HOW THE GREAT STUPA BECAME & REMAINED AS REFUGE

In STORYTELLINGby Choyin DorjeLeave a Comment

The way I understand how it has worked out in my life: guru is heart, guru is luminous, substanceless mind-essence. By the virtue of his or her own training and devotion to benefit beings, the guru in human form embodies heartmind, and by embodying it brings it out in those with eyes to see and ears to hear, who also have a body alive enough to feel their own life and what is around.  Like the real authentic guru himself or herself, heartmind remains ungraspable and indefinable, even as a person. But heartmind has purpose. It defines our purpose in life. How developed or how weak it is, respectively, shines through in the quality of our actions. Being around and living around the Great Stupa for a while as a young man, acted as a medium for me to connect with the Buddha’s dharma and to call some real teachers from afar into my life without knowing that I did, in whom the teachings are living in every cell and every breath.  The Great Stupa was a catalyst that revealed purpose and direction.

The Great Stupa is the Body of Infinite Simplicity, the heartmind of all Buddhas.     

It was one late October morning 1971, when I first laid eyes on the Great Stupa in Boudha. But even though the eyes saw it, little inner recognition followed. My heart didn’t skip a beat. The place felt like a good place for sure – a place much more to my liking than the center of even then comparatively noisy Kathmandu.  But no epiphany happened. The stupa didn’t make me a believer in Buddhism right away. It didn’t change my life on the spot. I am anyway the kind of person who would be suspicious of dramatic shifts, like ‘on the road to Damascus’ type conversions.  I simply don’t trust them. Too much drama usually translates into fanaticism. Therefore, at first stupa was merely registered as a curiosity, an oddly shaped structure, nothing of the likes that I had ever seen. It also looked a bit desolate.

Back then hardly anyone lived in Boudha.

There was one row of buildings forming a circle around the stupa, and one monastery inside the circle (which still exists).  Outside on the main road there stood four, five houses to the right and left of the gate, yet absolutely no houses on the other side of the road.  Apart from these, outside the circle to the west it was rice fields, rice fields and more rice fields all the way to Pashupatinath and the outskirts of the city near the new Royal Palace, whereas to the east, the rice fields didn’t seem to end.  Or did they end where Mt Everest glowed purple and lavender in the evening light, on the far horizon, fully visible on every pristinely clear day – and every morning, too, but only as a dark shadow against the rising sun?

In 1971, it sure appeared as if pollution would never taint this Shangri-La!

Unlike today, the whole Kathmandu Valley basked in pristinely clear sunlight, waves upon waves of rice terraces undulating under a high altitude deep blue sky.  And even with the sun in full force, the weather was quite a bit cooler than nowadays because the foothills to the south, west and north had not been yet clear-cut of their thick forest overcoat.  As a result, and because there were hardly any concrete buildings in the valley that could have stored the heat of the day, temperatures dropped considerably at night. Neither did they rise, much before 10am.  Beyond the Kopan hillock in the old growth pinewoods on the slopes leading up to the 12.000 feet high foothills, rumor had it that tigers still roamed.

Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa of fame to come already lived in Kopan.

But of course when I ventured to explore the Kopan hill and the slopes beyond in the course of my stay, I recognized these lamas as little as I had recognized the gradually growing impact of the stupa on my own life; a slow growth indeed, more like a tree is growing over the years or decades rather than a weed over a few days.  Actually, I was blissfully ignorant of most of anything and everything. In a sense, my mind hadn’t adapted and opened to the new surroundings. My eyes were still wide shut. Which is only natural.

Our ordinary sense of vision cannot perceive what we can’t conceptualize.

Everything was so new and foreign: people moving about in colorful more free flowing fabrics never seen before.  Clothing that let the body breathe and surge forward, rather than restricting or encasing it. Men and women with gestures and habits never encountered, like men peeing while squatting down rather than standing up; village women sucking the smoke of their beedis through the opening between index finger and thumb, not touching it to the mouth.  Buses packed with clusters upon clusters of people, more densely packed than cattle carts. No familiar sight for the eyes to grasp on, and for the mind to identify with. Different architecture. Different noises all around. No traffic rules whatsoever that anyone deemed worth following, except for the one and only one that makes sense: of not banging into another vehicle, or a cow or a pedestrian.  No international brands of anything to purchase, not even Camel cigarettes or Marlboro – except for the universal presence of Coca Cola. And one more: when you enter a temple, it is you who rings the bell to announce your coming. It is not the bell that is calling you to service. You introduce yourself. You announce your coming to the gods. The gods don’t boss you around.

Splendid, I thought.  

It was indeed a world different in every conceivable way from everything that I had known and met with thus far.  Until 1971 the east had still staunchly maintained its character, unfortunately more out of habit than by crediting itself with the inherent value that it carried, higher than any western import.  Even Istanbul on the way had been an oriental city than, rather than the modern metropolis it is now. I certainly had loved how the east displayed its otherness even though it took time to get used to it.  What I didn’t notice was that this splendid otherness lacking in self-confidence. Which is why it is long gone, buried under the rubble of foreign aid and foreign direct investment, not to forget under the corruption of a rapacious homegrown ruling class.

Change being the only constant, this is not a lament.

It goes without saying that my coming to Nepal didn’t have a well-defined purpose.  Yes, there flickered some nebulous spiritual yearning in the back of my head, some undercurrent inherited from some buried transpersonal past.  This past had sunk unrecognizably into the unconscious, though. I couldn’t fathom yet how it might influence events to come, or even what it really asked of me to do and how to live.  I only knew that I didn’t want to live the way that society wanted me to live. I might have stated to my family and friends before leaving Europe and after reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi that I would make this trip in order to search for a guru.  But I had no a clue of what a real guru might be like, or what would be involved in working with one.  It goes without saying that I did not find that guru. To be honest, I didn’t even look that hard. In a much different way than I might have foreseen the guru appeared however, without me recognizing at first.  This guru did not come in human form. It manifested as the dynamic, like ripples, like waves, set in motion by the journey itself. The reverberations extended far into the future, reconnecting with threads way far back from the past. Whereas for my family and friends back home the trip no doubt looked like the turning my back that it also was on everything that my generation despised as the establishment: hence leading me on to the Hippie Trail.

So, here I was on Freak Street, Kathmandu.

But only a visitor there, not a long-term resident. Freak Street wasn’t really for me. When I had arrived in the valley on a Volkswagen bus a week earlier, call it by a stroke of luck or by the workings of karma, I had been invited to stay in the home of hip and single tourist guide, Mr. Chatterjee (which is how he had introduced himself).  In his attitudes and actions, Mr. Chatterjee was way ahead of his time while acutely aware of his home country’s glorious past, and also knowledgeable about it. He worked at the then only 5-star hotel in Kathmandu, the Soaltee Oberoi.  Actually, I hadn’t come alone.  I had a girl friend with me, and the two of us had traveled together with five more guys (she the only woman) in the same Volkswagen from Herat in Afghanistan all the way to Nepal and somehow and mysteriously ended up in Mr. Chatterjee’s large apartment.

Talking about interdependent connection.  

To be invited into the homes of hospitable (and curious of everything western) locals was not uncommon in those days.  People were much more open than they are now, less afraid of strangers (the media had not yet started to broadcast their pernicious mass paranoia creating messages, designed to alienate people from each other and from their inborn humanity).  As a result, we met many in India and Nepal who wanted to connect – and not always was there an agenda behind the hospitality; like our dear Mr. Chatterjee here, he had no agenda. There was nothing he could have wanted from us young people, who all were seekers in need of an inner compass.  He had been born and brought up with that compass. He apparently had it all, landowning gentleman that he was with a good job, conversing fluently or at least semi-fluently (his Italian was not up to the mark, whereas his French was excellent) in five, six languages: English, French, Italian, Nepali  & Newari; and I suspect he spoke Bengali, too.

Worthy oriental gentlemen indeed existed.  The breed is now extinct .

This Mr. Chatterjee was actually a rather colorful character, not your average tour guide (far too polished for that plus we later found that not only did he have his own desk at the hotel, but his own office).  After three, four days staying at his house, he revealed himself quite a yogi, as he displayed to us the mastership over his body one evening in front of our group of seven – and it was impressive to see how he could bend, twist and turn it.  On that occasion I might have gained some measure of respect with him when I politely pointed out that yogic achievements were not meant for public display but for private practice and accomplishment to be shared by teaching formally, and indirectly. (Remember, in those days yoga had not yet turned the fad it is now, to be learned in 4-week teacher training programs.  It was still regarded and respected as a semi-secret spiritual discipline.)

When not tied up in yoga business, yogis can generate some real energy.

But there was more to Mr. Chatterjee than even the yoga.  In fact, what I also was soon to learn was that he was married with kids.  The wife and the children, however, lived in the fold of the extended family not very far away, whereas he had his own large apartment near New Road, to which he occasionally invited single European ladies.  Without their prior knowing they had come to be introduced to the charms of the east, let’s say, more intimately than anticipated. Considering Mr. Chatterjee’s mastership over his body and the finesse, sensitivity and social graces he displayed, I am sure they were not disappointed.  However, for all intents and purposes, it was equally conceivable that there was no sex involved at all. We will never know. We were not with them in the bedroom. It is imaginable that he could have introduced the women he brought home (we met two of them in the kitchen over coffee on different mornings) not to his particular style of sexual prowess but to some secret meditation, or yoga routine.  Not the least smell of impropriety or illicitness hung in the air, neither in the mornings nor in the evenings. The whole scene was stress-free. It felt clean.

Traditional Asian family arrangements have their unique pros and cons.

When I let Mr. Chatterjee know a week into our stay with him that we would like to explore Kathmandu and surroundings beyond our two-week visa, he proved extremely helpful in two ways.  First he managed to get the visa extension for six weeks for my girlfriend and myself that we had asked for, which we would otherwise have never gotten. Actually, all we did was handing over our passports to his brother-in-law, who took care of the matter.  According to Mr. Chatterjee his brother-in-law was the head of the local immigration office, and so he probably was. Second, Mr. Chatterjee had pointed out that we should part ways with the group that we had come with and that we should seek to live in Boudha near the Great Stupa by ourselves.  It made sense, as the group didn’t like us. But from his side, Mr. Chatterjee gave no reasons for his suggestions, and naturally it didn’t even occur to me to offer to pay him for his services of getting us the visa. He was not that kind of a person. When I suggested that he maybe could help us find us a place in Boudha, he simply said that I should go and find one myself.  It wouldn’t be difficult. And it wasn’t.

Which is how I came to know the Great Stupa better, gradually.

The very next day after this discussion, I rented the upstairs floor in a farmhouse, located somewhere on or near the property of the present day Shechen monastery.  The farm was not far from one of the many age-old wells that dotted the paddy fields where the locals took their baths and washed clothes. Besides, these were the places where women got together and gossiped over the laundry.  At first, cool hippie or not, I felt a little shy washing let alone bathing myself in the midst of colorfully clad and half-clad women of all ages. They did not flaunt anything, yet were not squealing with embarrassment when a bit of breast openly showed for a second or longer.  I remember Nepalis being so much more natural then, than how they are now, and so much freer, more relaxed at ease with themselves and their being in the world to which they were still fully connected – and from which they are now uprooted,

We fit right in some ways, even if in other ways we didn’t.

But at least with every day, we relaxed a little more.  As far as speed is concerned, and even if everything was slower in the west back then, compared to the way things moved along in Nepal, westerners were still speed freaks in 1971 as much as they are today, and in need of relaxation.  The need for relaxation included smoking dope, too, of course. But even with smoking dope, our western drivenness to get everything done and out of the way ASAP hadn’t dropped off. Besides, I was only a budding dope head. My career as one had started for real not before I had crossed the Iran-Afghan border (in High School I had only been an occasional smoker of pot), in other words less than two months prior to coming to Nepal.  Which is why my girlfriend needled me with not being a real hippie, not hippie enough for her taste. Women know what they consider the shortcomings of their partners unusually well. She was probably right, too. I never turned out a real hippie, as I didn’t let go of certain values and didn’t cross certain lines. Basically I never indulged to the point of losing it. May be that’s what she would have preferred: the guy who gave himself a needle with LSD-25 to the head for faster kicks.  I would never go that far. From my point of view, oral ingestion served the purpose just as well.

Not to forget: mature conservatives usually make good liberals.   

For hippie standards, when living in the Boudha farmhouse we got up early every morning. The sun flooded the earthen floor around seven, as the windows had full eastern exposure.  It would only have remained dark in the room, had we closed the wooden shutters, but we never did, or only did partially. We liked the fresh night air. Usually we were hung over a bit at first due to too much pot the day before, due to the pattern that had emerged and become the daily routine. Wherever we went or whatever we did, it was interrupted by the smoking of five to seven joints and chillums in a day, and sometimes a hookah, spiced with a little opium on top of the hash, at night.  And yes, of course, we would follow that same routine again in the day to come.

We relaxed, but it would take time to wake up from the deeper slumber.

Waking up from the deep emotional slumber and sloth would actually take a few more decades.  But anyway, this is, how the day started… every day: rolling the early morning joint, sitting at the open, beautifully wood carved window frame, covering the full height from ceiling to floor, leaning the elbow on the mid-section railing and smoking while looking at Mt Everest to the east, and the light-bathed glory of the valley below and the hills above – kind of getting lost in the symphony of after-monsoon greens slowly turning brownish under an overarching almost painfully brilliant blueness.  There were instances when the mind was merging with this blueness – forgetting everything else. But like the stupa in the beginning, these instances almost went by unnoticed. I had not yet met the mirror in human flesh, the person who would introduce me to the space-like openness of mind. As the saying goes, there is a time for everything.

Without such mirror in the flesh we will remain essentially closed.  

After the morning joint came the bath.  For breakfast, it was porridge cooked over our small kerosene stove, plus the inevitable chai, which we had learned how to prepare.  The landlord’s cows provided the whole, unpasteurized milk, fresh from the udder. Nowadays there are all kinds of restaurants in Boudha – Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Tibetan, mixed cuisines: the works.  None of these existed. At some point we were lucky to discover Dolma’s place. She must have been among the first Tibetans settled there. To reach her, you again had to pass by the stupa. The room where she served (you couldn’t call it a restaurant) was located in one of the houses to the right of the entrance gate on the main road, and in order to get there you had to grope your way through the pitch dark cow shed in the ground floor and up a small ladder to the first floor where she cooked over a combination of wood and kerosene stoves.   The room was usually smoke filled, but also oozed with the woman’s irrepressible kindness. Hers were the most delicious buff momos that we had ever tasted, and we liked them fried not steamed. But then, we hadn’t tasted anyone else’s momos for comparison. And we never ate momos for breakfast, only for dinner, and not ever day. We kept cooking for ourselves, mostly.

But somehow Dolma’s simple kindness would become another link.

I read a lot during these Boudha farmhouse days, usually some place outside.  There was a bluff overlooking a deep ravine or nullah, about a five-minute walk from where we lived.  Under a few larger trees it also offered some shade. You had a full view of the Langtang range, Ganesh I and Dorje Lakpa, the peaks and ranges closest to Kathmandu.  But usually we had our noses on the page. I read tons of Hermann Hesse in English, books that I had already read in the German original years before. In addition I discovered my passion for Somerset Maugham: The Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage, The Moon and the Six Pence, plus a bunch of short stories. I read all of Lobsang Rampa’s I could get a hold of, and in the Kathmandu of hippie glory days, they had each and every volume of his collected works, of course.  Nobody would look at these books now. From today’s sophisticated and informed insights about the dharma they would be so embarrassingly funny in their fakeness. But strangely enough, in 1971 we seemed capable to extract some genuine insights from the ‘false’.  We didn’t always need the right book to give us the right kind of information. The wrong book would do. In some magical-alchemical way, it would still yield what needed to be processed.

Fortunately, I maintained the capacity to learn from the false for life.

There is an additional twist to the connection with this particular spot of land where we went to read and smoke joints so often, almost every day.  In 1971, I could not have foreseen that twenty-nine years later I would sit a hundred meters inside from our old spot again, in early 2000, attending a land blessing puja for my guru’s house.  Lama Dawa had bought a plot exactly on the same bluff there in 1999 to build his house, to where I was to return many times over the past 17 years until today. In some ways these connections are not important, one should read too much into them.  They don’t happen or exist to inflate ego with importance. From another perspective they point to an organic way of maturing, rich in meaning, because outside of the control of our ordinary mind. As Lama Dawa says, “Samsara means that everything is possible.”  Everything can happen.

Invisible threads to places and people make up the tapestry of life.

And even of what should be in plain sight and right in front of our noses, we usually see less than half, often less than a fraction.  When our minds are unreceptive, so are our senses, and vice versa. – Susy and I lived near the stupa for about seven weeks, late October to mid-December.  I passed by it several times every day. It sort of grew on me, but I cannot say that I understood it. After some days, we first dared to venture into the walled enclosure that surrounds it.  We went up and around on all three levels several days in a row, probably counterclockwise, as there wasn’t anybody there to indicate the correct way according to Buddhist understanding. Even if we made mistakes, we had finally arrived where we had landed a little more, bonded a little more.  Everything had become a little more real.

It takes time to arrive where you are destined to be.

This whole trip from Cologne to Kathmandu overland represented a string of bold beginnings, like falling in love.  And all bold beginnings take root slowly. If they flourish too fast they perish. Likewise, while near the stupa, I fell in love not so much with Buddhism as a conceptual framework, but with the earth in Boudha that was soaked in dharma.  I fell in love with the Great Stupa Jarungkhasor as a larger presence, yet at the time, it didn’t even dawn on me that I had. It didn’t even occur to me once that it would become the leitmotif for a lifetime.

Falling in love is always a bold beginning.  

Falling in love with the apparently useless and hopeless, like the stupa or even the dharma of the Buddha, is even bolder.  No doubt, from an ordinary life practical perspective such things as Buddhism or the stupa are absolutely useless. They don’t generate a profit.  They don’t bring food on the table. They cannot be manipulated like people or worldly circumstances, or if you do manipulate them to your ego advantage, then only at the peril of a rebirth in hell, or somewhere else highly unpleasant and prisonlike.  In some ways, this utter uselessness makes love for the dharma or its representation even sweeter. It cannot show too much on the outside. There are few flashy displays, if any. Love simply grows on you. For some of us this falling in love business happens in a moment, for others only gradually.  So bold beginnings can be sudden, or they can slowly unfold. Never in my life have I fallen madly in love with a woman at first sight, but I have learned to deeply love a few slowly and over time. I still love them when they are gone, even if I initiated the leaving. But the stupa never left. The dharma never left.  And even when I tried leaving them in my late thirties to early forties, they didn’t let me.

This is why I speak of the Great Stupa in Boudha as my first refuge teacher.

The weeks passed.  A war came. Indian troops whipped the Pakis in the east pretty good.  And people started talking about the “7-17 War”, meaning that it would take India 7 days to conquer Eastern Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and 17 days to mop everything up in the west.  All of this trouble meant a visa extension for foreigners in Nepal for another month, which was automatically granted at the beginning of the hostilities. The war also ended soon in a ceasefire.  US threats intended to protect Pakistan and Soviet counter threats against any US intervention forced a stalemate.

We were not affected but it changed the situation.

Besides, the young ones get bored quickly.  After six weeks, I started feeling tired with our 7 or some more joints a day routine, although I didn’t stop.  Susy loved that shit (pun intended) still too much, well and I loved my inertia, even when I didn’t. A very common human predicament: we sense the need to change, but gravity is against it and we are too lazy to make an effort.  But, then, if we are lucky, or in Buddhist terms: when there is merit – circumstances conspire against the inertia.

No doubt, helpers, guardian angles and protectors are there to assist.

And they take whatever form it takes to get the job done. – One afternoon, we had decided to visit the “Monkey Temple”.  Everybody only called it that and not Svayambhunath, the second great stupa in the Kathmandu Valley. There were lots of monkeys there, hence the name.  But before climbing up (Svayambhu is located on a steep hill, at that time directly rising from the bottom of a riverbed, which by now has disappeared, I believe) we had to inevitably stop in a chai shop and smoke another joint.  There were some more hippies crowded into the tiny space, with whom we entered into a vivid conversation, and as a result one joint quickly became four. We must have sat there for two hours or more, because the sun was much lower when we finally crossed the rickety bridge leading to the stairwell that would get us in one straight climb over probably a few hundred stairs right to the top.  I started walking. Soon I also started sweating, like a horse after a 30 mile run. I felt dizzy. I felt like eighty years old. And someone inside of me said, “You just turned twenty-one.  You’re not eighty. Stop smoking pot and get in shape.” Or something to that effect.  I followed the advice. My pot smoking days had ended.

But let’s not make this a moral issue.  It was a personal choice.

The Kathmandu and Boudha days petered out.  Mr. Chatterji helped us with booking tickets to Bombay and further on to Istanbul, which again was very welcome support as many wanted to fly after international flights to and from India had been grounded for a few weeks.  I chose Istanbul over Frankfurt, because felt that we needed to get back into the west gradually. The direct train from Istanbul to Munich took 2 1/2days. That seemed fast enough, especially with a few more days in the Orient before.  I had decided against going back overland. In my view, whatever could have been experienced on this trip had indeed been experienced. Susy toyed with the idea of going to Goa, venturing out on her own, of course in the in the protective company a bunch of other travelers like her but then discarded it, which was another case of inertia.  

Susy’s and my karma together hadn’t run out, yet.

Before departure we moved back into a hotel in town where two more unnoticeably small incidents happened that pointed to future developments.  One of the early American Buddhists in town sold me a few Tibetan block prints, based on drawings made by Khamtrul Rinpoche. I then was to meet Khamtrul Rinpoche three and a half years later in Tashi Jong in 1975 where his pith instructions helped me open to the vastness of the blue-sky space.  Khamtrul Rinpoche became one of the great dharma inspirations in my life, albeit not my root teacher – and according to the way that I see it, the connection for our meeting in this life was made through purchasing and cherishing these wood block prints. On the day before we left I also met a French guy in one of the restaurants frequented by us hippies near Durbar Square who raved about a book by the title Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism.  I immediately went to buy it.  But it was stolen hours later, from another restaurant table when I wasn’t looking.  No great loss, I would purchase it again in Cologne in German language, only a month later.

Small ripples can grow into towering waves.

The Great Stupa in Boudha sits in the center of the mandala of these events, including today’s developments.  It has drawn me in and set me free at the same time. It bound me to the dharma, but when life itself becomes dharma, dharma is freedom – not a prison of indigestible religious customs.  I am very thankful to the Great Stupa for acting as my first source of refuge, a very earthy and grounded teacher – made of mud, deeply planted in the mud connected to this vast starry unfathomable space that I watched one night sitting on its third level, even when stoned totally sober, nested in the same vastness that I observed.

About the Author
Avatar

Choyin Dorje

I am happy to share some of my poetryand some of my close to 50 years of journey as a practitioner. A journey which began even before visiting Boudha back in '71. I was inspired by Lama Anagarika Govinda and his group, and also in Tashi Jong by Khamtrul Rinpoche; worked for 1976-87 with the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley and Tarthang Tulku; translated five of his books into German; now a student of Acharya Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche (since 1999). Now settled in Goa, still doing small things with people and for people, as my root guru kindly made it my duty to share Buddhist refuge + bodhisattva instructions and guide a few through beginning stages of the path. I'm feeling a particular kinship with the Indian origins of the diamond teachings, strangely, all my dharma friends are young Indians.

Photos by Manusama, Spain.

Share this Post

Leave a Comment