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It’s been just slightly over a year since I first came to Nepal, and the question which comes to mind is the one which I was asked most when I was back in Singapore last December: ‘What have you learnt?’ I’m not sure what my friends were expecting – some kind of Buddhist halo around my head perhaps? 😊 They must have been disappointed, I think.
Academically, it has been a tremendously enlivening (at times even tear-your-hair-out challenging) year at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute – from Prof Julia Stenzel, I learnt about the broad outlines of Buddhism’s 2600 year-history (further back, if you count the past Buddhas!), and took a deep dive into Shantideva’s 8th-century Buddhist classic, the Bodhicaryāvatāra (‘The Way of the Bodhisattva’) taught in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist style in which a lopon or khenpo (the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a university professor) reads and expounds on the text verse by verse, with the help of Lopon Drubgyud Sherab and Inka Wolf.
Through Fr. Greg Sharkey, a Jesuit priest, I became acquainted with Hinduism and Newari Buddhism (Nepal’s indigenous form of Buddhism, which uniquely preserves Buddhism in a Hindu matrix (Fr Greg Sharkey, quoting Sylvian Levi), as it would have been lived in India in its first centuries. Prof Dan McNamara introduced my classmates and I to Buddhism’s key spiritual technology i.e. the practice of meditation.
I’ve taken courses in Basic Colloquial Tibetan and Nepali (with Prof Judith Debbler and Ngawang Choegyal, and Pavitra Paudyal respectively), and I love seeing how a society’s values and history gets reflected in its language (with the rule of anticipation, for example, in Tibetan, and with the dizzying number of conjugations that delineate social rank and distance in Nepali).
Being able to attend the Fall Seminar taught by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche (RYI’s founder and the abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery (the monastery within which RYI is hosted) was also a precious highlight of the year. I love how Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche takes such a keen interest in his students – he pops into our classes every now and then just to say hello, and it invariably brightens our day when he does so.
All said, I’ve had some great teachers and made some really good friends here that have given me a great deal of support and encouragement, and I’ve had the good fortune to visit a few Buddhist pilgrimage sites with some of them, in particular Lumbini, the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama.
I’ve had some hair-raising moments – including having stayed for 1 week with a Canadian guy who was later arrested by Canadian authorities on charges of pedophilia, getting serious food poisoning that required re-hydration at a local hospital, as well as being trapped in my bathroom for 4 hours before I was freed by my housemate John Allen and landlord Mr Tenpa’s combined efforts.
And I also wrestle with a complex sense of guilt and gratitude with regards to my mum, whose selflessness is what has allowed me to embark on this mad learning adventure in the first place.
But I think if I had to say what the one most precious lesson for me has been, it would probably also be the simplest (on-going, work-in-progress) realization:
Observing my mind and my reactions to things, I see how I’ve been conditioned to feel a perpetual sense of lack, which I incessantly try to fill through a non-stop process of measurement and achievement.
So, I tell myself that happiness is just around the corner with the next checkbox ticked, the next purchase, the next trip, the next awesome/great/wonderful/spectacular accomplishment, when it has already arrived and is sitting quietly in the corner, waiting for me to notice it and say hello.
I have learnt and am learning simply this – that life is already fulfilling in the imperfect here and now. It is here in the constant background drone of the refrigerator, in the silken spider thread that strings together the hanging flowerpots, in the breeze overhead that ruffles the prayer flag on the neighbor’s roof, the cackle-chatter of the crows and sparrows.
The Nepalese capture this sense in their most common term of greeting “Sanchai chha?” “Sancho” is the Nepali word for “well, healthy, perfect”, but when “ai” is added, rather than intensifying the sense of ‘perfection’, it tweaks it down a little.
So when you greet someone with “sanchai chha”, there is the acknowledgement that life is a little less than perfect, but that that’s good and fine and right – how things are and ought to be. Some might see it as defeatism, but it’s a wonderful reminder for perfectionist me that this is just right, that in the imperfect we have already arrived.
That when a drizzle seems to mar an otherwise beautiful sunset, as it did yesterday evening, sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed to produce a double rainbow in the sky, the moon a little silver disk in between the two rainbows.
(My phone camera couldn’t capture the second rainbow but it was there!)
~ Dominic Chua