A day in the life of a Tibetan Monk

By Tenzin Pema, The Times of Tibet, Feb 7, 2005

Bylakuppe, India -- The tranquility of any monastery, mingled with the comforting sight of friendly faces around you is, almost always, enough to make one forget the problems and the hatred of the world outside. All my life I have been to innumerous number of monasteries on various occasions. And, each time I have always felt at peace with myself- the kind of feeling that no other place has managed to replace.

<< To "debate" newer students are questioned by the older ones. Wrong answers will fill the courtyard with a constant sound of the "teacher" slapping his hands together to correct the student.

One monastery in particular is the Sera Monastery at Bylakuppe, South India. The Sera Monastery, which has about 5000 monks, is one of the most beautiful monasteries in south India. All the way to the monastery from the main bus station, there are a number of small settlements located in the middle of the fields. The Tibetans here mainly grow maize in their farm. And as you make your way to the monastery, you can?t help noticing the lovely green fields, and occasionally one comes across a lone figure, body bent and engrossed in his work.

As you near the Sera monastery, the monastery?s golden rooftop is visible from afar. Even from a distance the monastery is a picturesque sight. Set in the center of the green fields, the monastery occupies more than 5 acres of land. Its buildings are a combination of the more traditional Tibetan art of building with a fair amount of modern compact buildings. The monastery, which initially had just one prayer hall and a handful of monks, now has more than a dozen prayer halls and around 5000 monks.

As you enter the monastery gate and made your way around, you will not help but notice how easy it is to find your way around the monastery. It is in fact, much like a well-planned town where all the roads are well laid out and the houses are in easy reach.

Everything at the monastery fascinated me and seemed to have the ability to make me feel alive. However, it was the life of ordinary Buddhist monks that seemed to outdo everything else that had enthralled me a while ago.

Living in one of the monastery?s many guesthouses, I became familiar with the monks at the Monastery and their lifestyle, but this does not erase the memories of my first morning in the Monastery when everything was new to me. As early as 4 in the morning, I woke up the sounds of different tunes. At that early hour, it was impossible for me to discern where the sounds were coming from and how it could be so loud. It took me a while before I realized that what I was hearing was simple a consortium of various alarm clocks going off at the same time. It was time for the monks to go to the main prayer hall for their morning prayers.

I later learnt, that absenting oneself from these prayer meetings would result in the guilty being heavily fined. And also that if anyone was found either talking or yawning, the result was always a sharp stinging whack on a monk?s shoulders as the Gegou?s (or the supervisor) prayer beads immediately finds its victim or a beetroot red ear, as the Gegou pulls the guilty?s ear.

As days passed in the monastery, I trotted to the prayer hall half asleep on one such morning and found myself immediately alert when I learnt that we would be served with the traditional Tibetan butter tea and phalae (Tibetan bread) during the prayers.

At around seven, its back to their own cells for their breakfast and then soon after, its time to leave for their teacher?s cell, to learn the Buddhist philosophy.

I did not understand how grueling these sessions were, until I saw my cousin listen to the recorded version of his teacher teaching one lesson in Buddhist philosophy. And if I thought, early morning prayers were more than enough for the rest of the afternoon, then I was absolutely wrong. At 9 or so again, the monks again assembled in the main prayer halls for more prayers and finally broke an hour or so later.
Lunch was usually brought from the main kitchen in large trolleys. While having their lunch, the monks, who sat in various groups of threes or more according to their ranks or otherwise, almost always seemed to have something to laugh and be happy about. Lunch was also a time for many to hold debates with one another on their morning?s lesson on Buddhist philosophy.

Surprisingly, I found that the quietest time in the monastery was the afternoons, when all the monks had their afternoon nap. The afternoons in the monastery were the quietest time of the day and give you the impression of a huge town, whose residents have suddenly deserted it.

But just when you were wondering where everyone had left, the alarm clocks would sound their wake up calls again and life in the monastery suddenly resume, just as though it had never been interrupted.

With cushions in hand, the monks set off again to the prayer halls for their evening prayers. There again, it is the same procedure of checking identity cards, fining the absentees and punishing the inattentive. At around 5.30, they again return to their cells and have an early dinner at 6pm, after which they have two hours of intensive debates on the Buddhist philosophy, outside the main prayer hall.

After their much heated debate sessions, they find their way to the terrace or the corridors of the buildings, where they sit and memorize huge chunks of Buddhist teachings, from the thick Tibetan Buddhist texts. During these times as one sits and takes in the sounds of monks chanting and memorizing the Buddhist teachings, the feeling of being transported to another world returns.

I found that it was only around midnight, that the Tibetan monk?s day ends; a time when the thick texts are closed, all prayers said and the tube lights in the individual cells switched off, one after another, until finally, it is only the streetlights that illuminate the deserted streets of the monastery.

Being a Tibetan, visiting the three main prayer halls in the Sera Monastery gives one the feeling of enormous pride, for the grandeur of the monastery reminds one of the rich and mystic culture that one belongs to. The place also rekindles the feeling of nationalism and the gratification at our community?s ability to still hold on to our religion and culture. But, what still holds me in awe is the strength and the determination of many monks as they still uphold the religious texts and carry forth the teachings of Buddha; reliving and reviving everything that was once prominent in our land, in a foreign land.

Tenzin Pema is currently doing his Post. Grad. in Asian College of Journalism, chennai. He passed out from Christ college, B'lore in 2001, with a degree in Journalism, Psychology and English. He did schooling in Mountain Home school in Coonoor. He is also a part of the Tibetan World Team.