Unsurprisingly, I went to bed early and fell fast asleep until about 4:00 in the morning. Why then? At first I thought it was down to the disturbed sleep pattern, but it kept happening. After a few days I realised it was at 4 o’clock in the morning that a bunch of crows started squawking for half an hour. In due course I learnt that some Nepalis believe the crows are the spirits of our ancestors, and so they feed them at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’m not quite sure if there is any actual logic there, but that’s the way I heard it.
In due course, then, I went down to the stupa, as I would go on to do most mornings, for a little bit of Buddhist practice, where I ran into Lobsang. The term “hustler” could be used here without joking. Anyway, I let him show me the new Guru Rinpoche installation, which happened to be between my guesthouse and the stupa.
A bit gaudy for my taste, though not the only one in the valley with which that word might fit. Built with Chinese money – I think it shows.
Guru Rinpoche, also known as the Lotus-Born Guru (which is “Padmasambhava”, although that form of the name seems to be a mainly western phenomenon) is widely regarded as a “second Buddha” of our age, responsible for establishing Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet.
Lobsang used his blind eye to lever a bit more money out of me than I had originally intended, saying that he “needed it for his operation”. Why he would get his eye fixed if it would mean such a loss of income was not clear, and I wasn’t surprised, before I left, to see that there had been no improvement.
Dogs. They soon made a big impression. 20 years ago, the state of the dogs here had been heartbreaking. Now they are some of the healthiest-looking street dogs I’ve seen, and seemed to take it utterly for granted that nobody meant them any harm. You feel like a rest? Well, lie down – everyone will walk round you. There are pigeons? Hey – live and let live!
Feeding the pigeons is another regular way that people earn “merit”. There are those who sell the grain, and those who give it to the birds. There are also those who like to run through the pigeons making them all fly up as a photo-up. The last group could perhaps learn something from the black dog.
The pigeon-feeding zone is also where a lone Theravadin monk (they wear orange, so you don’t get confused) would stand, still as you like, for hours on end every day, collecting alms. I was never quite cheeky enough to walk up to him and look in the bowl to see how much he got. I was a bit in awe of his patience, I suppose, and his willingness to live as a fish out of water.
Over breakfast at the Rokpa, a fellow-guest, Dick, invited me to go with him to the teachings in Kopan, which is within (longish) walking distance of Baudha. Kopan is one of the main centres under the umbrella of the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition), and as such they are “good guys” – in my book at any rate. Do not confuse them with the group that broke away from them in the nineties in England, about whom I will say no more. But I was not there for nice teachings from good guys, so although I was grateful for the friendly gesture, I was more interested in walking to Pashupatinath.
I almost did exactly that. Thanks to a combination of my own confusion with some unclear instructions, however, I only got as far as Gaurighat. The name means the “place with steps down to the river where the goddess (Parvati) went to bathe”. It’s a little upstream from the famed burning ghats, but looking at the state of the water I still wondered about the wisdom of the kids bathing and splashing in the riverbed.
I heard that the ancient – and much revered – stone statue of Hanuman, gleaming like an enormous, orange, plastic frog, is regularly anointed with a mixture of sindura powder (which may contain turmeric, mercury oxide, red lead – it all depends) and mustard oil, which hardens and encases the statue. Layers of this have built up over centuries. Well, one hears things in Kathmandu, and that was amongst them. It would be an explanation for the colour.
Across the Bagmati River I came up against the areas where only Hindus are allowed, so I walked back up the hill to Baudha, marvelled at Nepalese wiring, had a shower, and returned to the stupa zone.
There is a small Karma Kagyu temple not far from the stupa entrance, and I now looked in here for the first time. It is operated by a single monk, who keeps up the regular practices. He was happy for me to take a photograph of the main altar, but unfortunately not of the side altars, which were rather more interesting.
The Double Dorje Does Not Serve Fast Food. I had a fond, if vague, memory from 20 years earlier of ordering vegetable momos, and only then hearing the sound of chopping. It takes as long as it takes. How much had the place changed? Only one way to find out.
I fell into conversation with the only other customer, a Norwegian nun (Buddhist, for the avoidance of doubt) whose name I failed to remember; in due course a third customer drifted in, Marisa from Australia. We made a tentative plan to save some rupees by sharing a taxi for a day-trip to either Pharping or to Namo Buddha in the coming days.
Marisa had only just arrived in Kathmandu, and was hoping to find places where she could do her own practice, so after lunch I showed her the devotees’ zone around the stupa. This calls for a description:
The kora is the circular road around the stupa. On the outside of the kora – on the left as one walks round clockwise, as any good Buddhist would – it is ringed largely by shops. On the inside, on your right of course, there is a wall, a couple of metres high, into which a large number of prayer wheels are set. The wall is only broken by the two gates on either side of the shrine at the stupa entrance on the north side. One is supposed to be for going in, the other for coming out. Behind that shrine there is a small space with images and bells:
To the side of this there is a prayer wheel house containing two large prayer wheels. You can hear the sound of the bells that clang with each turn of each wheel all day long:
Devotion in these kinds of Buddhism is very concrete. Walk round holy objects like the stupa; turn the prayer wheels; ring the bells; recite mantras; prostrate; feed birds and other animals; give to beggars. It’s called “accumulating merit”, but the score isn’t just kept in some heavenly ledger – it’s something you feel in your bones.
Whether you give the wheels spin, as I usually did, or simply walk straight past the building, you then have the option of going up more steps to a higher level of the stupa. Most tourists do this. One of my teachers, however, made it clear that he feels uncomfortable about that. He didn’t say, “Oh, you shouldn’t do that”, but he did imply that to actually walk on the stupa, placing your muddy feet on the representation of the Buddha’s cosmic body, was not the best way to show reverence. You can, however, squeeze past some lamp-burning tables, a topic to which I’ll return, where you find a narrow space between the massive base of the stupa itself and the wall. The path leads all the way round the stupa. At some places it’s only a metre or so wide, at others much wider.
In the morning, I was told that devotions start from 4 o’clock, and I can vouch for it being well under way by 5 o’clock. A lot of people, mainly but not exclusively Tibetan, come down to walk round the kora a few times to get the day going. A further option is to come in behind the wall and do some slightly more elaborate practice. Prostrations are particularly popular, and there are a good number of boards there for the purpose.
Some people, like the two chöd practitioners above, are seriously locked into individual practice. The atmosphere amongst the prostrators is quiet and serious, but relaxed and good-humoured. Jokes get cracked, people will stop to share snacks and cups of tea from a large thermos. By about 6 o’clock, when the devotions are in full swing, a young Tibetan woman, dressed as if for the office, regularly comes round and puts a plastic cup of tea and possibly a bun next to all the practitioners. Just like that. Not to impress – just another way to create merit.
Anyway, after showing this to Marisa I went back to the Rokpa for a nap – this was still only day number two, after all – and browsed a few shops in the late afternoon.
I wanted to try Stupa View for an evening meal, as it had been the place-with-the-buzz on my first visit in the early 90s. This time I found it perfectly acceptable, but without much atmosphere. Being the only customer was no doubt the reason for that, and in fairness the manager did tell me that the place had been packed the night before, and that trade was now getting back almost to pre-earthquake levels. The food was also more expensive than the Friendship or the Double Dorje, and although it does indeed have a wonderful view of the stupa, it’s not the only place to offer that.
The Tibetan name of this stupa, the “Jarung Khashor”, means something like “it has been done as was said”. A version of the story of how an old poultrywoman tricked the king into granting her the necessary land can be found on Wikipedia. The king did realise that he had been outwitted, but stood by his word, hence the name.