Monks in action: Practice of the Six Paramitas in the wake of the Gurkha Earthquake
by Layne Mayard, The Buddhist Channel, Sept 29, 2015
After the Nepal earthquakes this past spring, a group of monks at Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal formed an emergency relief team to support the surrounding community.
Kathmandu, Nepal -- In spite of their own difficult circumstances, their compassion for others motivated selfless service to those floundering in the confusing aftermath of this natural disaster. Their resilience and determination exemplifies a spontaneous practice of the Six Perfections, an inspiration to anyone with a sincere wish to benefit others.
Nepal has its own kind of chaotic harmony. As most already know, two major earthquakes disjointed Nepal’s already turbid rhythmin April and May this year. Contrary to the utter devastation reported by the media during the weeks immediately afterwards, when I arrived in June for my annual visit, Kathmandu seemed to have returned to its characteristic pace. Most buildings in the area of Kathmandu and Boudhanath seemed intact.
However, in conversations with those present during the quakes, I could almost smell the cool cement of freshly cracked pillars. One described the panic at this natural fury strong enough to lift buildings from their foundation. To another, the air reverberated with a stillness permeated by the terrifying creak of twisting metal.
The “big ones” were indeed colossal. Boudhanath is my spiritual home. In this small town on the outer edge of Kathmandu, many westerners like me study and practice Tibetan Buddhism under the tutelage of Tibetan Buddhist mastersresiding in the area. The Buddhist path poses a myriad of complexities to any practitioner.
Perhaps many Buddhist practitioners face the same obstacles in their meditative efforts. Regular trips to Nepal rejuvenate my spiritual quest. Although I have been repeatedly reminded of the importance of transferring the “cushion experience” to the practicalities of everyday life, it was the efforts of a particular group of monastics in Boudhanath that brought the true meaning of this advice to life.
A small team of approximately ten monks experienced that dramatic, tectonic reminder of impermanence within their community at Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling monastery. Although they are integral members of my spiritual family, I had taken note of their anonymous presence primarily during temple pujas and religious celebrations. Otherwise, my interaction with them was limited to personal aims such as prayers, translation, transmissions, advice or blessings.
However, their actions in the wake of the Gurkha earthquake were a poignant reminder of the purpose of the Buddhist journey: selfless service to others. Their discretion, humility, perseverance and compassion amidst this natural disaster exemplified the fruition of Buddhist meditation in action.
His Holiness Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche is the spiritual head of Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling monastery, home to approximately 400 monastics. One monk in the rescue team described his relationship to Rinpoche as both worldly and spiritual: “In worldly terms it’s like a father and son relationship but in dharmic terms it’s like master and disciple – he gives us advice for our physical health and behaviour, and also teachings on dharma”.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, children may opt to enter monastic life, thus about a third of the communitymembers are still quite young. Within the relief group, many also took their pratimok?a vows as children. They now range from 30 to 40 years in age, accounting for 20 to 30 years of monastic life for several of the monks.
In addition to religious training, meditation practices and participation in various ceremonies, monks generally assume worldly activities to support the day-to-day logistics of the monastery. For example, some are responsible for the education and care of the younger monks, some are Dharma teachers, a few provide assistance for meal preparation and many may arrange for the various public pujas. Each of the relief team members also actively participates in diverse activities required to run the monastery.The monks have no income and very few material possessions; their financial needs are met entirely by donations.
On the Saturday morning of the April earthquake, most of the monastic community was attending to their normal, daily activities. One monk explained that there was a lot of fear and confusion in reaction to the violence of the quake.
Shedrup Gyamtso, a relief team member, described how it took a couple of days before the real situation around Kathmandu became apparent. The team formed directly after the earthquake as the situation’s gravity increased.
The monastic buildings were too damaged to enter, so everyone was required to leave their quarters and house in tents. People from the surrounding neighbourhoods came to seek shelter and food. In addition, the weather was unforgiving with its torrential rain showers. Shedrup described how all of these necessities were prepared by the monastics working together.
News poured into the monastery about the destitute circumstances of different areas throughout the Kathmandu Valley. Rinpoche himself explained that “ . . . . I cannot give orders to anyone [to help the victims of the earthquake], but thegroup had an innate desire to help those in need”.With the financial support of the charity organisation Rangjung Yeshe Shenpen and the organisational support of a western student at Rangjung Yeshe Institute, the monks ventured into different villages in desperate need of shelter, food and medicine.
In the Buddhist classic The Bodhicaryavatara, the author Santideva describes the conduct to be adopted on the bodhisattva path. He expounds upon the practice of the Six Perfections as physical actions pervaded by a genuine desire to be of benefit to other sentient beings. As Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche emphasised, “The monks’ activitiesshow that taking care of others is not just the duty of a holy man; they are also providing a great service to the community”.
Santideva poetically depicts the first paramita of generosity with the words, “May I be the medicine and the physician for the sick. May I become food and drink during times of famine. May I be an inexhaustible treasury for the destitute”.The practice of generosity includes the gifts of material resources, courage, love and Dharma teachings. Another member of the group, Khenpo Namgyal, stressed that the view of Buddhism is to train in the sincere wish to benefit others.
“At first, after the initial earthquakes for about two weeks we couldn’t get out to help others yet still people came into our monastery to get help”.
The monks actually found the misery around them intolerable, and even had difficulties discussing some of the terrible situations they had witnessed. Although they still slept in overcrowded tents, they were able to provide solace to many at the monastery.
They were finally able to load a few trucks with supplies and travelled to some of the more remote villages outside Kathmandu. In the weeks after the earthquake, they travelled through areas plagued by landslides. One account was of an attempted return to Kathmandu from a village in the Annapurna Himalayan range: “When we tried to go back, again there was a landslide that had blocked the road and so we had to wait for another two days.
There was nothing for us to do for two days. So we went for a walk to a place called Pangsang. We saw some people carrying the tin sheets, which looked so difficult, though they were very grateful to us [for supplying them]. We saw that some people had some wounds on their feet from being cut by the tin sheets, so we gave them some medicine for that”.
The second perfection of ethical discipline is the restraint from non-virtuous actions of body, speech and mind. It also entails abiding in whatever precepts and commitments taken as a practitioner. Sherab Gyatso explained that, “ [it] is actually a mind that abandons things [of this life]. Previously as practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism, we’ve taken a pledge to be of service to others. That is this promise and not wavering from it”.
In addition, the monks were very conscious of financial donations – this responsibility was of great concern at times. Another member called Achung gave the following account of a prepaid order for tin sheets: “We had been so patient waiting for these sheets, but finally we had to give an ultimatum: if the sheets do not arrive after two days, then we will need all of our money back. Yet still the tin sheets did not arrive. When we got to the bank [to get the return of our money], we found that there was no money in [the storeowner’s] account. Finally, we got the money back. This supplier told us that it would take five days, but really it took two weeks”.
Fortitude, the third paramita, is the ability to experience inconsiderate behaviour without retaliation. Each of the perfections enhances the other, as demonstrated in the example of purchasing tin sheets. Monastic training includes the cultivation of patience; Santideva reasons that “Patience arises only in dependence on that malicious intention, so [the aggressor] alone is a cause of my patience”.
He explains that fortitude also means to remain composed during hardship and to steadfastly abide in the practice of Dharma. Tipling is a village north of Kathmandu, and resides at an altitude of 3,460 metres. It was one of the hardest hit areas during the earthquake. Achung recounted that the monks were expecting warm temperatures, and did not prepare for cold weather. “But when we arrived there it was so cold. Since there were no warm clothes or sleeping bags, we had to stay in the home next to a fire”.
Shedrup Gyamtso personalised the difficulties faced in maintaining patience:“Sometimes when we are tired or struggle a lot, we become discouraged and think, ‘I probably won’t be able to do anything’. For example, maybe for some people we can only give them tarps, but they actually need tin sheets. Or maybe we only give rice, but that is not enough and people would tell us they need something else. Maybe we give someone just a bit, and they tell us, ‘We don’t need a little, we need a lot!’
Everyone has different needs and desires, and often people complain if those needs and wants are not met. When we are out on the road, there are quite a few people who try to deceive those who are trying to help, which can be very upsetting. To do that kind of work without getting upset, having to discuss what needs to be discussed, running all over the place, and trying all sorts of things, that is how we accomplish our work. Thus, when we actively take on suffering, and have patience for those who cannot bear such suffering, when we encounter beings whose wishes have not been fulfilled and complain to us, to have patience for such things is what we mean by the term “patience”.
Joyous effort is the fourth perfection, and involves the effort to help others without procrastination, resentment or empathetic distress. Puchung is the monastic organiser of the relief team. Discussions with him accentuated the difficulties of balancing management of the monastic community at Shedrup Ling with emergency work in some of the most devastated areas in the Kathmandu Valley. “The work [outside] is dangerous. We don’t know what will happen. I’m not sending any monks out if they don’t have the proper motivation – they are my responsibility”. He explained that the continuous aftershocks were very frightening to many, so although many wanted to help, the earth’s instability was simply too daunting. In addition, there was so much confusion, so many tasks, so few material resources and so many people that it was quite challenging to prioritise effectively.
The fifth paramitaof meditative concentration requires renunciation of sense pleasures and the development of sustained attention – this concentration allows the mind to remain stable in spite turbulent interior or exterior circumstances. Concentration training sustains equanimity in the face of extreme change or stress. Wisdom is the sixth perfection – its cultivation is greatly enhanced through meditative concentration. In addition to the primary objective of understanding emptiness, wisdom also includes developing fields of knowledge and skills necessary to benefit sentient beings and actually discerning how to best benefit them. The Dalai Lama summarises that, “Wisdom purifies all the other perfections, enabling them to serve as the foundation for the omniscient mind of a Buddha”.
Other monks in the relief team expressed the chaos of the days and weeks after the earthquake: “Soon after the first earthquake, one of the shrine rooms caught fire and required careful navigation around the electrical wires to extinguish it. Then, everyone was trying to make phone calls but nothing was working. People needed tarps. Rumours of death tolls, more earthquakes, disease and famine were spreading. We took a truck to the vegetable market, to prepare for whoever arrived from the outside. Road transportation was impeded by rock slides. We had to build bathrooms at the monastery. Religious classes had to be suspended. Every day, about 1,500 people were staying at the monastery.
Cremation of the dead was even difficult - when we got to the cremation grounds, there wasn’t any room for us to place a body because there were already too many bodies that had been brought there”. Achung revealed, “. . . then I felt so much pain in my heart, I was speechless. There weren’t even any families there, it was just bodies—the police had brought them all there. So I felt a lot of grief seeing all of that”.
The cultivation of meditative concentration or wisdom at any level enhances focus and judgement. Shedrup Gyamtso summarises: There are two ways of discussing this: in terms of the relative and ultimate truths. In terms of the relative, it is the nature of beings’ suffering. So the means of dispelling the suffering of beings who experience these things is known as wisdom. The relative is seeing the suffering of others, this kind of seeing is also an insight into the reality of phenomena.
Thus, by seeing the suffering of others, whatever work we do to benefit others is a form of wisdom. In terms of the ultimate, wisdom is to realize that the reality of phenomena is emptiness”.All six perfections can be included in the practice of each one. Not harming others physically or verbally when giving is ethical conduct.
Fortitude keeps the mind calm if the recipient harms us or doesn’t appreciate the gift. Stability of mind is necessary so the mind maintains a bodhicitta motivation and is not polluted by afflictions while giving. Prior to giving, wisdom is needed to know what, when and how to give. While giving, contemplating the emptiness of the giver, gift, recipient and act of giving cultivates wisdom.
What struck me most about conversations with the monks was the complexity of assisting Nepal’s poor, injured and destitute. Fulfilling the perfections requires time, practice and patience. Instead of expecting to be experts, we can accept our present abilities and at the same time, work to increase them in the future.
The Buddha did not start off fully awakened, and there was a time when he found the perfections challenging. Initially our ability to practice is quite weak. As we practice repeatedly, our capacity increases. When our capacity becomes strong, we will look back and see that what initially seemed almost impossible has now become possible and that we have accomplished what we did not think we could do.
Our inner capabilities have grown because we made the effort. As Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche stressed, “Most of all, these monks have had the guts to practise this loving kindness and compassion everywhere they go. Their motivation to do so was pure”.
The Buddha described from his own experience the source of unhappiness and its cure. It is, however, impossible for even a Buddha to cultivate enlightenment in another – it is each being’s individual efforts that generate personal liberation. One can look to others for inspiration, and also aspire to set a good example.
How many times has the kindness of others motivated me to do the same – all become my teachers. I have a T-shirt purchased during the commemoration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday this year in Swayambu, Nepal. His quote imprinted on the back acts as a fitting reminder and confirmation of the example set by the monastic rescue team of Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling: “Change only takes place through action, not through meditation and prayer alone”.
In the perceived chaos of my own personal obstacles, the practice of the perfections acts as a centring force that strengthens my resolve and perseverance to be of service to others. Each time I rise from my meditation cushion, I think of the monks’ courage and sacrifice in the aftermath of the Gurkha Earthquake. Their lives inspire and remind me that the time between sessions is integral to Buddhist practice – it is training for the application of the paramitas and the authentic pursuit of compassionate wisdom for the sake of others’ welfare.
This article was possible through the generous support of Joseph Faria, a masters student in Tibetan Buddhism and language at Rangjung Yeshe Institute. He has worked tirelessly with the monks of Ka-Nying Shedrup Ling as a co-ordinater of the monks’ relief efforts with the affiliated charity organisation known as Rangjung Yeshe Shenpen. For further information regarding Rangjung Yeshe Institute or Rangjung Yeshe Shenpen, please refer to www.ryi.org and www.shenpennepal.org.