I sank down into the aeroplane seat and blew out, long and hard. Wow. I was moving on, leaving Nepal. And I was truly heartbroken to, although we were yet to leave the tarmac. I touched my beads around my neck almost unconsciously, but realised there was no need. I felt at ease. I felt so truly at peace, like I had for quite a few weeks now.
The plane was in the air and escaping the Kathmandu valley before I had even realised. I looked longingly out the window, and wondered whether I should have left at all, with so much love for this country’s people, culture and landscape.
I was exhausted. The man next to me smiled and leant back so I could watch dirty Kathmandu disappear as the jet slipped out through the gaps of the mountains, and left the smoggy, hidden city behind. We had flattened out before I realised that I had just had the most painless, stress-free aeroplane take off since I was a child. My youth and adult years have seen me a fretful flyer. Paranoid, frightened, and always gripping the sides of chair is the usual ‘me’ when it comes to taking off and landing.
I spent four weeks in a Tibetan Buddhist nunnery in Nepal, living with the nuns to whom I taught English, participating in prayer and festivals. At the Losar New Year festival I had a private meeting with the nunnery’s Rinpoche (a holy man a step down from my sect’s equivalent of the Delai Lama) and he gave me a Tibetan name, and cut a piece of my hair, and basically, made me a Buddhist.
I was raised a Catholic, and am grateful for that. But I was always a cynical little Catholic girl. I absorbed the wonderful, loving elements of the religion, but questioned everything I didn’t understand or agree with. Intense reading of non-fictional books on religions of the world and the supernatural meant that even as a youngster, I believed in reincarnation, and other things that didn’t fit into the Catholic doctrine, and found myself observing the congregation, thoughtlessly reciting prayers and creeds, wondering whether they were actually believing everything they were saying.
After high-school I went with a new friend to watch his worship band at the local Baptist church, and then entered into an intensely religious year or two of my life. God was important to me, I had so much faith, and I listened to Christian rock. This was a wonderful time of my life, but at the same time, brought much pain and conflict to my soul – issues like sex before marriage, having gay friends who I loved and respected, the interpretation of the bible were a source of much inner debate and confusion. I slipped back into what I would only say was non-practising Catholicism, a faith always lit largely due to my amazing love for religious history, and interest in the unexplained, such as the many appearances of the Virgin Mary throughout history.
My first night in Nepal I went to dinner with another volunteer and he asked me the question – “Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?” I realised that no matter how I tried to say that I did, no, I didn’t. I believe that he existed, and he was a wonderful, spiritual healer, and he was one of the many prophets to come to the world with a message of love and compassion, but when it came to the Holy Trinity, I wasn’t really there on all three sides.
Perhaps I was always destined to call myself a Buddhist. When I was younger I used to threaten my poor mother that I would run away, to Tibet, to become a Buddhist nun. And at the age of 26, I did this, and unexpectedly found Buddhism to offer me a faith and lifestyle that I loved and respected. (Travelling after my time in Nepal with my non-religious boyfriend, also changed my opinions on so many aspects of Christian history – where I used to see amazing monuments as great symbols of faith, I have come to see them as symbols of greed and hardship – the church denying the people their livelihoods to build these massive structures.)
This is not meant to be a Christianity bashing. I have a god-son, who I will enjoy teaching about Jesus’ message, and always be there though his religious life, and support him in whatever his spiritual journey might entail. I was a Catholic when I undertook this role, and will not dodge my responsibilities.
Buddhism is faith in people, and the world. It is about compassion and love, and about Karma. You get what you give, you pay it forward, and all you need is love. I have always believed that we are all part of the greater living entity of the world, and we are affected by the good and bad that flows in and around us. It is also about impermanence – everything is coming and going – from people to possessions, to pain and happiness. Nothing will remain for ever. This is an amazingly freeing concept once you begin to feel it.
Meeting up with my boyfriend in Thailand after flying in from Nepal, he watched as I opened my backpack to find that a sunscreen explosion had occurred in my bag. There was sunscreen over at least half my things. “Oh! Sunscreen has exploded in my bag!” I said, and proceeded to calmly extract, and wash my things. Troy watched me do this with amazement, expecting at any moment that I would cry, scream, swear or break down. Later he said that he thought I was having a mental breakdown. He also watched as I calmly allowed people push in front of us in the passport queues, something I never would have let go without a narky word or my blood boiling, or at least obscenities under my breath. “It’s okay, love. One day someone’ll push in front of them, and they’ll know how we feel now.”
Cliched and preachy, I know, but true. I was Zen. To my boyfriend, I was a new person. His stress-head, tension headache suffering, depression prone girlfriend had been replaced by a cool, calm and Karma-ed up person with no fear, no regrets, and no worries.
Sadly though, I have lost this Zen-ness since leaving Nepal, and leaving the nunnery. Life here can be stressful. It is also full of ‘things’. My life in Nepal was very simple. There was only food, love, fun and prayer or meditation. But I’m sure I can find this Zen-ness again, even in a busy, working, materialistic life.
So this year, I will try to regain that unbelievable feeling of freedom, love, calm and fearlessness that made be a better, more pain-free, and happier person last year.
A great book exists – “What makes you not a Buddhist” by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse.