Benedict Cumberbatch Forever Grateful for Life Lessons Learned at Darjeeling Monastery
Benedict Cumberbatch recently sat down with Radiohead rocker Thom Yorke for a one-on-one conversation for Interview Magazine in which the Hollywood star shared his experiences as a trainee English teacher at a Darjeeling monastery. The Sherlock Holmes actor noted that he will always be grateful for the profound lessons he experienced with the monks he taught and learned from as a 19-year-old student.
The Emmy Award winning actor for Britain’s Sherlock television series, and Oscar nominee for The Imitation Game (2014), now 41, spent five months of his pre-university gap year teaching English for an exiled Tibetan community in a small hill station on the border of Darjeeling, northern India—an experience, he describes as both “extraordinary” and “isolating,” but one he will cherish forever.
“I was one of five teachers who had done a training course. . . . It was five months. I spent half a year working odd jobs to build up funds for the airfare and to pay for the course,” Cumberbatch recalled. “You’re not paid for the teaching; you’re paid in experience. You’re surrounded by the monks and their lives. It was a small monastery and the top floor was the temple. I was living on the bottom floor, which was pretty damp and had huge spiders. I think it was just near the end of the rainy season—I can’t remember, but it was cold. And because it was so high up, you would open your window, and the clouds were like dry ice rolling across your desk. Nature was ever present; that was gobsmackingly beautiful, as was the spirit and nature and philosophy and way of life of these monks.” (Interview Magazine)
Just being present at the monastery taught Cumberbatch a lot about Buddhist philosophy and monastic life, and this made him curious for more: “The personalities of the monks were louder than any lesson. . . . I was so curious to know what the hell they were chanting, why they were doing what they were doing, and how to do it myself. I was like, ‘How do I go further into this world?’ After the course, I did a two-week retreat with one of the other teachers.” (Interview Magazine)
The retreat itself he described as “intense.” Meditating for hours on end, sleeping just four hours, and eating mainly porridge and sometimes a little stew. “We were with the monks—my God, what discipline they had. It was revelatory. There are these stories and parables and tools with which to channel your focus and meditation and practice, and begin the path to enlightenment. It was a bit cult-y; there were a few nervous, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye looks between us Westerners. The person who was overseeing us saw that we were really committed, and he also saw that it was just too much. Our busy minds had to be really suppressed. But it was the chance to begin something. I’m so grateful that I had that experience.” (Interview Magazine)
After the retreat Cumberbatch entered student life with a fervor, in his words becoming “kind of a party animal.” But the actor still remembers one of the lessons he learned during the meditation retreat: “I really cannot get over the generosity of our teacher. He said: ‘Don’t punish yourself. You’re going to be a student at a university in the north of England. You need to have your experiences and have your fun, and not judge yourself. Don’t live in guilt and regret.’” (Interview Magazine)
In an interview with Lions Roar, Cumberbatch described himself as “philosophically” Buddhist and being drawn to the “transcendent.” Buddhism, he claimed, made him a better actor and his success could, to a large extent, be attributed to those five months he spend in the remote monastery at the age of 19.
For the 2016 movie adaptation of Doctor Strange, Cumberbatch returned to the Himalayas once again. Excited about the movie’s spiritual dimension, the actor read up on meditation—among others, he read books written by the renowned Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, which eventually lead him to narrate the Plum Village documentary Walk with Me, which premiered in 2017.
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