The serenity of a Buddhist Monastery and my encounter with a monk in Kathmandu

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Hala Chekri

My friend Prakash, a local guide and associated with Tourism Times, a fortnightly newsmagazine recommended me the Himalaya Java Coffee situated between Thamel and the Garden of Dreams. It is a cafe, perfect for writing or reading, he told me. Hence, on a rainy monsoon afternoon, I went to try it out. They have the best coffee I had in Nepal so far, de facto the logo Serving Nepali coffee since 1999. The mixed crowd includes tourists hiding from the heat and locals customers. The atmosphere is made by a relaxing and low soundtrack and the cozy and clean arrangement.  It is a perfect spot to hide from the busy and populous streets. Nonetheless, the honks are a quick reminder that you are still in the center of Kathmandu.

The television caught my attention when the CNN program was announcing that Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. I was still astonished by the news when a monk and his two comrades appeared in front of me. The monk glanced at me as for asking permission to sit, I smiled politely pointing the chair as a welcoming sign. I was sipping my cappuccino and reading an English newspaper when he asked me where I was from. I got that he was trying to strike up a conversation so I gave up on my reading to give him my full attention. When I said that I was born in Italy, he told me that he had been there twice as a monk in 1986 and 2000, visiting Rome, Milan, and Brescia. I had never met a monk before and I had many questions. This is my chance, I thought.

He is a Lama, a Buddhist monk. Lama Kalsang from Sangye Chöling Monastery situated near Swayambhunath (the Monkey Temple). I asked him what Kalsang meant in Nepali and exhibiting an electric smile he replied “fortunate”. This is going to be a fortunate encounter, I intuited. He told me he was born in the district of Gorkha, in a village close to the Gandaki River. I tried to keep my questions for me and get back to my reading so that he could eat with his two friends, but Lama Kalsang cut his croissant in two and offered me the biggest half. I refused, amazed by the gesture. I was trying to be polite but he kept insisting and I accepted.

I do not think I can describe the emotion I felt for such a small gesture. This can disclose many issues of the European societies of which I am accustomed. With the tears in my eyes trying very hard to hold, I ate the tip of the croissant that was offered to me. I do not necessarily like the pastry, though with my head down and grateful I ate it with a big appetite. I did not know how to reciprocate this curtsy. I did not want to insult the lama either. So I thought of what I could give in exchange. The only thing I had within my reach was the latest issue of the Tourism Times: the newspaper I work for in Nepal. Before I could offer it to the Lama, he passed me a small bowl of fruit and encouraged me to eat it.

I thanked him and tried again to decline politely. Impossible, I had to have it, I quickly perceived. So I handed him the newspaper and explained what I was doing in Kathmandu, and then next thing I accepted was his invitation to join him the next day at the monastery. The following day Prakash took me on his scooter to the monastery. Some young monks were playing in the courtyard showed where the office was.   There, the friendly Lama was sitting, with a gigantic smile. He recognized me. I walked in his direction, but he asked me to step in front of the enormous gold Buddha statue, first. I noticed that the offerings people made were money but mostly chocolate bars and candies. I felt uncomfortable entering a religious space.

I thought I would be the only woman, watching the men of every age stream in the room. Pleased to be wrong, I identified some women sitting with crossed legged against the wall. A few were dressed in orange robes, others were just visiting the monastery and making offerings. Kalsang Lama elucidated the ceremony for me and told me that the communal prayers would last 3 hours. I sensed that I should leave and not contemplate the process from inside. The young monks were easily distracted and I did not want to attract people’s gaze. I left the room and sat near the door, just close enough to scrutinize and listen to the prayers. And just as close to still be able to distract the curious eyes. The monastic prayers began, I was fascinated and I thought that the rhythm and sound were similar to prayers in mosques, but it was completely different. I was too immersed in the profound voices to realize that the women were trying to get my attention. They were gesticulating with an invitation to sit inside next to them. I tried to decline with a shy beam. But once again, I had to surrender, grateful for my fortunate encounters.

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