I pay my 500 rupees at the kiosk for permission to continue. As I continue down the side street from the north, I suddenly see Boudhanath Stupa. The experience is like walking amongst downtown Atlanta’s skyscrapers, turning a corner and suddenly seeing Mercedes Benz Stadium. Or, like walking in downtown London, turning the corner, and seeing all of a sudden St. Paul’s Cathedral. I don’t see all of the stupa for it consists of three large platforms which support the spherical dome of the stupa and its spire rising almost 120 feet.
I’m drawn to the stupa; I’ve been there seven or eight times during my stay in Boudha, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Others are drawn to the stupa. We all circumambulate, walk clockwise, around the stupa. We are a motley crew. There are elderly Tibetan women in traditional dress.
There are the elderly Tibetan men usually in less distinctive garb. There are young and middle-age Nepalese in the global clothes of bluejeans, casual slacks, and a pullover shirt or sweater.
Of course, there are the Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in their distinctive maroon robes.
Several times I’ve seen the monks circumambulate while prostrating, standing, and prostrating again.
There are westerners who have become Buddhist nuns.
There are those westerners who have “gone native” in the language of British colonialists
There are others drawn to the stupa who don’t circumambulate. There are monks providing horoscope readings, monks sitting on benches chanting a mantra over and over.
There are monks simply hoping for a gift to be placed in front of them; there is a monk on crutches who probably wishes he could join the informal procession, or who is glad to have some time away from the procession!
There are the merchants selling Buddhist items as well as T-shirts; ; there are the women selling bowls of corn for individuals to feed the hundreds of pigeons; there are the four police officers keeping watch over the crowd. And, there are the kids, chasing the pigeons are simply staring at the spectacle.
Besides the clothes, I notice the Buddhists’ actions. They are slowly moving their mouths, like the driver in the car behind me whose lips are moving as she sings along with a song on the car radio. Often the words are “Om Mani Padme Hum” which means “Praise to the Jewels in the Lotus.” Some Buddhists are twirling small, handheld prayer wheels which includes a mantra inside the cylinder. I’m drawn to the stupa whether morning or evening because of this sense of activity, of doing something in their prayer. Of course, these individuals aren’t unique. At the Western Wall and synagogues, standing Orthodox Jews bend, bob, and turn 360 degrees acknowledging God is the God of the four directions; at Mecca and in mosques, Muslims stand prostrate, and kneel as they pray to Allah.
After one of my morning prayer visits, I googled the stories behind Boudhanath. As expected, I read several mythic stories about its origin. An elderly woman asked the king if she could have no more land than the skin of a water buffalo. The king granted her wish. The sly elderly woman cut the buffalo’s skin into small strips, large enough to obtain the land for a future stupa. Another story related that during a severe drought astrologers told the king that only a sacrifice of the most perfect man would satisfy the gods and bring water. The king tells his son to go to a specific place the next night and decapitate the person lying there. When the young prince dutifully obeys his father, he is horrified that his father is the one to be decapitated. Yet, the son fulfills his father’s command and when the deed is done, water comes to the kingdom. While I love mythic stories, the more realistic explanation is that the shortest trade route between Tibet and Kathmandu passed nearby!
Jigme Choeden Sherpa, the manager of the hotel in which I’m staying, tells me that her mother visits the stupa every morning. She’ll usually walk three rotations symbolizing the Three Jewels of Buddhism, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Ms. Sherpa laughs when she adds “The most important part of the ritual is meeting her friends for morning tea afterwards.” Besides this daily morning ritual, the walking and the tea, her mother makes sure that she is there for the Buddhist special days such as the Buddha’s birthday, enlightenment, or his passing away.
“Why does your mother walk?” I asked Ms. Sherpa. She responds “She likes the exercise and the company of her friends.” I sensed her hesitation, but she continues “She believes that she is doing a good deed when she walks.” Regrettably, I do not ask her to explain her words. As with any religious action, Ms Sherpa would have begun to explain her mother’s action in Buddhist terms. She might have explained that her mother as a Tibetan Buddhist hopes to gain the attention of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig, the embodiment of Compassion, who between the passing of Sakyamundi, the historical Buddha of our era and the coming of Maitreya, the future Buddha guards this world. Furthermore, in thinking of Chenrezig, her mother herself might feel more compassionate. And, of course, such feelings would hopefully lead to more intentional acts of compassion.
When I return to the stupa, I think of Ms. Sherpa’s mother. Since I’m frequently there by 7 am, I wonder if she is one of the elderly women whom I watch and with whom I walk. I know that some would think: “These women have nothing better to do. I know better than to engage in silly rituals.” Rituals though are a part of life. I am caught up in rituals. I have my morning coffee; I brush my teeth; I check my email; I walk the same two or three routes for my morning walk. I can’t imagine constantly deliberating about my decisions and actions each moment of the day. Rather than being hyperconscious, I want some of my actions to be habitual. Furthermore, while I am not Buddhist, I know that being religious involves more than, but not less than, stories, proverbs, parables, rules, and so much more. Being religious involves individuals engaged in actions whose varied actions are shaped by the language of that religion. Like others in other religions, Ms. Sherpa’s mother does something informed by her Buddhist stories and convictions. Who knows, maybe those daily circumambulations which make sense to her with the language of the Bodhisattva of Compassion enable her to show a bit more compassion to herself, to her daughter, to her friends!
I like visiting and revisiting Boudhanath. During every visit, I notice somebody new. I see an action that I hadn’t seen before. During every visit, I find myself praying. Like the Buddhists here, as one who is simply an orthodox Christian, I have my own morning prayer rituals. My prayers, the Jesus Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, aren’t the prayers of the Buddhists here at Boudhanath Stupa. Yet, maybe because I have appreciated attending meditation sessions over the years at Atlanta’s Dharma Jewel Monastery, I find a kindred spirit in those strangers with whom I walk side-by-side. Maybe I don’t have rosary beads and prayer wheels as they do, even if their beads are sometimes wrapped around a cane, but I share a spirit with them which comes from walking together around Boudhanath, and maybe something more.