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

Taking Refuge

Atop the terraced valleys, Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery at the holy site of Namo Buddha rises above the hills with its golden roofs and patterned red walls. After a short three-day trek (or pilgrimage), a few days of silence, meditation, and dharma teachings with our Kempo Lama Tashi and translator Ellen, I’m still digesting some of the ideas and questions I pondered even before we arrived. For example, what is the present? How can it be defined or captured when it instantly changes or disappears? What or who is the self? Are we defined by our actions, physical embodiments, thoughts? If most molecules in our body are recycled and replaced within seven years, are we not constantly a new person or being day to day, year to year? Similarly, how do we define the existence of anything? Carolyn posed an interesting question one night in a debrief: what do we call a bicycle? Is it still a bicycle if its wheels are removed? Or its pedals, chain, seat, or frame? According to Lama Tashi, all objects (or the sums of their parts) as we recognize them are simply these constructs: labels that we can easily understand. In reality, these perceptions we hold of things do not exist at all. This philosophy reminds me of Yuval Noah Harari’s arguments in his book Sapiens, which I read a few weeks ago in Patan. Harari believes that the vast majority of human creations upon which our world functions are fictional works of the imagination created to bring people together to work towards a common goal. Empires, religions, currency, consumerism, capitalism, and even the concept of “community” itself are products of human creativity and social engineering. On a broader scale, Tantra Buddhist philosophy extends the fictional qualities of human society to the nature of the world itself and all entities within it. I wonder if Harari’s ideas were partially inspired or influenced by Buddhism, which he cites and refers to heavily in Sapiens?
The emptiness of all things is obviously incredibly enormous and difficult to digest. Thankfully, alongside the nature of the world, other more applicable teachings were granted to us under our five-day refuge at Namo Buddha. In particular, the temporary nature of everything in the physical world as well as the mind helps me value myself in my present state more than my external attachments. Understanding that negative emotions will pass and positive emotions will fade (and so one should not cling to them and suffer when they do) is, I believe, very constructive for my future personal growth. I hope that holding close to this lesson, alongside those of kharma and the value of unbiased compassion towards all sentient beings, in the next month and onward will help me maintain and develop an easygoing, understanding, and balanced personality.