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A day in the life of a monastery volunteer (Part 2)

Two of the young monks during a break

Two of the young monks during a break


So where were we? Ah yes, puja…

4:00: puja, which means “prayer” or “offering,” is a truly glorious time of day. No one (except the monks) are required to go, but I try to attend every day. People who are close to me know that while I may have strong beliefs about being a decent person in the world—and while some of those beliefs lean toward the Eastern religions—I am devoutly agnostic and stubbornly resist worship of any kind. In fact, I often regard my interest in religion as more of an academic pursuit. When I attend puja, that stubborn resolve is tested. From the moment I enter the temple I am overwhelmed with the loveliness of the space—every column and beam is either brightly painted or covered in exquisite silk tapestries. Multicolored mandalas are painted on the ceilings. The walls are painted with intricate murals depicting Buddha’s many incarnations, and along the back wall sit massive gold statues of Buddha. The entire place has a lovely, ethereal quality to it.

I seat myself cross-legged upon one of the low wooden benches, which are a more colorful (and more comfortable) version of the furniture used in the dining hall. As puja begins, the chanting starts—that low monotone sound of the monks’ voices joined together in a mesmerizing prayer. Each prayer is punctuated by the rhythmic beating of the Nga—large drums that emit a massive noise that reverberates through your body and sounds as though the heavens opened and let forth a single, decisive note of thunder. Then the horns sound—the trumpets of varying sizes that correspond to the sound that it makes: the large one like a tuba, the middle a trumpet, and the smaller one similar to a clarinet. While they may sound like familiar instruments, they look nothing like them—these instruments are hand-made of copper and brass with intricate designs. They are all works of art, from the smallest tingsha (finger cymbals) to the largest zangs dung (telescoping trumpet).

Spinning the prayer wheels

Spinning the prayer wheels

I’ve never been a good meditator. I have the classic problem of a chattering mind that I simply cannot still, no matter how hard I try. As a result, I’ve found that the only state of “no mind” (or at least less mind) that I can achieve is when I am moving, such as doing yoga or cycling. However, when I sit in puja, I find that the combined sounds of chanting, drums, and horns have a way of pulling me out of my racing mind and inviting me to be still in the present moment. If I go further and concentrate on a specific voice in the sea of sound, I can achieve a brief hypnotic state that calms me fully—something I’ve never been able to experience on my own. There a lot of wonderful things here at the monastery, but I think puja is the most magical.

5:00 pm: After puja, I return to my room for some quiet time. Though I have several breaks throughout the day, this is the first time that I can really relax. I wash in the tiny little shower—which sprays partly into the squat toilet—and then I settle in for a bit of reading or writing.

7:00 pm: The dinner bell tolls. The dinner chanting is a more exuberant affair, perhaps because there is a chanting class right before it. The youngest monks get into it so much that their little bodies move with every syllable. Breakfast and dinner are smaller meals that are often comprised of a single dish. Tonight it’s spicy noodles. One of my students visits with me after dinner and asks my opinion of the meal. I tell him I thought it was good and I liked the spiciness. He shakes his head with what appears to be hopeless resignation. “For you it is good. For Nepalis, not so good.” Apparently, the dish is not salty enough. He explains that the Nepalis have a saying that essentially means “if there is no salt, it is not delicious.” I suppose I understand—Nepal is a land of excellent salt, after all (there are lots of vendors in the markets selling Himalayan rock salt)—but seeing as how everything I ate before arriving at the monastery was too salty, I’m secretly grateful that the monastery goes easier on the salt.

8:00 pm: This hour is occasionally spent tutoring. Gyaltsen, the supervisor of the school’s volunteer program, asked me to tutor him on more advanced English grammar. His English is already better than most, but he’s of an analytical frame of mind and appreciates understanding the rules that underlie the language—a sentiment I can appreciate and am happy to share. When not tutoring, this hour is also spent assisting students during their study time or even teaching basic martial arts.

9:00 pm: Finally, the day ends…for me, anyway. The monks still have studying to do until 10:30 (I honestly don’t know how the monks keep such a schedule. Then again, I’ve caught a few sleeping in class—and even in puja—so it clearly takes its toll).

As you can see, the days here are full of activity. By the end of my three weeks here, we will have had three days off, which have already passed and were spent cleaning and resting, going to Bhaktapur, and enjoying a lovely hike with two other volunteers—in that order. My time here is nearing an end and I find I am not looking forward to it.

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About colleen finn

Colleen Finn is a globe trotting, sight seeing, day tripping, frequent flying traveler with a penchant for voluntourism.

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