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Trek View on Nepal: Himalayan Studies Gap Year Semester with Where There Be Dragons

Questions–Answered and Unanswered       

Just over a week ago, Him A students and instructors arrived in Kathmandu to begin the urban homestay and Independent Study Project portion of our program. They’ve offered amazing reflections on the differences and similarities between village life and urban life (what kinds of work do people do? Why? When? How do families connect with each other?), as well as reflections on their own self-awareness as it has shifted in the last three weeks.

As an Instructor Team we are excited to watch  each student engage with their learning zones, stepping tentative and ever-more-sure footed out into the bustling streets of Kathmandu, making connections with ISP mentors and homestay families here in the city. We see students familiarizing themselves with the public transit system, coordinating with one another to be sure they find the markets, navigate the streets, and get the right ingredients for the amazing breakfasts they’ve been cooking in teams at the program house. Everyone is all the way in to making the most of their time in Kathmandu, and we are all super psyched to have the space to grow here.

Our homestays and ISPs happen in two chunks—roughly five days during our current time in Kathmandu, , followed by more time after our meditation retreat. Student ISPs range from thangka painting (a traditional form of sacred Tibetan Buddhist art), to Nepali dance, to jewelry making, to yoga practice and philosophy, to pottery work, to khukuri making (a traditional Nepali blade used for everything from harvesting fodder for animals to slaughtering animals for meat in rural areas). Everyone arrives each morning with more stories about games, conversations, and laughter with their homestay families, which are spread within a 30 minute walk of the program house. They also bring new insights about what temperature silver smelts at, how to draw the Buddha’s foot appropriately, what kind of hammers are used in khukuri making, and even how to pronounce “yoga” (apparently, it’s actually “yog”!).

The Sunday excursion this week (our first one!) brought us to Boudhnath Stupa and to Ason Market. Getting there and away, students explored skills like ordering for a large group at a Tibetan restaurant (thukpa noodle soup is delicious, and can indeed be made vegetarian!), getting a large group on buses and off buses at the right places, and navigating crowded markets. At Boudha we learned a bit about Tibetan Buddhism, and had the chance to sit in on a puja or worship ritual at Ka Nying Shedrup Ling Gompa, also known as Seto Gompa, a monastery in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhists. We heard students reflect on the power and intensity of the deep drums and high, strange trumpeting interspersed by the chanting of monks in Tibetan. Over lunch many of us talked about what, exactly, Buddhism is in Nepal, and how monasticism fits into it. After lunch we headed to Ason to find some fabric and some tailors—many students are having traditional Nepali clothing made by tailors and will pick it up in the next few days! Look for pictures.

Starting our conversations about Buddhism at Boudha has primed the pump for all of our excitement about our upcoming retreat at Namo Buddha Monastery. This Friday, we’ll head out of cell and internet communication until late the following week, as we delve deeper into the philosophy, ritual, and practice of Tibetan Buddhism. We’ll sit at the feet of the Khenpo, or Abbot, of the monastery, learning in the morning about Buddhism as a philosophical and mystical orientation to the world, and in the evening about what exactly it means to meditate—and how to do it. We are so excited to have a space for silence in this trip! And we’re excited to encounter our own difficulties in maintaining silence, learning and growing while holding our own challenges with compassion.

Discussions of Buddhism so far have yielded more questions than answers; though frustrating for many of us, it’s also a delightfully generative and confusing place to be. Students’ curiosity about the deeper questions of life emerged today in an in depth discussion about Buddhist teachings and the Four Noble Truths: what is happiness? What does it mean to cultivate non-attachment? Who decides the Truth? How is the realization of suffering linked to achieving peace and happiness? What is suffering?

These questions are, quite simply, amazing and awe-inspiring. They offer us such a good guide for the core issues of life—whether you’re skeptical about religion and philosophy in general, or all in to the idea that spiritual liberation is possible, the questions Him A students are asking matter deeply. We’re grateful.