Eric Weiner explores Buddhism in Kathmandu
Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar and practitioner, writes of “patterns of meaningfulness.” He was describing religion but could just as easily have been referring to travel. Travel is often misconstrued for escapism, but that is not right, or rather it is only half-right. We fling ourselves halfway around the globe not to fall apart but to come together, to create new patterns of meaningfulness. Every traveler has a routine. Mine at Boudha Nepal Himalayas in Kathmandu is this: I wake at 5:30 a.m., splash some water on my face then stumble downstairs, past the guard pretending he wasn’t just sleeping, out the front door and join the already significant number of people circling the Giant Marshmallow. I’ve grown to appreciate mornings. At dawn, anything seems possible; disappointment rarely shows its face before noon.
At this hour, too, there are no tourists. It’s just me and a few hundred Tibetans, going round and round, always clockwise. I’m grateful that this decision is made for me. Otherwise, I’d be paralyzed, wondering which is the more spiritually propitious direction. It feels good to walk, to sense the ground beneath my feet, to take in the “Suchness” of the place, as a Buddhist would put it. The light is milky and soft, the sun only beginning to peek above the horizon. I hear the clickety-clack of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras, the flutter of pigeons flapping their wings, the clanking of store shutters yanked open, the chortle of spoken Tibetan. And, always, that soundtrack to Boudha, seeping out of every trinket shop and chai stand, or hummed aloud by the circumambulators: Om Mani Padme Hung. It is the best known of the Tibetan mantras. It means literally “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.” The lotus flower grows in muck and mud yet blossoms clean and beautiful. It’s a nice, Buddhist sentiment—the world, I suppose, being the muck and we being the flower, but what I like most about it is simply the way it sounds in Tibetan, the vibrations. The mantra worms itself into my mind and I find myself chanting it without realizing that I’m doing so.
Sound is more primal than visuals. Our ears wander less than our eyes. That is why so many religions contain auditory components: Christian hymns, Shamanic drumming, Koranic recitations and, of course, Buddhist mantras. Tibetan, along with Sanskrit and Arabic, is a vibration language. The words convey meaning on a primal, intuitive level. A mantra is, as Lama Yeshe put it, “inner sound.” Or, as my Buddhist friend James said of his own mantra, assigned to him by his heart teacher, “I feel every syllable in my body.”
I’m hearing voices. James’s in particular. I recall his advice to visualize enlightenment, like Michael Jordan making a free throw. The truth is, during my short-lived basketball days, I was always much better at rebounding than shooting. In football, I was always a receiver, never a quarterback. I’m very good at responding to objects, reacting to phenomena already in motion. I’m much less good at initiating. Spiritually speaking, I see how this is a problem. I’m waiting for a push, when maybe I need to push myself, to create my own momentum. I decide to start with a prayer wheel, one of the many that line the perimeter of the stupa. I curl my fingers around its metal base and jerk my wrist. It moves. A start, I think.I continue to walk, round and round, until my legs tire and my mind settles. That’s what I like about this circumambulating. It’s open-ended, freestyle. There’s no priest or rabbi dictating the proscribed number of circuits. You walk until you no longer desire to do so.
On my eighth lap, or maybe my ninth, I pull over like I’m exiting a freeway, and dip into my breakfast spot, an unassuming place called the Saturday Cafe. It has a nice patio with a spot-on view of the stupa, or the Giant Marshmallow, as I’ve come to think of it. I take my seat—always the same seat, close to the stupa but not too close—order the banana pancakes and crack open a book. Today, it’s one by Lama Yeshe. At one point he says, “Basically, your mind is weak.” I’m wondering how he knows that. Had we met? Now he is talking about the ego, that thing that schools and parents try to fortify in the name of “self-esteem.” Only Lama Yeshe, like all Buddhists, believes that the ego is the enemy. “We dedicate all our energy to our ego and what do we get in return? What does our ego offer us? Mental pollution. It brings us a foul suffocating smell in our minds [so] that there’s hardly room to breathe.”
He has a point. We strive to meet our goals, exceed our objectives, and yet we’re miserable. There is another way, he continues, a way that leads to—and this bit I love—“the inner nightclub of everlasting joy.” That is one club I would definitely frequent. And then I wonder: Is there a cover charge at The Inner Nightclub of Everlasting Joy? Bouncers? Buddhists, I suppose, would say, yes, there is a cover charge: diligent meditative practice. That is the price you must pay in order to enter. And, yes, there is a bouncer. Your ego. It’s a particularly treacherous bouncer, one that pretends to be your friend but then beats you silly.
I put the book down, sip my very American coffee and take in the scene below. Several older women are prostrating. Arms stretched outward, diving to the ground in a sweeping motion. Then up again. Over and over. Buddhist calisthenics. One woman’s been at it for a good hour now. To an unknowing observer, it looks like they are worshiping The Giant Marshmallow. They are not. The gesture is another Post-it note on the brain, an exercise in humility, a reminder that we do nothing, are nothing, by ourselves. Or, as Lama Yeshe put it: “The proud mind is like a desert. Nothing can grow in a mind full of pride.” I very much like the idea of prostrating. That’s the problem. I like the idea of things more than I like the things themselves.