From Spirituality to Religious Commerce part 1

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View from Swyambu temple of Kathmandu valley 2019

My memories of Swyambu in Nepal are images of a rural village, a teashop-stop with a few houses along a road that circled around a hill crawling with monkeys. On top of the hill a white stupa with painted slanted eyes dominated the view. I lived on that road in a rented apartment for two months. Daily I went to the well to get water and smiled at the local women. The slanted penetrating eyes of the stupa saw my everyday activities of carrying water and sweeping the floor. Eyes that would become famous in the fight against unnecessary blindness through the SEVA foundation which Ram Dass and friends started in the 1978. 

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Swyambu in 1972

I remember living in Swyambu as an expansive, mind-altering experience. On the full moon in May (Buddha’s birthday) when I was there, the long horns of the Tibetan Buddhist monks sounded their deep resonant sound from the top of the hill over the green valley. Pilgrims doing their prostrations filled the road around the temple. The air was thick with spirituality. It was contagious and sent me searching to find a practice that would give me insight and answers to life questions.

Almost fifty years later I’m back to visit the temple and see how I’ve changed. My travel partner and I take a taxi to the temple to avoid getting lost in the concrete jungle of streets and houses that have sprung up between Swyambu and Kathmandu. What used to be a half-hour walk through the countryside from the temple to downtown Kathmandu is now a chaotic, noisy maze of streets filled with cars, motorcycles and rickshaws. Construction is going on everywhere; infrastructure to connect the neighborhoods and funnel the traffic is absent. Everyone is on a mad dash to weave their way through the chaos. We let the taxi driver do the work of finding the back alleys and drive us to the temple.

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I’m not used to living with chaos. My daily life is ordered, spacious, quiet. The chaos of Kathmandu makes me tense and belligerent. I don’t want to fight traffic, hawkers, and shopkeepers demanding my attention so I choose the taxi-bubble protected by doors and windows. I envy the lithe, relaxed movements of the motorcycle riders who sway and turn like fish in a school of their kind without bumping into each other. They’re used to this environment; they don their breathing masks and helmets and follow the stream. 

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Buddha statue at bottom of stairs leading up to Swyambu temple

The taxi driver asks if he should wait for us for a return ride. We decline. We don’t know how long we’ll want to visit the temple and its current scene. I look up to find the familiar stupa with its slanted eyes. The tip of the stupa is visible, but the eyes are not. The stairs seem steeper and higher than I remember. I climb the stairs. The weather is humid, and the climb feels like a 1000 feet elevation gain. It takes will to reach the top. The hill is now covered with thick foliage and obstructs the view of the temple. I remember sitting on the walls of the steps with the monkeys jumping around me. The monkeys are still here, but they don’t pay attention to me or the many visitors. Near the top of the stairs is a ticket office. If we want to see the temple, we must pay. I swallow the commercialization of this religious place, and pay. 

IMG_5957At the top of the stairs the slanted eyes on the stupa become visible. Small temples and altars surround the stupa; smoke rises to the heavens, people sprinkle offerings of food and flowers everywhere for the gods who no longer live here. Tourist stalls sell spiritual curiosities. The walkway around the stupa is short and narrow, and there’s no room to do full body prostrations. I remember the road that circled around Swyambu in 1972 where Buddhist devotees would do their prostrations to improve their karma for their next life. No-one is doing prostrations now. A party of Japanese photographers take pictures of dressed up geisha’s with the temple in the background. They use the temple for commerce. 

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author with buddha statue in 1972

 The belligerence I felt in the chaotic traffic turns to sadness. How can I find the inspiration I found so long ago in this spiritual circus? I look around at the valley below filled with houses and can’t find the road that used to circle around the temple. The only road I see is a pathway descending on the North side to a parking lot lined with more spiritual souvenir stalls. I want to find a place to sit like I did 50 years ago, when I was a young western woman in a Tibetan dress practicing newfound spiritual techniques. But I can’t find a place to sit and have to go to the backside of the temple to find a quiet place. This religious site doesn’t inspire me any more. The sadness constricts my chest. I wander by a pool of water with a statue in the middle. Visitors lean on its wall and toss coins while making wishes for a better life. I just want to get out of here. The past is gone; there’s only the present. Swyambu has become a religious icon without spirit. 

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author sitting near small stupa in 2019

We walk down the road on the North side of the temple to what must be Swyambu village and I recognize what looks like the main street, now lined with houses and shops. Will the increasing population crowd out the temple? Can spirituality exist in this maelstrom?

We find a taxi that will take us to the old downtown of Kathmandu. When I step out of the taxi on Durbar square a motorcycle slams into the open door and falls to the ground. Fish don’t mingle well with taxis. After an excited conversation between the taxi driver, the motorcycle rider and 5 police men, we are free to go. I give the motorcycle rider some money for his trouble and discomfort. The taxi driver takes the motorcycle-rider to the hospital for a checkup. I hope he will find his way back into the school of motorcycle-fish soon and live his life of adapted chaos in a world that is no longer peaceful and inspirational. A few orange-clad sadhus (holy men) are sitting at the side of the temple in Durbar square. They let me take their picture for some rupees. Even holy men need to make money….

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