Kathmandu has a special place in Choje Lama Wangchuk Topden’s heart. He was born there on 20 November, 1983 and the Nepalese capital has had its fair share of international exposure since the devastating earthquake in April 2015. “There is an interesting contrast between the recovery effort for the earthquake, and the present disaster that is the pandemic,” he noted. “When the earthquake hit, aid came internationally. Everyone saw that we were suffering in Nepal and contributed some resources to help. COVID-19, by contrast, has hit the entire world, and everyone is having difficulty controlling the pandemic. The economies of many countries are in difficulty and foreign aid is the last thing on their minds.”
COVID-19 has irrevocably reshaped how Nepalese go about their religious activities. Many religious activities that were once communal and a focal point for community gatherings have been cancelled. Despite these disruptions, however, the Thrangu monasteries held this year’s 45-day Summer Retreat smoothly across India and Nepal, with more than four hundred bhikshus and two hundred bhikshunis participating (they can participate only if they are initiated into the Gelong and Getsul vows). Choje Lama has been busy leading these Summer Retreats in many of the monasteries founded by the 9th Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (b. 1933), the celebrated tulku of the Kagyu school.
“Our monasteries are an exception when it comes to social distancing and self-isolation,” he noted, “as we are already family. The monks and nuns live with each other every day in one home, and they can simply quarantine themselves in their monastery and do the retreat together.” The gender ratio of the bhikshus and bhikshunis this year is also encouraging, but Choje Lama is less concerned about that, noting: “Facilities for nunneries are more important than the number of females at a given retreat,” he noted. “How many functioning bathrooms are there in the nunneries? How well-equipped are the Dharma facilities? Attracting prospective nuns to live and practice long-term in the monasteries is much more important than meeting a gender quota for the Summer Retreats.”
Choje Lama actually denotes the most recent religious title given to the formerly Lama Wangchuk. It means “King of Dharma” in English and was bestowed by His Holiness the Karmapa on 26 June 2018 at Woodstock, New York. Throughout our conversation he seemed to be particularly interested in the daily pulse of his religious community, or what was actually happening on the ground, whether in the lay or monastic segments of Dharma practitioners. Charged with the care of Thrangu monasteries around the world and building the monastic community’s future in these volatile times, his observations on recent structural shifts in lay practice seemed to indicate such an interest.
For example, Choje Lama noted: “People practicing on their own, or single practice, has become more popular.” Private rituals like prayer and meditation have, through anecdotal evidence, increased among the population. “Reciting mantras, the most popular of which is probably Om Mani Padme Hum (“Homage to the jewel in the lotus,” the mantra of Avalokiteshvara), imparts meaning to many when there’s nothing else to do at home. Most monastics and disciplined lay disciples might find this readjustment unproblematic, but Choje Lama acknowledges that for some, it can get more difficult as this lifestyle drags on.
The difficulty many feel in maintaining their solitary training is not due to personal shortcomings alone. It should be seen in the context of the pandemic’s disruption of daily life. This has led to disruptions in the regularity of religious activities in Nepal. When the economy is dislocated, religion is affected. “When people lose their jobs, close their businesses, or cut their pay to their employees because of reduced demand and revenue, of course people’s priorities change. They’re scared for their family and savings, and not so confident about the future,” said Choje Lama. He acknowledges that solitary practice is ideal only when certain conditions are fulfilled: there needs to be an appropriate practice environment, a process of gradually reducing egoistic urges, and calming attachments. Bhikshus and bhikshunis are already blessed with these conditions, which made them better prepared for COVID-19. But even with the difficulties laypeople are facing, Choje Lama is confident that the pandemic is transforming our perspective on life and realigning our most important priorities.
“We are rapidly seeing very clear distinctions between what we want and what we need,” he said. “In fact, we’re coming to understand that a lot of what we want is actually useless in the time of COVID! We have been conditioned to want that nice car, the second home, or the attractive jewelry. Are any of these of much use when we’re all at home and minimizing our social contact? All of these are materialistic wants that are not borne of true need. We should remind ourselves of our good fortune despite difficult times, especially if we are able to social distance or work from home.”
From a monastery in Varanasi, India to eight monasteries in Nepal (one was destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, and has not been rebuilt yet), as well as disciples and centers overseas, Choje Lama has considerable responsibilities to navigate through these uncertain times. However, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the diverse and devoted Thrangu community. His adeptness in managing the monastic communities and familiarity with his broader base of practitioners, including laypeople around the world, will be crucial to weathering the disaster of this pandemic and its aftershocks, which range from economic collapse to deteriorating mental health. Healing and re-envisioning a more compassionate and resilient post-pandemic world will demand wise leadership and a truly communitarian effort.
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