This August I returned to the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu for the third time. However, this visit wasn’t for a retreat, but was instead to provide much needed dental care. I had made contact with Dr George Manos, an Australian dentist who had been a Buddhist for many years, and had finished setting up the dental clinic in 2014. He was keen to have volunteers on board so I jumped at the chance. Ara, a young dentist also from Australia, joined us as well.
To set the scene a little, we had all bought our flight tickets prior to the major earthquake in April. The only concern back then had been the monsoon weather at this time of year. George had said all would be fine. But now we also had to think about aftershocks, and whether we would even be able to operate the clinic as we didn’t really know what damage had been done.
Having worked for the NHS for the last 9 years, I felt pretty confident and ready to tackle whatever challenges presented to us. The first few days setting up the clinic were interesting as we had to be extremely organised and logical, and we had to oversee the final installation of a much needed generator which would keep us running during the frequent powercuts. Thankfully besides some cracks in the walls, there had been no major earthquake damage.
After trying to arrange the many instruments and pieces of equipment George had bought for the clinic, we soon realised how grateful we were for our dental nurses back home. We did have the wonderful assistance of Kopan monk Phende, who has recently been accepted to commence training as a hygienist and will be a huge asset to the clinic. George had taught him basic cross infection control, and having him to translate and reassure patients was priceless. He was a most smiley and positive ray of sunshine at all times of the day.
The clinic itself has the most modern equipment, George had really worked wonders to get such a fit out like this in Nepal. Amazing merit for sure! Most of the equipment and materials he had brought over from Australia. Whilst we were there we also went to the local dental suppliers to stock up which was an interesting visit. We spent hours looking at strangely shaped and quite terrifying looking extraction forceps and instruments, very different to back home. We also assisted Tania Duratovic who runs Tree of Compassion, an animal charity covering Australia and Nepal. Lateral thinking was needed with regards to goat and kangaroo teeth!
We treated a variety of patients during our time there. Mostly they were young monks residing at Kopan itself. The condition of their teeth varied greatly, often depending on which village they originally came from and their early exposure to fizzy drinks and sweets. They made the most remarkable patients and barely flinched during treatment, meaning we could provide them with high standards of care in return. They all enjoyed choosing a sticker after their treatment, plus George’s wife Helen had kindly and creatively made the monks some very cute little bags with teddies and animals sewed on. I am always moved by the range of diverse skills people can bring to these situations, very inspiring.
One day we took a portable dental chair down the road to the nunnery. The nuns generally needed a lot of treatment, some had previously had restorative work in Nepal or India, whilst many had not been seen by a dentist at all. They were not keen to have any teeth extracted and George explained that they are often superstitious about losing their teeth.
We worked really hard to get through as much treatment in the short time we were there. In between clinic times I did some meditation and reading. Kopan has a well stocked bookshop and library. We also made several trips to Boudhanath Stupa. It was a real shame to see it in its current state. Less than a year ago I’d seen it in its full glory and I guess as we do, took it for granted. So many reminders of impermanence all around yet the message still doesn’t always sink in deeply enough. The positivity and resilience of the Nepalese people was clear to see as they went about their rebuilding work. Thamel, the main tourist area, was also quiet. Upon speaking to shopkeepers they said business was poor, but they were hoping it would pick up once the trekking season started soon. Again, their upbeat way of thinking has helped them through this difficult time.
We also made a trip to Nifon Children’s Home which is run by Australian nun Ani Losang Demchog. Many kind friends back home had donated clothes, from Ugg boots to football scarves. The children were so grateful and clapped every time we handed an item of clothing out, a really heart warming experience.
So overall I spent a very rewarding and diverse few weeks with George, who is one of the most patient and humble people I have ever met. He is a real Bodhisattva for sure, having given so much of his time and good efforts to the project. His skill for working out a good plan and how to best benefit people is really remarkable, and I feel honoured to have helped out with the clinic in a small way. I hope to return on a regular basis and this is really a dream for me, to integrate Dharma practice even more fully with my work, and be able to give something back to the place that really fuelled my interest in Buddhism. Kopan feels like home to me in so many ways. I would urge anyone thinking about a retreat to have the “Kopan experience.”
If you are a dentist or dental nurse do have a look at George’s website. If you aren’t, have a look at it anyway as his photography is beautiful. Donations are always gratefully received in order to cover the running costs http://www.projectyeti.org/