Nepal is colorful in the same way that Mt. Everest is tall.
The Nepali Crayola Crayon box:
Street Market Green
Roof Tile Brick
Wood Carving Brown
I’m walking down the street in the photo above. It is a typical Kathmandu street, though not every thoroughfare is as frantic with activity or so chock full of stuff. I could find anything here; anything a Nepali would ever need. It’s a riot of commerce and a bee hive of human activity. Thrown into the mix are the usual animals: stray dogs, chickens, an occasional goat, a meandering cow.
What I don’t expect to see, but do, is a butterfly. I look up and meet an intrepid little insect fluttering about, making her way up the street on four black wings and a prayer.
What is she doing here? It’s not a very hospitable environment for a butterfly. Is she lost? Does anyone else notice her? Doubtful, but I’m so mesmerized that I stop dead in my tracks to watch. I completely lose track of Caroline and her friend, Prashna, who keep on walking.
In this moment there must be some life lesson. What is it, I wonder? I think it would have something to do with courage, or determination, or optimism, or “high hopes”, like with that ant from the song about moving the rubber tree plant. There is also probably a dash of foolishness in the story somewhere. Whatever, I just know that it is lovely to see a butterfly in this place, of all places.
“Hello, butterfly. Thank you for showing yourself to me. Good travels!”
Bhikkhu Code of Discipline
The Mouse And The Motorcycle is a book by Beverly Cleary that I remember reading to my kids. I’m going to suggest a sequel, set in Nepal: The Monk On The Motorcycle.
Temples and shrines in Kathmandu are like Starbucks back home(there’s one on every street corner)and monks are as commonplace as robins.
Wearing their saffron or maroon robes, the monks saddle-up when they want to get around in this city where motor vehicles outnumber the grains of dust that cover the sidewalks.
The traffic jams in Kathmandu are monumental.
If you’re in a car you can expect to spend much of your time at a dead stop and the only people riding bicycles are the ones with a secret death wish. Motorcycles are the sensible middle option. On a motorcycle you can thread the needle between other vehicles and don’t need an actual lane to drive on, just a sidewalk. They make an already clogged up roadway even worse–the platelets of traffic flow. In staggering number they swarm the crowded streets like locusts and even sound like them—all that buzzing.
Monks have a lot of rules to live by, but riding motorcycles must not be one of them.
The three part Buddhist scriptural canon (Tripitaka) contains the Vinaya—a code of conduct for monks. While Buddhism tends to prescribe laws without the moral imperative—in place of “Thou Shalt Not,” its more like “It would be better if you refrained from”—they still have a lot of regulations to be observed. The Code of Conduct for Bhikkhus (monks) and nuns (Bhikkhunis) provides a lot of instruction for daily living and contains a long list of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts.
Some of the rules are what I would expect for a monk:
61. Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive an animal of life, it is to be confessed.
So, no harm to other sentient beings, got it. Also, no stealing, no ingesting intoxicants. Those things are a given, but other rules in the Code are a bit hard to figure. Consider these:
12. Causing frustration is to be confessed.
22. Going with arms akimbo in inhabited areas is to be confessed.
52. Tickling with the fingers is to be confessed.
53. The act of playing in the water is to be confessed.
55. Should any bhikkhu try to frighten another bhikkhu, it is to be confessed.
60. Should any bhikkhu hide (another) bhikkhu’s bowl, robe, sitting cloth, needle box, or belt — or have it hidden — even as a joke, it is to be confessed.
No swinging your arms akimbo or no tickling another monk? They had to write down rules about that? It makes me wonder what was going on in the monasteries back when the rules were created—that they needed to spell it out that way. Life as a monk started very early back then and it must have been that some of the monks were behaving like the little boys that they were at the time. It was a problem for the older monks but for me a sweet image to hold in my mind.
The Buddha did not appoint a successor before he died. Instead, he reminded the community of monks (Sangha) to follow the Dharma(teachings) and the Vinyana (rules). Ananda, one of the Buddha’s chief disciples and his personal assistant, was at his bedside to receive the Buddha’s last instructions.
Ananda means “bliss” in Sanskrit and he was named that because he was born on the day of Buddha’s enlightenment. Apparently, he was as joyful as his name would imply and was much beloved by the Sangha. But Amanda also could frustrate the other monks. The problem was that even though he had an excellent memory– he helped establish the Buddhist oral tradition by being the first to recite to the followers the entirety of the Dharma–he must have been easily distracted.
The story goes that Buddha told Ananda that the order of monks had accumulated too many rules over the years and that many of them, especially the minor ones, need not be strictly followed. That was good news, of course. Unfortunately, Ananda didn’t think to ask which ones.
Can you imagine the moment the other monks listened to Ananda tell what the Buddha had said. Their eager response would have been, “Great! Which rules, did he say we can strike from the Code of Conduct?!” and then Amanda’s timid reply, “Uhm, I forgot to ask.”
So the Sangha decided to just follow the Code of Conduct to the letter, and do to this day.
Ways to Worship
The day of our arrival in Patan, the city across the Bagmati River from the larger city of Kathmandu, is a day of festival. It seems most days are in Nepal. Later this week there is another one dedicated to Lord Krishna. Today is a celebration of the birth of Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and his consort Parvati.
Ganesha is the god of new beginnings and the removal of obstacles. The ancient Veda scriptures describe him in grand terms as the “seer of seers, …the lord of invocations,” but he is also considered down-to-earth and accessible, the “guardian of multitudes, and is therefore one of the most beloved of the Hindu gods. That’s why so many the devotees have turned out.
There are women and young girls dressed in matching saris, red paint covering their feet, carrying the items they will need for the ceremonies they will perform. In the corners of the temple grounds and along the edges of the squares there are small orchestras of men perched cross- legged on prayer mats, banging on drums and tambourines, ringing bells, and playing traditional flutes and stringed instruments.
Our inn is a quiet place, an oasis of calm at the end of a narrow lane just steps from the throngs that have gathered in Patan’s central district. Patan Durbar Square is “Temple Central,” so crowded with structures dedicated to one god or another that it’s hard to walk between them. The buildings are very old but they have withstood the ravages of time—until 2015. That’s when many of them were leveled by an earthquake. I was here just weeks after that happened and my heart broke, along with everyone else’s, when I saw the destruction. I am encouraged to see the restoration efforts. The scaffolding is up and the temples are painstakingly rising again, stone by stone. Each brick and every beam with it’s ornate carving has been identified and is being put back in it’s proper place.
We are early risers by nature and since our circadian rhythms are disrupted by travel and our internal clocks in complete disarray we are awake before dawn to start our walk at first light. As we start off, we hear the single clang of a temple bell. It’s as if we are at the starting line of some weird Nepali 5K race with no other entrants but us. Even at this hour there are many people out, starting their day along with the sun: merchants unlocking the doors of their shops or arranging vegetables on the ground to be sold later; small groups of schoolchildren in unisex uniforms (trousers and neckties for both boys and girls) already trodding to school; women standing around wells, dressed in their garments-of-many colors, chatting with each other while pouring water for the day into shiny metal containers; others performing their personal morning puja (worship ritual) at the neighborhood shrine or at the entrance to their home or workplace; street sweepers fighting a battle they will never win.
Human have devised so many ways to worship. In Nepal, I witness the range of possibilities as it parades past. On one end of the spectrum is Durbar Square on festival day, a chaotic and wonderful cauldron of humanity in perpetual motion and living color. It’s like watching a Bollywood movie on fast forward.
On the other end is the quiet puja ceremonies at sunrise, performed by young women draped in bright pashmina scarves and frail old men wearing traditional Nepali topi caps, holding prayer beads, their fingertips touching first the altars and then their foreheads.
I hear another dong of a temple bell as someone, somewhere, walks by and pulls on the clapper, sending sacred vibrations into the predawn stillness. I’ve done the same myself.
All these acts of devotion are so integrated into the daily routine that any separation between the secular and the sacred breaks down.
The locations of worship are just as varied and ubiquitous as the methods. Some are as magnificent and imposing as the great Stupa of Bodhnath.
Many are as humble as the tiny collections of rice, coloured powder (gulal), and flower petals left on the doorsteps after morning puja, or the tiny candle flame flickering on the ground that everyone manages to step around as they walk by.
The sacred spots are so numerous and commonplace that I can easily find myself inadvertently standing right on top of one without even knowing it. Sadly, I’ve done that, too.
The ways and the places of worship provide the means to step back from the distractions of life for as long as it takes to ring a bell or to trek around a mountain.
Those are the times when God calls us to draw near to Him, His creation, each other, and our authentic selves.
I love Nepal but the city is dusty and frantic. It is also loud. Caroline said, “If you can meditate here you can meditate anywhere.” In Tibet we will be traveling through some wide open places compared to Kathmandu, a place where our destination might be only a few kilometers away but we have to fight for every one of them.
On to Tibet. It is time to get quieter. Time to go deeper.