, and to accomplish this task you can start from anywhere on earth. Moving to Nepal to live as an ascetic would no more force your mind into your control than working in a call center in Phoenix.
“Because I like Buddhism”, I finally answered, knowing how silly it sounded even to my own ears.
“You don’t say you like Buddhism. You say you like Buddhist thoughts”, he said. “Buddhism is not a quality on its own. You like the Buddhist way of thinking”.
“That’s what I meant.” I said, feeling self-conscious at my response.
Thinking of the difference between Kathmandu and my own native Boston, I asked him what he thought about consumerism — was it incompatible with Buddhism?
“It’s very simple, you have an iPhone4. It works, but you go to a store and see the iPhone 5 and think- I need to get rid of this and get that! You are putting your happiness in the iPhone. But the new one can’t make you happy, your happiness must come from inside and it must come from your heart. Maybe I don’t have as much, but I am happy. In my heart, I am rich.”
We went on to other topics then, like the safety of women traveling in Nepal and India, and he told me that it was very dangerous. “The problem seems to be that you don’t know who to trust — you can’t judge people by looking at them”, I said.
“Yes you can,” he insisted, “You can tell a person’s character after a few words are exchanged, as long as you don’t have superficial conversation. You find a conversational path that will confuse or surprise them, then their character comes out at you and you can catch it! He grasped at the air like he was catching a fly, grabbing handful of sky.
“I can know someone’s heart after looking at their face and talking to them”, he continued. And as he said this, he looked into my eyes and smiled so intently that I suddenly felt exposed. His gaze was unfaltering; no one had looked at me like that in a long time.
“For example, I can observe people; know their problems and their characters. You have to know how to talk to people”.
“Is that the reason you are learning to speak so many languages?” I asked him.
“Yes”, he said,” I need to be able to talk to everyone, Tibetan or Nepali or Western, and remind them to act with compassion and help them”.
“We have a word in English for you”, I told him. “Polyglot.” He waited as I wrote it down in the vocabulary notebook he carried containing English words he encountered throughout the day. Below my writing, I noticed that “division” was the latest word written down in his notebook. I asked him why he thought the word was important enough to remember.
“Division- to divide yourself as a Hindu or Buddhist or Christian, you can’t. It’s all different baths from the same source, like a river that divides but reaches the ocean. We look different- you look white, I look like a Buddhist monk, but underneath we are same same. If I stab you in the stomach, you die, if I stab myself in the stomach, I die. We have the same blood.”
I smiled and leaned forward in agreement. I thought it was a very unbiased and wise view to take on the relationship between religions. The strength of conviction that emanated from his sentences, punctured with those wild gestures, left me feeling more hopeful than I’d felt in months. “You are living your life wisely,” he told me. Hearing this from someone I admired I felt a sweet surge of pleasure at this compliment. We had shared beliefs of the value of service to others and the dangers of apathy only his beliefs were sharp and refined while my beliefs fluttered about in my head.
We had spoken for two hours, longer than we had meant to, but I didn’t want to part with him. Something in the atmosphere had shifted; somewhere in the last couple of hours we had become friends. We exchanged information and made plans to meet over the weekend at an important Buddhist site. He had agreed to take me around and educate me on the significance of the prayer wheels and tapestries and icons, items that were beautiful but mysterious to me.
As I left through the monastery gates a peace settled down around my mind, a feeling of well- being, like absolutely everything in the world was going to be ok.
I walked home slowly. I bought oranges from the market. The smell of burning trash stung my eyes. I watched the kids playing soccer in the dust and kept my eye on the goats and cows roaming alarmingly close to pedestrians. All around me the overwhelming poverty of Kathmandu assaulted my senses and I felt the uncomfortable creeping mix of despair and incomprehension. With just a casual curious glance into the partially covered crevices between alleys and one could see dozens of young children working the looms — child labor out in the open for anyone to come and put a stop to, but no one did.
When I got back to my host family’s house I went up to the roof. The sun was setting behind the Himalayas and the tattered prayer flags strewn between rooftops whipped in the wind. I liked to sit out on the perch of the roof looking out over Kathmandu valley, watching everyone go about their lives- hanging clothes up to dry, napping in the sun, feeding their kids, drawing water from a well, shining their shoes. I could get lost for hours watching the daily human drama play out from this perch on the fourth floor roof.
But the roof had a newly frightening edge to it- just this morning a young man painting on flimsy bamboo scaffolding had fallen four stories and landed, impaled, on a fence. My host family had rushed out to see if they could help and had come back shaking their heads, warning the kids not to go look. I had had a conversation with him from this very roof in my bad Nepali yesterday. I remembered his bright handsome grin and casual ease on the bamboo; I had motioned for him to be careful. I thought of him lying in hospital bed nearby, fighting for his life. I remembered the blood spilling down the street and wondered whether he was still alive. I wondered how many other senseless accidents happened. If only there were stricter rules, worker’s rights, more emphasis on safety, more funding for secure scaffolding. I felt more discouraged than ever. How could there be such poverty, disease, and exile when people seemed more than capable of taking care of each other?
I shivered in the chill of the upcoming night. I suddenly understood with shattering clarity how misfortune could shape the arc of an entire life. I wondered when my time would come to be tested, and whether I would have it in me to act with as much courage as the people I’d met here. I thought of home, of Boston, where the marathon had just been bombed. I thought of the perennial quest young people must go through to make sense of the cruelty in the world. Right now the world felt too huge, and my own small history held too many contradictions to contain.
I fixated my gaze towards the stupa of the monastery, quickly fading in the darkness. I thought about the monk nicknamed Darjeeling. I imagined him now in his unadorned room, studying a language or meditating by the light of a modest candle, and the image brought warmth to my chest. He had momentarily snapped me out of my apathy, and for that I was grateful. The confusion I’d felt all day faded and a new feeling came into focus with a powerful clarity. I could think about those worries anew tomorrow, I told myself. For a moment all I wanted was to savor the sensation of having found, in the most unlikely of places, someone who I knew I would grow to love.