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Monasteries, Mountains and Surprising Mum and Dad

26/10/10 Dover, England - Did you do a double take? Yes, that's right, I'm home . . . but not for long.
Since I wrote last I've enjoyed the old city of Bhaktapur and visited a number of temples in the Kathmandu Valley, before attending an Introduction to Buddhism course at Kopan Monastery, where I discovered that I am definitely not a Buddhist! I trekked round the Annapurna Circuit then surprised my folks with a fortnight's visit home. Read on to find out more . . .

When I left you last I was heading for the ancient city of Bhaktapur, where I spent a few days soaking up the sites and wandering happily through the attractive streets. Wonderfully the weather had turned, and I enjoyed four days of clear, blue skies and sunshine before the monsoon popped it's watery head back up and banished the good weather. A concerted conservation effort had taken place in Bhaktapur, with traffic limited through the most interesting parts of the old city. I had tiny digs with a great view overlooking Bhaktapur's Durbar Square. Whilst in the city I got to see the Buddhist Pancha Dan festival (Nepal has a hell of a lot of festivals), where giant effigies are paraded through the town while women tip plates of offerings into baskets. I also caught an incredibly crowded bus to the Changu Narayan temple, which perches on a nearby hilltop, and walked back to the city from there.

I had a bit of spare time before my ten-day retreat at Kopan Monastery, so had a day out exploring some of the sites in the Kathmandu Valley. I took a taxi to Dakshinkali Temple, famed for its animal sacrifices. Nepal's Hindus are a lot more bloodthirsty than India's, and animal sacrifices are a common form of worship in the country. I was a little apprehensive about visiting, but it was very interesting. I couldn't see the animals being killed that clearly - which was probably for the best - but became fascinated by the butchers who work nearby, cleaning up the beheaded creatures. As I returned to my taxi I considered buying a baby goat and releasing it to the wild - a number of animals are available for sale at the gates of the temple, for those who haven't brought along their own animal to sacrifice. I didn't think the taxi driver would be too impressed with me sticking the kid in the boot though.

I visited a few other places on the way back, including the Newari town of Kirtipur; the Hindu temples of Shesh Narayan and Chobar; and a Buddhist monastery at the amusingly named Pharping (it made me snigger anyway). Unsurprisingly there was another festival underway, and all the Hindu women were dressed in pretty red saris, and sporting the green strings of beads that married women wear and praying for long lives for their husbands. A few days earlier had been Nepal's version of Father's Day; as I say, Nepalis like their festivals.

Soon it was time for my course, an introduction to Buddhism. I'd considered myself a Buddhist for over a decade, but after attending a two-day meditation course at Tushita Monastery in Dharamsala I'd started to have a few doubts. One thing I found quite strange was that the centre was trying to raise $50,000 for a throne for the Dalai Lama to sit in when he attended the monastery to bless their new gompa (meditation hall). Surely the Dalai Lama didn't need that kind of money spent on a chair! Couldn't the cash be better spent elsewhere? It didn't fit in with my preconceived ideas of Buddhism. I was also surprised to learn that it was not possible to believe in God and be a Buddhist - I'd always been under the impression that Buddhism (which is purported to be a philosophy rather than a religion) was all encompassing; that it accepted all religions as a different view on the one same truth. My impression was that this was where Buddhism differed from the other major religions, which claim theirs to be the only way to salvation.

Both centres are run by the same organisation, FMPT, but I'd already put a deposit down on the ten-day course before attending the shorter course in India. Being a tightarse, I decided to go ahead with the residential course, keeping an open mind. One of the reasons that Buddhism claims to be a philosophy and not a religion (apart from their non-belief in a creator god) is that there is no doctrine to follow; there is no teaching that must be believed, instead you meditate on the things you are told and see if they work for you. Well I did . . . and they didn't! In fact many of the guided meditations had the opposite effect on me - I feel that I had a slightly allergic reaction to Buddhism really. I've got no problem believing in karma or reincarnation, but I disagree with the theory of a Precious Human Life that is more important than any other form of life. I've always believed in the equality of all animals including humans; it's why I turned vegetarian at the age of eight.

We had guided meditations designed to cultivate a sense of urgency about practising Dharma, the Buddhist way of life, that stressed how dirty and polluted our minds were; how many sins we had committed in this and countless previous lifetimes; how we could die at any moment, and must change our wicked ways right now. They made me want to run out of the centre and live my life to the full, not sit cross legged on the floor being preached at. It made me want to scuba dive more, not meditate more. In another meditation we were told to imagine ourselves as a variety of animals, to truly feel their suffering - I discovered that contrary to what I had always believed, animals are blissfully ignorant of their own impending death, and are much happier than I had given them credit for. I can't wait to come back as a cat, eagle or dolphin.

The teachings that were meant to make us understand karma and cultivate compassion by giving us an insight into the karmic punishment for non-virtuous acts made me look at things from an alternative point of view. An example is that if you are a fisherman, and you kill fish, then this will cause you to be reborn as a fish, and in turn be killed. Right, okay . . . so in that case why feel sorry for fish? They're just getting what's coming to them. In the first eight days we had question and answer sessions too, and I found the way the Swedish nun (who was running the course) answered some of the questions brought Little Britain's Vicky to mind, with her "yeah, but, no, but . . . " turn of phrase.

Q Does Buddhism accept the idea of alien lifeforms?
A What, little green men? No, of course not. There are however humans on other planets including four in our solar system, that do not look like us.
In other words - no, but yeah

Q Does Buddhism have a problem with homosexuals?
A No, there is nothing in Buddhism that prohibits homosexuality. Of course oral and anal sex are not acceptable.
In other words - no, but yeah

Q Do I have to give up my friends to be a good Buddhist?
A Of course you don't. However if your friends are in the habit of practising non-virtuous speech or acts, such as gossiping or sexual misconduct, then you are better off making new, Dharma friends who can help you on the path to enlightenment.
In other words - no, but yeah

Sexual misconduct includes misbehaving with someone else’s partner, but we were given a useful tip for putting ourselves off someone we have become attracted to who is not available. "If you find yourself becoming obsessed with someone, then imagine cutting them in half and ask yourself: 'Do I want their blood? Do I want their internal organs?' Remember that the body is just a septic tank - why would you want someone else’s septic tank? You have one of your own." Personally I think that if you are already obsessing about someone, imaging cutting them up and keeping their organs is not a road you should be going down!

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all bad. The monastery is set in beautiful, peaceful surroundings, and misty early mornings were a particular highlight - and at $110 all in, it was the cheapest ten days I had in Nepal. I met some really lovely people on the course, and also enjoyed keeping silent for much of the day. Plus I learnt a lot of useful skills for helping me to cope with my negative emotions, and I now have a much better idea of what exactly I do believe in . . . it just isn't Buddhism.

I emerged from my ten-day retreat with a mind that was undoubtedly still dirty and polluted, but I considered that preferable to the brainwashed mind I could have ended up with. I rebelled towards the end, and wrote a blog expressing my thoughts. I posted a link on my facebook site, and within minutes had received hate mail from a total stranger who said she was a Buddhist and " . . . DON'T ever write such a bullshits about Buddhism." It didn't make me revise my opinion on Buddhists, although I did adjust my privacy settings on facebook.

So I'd done my sightseeing in Nepal, I'd dipped my toes in the spiritual waters, all that was left now was a bloody long walk. With two and a half weeks left in the country I thought that it was about time I put my hiking boots to good use, and went to see the mountains that Nepal is so famous for. I returned to Kathmandu, and arranged a wee trek - Annapurna Round to be precise, AKA the Annapurna Circuit. I chose to do the trek in 15 days - which wasn't really long enough for a stop-and-smell-the-flowers girl like me - and coughed up a whopping $650 for an all-in price that included my porter-cum-guide, Dhan, all accommodation and meals, three nights B&B in Pokhara afterwards and transport to and from Kathmandu. If you'd like to read more about how I got on, check out my Annapurna Round blog. If you can't be arsed, but would like to see a few pictures, then click here to see my galleries at pbase.

After a bit of a relax at Pokhara - where I saw nothing of the town, but sorted through my copious photos instead - it was time to return to Kathmandu. My time in Nepal was almost over . . . but the only person other than myself who knew this was Chris. The events in Leh two months before had left me with a strong urge to see my family, so I'd planned a surprise trip home. I'd booked a flight from Kathmandu to Heathrow, then on to Sri Lanka a fortnight later. As subterfuge I'd sent my parents the details for a flight via Bangkok a week later, and told them I was going on a mini-trek, and not to expect to hear from me for a day or two. Chuckling to myself, I caught a taxi to the airport, buckling under the weight of my pack, stuffed with souvenirs, and soon after boarded an Etihad flight to Heathrow, via Abu Dhabi.

Some hours later (I always lose track when crossing time zones) I arrived at Heathrow, collected my gargantuan backpack and rushed through controls, keen to see my beloved boyfriend Chris . . . who predictably wasn't there. After pacing up and down for a while, contemplating what I was going to do to him once he finally got there, I attempted to use my credit card to phone him from a phonebox, prompting the credit card company to put a block on the card and call my parents to confirm that I was out of the country as I'd informed them. Then I remembered that I did have a bit of UK cash on me, and bought an extortionately priced packet of mints to get change. The good news was that Chris was up (I had suspected that he might have still been asleep), and caught in traffic not far from the airport. An hour and a half after I'd arrived, we were reunited.

He'd sneakily arranged to meet my parents for lunch in a nearby pub, dropping me there first. I downed the best part of a pint of Strongbow - which went down very well, as have several others since I've been back - then hid when I saw Chris driving into the carpark with my parents. I think it's fair to say that they were stunned by my appearance, and we had a very happy reunion. That evening saw me surprising my sister and her husband in a similar manner, and we had a lovely evening that continued well into the wee small hours.

As I was back for a fortnight Chris - who is also my boss - had suggested that I work for a week. I've got to work two weeks in the year to keep my job open, so it made sense. It was nice to see my friends, but I have to admit that the novelty had worn off after an hour or so. Considering I'd so recently been walking up to eight hours a day, I thought that delivering mail would be a doddle, but I found myself exhausted and aching at the end of each day. One thing's for sure, it will certainly make me appreciate the next few months of travel and warm weather, having had a little reminder of life in the real world. Just a few more days and I fly out to Sri Lanka. Chris is coming too for four weeks, before he returns to the UK and I return to India. We're flying out on different planes, from different airports. Chris is due to arrive in Colombo five minutes before me, but knowing his track record, his plane's bound to be late!


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