Monday, July 15, 2013

Hunting Enlightenment

(Or: You're Being Stupa'ed)

I've finally come to the conclusion that this post is not going to write itself, and I've put it off long enough.  I don't know if it will be my normal, high quality writing or not (stop laughing - inappropriate jokes aside I've gotten a lot of nice compliments on my blog.  Yes, they were all friends.  No, I don't just think they were trying to spare my feelings.  Anyways). 

I have to hand it to Lonely Planet (who should be hot on Coke's tail in offering me a sponsorship for my blog), they had no end of cool things to go do and see in and around Kathmandu.  Except for the minor omission of cooking classes in their courses section, they gave me plenty to keep me busy for the six or so days I actually had in Nepal.  On my first day back from Bhutan, I decided I would visit a couple of these sites on the way back from the airport, Pashupatinath and the Bodhnath Stupa.
Pashupatinath is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but you can't actually go and see the temple.  Which, considering the number of Hindu Temples I saw in the six days I spent there, is probably okay, because there is more to Pashupatinath than just the temple.  There are lots of shrines to Shiva (Pashupati is one of his incarnations, as Lord of the Beasts).  There are also lots of sadhus, wandering holy men who will let you take their photo for a little tip in their begging bowls (I hadn't exchanged money yet - I didn't have anything for them, but there's a photo of one on my Freak blog).  There's also a river running through the site, the Bagmati River, which is apparently as sacred in Nepal as the Ganges is in India. 

And of course, no sacred river would be complete without burning corpses.  Seriously, though, here at Pashupatinath the banks of the river are where cremations are held.  The prime spots are right outside the temple, but apparently that area is reserved for the royal family.  Lonely Planet said not to take photos, but the college student who was trying to get himself hired as my guide (again, see the bit about not having any money - I had to borrow the 1000 rupees to get in from my driver - although I wish I could have hired this guy...he looked just like a Nepali version of the PE teacher from my last school, Iron Man), told me it was okay, and the back of the ticket simply said to be respectful and keep your distance when taking photos.

I looked around Pashupatinath some, but here's the thing: I'm used to being conspicuous.  A ginger outside of North America or Europe has no hope of blending in, and when she's tall and kinda fat and vampire-pale, people will rubber-neck to get a good look.  But I've gotten used to it, to the point where my other Western friends are more uncomfortable about the stares than I am.  But at Pashupatinath, I realized something:

I feel ridiculously conspicuous at a Hindu temple at 8:30 in the morning.  And so I didn't stay very long; when I came back to the car, the driver was surprised I was back already.  But there you go.
Also - monkeys make me freaking nervous!
From Pashupatinath you are a mere stone's throw away from the Bodhnath Stupa, so we made a stop there next.  I got my first look at it from the plane as we were taking off for Bhutan, and it looked HUGE.  In fact, it is the biggest in Nepal and one of the bigger ones in the world.
And, according to my faithful Lonely Planet, this was a magnet for people looking for enlightenment.  Forgive me for saying so, but those people were idiots (people in general are idiots, if you ask me, but after being left to my own devices here in UB for nearly a week after three weeks of flying solo, I am almost ready for some idiots...almost). 

However, Bodhnath was a pretty cool place, and I feel FAR less conspicuous around Buddhists than Hindus.  Don't ask me why - I don't know, and no, I'm not about to go and convert.  In addition to the fact that I am pretty committed to the religion to which I already converted, white Buddhists are just annoying.  I mean, it's hard to take them seriously.  This is probably me being racist or prejudiced or both, but there's something about whitebread crackers claiming to be Buddhist that irks me to no end.  I don't have this problem with Islam...

At any rate, it was neat to have a look around Bodhnath and it's little community, built in a circle around the stupa.  It has it's share of Tibetans as well as backpackers, and it was a small bit trippy, to say the least, to see businesses catering to one next to monasteries and temples for the other.
Bodhnath is not the only big-ass stupa around Kathmandu, and to be honest, not even my favorite.  Swayambhunath was another magnet for freakin' hippies looking to get enlightened, and it is one you could see from my penthouse suite at the Monumental Paradise, thanks to it being situated on a hilltop in the western part of the city.  It's at least a 3 kilometer walk out there, but it was early and the last day of my vacation, so I decided to hoof it.
I don't know if you can see the monkeys perched on the wall at Buddha's back, but there were even more damn monkeys at Swayabhunath.  At least this time I was warned.  Swayambhunath is better known as the monkey temple than it is by its actual name.  Anyways, two things you need to know about monkeys: don't make eye contact, and don't make the crinkly sort of sounds that wrappers make when you undo them.  If you follow these two simple rules, you will probably not be mobbed by a bunch of flea-bitten, rabid freaks.

Back to the topic at hand, though - enlightenment.  I must have gotten-lightened by climbing all the stairs to the top of the temple (see what I did there?)  They go up, and up, and up, and are much steeper (and scarier!) than what I climbed at the Tiger's Nest.  I am not the most graceful person, as some of you know, and I clung like hell to that handrail, because if I fell on these stairs, I was going to keep going for a long ways!  It didn't seem like that long or that hard a hike, though.  It didn't feel as long, for example, as all the stairs up to my penthouse, which is not actually true, but there were lots of good photo opportunities along the way.  A couple of Nepali girls and I had a good laugh at each other for huffing and puffing up those stairs.

Finally, the top, by way of a great thunderbolt!  No, not one of the Divine Madman's - a dorje.  This is one of the major symbols of Buddhism and you will find a giant one right at the top of the stairs.

Swayambhunath is an amazing place to visit, not least of all because of the view you get of the entire Kathmandu valley from the top, but if you want my opinion (and I assume that you do, since you've stuck with me through this post to the bitter end), visiting Bodhnath or Swayambhunath or even the freaking Dalai Lama isn't where you're going to find enlightenment.  Travel is great - it's the air that I breathe, it's the reason I do this sometimes really ridiculously painful expat thing - but for most of us, it doesn't make up the majority of your life.  Going and meditating in an ashram for three months might help you find some clarity, but guess what?  All the big problems you left behind in wherever-the-hell-it-is-you-come-from are still going to be waiting for you when you get back.  Maybe Siddhartha Gautama found his sitting under a bodhi tree.  But he was already on a path.  Maybe Christ found his while he was fasting in the wilderness...again, he was on a path.  Find your path, people...otherwise all the great sacred spots in the world are just going to be a bunch of photo opportunities.  And while you're on your path, help some people out.  Because as annoying as people are, you'll like yourself a lot better if you're nice to them.  End rant.

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