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

On Languages, Silence, Existence and more!

Exhausted, after hiking the nine and a half hours from Nagarkot, Hotel at the End of the Universe, to Dhulikhel, where we had had our orientation, I was happily surprised to be greeted by another familiar face, Ellen, who had taught yoga to me and my sister for a month before this program, and who now would be our Tibetan interpreter at Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery, Namo Buddha. That night, I snuck in a little Swedish practice with Ellen, a Norwegian, and tried out a few words from my recently purchased Tibetan phrase book, while also getting to inquire a little about the nature of the self from her vast knowledge. We also talked about ways in which the Tibetan Language seems to mirror Buddhist philosophy, and wondered if there was a relationship between the two, and if it was cause or effect. For example, Tibetans say roughly “there is anger in me”, instead of “I am angry”, while Buddhist philosophy teaches that we are not our feelings or our thoughts, but that they are things that arise within us. Of course the Language is much older than Buddhism, and Buddhism did not originate in Tibet, so it may well be a coincidence.

Our first day at the monastery (gon-pa), we listened to the teachings of the Khen-po (teacher, a Lama). He sat a little above us, cross-legged, in an ornately decorated, gilded room, with a massive, long eared Buddha statue behind him. He wore red and yellow robes, with no sleeves, and a big leather watch. He would speak to Ellen in Tibetan, and after long paragraphs, where she would take a few notes, she would relate his words to us by memory. We in turn asked questions, which she translated back. On the first day he spoke to us mostly about the six realms of Samsara, the Gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings, that Tibetan Buddhists believe we can be reincarnated as, and how all of these beings suffer in different ways.

At the Gonpa we had several partial days of silence, which was a very interesting new experience. We would not talk from waking up until after dinner. During the first two days of this, I noticed that my inner dialogue continued as it had before, but I did have plenty of time to contemplate existence, and notice new sights and sounds that had been right under my nose. I thought a lot about what “I” really is. But by the last day, my inner dialogue actually quieted down, and I felt a little calmer inside. When we finished the last silent period, I wanted to stay quiet, and I spoke a little less than normal for the rest of the time. During my time at the monastery, I felt I was getting a glimpse of how meditation and these practices could change how one experiences the world, and it is a direction I am excited to explore in the future.

On the last day we had with the Khenpo, there was a discussion of whether to take the teachings of Buddhism literally, or metaphorically, and the Khenpo described how the Buddha had provisional teachings, and ultimate teachings. He said it is hard to say which teachings of the Buddha are provisional truths, and which are the ultimate truth. The provisional teachings, he would tell to people who needed to hear them in order to progress, coming from where they were. They are useful to believe at our level. But the ultimate teachings are what you realize only at a very advanced level. He went on to say, that on an ultimate level, even the Buddha does not exist. This reminded me of the field of physics, in which Newtonian physics is not how advanced physicists understand the world, but it is a practical way to understand it for most of us. Newtonian physics could be considered a provisional truth, whereas perhaps Relativity or Quantum Physics is the ultimate truth, or closer to it. These are only a few of the things I have been contemplating.