Kathmandu – Boudhanath Stupa
During our time in Kathmandu, I took two trips to Boudhanath Stupa, one of the largest in the world – and one of the most sacred Tibetan sites outside of Tibet. A large Tibetan refugee community has settled in the neighborhood around it. No one knows exactly when the stupa was originally built, but it was sometime between 1500 and 500 years ago. Boudhanath is less pristine than Yangon’s Shwedagon (we are in Nepal, after all) – kind of like the rustic country house version – but just as atmospheric. From very early morning until well after sunset, devotees of all sort get their physical and spiritual exercise by circumambulating this spectacular structure. Some finger mala beads while mouthing mantras, some turn the hundreds of prayer wheels, and others just amble along talking on their cell phones. Once in a while there’s someone doing full prostrations – bending forward, placing hands on the ground and sliding onto the belly while stretching the arms out, then standing up, hands palm together at the forehead and taking a single step before repeating – all the way around. You need gear for this – knee pads, an apron and wooden slides for the hands. I guess it takes at least a couple of hours to go around once. And quite a workout. In veneration, of course.
Spinning a prayer wheel is said to have the same effect as chanting or speaking the mantra, that of accumulating wisdom and merit. These wheels line the entire perimeter, and there is a room on the inside with the largest prayer wheel I’ve ever seen.
As travelers, Jessica and I are more experience-seekers than sight-seers. Once in a while a place measures high in both aspects, and the Boudha Stupa is one of those. It’s brilliantly alive and colorful and intensely real and human. After circumambulating, we watched others walk around, and we felt our hearts connect to our shared humanity as people of all ages, sizes and colors, and with differing aspirations somehow visible in their faces, sought refuge. They had come to this place narrowly escaping persecution, or at the end of a long hoped-for religious pilgrimage, or more comfortably as a tourist, but all seeking refuge from ceaseless noise and senseless chaos. Not just from the streets of Kathmandu – human civilization itself has become as frailly propped up as our egos, which is what true refuge is from. The stupa symbolizes an alternative way of being, resting in the heart’s knowing of itself, in an unshakable peace.