On Wednesday, October 16th Láma Sonam, from Chorten Nyingpo Monastery gave a guest lecture during the class 'Comparative Religions'. Read a report of how the visit unfolded below by Lecturer Ted Turnau.
I met Lam Sonam, his interpreter (Kenzin), and Pavla Gomba (Director of UNICEF Czech Republic) about a half an hour before the class. I gave them a brief tour of the AAU facilities, and we chatted a bit through the interpreter. The lama understands English, but doesn’t speak it well.
The lama from Bhutan was here because one of the child monks from his monastery needed surgery and had been flown to Motol. I asked about his stay in Prague, and he told me that he was impressed by the infrastructure (e.g. trams), and what they said about the Czech Republic’s commitment to the ecology.
I asked him what he missed about his homeland, and he answered that he missed nothing—a perfectly Buddhist answer.
The lama himself is quiet, unassuming man, who wouldn’t really stick out except for his red robes. His head was shaved, and his face was calm. He stood about 5’ 5”, and I’d guess his age was mid-30s.
During class, the interpreter gave a 15 minute presentation concerning basic information about Bhutan (population 700,000) and the monastery (in Puncha, built 5 centuries ago, housing 70 monks, capacity 200), as well as the typical day of a monk:
- 4 AM: Morning bell, arise
- 1–2 hours of morning prayer
- activities—study/school, reading the scriptures, work, play, “spiritual instruments” (such as the cymbal)
- evening prayers and study
- supper (Pavla wanted to stress that the child monks get 3 meals/day)
We also heard about how monasteries were funded: 50% state support, 50% private donations. One of the head monks’ jobs (Sonam was one) was fund-raising. UNICEF was involved to bring needed infrastructure to the monastery—running water, toilets—as well as provide for occasional medical emergencies, like the young monk who had been admitted to Motol.
I asked specifically about how Bhutanese Vajrayana differed from Tibetan/Nepalese. The answer was sort of vague: the same principles and meditation, but different applications. He did not elaborate.
We asked when and why a person would generally become a monk. The typical pattern was a child 5 or 6 years old would be brought by his parents, poor farmers who couldn’t afford to educate him (or possibly feed him). There he would be guaranteed food, shelter, an education, and a “meaningful life” (the interpreter’s words). Ninety percent became monks their whole lives, but sometimes a death in the family meant that they had to return to run the household/farm/provide for mother, etc. These occasions were seen as failures and shameful. New monks are not allowed to see their parents for a number of years, so as not to be distracted.
One student asked why lamas wore red. Lam Sonam replied that monks wore yellow or red because Siddhartha Gotoma did.
Another asked about prayer flags, and we learned that the colors stood for various elements: blue stood for water, red for fire, yellow for earth, and white for purity. One student asked if they gave control over the elements. The lama said, no, it was protection against natural disasters. The prayers on all the flags, though, were the same: the Bodhisattva’s prayer for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
I asked what monks think about when they meditate. The question seemed to confuse the interpreter (his English was only so-so), and the lama replied (through the interpreter) that meditation was for relaxation and mental health. I repeated the question in different words, and he said that the child monks (perhaps all the monks) imagine their master sitting on the tip of their noses, and they imagine talking with him. This I found fascinating and kind of charming (one student felt it sounded far too undignified, and they must mean spiritual essence, but the lama said what he said). He also said they count their breaths and focus on breathing.
My students were drawn to the small details. Why were the lama’s pinky nails longer than his other nails? Because, we learned, the monks use them to sculpt shapes (I assume statues of various buddhas and bodhisattvas for meditation). One student asked about a brass or bronze ring on the lama’s pinky. The interpreter said it was for the “spiritual instrument.” I asked him to describe the instrument, and he said, “We call it a ‘rim,’ but I cannot describe it.” The lama reached into his robes, and I said, “Oh, you brought one with you!” and then he pulled out a smartphone so he could find a picture. Turns out, a rim is a cymbal, and the brass ring is to be tapped against it.
This got us onto the topic of technology in the monastery: access is very restricted. They can only use their smartphones for a couple of hours per month.
We talked about fasting during holy days: 2 days without food or water, and more as the monks grow older and more disciplined.
A student who was a guest in my classroom asked about proof of past lives, or other supernatural occurrences that he had heard happen during meditation. The translation was kind of confused, but I gathered that the lama had seen some things, but didn’t want to go into detail.
Eventually, the lama had to go to catch his flight. It was a very rich experience for my class. All in all, a rare opportunity, and I’d definitely be up for other religious figures to address our class in the future.
By Ted Turnau
Publication date: November 01, 2019