Finding a quiet moment in the chaotic modern world

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Almost 9,000 people perished and more than 22,300 were injured in the two quakes, a natural disaster that Tibetan monk Tsering Tashi remembers vividly.

‘The earthquake was very scary,’ admits the 22-year-old, who is visiting friends in Jersey this fortnight with his uncle and fellow Buddhist monk, Tsering Phuntsok.

‘I have experienced small earthquakes before but with this one, the ground was shaking for a long time. I was in my house when it started and I tried to run, but I fell a couple of times. I quickly got up and managed to make it to a safe space, but you could see cracks appearing in the walls of the houses and I felt very scared.’

Later, he volunteered to help an air search team recover the dead from the mountainous countryside, transporting ‘many dead bodies back by helicopter’.

For Tsering Phuntsok, who was teaching Buddhism courses in America, it was an equally troubling time. More than 8,000 miles away, he was gripped by an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.

‘It was very stressful because I didn’t know what had happened and all the electric pylons in Nepal had fallen in the earthquake, so there was no way of contacting family and friends – I could not do anything.

‘But at the same time, in Buddhism if you cannot do anything then we say there is no reason to be stressed, so I tried to be calm – but it was not easy.

‘I went home one month later to see my family and in one city, Bhaktapur, 60 per cent of the buildings had collapsed. My sisters and nieces were in Nepal when the earthquake happened and they had to sleep in the open air without any food for a week after the quake. They experienced a lot of trauma.’

Tsering Phuntsok (47) – who is a spiritual master and has received training from the Dalai Lama – and his nephew Tsering Tashi are staying in Jersey as guests of their friends, Islanders Duncan and Juliet Forbes.

The St Clement couple, who have two sons at St Michael’s Preparatory School, first met Tsering Phuntsok and his nephew more than ten years ago when they visited a monastery while backpacking in northern India.

Although the monks are, strictly speaking, on holiday this fortnight, over the next two Saturdays they will be holding meditation workshops at Kalimukti Yoga Studio in town.

They were also the guests of honour at an assembly at St Michael’s School last Monday, where they spoke to children in years three to eight about the benefits of mindfulness in reducing daily stress, as well as their devout Buddhist faith.

After the assembly, three of the school’s year groups and their teachers took part in a mindfulness workshop with the monks.

Mike Rees, St Michael’s School headmaster, saw it as a unique opportunity to extend the school’s pastoral care programme by giving pupils the opportunity to hear the Tibetan monks talk about their experiences, faith and lives.

Mindfulness, which has become something of a social phenomenon, is the psychological process of paying attention to the present moment – to thoughts and feelings – without placing too much importance on them.

It teaches people to focus on the immediate moment, rather than letting their brains run riot. Mindfulness has science on its side too. Expansive population-based research indicates that the practice of mindfulness is strongly linked to improved mental wellbeing.

In Buddhism, it is used to develop greater knowledge about oneself and an inner wisdom, with the aim of using it to follow the path to enlightenment and the total freedom from suffering.

Tsering Phuntsok says that aside from any religious teachings, mindfulness can also improve attention spans and reduce anxiety.

‘Once the negative emotions are not in your heart and mind, then there are no distractions that can make your mind unhappy,’ he explains.

‘If your mind is happy, your verbal actions will also be happy which means you will be positive.

‘Mindfulness is very useful for all people because we are all seeking happiness.

‘And for Buddhists, without being mindful, the deeper happiness would not be there.’

As part of his remit to share the Tibetan culture across the world, Tsering Phuntsok journeys to Europe and the United States each year from January to May.

From June to October he returns to his home monastery in India to worship and work with visiting students from Europe and the USA, and from November until the start of each new year he conducts tours on Sherpa, Tibetan and Nepali cultures and religion, in Nepal.

Last year, he even led a meditation course in the foothills of Mount Everest.

‘I led meditations for six people who wanted to feel the mountain energy,’ says Tsering Phuntsok, whose Nepali name is Phurtemba Sherpa.

His nephew Tsering Tashi – whose Nepali name is Pasang Dorgi Sherpa – has direct experience of Everest base camp, as it was his starting point when he took part in the world’s highest marathon in 2016.

The Everest Marathon, as it is known, begins at Gorak Shep, some 17,000 ft above sea level and ends in the Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar ( 11,300 ft).

‘There’s a trek path you run along but it’s very rocky and you are constantly running up or down, and across chain bridges over huge ravines,’ says Tsering Tashi. ‘You start off and it’s difficult to breathe, but in the end I managed to finish in seven hours and 20 or so minutes.’

No stranger to high-altitude activities, he also helped his amateur football team to victory in the Everest Gold Cup, a competition held above 4,000 metres. He is also from a community of people who have achieved lofty feats as well – ‘one of my grandfathers has summited Everest 12 times’, he tells me.

Although he has many fond memories of his own experiences in the foothills of the high mountains, when Tsering Tashi considers his most memorable exertions in the Himalayas, he will never be able to forget that spring of 2015, when he helped retrieve the bodies of hikers and local men and women who perished in the earthquakes and subsequent landslides.

It is mindfulness, says his uncle, that has helped the Nepalese remain stoic almost three years on from the disaster.

‘The buildings are getting restored very slowly, but the people practice mindfulness and meditation so they are still managing to smile,’ says Tsering Phuntsok.

‘When something bad happens to your family or community in the world, it is a reminder of what Buddha says about the impermanent nature of your life and the world. If you are aware of this then you will be in a hurry to help others, to share and to contribute for your family and your community.

‘So as long as we can breathe, we need to be helping others.’

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