Without Cost: Buddhist Slice of Life for the Clueless…Visit to Nepal

July 20, 2014 at 10:45 am

Often we impose extremely high standards on “spiritual or religious” people that they cannot possibly meet.  We are all made from the same clay.  I was confronted by this reality as well as many many other surprises  as Kathleen, Martin and  I observed the Buddhists in Katmandu.  You think that you know something only to find that you are really clueless!

There are many monasteries and Buddhist Stupas here.  Stupas were created when Buddha’s ashes were distributed among his 8 disciples and they buried his ashes in the ground.  Mounds of dirt were formed which over time turned into small and then large hills.  At some point, the Buddhists dug up and distributed the ashes across Asia and 80,000 stupas were built.   One of the largest stupas in the world is in Katmandu.    People walk clockwise around the stupa spinning prayer wheels that are built into the wall.  The wheels contain prayers.  Apparently, after a believer spins the wheel, the prayer within the wheel will be consider as said by the believer as long as it spins.

Also, built into the wall of the Stupa was a figure of Ganesh.  The story of Ganesh involves Shiva and Parvati.  Shiva is one of the most popular of the 3 million Hindu godsand counting.  Parvati is his wife.  One day Parvati wanted to take a nap and she formed a little boy out of wax or clay depending which story you read.  She put him outside her door and told him not to let anyone disturb her.  When Shiva came home, he wanted to see Parvati and found this annoying little boy who refused him entry.  He proceeded to decapitate him and go into his wife.  Parvati was angry.  She did not appreciate being disturbed and was upset to find Ganesh beheaded.  Shiva sought to make amends by killing an elephant and placing the head of the elephant on the body of the boy and bringing him back to life.  Ganesh is extremely popular as well and is the subject of prayers.  Folks pray to him whenever they start a new undertaking and ask him to remove all obstacles that stand in the way of success.  I was very surprised to see Ganesh on a Buddhist stupa since I did not think Buddhists believe in any god or gods.  Based on reading the Dalai Lama, I know that he does not accept the idea of a First Mover and views the universe as uncreated.   Our guide is an anthropologist and he shared that  there are a variety of forms of Buddhism and perhaps no particular orthodoxy.  He stated that 70 percent of the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs are held in common.  He used reincarnation and karma as examples.  So once again, we are confronted by the multiplicity or chaos of beliefs in the East.

The stupa is surrounded by a commercial area with Tibetan arts and crafts, restaurants, guest houses, and temples or monasteries.  We walked into one temple where we were handed some incense to burn in front of a Buddha.  We were encouraged to say a prayer and then offered a blessing by one of the monks.  I passed.   In exchange for the blessing, there is an expectation that one would make a donation.  When we saw the Dalai Lama in Minneapolis last March, someone asked him for a  blessing for the audience.  He said that as a Buddhist, blessings do not really make sense.  He was referencing that his school of Buddhism is not theistic.   10 minutes later as he wrapped up his talk and was shaking people’s hands from the stage like the rock star that he is, he took his scarf and gave it to a person and said “Here is my blessing.”    So I was surprised to see these Buddhists give blessings.  Struck me as at odds with the Dalai Lama and also as a commercial transaction.  Reminded of the Church selling indulgences prior to the Reformation.

Later in another part of the city, we saw Sadhus.  Sadhus are Hindu holy men who are supposed to be ascetics and live in the woods or the mountains.  They are very colorful.  Their bodies are smeared with yellow and red colors and their hair can reach the ground.  At first, I wanted to take a picture, but our guide indicated that there would be an economic cost.  Our guide explained that these guys are commercial sadhus.  The real sadhus are hermits who live in the forests and mountains.  He said that during the high season, the proportion of sadhus in Katmandu are in direct relationship to the number of tourists.  Since this is the peak ( or depth) of low season, there are only a few.  One of them encouraged us to take his picture, but I did not have any small bills and passed.

As we walked around the city, we would see monks of all ages.   Like India, there are many stray dogs here.  At a café where the monks were sitting outside, one of the dogs started barking at another dog.  As the dog barked and bared his teeth from underneath a plastic chair, I witnessed a monk grab a plastic chair and with much anger slam it into the concrete next to the dog 2 or 3 times.  One of the other monks tried to restrain him.

As part of our tour, we visited the home of a living goddess.  Please note that I said “LIVING GODDESS.”  The Buddhists take a young girl between the age of 3 and 6  from her family to be raised by another family in a small palace.  She must be a Buddhist, beautiful and have no scars.  Normally a few girls are chosen and then brought before the monks for one in particular to be chosen.  It is a great honor for the family to have their daughter chosen.  No one is allowed to take pictures of her except when she is carried on a throne by the people through the city during a festival.   She will live in the palace until her first menstruation at which time she is returned to her family with a pension.  Generally, no one wants to marry her for fear that she may still possess a bit of the  goddess.  Buddhists believe that if a human mates with a goddess, death will follow.   Martin said that he would have no such concerns and that the pension would make her even more attractive.

We almost stayed at a guest house connected with a Buddhist monastery.   However, we are spoiled.  The lack of air conditioning combined with  100% humidity caused us to relocate to a Hyatt Regency.   Before we relocated,  I asked one of the monks about Ganesh.  He said that Shiva, Ganesh, etc are lesser deities for them.  They  view them differently than the Hindus.  He said that they are lesser than the Buddha.   Another surprise to hear the Buddha described as a deity.

When we arrived at a 5 star Hyatt Regency, I was surprised to find monks in the lobby.  Somehow does not jive with my image of Buddhist monks living austere lives in monasteries or mountain caves in the Himalayas.

At the end of the day, all religions or expressions of spirituality are subject to the same proclivities of our human natures.   There are many beliefs and concepts that the major religions hold in common.  Apparently, there are also many pious and/or  superstitious practices that we humans bake into our spiritual rituals and observations.    I should not be surprised that monks and common people find a way to make a buck from any religion’s practitioners.

I suspect that our inspirational leaders would be surprised with what their followers have done and how their message has been transformed and often obfuscated.  After 2 days of touring Katmandu and getting ready to depart,  Matthew 10: 7-15  was the daily reading of the Church :

“Jesus said to his Apostles:  ‘As you go, make this proclamation:  ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.  Without cost you have received;  without cost you are to give.’”

Without cost.

Lord, thank you for the many gifts that you have given us without cost.  The gifts of life, love, truth, meaning, purpose, fulfillment, joy.  May we share these gifts with others without expectation of return.  Help us bring your love and the  light of your truth to the circumstances, events, people and animals of our life today.  Thank you also for your followers today who continue to cure the sick, cleanse the lepers and stand up against injustice and the forces of evil.