Giulia and I have now returned to India, where we will be spending the next few weeks in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama and a large percentage of the Tibetan community in exile. In a way, though, we feel like we haven’t really moved all that much, since we spent our last 10 days in Nepal in the Kathmandu neighborhood of Bodhinath (or Bodha, as it’s called), which is home to the largest Buddhist stupa in the world and a thriving community of Tibetan refugees. We hear the same chants, smell the same incense, and see the same momos and soups on all the menus.
There was something very magical about Bodha, however, that’s not as present here. Maybe it was because all the activity in Bodha was centered around an enormous whitewashed dome set atop a stone platform mandala. There was so much intensity packed into such a relatively small place, while here it’s spread out along several hilltops.
While in Bodha, I felt like the stupa was a refuge where I could come anytime to find a place where my peripheral concerns would fade away. This was due in part to the ease with which I could loose myself in the legions of older Tibetans who have preserved their culture in everything from their simple but elegant clothing to the recitation of mantras and prayers whose origin lies in a different land.
One woman in particular embodied this pious tenacity, sitting in front of the stupa entrance with her mala beads in hand everyday (Giulia was here six years ago, and says the woman hasn’t budged an inch). Thousands of others filed past her every hour, many chanting the same prayers and all carrying the dignity that comes from living their ancient traditions. When I looked into their faces, I saw the living proof of the power of Buddhism, since I saw so much happiness in their faces, despite the fact they had many legitimate reasons to despair. A good portion of them have been forcibly expelled from Tibet in their lifetimes, and likely know of worse fates to befall friends and family. It’s this centeredness on the internal state in any external situation that I felt provided the core of the power of Bodha.
There were also dozens of people of all ages who expressed their faith through prostrations. It was an amazing display to see them raise their hands to their heads, throats, and hearts while chanting mantras. They would then lay themselves out completely flat before standing up, walking three steps, and repeating. Some of them wore full length smocks to provide a little cushioning, along with wooden blocks that acted as gloves to protect the hands. I was fascinated watching them, since it would sometimes take hours to go around the 400m perimeter of the stupa. I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to feel the way they do, and understand what it would like to be so devoted to a religion that leads one to do such a difficult and humbling task.
One of the other more fascinating characters was a man who took it upon himself to make provide an ambient odor by swinging a large box of burning juniper bush and other shrubs.
Owing to his choice of devotional activity, he was always enveloped by a mysterious smoke that shrouded him like a man emerging from the underworld. His work enhanced and complimented the little shops along the way that continually played “Om Mani Padme Hum” or some other chanting at all times, since he ensured that the normally overlooked sense of smell was as stimulated as all the others. Everyday, without fail, he made the rounds swinging his olfactory pendulum for hours (even in the rain, he took an umbrella). Like so much else in Bodha, I looked at him and wondered, where else in the world would someone like this be able to do something like this?
If the pious Tibetans were main part of the dish, there were many other elements that added a little spice to the scene. Take the dogs, for instance. I don’t know if it was my own idiosyncratic fascination with them, but just watching the small, four legged community exist alongside the humans (whose garbage provided their sustenance) gave me endless pleasure. Each one of them also looked like they had a story to tell, and I was sad not to be able to understand what’s going on inside their heads- especially the one who we frequently saw tip-pawing atop the thin exterior wall at night, whining as though he’d like to get down, but who just liked my hands when I tried to help him. His friends spent their days lounging in the sun, and the devotees avoided them like water going round a rock.
And let me not forget about the pigeons, whose cooing provided a constant background noise, and whose pooing stained many patches of the ground white.
The Tibetans considered it auspicious to give them food, so vendors would set up every day with small buckets of rice and corn that people would then throw into the flock. The children delighted in dispersing the bird crown by running full speed toward them, and someone even set up a little fence around the pigeon area that had at its center- I kid you not- a kiddie pool so the birds could bathe.
In our own small way, along with scores of other foreigners, we became part of this community as well. Although we came from a very foreign culture, we were nevertheless invited to participate in the ongoing ritual that was everyday life there. Maybe that’s why I felt such a strong energy, and why I felt so peaceful in the stupa’s shadow: there, people participated in something larger than themselves in a wholesome and meaningful manner. Giulia remarked that in the west, the closest equivalent to something like this is a football match, since sports are one of the only times (perhaps apart from shopping) where people gather in such numbers to focus on the same thing. Even though I had trouble with the idea that going round the stupa and spinning the hundreds of prayer wheels inlaid in the exterior wall “created merit,” at least all the rituals here provided a framework for people to practice unselfish activity that will ultimately create the conditions for happier individual lives and a more equitable society.
Given the terrible things that people are capable of in large groups, Boudha is an example of how we really can channel our energy into something different that’s trying to make best use of this precious human existence.