What a Desolate Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Taught Me About Happiness


Creative Commons License photo credit: Jeff Bauche._.·´¯)

Gong….Gong….Gong….

5am. As I crawl out of bed and peer out the window of the Monastery Guest House I see smiling monks of all ages off to the morning meditation session. Their gong had woken me up and, although I was desperate to get back to sleep, they were wide awake, smiling and ready for the day. How could they be so happy at 5am? How could they be so happy living in such bleak conditions, alienated from their country and with nothing more than the robes on their back?

Good question.

In this post I want to show you a few things that a desolate Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in the Himalayas taught me about happiness. Hopefully their example might inspire you too.

Who are these monks and why do they have it tough?

The Monastery I am talking about is in a small Himalayan town called Tso Pema in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Tso Pema is a pilgrimage site for many Buddhists and I was there on one of my annual trips to India. It was the first time I had stayed in the Monastery Guest House and the first time I had been awoken by the gong; the western man’s mortal enemy.

After staying there for a few days I came to learn a bit about the monks. Many of them were new arrivals from Tibet meaning they had fled their home land in order to escape Chinese persecution. Most of them came to India to practice Buddhism; something that is now prohibited in Tibet. They had no money, passport or family. All they had was the monastery and their fellow monks.

But they were all extremely happy.

There was no trace of fear or desperation in the monks. They weren’t begging me for money or for a VISA to America. They weren’t bitter towards the Chinese or angry at their shitty living conditions. In fact, being around them was extremely uplifting. You left the monastery feeling light, hopeful and very inspired.

In my eyes these monks are not ordinary beings. There is something special about them. They live their life. They are happy. And they inspired me to become more happy myself.

What a desolate Tibetan Buddhist monastery taught me about happiness


Creative Commons License photo credit: ShangYi1

When my time at the monastery had come to an end I realized I had learned a lot about being happy. I felt as if I was now better equipped to come back to my western home and cope with all the crap that modern life throws at you. I would like to share a few of these thing with you now.

Happiness is not “things”
The first thing that you learn living in a remote Buddhist monastery is that happiness does not depend on having nice “things”. The monks don’t have anything. In fact, their monastic vows prevent them from owning anything but the most basic of life’s utilities – a begging bowl, a set of robes and a pair of shoes. They don’t have “things” like we do.

Many people in western society spend a lifetime accumulating nice things. We buy 101 inch plasma televisions, designer shoes and imported leather couches. We think this junk will make us happy. But it doesn’t. As I wrote about in this post all it does is leave you feeling empty later on in life when you realize that you haven’t achieved anything meaningful.

Now I am not saying that in order to be happy you need to give everything away. You don’t. But what you do need to do is just be mindful of the fact that new things won’t make you happy. It might give you pleasure for a while but it is not going to last forever.

Happiness is not attachment
Think about all the things you are attached to. You are attached to your way of life, your friends, your family, you car, mobile phone, political party, nationality, hometown, sporting team, sexuality, religion, etc. The list is endless. We are so attached to these things we just couldn’t bare to lose them.

But the monks have almost no attachment. Actually, they actively try to work against getting attached to things because they think it leads to suffering. If you get attached to something you close yourself off to happiness because you need that thing to be happy. Listen to what one of Tibet’s greatest meditation masters had to say about losing his home country to China in the cultural revolution:

“Clinging to a beautiful country is like clinging to a dream. It is utterly useless.” – Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

The monks showed me that it is not the bad things in life that cause misery but my attachment to the good things. Suffering is all about one’s perception. If you are attached to something and you lose it you will suffer. If you are open and free and you lose something it will not bother you so much. Try to be less attached.

The best happiness comes from helping others
Every morning the monks get up and go into a big prayer room and retake their Bodhisattva vow. This is a vow that states that they will use every thought, word and action to benefit other beings. There are many different version of this vow but here is the one my monastery recited:

“May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed,
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave

Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering”

– Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

The monks did not merely pay lip service to this vow. They lived it. They always did what they could to help others and never turned their back on something or someone that was suffering. This compassion and love pervaded everything they did and gave them a deep sense of happiness. They often explained to me that seeking happiness for oneself brings suffering but seeking happiness for others brings happiness.

Happiness depends on yourself
The biggest lesson that the monastery taught me was that my happiness depended on me. No one else. At first I struggled with this concept but now I think it is perfectly correct.

Think about how often we place our happiness in other people. The best example might be our partners. We depend on them so often for our happiness. If they are grumpy, we are grumpy. If they yell at us, we feel bad. If they leave us, our life goes to hell. We are completely dependent on them. We do the same with our boss, our work colleagues, our friends, etc. We are forever placing our happiness in other people.

But the monks don’t buy this. They don’t agree that you should depend on others for your own happiness. They believe that happiness comes from within, not without. It comes from working with you own mind and knowing that you have a choice as to whether you live and angry or a happy life. And the choice is yours to make. Not someone elses.

Conclusion

Spending time in a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery was one of the best things I ever did. The monk’s example inspired me so much and allowed me to take control of my own happiness. I no longer cling to “things” for my happiness. I no longer rely so much on other people but instead look inside for answers. And I now really believe that helping others is the best way to be happy. That’s why I started this blog!

How happy are you?

36 thoughts on “What a Desolate Tibetan Buddhist Monastery Taught Me About Happiness

  1. Hello! I just love hearing about your experiences with the Buddhist munks. Thanks again. You’ve made me inspired and happy!

    I am struggling however with the consept of non attachment. I must admitt I am quite attached to a lot of things… Have to think more about that one!

    Miss Attica
    http://missattica.blogspot.com/

  2. ive been in a state of unhappiness, anger and depression for a long time mostly because of the things you mentioned above (being attached to things and ppl etc.) so the post helped me…

    and helping others always made me the happiest but i wasnt able to do that because i couldnt even help myself…great post! thank you…

  3. Hi Miss Attica.

    I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂

    I think concept of non-attachment is difficult. We have all been brought up to think more things means more happiness. We are attached to that idea. Remember, the problem is not enjoyment. It is attachment. Can you work on enjoying the things you are attached while lessening the attachment?

    TDM

  4. Hi id.

    Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. It really makes me feel like writing these articles is worthwhile.

    I am sorry you have been unhappy and depressed for a long time but I am happy to hear you are working through it.

    I have confidence you can move through it!

    Best of luck,

    TDM

  5. You say that the Buddhist monks are not ordinary in your eyes. Actually, as Buddhists aspire to be like the least grain of sand, they would consider it to be a compliment to be ordinary!
    This has been my experience, too. At my Sangha there is a monk who has given up everything to come to live at the monastery. He lives in a tiny room (in the middle of L.A. ) and has very little but is very happy. This doesn’t seem odd to me, which I take as a good sign.

  6. Nice post, belongings definitely don’t bring happiness. It is all just “stuff”. My wife and I’s motivation to start getting out of debt was due to this very idea, not really Buddhist inspired, though certainly Buddhist approved, but it was just an occurrence to me. I was doing this last years income taxes, and realized that we had made a good bit more money than we had the year before, but we hadn’t put any away toward getting out of debt. Didn’t add to the debt, but didn’t get rid of it either.

    Anyway, I started going through my life and realized that I wasn’t any happier than I was when I survived on below poverty income while going through college. I had a lot more things for sure, but my basic day to day happiness thermometer had not risen in proportion to the amount of things I have. With that realization we’re now putting that extra money toward the debt, which I must say feels better than any “thing” I purchased in the last few years. And even though we’ve really tightened the belt on expenses, we’re still just as happy. I think I’m going to need to visit the Himalayas one day.

    ~Mickey

  7. Hey Mickey. Thanks for dropping by again.

    It is interesting that you say your happiness hasn’t increased since getting off the below poverty income level. I see a lot of people in India who live in terrible conditions but seem happier than most westerners I know who live in a mansion and drive Lexus cars.

    I wonder if the amount of happiness decreases when you get wealthier?

    TDM

  8. Well the happiness didn’t decrease, it just didn’t increase in proportion to the increase in money, which is what inspired me to refocus. I’ve definitely not had any major wealth, just more than what I had, I am a school teacher after all 😛 and in relation to some people I’ve met in other parts of the world, I was swimming in money, just not here in the states. Its all relative. This lack of happiness increase could be that my life “religion” has always been to maximize happiness. If I’m not happy I make a change. I grew up around too many people that spent their lives miserable, that i promised I wouldn’t walk that road. So I may not be a good subject. Dave Ramsey a noted debt free consultant believes that the joy of having money is in giving it away. Pretty much the same philosophy in Buddhism, one finds one’s own happiness in making others happy. When I get out of debt, I’ll be sure to give that philosophy a try. It won’t be just giving money though, it’ll be using the power of the money to bring about positive change, by supporting projects I believe in.

    ~Mickey

  9. First, thank you for sharing your experience.

    Only through non-attachment can we truly enjoy some “thing”. Whether that “thing” is a person or an object. A married person notices this straight away.

    When I was dating my wife but was not “attached” to her in any formal way I enjoyed the relationship thoroughly. After dating and becoming “attached at the hip” the flame, while never flickering, was eating away at the candle. Marriage stepped in, not to release us from attachment, but rather to use the old candle to light a new one.

    Now, 5 years married, the marriage candle is gone. And good riddance! The flame of that candle was an illusion. We perceived the candle as the relationship, the flame of lust as love, and upon it being extinguished we suffered because we thought we lost something. Really, we were granted to ability to separate from one another (figuratively not literally!!); to remember that we are two beings who have decided to commingle enormous energies; to understand that lust is a tool used for a very specific purpose and for a very short duration of time; and most importantly to enjoy one another for the unique and separate flame of life that we are. Our marriage and relationship have never been better. And I believe it is due to the fact that through non-attachment we have gained happiness.

    “We’re one, but we’re not the same
    We get to
    Carry each other”
    –U2, One.

  10. Hi,
    Great post, I always love to hear about the life of Buddhists, it seems so interesting and somewhat strange to me.

    And I believe Buddhism is one of the best religions out there, and there attitude towards others and the world is much more honest and not so violent as some other religions.

    Although I think the Buddhist monks have a great way to live life and achieve happiness, I’m not completely comfortable with their almost total separation from the outside world, not because I feel I couldn’t do such a thing, but because with this separation you simply can’t reach that many people to help.

    And I think chasing goals like that car, money, relationships, … like we do in the Western culture is also a way to achieve happiness and joy.
    The problem is people often don’t know why they want such things, and usually it’s just because of social conditioning, or because people think it might give you the satisfaction or the certain feelings they want. And that’s why they often feel dissatisfied or unfulfilled when they reach their goals, as you mentioned, good point.

    But I disagree that it’s completely useless and foolish. If you know exactly why do you want these things, and focus on what you can learn and how much you can grow as a person while trying to achieve the certain goal, it’s not useless, not at all. It helps you grow and what you learn along the way stays with you for the rest of your life. If you focus on who you become as a person while achieveing that goal.

    For example I know I want money because it can give me the freedom so I can focus on thigs I love the most for the rest of my life. And I also know I’ll learn a lot and be a much better person when I reach my goal (financial abundance). And I won’t stay there asking:”is that all there is?”, because I’ll know that of course the answer is definitely “no”.

    So I believe there are more ways to happiness, the one these monks choose is one of them. I think it’s not the best, but still a great way to do this, and much better than most of the people on the planet try to do it. (by chasing those things you mentioned.)
    Anyway, great article, I liked this one very much, looking forward to read more insights from these great people’s life. 🙂

  11. Jim that is a very important and inspiring message you have there. I wish more couples would come to see that a marriage is so much more than that initial phase of lust. It sounds like you two have something really great going on there.

    Thank you for sharing.

    TDM

  12. Kiwi – I go to India every year. I have had so much interest from readers on this blog about India I am thinking about starting up a Daily Mind India trip! The first of its kind in the blogging world!

    What do you think?

  13. I think it’s a great idea, because you certainly sound like you have an awful lot of knowledge to share (ha ha – but that’s pretty obvious isn’t it! )

    As a traveler, I try not to rely on Lonely Planet as my only resource for information, purely because I don’t wish to share my experience with 500 other people doing exactly the same thing. That has always been frustrating to me and I am forever trying to get to the locals, rather than the back packers – so any other advise leaked into a one sided niche market, can only be a good thing.

    And hell, if I ever get there I’ll contribute too!

    Cheers TDM,
    Thea

  14. Hi Kiki my friend!

    Perhaps I need to build more interest for this thing and see how it goes?

    I agree with you about Lonely Planet in most regards but I had a funny experience in India this year. I was in the same town I had visited for the last god knows how long and thought I knew everything about the district. But someone showed me a Lonely Planet and I found so many new spots I previously had just missed! I felt like a dummy! So I think the LP books can be useful sometimes.

    Thanks for your comments Thea.

    TDM

  15. Hallo

    Thank-you so much for this as I too come from a country where we being victimised and had to leave the country for a better life but the rest of my family is still living in that hell hole (I feel like I have deserted them) My whole race from that country is negative and frustrated (and dont blame them) and I wish they could take on that believe so that it will ease the pain of loosing your own country and just be happy.

  16. TDM, Thank you for being so generous with your experiences and wisdom. I just found your website minutes ago as I was searching for a place to go away and meditate, and every article I have read is so enlightening! I will your entire website soon… even if I have to clear out my summer reading schedule 🙂 Your generosity and value-added is so appreciated!

    I have to ask: This monastery you write about is exactly what I need to visit to help me learn some lessons first hand about valuing “things”, addictions, and living a better life. Can you please send me to a website or give me some advice on how to book this trip? I googled Tibetian Monastery in Tso Pema but not much came up. I’m female – can I go alone?

    Thanks in advance for responding!
    Ez

  17. Your happiness depends on yourself, and also others. We need friends. These monks are friends to each other and that makes a big difference I am sure.

  18. Minder,
    This was inspiring. I was wondering if you can give me some details on where you were and how I could maybe set up a trip to the monestery?
    I’m really in need of some self discovery and peace.

  19. That’s inspiring. I’m 14 years old and I wish I could live there… I live in the United States and everyone here only cares about “stuff.” I feel like I’m the only person who’s not obsessed with getting more stuff. It’d be nice to live with other people who feel the same way…

  20. You are right about everything you say about attachment.
    The quiston that I have is how do you do It? How do you llet go? Everyboby wants to be loved and huged.I think
    this was ment to be are the world would be nothing but monks and nuns.Think about it there would be no monks and nuns if there were no mothers and fathers and for that you have to be attached to something.In not harming others,remmeber not to harm yourself.Love is good remmember that the next time you are sleeping all alone wanting someone to hole you.

  21. This is great, it really is! But I’m wondering, What if I wanted to stay there for a year, what would I have to do? I don’t really know all that much about buddhism, but I think it would be a great learning experience for me. Sure it will take a few years before i’m able to go, as I want to finish high school first. But it would stll be great to do this before University. Would you be so kind as to tell me what I would have to do?

  22. Hi,

    Ive been practicing meditating for quiet a while now and would like to visit India is there a place there a Temple that You could advise me to go to Im looking to stay there for couple of Years or longer to try and learn everything about meditation from grass roots waiting on Your reply Regards

    Greg

  23. I loved reading your blog – very well written, and quite interresting. I stumbled upon it, searching the web for information on Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

    I would love to hear some more about how you came to stay at this place, what you did there and for how long you stayed. I just came back after spending 6 months in Manhattan, NY, and decided that this summer, I will go travelling alone for a month or so. What came to mind first was the idea of a spiritually education. Buddhism and especially the way of living that these munks practice have always appealed to me, and is something i would love to learn about.

    I suppose though, that as a woman I would probably have to explore similar options for women? I don’t really want to go with an agency, and would really like it to be a genuine experience just for me. If you have some thoughts or anything that might lead me in the right direction, I would really appreciate it 🙂

    Ditte

  24. Hi TDM. I greatly apprecaite you sharing your experience. Those are great thoughts and realizations I look forward to exploring more in my own life. I’ve been thinking of heading to Nepal or India for a bit of exploring and, if possible I’d like to study at a Buddhist monastery while there. I’d like to find a genuine experience and for that I’m turned off by the organized trips you can easily find online. What recommendations do you have for finding a monastery? Thank you again for sharing.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

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