When I first arrived at Pema Ts’al Sakya Monastic Institute in Pokhara, Nepal, I expected things to be quiet and peaceful. And while I found the monks to be studious and dedicated, quiet they were anything but. At five o’clock, the monks would practice Tibetan debate– loud clapping, shouting, elaborate hand gestures– in which they would argue over the nature of life, the mind, and the human experience.
At tea time, though, I usually found them arguing over another discipline entirely. “I love Klaus because he cares about his family and friends. He sacrifices for them. He’s the best,” Jamyang Sangpo tells me one day over milk tea and potato bread.
“Klaus is selfish!” Kunga Thokmey, another college monk shouts at him. The two then proceed to bicker in Tibetan.
The monks have been watching The Vampire Diaries (and more recently, The Originals) for the past few years, after a Canadian sponsor brought them a gift: a set of DVDs for each series. Since then, the discs have been passed around, allowing most of the 20 or so college monks to catch up to speed with the action-packed world of Mystic Falls. For this reason, the monks are all in different places of the supernatural saga, which make their debates even more entertaining for a spectator. Some some favor Caroline Forbes’ sunny disposition, while others appreciate Bonnie Bennett’s selfless decisions; some express a special fondness for Klaus Mikaelson’s personal growth as a father and leader, while others admire Elena Gilbert’s inner strength and her ability to overcome numerous hardships. And like many invested viewers, they disagree on the show’s romantic relationships as well; some believe Elena belongs with Stefan, while others hope that Damon ultimately gets the girl.
The lack of consensus is like monk crack. As debate is such a central element to Tibetan Buddhism, the monks thrive on disagreements. The students are often mischievous, arguing for arguments’ sake, the masters of playing Devil’s advocate. During their free time, one can often witness them going toe to toe with visitors, volunteers, and even each other, gleeful glints in their eyes as they watch their opponents get riled up.
This is why their love for these dark, daring CW programs is so unsurprising (once, I suppose, you get over the whole “woah, monks watch television” thing): The Vampire Diaries and The Originals both explore the intricacies of moral ambiguity, and the characters on each series grapple find their way through life after while dealing with various forms of heartache, loss, and defeat.
“There are two ways of becoming a monk,” Ngawang Rigzin, the college captain, explains. “One is you choose to be monk, [which] is better. The other is that your family desires for [you] to be a monk.” There are many reasons a Tibetan family would send their kids to the monastery. For many, it is a cultural tradition: the second son is sent to monkhood as an auspicious honor for the family. At this monastery, many of the children are from the Mustang region of Nepal. Mustang is one of the poorest regions of the country, and many of the families who live in these mountains are herders and farmers, living in difficult climate. The growing season is short. The families often have many children. In sending them to the monastery, the boys have better opportunities for education and healthcare.
The monastery houses monks from ages 4 to 30.
With this in consideration, the boys’ affinity for the plight of complex characters such as Damon and Stefan, Elijah and Klaus — two sets of brothers trying to tame the monster within as they work towards redemption, all while holding a complicated set of cards– isn’t all that shocking. “We are just human,” says Ngawang Phuntsock, one of the older monks who is now serving as a school teacher for the younger students. “They think being monk means we are liberated from the human world, liberated from emotions, the way of lay people. They think we are wise persons, but we just human.” For example? They still like to hang out and unwind after 10 hours of rigorous study. This often leads to a silly Tibetan sense of humor that anyone who has watched videos of the Dalai Lama will understand.
The older boys often play “vampires” with the kids– or even with each other. One day, as a prank, they chased each other around in a set of plastic fangs. “It’s all about the teeth,” explains Kunga Choephel. “Kids used to get scared in the beginning.” Now they laugh, and continue to chase each other around. Sometimes the monks will copy dialogue and act out scenes. “My friend Tsepal would be one character, and me the other,” says Kunga Jinpa. They have the words memorized verbatim. “I’m the king, show me some respect,” Jinpa mimes in a voice a few octaves deeper than his own, taking on the persona of charismatic New Orleans bloodsucker Marcel Gerard.
“It helps us practice our English,” says Kunga Khenrab. “If you want to improve your English in a stylish way,” adds Jamyang Sangpo, “you must watch Klaus.” He grins, and then gets ribbed in Tibetan by the other monks at lunch.
Though they admit to the shows being a guilty pleasure for them, when asked if they’ve perceived any palpable connections to Buddhism along the way, most gave pause. “[We watch it] to be more with friends,” says Ngawang Phuntsock. “Actually, it doesn’t connect with Buddhism…” After a moment, he adds, “Well, if you think truly it does connect. There’s happiness, suffering, and they can rebirth. How to do good, don’t do bad. But killing doesn’t connect, drinking blood doesn’t connect.”
In terms of what they would like to see next? “I think it would be cool for character to be monk,” says Choephel. Kunga Tenpa took it a step further, plotting out an entire spiritual arc. “I need to drink blood, but I’m monk, so I need to practice compassion. First I only drink donations or animals, but then one day I have accident. I run away and live alone to not hurt anyone.” The monks have a flair for dramatics, and their opinion of TVD coming to an end was kind of obvious. “I want it to go on forever!” confesses Kunga Dhakpa when I inquire about his biggest wish for the show — and his peers immediately agree with this sentiment, echoing their desire for more story lines that highlight the ceaseless struggle between enlightenment, fundamental darkness, and all the convoluted gray area in between.
Truer words have not been spoken it seems; this is one question that is not up for debate.
About the author: Monica Santos is an avid traveler, blogger, and yogi-in-training. A UCLA grad who quit her Hollywood desk job in 2015, she has lived and traveled through more than six different countries, and worked in environments as diverse as a Buddhist Monastery in Nepal, a party hostel in the Thai island of Koh Phanang, and a restaurant in the mountains of Asturias, Spain. She’s in the process of figuring things out.
You can follow her adventures @monchickabonbonn on Instagram, or at www.monthewanderer.com