From the hallway window, I can see the Tibetan monks playing basketball in the courtyard. They are terrible – I knew they would be – but they make great tofu chicken salad. How does one play in those red robes and flimsy sandals?
It was August in 2010, and I had signed up for a four-week course at the International Buddhist Academy (IBA) in Kathmandu, Nepal. Part monastery and part research center for international students, the IBA offers short- and long-term retreats, language training, and classes in the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The facility is located among a multitude of monasteries and temples, all on the fringes of Boudhanath Stupa, the holiest Buddhist shrine outside of Tibet and the largest of its kind in Nepal.
The Stupa is a short walk from the IBA, and I later spent hours watching devotees circumambulate its perimeter, many of them chanting and spinning prayer wheels along the way. It was a fascinating place and my first experience witnessing the intensity of ritual actions inherent in South Asian religious traditions.
At the IBA, I wanted to build upon my limited knowledge of the tradition, most of which I had acquired earlier that summer in a World Religions course, and from the 1993 movie, The Little Buddha, in which a young Keanu Reeves played the Enlightened One.
Mainly, though, I was interested in playing basketball with monks. Since I had seen photos of past students doing so on the IBA website, I thought, who would not want to play basketball with Tibetan Buddhists at a monastery with the Himalayas in the far distance?
Fate, however, had a different plan. After arriving in Nepal from a three-day stopover in India, I developed an ever-increasing pain in my stomach. It felt as if something was growing inside of me, the only relief coming from constant trips to the bathroom.
Why did I drink that milk tea from those street-side sadhus yesterday in New Delhi? I kept thinking to myself.
On my first day at the IBA, though, suffering from what I later learned is “Delhi Belly,” I only wanted to find out how much time I had to rest before the course began.
After walking into the IBA’s tiny, sparse office, a young Tibetan man in his early twenties with curly black hair and hip jeans offered a short bow.
Above his desk was a framed picture of a smiling monk, wearing wide rim glasses, with long hair and a bright smile. Beautiful red garlands adorned his image. The office walls were a pale cream color, and I could hear the sounds of bells ringing from afar.
“Classes don’t start until Monday, right?” I asked.
“Yes, not for two more days. And your good name, sir?”
“I’m John Strasser.”
After another bow, I asked if he wanted me to pay the balance of the course fees.
It was a four-week course for $450 – a remarkable deal, which included a single room, vegetarian meals, and classes taught by English-speaking monks. I found the program only a few weeks before and booked the trip on a whim.
Back then, I was a non-traditional student at the University of South Florida: a thirty-five-year-old sophomore. At that point in my life, not only was I determined to pursue an education that interested me, but I was also seeking new experiences.
For years I suffered from alcoholism, until entering a long-term treatment center in late 2007. I missed out on the kinds of experiences a lot of people enjoyed by that point in their lives. And so I yearned to travel, to understand the world. I wanted to do something exciting.
Earlier that summer, then, as my World Religions professor talked about seeking experience, I listened.
“The beginning of wisdom,” he told our class, “is to see things from all possible perspectives.”
Professor Meigs had silky brown, shoulder-length hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. A charismatic guy, he wore trendy clothes and often talked about playing music. He was the kind of teacher who would hang out with his students in a coffee shop or dive bar.
Professor Meigs spoke about religion with a passion that inspired the class. He encouraged us to seek our own truth and to ask questions.
“True understanding,” he said, “comes only from experience. If you want to understand yourself, you must understand others.”
Even though I had never traveled to Asia – had barely been anywhere, really – his rousing words helped inspire me to take that trip, an experience for which I was completely unprepared.
A friend, however, offered me some invaluable advice.
“When you are traveling to that part of the world,” he said, “don’t forget your toilet paper.”
I didn’t understand the importance of his words then, but that day in the IBA office, suffering from Delhi Belly, I began to understand.
“You can pay the remainder of your balance as your wish, Mr. John. Lunch will begin soon.”
In that moment, I elected to pay the balance later, a decision that changed the trajectory of my trip and also my life.
After lunch, the pain in my stomach steadily increased, until I eventually sought medical attention. At a modern health clinic with a friendly staff, I was treated for dehydration and a stomach infection. The doctor recommended that I stay the night, giving me a chance to think about all that I would miss by spending the next four weeks studying Buddhism. And since I had just seen the most extraordinary sights in New Delhi, I wanted to see more.
When I returned from the clinic, I asked my taxi driver to wait out front a few minutes. Back in the office, I said to the young Tibetan, “Thank you for everything, but I’m leaving. You can keep my deposit.”
And so a journey of perspective began that day: I would seek to experience the world, to understand its people, traditions, and culture. By the end, I would better understand myself. In other words, I was out of there.
Although I never did study Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting, nor did I play basketball with monks, on an extraordinary journey across Nepal I did see an entirely new world.
As I have come to understand, within South Asian religious traditions, “seeing” is not only believing, but it is also a kind of touching. To behold the Divine with one’s eyes is to grasp and feel.
Seeing is also a form of knowing – an insight.
“To know it, I must see it,” one might say, because true wisdom begins first with vision.
To the eyes, South Asia is colorful, beautiful, sensual, shocking, teeming with vitality – a kaleidoscope of images, a wonderful medley of human and Divine flavors. It is compelling and mysterious in a way that can never fully be described – it must be experienced.
Since my first visit there five years ago, I have returned many times. South Asia has become for me a place of pilgrimage – often aggravating, always challenging, yet delightfully fulfilling, forever calling me back.