We made a decision earlier in the year to seize the day and go on a special adventure. So we booked a trip to Nepal. It was my first ever visit to Kathmandu and to the East for that matter! It was going to be a big challenge for me physically but I was up for embracing it.
It started off as just an exciting holiday/experience, something memorable to do for my 40th birthday, but due to a series of auspicious coincidences/synchronicities, became even more special and directly related to my Dharma practise within the Awakened Heart Sangha than I could’ve imagined!
We stayed in Boudha, where the famous Stupa is situated at Boudhanath, and is therefore a particularly Tibetan Buddhist area, with lots of monasteries and nunneries surrounding it. We stayed at The Dondrub Guest House, which is part of Tek Chok Ling Nunnery, and was a really comfortable place to stay, with very friendly and helpful staff!
The Dondrub Guest House had been recommended to me by another Awakened Heart Sangha member, as Tek Chok Ling Nunnery is also the home of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamsto Rinpoche, revered master and Lama Shenpen’s teacher. He’s now elderly and unable to speak due to a series of strokes, but thankfully is still able to receive visitors for blessings once a week. It was fantastic to stay so close to the nunnery and to wake up at their call to puja and to hear their songs and chants wafting through the air.
The first big coincidence of the trip was finding out beforehand that Lama Shenpen and friends from the Hermitage and Sangha would also be visiting Nepal at the same time, and staying at the Dondrub Guest House, overlapping the end our trip by several days!
I had to wait a week until the designated visiting day for Khenpo Rinpoche, which also happened to fall on my birthday (the second lovely coincidence – what a birthday present!) and the day the AHS party had arrived, which meant we could all go in together to visit Rinpoche, which felt very special and ‘meant to be’!
There are no photos allowed during these meetings, but we prostrated, made offerings and sang ‘long life’ prayers and other yogic songs – in keeping with the traditions taught by Khenpo Rinpoche.
Despite Rinpoche’s ailing health, he had a very powerful presence and he felt very ‘present’ during our visit and aware of everything that was going on. He blessed everyone in turn by giving each of us a tap on the head with Tibetan texts, gently but enthusiastically! He was looking alertly round the room at everyone, and I had a real sense of ‘receiving’ a blessing, which is hard to describe, but felt very powerful and meaningful.
It felt very special and auspicious to be able to make this connection to my teacher’s teacher, alongside my teacher and Dharma friends, and on my birthday too!
Later that same day we all visited the nearby Shechen Monastery, founded by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a very important teacher in Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery is now home to his grandson and spiritual heir Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche also his Tulku/reincarnation Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche.
H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is particularly significant to our teaching lineage, as he’s the teacher of all of Lama Shenpen’s teachers, and he’s also the reason why Lama Shenpen’s Hermitage and the Sangha is based in North Wales, as he personally divined it from a map of the UK. So we have a strong, direct connection to him in the Sangha.
The monastery suffered considerable damage during the 2015 earthquake, so it was great to see it on its way to being fully restored. Upstairs at the monastery is where H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s reliquary or ‘Kudong’ is housed. His relics, which includes his preserved heart and eyes, are contained within an elaborate golden stupa. This is considered one of the holiest sites for Tibetan Buddhists to visit, which we were only lucky enough to visit thanks to being with Lama Shenpen!
Next door to the stupa room is another shrine room dedicated to His Holiness, with an astonishingly life-like statue of him! It really took my breath away as I wasn’t expecting it! We sat and meditated in the room and recited the Samantabhadracharya Pranidhana together. I kept peeping at the statue, it felt very peculiar, as if he was really there with us!
Next door were his living quarters, which we were also allowed into. We got to see and prostrate to his bed, the relics of his wife Khandro Lhamo and his amazing library of precious texts. I felt incredibly fortunate to have been able to visit this special shrine to such an amazing teacher, to pay my respects and to make offerings and practice in his ‘presence’.
Earlier during our stay we visited several other more ‘touristy’ sites of Tibetan Buddhist significance, including the famous ‘Monkey Temple’ at Swayambhunath, which is dedicated to the five wisdom Buddhas and their five corresponding elements. There were lots of monkeys there but we kept a safe distance, having witnessed a man being mugged by a monkey earlier in the week!
The main Swayambhunath stupa site is at the top of a hill with 365 steps leading up to it. It’s surrounded by statues and shrines to the five Buddhas, as well as temples, prayer wheels and traders. The site is very important to people in the area, not just Buddhists, as it’s believed the hill was created from a lotus flower, and is part of the whole mythology of the creation of the Kathmandu valley by the Bodhisattva Manjushri.
We also visited Pashupatinath, the site of a huge Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva, which is also home to the Sadhu’s, Hindu holy men. Pashupatinath is on the banks of the Bagmati river, a holy river for Hindus that flows into the Ganges. It’s where the Ghats are – ledges alongside the river where outdoor cremations take places daily, which we witnessed while we were there. It was really interesting and thought provoking to see this very public display of death and grief, something that usually happens behind closed doors in the West.
Further along the river are the Tilopa and Naropa caves. Tilopa and Naropa are very important figures in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. These caves are purportedly where Tilopa meditated and received his enlightened realisation, and is also where he transmitted his teachings to his student and successor Naropa. I was lucky enough to be able to sit in the caves and meditate for a short time.
When I sat in the Tilopa caves I was annoyed with myself for not being prepared and wracked my brain for an appropriate mantra, prayer or litugy to recite. While I was sat thinking and feeling annoyed with myself I realised the Milarepa Innovation song was bubbling up of its own accord somewhere deep within me. It was such an odd sensation, to become aware that I could hear it coming from somewhere within me, but not from ‘me’. So I went with that, still slightly doubting whether it was the ‘right’ thing to do, if was relevant to the right lineage etc, but some part of me knew it was right, so I decided to trust that part of me that was already reciting it! Afterwards I recited the Milarepa Pranidhana and sat for a few minutes in silent meditation before dedicating the punya for the benefit of beings.
Later on I Googled the lineage to check I’d got it right (Milarepa was Tilopa’s student’s student) and checked with my Sangha mentor, whether this had been a ‘right’ thing to do, practice-wise, and was assured it was. It really gave me a sense of ‘other’, something intuitive, powerful to learn to trust and rely on. It felt like a connection to the power of the Adhistana (blessing) of the lineage and from the Enlightened ones who are always with us, willing our delusions to lift!
Again it felt very, very special to be able to make that connection to the teaching lineage, and to be sat in the very spot where teachers of the lineage had sat themselves so many centuries ago.
We visited the wonderful Boudhanath Stupa every day. It was fantastic to have stayed so close to it, and be able to join in with the locals and pilgrims who circumambulate it in a clockwise direction daily, and lit butter lamps in the evening. We also witnessed a new moon puja there, which involved all day chanting and offerings.
Kathmandu isn’t a very relaxing place for a restful holiday if you’re looking for some peace and quiet! The traffic is horrendous, it’s busy, noisy, polluted and pretty full-on most of the time. Yet despite all that, it’s a very special place indeed. To be surrounded by that much Dharma practice on a daily basis, to mingle with monks, nuns and pilgrims on the street, to sit in cafes overlooking the big Stupa and to listen to prayers from nearby monasteries everyday, not to mention visiting so many significant sacred sites, was a really wonderful experience!
For me personally the trip became much more significant than I thought it would be, and definitely deepened and strengthened my practice and my resolve to practise. To have been able to make those connections and offerings in person, to teachers and to the lineage, alongside my teacher too, especially I’ve decided to go for refuge later this year, it all felt very important and auspicious! Lama Shenpen’s Living the Awakened Training discusses our Samaya (inescapable bonds) and the interconnectivity of our paths, going beyond our lifetimes, and during my visit to Nepal, these connections felt almost tangible at times.
I kept thinking of myself as being so very ‘lucky’ to have had this opportunity and the ensuing coincidences and connections, but as it was pointed out to me a few times, it isn’t about luck, it’s Karmic connections! So it was a very interesting learning experience too that’s left me with lots to reflect on and practise with!