After being in Nepal for a full week of working we decided to take a side trip. Rick has been volunteering here for 7 years and he recognizes the importance of balancing work and enjoyment. I’m not quite there yet and felt guilty the entire time, but when else in my life will I get the chance to visit the birthplace of Buddha?
Lumbini is the name of the forest that the Queen was traveling through when she went in to labor and gave birth to Prince Siddartha. The story goes that he grew incredible fast and within minutes of being born he grew into a perfectly formed child and walked 7 steps, lotuses sprouting and blooming everywhere his feet touched the ground. Today a 1.5 km by 15 km piece of the forest is fenced in, protecting the area from traffic, farming, etc. and keeping a safe space for the monkeys and jackals that still live there.
It took us another entire day spent on a bus from Pokhara, another random stop on the highway for over an hour, and the most aggressive taxi and rickshaw touts we have seen yet, but eventually we made it to the entrance, rented questionable bicycles at a rate of $1.50 per day, and peddled our way to the Korean Monastery which takes overnight guests. For $5 they give you a dorm room (Marjorie and I had one to ourselves), invite you to worship twice a day and serve three meals a day, always the same: 3 types of cabbage/kimchi, 1 bowl of bland cauliflower curry, rice and soup.
We made it in time for worship the first night and I sat in the back. There was only one monk leading the chanting and two visitors who knew the chants in Korean with him, but the effect of their voices harmonizing in the huge temple space was beautiful. It was after dark and lit only by candlelight and a couple of light bulbs.
In the morning we took our bikes and went straight for the Maya Devi Temple, built supposedly on the exact site of the birth. Our first impressions of the grounds were disappointing. The complex could be seriously beautiful but instead power lines hung low everywhere, power poles stood in awkward places, paths didn’t lead you where you wanted to go, flower gardens were unkempt and brown. We were told we needed to buy a ticket, but there was no ticket booth and eventually figured out the guard was pointing to some random guy walking down the path with a dirty backpack. He pulled out a book of tickets and we paid him sitting on a bench as he asked us the same question everyone asks us, “Which country you from?” Then we were made to take off our shoes a few hundred meters before the temple, even though the guards and guides kept theirs on. Rick had last been here 7 years ago and was upset by the bad attitude of the guards and the way we were forced into an illogical system. It was not treated as the entrance to the holiest site for millions but rather a day job that they didn’t like very much.
Not wanting to enter the temple in a bad mood, we wandered around the grounds first. There were old ruins of temples from the 1st and 2nd century surrounding the modern temple, with signposts that pointed the wrong direction. We headed pretty quickly for the trees beyond the temple, including the sacred Bodhi Tree. Hundreds of prayer flags were draped everywhere and monks from many countries and practices and shades of saffron and grey were assembling in a broad circle around the old tree, some praying, some chanting, some just chatting with their monk friends. After sitting awhile and absorbing their peace we went inside.
The temple itself has to be one of the ugliest buildings I’ve ever been in. I think the outside is rather random and uninspired, square, one story with odd turrets at the corners, but the inside was awful. The building protects many layers of stone temple construction from the centuries around a central stone column where an old stone plaque displays an image of the birth. That part was fascinating. However the ceiling is so low that you can’t see the column or the plaque unless you’re directly under it. In fact it looks a bit like a coffin when you first walk in. The ceiling is made of tons of exposed steel and what looks to me like unfinished sheets of yellowing fiberglass. It is dark and square and feels stifling, and the ugliness distracted me. It was such a shame.
The magic didn’t happen until after we walked the perimeter and went back outside to the circle on monks under the Bodhi tree. Two monks had set themselves apart from the rest and waved us over. Each of us was given three sticks of incense and sent to walk around the tree clockwise three times, and somehow just as we were starting our walk the assembled monks took up a chant in unison. It felt like they were blessing us and it was powerful. After three circles we deposited the incense in a little alter before the tree and each took some time to kneel before the heart of it and pray in our own way. That tree was where the magic was for me. Like many holy places of all religions, when many people over many years direct prayers to the same place, some of that energy sticks around. And it was there for sure.
We lingered around the circle for a while longer. Monks tied little bits of orange and red string around our wrists while saying a blessing. Rick was waved over to share the chant book with another monk. Marjorie cried at the power of it. Eventually other tourists started to wander over, all of them refusing the monks offer of incense and instead talking a few pictures and chatting as they walked. We were glad that we had come so early that we had the experience to ourselves.
After Maya Devi we made our way back to the Korean Temple for lunch, stopping at other temples on the way. Branches of Buddhism from dozens of countries lease land in Lumbini for their own temples: Thailand, Mongolia, China, Cambodia, Myanmar, France, Canada, etc. It was a bit of an Ah-ha moment for me when I could pick out the Asian country based on the architectural style almost instantly. I guess I have been traveling a fair amount now…
After lunch we went in the opposite direction to the World Peace Pagoda. This was built by the same Japanese group that built the one in Pokhara, who are in fact trying to build 100 all over the world. I think they number in the 80s now. The way in wasn’t marked and was more of a dirt track than a road, but we found it after a couple wrong turns. It was lovely, a huge white beacon against a white sky. I climbed the steps and sat on the edge for a bit just to take in the calmness of the area.
As I was sitting I heard Marjorie talking to someone about the meaning of peace so I walked over. She was speaking to a man who was a Muslim from India, who ended up trying to convince both of us why everyone in the world should believe in Islam, how it is the best religion, and to my continued shock, argued that Sharia law brings peace. The way he put it: “If someone steals something from my shop and I cut off his hands, no one else will steal from me and I will have peace.” I thought I must have misunderstood because of how insane it sounds. Marjorie stopped him right there and we walked away, aghast that someone was speaking this way on the steps to a Buddhist monument to world peace and tolerance. (For the record, my Muslim friends and family are some of THE most tolerant and loving people I know, and I don’t think that prostheletizing is usually encouraged in Islam, making this experience ever weirder. The guy also told me that Sufism, the “mystic” branch of Islam that my family and I are very familiar with, is more similar to Hinduism than Islam which is just plain wrong, so I question this guy’s beliefs in general.)
And then in a rapid change of moods, as we were putting on our shoes a guy walks up to us saying “girls, girls!” We turned and said “hello,” to which he literally replied “Something something!” with a huge expectant grin. We looked at each other, then back to him. “What?” Marjorie said. “Something!” He repeated. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” we said, until he eventually walked away muttering “Nothing, nothing.” I think someone must have told the poor guy “If you ever meet a foreign woman, just say Something to them in English!” It gave us a good chuckle and cleared away some of the heaviness we were feeling from our last conversation.
Those two weird interactions were immediately followed by a mob photo scene (my first of this trip) after we helped give directions by pointing and waving to a group of Indian pilgrims. They asked to take our picture and each of them grasped our hands, holding them to their forehead while murmuring smiling prayers. Lumbini was not what I expected, but the experiences I had there still sit with me, and I am very glad I went.
We returned to the Korean Monastery for dinner and evening prayers and then set out in the dark the next morning for another 12 hour trip back to Kathmandu.