24 Hours with a Tibetan Buddhist Monk in Kathmandu

A Day in the Life

24 Hours with a Tibetan Buddhist Monk in Kathmandu, Nepal

By Justin Lantier-Novelli

Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Summer 2017 issue

Lobsang Lektsok wasn’t always Lobsang Lektsok. He was born as Mingmamurbu Sherpa in a very tiny village in the Rolwaling Valley of the Himalayan Mountains. Like every other Tibetan Buddhist monk, Lektsok received his new name when he shaved his head, donned maroon and orange robes, and took vows to lead a monastic life at the ripe old age of thirteen. He is the youngest of four siblings and the only monk in the family. He visits his home village once every two to three years, but luckily his parents moved into the Kathmandu Valley when he signed up for life at Kopan Monastery so they would be close by. He is able to see them about once a week.

Now, Lektsok is 25 and has been a monk for 12 years. Last month, I spent an entire day with him – following him around to see what an average day in the life of a Tibetan Buddhist monk looks like. He was more than happy to have me shadow him, asking questions the whole way. I thought shaving my own head would be appropriate for the occasion. So I did!

I met him at 5:15 am sharp in front of the main gompa (prayer building) on the monastery grounds. He was waiting patiently with his hands folded behind his back, and a calm, quiet, reserved demeanor on his face. The way he carries himself you might think him timid, but he isn’t, at least not really. Most monks are only slightly concerned about communicating with westerners because they don’t feel they know enough English. However, when Lektsok answered my (many) questions, I found him to be professional and articulate with a solid grasp of some high-level vocabulary.

Much of that vocabulary can be attributed to his leisure activities. Saturday is a day off for everyone at the monastery and Lektsok prefers to spend that time watching English documentaries, reading biographies of his role models, and listening to American music. He used to enjoy playing soccer, but hasn’t played since he was a teenager. (None of the monks are actually allowed to participate in any activities that promote competition, so most sports are out – but they do manage to play quite a bit of hacky sack, or footbag, and some of them sneak away to play soccer on their own off the grounds – boys will be boys!). Lektsok’s long-term goals are to master Tibetan and English so that he can travel around the world helping to spread Buddhism everywhere. He really wants to visit France and the United States.

Lektsok begins his day before sunrise. He wakes and washes up before the first puja (prayer service) of the day. Usually, people will sponsor a puja if they have someone they want the monks to pray for; sponsoring a puja requires a specific intention, for example, ‘my sick mother who’s battling cancer’ and a small donation to the monastery. The monks will sit for two to three hours chanting and reciting Tibetan verses and making offerings in the form of drums, gongs, bells and horns for the intended receiver of the benefits. Pujas don’t happen every day, and when they don’t, Lektsok spends that time in meditation. He will often circumambulate the stupa – a tall monument filled with holy scriptures and relics – in the garden a few times, reciting mantras as well.

At 7:30 am, we broke for breakfast, typically sweet rice or bread and tea, and some questions and answers. According to Lektsok, many young monks are pushed into monastic life by their families for one of two reasons (or both): either they are too poor to afford to feed another child, or they believe that it is great fortune to have a monk in the family. Lektsok wasn’t prodded into this lifestyle, though. He chose it of his own volition. “I was inspired by my other relatives who are monks. My uncle is monk here at Kopan too,” he told me. Many of his friends, and Lektsok as well, come from rural and very remote villages where education just isn’t an option. The closest school might be a two-hour walk (and forget about big, yellow buses), so going to the monastery school is indeed a blessing. For Lektsok, a trip home consists of a 10-hour bus ride out of the Kathmandu Valley and then a seven-day walk from there to his village because there just aren’t any roads that go that far into the mountains.

After breakfast, the older monks (from the age of 18) take part in a very vigorous debate, where they discuss different scholars’ commentaries on the 84,000 teachings of the Buddha and try to convince each other which of the viewpoints is more correct than the others. They are known to get very loud and boisterous and, when they make their point, they accompany it with a very loud clap. The purpose of the clap is to help draw beings in the lower realms out of their suffering. The debating solidifies various points in the minds of the monks and seems to work more thoroughly than studying the theory in classrooms. It takes a long time to master Buddhism: 15 years for the standard philosophy and 28 for the auspicious Geshe degree.

Two hours of meditation follow the debating. Mention of the word meditation probably conjures up stereotypical images of monks in your minds, and I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that it is the most monk-like of activities. Buddhists, both robed and unrobed, begin by sitting still and concentrating on their breathing for 10-minute increments. Eventually, they work their way up to an hour or two. The most enlightened of lamas can spend hours or even days in meditation. However, most monks only engage for shorter periods of time themselves. A few of the monks I met at the monastery choose not to meditate at all! Some of the topics of meditation include impermanence, compassion, emptiness, karma, and the dying process.

Lunch is promptly served every day at 11:30 am, and this is when each monk’s daily schedule will take a different turn. In the early afternoon, they have no responsibilities until theory and philosophy class at 4:30 pm. Some will study. Others will take a nap. The younger ones are in school. A few of the monks are on the monastery staff and have job duties such as working in the store, café, reception or library. Fewer still just hang around shooting the breeze with any tourists or western Buddhist students who happen to be passing through or staying for a short time at the monastery. Around 4:00 pm, everyone gets a cup of tea and a break, and then more monk work begins.

At 6:30 pm dinnertime, I asked Lektsok what favor he would ask the people of the world. He said, “I wish everyone to live a good, motivated life. I want them to be kind-hearted and compassionate toward one another.” He also expects his fellow monks to evolve in the twenty-first century. They shouldn’t only be educated in Buddhist Philosophy but also in the sciences, social sciences, and math. He feels that many of the younger monks need to make more of an effort in their studies, like he did and still does, since he spends a majority of his free time buried in English-Tibetan translations.

Following the meal, which was another night of noodle soup, Lektsok and the older monks spend their time reciting the various Tibetan verses and mantras while the younger monks – who were in school most of the day – practice memorizing those same verses. Lektsok told me that the reason the verses should be memorized is that having to read them during the puja takes away mental focus. Monks need to use 100% of their focus to contemplate the meaning behind the verses at the same time they’re reciting them. If they have to concentrate on reading the Tibetan words on the page, they can’t fully engage in what they’re saying. The recitation or memorization time lasts about three more hours. Younger monks hit the sack around 10:30 pm, but the older ones spend another hour or two debating again, sometimes until after midnight. The evening debates are just as loud – if not louder – than the morning ones. Lektsok lies down with a book after the debating until he falls asleep; his alarm wakes him up at 5:00 am the very next day to do it all over again.

So while monks study and meditate, they also spend a great deal of their time talking and playing and having fun. They watch movies and read books and eat pizza (sometimes) just like the rest of us. The next time you think of a monk sitting cross-legged for days at a time, remember reading this article, and try to think of Lektsok, decked out in his maroon robes, kicking around a soccer ball on a warm and sunny afternoon in Kathmandu, Nepal.

[Images courtesy of Justin Lantier-Novelli]

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