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?
I wanted to reply to this wonderfully thoughtful post because I’ve thought a good bit about this subject myself. While I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always been attracted to the Buddhist conception of “Emptiness”. I think it’s applicable here. I don’t believe there’s power “in” those places as some kind of inherent or accumulated essence. The power is in our experience of them, either because of their geographical, historical or artistic features, or because of a state of emotional readiness when we approach these places. Pilgrimage (or even tourism) is all about becoming emotionally primed to make the most of those special features of the place which serve to draw out the inner landscape of the unconscious.
Is there something special about Nepal? I couldn’t tell you, having never been. But I wonder if it might have something to do with both the idea of sacred pilgrimage (or tourism), as well as the rather stark and majestic landscape itself. In the Christian tradition, it was the deserts that drew the mystics. Remote, natural, and austere, the deserts much like the mystics themselves. In India, the Himalayas have always held a similar role, and despite the obvious differences of landscape, I can easily imagine that they might have a similar effect on the mind. There’s also of course the idea of the remarkable contrast between the landscape and culture with the typical experience (especially urban experience) of the Westerner.
I’m reminded of your previous experience of the Man and the Bear that weren’t there. The mind is evolved to prefer a “false-positive” because seeing a bear that’s not there is preferable to not seeing a bear that is actually there. In a stark environment, especially one where colors are rather uniform (rock and snow, or the dull desert), this sort of thing is bound to be more common. We know that sensory deprivation tends to result in hallucinations, which I prefer to call projections after their subtler kin. What better environment to observe the workings of the mind? To train it?
That said, while emptiness can be used to describe this intellectual understanding of the Power of Place, this is a far cry from the experience of it. Of course, human experience has nothing to do with “reality”. We’re experiencing our own minds, our own humanness, constantly, and some places and situations tend to stand out somehow of their own power. For me, I think of the contrast of the the experience of this Power between the tomb of St. Francis at Assisi (holiness and tranquility that felt almost tangible) and Auschwitz (which left me feeling physically ill). Is there something “in” those places? I’m not sure there is. Is Auschwitz cursed, it’s land forever blighted by the ashes of the dead and the guilt of their murderers? No, if humans died out I’m sure animals wouldn’t avoid the spot. But we feel differently, and that IS our reality. That experience is real, because our psyche is real. Places of power have as much reality as love, literature, art, and even hard science (which like the others, is purely descriptive of what we humans detect).
It is a peculiarity of our very strange time that we have to affirm intellectually what has been known forever in the human heart.
I’m sorry if this is a bit long, but I want to thank you for your thought-provoking post.
Hi Dave – Thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful comments. Presumably I’ll get to “emptiness” in a future post, also via a story. It’s usually only when something happens to trigger insight that I get it. As you say, the key is to be awake so we notice when those insight-provoking incidents happen. I’m so grateful that we humans can experience both what happens to us and, via imagination, at least a version of what happens to others. That’s another benefit of travel. In “strange lands” among “strange people” we’re more open to being surprised.
Edited comments from an Anon: “I believe there’s a telepathic sense, an awareness of the feelings of people round about. Normally it is not strong enough to penetrate one’s consciousness, but when someone is emitting powerful vibes, or you are in a group where everyone is feeling the same way, it affects our own consciousness. We either feel along with the group or fight off the feeling. It is a force on our brains that some are more conscious of than others. Probably some people are quite happy to have their brains swayed by others, or have never known any different. Perhaps this produces the anxiety associated with city life. Maybe circumambulation of the stupa has that effect. There is no verbal expression of a shared feeling but it is there none the less.”