“You’re under no obligation to be the same person you were five minutes ago.” – Alan Watts
The sudden transcendental shift is completely unexpected. In the hours prior, I still feel guarded and anxious from our late night arrival in Kathmandu.
Hotel Harmika is tucked within a quiet tangle of residential buildings and guesthouses. Our room looks out to a tranquil, overgrown courtyard; a pleasing contradiction to our initial apocalyptic impressions of the city.
While watching the sunrise from our open window, I suggest to Sarah that we walk to the Boudhanath Stupa, the holiest Buddhist temple outside of Tibet.
The front desk staff confirms that the Stupa is a short distance away and directs us to the cobble-stoned path that begins next to the hotel.
Although it appears wide enough for both walkers and motorbikes, Sarah and I reflexively flatten our bodies against the gray rock that lines one side, to let the riders pass.
The refreshed, vibrant energy of the awakening city begins to replace my guardedness and caution from the evening before. Three young children stop their play and greet us, in unison, with a bashful Namaste.
I further soften to the new day.
We turn the corner and enter a kaleidoscope of activity, smells, and striking colors. The narrow street is banked with miniature, cramped storefronts selling food, trinkets, everyday essentials, textiles, butter candles, and clothes. Toddlers sit on stoops eating breakfast next to stray dogs sleeping in doorways, oblivious.
Adding contrast to the chaotic morning hustle are the long, deep, haunting elephantine sounds of the dungchen, the Tibetan long horn used by monks during morning prayers. The reverberations give an invisible structure and vibrational steadiness to the commotion.
Sarah and I join the tide of people moving toward the Stupa, flowing along with the motorbikes as naturally as water around rocks in a stream.
I gaze up to the sky to find my bearings and see the golden spire with the eyes of Buddha watching from above.
The street pours us out at the front of the colossal white Stupa, seemingly buttressed by fluttering lines of prayer flags. The enormous dome and its tiered base are sequestered from modernity by a plaza and a ringed wall of brightly colored three-story houses, monasteries, shops, and restaurants.
Incense float up from a massive, embossed cauldron. A group of men adds wood to the fire below at a stopping point in their animated conversation. The smoke brings shape to the ephemeral morning light.
I watch a hunched, misshapen woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes, immerse herself in the fragrant plume before leaving an offering of rice.
Everywhere, the air is tinged with monastic chants, and the dungchen continues to bellow from the second floor of the monastery behind us.
A young monk slides his body prone on the ground, glides to his knees, then back to standing. He repeats the prostration over and over again. He wears a bright blue smock and boards strapped on his palms to protect the front of his robe and hands. His exposed lime green crocks and brown dress socks bring an ordinariness to his sacred practice.
I am acutely aware of witnessing the living edge of a two-thousand-year-old spiritual tradition. The scene is something profoundly different from the commercialized, cherry-picked Buddhism declared on a Be Here Now bumper sticker.
There are at least a thousand people, mostly Nepalese and a few tourists, circling the base of the Stupa, clockwise, in morning prayer and meditation. The current of faces, young and old, is dotted with monks in crimson robes with flashes of their saffron shirts underneath.
Time unfolds into something both momentary and eternal. In an instant, everything is dream-like. There is not one molecule of the familiar.
Sound takes on movement: the patternless but constant clanging of bells; the whirling of prayer wheels; the chattering of melodious unknown languages; the fluttering of pigeons’ wings as they lift off and land; and the thrumming of thousands of footsteps reverently walking.
My sensory perceptions expand, and I feel the nouns I use to describe myself fall away, creating a welcoming space without a center of gravity or solid core to grasp.
I am free; liberated from my need to label and harness this magnificent newness to anything that has come before or predictive future thinking.
I have a pre-verbal memory from when I was six months old, of lying in my crib. The faded roller shades are drawn, covering the two windows across from me. They act as a filter, making everything glow butter yellow, while crystalline-white sunlight curls around the edges of the fabric, illuminating the slender strips of glass between the shade and windowsill.
My recollection is somatic. There is no separation between me and the light. I am the sun, and the sun is me.
Even now, when I can put words to the experience, I physically feel the brightness and can conjure up the radiating warmth in my chest from a lifetime ago.
I feel a similar integration as I sit on the first tier of the Stupa, above the crowd of practitioners and visitors. My sensations and emotions are undefended by my mind. There is no separateness or definition to the fleeting mutuality of the present moment.
I look over at Sarah. She is laughing and crying. Before our trip, we trained together for trekking, shared our hopes for our time in Nepal, and obsessed over packing lists, yet nothing prepared us for this pure joy.
It just happened, effortlessly.
Note: I traveled to Nepal in November of 2018. This is the fourth essay in a series that describes my experience.