For me, Boudha is the beating heart of Kathmandu. My spiritual home is here. This is a place where many Tibetan refugees settled after fleeing from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. As they were forced to flee, the tried to rebuild their culture here and in reality their culture is Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism. The high lamas came and rebuilt their monasteries here. Why did they come to Boudha – because of the Stupa which was built in Nepal centuries before. No-one really knows who is responsible for building this amazing monument or why, There are a number of explanations offered – historical and likely fictional. Who knows the reason. Does it matter. No. Its just here and it is absolutely stupa-endous.
I feel totally in love with this place when I first entered through the Boudha Gate so many years ago. I knew about it from that world renowned traveller’s bible aka The Lonely Planet and I walked here from the Hindu heart of Nepal, Pashupatinath. At that time I was just in total awe of the people who were circumambulating around the great stupa (kora). At that time the majority of people were older, men and women wore traditional Tibetan clothing and so many spun prayer wheels in the their round hand and held a Mala (string of beads) in the left. Their jewellery was jaw dropping with large chunks of turquoise or coral in theirs ears or worn on their silver belts. Some of the men even wore their long hair embroiled with long red silk tassels wound around the circumference of their heads with the tassel hanging down onto the left shoulder. These guys were instantly recognisable as the Khampas (the feared fighting men) from the Kham region of Tibet. I could have sat and watched them for hours but back in those days I was stupid enough to stay in Thamel so had to leave at the end of the day.
Another very fond memory I have of the stupa is from my first stay at Kopan Monastery perched on the top of Kopan Hill. Before it grew to what it is now, I remember sitting up stairs in the very old dining room looking down at the stupa. It was a full moon and the whole stupa was lit by candles places around the first level of the base. Totally magical and totally memorable. Over the years, night lighting of the stupa has changed from candle, to nothing, to full on. This year I was fortunate enough to be here for full moon. Full moon is reguarded as a very auspicious time at the stupa and many things happen here a result. One of the things is the offering of coloured lights.
The thing with the stupa is that in many ways it is actually mesmerizing. Those eyes (which represent to the two wings of Buddhism – wisdom and compassion) follow you no matter where you are on the kora. Sometimes it feels as though they are following you even when you aren’t they as they are so piercing you can easily recall them. The stupa appears to have many moods but really she is like a mirror reflecting what weather surrounds her.
Life happens around the stupa. As I have already alluded to, people walk around the stupa and do this morning and late afternoon. As they do this some will mutter mantras , some will turn the numerous prayer wheels located around the base. Some will even do full length prostrations. Each has their own motivation for completing their kora.
At the front of the stupa there is a small Tamang (an ethnic group of Nepal) temple dedictated to Hariti, the goddess of smallpox. Either side of this temple are the gate allowing access to the inner sanctum of the stupa. On the ground level practitioners do various different Buddhist practices. Some do repeated full length prostrations. As an aside, I was shocked this time to see that the prostration boards are now like those at Bodh Gaya where people leave their things on the board and cover them with plastic when not using them. A bit like a towel on a sun bed a resort. It says “mine” very loudly and “stay away”. What happens to those who want to do prostrations but don’t have a board on which to do them.
Other practices that people may do around the base of the stupa include mantra recitation with a prayer wheel, which has many printed manta inside so each turn multiplies the merit of mantra recitation or offering the mandala which is a universal representation of the Buddhist world. This is considered a very meritorious practice of generosity. Like prostrations (aimed at reducing ego), it is of the 4 x 100,000 which are undertaken before receiving the higher teachings of vajrayana teachings. They are designed to each have an effect on the mind thereby making it ready to really embark on the path of Buddhist training.
Up on the higher levels of the stupa, people recite prayers and make various sorts of offerings
On the outside of the stupa there are a number of large prayers wheels that people walking around turning the wheel as they go. Or they may sit under a prayer wheel and recite prayers. Small monetary offerings to the monks reciting prayers
The lighting of butter lamps occurs every night. There are a number of people who have stands of lamps and every night they set their lamps up hoping that someone will come along and light one or more. There are always a few regular providers but on the morning of the full moon, I was totally stunned to how many tables of lamps there were. I have never in all my time seen so many. Made for interesting walking around the stupa as space was almost at a premium. In fact it was almost funny standing up on the stupa looking down – there were layers of people dependent on activity. On the very outside was the makeshift market that sets up in the morning when the shops are closed, the walkers who were just walking from A to B, tthe butter lamp holders, the rows of beggars waiting to get their small monetary offering, and then those in the throng of kora walkers.
The beggars come down to the stupa every morning and sometimes at night. As I have already stated practicing generosity is considered a very beneficial activity (provided the motivation is correct) so in the case of the beggars it is really a win win for everyone. Its easy enough to give a little bit to everyone as there are money changers situated around the stupa. They sit there with notes all bundled up into 1000 rupee (AUD 12.50) bundles in whatever denomination you want. If you want to give to more people, get 5 rupee notes. If you want to give more to less. I strongly suspect that there are more desirable positions to sit to if you are beggar in order to maximize your cash yield. If you sit to left of either entry (the Boudha Gate or the Tamang Temple), those who have just arrived will be cashed up and the likelihood of missing out is less. Its a really interesting experience to do this. A few things become very apparent. Some are extremely grateful for whatever you get. The people who are blind (and there a lot of them) can easily miss out for obvious reasons. The mothers with young children are rather aggressive and will actually demand more or that the same amount be given to their baby. And then there are the crafty ones. These guys receive their money, leave the line only to rejoin the end hoping to receive more. Some aren’t very happy when you are onto their game and fain displeasure that you haven’t given to them. I wouldn’t mind so but much when you only have so many notes, why should they have an advantage on some who may actually be much more disadvantaged. So look everyone in the eye when you are giving money – it not only humanizes the experience but makes it more even. Its also nice to do this with equanimity so everyone benefits. Until the money runs out that is. I have to confess, I skipped a section so I had some money to give to that those at the end of the kora. The whole thing is a great experience although it also gives you some insight as to how it must feel to be an ATM.
Back to the butter lamps. Because I like them and they make for great photos.
Now if there is fire, there is normally smoke. Yes? Well in this case there is. Smoke offerings are very popular either through burning incense or burning dried fragrant vegetation. Some people carry around an individual incense burner which is swung around whilst you walk or buy stuff to put into the big burner. The individual burner has an effect on those around almost choking you with smoke which is hard to get away from. The big burner placed outside the Tamang temple really packs it out but you walk a wide birth around and escape the worst. And to think the locals stand in front of this smoker, lean forward to be closer and wave the smoke over their heads so to receive a blessing (think I would rather be donged on the head with a text or buddha). The funny thing with all this smoke is that your clothes never seem to smell of it when you are in Boudha. But when you get home and open your bag, there is no doubt that you have been mixing it with incense and smoke. The smell just pours out of your bag just like the smoke in the burner allowing you to make fragrant offerings to the buddha in the comfort of your own home.
And yet there is still more that happens. There are times when one or more to the monastery will hold special prayer ceremonies outside the stupa. They erect a large tent, create an alter that statues and tormas (which are specific offerings usually created from barley flour and other ingredients and then decorated in centuries old ways). There is always a senior monk who sits on the high throne and officiates over proceedings. The Tibetan Buddhists really do do pomp well.
The monks recite their prayers all day long. Although they might always pay as much attention as they ought. I saw another heart warming moment at the and of this prayer festival (Monlam). At the conclusion of special prayers ceremonies the monks are given offering in the form of tsog. Tsog is usually what people donate and most often things like noodles, biscuits and the like. Three of the young monks were walking around the stupa towards the gate when they passed some beggars who had begging bowls. They each put their tsog into one of the bowls without even appearing to think about it.
Some of the monks also offer corn to the infamous pigeons of Boudha. If the flock takes off at once, the air movement is enough to blow anyone’s hair. Offerings are a practice of generosity in order to gather merit and reduce attachment.
With all this life happening around the stupa (and I have even touched on the tour group day trippers, nor am I going to) you would think that everyone just blends in. Not so. Some I recognised people as soon as I arrived. And there are always some stand outs. Typically in the past I have found them to usually be westerners who have adopted some form of tibetan or buddhist clothing, made it their own, and as a result, make themselves instant standouts. This years contenders however were not westerners. The first was a woman who I first spotted sitting under the big bell. Her attire was certainly very different and something like a cross between a sharman and dakini (very powerful beings in the buddhist world). She sat there reciting mantras, closing her eyes and at times looking around. I only once saw her engage with someone (a tibetan woman gave her money) and she was so gentle and gracious. After that I saw her every day. She would come and go, sometimes sit here, sometimes there, sometimes face one way and sometimes another. Regardless of where she was she was always to object of attraction for some curious onlooker. Not surprising as she really as beautiful and intriguing. I would love to know her story. In the words of some lamas, “you never know who anyone is.” If anyone out there does, please let me know.
Now the other character. This guy got lots of attention for obvious reasons. I first saw him standing under the big bell. He was standing somewhat aggressively and surrounded by people looking at him. The expressions on peoples face when they saw him ranged from “what the hell” to “you have got to be kidding”. Some of the older monks faces were just priceless. At time, there was some sort of indiscretion that happened and Mr Coin started to pump up his chest and start to take the other guy on. Who knows what that was about. On another day when he was posing under the bell he unveiled a sign he had been carrying identifying his purpose. The coins on his suit came from 206 countries and as he was a self declared nomad, he was trying to collect money so he could travel to those 206 countries. Umm, yeah right. He didn’t get much for his time at the stupa and neither did he get much time. The stupa guards with their loud whistles and big sticks moved him on pronto each time he appeared and eventually he stopped coming. Dreams are free. But you never know who anybody is. If nothing else he must be quite strong as wearing that suit must be quite a chore, it must weigh a ton.
I could keep going on and on about this place for I even even mentioned what the lanes are like around the stupa. But in the interests of you dear reader, I will not. I said at the very beginning of this monologue that Boudha is a place with a heart. I really do feel that and for me that heart beats strongly. In truth, it is Boudha and the monasteries, one in particular, that is the drawcard for me which regularly has me booking tickets to Kathmandu. I once said there are other places in the world I want to go to but the problem is that my plane just keeps stopping at Kathmandu. Perhaps, just perhaps, you now have a sense as to why that is.