3a. Monkey Temple

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna.

Chapter 3:Cycles of Life and Death. Part A: Monkey Temple – April 17, 2019

This evening I sit in my hotel room listening to Michel snore and reflecting on cycles of life and death in our physical and cultural worlds. I use the plural intentionally, as I feel as though I am in a different realm in the magical city of Kathmandu. Back home in Alberta, it was election day, and the political landscape could not be more polarized. My social media streams are full of celebratory laudations welcoming in a new era of conservative economic prosperity and bliss contrasted by posts lamenting the arrival of hatred, bigotry and homophobia to what was one of the most progressive jurisdictions in the world. There is neither love nor respect between these two sides. But here it all feels irrelevant – I turn off the wifi. I don’t need that world today, and I don’t feel as though it needs me either. I’m not weighing in. I’m trying to lighten up.

I spent the day exploring two different ancient holy sites in Kathmandu. The first was the Monkey Temple, perched high above the city. The real name for this world heritage site is Swayambhu Stupa, and it is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. It is called Monkey Temple because it is crawling with free-range rhesus monkeys – they hopscotch between tourists, swing from every tree, and poop on every sacred structure. Since this is the second holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists, there are sacred structures covered in monkey and pigeon feces in every direction. The central building is a stupa with Buddhist eyes overlooking the Kathmandu Valley, and this is surrounded by an impressive assemblage of smaller stupas and pagodas. Crowds surround these, leaving offerings and ringing bells linked to the Buddhist chant, om mani padme hum

In the heart of the temple plaza is a painting school where master artists create thangka paintings depicting Buddhist deities, mandalas, and landscapes. A seventeen-year-old Nepali girl greeted us and shared the basics of Buddhism in perfect English, complete with a slight British accent. She was wise well beyond her years and spoke like a sage as she walked us through the Buddhist Wheel of Life. It was the most lucid and compelling explanation of Buddhism I’ve ever heard. Image by image, she graphically demonstrated the practices of engagement and abandonment leading to liberation from samsara, the cycle of reincarnation. 

The Wheel of Life is composed of four concentric circles. The inner ring uses a bird, a snake, and a pig to signify the three poisons that beings use to create karma. The bird represents greed, the snake symbolizes hatred, and the pig portrays ignorance or delusion. These create all the suffering in the world, and if extinguished, an enlightened being can be liberated from distress. The second circle represents karma and is divided into a white half of virtuous actions on the left and a black half of non-virtuous actions on the right. Beings move from virtuous actions into higher states or from non-virtuous actions to lower states in the surrounding third circle, which depicts the six realms of samsara. This ring encompasses the most space in the painting with exceptionally detailed artwork portraying the realms of gods (Deva), demi-gods (Asura), humans (Manusya), animals (Tiryagyoni), hungry ghosts (Preta), and hell (Naraka). She explains that though portrayed in a circle, these are a spectrum moving from a hell realm of unimaginable suffering to the god realm consisting of a long and enjoyable life of pleasure and prosperity. The most interesting were the hungry ghosts, who live their lives in constant hunger and thirst no matter how much they eat or drink. In the painting, each realm contains a Buddha trying to help sentient beings escape samsara and reach nirvana. Finally, the fourth circle depicts twelve links demonstrating how karma functions throughout multiple reincarnations. Surrounding and holding all of the wheels is Mara, the demon who tempted Buddha. The inner meaning of Mara’s presence is that the process of cyclic existence is always changing. Above and to the left of Mara, Buddha points to a moon representing the path of liberation found in the noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right union. Our host’s beautiful, enlightening, inspiring presentation led to one climactic conclusion: for $1000 I could buy this painting! I didn’t.

Buddhist Wheel of Life.
(This is not the one described above – I purchased this Thangka on my last day in Kathmandu from a street vendor. It now hangs in my home office.)

Though not tempted to convert to Buddhism, I was moved as this young religious scholar related approaches to abandon greed, hatred and ignorance. These three poisons are plaguing politics, academia and families in Alberta. In the temple today, I could identify how each of them is impacting my relationships and wellbeing. My country of origin, the United States, is also awash in a spirit of xenophobia and greed as the nation with a military ten times more massive than any other attempts to make itself great “again.” Meanwhile, on a global scale, greed, hatred and ignorance continue to transform natural ecosystems into human landscapes while eradicating millions of species, increasing carbon dioxide to dangerous levels and poisoning our water systems with pollutants and plastics.  

From my Christian perspective, I frame the source of greed, hatred and ignorance differently through a lens of idolatry, or what Bob Goudzwaard describes as the false gods of economism, technicism, and scientism. We have created false gods – and perhaps an entire god realm – and we trust in them. The invisible hand of the economy will give us the life we desire. Science and technology will be the solutions to the crises we have created. If we trust in these things and have faith, it will all be OK. But our gods are failing us, and as they fall to the ground around us, the aftermath is anxiety, depression, suicide, hostility and hatred. A culture of fear permeates much of the world, something I see every day in the lives of my students. Both the Bible and the Buddhist Wheel of Life point to similar spiritual problems at the root of today’s calamities: greed, hatred and ignorance. Both Buddhism and Christianity offer spiritual solutions, but are we able to hear these today?

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