That First Day at the Nunnery…

Cory General Leave a Comment

First days…. They’re a thing, right? No matter what you’re up to, that first part of the first day is always a bit of bumbling about. This was no exception. I knew puja started at 5:30 am and I’m in the habit of having coffee first thing, so I woke up early to go down to the kitchen. I hadn’t factored in that the hallways of the nunnery would be so completely dark! I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. I felt along the walls to make my way down the 2 flights of stairs and along the corridor to the freezer where the kitchen key resides. Once into the kitchen a bit of moon light shown in, which was quite a relief. To my dismay I couldn’t find any coffee and I wasn’t sure how to work the burner to heat up a kettle (later that day I realized that the nuns heat water and fill up large thermoses so that we always have hot water to use). So, I slunk my way back up to my room and huddled in the cold morning air for a few more minutes before making my way back down for puja.

When I got to the outer door to go out I had a moment of panic because it was locked from the inside like a medieval castle with the big slab of wood across the door. Fortunately, someone heard me and came to my rescue – it was quite a comfort to see Ani Sonam’s gentle face when the wee bit of light shown in as she unlocked and opened the door. She then showed me how to do it myself before I stepped out into the moon light.

I’m not sure how to describe this, but the moon light over Nagi Gompa is unlike any I’ve experienced anywhere else (more on this to come in a future blog). It has a languid, illuminating, enrobing quality. It’s beautiful and absolutely still. It’s like a blanket of meditation falls upon the body. For a moment I just held still to soak it in. Then I made my way around the puja hall toward the increasingly frequent drone of the morning gong. I made my way in, prostrated to the giant golden Buddha three times and then to Green Tara before I took my seat along the back wall. Wrapped in my coat and blanket it was surreal to be sitting there amongst the women of the nunnery. It felt right.

Puja went by quickly. I got in several short stints of meditation – allowing myself to drop into the sound and energy of the chanting nuns accompanied by the cacophony of symbols, horns, drums and bells. Occasionally I found myself distracted by the coming and goings of the many characters of the place. The old, barefoot, wild-haired, deaf and mute lady that looks to be about 90 years old and shuffles about looking a bit lost even though I’ve seen her there every year since my first visit in 2010. Then there were two young nuns that seemed to spend a lot of time busying about to arrange and rearrange the puja hall. It wasn’t at all clear what they were trying to accomplish nor why they chose that time to do it….

After puja I exited the hall to the right (it’s a show of respect to keep your right side toward the Buddha, the stupa, the puja hall, monastery, etc). Just to the side of the hall is my favorite sitting spot under the big tree and just to the right and behind it is the little shed where the cow lives. She’s a big old brown dairy cow that can no longer produce milk. The nuns, one in particular, take good care of her and she roams the nunnery grounds. I gave her a pet before heading back to my room for yoga practice.

As I made my way up the stairs I felt an urge to go up to the roof near Tulku Urgen Rinpoche’s room. There was a dense fog over the city and the view down to the valley was obscured. I couldn’t see Kathmandu or the nearby monasteries. It made the nunnery feel very isolated. As I turned to go back down to my room I heard a low grunt from a room at the top of the stairs. Ani Sonam poked her round head out and motioned for me to come in. I entered into a nicely appointed kitchen. She said “how are you?” and smiled. When I said “good”, she replied “super!”. She seems to like that word. Then she said “you are super man.” I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit. It was so endearing the way she said it and so sincere. She then handed me a big mug of hot water and took a box off the shelf. She showed me – “green tea” – and said “it’s Russian!”.  “You like?”, “yes”, I said, and she put a bag in my cup. Then she said “you take small cup to puja at 4 for tea.” I told her that the night before I didn’t have a cup and one of the nuns brought me a small bowl and filled it up (they serve Tibetan milk tea), so I took one with me this morning. She chuckled and said “no tea in the morning.” She’s such a magical being. I feel like I’m interacting with Gandolf or some other semi-mythical character. She’s a lot like Ani G, but softer somehow. There’s an expansive openness and compassion that emanates from her – through her eyes, mouth and broad cheeks. It’s an incredible thing, reminding me a bit of my departed grandmothers – a sort of calm loving acceptance.

I asked her about the busy-body nuns in the puja hall and she said that “tomorrow is special day”. It seems that a group of monks is coming up to teach. We chatted a bit about the young tulku that, until recently, had lived at the nunnery, on this same floor. On my first visit to Nagi in 2010 he had just arrived. He was found in Alexandria, Virginia and identified as the reincarnation of Tulku Urgen Rinpoche – the monk who built this nunnery who is adored around the world. The young monk’s name is Tulku Urgyen Yangsi Rinpoche, “yangsi” meaning “existence again”. Isn’t that wild!?!?  At about age nine he was moved from Alexandria to this nunnery in the Himalayas to study and mostly likely become a great Buddhist teacher.

“Time for breakfast!” she said, so I headed on down to the main kitchen. Ani G was waiting with a bowl of reheated ramen from the night before with a hard boiled egg. She handed it to me, smiled her full-face beaming smile and said “nunnery breakfast”. Fine by me.

After puja I set off on a walk down the path that we take with the Yoga Nepal folks to Pullahari Monastery. It was so strange to be doing it alone. Good strange – space opening. The warmth of the sun poured down on me as I passed by rubble from some of the monastery structures that collapsed in the 2015 earthquake. It’s a beautiful sight – the colorfully painted fragments of blue, yellow, red and green strewn about. Some are ornate and worthy of an altar. A reminder of the resilience of the Nepali people and their strong belief that destruction is a necessary and possibly even welcome part of the truth of the temporary nature of our cycle of existence.

On the way back up from my walk I passed by the gardens where, as always, there were a couple of nuns tending. There is one that I see every year. She’s very old, white headed and hunched over, yet still getting out there to do her part, caring for the vegetables.

After a short sit and a nap I went out from my room to go down for lunch. Ani Sonam was standing at the prayer wheels in the hallway – spinning them. She didn’t speak, but motioned to another door as if to ask where the resident is. Of course, I didn’t know and was unsure how to respond. She made a couple more gestures and then said “teacher” and made wings with her arms and hands as if to say that the person had traveled away somewhere. Then she motioned for me to go on down to lunch.

Ani G was there cooking. She motioned toward the table and said “lunch ready”. She served me a lot of food – rice, potatoes, squash (she called it pumpkin), greens and one of those awesome cooked persimmon fruits. There was another birthday today and the little girl brought us all candies. It seems to make the children superbly happy to be around Ani G and Ani Sonam. It’s a joy to observe.

Then a red bag of paprika arrived from Hungary. The Ani’s got quite excited. Ani Sonam told me to open it and then Ani G started cooking with it immediately. Ani Sonam asked me if Hungary was close to the U.S. I explained that it’s in Europe separated by the Atlantic Ocean and I think maybe she understood.

Over lunch I asked Ani Sonam how long she’s been here. She said she came to the nunnery when she was 25. I asked about Ani G and she said “maybe 20”. They ate with me today – one on either side. Ani Sonam was going to sit at the other table, which is really a bench, but when I offered my seat, she accepted. It was sweet.

I told her that the persimmons are unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. She said “tomorrow we go see the tree.” So, adventure awaits….

I asked Ani G if she’d ever been to the U.S. (because she asked me where I’m from). She said she’s been to New York, Massachusetts and Miami and then described Miami like Colorado – so, I’m not really sure where she went. She said she didn’t really like it – “too busy”.

After lunch I sat under the big tree and read my 8-fold path book. I told Ani’s that I’d be skipping dinner – intending to practice asana. Then I took a walk up the hill behind the nunnery, easily falling into the habit of using my mala for japa meditation whereever I go. It was quite a climb and the stairs kept going and going, winding up the hill amongst the trees, shrubs and prayer flags. The stone stairs are plentiful in Nepal. It’s truly a wonder. How did they all get here and how long ago? I think maybe they lead up to where the long-term retreatants are staying, but I didn’t reach that place. I decided I’d try again tomorrow.

Just before puja Ani Sonam saw me return and said “your friend called”. I was a bit startled. My friend called? Why? That feeling of dread that something was wrong rushed through me. We went up to the top floor kitchen and she dialed a number and put me on the phone. It was so odd to be on a land line! An English speaking man answered. His name was Mark and he said he was coming up that evening to pick up his wife. Ani and I were both scratching our heads.

Funny thing, I noticed that both Ani’s had yellow fingers. I remarked on it to Ani Sonam and she said “turmeric” and smiled real big.

Puja was beautiful as always. Mesmerizing and sometimes haunting. After a quick stop under the big tree I made my way up to my room for asana and then bed. I drifted off buzzing a bit from the simple beauty of my first full day.

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