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?

In Betweens 1

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna. Chapter 1: Avalanche Field. April 26, 2019.

A waterfall cascades over wet rocks from imperceptible heights above, removing the spring glacial melt from the south side of Patal Hiunchuli mountain. I walk in a cloud, only able to see a few hundred metres all around. Across the valley, similar waterfalls flow from Machhapuchhre, the peak that has guided my way for over a week through the Annapurna region of the Himalaya mountains in Nepal. Their presence only makes them known through sound, though I saw them before the fog ascended. The snow beneath my feet is wet and melting with the spring heat, my boots and gators sinking a few centimetres with every step. Dirt, rocks and debris scattered across the voluminous heap arrived here within the last few months from landscapes up to three vertical kilometres above my head.

Waterfall, Patal Hiunchuli Avalanche Field

I have been rapidly descending from Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) on day nine of my first trek to the Himalayan mountains. A half-hour ago, my path crossed into the melting snow of an avalanche field. I traversed a few of these on the way up yesterday, and I consider how it looks vaguely familiar as I begin to navigate my way across the now indiscernible path. At first, there were signs of previous human travel, but now all footsteps have disappeared. I gave my crampons away to a struggling French couple a few hours ago, so my traction is reduced. But, I’ve walked through enough snow in Canada that I’m not overly concerned about it. What’s the worst that could happen?

I quickly find a large rock just a few metres beyond the trail, and from this solid ground attempt to discern the best way forward through the fog and snow. The waterfall that was ahead of me to my right is now behind me, though I never crossed a stream. I may have already gone over the flow beneath the snow and debris, or it could be carving out a cavity beneath me in this very location. The slope is a relatively steep pitch, and below me, to the left, the sacred Modi Khola river is also rushing under the snow somewhere in the valley beneath. I don’t want to meander too low, or I could inadvertently fall through the melting snow into the river. But above me, the waterfall is draining into and under the snowfield.

I do my best to choose a wise path and decide to ere on the side of caution by going higher toward the waterfall. The snowpack is much taller in the middle, and I cannot see beyond twenty metres ahead of me as I climb. I walk slowly and carefully, taking great care with every step, gradually ascending the hill of ice without falling into the valley to my left by firmly planting my trekking poles with each step. It is slick, and I am regretting the loss of my crampons.

Eventually, I ascend the centre of the avalanche field to find another 200 metres of melting snow in front of me. I don’t recall anything like this on the way up, but perhaps I was simply too tired to notice. Today had been a tough slog from MBC at 3:00 am this morning to above Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), where I watched the sunrise from a rock perched high above the gathering pilgrims in what is called the Annapurna Sanctuary. I’ve trekked over a hundred kilometres in just a few days, which is a lot for a middle-aged chubby West Virginia born Canadian. I find myself to be very tired as I try to press forward.

At the crest, I continue one step after another, and I soon notice to my right what appears to be a crevasse just above me. As this is not a glacier but a seasonal avalanche field, I am cognizant that as the hill of snow is melting, it is cracking, and it could easily fall in chunks to the river below. Gravity and the heat of spring will likely defeat this temporary formation in several weeks – if not today. I don’t want to be here for the more dramatic moments of this devolution. There is no snow on the cliffs above me, so I am not concerned about getting washed away in an avalanche, but perhaps I should be as the snowfall from the glacier of the 6441-metre mountain is also melting. But now my more significant concern lies to my left as falling into the valley sounds just as deadly and likely more painful. I’ve been walking solo for over an hour and have not seen anyone coming or going for most of that time. If I fall, I’m on my own. Perhaps I should have packed an ice axe as well?

As I continue, I pound my poles into the ground in front of me to ensure the snow is solid enough to hold. For twenty metres this works just fine, but then I hit a point where one pole sinks and I expose new mini crevasses in front of me. They are less than a metre deep, but it is not worth the risk to try to cross, so I double back and go a little lower on the hill, nearly slipping quite a few times. I make it past the crevasses, but again substantial melt is evident both above and below me, and cracks appear to be getting more significant as I get closer to the other side. The stream formed by the waterfall could be anywhere beneath me. In the summer, there is probably a clear path with a bridge crossing the creek, but predicting where that might lie is impossible. I’m 20 metres higher than either side of this tributary’s steep valley, and it is likely quite deep. The bridge may or may not exist under 50 metres of snow.

Crevasse in Avalanche Field above the Modi Khola

I take another step, and my probing pole breaks through. I listen as the snow that had been on the surface cascades down into a dark abyss at least a metre or two deep. I cannot go forward, so I backtrack again and try going even lower, continuing to test the path as I travel at a turtle’s pace. I lose track of time, unsure of how long I’ve been on the avalanche field. Step by step, I move up and down the slope more than I move laterally, but I make progress and find myself nearing the solid ground.

I can see where the path continues along a rising stone staircase, which is also mostly covered by avalanche debris and snow. It appears to me like a stairway to heaven, capable of carrying me away from my increasingly dangerous situation. But then I see the full extent of my predicament. As I continue to descend toward the edge, I note a gap at the end of the slope. Fifteen metres in front of the staircase, the avalanche field has collapsed, and there is no way to proceed without falling off a snow cliff of hidden depth. I could approach it to see if it is navigable, but likely it is undercut, and I would discover its height the hard way. The cliff spans up toward the waterfall behind me, but lower near the river, it appears to end. So, I sluggishly begin moving down the slope toward the river, imagining in my mind how it is likely rushing underneath the snow.

With only a few metres left, I begin to hear rushing water ahead and above to my right, and in a few more careful steps, I see the edge of a melt hole with a circumference of at least a metre. I’m only a few steps from it when I realize what it is, and I hold my camera out and take a picture to get a sense of its depth. When I look at my screen, my heart begins to race. It is at least 15 metres straight down to the cold, dark bottom. Another crevasse is to my left below me nearer to the river. I don’t see a way forward. But I am so close that backtracking is as unappetizing as proceeding.

I’m baffled that I have not seen anyone else since I started this crossing, and just as I am thinking this, two backpackers come from the other side down the stairs. They look across the avalanche field, see me stuck only 20 metres from them, assess their situation, and immediately turn around without saying a word.

I’m mystified that they might give up their trek to the base camps so easily. But then I realize they are not giving up. They are turning around to take a different route. The avalanche fields we crossed the day before were further downstream below the tea houses in Deurali. When I walked with my guide yesterday, he led us around this one, and suddenly the fog of my fatigue dissipates, and I remember seeing it from far above on the other side of the valley. I look across the river and up the mountain to see various coloured backpacks crossing either way on the winter trail that was created to avoid this very dilemma. I should have stuck with my guide today, I think to myself, as the full reality of my peril sets in with gravity. I’m stuck in between the melting crevasses behind me and the cliffs and melt holes before me.

My current predicament is illustrative of how I have been feeling in my life before this trek – lost and alone in the betwixt and betweens of my professional and personal journey. This trek to the Himalayas has been a kind of accidental pilgrimage, but one that has birthed insights to help find paths out of the challenges beleaguering me. Hopefully, the lessons I’ve learned will get me to the other side of this avalanche field, as well as into a more peaceful and present way of being back home.