A Psychology of Joy – Reflections from Living in a Tibetan Monastery

Tibet, by Nicolas Roerich, from www.wikipaintings.org.

Editor’s note: This feature was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 2, January 2007. 

The first time I met a Tibetan monk I couldn’t believe how ‘normal’ he was. He spoke to me in English and seemed relaxed, making me feel instantly at ease. I was nervous, with culture shock just setting in. This was in Darjeeling, India, where I had organised to teach English in a Tibetan monastery for about four months. The monastery, actually a Tibetan Institute for higher Buddhist studies, was a four-hour jeep ride away in a village at the bottom of a Himalayan trekking trail. At the institute the young monks study for a Bachelor of Arts in Buddhist Philosophy and have a disciplined daily routine. This includes personal and group puja (prayer), learning scriptures, Tibetan language classes, helping in the kitchen, and having a bit of fun. Many of the monks would play football and cricket when Khenpo (the principal) wasn’t around with equipment creatively made from things lying around such as robes.

Before going to India, I was a psychology student in Melbourne,Australia. I took a six-month break for the trip and planned to return to undertake my Honours year, which I have now completed. I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism through teachings I had attended at two Mahayana Buddhist centres in the UK five years ago, and had also studied concepts in Tibetan art, particularly mandalas. This helped me at the monastery to understand what the monk’s deeper beliefs and personal goals were, but did not help me predict the manner in which they express these in everyday life.

One thing I love about Buddhism is that it involves such an intimate knowledge of the mind. And everyone seems so happy! The Tibetan teacher explained many Buddhist concepts to me very clearly. He told me that if I was interested in Buddhism and Psychology I should read the Abhidhamma, the psychological teachings of the Buddha, and the Madhyamika teachings of the Mahayana school.  These Buddhist teachings showed me how deep the knowledge of the mind from a subjective point of view in Buddhism is.  I could also see the similarities between core principles in Western Psychology and Buddhist Philosophy, such as analysing the mind systematically and a focus on reducing anxiety and promoting well-being.

The monks appeared to lead a simple, but happy life. They thrived on little or no material possessions, ate the same food nearly every meal (not many vegetables were readily available in the market), and were not attached to ‘home’ the way I was. When I arrived at the monastery they said they couldn’t believe how much I carried around with me! When I asked them why, they said they didn’t have many things so they didn’t have to worry about them.

They were satisfied with the food they ate, not always wanting something new or different. On some ‘special’ days we would have beef momos (Tibetan dumplings) instead of rice.  The monks who were vegetarian had rice instead and appeared very happy with this. I, on the other hand, would look forward to any day we were eating something different. However, on the odd occasion, the senior monks would cook their favourite food, cheese momos, in their room. Their taste seemed to be for plain, simple food and they were perfectly content with this.

I had only been at the monastery for two days when I went to two of the teachers feeling very upset. I was finding being in a completely alien environment hard to cope with, and unable to communicate easily with anyone, felt even more homesick. I was lucky that these teachers could speak English. They made me feel better by saying that they had not seen their family for ten or fifteen years and did not miss them. They had walked to India from Tibet and had been through much harder things than I could know about. I could tell they found it difficult to understand why I was crying because I had to explain to them how I was feeling and why, whilst the notion of homesickness was foreign to them. They had a great solution -watch ‘Star Movies’ every night to pass the time while the monks are studying! I was relieved to hear that it did not involve meditation.

This experience showed that the monks live on a moment-to-moment basis, placing the most importance on the present moment and not on the past or the future. This explained why they didn’t dwell on past feelings and were good friends with each other. These friendships did not appear to be needy or negative but were very much in the present. I had to get used to this way of relating. I learnt that ‘goodbye’ is not used often and the monks may go off somewhere for a while without mentioning it, or announce a vacation out of the blue, and you just have to go with it! This demonstrated the Buddhist concept of impermanence in everyday life and the importance of not holding onto negative attachments. The notion that we can’t always predict, control or hold onto something, good or bad, has great potential to help psychological wellbeing and practice. 

What also surprised me at the monastery was how much I was respected and how generous the monks were towards me. I had never before been in a position where I was so respected, and felt teachers at the monastery received greater acknowledgment than those at home. In my first class, Khenpo explained to the monks I would be a good English teacher because I had been to University.  All I could think was that I had had no teaching experience and often had to come up with class plans spur of the moment.  However it was not just in the classroom where I was respected, it was in every aspect of my life. I was invited to meals that had been cooked just for the Rinpoche (the religious head of the monastery, aged 13) and was told that it was good for the Rinpoche to practice English conversation. The Rinpoche’s assistant went out of his way to help me. He taught me Tibetan cooking and made food for me when I was feeling unwell.  It was hard to get used to being continually offered things. I remember the first time I asked to borrow a broom to sweep my room I was told that my own ‘assistant’ would do it for me.  Up until then I hadn’t realised that the monk who brought me a thermos of boiled water in the morning was my ‘assistant’.  I had to learn that the right thing to do was to accept this and not feel guilty.  It felt different to home where it is not necessarily seen as good to accept help and be dependent.  I could see that the monks felt that it was the right thing to do to help me and that it would give them good karma. I could also see that this was built upon a deep respect for all human beings.  All the monks respected each other, never treated their peers badly, nor resented their superiors. On weekends when the monks were allowed to watch TV, the Rinpoche was always given the remote and the seat with the cushion. The other monks obviously enjoyed his company and were good friends with him, showing him the highest respect.  This behaviour can be related to the Buddhist concept of not having an independent sense of ego and emphasising relationships with other people. It also appears to drive from the basic tenet of compassion for others and respect for all human life.

My time at the monastery afforded me great insight into how Buddhist concepts can be very useful for Western psychology.  Understanding and predicting behaviour and deciphering thought processes is a major concern of psychology and this has many different applications, including helping people with problems. It is evident that in Western society many people suffer from conditions such as depression and low self esteem.  I observed that Buddhists do not appear to conceptualise or suffer from these conditions in the same way, indicating that Buddhist concepts could be incorporated into treatments for these conditions.  It is apparent that Western psychology has traditionally focused on treating negative mental health problems, whereas Buddhism seems to emphasise the promotion of happiness, something that has the potential to benefit many people. This corresponds to an area of Western psychology, called positive psychology, that focuses on promoting and researching factors that contribute to well-being.  This suggested to me that this field would benefit from greater consideration of Buddhist concepts and practices.  Indeed, incorporating Buddhism into Psychology is something I would like to explore further. 

I am grateful that I had the opportunity to experience life in a Tibetan monastery and gain special insights that I would not have been able to at home.  I feel it revealed to me in a concrete way the extent to which promoting a positive and calm mindset can help people cope with the many pressures of modern living.

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