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?