In the eighth century, the Indian Buddhist saint Padmasambhava uttered the following prophecy predicting the spread of Buddhism to the west: "When the iron bird flies and horse run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered across the face of the earth, and the dharma will come to the land of the red men." True to his words, Buddhism has become increasingly popular in Western countries over the last few decades, due in large part to the Tibetan diaspora, which has made Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.
Yet, accurate as his insight was, Padmasambhava's prediction was incomplete. Not only has Buddhism taken root in the west, a growing number of Westerners are also journeying east to study Buddhism. With its diverse religious landscape, Nepal has long attracted spiritual sojourners enchanted by its unique blend of Buddhism, Hinduism, tantrism, animism and shamanism. And in recent decades, increasing numbers of visitors have come not just to observe the varieties of religious experience here, but also to learn something about these spiritual practices.
Mainstream tourism in Nepal may be experiencing a drought, but foreigners intent on studying Buddhism are still coming in surprisingly healthy numbers. The Tashi Lhatse Guest House in Bauddha told us that he usually houses all the students in Kathmandu on the Naropa program. This spring the program was cancelled, but this hasn't affected business, he says. With 40 rooms full of other tourists who want to get deeper into Buddhism, he's got nearly 100 percent occupancy. Other guest houses in Bauddha also say that though Thamel might be faring badly, they're doing quite all right. At a time when hotels around town are either closing or laying off staff on a daily basis due to a scarcity of travellers, the idea of a temple hall crammed with enthusiastic westerners may seem slightly incongruous. But go to Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche's famous Saturday morning teaching a few minutes late, and you'll be lucky to find an empty cushion. Rinpoche's Saturday dharma talks have become a tradition over the last 20 years, and they represent just one of the ways in which he embraces western Buddhist practitioners. In 1981, Rinpoche established the Ranjung Yeshe Institute, a school for international students, and more recently, the Shedra program, which is modelled after a traditional Buddhist college.
Chokyi Nyima says he has seen a surge and diversity in foreigners interested in Buddhism in recent years. "Before, we used to get only hippies. Now we get hippies, yuppies, doctors, scientists. People of all nationalities. Teaching westerners is easier now. Westerners are studying comparative religion and so forth, and this makes it easier for them to pick up the Buddhist teachings."
As home to 15,000 of the 110,000 Tibetans in exile, Nepal has become an important centre for the study of Tibetan Buddhism, second only perhaps to Dharamsala. With about 25 monasteries, Bauddhanath attracts not just curious cultural interlopers, but earnest spiritual seekers. What separates spiritual tourists from your average vacationer visiting Pashupatinath to gawk at the cremation sites is their sincere intent to practice the tradition.
Distinguishing spiritual tourists from other travellers is not difficult-rather than cameras, they carry beads and prayer wheels. A typical scene at Double Dorje, a popular tourist restaurant in Baudhanath, includes a group of foreigners gathered around a table, spinning prayer wheels throughout their meal.
Besides the number of Westerners one often sees engaged in rituals around Bauddha, evidence of the burgeoning popularity of Nepal as a haven for the spiritually fatigued also lies in the growing number of Tibetan masters teaching in English or using a translator. Just eight years ago, only two lamas taught foreigners. Now, there are innumerable dharma talks for westerners, and a wide array of programs of Buddhist study, from classical monastic-style education to more creative approaches, such as abstract mandala painting.
Though many Valley residents tend to summarily categorise all western Buddhists as residual hippies looking to revive the pharmacological mysticism of the 1960's, today there is a gradation of approaches among these seekers of peace and truth, and Kathmandu is a particularly attractive destination because it provides something for aspiring Buddhists of every inclination.
Many people, for instance, are collective energy junkies. Just witnessing life in Nepal, where many spiritually-minded tourists believe religion infuses all activity, inspires them to delve deeper into an interest they already have, or even take time off from the usual tourist treadmill and adopt a religious practice. "You see the charisma of the people. Their religion speaks through their faces," says Miriam Bruhelmann, who is in Nepal from Switzerland to study Buddhism. Other tourists are drawn in by the openness of the Buddhist tradition. "Buddhists tolerate all religions and really accept you the way you are," said Francesca Fittipaldi, who is visiting from Italy and participated in a three-day meditation course at the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre. "I don't even think of it as a religion, it's just a way of living," she added.
With all its offerings for foreigners, Chokyi Nyima's monastery at Bauddha has become a locus for Western Buddhist practice. Fifty-three students from 21 countries are participating in the Shedra program this year-a hefty number, considering other academic programs such as SIT and Naropa cancelled their Nepal programs. "I guess dharma practicioners are hard to scare off," said Thomas Hove Doctor, one of Chokyi Nyima's western translators. Having seen how eager this class of tourists is for more and longer programs that enable them to live in Nepal a little longer, next year Shedra will launch a full four-year BA program in conjunction with Kathmandu University that will allow international students to remain in Nepal for years at a time on a student visa. Eventually, the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery plans to offer full Master's and PhD programs for western students.
One of the Shedra program's marks of distinction is the authentic Buddhist education it offers, which hasn't been available to western lay practitioners in the past. The course of study, taught by erudite Tibetan Buddhist scholars, emphasises internalising Buddhist teachings rather than merely regarding them as abstract philosophy. "We don't want to be like a western scholastic institution, where you often find a very dry approach to Buddhist philosophy," says Kevin McMillin, administrator of the Shedra program. "Our classes are taught by learned khempos (scholars and religious teachers, often heads of monasteries) who have studied with great masters and have some realisations themselves. This adds to the richness of the material."
Chokyi Nyima's Shedra program, while unique in offering an authentic Buddhist education to lay practitioners, is but one of the numerous programs of Buddhist study available to westerners in Nepal. A less traditional atmosphere is provided by the Naropa program for Buddhist Studies, which, as it enters its seventeenth year, is the oldest program of its kind. "Naropa's expertise is translating Buddhist traditions into a western context," explains Clarke Warren, a Buddhist scholar and program director of Naropa. "Unless they've had a few years of practice, it's difficult for western students to appreciate the traditional shedra style." Naropa also bases its program at Bauddha, but unlike the Shedra it is not affiliated with a particular monastery. Rather, it is a branch of Naropa University, a non-sectarian Buddhist institution founded by Chogyam Trunga Rinpoche in the United States in 1974. Chogyam Trunga, a Tibetan master from the Kham region, studied at Oxford University and, steeped in western traditions himself, taught essential Buddhism in a way easy for the western mind to grasp. Rinpoche discouraged his students from becoming overly intrigued with Tibetan rituals because adopting such colourful practices might give rise to what he famously termed "spiritual materialism."
Studying Buddhism in Nepal
- Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre. 221875
- Rangjung Yeshe Institute for Buddhist Studies. 483575
- Kopan Monastery. 481268
- Gaden Yiga Chozen Center, Pokhara.
- Naropa University
Honoring Chogyam Trungpa's minimalist and somewhat austere prescriptions for spiritual practice, Naropa encourages its students to "do away with any fantasy and fascination with regard to Buddhism." According to Warren, who has lived in Nepal for eight years and been a Buddhist practitioner for over 30 years, studying Buddhism in Nepal allows students to "see what is universal and essential about Buddhism and what is dependent on its cultural environment. The Tibetan Buddhist rituals aren't fascinating for the monks who practice them, they are grounding them in reality." The Naropa program was cancelled this spring after two students were evacuated from their field study locations in Solu Khumbu last November because of Maoist activity in the region. One gets the sense, however, that Naropa's long history with Nepal won't be permanently interrupted by the country's current problems-students are already applying for the program in autumn this year.
While the Shedra and Naropa programs epitomise respectively the classical and westernised approaches to Buddhist practice, for those seeking something in between, a blend of traditional and western teaching styles is available at the Kopan Monastery and the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre. Founded by Lama Yeshe in 1970 at the request of his western students, Kopan offers meditation courses throughout the year. Their month-long November course is usually the biggest draw, and had 180 international participants last year.
The courses at Kopan are taught by Ani Karin, a western nun who articulates the Lam-rim teachings, or the stages on the path to enlightenment, in a unique and highly accessible manner. Equally adept at distilling difficult concepts into clear English is Ani Siliana, an Italian nun who runs the three-day meditation courses at the HBMC.
Both she and Ani Karin explicate Buddhist principles clearly and precisely to encapsulate the flavour of the teachings as well as compensate for unavoidable cultural differences.
"Lama Yeshe wanted westerners explaining Buddhist meditation to other westerners," Siliana explained. "I may just have an intellectual understanding of the teachings without the actual realisation, but because of my background maybe some people can relate to Buddhism more easily when I explain it."
Rather than providing a temporary retreat from reality, the meditation courses at Kopan and the HBMC help westerners to establish an enduring practice when they leave Nepal. "People say it's easier to practice in the east, but I think it's more essential to practice in the west-to look at the mind when it's bombarded by stress and other factors," Siliana said.
Though some may dismiss Buddhism's widespread popularity abroad in recent decades as a passing trend, western Buddhism is already the subject of scholarly attention. Citing the numerous forms Indian Buddhism gave birth to as it spread throughout Asia, scholars and practitioners alike are speculating as to whether western Buddhism might be in an incubation stage in places like Kathmandu and at meditation centres in the west. "Tibetan Buddhism is going global and it is transforming into non-Tibetan Buddhism," believes Warren. Browse through the religion section of any large bookstore in the US today, and you will see works with such titles as Buddhism Without Beliefs, Buddhism in Plain English, Blue Jean Buddhism, and Diary of a Western Buddhist Nun, which seem to indicate the effort of an incipient religious movement to define itself according to its own cultural precepts. But will Himalayan Buddhism lose its attraction for westerners once their own traditions are in place? Warren believes that any attempt to divorce Buddhism from its origins will prove futile: "There needs to be a balance. On the one hand, westerners are developing their own approaches, but they're also dependent on the sources of Buddhism." Sightseeing may be on a downturn, even trekkers and adventure tourists may be thinking twice about Nepal, but for Kathmandu Valley, its monasteries and lamas, it looks like few things will deter the seekers of truth, not now, not in five years' time.