I remember the scent of the Arabic sweets my mom brought with her back from Lebanon. She kept them in a special cupboard and we were not allowed to touch. I often opened the door to this cupboard to inhale the exotic fragrance of orange blossom, rosewater and cardamom, staring intently at the dried fruits and white soft pieces of candy stuffed with toasted pistachios. I was fascinated by all the mystery of this far away country.
Every summer during the early 1970s, my mother travelled to Beirut to visit her sister, taking my two older siblings along. Still being a toddler, I stayed behind with my father. My teenage sisters naturally developed friendships with boys their age who were also visiting Beirut for the summer. Then the war broke out, and my sisters no longer returned to Lebanon, losing any connection to the friends they had made and hoped to see again. They had never exchanged addresses.
My eldest sister had befriended Henri, a boy from Paris. I remember the photos of them smiling in the Lebanese sun, and over the years I heard snippets of their time together. Henri taught her some French and shared with her visions of Paris through his eyes, painting a vivid picture of the cherry blossom trees in full beautiful bloom in the springtime.
Then my sister moved from home, and we never again spoke about this chapter of her life. Meanwhile, l grew up, left Denmark and after many years abroad only seldom had contact with my sisters.
I travelled the world, and was on my way to Nepal, when I called my mom as I did before each mission. She told me that my eldest sister had recently been contacted by a private detective in Germany. The detective had been employed by Henri to find my sister almost 40 years after they met last time. They had reconnected by phone and Henri had shared his life story.
As the son of a successful businessman, Henri had been driven to follow the same path. He had had a lucrative career but felt profoundly unhappy. One day waiting at an airport for a business trip, he had noticed a man seated in front of him. The man had emanated such serenity that Henri was compelled to approach him. The man was a monk, travelling through the US to spread of the word of Buddhism to westerners.
The monk told Henri that if he was called to follow him, Henri should meet him in the same airport a month later. Henri, after deep reflection and much hesitation, decided to leave his life behind, step into the unknown and become a monk travelling with his master. Now he was mostly in the US.
Less than a week later, I was sitting at the Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu, chatting with my friend Khedup, who was also a monk. I was organizing a group of regional senior UN staff to be trained in leadership for a week, and as a part of the training I wanted them to visit the monastery. Mental and spiritual self-renewal was a core component of the programme, and I felt the group would benefit from the powerful experience of meditation in these serene surroundings, led by one of the devout monks.
Overlooking the Kathmandu valley as we sipped our tea, I shared the story of my sister’s childhood boyfriend who had become a monk.
“Oh,” Khedup exclaimed with a smile, “Kunsang, you mean?“
“No, no,” I replied. “His name is Henri and he’s French – he’s now travelling with his master in the US.”
“Yes, that is his worldly name,” Khedup replied. “Here, his name is Thubten Kunsang and he is travelling with our co-founder Lama Zopa Rinpoche who is the Spiritual Director of Kopan. In fact, Kunsang is here at the monastery right now. Do you want to meet him?”
We met the following day, my sister’s former boyfriend from Lebanon and I. One of the many roads from all over the world that would lead to Kopan – although I didn’t know that yet.