Ka Nying Shedrub Ling: The Life of A Monk
One of the largest Tibetan monasteries in Nepal, Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery comprises a traditional monastic setting where a community of more than 200 monks dedicate themselves to various monastic activities. To perpetuate the Doctrine of Lord Buddha, their daily life centers around study and daily practice.
At daybreak, the monastery's heavy brass gong resounds throughout the compound summoning the monks to assemble in the main temple for the start of the daily puja (invocation rites). Properly attired in his maroon monastic robes, each monk should be alert and ready to participate harmoniously in the rapid rhythmic chant of morning devotional prayers consisting of many pages of Tibetan text drawn from several different liturgical manuals. Invocations include supplications to Shakyamuni Buddha, Tara, Guru Rinpoche, Vajrasattva, and the 16 Arhats.
If a monk is assigned to play a ritual musical instrument, such as a horn, trumpet, conch-shell, drum or cymbals, he must know precisely how and when to insert the frequent musical interludes. He should also know at what point in the puja he should don the maroon-colored velvet ceremonial hat.
The monk who serves as shrine-master, or chöpön, carefully tends the shrine-room's three-tiered altar of elaborate tantric feast-offerings during the puja's oblations. After having undergone years of apprenticeship, the chöpön has a thorough background in the meaning of the rich symbolism which each icon represents. He should understand the intricacies of his graceful presentation, one by one, of the offering articles as well as the consecration of the sacraments. At the same time, he must be attentive to the immediate needs of the vajra master-of-ceremonies, the dorje lobpön, who leads the puja. In short, overseeing the shrine demands constant alertness, speed and efficacy in offering the oblations, performing the accompanying hand-gestures, or mudras, assisting the dorje lobpön, and in distributing the blessed sacraments among the assembled congregation.
If that day a monk is designated as a lak-dey, tea-server, he joins a crew of six tea-servers who will cart the large heavy brass teapots from the monk's kitchen behind the monastery to the main temple. To serve each of the 180+ chanting monks, he must be able to deftly balance the heavy pots of steaming hot Tibetan butter-tea while weaving skillfully up and down the aisles in the crowded temple. Rounds of tea are delivered several times during the puja.
If a monk gifted with a deep voice has been specially trained as umdze, or chant-leader, he must know by heart the puja's entire liturgical text which may consist of more than 200 pages drawn from many different tantric scriptures. He must know exactly which melody and speed each section of puja calls for, and keep the cadence of the assembly by guiding them with the rhythmic tap of his drilbu (ritual hand-bell). From one moment to the next, the umdze must decide how to pace the services so that a day-long puja can be completed within the usual 12-hour period, without running overtime and exhausting its participants. As chant-leader, he must know from memory the dozens of dedication prayers chanted at the conclusion of an elaborate puja and be able to chant them rapidly without wavering.
The very purpose of a puja is to unveil and celebrate each participant's own exalted inner nature. The colorful murals around the temple walls are not meant merely to portray enlightened beings in strange remote purelands, but to mirror a reflection of one's own buddha-like divinity. Though the disciplinarian quietly paces the length of the shrine-hall keeping a watchful eye on the decorum, even the youngest monks are enthralled with the lively and colorful rituals of a puja and will happily sit for hours drinking in the entertaining and sometimes awesome display.
After morning puja, the monks assemble in the monastery's immense communal dining hall for a relaxed breakfast of milk-tea, Tibetan bread, spiced potatoes and a hard-boiled egg.
Apart from engaging in meditation and performing daily liturgical rituals derived from both the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions (hence the name "Ka-Nying"), a strong emphasis is also placed on scholasticism. The monks spend several hours a day making a thorough study of classic Buddhist treatises and scriptures. Their first 2-hour class begins at 8:00am.
A representation of Manjushri, the classic "patron saint" of academics, adorns each classroom. Compassionately wielding the "sword of wisdom" in his right hand, Manjushri symbolically cuts through wrong understandings and misperceptions which perpetuate the misery of mental darkness. His left hand holds the stem of a fully-blossomed lotus flower which supports the "book of transcendental wisdom." All classes begin with prayers invoking the blessings of this deity of acumen.
Six days a week, novice monks some as young as six-years-old attend four 90-minute classes daily in such topics as reading, writing and grammar, language studies which include Tibetan, Sanskrit and Nepali, liturgical chanting and general academic studies. Guided by several resident khenpos (Professors of Divinity), older monks engage in "shedra" studies which include history, philosophy, and analysis and memorization of classical Buddhist scriptural treatises. Rigorous classes in debate sharpen their reasoning skills. A six-year program of formal progressive shedra (monastic college) studies is conducted for those of most promising capacity
Lunch is offered at 11:30am. Afterwards the monks are free to play, chat, study, or stroll into the nearby village of Boudha Nath. Afternoon classes resume at 2:00pm with the last class of the day concluding as late as 9:00pm in the case of some advanced studies.
At 4:00pm, the monastery's gong resounds again summoning the monks to the main temple for formal prayers to the protectors of the Buddhist Doctrine. Chief among the scores of enlightened celestial guardians is fierce, black Mahakala. These guardian deities are, in fact, invoked as compassionate yet wrathful manifestations of benevolent enlightened buddhas. Their sole function is to "fight fire with fire," clearing away all levels of negativity and obstacles which hinder sentient beings in their striving for mental peace, liberation from suffering and ultimate enlightenment. The afternoon puja, with its rapid rhythmic chanting of prayers and its thunderous drumming and trumpeting, is a lively counterpart to the morning's rendition and popular with visiting tourists.
Dinner, consisting of a traditional Tibetan tukpa, hot meat stew and bread rolls is served in the dining hall at 6:30pm. Dining together quietly is an important aspect of monastic life since it helps to strengthen the bonds of brotherly love and fellowship, as well as promote a familial sense among the community of like-minded religious practitioners.
In the early evening, the monks are free to seek solitude, or gather together at a place of their own choice, and begin their own personal practice session which will include meditation and the recitation of daily prayers.
The Buddha once proclaimed, "My teachings are like gold. Don't take them at face value, hammer them out until their truth is made evident." With this ever in mind, each afternoon monks assemble in the courtyard for a lively debate. Debate class officially ends at 6:30pm, but often breaks up into small informal discussion groups that continue examining and debating the issue of the day late into the evening.
The Tibetan Buddhist art of debate, tsöd-pa, as exciting and stimulating as any sport or courtroom drama, is both an integral part of skilled training in logic and a sophisticated, effective learning-tool. Each participant must be prepared with a thorough understanding of the issue at hand, and must be able to respond immediately and ingeniously when his own proposals are challenged. The goal is to knock flat the opponent's philosophical stance through brandishing the weapon of impeccable logic and rationalism. Thereafter, philosophically, the defeated camp must concede to and even adopt the standpoint of the champion.
Reticence has no place in the debate arena. Traditionally, the challenger of a philosophical tenet will stand, imposingly, in front of the seated defender of the proposition. With an arrogant snap of his fingers and an accusing hand-gesture, the challenger loudly, shrewdly, and repeatedly cross-examines, disputes and provokes the holder of a philosophical position. While calmly remaining in his seat, one of the many rules of this game of argument, the defender of a subtle philosophical point must be equipped with logical counter-arguments. The speed and cleverness of his rebuttals will demonstrate his own sharpness of wit, or lack of it, as well as his familiarization and versatility in the theme. Often, during a heated session, the classroom will be filled to capacity with fascinated onlookers immediately drawn to the sound of a debate and ready to applaud or jeer a participant's response.
In ancient India, the great religious debates changed history and introduced fresh understandings of the scriptures. In those days, the loser of a public religious debate, held between two diverse religions would have to adopt the religion of the winner. Any time a philosophical tenet began to lose its impact and relatedness to an aspect of a religion, debate could either freshen or eliminate a stale theory. In this way, the Buddhist scriptures have never been allowed to gather dust but have been hammered into "teachings of gold" by constant examinations through the milleniums. Only those tenets that, again and again through the centuries, withstood all the rigors of careful repeated examination by the great Indian and Tibetan philosophical scholars remained bona fide dogma of the Buddhist ideology.
Monks with an earnest desire to devote themselves full-time to spiritual practice may, with the abbot's permission, set aside their academic studies and withdraw to the monastery's retreat centers in Pharping Valley or at Nagi Gompa. In quiet and solitude, they may engage in either short retreats of a few weeks or undertake the traditional 3-year intensive meditation and practice retreat. Presently, a group of 10 monks are in the middle of a three-year retreat at the monastery's Asura Cave Retreat Center in Pharping and will return to the main monastery after that. It is the wish of Tulku Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche to build retreat facilities able to accommodate up to 25 or more monks in retreat.
Sustaining the Sangha
Most of the more than 300 monks and nuns residing at the monastery and at it affiliated nunnery, Nagi Gompa, respectively, are either orphans or come from poor Tibetan refugee families. Because more young men and women seeking ordination apply to the monastery and nunnery each year, the facilities of both enclaves are constantly undergoing expansion and renovation to provide simple living quarters, dining halls, classrooms, medical clinics and retreat facilities. All the expenses of food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical treatment have been borne exclusively by the personal finances of the family of Lamas, themselves, with the occasional supplement of contributions from concerned benefactors.