A Wonder to Behold

by Geoffrey Clarfield (April 2013)

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 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.

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.

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.

Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.

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