School…Again?!

I finished my MBA at Purdue when I was 26. I swore to myself that I was done with school and definitely done with anything that smelled like academia. After ten years of being on the other side of the fence – earning a living, being a teacher, and trying to solve the failings of academia that I had perceived – here I am in school. Again.

My laptop decided it didn’t want to turn on. That was about a month ago. So I asked the folks at the school and got a recommendation for a repair shop. That recommendation gave me some confidence that perhaps my laptop might one day work again. So, I called and the company said to leave the computer at the school and they would come pick it up the next day. And so the story begins. One week later and about four phone calls into the shop, it was still at the school. Finally, they did come and pick it up. A week later and a few more phone calls into the shop to inquire about when it would be brought back, as well as a strange incident where a woman called and wanted to know my password (which, I felt, was not something she needed, as the problem was just turning on the computer…) it was returned to the school, in working condition (according to them.) Happily, I took it home; then, pushed the power button. Nothing. So, this time with little hope that it would actually get fixed, but not wanting to spend money on a new laptop, I sent it back to the shop. I gave up calling and bugging them and figured that one of two things would happen: they would bring it back fixed; or, I would absolutely need a computer and would go buy one. Thankfully, the computer was returned a little over a week later and it works, which is why I am able to write this post.

Outside the first floor classrooms at RYI. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche talking impromptu to students.

The first few week or two of school was amazing. RYI is a small place with around 150 students, all from countries around the world, without any majority from any one place. I would guess, from my classes, that less than 20% are native English speakers. That’s incredible in itself if you think of it. Over 100 students have come here to study Tibetan dharma, a culture not their own, in a language, English, also not their own. I can’t even imagine doing that. It’s hard enough to do this as a native speaker. Anyway, that’s how it is here. And, unlike many places in the world, there are no people here who are just floating through life. To come study in a place like this takes a pretty big commitment, a willingness to live in less than ideal circumstances, studying very obscure subjects. So, from my perspective, the school is full of extremely interesting people. Everyone here is a truly unique, fascinating and beautiful person. The first week I was just in love with the diversity, true genuine diversity, combined with the extraordinary uniqueness of individuals who have made this life choice to study here.

My roommate, Mason, playing the guitar in our living room.

By the third week of school (last week) reality started to set in. I remained enamored with the whole endeavor; however, the joy was mixed with exhaustion, sickness, and a general frustration with dealing with basic things in this country. My class schedule is intense, I think I can say without exaggeration. I am taking Sanskrit, Colloquial Tibetan, Classical Tibetan, and a class taught in a more or less traditional Tibetan monastic setting – with a khenpo (a scholar, equivalent of a PhD or higher in terms of Western education) who teaches in Tibetan with a translator on a text, in this case the Uttaratantra shastra, a text that usually is taught at the very end of the Tibetan monastic education. My days are essentially memorizing vocabulary, sitting in class, cramming for whatever quiz is next, eating and sleeping. Oh, and doing kora (circumabulating the great Boudanath stupa, along with hundreds of others at any given time of day,) which is a really lovely activity.

I’ve had a cough basically since I’ve been here. I developed a cold/flu two days after I arrived, followed by a persistent cough, followed by another cold/flu, and then more persistent cough, diagnosed this weekend as bronchitis. That puts a damper on enthusiasm to some extent, especially as the only thing I have to look forward to is the next quiz… (it’s not that bad…or is it?) And when I work 7 days a week basically all day and still feel like I’m not close to done: it creates the circumstances for frustration.

Fortunately, this is Nepal, and just existing in this place means you are at least going to have a good story. So, here’s my story from this week:

I generally dislike Western medicine…until I have a serious acute illness or injury, in which case my indignation turns into veneration and I will do anything my doctor tells me. I’m not at that point right now, but I was curious to try out the doctor situation here, so I did. Since probably all of you reading this live in the West, I won’t talk about the cost and experience of medical care there. You already know. So I will try to lay out the facts as I experienced them without any commentary on the process. If you know me, you know that’s not easy for me when it comes to Western medicine 🙂

On a completely unrelated note: Nepal has a 6 day work week. Saturday is the only weekend day. If you can imagine that. I personally can’t.

Shechen Clinic Courtyard

Anyway, I’ve had a cough for five weeks, so it was time to go to the doctor. I went to the Shechen clinic, a monastery-run clinic close to me. It’s Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s monastery. Anyway, I walked in and spoke with the receptionist, who spoke fairly good English. I paid up front, about $5, and then went to a room where a doctor met with me. She took my blood pressure, asked questions, all the normal doctor things. Since it had been so long that I had had a cough, she ordered a blood test and a chest x ray. I went back to the receptionist and paid up front for these services – a little less than $10. Then, I walked to another room where a very nice Indian doctor who didn’t speak much English gave me an x ray. He was very sweet, though. Then, I went to another room where another man, a lab tech, took blood. I was told to come back in an hour. From the time I arrived till the this moment took about 25 minutes. I left, got some milk tea, studied Tibetan vocabulary and then returned exactly one hour later. I retrieved the blood test and x ray results and brought them to the doctor. The blood tests was normal, but there was something on the chest x ray that made her diagnose bronchitis. She wrote a script, which I took to the pharmacist that was there at the clinic and for about $2 got some medicine. Again, I will refrain from drawing conclusions, but just to restate the facts: I paid about $15, actually a little less, for: a doctors appointment, an x ray and a blood test. The entire experience took an hour and a half, an hour of which was spent drinking milk tea at a restaurant nearby.

I’ll say two more things about health care here. One is that a lot of people from outside this country don’t trust the doctors here (meaning the students and tourist I’ve talked to.) They prefer to go to a more expensive clinic downtown which, I guess, has white doctors? I’m not sure why they prefer it. My experience this Sunday and the last time I was in Nepal seeing a doctor (where I also had a very good experience) is that the doctors here are as trained as what we have in the States, almost always having studied medicine in a Western country, and are friendly and spend much more time with you. Like I said, though, other people don’t share the same perspective I do. The other thing to say is that, from stories I’ve heard, the hospitals here can’t deal with very difficult, life threatening situations. A friend told me a story from some years ago of a guy who developed gangrene on his foot and didn’t realize it until a doctor just happened to see it. The Nepali hospital he was at wanted to amputate. Instead, he decided to fly to Thailand where after a few months of intensive care he was healed and able to save his foot. Apparently, amputation was the right choice given the tools available to this particular Nepali hospital.  However, for one with the funds, flying to Thailand and saving your foot is probably the better option.

I’ll sum it up like this: it sure is nice to be able to afford to go to the doctor.

Jack having tea by the stupa.

I’m 38 years old and for the first time in a very long time, I feel like where I am and where I want to be is the same. When I look back on my life, I have to admit that I feel a lot of gratitude towards my life circumstances. I had really good jobs, was surrounded by really great people, didn’t have to work too much (most of the time,) had plenty of time to pursue my hobbies, and lived a quality of life that was just fine for me. But a part of me wasn’t quite satisfied. Something wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, so I explored. I tried different things, different situations, thinking that perhaps at some point that feeling/thought in my mind would resolve itself. Anyway, without belaboring the point, when I think about what I’m doing right now, tears come to my eyes because I can really say that these two things have come together. Of course, it’s still all fresh and new and exotic. Without a doubt, some of the emotional response will wear off. But I think, I hope, that the knowing will remain. Knowing that even though this is hard and exhausting, there’s nowhere else I want to be. Even though I miss things about my old life, maybe even lots of things, what I am doing now is worth it and I feel that deep in my bones.

So, why? Why does this place feel like the right place to be? In a nutshell, I am here because ten years ago I sat a 10 day Goenka Vipassana meditation retreat. After the retreat, my curiosity was peaked, so I asked questions. I read, I studied, and I did more meditation. That furthered my curiosity, it developed my intellect, and it gave me tools both in my personal and professional life that were incredibly valuable. The more I went into it, the more I got out of it. Really, at the end of the day, that’s it. I found something valuable and I pursued it. So, here I am. It’s one thing to look at a mountain from afar; it’s another thing to climb it. I’ve been looking at this mountain for a decade. Now, I’m here to climb. Let’s see how it goes.

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