Saturday, May 24, 2008

On Monasteries

Sometimes a sense or a feeling only happens for only a moment, but lingers, and when such happens it's best suited to poetry, better suited to a free flow of words than the implied causality of narrative. Such is the case with Pharping; but I am not a poet.

It's in Pharping, about 20 kilometers south of Kathmandu by road, that, for a moment, the desire to join a monastery, to detach from the world, comes together: a leaf fallen on a clear, languorous mountain stream, stuck by surface tension to something with no form at all, only mass and movement. I am looking along the railing of a gompa, a monastery, up on the hill, nestled against and at the joints concreted to the exposed stone of the hillside, to see a kettle boiling tea above a small stone stove filled with firewood, and an old monk beating the dust from his welcome mat. A faint breeze blows off the hill, but we are in the lee.

The peace is like the peace of the mountains, the feeling of splendid self-sufficiency without the feeling of loneliness, of isolation. It's gone after a moment, though, and just after a very light rain begins to fall, barely enough to tickle the hair on my arms.


Travelers come to Nepal, often, to find something, because they are looking for what is more or less a religious experience. They are looking to get something out of Nepal; they have come because they think that here, finally, they can find peace—or can learn to find it. Some come to be among practicing Buddhists, in Buddhist places like Pharping or Boudha, though avowed Buddhists are only about 10% of Nepal; others come for a different kind of spiritual experience, something akin to being one with the mountains.

That one would go anywhere in search of a specific experience is somewhat odd to me, but yet also familiar: many of us Westerners come with metrics on which we gage our experience, an y-axis list of goals. For all our exoticization, Buddhism as proffered to Westerners is very much in line with this: we take classes at Kopan Monastery,we participate in vipassana, because the experience is the goal; or else the goal is to be the person we imagine we will be when vipassana is over, and the ten days' silence itself is a means.

This is not the only local religious tradition of introspection, however: India has sanyasa, in which successful men whose children are raised leave home (wives included) and become itinerant beggars—that they don't know what they're looking for is, in the end, the point. And while sanyasa is certainly more explicitly religious than vipassana, it's also in many ways more human: less about renouncing the world than it is about interacting with it and in it.


Pharping is a far quieter town than Kathmandu, more peaceful but still familiar, still built with stone and mud huts, with brick buildings in the Newar style, with protrusions of elaborately carved wood sills and screens for windows and posts and lintels for doors. It's familiar and yet not, like a visit from Thamel in Kathmandu to Lakeside in Pokhara.

Like Boudha, you see monks and nuns in robes walking upright through the town in beautiful crimson and gold robes, men and women who carry themselves with the posture of calm of the devoted, who wait a fractional moment and temper their voices before speaking. And though most are Nepali, some are not: they are French, South African, American. I don't mean to suggest that it's the Tibetan Buddhist influence that gives Pharping its feelings of calm, of quiet; but as an outsider, as a foreigner, it feels like that's the case.

Save a few—those whose paths led them to Pharping (or Boudha) by chance—these monks have come for the destination, rather than the journey; it is not the moving that interests them, but the long rests in between movements.


Nepal is a religious country, and because to Westerners its rituals and forms of religiosity are usual and exotic it's an easy place to exoticize, an easy place to presume spiritual depth in someone you can't communicate with and whose daily life is far different from your own. That much of Nepal can appear to a Westerner, to use a Deepak Chopra line about India1, like an early archaeological dig where all the layers are inadvertently mixed up, it's also easy to romanticize Nepalis, especially rural Nepalis, as more virtuous, as more connected to the land and the earth in some vague, spiritual sense, to identify them with your own ancestors, also romanticized.

And this, I think, is the essence of the tension of living, and traveling, in Nepal. While it's easy for a place to provide a totally external experience—it's easy for Paris to provide a view of the Arc de Triomphe, or San Francisco of the Golden Gate bridge—it's hard for even the Vatican to provide a communion with the divine. Tourist-driven adventuring, here, is safe: it is guided treks, bungee jumping, a mountain flight above the Himals to see Everest. The exhilaration, or the relief, or the sense of confidence or pride that comes from real adventure, here, often, is a consumer product; it is, or seems to me, canned.

I don't wish to harp on this point too much, so I will leave things at this: unburdened travel is not vipassana but sanyasa; it is not a guided meditation into the divine but instead a journey of mud and hunger that fulfills a purpose you cannot define, even to yourself. And that purpose could, very easily, be vain.

1 Being able to quote anything by Deepak Chopra is of course a tad bit embarrassing, but also, because of his passion for Ayurveda and his semi-medical, semi-religious writings, rather fitting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been recommending a book called "My Stroke of Insight - a Brain Scientist's Personal Journey" by Jill Bolte Taylor and also a TEDTalk Dr. Taylor gave on the TED dot com site. And you don't have to take my word for it - Dr. Taylor was named Time Magazine 100 Most Influential People, the New York Times wrote about her and her book is a NYTimes Bestseller), and Oprah did not 4 interviews with her.