Why Nepal?

A happy-making and thought-provoking side-effect of this blog is it’s re-establishing friendships from long ago.  One such friend recently wrote: “I’ve been reading your blogs trying to understand your fascination with Nepal”.  I’ve tried many times to understand that, too.

First it was the mountains.  But why was I susceptible to their allure?  My mom once worked as nanny for an Italian noble family and vacationed in Switzerland.  By the time I knew her, her life was utterly different.  She never spoke about the past and kept almost nothing.  One thing she did keep was a Swiss mountain scene that she put on my bedroom wall.  Maybe it fascinated me because it was so mysteriously different.  I never asked about it but it had a lasting impact.  I still have that picture.

Fall 2010 867

So, when an opportunity presented itself, I went to the mountains in Nepal.  They were even more beautiful than I’d imagined.  The light is strong and always changing, so the mountains’ appearance is different from moment to moment.  The effort required to climb and descend triggers bliss-producing endorphins.  And it’s peaceful in a way we rarely experience, no TV, radio, cellphones, internet or chatter, just the undistracted opportunity to notice.   One thing I noticed was how differently the mountain people behaved.  I saw no aggression.  They were respectful both of place and people, often playful, and seemed happy though they had barely enough to survive.  And like the mountains, the people, too, tended to be beautiful.

Fall 2010 818

Back home in the USA I studied the history of Nepal, trying to understand what shaped its culture, and found it has many different cultures.  It’s similar in the mountains to the culture of neighboring Tibet.  In the southern lowlands where there is no geographical boundary with neighboring India, the culture is Indian.  In the middle hills and Kathmandu Valley are diverse blends of the two.  Why are those cultures different?  I studied the history of India and Tibet, which led me to the history of Tibet’s neighbor, China, and I began to see the underlying force of geography on history and therefore culture.

Back in Nepal again, and its neighbors Tibet, Sikkim and Bhutan, I began to realize these people who fascinated me were not so very different from me.  Can you tell the difference?

Fall 2010 955

And that led me to Buddhism.  The great majority of people in Nepal’s mountains are animist, respectful of place because there must be spirits everywhere.  How else to account for what happens?  Those with questioning minds and some education retain that foundational belief while practicing Buddhism.  It offers an established discipline for respectful practice.  It is also, as the most intelligent, thoughtful and educated Buddhist scholars say, a logical and practical guide to happiness in a universe we don’t control.  It’s much more apparent up in the mountains that while we can learn to control our mind, we cannot control the universe in which we exist.

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I never imagined we could control the universe.  I did hope to learn how to increase happiness and kindness for me and everyone I meet.  It seems not quite so difficult to work on that learning among beautiful mountains and beautiful people even though, or maybe even in part because, they are so much at risk of natural disaster and so bedeviled by centuries of corrupt administration and selfish government.

Where am I? Boudha Stupa

A deep question to which I offer a prosaic answer: I’m circumambulating Boudha stupa.  I wrote about circumambulation at here.  Where is Boudha and what’s a stupa?

Stupa is Sanskrit for “a knot or tuft of hair”.  In ancient Hindu texts it signifies “tree trunk” because mounds of dirt around a tree were tombs for kings and heroes.  Later, it came to mean a pyramidal or dome-like monument containing relics of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni  (563-478 BC) or other revered figures.  Buddha Shakyamuni is often depicted as having a topknot that symbolizes his attainment of enlightenment.

Boudha stupa is one of the world’s largest.  It is on the ancient trade route from Tibet and was probably built in the 14th century when Buddhists fled from Mughal invasions of northern India.  It is said to entomb the remains of Kāśyapa Buddha, the third of the five Buddhas of the present ‘Fortunate Aeon’ and the last of six Buddhas prior to the historical Buddha.  Kāśyapa was born in India to Brahmin parents (i.e., Hindu priestly caste) and is said to have been over 30 feet tall, perhaps accounting for Boudha stupa’s great size.  It is now a pilgrimage destination for both Buddhists and Hindus.

Here’s how it looked when it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site:

Boudha Stupa 1979

Just over a century earlier, Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur invited Taipo Shing, a Buddhist who had come on pilgrimage from Szechuan in China and settled in Boudha, to interpret in peace negotiations after war with China.  He was made head man of Boudha and granted the income from extensive farmland as a reward for his services, married the daughter of one of Jung Bahadur’s concubines and was entitled the First Chini Lama.  His successors grew wealthy and powerful (they were consuls of the Dalai Lamas to the Kingdom of Nepal) until the Ranas fell.  Land reform in 1961 following restitution of the monarchy stripped the stupa of much of its supporting lands.

The influx of refugees from Tibet starting in the 1950s brought new wealth to the area.  The stupa is now surrounded by more than fifty Tibetan monasteries, which are themselves surrounded by housing for the enormously increased Kathmandu population.

Boudha Stupa 1970s and 2010

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution started by Mao Tsetung in 1965 to destroy: “old thinking, old culture, old habits and old customs” led to the destruction of over 6,000 monasteries in Tibet and more than one in six Tibetans starved to death or was killed.  Some Tibetans say their protector deity was reborn as Chairman Mao to force them from a familiar world where they could no longer progress spiritually.  Those who died and what was destroyed were, they believe, necessary casualties of spiritual progress; they were dispersed to grow again and make their wisdom available to all.

Regret for the loss of Boudha’s peaceful surroundings is in any case a mistake.  Better to truly accept that everything is changing in every moment.  The thought may arise in our mind that increased availability and popularity of Tibetan Buddhism’s beneficial teachings is good but ideally we will just notice our thoughts and feel no need to make judgments about them.  As a wise man said: “If you have one foot in the past and one in the future, you’ll only hurt your crotch”.

A Tale of Two Constitutions

Nepal’s political morass has not changed in the months I was gone.  Progress is stymied by too many squabbling children in politician bodies crying “mine, mine, mine”.  How did it get this way?  Does history of the US Constitution offer guidance?

A transitory coalition of the other 5 leading parties recently announced they would no longer attend public meetings where Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhatterai or anyone else in his unappointed government is present.  The parties are united in wanting his government to fall, at odds on what should happen next.  The government is unappointed in the sense that there was no provision for what would happen if the Constituent Assembly (CA)  failed to draft the new Constitution.

When the CA was dissolved in May four years after its two year term began, Prime Minister Baburam said (a) we need an election to establish a body that will do what the CA failed to do, (b) we need a government in the interim, and (c) the existing government should stay in place to hold elections asap.  The second largest party, the Nepali Congress (NC), said that’s OK but Baburam must resign in favor of an NC leader.  Baburam said that’s no good because the President, who had the authority to disband the CA, is a member of the NC.  There would be too much risk the NC would hang on to power until they thought they could win an election.  If we want to make a change, he said, we should choose a coalition government for the interim.

It’s not clear how a coalition government would differ from what’s already in place nor how the politicians could ever agree who would make up the Cabinet.  The NC can’t even agree which of them would replace Baburam in the impossible event anyone else agreed to that.  Meanwhile the smaller parties make transitory alliances to promote specific agenda items that cannot be implemented in the current situation, anyway.

The leader of a party that recently split off from the Maoists published a 90 point demand.  One third of these demands relate to India, including that Indian vehicles must be banned from Nepal, Hindi movies must not be shown and Hindi music must not be broadcast.  The leader said his party would begin enforcing the demands nationwide and immediately.  Like other such initiatives, even the ones that makes sense, that soon fizzled out.

Having failed to accomplish what they were elected to do, the politicians fear they will not be reelected.  The one thing they can agree on is it’s best to keep delaying a new election.  It’s not clear how those not in the Cabinet are getting paid but it’s never clear how money flows in this society.  Transparency International reports that Nepal is the only South Asian nation whose Corruption Perception Index has worsened in the last seven years.  To get a government-financed contract, contractors must pay 50% of the project budget to politicians and civil servants who could block it.  Only 20% to 30% of the budget is spent on the goods or services provided.  They are inevitably of poor quality.

For some, the argument over the number of States in Nepal is philosophical; broader representation (more States) vs strengthening Nepal as a nation (fewer States).  For others, it’s personal.  Tribal leaders allegedly fighting for their people but wanting access to the money trough, “Nationalists” wanting to preserve the Hindu establishment’s lock on power, the breakaway party motivated by anti-Indian prejudice and seeing high caste Nepali Hindus as “really Indian”.

How did it get this way?  A regional prince who conquered his neighbors and unified the territory paid his generals with rent they could collect from newly conquered land.  After further conquests were halted by British India and imperial China the monarchy was pushed aside by the Rana family and, under new ownership, Nepal continued to be operated as a private family tax farm.  No industry developed because Nepal has no coal, oil or useful minerals and its geography makes transport very hard.  Subsistence farming was supplemented by petty trading.  One third to half the total economic output went to the center as rent.  Many men left to be soldiers in the British Indian army. When the Ranas fell 60 years ago the monarchy was restored.  Foreign aid began to arrive but much was siphoned off by the elite.  Almost the only government Nepal had ever had that was for the people was in villages with a good head man.  No surprise that apart from tourist services there are still few alternatives to getting a position to extort bribes, getting property to rent, or working abroad.

How important is a new Constitution for Nepal?  A nation’s Constitution is much like a business strategy; every business should have one and it should not be a bad one but several good ones could be successful.  A well executed good strategy will always beat a less well executed better strategy.  So Nepal’s politicians just need to choose one of the good ones, apply it diligently, and adjust as conditions change.  To illustrate, let’s take a quick look at the US Constitution that was established with equally high hopes and, as it happens, around the time Nepal first became a nation.

The US Constitution reached its current form in three stages.  First, the structure and purpose of government was articulated: (A) three branches of central government to make, enforce, and interpret the law, (B) the roles and powers of  central and local governments, and (C) what the national government would provide the people, namely justice, civil peace, common defense, things of general welfare they could not provide themselves, and freedom.  It was adopted in 1787 by a Constitutional Convention, ratified by conventions in eleven states and  went into effect in 1789.  Next, ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights were proposed in Congress and came into effect in 1791 after approval by three-fourths of the States.  It had been too hard to agree everything at once.  In the third stage, the Constitution undergoes periodic clarification and/or amendment.  It refers, for example, to “the people” but the rights it asserts for them were understood for very many years to apply only to white men.  Rights for American Indians, African Americans, women and others were adopted much later.

The US Constitution does not specify the nation’s borders, or the borders between States.  US territory greatly expanded after the Constitution was adopted and some State boundaries changed.  The Constitution is not explicit about whether States could secede and form a new nation.  The 1860s Civil War aka War of Northern Aggression established that the southern States would not be allowed to do that.  The great ongoing debate, however, is about the third element of the Constitution, the social contract, what the central government should provide to the people and how it should do so.

How have the first three Amendments, presumably considered to be the most important, stood the test of time?

The first amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  This may be the most important principal in the entire Constitution.  The devil, however, is in the details.  How much freedom, for example, should there be about speech on behalf of political candidates?  My freedom is abridged if my campaign contributions are limited but if there’s no limit, I can in effect silence you.  Estimated  contributions for the most recent US election range up to $6B.  Because US politicians now need so much money to get elected they must depend on a wealthy few to whom they must deliver correspondingly big favors.  So a side effect of the Constitutional right to freedom is, at this time, a corrupt central government.

The second amendment says: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”.  The intent of that tortured phraseology, at a time when only single shot firearms existed, was to prevent the central government from tyrannizing the States and, by implication, its citizens.  There was no need then to define what kinds of Arms the people could bear.  The federal government now has nuclear arms, however, and killer drones.  Does this Amendment mean the States and “the people” also have the right to them?  Nobody I know believes that but many Americans support the right to bear assault weapons (I’ll say more about that in a future post).  Some even imagine they must have assault weapons to defend against central government attack. 

The third amendment says:  “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law”.  Although this Amendment has long been entirely irrelevant it continues to be enshrined as part of the Constitution.

What conclusions should Nepali politicians draw from this and other nations’ Constitutions and from the above examples, (1) a profoundly important right that also has a deeply corrupting effect, (2) an important safeguard when the Constitution was established that is now ineffective against that risk and creates unanticipated new dangers, and (3) a provision that became completely irrelevant ?

First, since several structures of national government have proven to be effective, Nepal’s politicians should just choose one and start governing.  Second, they should not imagine that even the most finely crafted Constitution will guarantee what the people get from their government.  Third, some Constitutional provisions will need significant update when conditions change and not all will remain relevant, anyway.  Above all, what is important is good governance.  The time for that is now.

The Power of Place

I keep meeting people whose life was transformed in Nepal.  What is it about this place?   What triggers change here?

I’m now in the Boudha region of Kathmandu at the stupa, a beautiful mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics.  I’m trying to understand the benefit as I circumambulate this greatly revered stupa with a throng of Tibetans of all ages, many in traditional dress.  We walk clockwise, emulating the movement of the sun across the sky.  It’s a very distracting environment.  Maybe that’s part of the point.  It’s training in being vividly present in the moment, not remembering the past or anticipating the future?  Embracing the moment, not being irritated by folks around?

This morning at breakfast an American at the next table who spends a big part of every day doing prostrations was complaining to an English monk that someone removed the stones from under the plank where he does his prostrations.  There’s a wall round the stupa with many wooden planks between it and the stupa.  People use them for prostrations.  “Why would anyone remove the stones from under my plank?   I’d got it angled perfectly.  And why do all those Tibetans just sit on the planks and chat?  It’s so distracting, so disrespectful.”  I’m pretty sure he’s missing the point.  Maybe it will come to him, though.

Hey, there’s Jampa, one of my classmates last year!  He came here years ago from his home in New Zealand to go mountain biking.  Now he’s a Tibetan Buddhist monk who no longer has a home.   Last year he’d just come from a long stay at a monastery in Colorado.  I wonder where he’s been this year?  I speed up and join him.  “Hi Jampa.  Great to see you.  Are you coming to this year’s class?”  “No, I don’t know yet what I’m going to be doing.”  I almost ask why he’s here but that’s probably a bigger question than he can answer.  I ask instead what is the benefit of circumambulating the stupa?  “It has great power,” he says. “We get benefit just by being here.”  “Even if we’re just chatting while we walk?”  “Yes.  But there’s more benefit depending on our intention.  Also, it helps to chant mantras.”  “Most people doing that are doing it silently.”  “That’s OK.”

We walk on with everyone else circling the stupa.  It’s still quite early so there are not many tourists.  Some of the Tibetans are chatting animatedly, many are walking silently.  In both cases they’re counting their chants on a string of beads in their left hand.  A few are twirling a prayer wheel, an ornate cylinder that turns on a stick.  Inside the cylinder is a scroll filled with the mantra Om Mani Madme Hum, the aspiration for compassion.  It’s said that each revolution has the same effect as saying the words aloud as many times as they’re written on the scroll, so the more mantras are inside a prayer wheel, the greater the benefit.  The effect is enhanced by simultaneously chanting the mantra with the profound aspiration to attain perfect wisdom in order to free every sentient being permanently from suffering.  It’s a means of training the mind.

Rene, my Mexican classmate  this year who dresses entirely in black and has long black hair and a bushy black beard was instructed by his Tibetan guru to memorize a mantra created especially for his benefit and circumambulate the stupa chanting it as loudly as he could.  He was puzzled by the reaction.  At last a young Tibetan asked if he knew what he was saying.  “No, I don’t know Tibetan.  My guru taught it to me.”  “I think I should tell you what you are saying.”  “Thank you.”  “You are shouting, ‘I am a black man with a very big dick’.”  I’ve met Rene’s guru.  I don’t understand his trick on Rene soon after he arrived but his deep insight and caring are unmistakable.  Rene came to Kathmandu for a month before college and stayed two years.  What he met here led him to other places then he came back.  Now it looks like he’s here for good.

I don’t know what to make of the power of place.  It’s very significant to animists.  Dhiren, our Nepali trek crew boss, is always respectful of places where devis live, the spirits that protect villages but are wrathful if disturbed.  He knows the kinds of places they tend to be and always makes sure we also behave respectfully.  Temples are considered by all religions to have powerful effects.  Feng Shui has spread to the West.  The power of place is recognized in all cultures.  I’d never really thought about it though.  I dismissed it as an obvious delusion.  What would be the origin and nature of such power?

I’m still skeptical about the power of place but I do know we can train our mind.  If we expect training to work better in a particular place, presumably it will.    But change happens to many people who come to Nepal with no expectation.  It just seems to happen.  Maybe geography and cumulative past behaviors form a feedback loop here?

Waiting for Godot in Kathmandu

The easy part is sleeping the first day or two after a long journey.  What takes longer is sleeping at the right time once you’ve caught up on sleep.  That teaches patience.  So I enjoy my masala omelet for breakfast, veg momos for lunch, chicken fried rice for dinner, I circumambulate Boudha stupa, do laundry, take showers when the water is warm, email when there’s power, and read Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” while waiting for my own to become functional again.

Nepal’s political situation hasn’t changed.  The politicians are still arguing about anything and everything.  They almost agreed there should be an election for a new Constituent Assembly (CA) to draft a Constitution.  They almost agreed that before.  There was going to be an election in November.  Now they’re saying, if they agree, that is, there could be an election next May.  There has to be an amendment to the existing interim constitution to authorize the election because the first CA was supposed to draft the new constitution and there was no expectation they might fail to do that.  The politicians can’t agree what form the modification to the interim constitution should take.  They also can’t agree who should lead the government during the interim.

The issue cited as the roadblock to agreement about the new constitution, the one the CA was supposed to draft, is the number of districts (pradeshes) in Nepal’s new secular, democratic federal republic.  The UCPN-M (Maoist party) says there must be 10 or 14 pradeshes with no more than 2 in the Tarai (the area in the south adjoining India).  The UDMF (Madhesi confederation of Tarai folks) currently agrees about that.  The NC (Nepali Congress, Nepal’s first political party) says there must be 6 pradeshes, or 11.  The UML (United Marxist-Leninist party) says there must be exactly 7.  There are many fringe parties with only a few members in the disbanded CA but nobody cares what they think.  The four major parties do agree that demarcation and naming of the pradeshes can wait until after the election.

This got me thinking about the French Revolution.  They were against the provincial structure that existed under the monarchy.  They favored the rights of the individual and a strong nation.  They considered the state architecture based on parochial cultural traditions and local privileges to be reactionary.  They were for a uni-lingual state.  The underlying issue in Nepal is indigenous rights vs unification.  The Maoists got much of their support by promising the tribal folks they could self-administer, follow their own cultural traditions, and use their own languages.  But Nepali speaking Hindus don’t want to lose the privileged position they had under the former Hindu monarchy.  Also, there’s philosophical disagreement about the best national architecture for Nepal.

What could be learned from existing models?  France is centralized, unilingual and has a president who behaves in many ways as monarchs did.  India is a multilingual, multiethnic secular federation.  The US is a federation of states whose number and boundaries evolved over time.  Maine split off from Massachusetts, for example.  US States have substantial rights, everything not explicitly granted to the center.  How much scope should be provided for evolution?  The US is secular per the constitution but added “under God” when feeling threatened by communism, was primarily unilingual but is becoming bilingual, briefly split into two nations, and so on.

Nepal’s politicians have no experience forming agreements to take action.  How will that develop?  They are ignorant of how to govern because there have been no Nepali leaders to show the way.

So why am I thinking about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot?   In that absurdist play, two men wait vainly for someone named Godot to arrive.  They claim he’s an acquaintance but admit they would not recognize him.  To occupy the time they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, play games, exercise, swap hats, and contemplate suicide.  It’s a sadly apt metaphor for today’s Nepal.

Not for me.  For one thing, there’s nobody here with whom I could swap hats.  For another, I’m not here to wait.  I’m here to practice not waiting for some fantasy about the future.  I’m here to practice not replaying stories about the past.  I’m here to practice being 100% aware right now in this moment.  If I get another moment, I’ll try to be 100% aware then, too.  That way, I’ll know what to do in each moment.  It’s like the better I’d practice playing tennis like Roger Federer, the fewer shots I’d miss.  The better I practice being awake, the fewer moments I’ll waste.

Why Go On Journeys?

Because in new surroundings we must look more closely.  Seeing something familiar in a new context could disrupt how we’ve been imagining it to be.  We might recognize how it really is, how it is now.

What struck me first on this year’s journey to Nepal is air travel may be at the peak of an unsustainable growth path.  The first time I flew on a 747 was 1970 when I came to the USA.  They’re magnificent aircraft.  No surprise they’re still in service more than 40 years later.   In information theory no surprise means no information.  We have not been surprised by changes in air travel in the last four decades because the experience is little different.  Less than 40 years before 1970, however, it took not hours but 6 days to fly from England to India.  That was a dramatically different experience.

The great change in air travel since 1970 is enormously increased volume.  We do notice more crowding, less service and so on, but because the degradation has been stepwise we haven’t been provoked to think about the cumulative effect.  I do notice it on this trip, first because when my flight from Boston arrives at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5, the shuttle, with no stops or traffic jams, takes fully 15 minutes to reach Terminal 4 for my flight to Doha.

When we approach Doha, it’s over scattered islands of apartment buildings propagated as if by winds over the featureless desert.  The airport, already a vast expanse of runways and buildings, is soon to be replaced by an even greater complex.  Even now it’s a 20 minute walk from where I disembark to the gate for Kathmandu.  When we take off, it’s over a mass of shiny new skyscrapers.  The entire spectacle is surreal.

All this vibrant life is possible only because there’s oil under the desert.  I remember Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias, whose statue was the only thing left of the empire it once surveyed.  How will these colonies survive when the oil is gone?  How long can we continue to fly?


I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There

Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away…    (Hughes Mearns)

I also met a bear and a second man, neither of whom was there.

Here’s how it happened.  I’m climbing a rough path high above the Kathmandu Valley.  The canopy of rhododendron trees shades me from the bright sun.  Monkeys frolicked in the bamboo at the nunnery below and crows contested for feast offerings.  There are no animal or bird cries up here.  Even my sandal-clad  footfalls are quiet.  The trees hide any view but maybe I’ll see snow mountains from the ridge.  I focus on every next step and think I should have worn boots.

Suddenly, I catch a glimpse of a man in black standing completely still just off the track fifty paces ahead where it turns. A robber!  My step doesn’t falter and I make no sound so he will not see my fear.  I hope not, anyway.  Oh, it’s a tree stump.  Even if it had been a man, why would I imagine him to be a robber?  No need to think about it, it’s only a tree.  I walk on.  The first part of the path was very rugged.  I’d definitely need boots there in the rainy season but here the path is more gradual so no need to watch my steps so closely.  There’s still nothing to see but trees.  It will be beautiful as well as slippery in Spring.  The rhododendrons are not in flower now.

Whoa!  There’s a bear just up ahead a few feet off the track.  I stop for bears!  I stare through the gloomy undergrowth.  The bear doesn’t move it’s head even a fraction in my direction.  More of its shape registers.  I recognize it isn’t moving because it’s a rock formation.  Again I walk on.  I don’t feel nervous.  I’m thinking how odd it is that I’ve now imagined both a robber and a bear less than a quarter hour apart when I’m not nervous but enjoying a peaceful walk.  It was plain enough to see what those things really were.

Oh, no.  There’s a man ahead dressed in brown and white standing menacingly still.  But as soon as I actually look, I realize it’s not a man but another tree stump.

With instruments developed in the last decade we can now observe how such misunderstandings occur.  We can follow the sequence of activity within the brain in response to specific stimuli, we can see how much activity is triggered in which areas, we have a relatively detailed map of what functions are performed where and how they inter-operate.   We understand, for example, how visual signals sampled at relatively low rates are matched with stored images of potential threats.  The first match for the partial outline of a shape can be “man” or “bear”.  The matching process continues until all criteria are met by “tree” or “rock”.  We can also see that we start to take action based on the first match.

It’s the same for other animals.  When a shadow falls suddenly on a chicken it squawks and runs.  It doesn’t look up and wait for enough data to be processed so it knows if the object casting the shadow is a hawk before it takes action.  It could be dead before the pattern matching completes.  Homo sapiens sapiens operates on the same principal but our circuitry is far more complex than that of Gallus gallus domesticus, which has a limited ability to conceptualize.  We have an extraordinarily strong ability.  Unfortunately, every great strength is also a great weakness.

Our great weakness is acting as if concepts are reality, not an image.  My High School biology teacher, a refugee from when Soviet forces crushed the 1956 Hungarian revolution, had an explanation for brutality:  “The huge human cerebellum is a cancerous growth”.  He said it is too easy for us not to feel, not to see, not to hear, just to think.  “We can have the idea to do terrible things, then we can do them, but if we looked at who we destroy, if we really looked, we could never do such things.”

We would be doomed if “Cancerous growth” was a diagnosis of our nature not a metaphor sparked by our behavior.  Fortunately, we have training programs so we can escape the causes of brutality and all other harm we do.  More on that another time.

Another Sad Day for Nepal

The Constituent Assembly did not reach agreement by their final deadline last night on how many Federal districts Nepal should have, their geographical boundaries or, most contentiously, if they should be set up on ethnic lines.

Prime Minister Bhattarai recommended that President Yadav should dissolve the CA and hold elections for a new assembly on November 22.  “We have no other option but to go back to the people and elect a new assembly to write the constitution,” he announced on TV. “We had completed the army integration process by taking a big risk and tried to forge consensus but the peace and the constitution drafting process could not move forward.”  He said leaders of other parties were “not cooperating with the government’s move to draft the constitution based on the principle of federal structure”.

Bhatterai said executive powers now rest with him and his cabinet who will serve as the interim government and hold the election to replace themselves.

Five major parties promptly demanded Bhatterai’s resignation, declared his move “unconstitutional” and issued a joint statement: “The Prime Minister’s unilateral move to conduct fresh election by allowing to dissolve the most representative Constituent Assembly was aimed at capturing power and this has created frustration in the minds of the general public  …  It has ended the politics of consensus and created a situation in which people’s democratic rights are suppressed”.  The public has long been more than frustrated, the CA never did exhibit politics of consensus and the people have yet to experience democratic rights.  The CA was elected to develop the Constitution and reintegrate the Maoist soldiers into society within two years.  Instead, they wasted four years.

The Nepali Congress leader said the CA should be replaced by a national unity government to hold the election because “one who is not a member of the Parliament cannot hold the post of the PM.”  These politicians would never agree on who would lead such a government, of course.

A senior CPN-UML leader said Bhatterai’s proposal is not viable because there is no provision in the Interim Constitution for another CA election.  He said:  “The PM should have made attempt to amend the provision of the constitution before announcing the fresh election by forging consensus”.  These politicians could never agree even on a forgery.

President Yadav must now rule on the legal issues and decide what to try next so Nepal’s secular democratic republic can become a reality.  Today is a public holiday observing Republic Day when Nepal’s Parliament abolished the Hindu monarchy on May 28, 2008.

Nepal’s Constitution

Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) just settled one of the remaining big issues for the new constitution.  There will be a directly elected President and a parliament-elected Prime Minister.  Unresolved issues include the most contentious of all, how the states should be structured.  The Maoist party, whose vice-chairman Baburam Bhatterai is currently Prime Minister, wants eleven federal states.  The other big parties, the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML, want eight.  The alliance of small Madhesi parties wants a single province for the Madhesis who make up around half of Nepal’s total population.

The fundamental issue is whether states should be based primarily on language/ethnicity, economics or geography.

The CA was elected on 10 April 2008 to establish a new constitution within two years.  Earlier election dates in June and November of 2007 had been missed.  When the CA failed to meet its April 2010 deadline they granted themselves another year.  With little progress made by then, they granted themselves a further year.  When they missed that deadline, too, they were given a hard one of May 27.

The Maoists had gotten a third of the seats in the CA in the 2008 election by promising representation to Nepal’s ethnic minorities.  Four years later, as the May 27 deadline draws near there are rallies, protests and strikes all across the country.  Hard deadlines usually don’t mean much in Nepal but the people are angry at long last.  There’s no electricity 14 hours a day, food and fuel prices are rising fast, unemployment is high and soaring.  Everything is hard and getting worse for almost everyone except the politicians.  They are getting richer and, Nepalis say, doing nothing.  There could be mass violence if the CA is still deadlocked on May 27.

The pressure is high enough it seems likely the CA can pass a constitution by May 27 with everything resolved except state structure.   They might defer that to a new commission, which would likely be acceptable to UN observers following the process and India, which would have to intervene if Nepal became overtly ungovernable.

Baburam Bhatterai is the only politician who commands any respect from Nepalis.  He surprised almost everyone by resolving the equally long-standing issue of reintegrating the Maoist “soldiers” into society and he may succeed in getting a compromise of this kind accepted.

Getting Directions in Kathmandu

Sep 28, 2011 – D helps me find a place to stay during the Buddhist teachings.  I have a list of guest houses and the name of the subsidiary monastery where the teachings will be held.  All Kathmandu is a maze of narrow streets with no names.  With considerable difficulty we at last find the best-sounding one .  It has no free rooms.  I decide to go to the main monastery for help.  It, too, takes a very long time to find.

Most people are happy to provide directions.  What you cannot know is whether they have any relevant information.  We are directed with great precision to many wrong monasteries.  The right one turns out to have nobody in the office today and my contact is in any case out of the country.  So the man thinks.  He’s not sure.

I figure we deserve, or at the very least need, lunch.    After lunch we look for the second best sounding guest house.  Again, very difficult  but as it turns out, very close to Boudha stupa and a fine place.  I book an excllent $7/night room.  The man takes us to the roof to show us the monastery where the classes will be held.  He can’t be right but he is very certain.  The one he points out is at least 40 minutes away.  The right one is less than 5 minutes.  That’s a problem for another day.