In the Office of Commerce and Trade, I sit upon a worn upholstered chair in silent observation. He is entrenched in a heated conversation with government officials; complete with hand motions, impassioned tones, smiles and finger waving. The walls are tinted yellow and probably have not been painted since they banned indoor smoking. After a half hour, I am told we need a letter from me, but sent from the States, if my partner in Kathmandu is to receive the award from the President of Nepal on our behalf.
We drive back from Pattan and stop for lunch at Tuk-Che, the city’s best destination for thali. Lunch is not a rushed sort of thing, it is a mandatory hour long affair. Thali (dal bhat) has recently been my main meal of the day. It consists of a rice mound served on a stainless steel platter, accompanied by five to seven small steel bowls, each containing a separate side. Meat choices consist mainly of chicken and mutton, followed by lentils (dal), greens, lightly curried cauliflower, potatoes, chilies, pickled vegetables, possibly yogurt… and a small plate of fresh veg slices of radish, carrot, onion, cucumber and lime. Typically, dishes are poured conservatively on the mound of rice, as to absorb the sauce. My method is different and needs some work: dal dumped on rice, meat on dal, vegetables on meat and so on. I am certain of the barbaric appearance of my approach, but this is the current limit of my evolving central Asian table manners.
When the food quality is tight, it is eaten by (a well washed) hand. Pinched fingers scoop the rice and the thumb directs the food into the mouth when done correctly. Learning to use my hands to eat in this manner reminds me of learning to use chopsticks. Most of the food falls back on the plate. No matter, the food is delicious, and I enjoy that I can lick my fingers without feeling self-conscious in the least.
We clean our hands with fresh cut lime and warm water in a sterling dish and hop back in the car. Another 15 minutes of bent alleys and bumpy roads and we are at the office. Only 90 minutes until Nepali tea time. Also mandatory.
Every morning that I walk my child to the school bus, we also benefit from a visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We live a hundred meters from Boudhanath, the Great Stupa. It is a pilgrimage for Buddhists, locals, and tourists from across the globe. To say that this place is magical is an understatement. It is holy ground for Tibetans living in Nepal. In all ways they center themselves and their daily lives around the Stupa.
Monks and the faithful arrive as early as four in the morning to circumambulate clockwise around the outer wall of the stupa. It is called “Kora”. They move at varying speeds as they turn prayer wheels and chant their mantras, counting repetitions on the beads of their malas. The most devout take a single step and lay flat on the ground in full prostration, stand once more and bring hands together in prayer at their forehead. Taking next step in the same manner, they repeat all the way around, amidst the low hum of OM MANI PADME HUM and shuffling feet.
Boudhanath in the early hours is a place of prayer and contemplation, just as it is for meeting in the evening hours. It is a place of quiet compared to the noisy streets, as horns and rattling engines are fended off from intrusion outside of the main gate. On the outer perimeter, merchants sell their handicrafts and various sundries. Numerous cafes and restaurants welcome tourist to rooftop views. Shops sell thangkas, Buddha statues, singing bowls, and other prayeraphernalia*. Dogs bark and roam in packs, while crippled beggars and false holy men blend seamlessly into the set. The roaring plane and a murder of crows look down on this great mandala. For rumors of protest and self-immolation, police stand ready with riot gear. A nun lies down in full prostration.
Pigeons are fed en masse, incense is burnt, and offerings are made to the backdrop of monastic instrumentation. Cymbals clasp, drums pound, and horns and trumpets cry out…the overwhelming sound of the puja first transmitted to me via the Beastie Boys is now part of my daily existence. Wild teens stop at a statue to bow in reverence, a boy’s third eye touches the feet of Padmapani, a thumb touches a tikka.
Some say a great lama, an ancient Buddha, lives here…that was the rough translation from an unwanted guide who was really trying to get some money for what he needed. I have heard that among many great treasures, relics from enlightened ones do in fact reside deep inside this holy place. Upon entering the gate of the outer wall, the mandala reveals itself. Nooks for meditation, prostration and offerings of flowers, water, incense, fruit, and candles give way to the next platform of the structure. On the higher plane, my mind quiets as the great dome rises. The Judgment Eyes look out in four directions. Through the stares are the towering stairs that represent the one path of enlightenment…the path that transcends all suffering, the elements, time and space.
The first trip I made to Nepal was in my early twenties. Boudha was the place I came to identify as my home away from home. I sold the car my father gave me to make the trip from Florida, where I was living at the time. I wanted to do it my own way, pay my own way (Thanks Dad, I understand the irony of that thought now). I finally had the means to explore my interest in Nepal and Tibetan Buddhism, a profound interest seeded within the first days of moving to Baltimore.
Truly green and fresh off the bus from New Jersey in 1994, I was directionless out of high school and living with off of my uncle. Through random coffeehouse encounters, I found my way into a SoWeBo bookstore. I was mostly looking for something else, but to break the ice I awkwardly explained to the store’s proprietor that I sought a book on some kind of mysticism. I was really into the psychedelic experience, so any help I could get would be much appreciated. The tall lanky dreadlocked owner was happy to point me–this blonde-mopped, “Praise Jah” T-Shirt wearing kid–in the right direction. There were three things I took away that day, two of which have lasted through now. One was a Yidam, and the other was The Tibetan Book of the Dead. I read and re-read each page of the book, trying to grasp the imagery of the text. I generally got the psychology and philosophy, but I didn’t get the flesh eating demons and the multi-colored gods. However, it was that experience of opening a gateway into a continually unfolding world of chance meetings, synchronistic events, and other such coincidences that eventually lead me to Nepal.
To say I am a Buddhist would be an overstatement. If I am ever unsure, all I need to do is talk to a practicing Buddhist to find out exactly how much I do not know. At the same time, I most identify with the tenets of Buddhism as a way of life, to become the fullest version of what I am by nature. It is through this channel, by this vehicle of life that I ended up doing what I do, and being here at this moment.
*I googled “prayeraphernalia” and am VERY disappointed to find out I did not invent this word.
Yidam – a spiritual friend and guide