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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A Life of Doing Nothing

Cut off from the internet and phone we enter the Zanskar region, a half day drive over a brand new dirt road full of potholes, bumps and switchbacks. My eyes strain to find the trail I walked 14 years ago, the camping spots where I pitched my tent. Tears well up when I see the enormity of the bare and craggy mountains displaying bands of color that remind me of the painted hills in Oregon. This is a wild land where I’m a speck on the palette of Mother Nature.

We arrive in Lingshed, my end point last time, now starting point of a trek deeper into a roadless region. We set up camp and take a rest/visiting day and wait for the packhorses to arrive from a nearby village. I have to correct, my hiking friend and I don’t lift a finger to set up camp. As guests we are waited on hand and foot; a new role for me, the practice of receiving. The morning starts with chai delivered to our tent, followed by a basin of warm water for washing. Once we’re up, breakfast waits, we drink more tea and have more cups of tea throughout the day as we eat in our mess tent or get them delivered in a thermos along the trail.

We visit the monastery and nunnery, and notice the electricity and solar hot water set-up. We listen to an all-night hammering as a visiting monk directs the last effort for building a water storage tank. Progress and change cannot be stopped even here so far from the faster paced world.

The next day our work is to pace ourselves as we climb to greater heights, stop – catch our breath on the switchbacks, allowing our body to make the most from the 60% oxygen we’re getting with each inhale. The mind is empty, or in slo-mo as we take in the heights and depths with awe. We need a focused mind on some stretches, one misstep and we will slide into the depths. Fear sits on our shoulder and we have our conversation with god, or more culturally appropriate, we recite our Om-mani-Padme-hum to appease the forces around us.

Our guide, a friend and contact from long ago, is our guardian angel who watches us closely, adjusts the pace, reaches a hand when needed and asks us about our altitude symptoms. We’re lucky we have few, part due to taking time in Leh and going slow on this trek. When we reach Hanumala-la, the highest pass (15,200 ft) on day 3, we feel triumphant and grateful at the same time. I’m older and slower but not less capable! On the downhill I think of all the people in my life who’ve been instrumental in getting me to this place on the roof of the world. I’m without worry as Karma is constantly anticipating and taking care of my needs.

We walk, but the place to go is arbitrary. We relax to the sounds of the water rushing by our camp. We widen our horizon as the clouds drift in a brilliant blue sky resting briefly on the tops of the tallest mountains in the world.

Every so often clarity about issues back home rises to the surface and we know that this life of doing nothing, going nowhere is doing its deep transformative work. Step, breathe, step, another switchback up; step, focus, step, another downturn on the path. With our hiking poles we become four-legged creatures who, like our pack animals sway our way to the next stop, the next moment of ‘doing nothing’.

Quaint Comes at a Cost

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Latrop, Sauerland

I hiked 4 days in the German countryside. You may envy me when you see the picturesque hiking photos of quaint villages with slate roofs dotted among green rolling hills, topped with conifer and evergreen forests, but there’s a price for quaint and ordered nature. The Germans manage the forests, exemplary for production, reproduction and environmental responsibility. The hills are green, mono-culture fields and grazing lands. Corn and hay they grow isn’t enough to feed the animals. Animal feed is imported from Brazil where agricultural practices aren’t always that pretty. Not all material for the slate roofs, required building practice in the area, hales from the local slate mines. Local slate is expensive as salaries and mining practices raise the cost. Slate from Spain and Argentina is cheaper and used to augment the local industry. Quaint and ordered landscapes come at a global cost. 

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Bad Fredenburg, Sauerland

In the USA nature is messy. Where I hike, fallen logs may cross or block the trail. Vistas from the ridges include clear-cuts and eroded mountain sides. The trails are often narrow and overgrown with wild berries, grasses and wild flowers; rocky or sandy trails slope dangerously toward a deep canyon. The occasional homestead sports rusted machinery and dilapidated buildings. The USA is too big to control. Messiness and decay is visible.

I have nothing against proprietary orderliness; I encourage it. Let’s keep our dens in order is my motto. The tightness I felt in my chest when I walked around the manicured woods and the ordered villages came from feeling boxed-in. The societal rules have eliminated the wildness in the German landscape. Where is the personal expression; where is mother nature’s wildness? Personal expression is relegated to artistic and craft domains. A carved door, a pattern in the slate wall, an ingenious product.

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I visited an ordered University Hortus, a garden that held species from all over the world. Afterward I went to a Museum exposition on Medieval gardens, where I read: “Gardens are a demonstration by the monarch that he can subjugate nature to himself and thus a sign of his power.” If orderliness in nature as I experienced it in the German countryside, is a sign of power than the wildness I experience in the US is a sign of potential, an opportunity to rise to great heights. 

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Humans have lived in ordered societies since tribes roamed the earth. Societies offer protection and a chance for survival. I ask myself how much order is enough? Can too much order stamp out creativity, exploration and responsibility? Social-democratic systems that take care of people from cradle to grave popped up after world-war II in Europe; it was an effort to share and take care of each other after experiencing and witnessing the horrors of a war based on neo-nazi ideas, horrors of believing that one race is superior to another. The social-democratic systems provide healthcare for everyone; everyone has a home to live in, everyone gets a job or if a job is unavailable unemployment coverage; everyone gets yearly vacation pay on top of their salary. The streets get cleaned, the parks are neat, the trains run on time. Who wouldn’t want such a society? 

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There’s a catch. High taxes, restrictive building codes, restrictive business practices keep and pay for an ordered society. Large administrations make and apply the rules to make sure you don’t step outside the societal box. While the rest of the world wants free trade, creates start-up companies, takes capitalism to its highest reaches (good, or bad), the members of the ordered societies lag, have to jump through hoops before they can join the wild plays OR go rogue as Volkswagen engineers did to be competitive in the marketplace and yet comply with the pollution standards for diesel-operated cars. The members of the ordered societies want their cake and eat it too; the riches and the securities. Those who live here have forgotten or don’t know the ravages of war anymore and entitlement has replaced a sharing society. Stories of aging boomers who expect the state to take care of them even if their own monetary contribution has been minimal, abound. People who see the state as their caregiver, their medical provider, their retirement fund, their family replacement, want to travel and go on paid vacations, have someone organize a ‘nice’ life for them until they die.

I’m generalizing. Not all people fit this mold, but it helps to see that each societal form has its pros and cons. We’re in the race for presidential elections in the US; it’s a time to think about what society we’re in, and for what we vote. The freedom US citizens hold so dear, is a freedom that comes with draw-backs and opportunities. Freedom that allows each of us to make it big or to suffer. It’s a raw society, a young society, a wildly diverse society. In this society you can stand on top of wilderness pass at age 72, knowing you got there on your own power. But in this society you need your friends and family to help you grow old, relations matter and caring for each other is a tool for survival. We are a society of explorers and dreamers who need each other. Let’s not forget that it’s up to us to be kind, to share, to develop and maintain a healthy balance between safety that springs from order and planning, and opportunity that comes from initiative and taking chances. Make your security arrangements but dare to leave the well-trodden paths behind and give yourself a chance at discovery no matter what age you are. 

I’m on my way to the Himalayas. I’ve done all the planning and safety measures I could put in place. It’s time to take a chance on fate, and find insights at new heights.

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trek to Lingshed, Ladakh 2005