Almost every year I take a month or so off to attend a Buddhist teaching retreat in a monastery in the Himalayas led by Dagpo Lama Rinpoche. Not only is Rinpoche incredibly learned, he is a practitioner of exceptional quality and low key humility whose kindness is legendary. There is a gentle but firm discipline that pervades the place.

The monks, young and old, study year round, and their days are filled with prayer, study, debate, reflection and the like. Several of them spend a good part of the year in the great Tibetan university monasteries in the south of India, most notably Drepung Gomang. In short there are few slackers, it is inspiring to be there.

When I am there, I have fallen into the habit of doing kora or circumbulations of the temple, a form of paying respect in the Buddhist tradition known in Sanskrit as pradakshina, at dawn when it is quiet. Over the last several years the one other person who is invariably also doing the kora is a burly lay person who is basically the sweeper of the monastery grounds. Two of his sons are monks at the monastery, one has risen to become discipline master.

Dorje, such is his name, and I usually greet each other mutely as my Tibetan is next to none, but with big smiles nonetheless. We each do our own thing, and eventually he goes off and starts sweeping the grounds, cleaning out the trash bins and taking care of whatever other odd job needs to be done. Initially when he first came to stay at the monastery he paid a nominal sum for room and board. But soon his spontaneous efforts at keeping the place clean turned into a fixed routine, and the administrators decided to waive even that nominal sum as he works hard. Dorje-la has become part of the institution.

There is much to reflect on during the teachings, which usually are given in two sessions a day including a group prayer session for total of about 5 hours a day. The rest of the time is spent on review, reflection, and other studies.

My dawn kora helps me clear my head and get me focused for the day. It is also somewhat soothing to hear Dorje-la’s prayers as he ambles around.

On the second to last day he started saying something to me in a mixture of Hindi and Tibetan. I caught the words “money” and “shoes” but couldn’t quite figure out what he was saying. I thought perhaps he was asking me for money to buy shoes. Though actually it was not such an unreasonable request, for some strange reason I felt a little disappointed, which I also felt a little ashamed of. After all we had formed a friendship of sorts, and I was clearly in a position to grant such a small favor, so what was wrong with that if this friend was in need? Did I really want to set some lofty, complicated standard to this friendship with this simple man?

Shortly thereafter a nun I knew appeared and I asked her to translate. What Dorje was saying was this. “Yesterday I was given an envelope with money as a contribution from you all (it has become a tradition for the participants at the retreat to pool money to offer to the cooks etc). It was a lot of money, enough to buy a good pair of shoes. I am going to buy a new pair of shoes so I can do more kora and make prayers for all of you…”

My friend the nun and I were quietly stunned. There were tears in my eyes as she said to me – “That is how we should be…”