Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A day in the life: Tibetan Buddhist monk edition

My friend Leki walked me through a typical day of his life at the Gendenjantse monastery in Karnataka, India.

Six days a week, Leki and his fellow monks wake at 5AM to spend two hours memorizing Buddhist philosophy and tracts. A breakfast of tea and bread made without oil is followed by three hours of debating. Initially, you pair with a partner to debate the texts and interpretations of how to reach enlighenment. After an hour, two monks must debate a topic while the entire class observes. Sounds like hell to me. Especially because the teachers clap their hands to stop the debate to ask a question or make a correction. Some monks have thick calluses or even draw blood from all of their interruptions and can be quite brutal on mistakes.

During the lunch of cake and curry with the occasional dal (beans), the monks discuss Buddhist philosophy and practice writing Buddhist tracts in Tibetan and English. After a two hour nap out of the hot southern sun, a group of fifty monks go to a teacher's room for a lecture followed by another hour of memorization.

Dinner consists of rice, curry, dal or cabbage. Leki says the food on this trip resembles their meals at the monastery. If so, lucky guys. I think the food here rocks. I haven't eaten so well since I found the five dollar Paki food at the cart around the corner from my squat in Chelsea. It also helps that free food tops my list of favorite things along with kittens playing with balls of string, the WCW (but not the WWF!) and cactus. After dinner, debates continue until midnight tea time. Most monks then memorize and study for another hour or two before bed time and another 5AM wake up call.

The day of rest from this strict regimen comes on Monday. Monks can go into town for shopping although they have few needs: toiletries, the material to make their robes and shoes (the only distinguishing article they wear). Most monks still spend the majority of the day in study.

Only a few special events break this pattern. The holidays fall on the Tibetan New Year and a harvest festival translated as the Blessed Rainy Day. A week long holiday ensues of playing games, going into town and watching videos (only allowed during these vacation weeks).

Exams also break the routine but they sound brutal. The whole school observes a one on one debate with teachers sitting in judgement. A moderator asks a question that could fall anywhere in Buddhist philosophy and many do not pass. The monks must pass through standards (grades) like in high school and it takes 20 to 25 years to get a degree. The first 15 years get spent in your own monastery before moving between various monasteries to be tested there.

Thus Leki Dendup described his current life to me interspersed with memories of his home in Bhutan. He grew up the son of subsistence farmers who planted maize, wheat and potatoes. Everyone in the village farmed and everyone helped each other. His parents encouraged his interest in becoming a Buddhist monk and he contacted people at his village studying at a monastery in Karnataka, a major Tibetan population center because India granted this rather poor farm land to the first of the arriving Tibetan refugees. His fellow villagers said that anyone interested can join and so he left Bhutan for Gendenjantse Monastery in south India at 17. He began his studies at a late age and won't get a vacation to see his parents for four years. Letters and occasional phone calls let his family and friends tell him how proud they are of him.

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