I am currently in Nepal – even as I type this, the words are quite surreal. I am here for one month of Buddhist study and cultivation at the Swayambhu stupa in Kathmandu. This blog is named after the Dragonfish Path, the name I gave to one of the three directions I envisioned taking during a personal odyssey exercise. One of the other three paths I envisioned was a Buddhist path of travel and retreat, and part of that is now becoming a reality. My paths are becoming intertwined.
I have often imagined what it would be like to visit a place like Tibet, India, or Nepal – a place of sweeping mountains, fluttering prayer flags, and fragrant incense. I’ve thought about stepping outside the normal bounds of daily life into a time and place dedicated to trying to understand the inner workings of my own mind. Once I started my job after graduate school, it seemed like my window of opportunity to take such a journey might have closed – and in fact I turned down opportunities to make this trip two years in a row because of work commitments. But when the chance came around again this year, I felt I had to jump at it.
For the past eight years, I’ve studied Buddhism with a Vajrayana Buddhist lineage holder, Namnang Mingjo Dorje Rinpoche. Buddhism has had a very profound influence on my life – maybe one day I’ll be able to write about it here. One of the primary practices on this retreat with my Buddhist group is reciting mantras while circumambulating the Swayambhu stupa. My teacher considers this stupa an incredibly holy place because of its special connection with the Buddha Manjushri, and reciting mantras while walking around it can have great benefit for the practitioners and the people close to us.
Mantra recitation or chanting is one of the core practices of my Buddhist group. I used to struggle with this practice, saying unfamiliar syllables that I couldn’t fully understand. Then I read in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that mantras are another form of meditation, and my whole outlook changed. The definition of mantra is “that which protects the mind.” Reciting the syllables helps the mind to focus and stabilize.
I know that when I take the time to focus intently on my practice for an hour, an evening, a day, my mind feels lighter and more stable. I can only imagine what benefit I will derive from an entire month dedicated to practice. It’s difficult to still your mind and maintain focus, difficult to stop the soundtrack of wonderings and worries and wanderings. It’s also hard to just sit with yourself. After a while, I find myself filled with the desire to to check my email, read, cook, garden, watch a movie, anything to keep myself busy, my mind busy. It is so foreign to contemplate mostly putting all of that aside for a whole month.
Although I was a little nervous telling others about my trip – my family, friends, boss, coworkers – everyone’s reactions were largely positive and supportive. People are excited for me. And I’m excited too, to be here – when the reality of it hits me, I am very humbled and grateful. I had about a month to prepare, and it was quite a whirlwind, including two weeks in Asia for work meetings and trying to get my work for the month done in advance in anticipation of being gone.
Almost two weeks into my trip, it has been a real gift to dedicate so much time to contemplating and practicing in this place, and talking with other students in my group about their experiences studying the dharma. There are signs of Buddhism everywhere, from the names of the primary schools to the paintings on the buses and water trucks, to all of the shops selling prayer beads and incense. We spend two days walking around the stupa and take one day off, all the while steadily increasing the number of times we circumambulate each day. I am now up to 87, the most will be 108. Yesterday, my first time circumambulating 87 times, the practice reached a new level of contemplation for me as I tried to connect to my guru’s wish to help all sentient beings, trying to use this practice to help relieve the suffering of all beings.
The benefit I derive from Buddhism is that it gives me a whole new frame of reference for understanding the world. There are tools and methods for overcoming afflictive emotions, self-attachment, fear, doubt. My ability to actually use these methods is far from perfect. But I’m hoping that my time in Nepal will help merge the practice with my heart, taking it beyond the realm of just another hobby. I try to remind myself each day how fortunate I am to have this chance.
Each day, we contemplate the Four Immeasurable Thoughts:
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes;
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes;
May all sentient beings never be separated from happiness that is beyond all sorrow;
May all sentient beings abide in equanimity, free of attachment and aversion that hold some close and others distant.