Between 2007 and 2013 I spent a great deal of time in solitary retreats practicing the meditation instructions I had received from my teachers. By a strange and beautiful process of synchronicity I was always able to find powerful places to practice, places that despite being on a very limited budget I could afford to do retreat. Traditionally it is somewhat embarrassing to talk about these things and I have refrained until now, however in the hope that it may be inspiring to other practitioners who also would like to undertake such retreats, I have decided to talk a little about each of these places in turn, in a series of short articles. This is the second article about Asura Cave Gompa in Nepal.
Asura Cave Gompa is built high on the side of a hill above the town of Pharping deep in the Kathmandu Valley. I had negotiated, poorly, with a taxi driver to take me to Pharping and, now alone, I carried my bags up the many steps to the Gompa. My contact was one of the monks of the monastery, Lama Karma Gonpo, and my room, where I would sleep and practice, was a mere fifteen feet from the very cave where Guru Rinpoche was said to have attained mastery of the Vajrakilaya practice centuries before.
To do retreat at Asura Cave Gompa was fantastically cheap, at that time around £100 to stay for three months with meals included. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were the same every day; an extended Nepalese family cooked for the whole of the monastery. For breakfast either potato or chick pea curry with roti bread which I loved. Sometimes I thought it was my favourite breakfast in the world. However sometimes the chickpeas were rock hard and on those days I wished I had the potato. It tended to alternate: one day potato, one day chickpea, but sometimes it could be hard chickpeas three or four days in a row! Since food becomes a very important distraction when most other distractions have been cut away I remember some degree of hope and fear around what my breakfast would be each day. For lunch the Nepalese classic dish – dhal bhat – a lentil curry and rice. And for dinner thentuk which is a Tibetan noodle soup. Breakfast was my favourite, lunch my second favourite and the watery thentuk not so much. There was one exception to this routine when Lama Karma Gonpo and the kitchen staff spent the whole day making the most wonderful momos for the whole of the monastery.
The showers were ice cold so I took one about once a week and it was always an ordeal until after the event. I used to brace myself and think about how St Francis would sometimes ask his students to jump in ice ponds as penance.
My meditation continued from my time at the Hermitage: rudimentary attempts at shamatha and vipashyana, the bedrock of all Buddhist meditation. It was often extremely frustrating to sit so much and in general I was too tight, trying to sit for too long, although I would break my sessions up with walking meditation along the cliff path. One day picking my way along this path I looked down to see I had stepped over a huge green snake, probably three or four feet long. I froze with my right foot one side of the snake and my left foot the other. It looked thoroughly pissed off and, breaking the stalemate, I backed off as it slid off down the bank. Asking Lama Karma Gonpo about it later he said that it would’ve been touch and go if I had been bit.
On breaks I would read sections of the Bodhicharyavatara out loud in an attempt to learn it by heart. The Tibetans seem always to be reciting one thing or another out loud and never very quietly so I took a leaf out of their book which upset some of my neighbours. Florian however, who had the room above me, said that he enjoyed hearing me through the floor boards, commenting one morning with interest that I seemed to do the Samantabharacharyapranidhana in a strange tune which he had not come across, it was the tune I had learned from Lama Shenpen.
Florian and I became good friends. An Austrian from Vienna and seven years older than me, but we were often mistaken for brothers because we wore similar glasses. One day he told me he had heard from a young monk in the valley that a Rinpoche was going to give an empowerment at a nearby monastery and asked if I would like to come along. I consulted the I Ching and, drawing a favorable reading, decided to go with him. Florian’s contact, the young Himalayan monk, was pretty cool. He told us how he had started a study group with his friends where they would meet together to talk about great people such as Gandi, Nelson Mandela, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie! From the back where we sat all through the morning I was certain I recognized the Rinpoche giving the empowerment but I couldn’t quite place him. When I got close, to my delight and surprise, it was the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche; I had been thrown off the scent because he was wearing red robes.
Another neighbour of mine at Asura Cave Gompa was the butter lamp Ani. Ani is Tibetan for nun and the butter lamp Ani was charged with cleaning and refilling all the hundreds and hundreds of butter lamps that would be lit by pilgrims each day at and around the cave. I discovered that Tibetans often have a very different sense of private space as she would think nothing of bursting into my room, rummaging through my draws, and leaving with something of mine that she needed.
One day I met Florian at breakfast and we were both white as ghosts. Something had made us extremely sick. I lost all energy and needed to go to the toilet as many as 17 times a day. I had no appetite and a great deal of stomach pain. After six days we decided to break our retreat to seek medical help in Kathmandu. In the early morning we took the bus an hour and a half down into the valley, past the Nepalese waking up; ladies washing their hair or school kids brushing their teeth on the side of the road. By a quirk of madness Florian suggested at the last minute that we go not to a Western doctor, but try instead Tibetan medicine, and therefore when we returned to Pharping later that day we had a number of the strange hard brown balls that Tibetan doctors prescribe to take with hot water two or three times a day.
The Tibetan medicine seemed in this instance utterly ineffective and if anything over the next week my illness worsened. I more or less stopped practicing formally, instead mostly lying in bed saying the mantra of Medicine Buddha to myself or groaning in pain. My days became punctuated by my endless trips to the squat loo nearest my room. Occasionally the butter lamp Ani would peer through my window and laugh at me. She seemed to think it was very good fortune to be so ill – purifying one’s negative karma – while on retreat in such a powerful sacred place.
Florian and I returned to Kathmandu once again to see, this time, a western trained doctor. We were diagnosed with amoebic dysentery, probably caused by unclean water, and given a course of anti-amoebics. This helped a great deal but two weeks later I returned again to the doctor and was given a course of antibiotics for bacterial dysentery as well! It seems I had contracted both types of dysentery simultaneously.
My health improved, Florian finished his retreat, and I began to be able to do my practice again. Towards the end of the three months my friend Sophie came to visit me one afternoon. Seeing the shock on her face at how gaunt I had become was the first time I realised the toll that the illness had taken on my body. I remember thinking often towards the end of the retreat about my aunt’s cooking as I continued to eat the same food three times a day.
I returned twice more to do retreat at Asura Cave Gompa. In 2010 for a very joyful short retreat to finish off my mandala practice and then again in 2013 for an arduous two month retreat during which I was in silence for the whole time. There is a film I made for my Mum at the end of that final retreat which shows my room, the cave, and the Gompa quite well and which you can find here.
Llew Watkins is a writer and artist based in Limehouse, East London.