3B: Pashupatinath

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna

We descend from the Stupa amidst golden statues of the Buddha, ribbons of prayer flags, and tourists. Monkeys swing in trees and dig through garbage on both sides of the trail as we maneuver through the crowds returning to our taxi. Many of the pilgrims ascending past us heading toward the stupas have large chunks of red or black paint on their foreheads where most Hindus have a small dot – the bindi, which symbolizes wisdom. The markings – red if married and black if single – are on as many Europeans wearing khakis and plaid as Nepalis dressed in brilliantly coloured saris, showcasing that we are in a religious tourism hotspot.

Our taxi driver sees us coming and pulls to the walkway next to the road as we emerge from the masses. We hop in and enjoy another ride that would cost money in a North American theme park. The disorientation starts with the English pattern of driving on the road’s left side. Since there are no lines even in this major city, going on the left is more of a general guideline than a rule. Our taxi weaves in and out of traffic, avoiding hives of small electric motorcycles, oncoming traffic and the occasional sacred cow content to rest in the middle of a busy street. I even caught a glimpse of a three-wheeled retrofitted Jeep reminiscent of a Mr. Bean episode. Despite my ethnocentric judgments, the lack of stop signs and lights seems to work flawlessly here. In my short time in the country, I have not seen a single accident, nor have I witnessed any vehicles with evidence of impact. This would be the opposite in my home city of Edmonton, where, especially after winter, and despite a rigid system of enforced traffic laws, damaged vehicles are everywhere. Controlled enforcement provides a sense of order and allows Canadians to visit foreign lands and condescend. While accidents abound and road rage reigns in our North American streets, Nepalis seem calm and collected as they negotiate their daily commutes wearing masks to protect their lungs from the dust. Like a flock of birds, they twist and turn majestically in every direction, occasionally letting out a call with the sound of their horn. Cars, busses, bicycles and pedestrians flow and interact organically according to splendid communal instincts.

Driving in Nepal. Note the cow just under the windshield wiper.

In twenty minutes, we arrive at the Pashupatinath Temple along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. Michel is still working through jet lag and decides to remain in the taxi for a short nap. I step out of the vehicle and find myself in a Geographer of Religion’s dream. My guide for this adventure is Hiragyan, who goes by Hyra. Dhan is certified to guide treks but is not allowed also to accompany tourists to cultural sites. This keeps more people employed in Nepal, as guides are some of the best-paid workers in the labour force. Hyra guides me along a path through small shops as Nepalis on both sides beg me to stop and buy jewelry, an artifact or a work of art.

We shortly arrive at the temple complex. As a monkey transcends along a brick wall, a young black haired girl in a ponytail chases a massive flock of pigeons around a courtyard next to the temple. The birds are so numerous they appear to be an organic carpet, and as the child runs around troughs made of divided plastic barrels in the centre of the square, the birds flee, causing the piazza to look like an avian whirlpool. As she laughs and runs, I take in the entire scene of this UNESCO Heritage site – the most sacred place in all of Nepal and the most important temple on Earth for those who worship Lord Shiva.

The main temple is a large pagoda topped with a golden spire surrounded by a landscape of smaller pagodas, temples and statues. The temple complex has four primary doors, and we face the western entrance. Though I cannot enter without converting to Shivaism and following a laundry list of cleansing rites, I am beckoned to draw near to admire the ornate artwork depicting Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.

Death is everywhere here – in every ritual, in the symbols affixed to statues, and in the particulates of the atmosphere itself. Often the elderly will arrive before dying to spend their remaining days in the temple before their last spiritual journey down the Bagmati River to the more sacred Ganges. Many believe that those who spend their final days at this place will be reincarnated as humans, no matter how they have lived their lives.

Western entrance: Pashupatinath Temple

Hyra asks me to follow him around the structure, and so we navigate south then east, crossing the small sacred river over a pedestrian bridge to the eastern shore. Here death confronts all five senses, especially smell. All along the western bank of the river, open-air cremations are taking place. Those cremated closer to the temple have a better chance of a good reincarnation. The wealth of those who can afford this opportunity is conspicuous – displayed through the numbers of brilliantly coloured flowers adorning the pyres. Downstream families gathered to say goodbye to loved ones alongside more simple pyres.

As we silently hover on the bridge taking in the ceremonies, ash-covered sadhus, ascetic yogis hoping to be liberated from the cycle of life and death through meditation, hover nearby, hoping we might pay a few dollars for a picture with them. We stayed here quietly watching as priests prepared a pyre directly in front of the temple for a woman whose body patiently waited as wood, flowers, and fuel were artfully crafted into a vessel forged to carry this soul into another life.


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 2

In Betweens: Reflections from Annapurna.

Chapter 2: Sunrise over Kathmandu. April 17, 2019.

It was pitch black when I gave up trying to sleep and ascended to the roof of my hotel in the Thamel district of Kathmandu. Now the light of the sun is beginning to reveal the unique landscape of this city of 3 1/2 million people, most of whom are in poverty. I’m in the foothills of the Himalayas, the largest mountains on the planet. This was not a trip that I’ve been planning for years. It emerged out of a need and desire to escape the pressures of my job and struggles to find solace at home. As a Vice-President of Student Life and Dean of Students, the wind-up and execution of fall programming is always intense, but this year it was made exceptionally challenging because I picked up new departments in my portfolio: Enrolment and the Registry. I spent the fall working with my new team to write a Strategic Enrolment, Marketing and Management Plan in the hope of meeting some aggressive growth targets while doing my best to serve in my historical capacity as Dean of Students. We finished the plan and had a good student launch, but when I was invited to consider a trip to Nepal, it only took me a day to order my ticket.

The invitation came from Michel, the retired owner of our university’s previous catering company, who was now engaged in a variety of adventure trips in different parts of the world. I didn’t know him well, but from my past interactions, I liked him and knew it could be workable. He invited countless people to join through his networks and travel websites. Despite the heroic effort, I’m the only one who took him up on the offer, and here we are in Nepal after 50 hours of travel through five airports and two different cities in China.

Our guide, Dhan Rai, greeted us at the Kathmandu airport last night by putting lays around our necks and whisking us away to our hotel, the Samsara. Michel’s wife Chris has done a few treks with Dhan in the past, and they have supported a school in our guide’s home village for many years. Dhan seems quiet and reserved, but Michel assures me he is one of the best guides in the country and will take care of our every need. We arrived late but took some time to explore the busy tourist-filled Thamel district, where we found a Classic Rock café that served American style hamburgers and local craft beer. The brew was terrific – the burgers appalling. We went back to the room, and I tried to sleep, but as it was the middle of the day in Canada, I spent most of the night staring at the ceiling. Now here I am on a roof at the top of the world watching my phone take a time-lapse of the sunrise and getting my first look at the Himalayas.

As it gets brighter and more of the city is revealed, the squalor and poverty become more and more evident. The impact of the 2015 Earthquake is everywhere. I see buildings all around me that are either still destroyed or are slowly being reconstructed. A concrete structure is rising again just behind the hotel, and near it is a semi-collapsed temple. Courtyards remain filled with rubble. The earthquake brought pain, loss, and tragedy to this region. But there in the distance, the Himalayas watch over it all in their ancient majesty. Solid, unbroken and mysterious. Mountains envelop the city, surrounding it, nesting this valley in a timeless embrace of strength, power and dignity. I sit in the in-between and ponder, while a woman on a roof across the street starts a wood fire to cook her family’s breakfast.

I am a stranger to this place, and yet I am invited in. I am bidden to step out of the immediate foreground toward the mountains, which are beckoning to me. I sense their invitation to explore ancient secrets and become a small part of their story. In the spirit of John Muir, I feel that the mountains are calling, and I must go.

In February, just two months ago, I participated in a staff and faculty silent retreat at Kingsfold in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains between Calgary and Banff in my home province of Alberta. In our opening service, and while we could still talk, we were asked to select a picture upon which to meditate. There were many prints with a variety of human and natural landscapes. As the exercise was described, I had already begun considering what I wanted in my picture: mountains. Unfortunately, none of the variety of images included a mountainous scene, which was sad to me considering this was a retreat in the Canadian Rockies. The one I chose came close but was an entirely different landscape altogether. I picked up an image of a hilly landform made of sand photographed in an anonymous barren desert. It was beautiful but quite a contrast to the rugged -30C landscape outside my window.

Throughout the weekend, I reflected on the picture. I tried to consider it in the context of the concerns of my heart and events in my life. Since this was a staff and faculty retreat, it involved work, so I didn’t concern myself with blurring the boundaries between my private and public life. I rarely do. My role can be an all-consuming position as I’m frequently drawn to the front lines to address student crises and concerns while I try to proactively help lead the university into a good and faithful future.

I hung my chosen picture next to the window of my room in the retreat centre, and I spent quite a bit of time meditating back and forth between the landscapes. The image was easily influenced and impacted by the elements around it. A strong windstorm could transform that landscape in a matter of hours. The particles of sand had not been concretized through the geological process of being forced under the ground, hardened, and lifted back up into the sky. Instead, it was comprised of sand particles eroded from other landscapes and left here to blow around in the wind. Meanwhile, the view outside my window had looked similar for hundreds of thousands of years. Wind and rain do have a slow impact on the landscape, but it would take an extraordinary force of nature to transform the entire scene.

I brought names of many struggling students with me, and I spent time praying for them under the image and in front of my window. As I prayed, a thought emerged connecting these students in crisis to the two landscapes. Too many of my students are like the desert mountain – constructed of sand blown easily by the wind. Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and fears of all kinds keep their identities from finding solidification. As the external forces of relational crises, academic challenges, parental expectations, a changing climate, and global uncertainties bear upon them, their moorings blow away.

And then the harder reality. I’m right there with my students. Four years in a role supporting these young adults has taken its toll on my body, mind and spirit. I knew it there at the retreat. I spent a day hiking around the property, bundled up for the cold, exploring the landscape and searching for grounding. It helped, but it did not prepare me for the weeks that have followed since – the hardest of my career.

The Nepali sun rises above the horizon, its heat wakening the landscape. I finish the time lapse and review it, enjoying with immense pleasure the final product even though I am watching it on the small screen of my cell phone. A few lights in a black tapestry morph to the purple sky, then blue. I see the brilliant colourful landscape of Kathmandu appear out of the darkness as the clouds move overhead, and the smoke of morning fires rises to the sky. But even in the movie, my eyes are primarily drawn to the mountains behind this vibrant and beautiful city.