"Two toilets and one shower for HOW many people?" I enquired, certain I'd misheard. The receptionist monk counted on his fingers again, then looked skyward as he did a quick calculation to be sure he'd got it right. "Twenty," he confirmed, "five rooms of four on your floor." I winced, imagining the endless queue of greasy-haired, cross-legged women outside the communal bathroom at 4:30 every morning. "Is that enough?" I checked. "Never had any complaints," he shrugged neutrally and looked at me patiently for my next question.
With that knowledge, and having heard earlier that the food is "watery porridge, sometimes there's bread, and chips and oily fried vegetables; it's the same every day" I felt my tiara slip past my ears and tighten around my neck and so decided I'd best not ask anything else and just wait and see.
I really needn't have worried about the facilities and the food. After a day or two of settling in I was used to sharing a loo and my showers being a terrifying splash of icy cold water and got myself three of the loveliest roomies I could have hoped for. And the woman who spectacularly misinformed me about the food? Well, I wished her lovingkindness when we passed on the stairs, like a good little Buddhism student. Unfortunately this is where my excellence as a Buddhism student seemed to end.
In spite of warming quickly to the environment, the routine and the people, it was a damn struggle to sit still on the floor of that gompa (meditation hall) and concentrate on nothing more than my breathing for an hour at a time. I could last 20 minutes before changing the position of my legs/cushions/blanket every 5 minutes thereafter, and I was so nosy! I bet his feet are cold with no socks on. I wonder how she did that with her hair. Has anyone got their eyes open? Is the teacher meditating? Her cushion matches her skirt. Are there the same number of coloured blocks in each of the ceiling squares? I'd better count them. Pen lid on, pen lid off, pen lid on, pen lid off... The difficulty of long periods of almost completely unguided meditation was too much for my monkey mind - by session three I'd mentally decorated my houseboat and decided it needs a decent oven and a serving hatch on the side through which I can sell my vegan fayre to canal strollers.
But the meditations improved once were given something to focus on and became a walk through rainbows compared to the teachings. I'll be frank: I found them ambiguous, unfounded, and littered with "scientific" anecdotes that were irrelevant or exaggerated at best; contradictory or wildly inaccurate at worst. And I had to sit, quietly gasping in shock, seething inside, without the opportunity to question or challenge any of it. And that wasn't all that was yanking my chain.
Before each class we'd to recite various mantras (prayers) and half the people (those who come back year after year - to a beginners course? You've got to wonder why) perform a set of prostrations that are like praying and then putting your head on the floor - something to do with letting go of your ego. What I struggled with was, if Buddhism is an atheistic religion, who are they praying to? It was acknowledged that this was confusing many of us but we were quickly "reassured" with, "Shut up and say your prayers". Yes, it was said half in jest but, at the same time, it didn't come with any explanation, which did not sit well with me at all; that's nothing more than dogma! As one student said, "I was brought up a Catholic - this kind of stuff makes me shudder."
Thankfully I wasn't alone in my dissatisfaction. Several people I spoke to were in strong agreement. As one confused student said to me, "Praying to Buddha doesn't make sense." Another decided to stay and follow the meditations only but sit out of the teaching classes. I too considered sticking it out, taking from it what I could and disregarding the bits I didn't agree with but that would have meant disregarding the majority of what was being taught - what would be the point? The food was great but not reason enough to stay a month.
And so after careful consideration I decided that the course was not for me. I kissed goodbye my favourite monastery dog - the one who likes to lean on you, that I nicknamed Cheeky Chops - and, along with several other disillusioned students, I left the monastery to seek a more real and tangible path to genuine, attainable happiness.