Tag Archives: Nepal

Tashi Delek

7 Sep

Arranging my entry to TAR (Tibet Autonomous Region) was tricky even in June 2007. This was 9 months before the March 2008 Tibetan uprisings spread through TAR and the PRC snuffed things out. While in Kathmandu, I met with a tour agency that was approved by the PRC in order to procure my Chinese visa and “Tibetan travelers permit.”  I provided the tour agency with a passport-sized photo and the necessary rupees and was told it would take at least 3 days to process my paperwork. That was no bother to me since I had things to see in Kathmandu.  Everything was to work out so that by the time I had to meet the rest of the tour group and hop on the bus to the Nepal-Tibet border, I would receive my visa and permit.  When I arrived at the bus depot at 6:30am on the designated day, I immediately met a friendly Norwegian couple who were also traveling to Tibet. While we chatted and compared trip notes, our tour guide came up to us and casually explained that our paperwork had not yet been sent back to the tour group by the Chinese consulate in Kathmandu. “No problem,” our guide said. He would just have a messenger drive up later in the morning and catch up with our bus at the midpoint of the drive to the Nepal-Tibet border. The bus trip was a ravine-hugging unpaved road that rose out of the Kathmandu valley into the Himalayan foothills. When we stopped at the midpoint, I looked into the horizon and marveled at the blueness of the sky and the whiteness of the clouds. Then, as my mind began to focus on what I was observing, I realized that what I thought were clouds were actually the glaciered peaks of the Himalayas. I would be on top of that horizon in 2 days’ time!

First Glimpse of the Himalayas

I heard some chatter between the bus driver and our tour guide and I walked over to them. My guide explained that the messenger who was to meet us with our documents was running late. “No problem”, the guide again said. We would just continue on to the border and have lunch there and wait until the messenger caught up with us.  So, on we went — stopping off a few times — once to walk across an incredible bridge that spanned a narrow gorge over the Bhote Koshi river.  It took us 6 hours to get to the border town of Kodari, and we settled onto the wooden porch of the restaurant to eat and wait for the messenger.  And we waited… It took nearly 3 hours of sitting, standing, stretching, and reading until finally our boozy “courier” showed. I had no idea how this guy had driven through the winding terrain to reach us in his inebriated condition. But, he did have our paperwork in hand and was all smiles about it too.  The tour group and I had little time to thank the courier because we were told to run across the Friendship Bridge before the Chinese guards shut down the border for the night.  Although the Chinese customs border town of Zhangmu on the other side of the Friendship Bridge was over 2600 miles from Beijing, the PRC had that town and the entire TAR on Beijing Standard Time (BST).  This meant that once we crossed the bridge from the Kodari, Nepal side, the clock jumped ahead by 3 hours and 15 minutes. So, the Chinese closed the bridge at 4:30pm  BST and it was close to 1pm Nepal time when we finally got the paperwork. We made a mad dash, and luckily because our tour guide had given the Chinese guards a heads-up (or bribe) about our late arriving paperwork, the guards kept the border gate open a bit longer for us.

Friendship Bridge, Kodari, Nepal

Crossing into Tibet via the Friendship Bridge from Kodari, Nepal (2007)

Rain began to come down in hard sheets as soon as we had crossed the bridge.  As we passed through the border gate, we saw 4 Toyota Landcruisers waiting for us and we spilled into the cars.  Our drivers were Tibetan and did not speak a lick of English. Smiles were exchanged and they quickly drove us up the hill to Zhangmu where we had to get out and go through a more formal Chinese customs process. As the tour group waited for the customs agent to let us in, two young, curious Tibetan girls walked over to us. They laughed to themselves as they took in the strange features of the foreigners in front of them. One guy in the tour group who was from Russia made the mistake of greeting the girls with the words, “ni hao,” and was quickly scolded by the girls who snarled at him in English: “We are Tibetan not Chinese!”  Everything snapped into focus with those words. The fun at the rooftop bar in Kathmandu some nights earlier disappeared in a flash. This would be different. This would be a journey into occupied land. I had seen the Dalai Lama speak in L.A. several years earlier, and I remember he implored us to visit Tibet and to witness the resilient spirit of the Tibetan people.  I was here now. I felt a heaviness – a responsibility.  I quickly learned the Tibetan words for “hello” — Tashi Delek. But, these words had not always conveyed the succinct English meaning they had only recently been assigned. These words had a deeper, more complex meaning that could not accurately be translated into English. The Tibetan language had evolved in such a way that it did not contain a simple, terse way of greeting. Instead, the existence of the Tibetan people must have been such that it had spawned a mult-layered expression for greeting one another.  A deeper message was communicated.  That stuck with me. I would be in Tibet for the next 7 days and would be traveling overland from Neyalam, Tingri, Lhatse, Xigatse, Gyantse, and finally to Lhasa. The literally uplifting and transformative power of leaving the chaos of the crowded neighborhoods of Kathmandu, crossing over the Himalayas, and arriving onto the wide open, above-the-trees plateau of Tibet would jettison me into the lucid and purpose-driven life of the Tibetan people. I became the most sober in mind and body that I had ever been at any time in my life.  There were no distractions and no boundaries — at least that’s how the first few days began.

Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face

27 Aug

Bodhnath Stupa – Kathmandu (2007)

Bodhnath Stupa rises like a giant white bubble over the flat rooftops that dominate the Kathmandu skyline. I was told Bodhnath was about 6km away from Thamel and I set out to walk there. That walk turned out to be an odyssey through slope after slope, trash heaps, crossing streams, dodging traffic, and side-stepping little Nepali dogs. When I got to the temple complex, it was surrounded by a village and curio shops run by Tibetans. There were several Tibetan monasteries spread around the area and I saw many Tibetan monks with their maroon-colored robes going about their daily activities. I followed a few of them into their monastery. It sat on a hill above Bodhnath. I could hear trumpets, the low bass tones of other horns, the tinny chimes of cymbals, and the blasts of a gong. I walked up ladder to the second floor of the monastery towards where the music was coming from and I peered through the doorway. I saw the monks playing all these instruments themselves. The music was interspersed with chanting and prayer. The pageantry, musicianship, and vocalization were heavenly and were in such contrast to the austerity of other Buddhist monasteries. When the monks stopped their service, I went back outside and looked out over the railing. Bodhnath was below me.  What struck me was the precise geometry of Bodhnath’s design. The central bubbled-shaped Stupa is so dominant that one could easily overlook the plinth it sits upon. This is a terraced platform which is in the form of a “Mandala” featuring concentric blasts of whitewashed stones jutting at precise mirroring angles. There are 4 stairways leading up each level of the rising platforms to the Stupa. This was the first Mandala that I had ever seen and to appreciate its design you had to observe it from above — either from the monastery I was standing at or from one of the rooftop restaurants of the buildings encircling the Stupa. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, but the circle is formed through a geometric diagram using a square with 4 gated entrances as the base. There is a circle contained in the center of this square and the square itself is contained with an outer circle.  Many different explanations exist for how the Mandala is invoked as part of the ritual and spiritual layering of Buddhist practice — especially in the Tibetan tradition which creates Mandalas in many different media, forms, and structures. In fact, one of the primary differences I have noticed between the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the Theraveda Buddhist school is the Tibetan Mahayana’s emphasis on color, art, and geometric splendor to convey the Buddhist path. All of these things are captured within the Mandala which can take the form of a fresco, a 3-dimensional structure, or sandpainting.  The Stupa of Bodhnath stands in the center of the Mandala. It is not certain whether this Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha which was the original purpose behind the erection of these shrines. Some believe that a piece of bone of the Buddha may be contained within Bodhnath which was built around 600 AD. The  primary base of the Stupa consists of hundreds of prayer wheels that are spun by the faithful as they complete the “kora” or circuit around Bodhnath. Each of the wheels contain the following mantra written in Sanskrit on the outside: “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Instead of having to orally chant these words, one can invoke them through spinning the wheels which releases the mantra into the universe. This mantra contains 6 syllables and each word has a duality of meaning – a yin and yang.  The current (14th) Dalai Lama has explained this mantra like this: “…the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.” When I read the mantra and the Dalai Lama’s explanation, it becomes apparent to me that the mantra acts like a “greatest hits of the Dharma”. This mantra sums up the essence of the Buddha’s journey – renunciation, the middle path, spiritual practice, and attainment of enlightenment – but personalizes it to the individual who chants it.  This idea that anyone can become a Buddha is central to the Mahayana tradition and the mantra encapsulates this concept within a mere 6 syllables.

The Eyes of Bodhnath

The most striking aspect of Bodhnath are the eyes. There are a pair of eyes painted on each of the 4 sides of the main Stupa. The depiction of eyes are unique to Tibetan Buddhist temples. None of the Pagodas, Dagobas, or Stupas that I have seen anywhere else in the world have had any human characteristics depicted on their exteriors. The core reason for the depiction of eyes comes from its connection to Mahayana Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Mahayana tradition is to not focus on the attainment of enlightenment only for the self, but to devote oneself to the enlightenment of all. Any person who is moved by such great compassion and who lives his life in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood for others is a bodhisattva. So, the depiction of the eyes on Bodhnath (or Swayambhunath – see below) is to broadcast the omnipresence of the Buddha’s teachings so that anyone can receive them. These all-seeing, never blinking eyes symbolize the universality of the Dharma which is to be shared with all people. There are no ears depicted because the Buddha did not want to hear the praise and chants of his followers, and instead of  a nose, there is a squiggle placed below and in the middle of the eyes. This is the Sanskrit representation of the number one, and, as its placement suggests, signifies the middle path.  Above each pair of eyes are 2 thick black eyebrows and in between them sits a third eye. This conveys the meditative practice Buddhism encourages in order to help purify the mind, body, and speech within oneself.

Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath sits atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. The eastern stairway that leads up to the temple is steep and is said to contain exactly 365 steps. There are so many macaques (monkeys) hopping around the wall and the steps as you get close to the temple that Swayambhunath is actually referred to as the Monkey Temple. There is a legend that a bodhisattva who lived on the hill grew his hair so long that he had a lice infestation. When he cast out the lice, they became the monkeys which now inhabit the temple complex. The sun was close to setting when I made it to the top of the stairs, and from there I noticed that I had the Stupa to myself.  Most of the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who come to Swayambhunath do so in the morning. There is a monastery on the hilltop, but I was sure the monks must have been inside having a sunset service. So, it was just me and the monkeys. Although curious, the monkeys were not the brazen kind which try to pry things from your hands or stick their hands in your pockets scrounging for food.  I did the kora around the Stupa and saw that it was flanked by 2 tall Sikhara-style temples which had been built by a Hindu King many years after the Stupa had been constructed.  These 2 flanking temples gave “Swayam-bo” (another nickname) a much different look and feel than Bodhnath.  Instead of a Mandala design, which corral visitors into 4 escalating gateways in order to circumambulate each level and gravitate towards the center, Swayam-bo is just an open circle with 2 Sikhara temples off to its left and right. The 2 temples are separate and disconnected from the Stupa. Yet, despite this separation, Swayam-bo’s design physically links the 2 great religions that came out of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is for this reason that Swayam-bo occupies an especially revered status in the minds of its pilgrims.

The Eyes of Swayambhunath

Swayam-bo’s eyes are also different.  While the eyes of Bodhnath are wide-eyed, blue, and somewhat ambivalent in their gaze, the eyes of Swayam-bo are narrowed, pale, and seem a bit cynical.  It is as if Bodhnath serves as the bigger beacon and broadly sends an “all are welcome” signal, whereas, Swayam-bo is more reserved and reticent. Swayam-bo may have a more scenic entrance than Bodhnath, but this entrance also requires the more arduous journey. It appears that one has to earn her keep in Swayam-bo’s gaze and this gaze also includes a third eye that is much more pronounced than the slight representation on Bodhnath.  The spiritual discipline and inward contemplation Swayam-bo radiates upon onlookers and pilgrims is more intense than the relaxed feel of Bodhnath. The prayer wheels around the base of Swayambhunath are more numerous, but smaller than those of Bodhnath. Each wheel carries with it the same 6-syllable mantra. I remember that when my eyes first met the eyes of Swayam-bo, I thought there was something familiar about the shape and feeling of those eyes. They penetrated through me and I could almost visualize the face that may have been behind those eyes. It was not one of the many depictions of the face of the Buddha that I had seen before. It was something or someone else. I was frustrated that despite my intense efforts at peeling through the layers of my memory, I could not place those eyes with a face from my past. I then realized it was a riddle.  The eyes, nose, and other elements of Swayam-bo may have individual symbolic meanings, but taken as a whole, there is a coordinated, veiled message there. That was what triggered the feeling of familiarity in me — there was a latent meaning that was literally staring me in the face. Bodhnath and Swayam-bo each convey the riddle differently due to their visual variations, but the understanding one can achieve after figuring out the riddle will be the same.  That is the power of these 2 Stupas and why they still stir such devotion. Their eyes beguile and beckon — they are at once fixed stares and reflective mirrors just as we are at once capable of great compassion and abject impurity.  They encourage and mind the faithful and that begets practice, method, and wisdom. Om Mani Padme Hum.


1 Aug

After many, many decades of traveling through different lands, kingdoms, villages, valleys, mountains, plains, and forests, the Buddha’s body began to fail him. He had grown old and was prone to sickness. Yet, he was determined to travel back to the place of his birth one last time. He told Ananda, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, that they would travel to Lumbini and there the Buddha would pass on. Ananda wept and protested against the Buddha’s wishes. “When the Buddha is no longer in the world, who will teach us?” Ananda asked. The Buddha admonished him thus, “What more is that you want of me? I have taught you all I know with an open hand. I have kept nothing back. There is no hidden teaching, Ananda. My teachings are your teacher now. Follow them and you will stay true to me. Take refuge in yourselves and be islands unto yourselves. Hold fast to the Dharma as an island. Hold fast to the Dharma as a refuge. Resort to no other refuge.” Ananda then went to prepare the other disciples for their trip to Lumbini. As they began the journey, the Buddha became ill, but he pressed on the best he could until his body could no longer carry him. He did not want to leave his followers without speaking to them one more time, so as they neared the village of Kushinagar he told Ananda to prepare a mat for him to lay down upon between 2 large sala trees. The Buddha slowly lowered his body onto the mat and rested on his right side with his head propped up on a cushion so he could face his disciples. Although he was just a simple monk, there was something regal about how he reclined before his followers. Others in the village heard the Buddha was near death and was preparing to give his last sermon, so they gathered around him. They too were captivated by the Buddha’s “lion pose” as it thereafter became called. The Buddha was using his frail body to teach these people about death and that there was nothing to fear. “The moment has at last come. Do not forget that death is but the vanishing of a body. The body was born from parents and nourished by food, so sickness and death are unavoidable. But, although the human body must vanish, the wisdom of Enlightenment will exist in the truth and practice of the Dharma. You who see only my human body, do not truly see me. But, you who accept my teachings, you are the one who see me. So, you to whom the truth has been made known, make yourselves masters of it, practice it, meditate on it, and teach it to the others. Satisfy your desires only in the same way that the butterfly sips nectar from a flower, but do so without destroying its fragrance or its texture. Be mindful of the truths I have tought you and actively pursue the right practices in order to keep to the eightfold path that leads to Nirvana.” As the Buddha spoke, his eyes became heavy and he started to sink into a deep meditative state. Just when it appeared the Buddha had finished, he spoke his last words: “All things must grow old and be dissolved again. Seek out the truth and work out your salvation with diligence.” The Buddha then entered into the ultimate state of bliss. Some of his disciples despaired at the thought of going on without him, but Ananda and a few others assured the rest that the truth which the Buddha had taught them would live in their minds and they could now go out into the world, preach the Buddha’s message, and continue to foster the community that would support them along the way. The disciples and village people began to anoint the Buddha’s body with perfumes and garlands. Some music even began playing while the Buddha’s body lay in its final repose. A continuous stream of people passed by in order to pay their respects. Finally, when they were ready, they lit the funeral pyre that had been placed around the Buddha and the sky turned black — not from the smoke, but because of the sudden absence of both the late day sun and early evening moon. The earth quaked and a forceful wind snaked through the forest shaking all the trees and causing flowers and leaves to fall on the ground. When the flames of the pyre had become extinguished, so had the Buddha attained Nirvana. The disciples and other people who stood over the Buddha’s remains then did something that only human beings would do. They let their feelings for the Buddha take over and they all wanted to claim a share of his earthly remains. There was an overwhelming desire these people had to stay attached to the Buddha through some physical link. Not even Ananda nor the Buddha’s other most trusted disciples were able to stop this, and instead, they ceded to this desire. They agreed to distribute the Buddha’s relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — into eight parts. Whoever received any relic would have to preserve them within the walls of specialized shrines — what became Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas — depending on the country in which these were constructed. So, although the Buddha had said otherwise, his body had not quite vanished. Instead, his relics would travel far and wide across the land and ocean and there would be stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics would make until they reached their final resting spots. And when they did reach their destinations, the most amazing shrines rose — created by the mortal hands of the faithful and the communities which supported them. For each would receive the Buddha’s message and each would take refuge.

The Elephant

17 Jul

He was born on a night with a big snowball of a moon. Luminous. Whether he sprang from the Lotus flower or the loins of the White Elephant that entered the Queen’s room – neither matters. People are wont to ascribe divinity to conception everywhere and in various contexts and so it was with him. What matters though is that he was born a man like all the rest. Yet, unlike all the rest he would be sheltered and know no struggle. His father was the head of a warrior clan and Siddhartha would lay siege to only the comforts and delights of the royal grounds at Lumbini. His father did name him Siddhartha, but not right away. The name was not given for at least 5 days or more. Was this indecision on his father’s part? Or merely the same contemplative nature that Siddhartha would himself come to know? He grew into a prince and it was expected he would take his place alongside his father and continue the Gautama line. But, then that fateful day happened. He had already married and had a son when it did. Something lacked – although he knew not what, nor was he seeking some greater understanding. Some people today may get to the point in their lives when they realize it’s not the big love that they are meant to find, but more that person or thing which makes them simply strive to be better, to work harder, to reach farther into themselves and their lots. A catalyst that leads to purpose and possibly happiness. Siddhartha didn’t reflect on such things. He didn’t need a muse, a religion, or philosophy. He was complete within the walls he lived. He had all the pleasures of the body and mind that any man would ever need — and more. Nevertheless, he sought to venture outside the walls of the palace that day and it could have been just a frivolity. A princely gallivant. His father though was not so glib about this. He had known about his son’s trip outside the palace and had ordered his men to sweep away any unseemly and undesirable sights from the road and the perimeter outside the palace. Siddhartha came out of the main gate and was met with the familiar tidy smiles on the faces of his subjects and took in the clean sweet-smelling odors permeating from the surrounding vendor stalls. He continued down the road completely unaware of the staged scene before him. Out of the corner of one of his eyes he noticed something. He stopped and walked over. Incomprehensible. He was seeing something not smooth, tight, flush, or angular. How could he know the opposite of such things when he had never seen or experienced them? “Crooked”, “frail”, “bent”. These words had never passed his lips. His long dormant instincts may have flickered for an instant and there may have been a faint recognition of what this was. But, he could only stare. They say he was 29 when it first hit.

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