Since hippies first beat the overland travel trail to Nepal in the 1960s, thousands of foreigners have flocked to monasteries to study Buddhism.
Today, despite political upheaval and a decade-long Maoist insurgency, they continue to come and there are more schools than ever, many of which are now home to Westerners who donned Buddhist robes and never left.
Thousands of masters and teachers fled Tibet with the invasion of the Chinese in 1950 and large numbers settled in neighbouring Nepal, where many Nepalis had been practising forms of Tibetan Buddhism for centuries.
Perched on a hill with spectacular views of Kathmandu, Kopan Monastery was the first to start offering foreigners meetings with Tibetan Buddhist lamas from the foothills of Everest in 1969.
The tradition continues to this day, and thousands of foreigners have passed through. Some come for a one-week course, others for longer courses and a few stay and become monks and nuns.
At first the foreigners seeking teachings were those on the “hippie trail” from Europe to Asia through cities such as Istanbul, Tehran and Kabul, looking for cheap drugs and enlightenment.
Today, it’s not only those who have turned on, tuned in and dropped out who make their way to Kopan.
“Some students are kids who have just left university, others are business people. There is no one particular type anymore,” says Namgyal, formerly known as Ray Ellis, who became a monk in 1986 and teaches regularly in the monastery.
Laura Guera, a 28-year-old psychologist from Mexico City, came here for a one-week course, choosing Kopan because she was sure she would be getting genuine teaching.
“In your country there might be centres with similar things but you don’t know the right place to study, you don’t know if people are qualified. Here you have that security that it is first hand,” she says.
While she was enthusiastic about her course, she points out that it’s not a particularly relaxing way to spend a holiday.
“If I wanted to relax I would have gone to the Bahamas and lay in the sun drinking pina coladas, but that’s not what I wanted. I wanted to stop what I was doing and have a moment in my life to review what I have been doing,” says Gurea.
Namgyal thinks that people come to Kopan looking for what they cannot find in developed countries.
“They have tried many things, drugs, money, a good job or whatever it is, but they have got anxieties and problems. There doesn’t seem to be any answer in Western culture,” says the monk.
Today there are five monasteries and institutions offering Tibetan Buddhism classes around Nepal’s capital and visitors can take everything from a seven-day course to a degree in Buddhism.
The International Buddhist Academy (IBA) is a purpose-built centre for foreigners to study, near Bauddhanath, a stupa that is the religious centre for Tibetans in Kathmandu.
The IBA offers a three-month course in Tibetan language and Buddhism.
“The majority of foreign students who come to receive training from the Tibetans have a fairly mature mental state,” says Khenpo Jamyang Tenzin, who has taught at the academy since it opened in 2001.
The routine of the three-month course is fairly intensive, with classes and meditation from 6.30am until 6pm, six days a week. There can be occasional culture clashes between the foreign students and their teachers, but never serious enough to interfere with the teaching, Tenzin says.
“Western students question more … Tibetan students do not question so much, but we generate patience towards them and they generate patience towards us, so it’s fine,” Tenzin says.
Nepal has been ravaged by 10 years of Maoist rebellion and April saw weeks of often bloody protests on the street of the capital.
Kirsty Chakravaty started studying Buddhism in the 1990s and has been coming to IBA since 2001. The upheaval in Nepal has not affected her study.
“From the outside it looks as if the problems are very great, but once you get here, you don’t feel that there is great difficulty,” she says.
Despite travel warnings advising people not to visit, the centres have kept on receiving students, albeit in reduced numbers.
For Laura, the Mexican psychologist, the risks were worth taking.
“I am from Mexico City, which is a very violent place. Dangerous situations don’t make me not go somewhere. You have to take care and listen to local people,” she says.
“It’s a challenging thing to do and it requires a lot of effort, but it changes the way you look at your life,” she says. — AFP