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.
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.
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?
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.
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.