A Wonder to Behold

by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2013)

Within a short time after the Buddha’s death, his followers began to bury his remains and relics underneath round buildings called Stupas. Despite the extremely simple teachings of this Hindu rebel so much of the Hindu tradition of ancestor worship and polytheism quickly crept back into this new faith, so that at times it can look indistinguishable from the tradition that it rejected. And so, I asked the project driver, a Buddhist from eastern Nepal, to take me to Swayambhunath, a large hill crowned by a Stupa and dotted with monasteries in its lower reaches. The whole complex is located on the outskirts of Kathmandu and in its upper reaches gives one a breathtaking view of the city and the surrounding wooded hills, some of which like Nagarjun are topped by their own monastery.

We parked the car in the parking lot and walked up to the entrance where as a foreigner I was asked to pay my entrance fee. I did so and we entered the complex. It is a steep hill draped with numerous monasteries, gold painted and stone statues of the Buddha and sacred enclosures comprising a visual cacophony of different statues and paintings of the Buddha in his myriad incarnations. The area was also strewn with those upright shrines called Chortens and which have become a visual symbol of all things Tibetan.

As we climbed the stairs towards the top of the hill the great white Stupa with the all-seeing eyes stood in front of us on a wide platform. It is surrounded by a myriad of smaller structures including roof top restaurants with names like Nirvana, which in turn overlook rows and rows of curio shops, which sell everything from Tibetan ritual trumpets to purses with Buddhist symbols sown on to them. They also sell a few statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, I suspect to visiting tourists who may not know the difference, but prefer the Hindu shapes.

The area was filled with various Nepali visitors, most likely Newar Buddhists from the valley and a variety of European tourists of all ages. A middle aged European woman walked round the Stupa bowing with clasped hands in front of images of the Buddha. Two much younger Germanic looking women in their twenties, respectfully inspected all and everything around them.

We circumambulated the Stupa in a clockwise manner, which from the Bhuddist point of view is auspicious, gaining merit by twirling the prayer wheels that are placed a shoulder height. Then as we sat down near a temple we were serenaded by a group of Newari Buddhists (the major ethnic group of Kathmandu valley), men and women in their middle ages singing sacred songs to the accompaniment of a harmonium and tabla. I could not distinguish the style from Hindu bhajans and perhaps the two musical styles are less different than I would like to imagine.

We entered one temple and a Tibetan looking monk walked before us praying as he went. On the sides of the walls were glass cases filled with bags, which held Buddhist scriptures, which are not kept as scrolls but as long printed pages that are wider lengthwise than vertically, strips as we would call them. We passed by gold covered and dressed statues that looked like Gods to me, but I was told that they were incarnations of the Buddha, including a photo of a man who is one incarnation and who now lives in Delhi.

We then climbed the stairs to what looked like and what was actually called the “old monastery.” It was set up in a classic Tibetan style with fierce looking Buddhist statues against one wall. On the opposite side of the room an elderly monk was tending a table of over a hundred flaming candles. The contrast between the turbulent inanimate images and statues, grimacing and carrying swords in some instances, and the abiding peace of the living monk, was palpable.

All of a sudden the monkeys, which had been scrambling here and there, the roof top cafes, the racks and rows of curio sellers disappeared from sound and sight. I was captured and calmed by the stillness of the temple, and the unhurried movements of the monk who was tending the candles. I soaked up the silence and gained a short moment of Buddhist quiet, something that I doubted I would find here, but in its surprise was all the more powerful, as just a few minutes ago I was an onlooker in the midst of this otherwise noisy and busy tourist and pilgrimage site. I wanted to hold on to that moment, freeze it or otherwise prolong it as long as I could, but I could not. Had I been a believer, or a monk I would have spent the next few weeks doing whatever had to be done to reenter that momentary secession of the flow of time, for it had been a brief, but transcendental moment.

Before I even realized what I was feeling, the two young women that I had noticed earlier broke the silence. They took off their shoes and slipped into the temple. Without fanfare or uttering a word, they began to prostrate themselves repeatedly while facing the temple wall with its myriads of Buddha statues. They did this for a full minute or more and it reminded me of the sun salutations that I have often done in Yoga class, but with a slightly different intention than that of these two visitors. I suddenly realized that these two women from the West were not tourists at all, as I had imagined them to be, but Buddhist pilgrims, visiting these shrines that have been sacred to Buddhists for two millennia if not longer.

Less than two hundred years ago the British in India and European scholars did not know that Buddhism is or was a separate religion from Hinduism. It took most of the early to mid nineteenth century for a strange assortment of scholar administrators from the Raj and Europe to “rediscover” Buddhism through obtaining manuscripts, learning the languages and translating the corpus of Buddhist religious and historical documents into French and English, until they realized that there had been and continued to exist a major world religion and civilization that had been invisible to the West for centuries, if not millennium. The most colorful among them was a Hungarian adventurer who suffered the bitter cold of Tibetan monasteries patiently translating reams of hitherto unknown Buddhist texts, while corresponding and sharing his discoveries with his British colleagues on the warm plains of India

Slowly the message of the Buddha and his followers in its most simple and its most complicated forms began to enter the consciousness of the then very Christian West. As it became more widely known, Europeans began to consider the truth-value of the faith and used it in many cases to doubt the teachings of the Church. Often, Western converts to Buddhism adopt the Buddhist “higher vehicle” the highly syncretic version of the faith followed by the Tibetans, and which includes myriads of spirits and the many incarnations of Buddha both past and present, characterized by fabulous temples and an elaborate statuary and ritual that has striking parallels to the rituals of the Vatican and in the worship of the Catholic, Muslim and Jewish saints of the Mediterranean world. In the past Westerners called this form of Buddhism Lamaism (as in the Dalai Lama) and it still engages the mythopoeic side of modern mystics, adventurers and writers.

Contemplating these young women and their ritual prostrations made me think that somehow, through a book, a speaker, a film, a disenchantment with the Church, a rejection of Jesus or through a more intense numinous experience than the one that had touched me moments before, the message of the Buddha, that is to say the Dharma and the Sangha had motivated these two twenty something European women to come to this temple and engage in a sacred act of Buddhist worship in the Nepal, the land where the Buddha himself was born and raised.

Skeptical anthropologist that I am, it was my serendipitous privilege to witness in this simple act of pilgrimage the net result of two centuries of the dissemination of Buddhist teachings among Europeans, many of whom now worship what was once the obscure and marvelous object of interest of a group of 19th century English and European scholar eccentrics, and which has counter intuitively become the living faith of a growing number of their descendants. For me it was and remains a wonder to behold; yet for the Buddha himself it would have come as no surprise.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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