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Sweet tea and musings: a chat with a Tibetan monk

‘Did you do meditation?’ Geshe la asks me.

‘Yes. I did it two times. Once this morning and once yesterday morning.’

We are sitting outside the school kitchen again on the same wooden bench drinking sweet milk tea. Young student monks are sitting cross legged and reciting Tibetan in the playground. It is nearly 8pm and the sky above the floodlit playground and coconut palms is dark save for a few pinprick stars and random lightning sheets that disappear as quickly as they arrive.

‘And how is it?’

I told him that I ran and meditated in the morning and this morning I felt full of energy and positive in class, but that in the afternoon my energy levels dropped.

‘You must take rest,’ he tells me. ‘It is like this. In the morning your mind is very busy teaching in class. Always you must be thinking what you are doing. Our skin is soft,’ he pulls at the skin on his arm. ‘When you do exercise, your body becomes hard. When you exercise your mind it becomes hard and you must rest it.’ I like this analogy. Always I push myself on, and certainly I am not in the habit of sleeping in the afternoon, however this does make sense to me. ‘Now it is also very hot. Take just half an hour or one hour rest. If you do not need to think, then don’t.’

I broach the subject of paranoid thinking with the Geshe. I tell him that I think a lot about what other people think of me, or what I think they are thinking of me. I know that it is more important to focus on what I think of myself, but I live in society and I also need to interact with people. How then can I focus on my goals and also fit in society?

‘Not just you,’ he assures me. ‘Everyone thinks like this.’ Geshe la pauses. ‘Fire,’ he says. ‘You know? Fire?’ He’s checking his pronunciation and use of English, and I understand the word perfectly; it’s the context I don’t yet understand and I wonder how paranoia and fire are similar. ‘Example. When you see fire you think “Oh, how nice and warm” but if you … how to say …?’ He puts his hand on his arm. ‘What is this?’


‘Yes. Touch. If you touch the fire, you burn. We cannot see inside the other person; what is good, what is bad, we do not know. We do not have god eyes. We cannot see inside another person. Actually gods have third eye here,’ he points to his forehead between his eyes. ‘But we do not have. So if we put our hand in, if we touch the fire, then we are burn and we become sick. Same if we try to touch inside another person. We cannot know what is there and we make ourselves sick. Only we can look at ourself and keep our hands on ourself and thinking “Oh, I am good person. I have good body, speech and mind.” Only this. Then we have good merit, thinking “I’m good.” More important is you only look and enjoy the warmth, and you look for your own body, speech and mind. But do not touch the fire. Only enjoy.’ Enjoy the company of people, but do not try to get inside them.

To develop good habits we use wisdom. We listen to the teachings and then try them out for ourselves to see if we think they work or not. We need both wisdom and method. One cannot work without the other. ‘Example,’ says the Geshe, ‘You cannot … how you say this noise?’ he smacks his hands together. ‘You cannot make this noise with only one hand,’ he claps one handedly, which ends up with him thrashing a single hand into quiet nothingness. ‘To make this noise we need both hands together,’ and he claps his hands together again.

In the Buddhist practice there are two paths; the wisdom path which teaches the knowledge, and the method path which is the practice of that knowledge. In order to learn, both must be applied together. One can study the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, and become very wise, but without practicing what one has learnt the teachings are meaningless. Equally one cannot practice the methods without the knowledge of what the teachings are. When bringing hands together in prayer it is a symbol of this practice; of joining the hand of wisdom with the hand of method. One cannot work without the other.

There is one child in the school with severe learning difficulties. It is obvious to look at him that he does not have the capacity to learn.

‘One day I see him sweep the playground.’ Geshe la tells me. ‘I sit here and watch and I see him pick up the plastics and bottles and put them in the dustbin. The other students they see him collecting the rubbish and they think “Oh, I too will put the rubbish in the dustbin.” He cannot learn the teachings, but he has a body and he can do work. So I give him some sweets, more than to the other children, and they see this. When they are young we can change their bad habits to good habits. They are like a young tree that is bent. When they are young we can support them and make them straight. Not so easy when they are old. The tree cannot be straightened. We are in twenty first century and there is much bad in the world now. Better if we teach them when they are young.’

Not only is the child setting an example; so too is this Geshe with his actions towards this child. He is teaching the children to respect this life and to see the merits they are accumulating through good behaviour.

Geshe la rewards good habits in class, and not the bad habits. This is how he sets the example for students to learn which is good habit and which is bad. Although the language he uses and the examples he shares are different, the philosophy behind it is the same as a teaching technique I have studied that encourages the teacher to focus not on the child who is misbehaving, but rather on the child who is showing good behaviour. In this way the teacher is modelling the expected behaviour that gets attention. Different origin; same meaning.

‘When I was young I enjoy fighting. Always I am fighting. Some people take out knife and kill like this,’ Geshe la mimes pulling out a large knife and, from his actions, I see the size and shape of this lethal beast. ‘In Tibet this is very common in young people. If you are fighting then you are strong man. There it is “I win, you lose” that is important. But here “I lose, you win” is more important. You are happy if they win because that way you gain much positive merit inside. You do not concern yourself with their actions, only look at yourself.’ This analogy leads back to the fire – look but don’t touch; only be concerned with your own actions and your own merit.

‘I hope you understand,’ he finishes. ‘I have a lot to say but my English is not good, so I use example. We speak different language but the meaning is the same.’ He picks up an empty cup from the bench. ‘ I call this …’ he says a word in Tibetan. ‘In Chinese it is another thing, and in English cup. The language is different, but it is the same thing we talk about.’

I sit beside this simple monk and consider his words. The language is different, but it is the same thing we talk about.

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