Lessons with Khenpo – Hungry Ghosts

In the month I spent volunteering at a Buddhist Monastery in Nepal, one of my most treasured memories was the time I spent with the principle, Khenpo D.  Khenpo and I sat for at least an hour every day in his room, often over tea or coffee.  He had just been introduced to the world of instant coffee and I think he had a very positive reaction to the caffeine.  He would always ask me if coffee was good for you (Khenpo is very focused on what is healthy, especially keeping up on herbal supplements that benefit your health).  I told him that I wasn’t sure but I had heard that coffee actually did have some health benefits.  I warned him though, it can be addictive (recalling my headache from caffeine withdrawal on the beginning of my trip).  

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After our initial chit chat and his excitement over his new Omega 3 pills, or other supplements he had discovered;  Khenpo and I would also go over a Buddhist reading together.  We were reading The Way of the Bodhisattva, a text of the Indian scholar Shantideva written around 700 AD.  Khenpo had an English copy that he would read from (an opportunity to correct his pronunciation), and then he would read the same passage to himself from the Tibetan version, and explain it to me further in English (because even the English was a bit confusing at times).  Once again a chance for me to correct him as he practiced his skills, but also a wonderful opportunity to learn more about Buddhism.  

IMG_2401.JPGI took notes when he lectured me and really enjoyed our teachings.  What better way to learn about Buddhism than from a Buddhist Monk!  I learned so much but our teachings were not without misunderstandings and confusion at times…

One day we were reading a chapter on wisdom when he spent a good half hour talking about marriage, which seemed rather odd.  Khenpo read, “Although it is unreal, a marriage can be seen…”  Was this his way of saying “why are you not married with kids at your age”? He went on and on about how life is about marriage, and many people are not aware of this.  I cut him off after a few minutes and said “Marriage?  I am really surprised this is something that Buddha ever spoke about… “  I obviously should not be telling him about Buddhism but this was really odd and in my own learning had never heard of such a thing.  Khenpo continued that most people live their life not knowing life is marriage.  Hold up.  I had to cut him off.  “Khenpo, are you saying MIRAGE?” 

“Oh yes, mirage!” he responded.  We had a chuckle at that and I blacked out the part of my notes that said, ‘Get married ASAP!’ and wrote ‘Life is a mirage’.

Khenpo and I also spoke of gaining enlightenment and he was talking about how experts at meditation enter into paralysis.  “Really?” I thought.  I had heard a legend about people in the hills near Tibet that could meditate till they became invisible.  Maybe this was related?  Maybe it was just a way of saying they become so still it’s AS IF they were paralyzed.  But then he continued how everyone has the dream of paralysis.  Okay… wait a minute… “Khenpo, you are saying paralysis… like someone in a wheelchair who cannot move?”  He looked at me and then looked through his notes mumbling in Tibetan.  He looked up at me and said, “Paradise”.  We had another laugh at that one, inappropriate or not it was quite a mix-up.  

Now I have to stand up and defend Khenpo here because his English is actually very good.  But because he is translating texts that were written so long ago his vocabulary contains a plethora of words that are quite advanced and probably cause him confusion.  He’s even asked me to explain parts of our text with words such as carrion beasts? Thrice? Or ever-smiling countenance?  I tried to explain the words (carrion I may have looked in my dictionary on my phone) but I also explained he may not need some of these in everyday conversations. He also likes to learn “big words to impress people.”  He would often tell me things were inconceivable or irreprehensible.  It was pretty awesome so as long as he used the word in the somewhat correct context, I always let it go.

Our teachings would often turn into us debating about Buddhism.  I would question things and he was always up to discuss them further.  What I enjoyed most of all was these were all philosophies on life anyone can get behind.  Desire contributing to suffering, the ever-changing impermanence of everything.  One day he was going over the Wheel of Life, discussing the realms of Samsara.  There are beautiful Wheel of Life paintings all over the temple at the Monastery so I was happy to finally have these explained.  On a Wheel of Life, typically there are six divisions that address various afterlife scenarios.  The higher realms such as Gods, Demi-Gods, and Humans were at the top of the wheel.  Khenpo explained these realms and the suffering they endure.  This all made sense.  Then he talked about the bottom half of the circle; Animals, Hell and Hungry Ghosts.  Animals and Hell are pretty self-explanatory.  When Khenpo started talking about Hungry Ghosts I had to make sure his English was correct.  It was.  Hungry Ghosts are supernatural beings that suffer from extreme hunger and thirst, and roam the earth with gigantic bellies, long necks, and sunken eye sockets.  Basically like zombies but according to Khenpo they are here on earth.  They are suffering this way because of awful deeds committed in a previous life.  “You believe this?” I asked, suddenly self conscious that I had made a rude remark.  But he answered cheerfully as always.  “Yes, I have seen them.”  

I left this lesson a little annoyed.  Buddhism was the first “religion” I had ever been really down with and I felt a little betrayed like finding out Santa Claus wasn’t real.  It was a philosophy I was beginning to feel that I could really stand behind and adopt in my life.  It was almost as if it had been ruined by this tale of a boogie man roaming the earth among sentient beings.  Everything else had been so logical, how could they believe this?  The next day I spoke to Khenpo and told him that I was having a hard time getting on board with this whole ‘Hungry Ghost’ notion.  We spoke and he explained everything much like the day before.  It didn’t really help.  I decided after our lesson to do some further research about Hungry Ghosts and realized that although Khenpo’s description (and how they are shown in artwork) depicts a monster like creature, if you take a step back the concept it is describing is not that far fetched.  A common example referenced was addicts.  There are definitely people on drugs who look like they could be in a science fiction movie.  These people are surely suffering in another realm than you or I.  Another thought crossed my mind when the enlarged bellies were described.  That is the malnutrition that leads to Kwashiokor, a disease common in areas with starvation.  I remembered learning about this in school and witnessing it with my own eyes years later in Kenya.  I saw children who although they were starving had protruded bellies.    I learned I had to not take Khenpo’s teaching so literally, and also to make sure he is using the right words!  Buddhism for me in general has become a guide to process life as it happens, and Khenpo set me up with a beginners manual.