Nepal and India: Lessons

Today is not my last day in Nepal but it feels like it.

I’m traveling for a few days then returning, to finally make the long flight back to the States on Friday. But almost everyone else is leaving today. Bittersweet is the only possible word to define this time of life.

Last night we had dinner ~ all SIT students, staff and teachers sitting around a low table, talking deep into the night. We watched traditional Nepali dance and listened to musicians play large drums and sing melodies reminiscent of Nepal’s past. When we had to say goodbye to the teachers and staff ~ people I have become incredibly close to, beyond what I could have expected ~ it was deeply moving. These are relationships built with the understanding that they may be temporary and fleeting, yet built strongly all the same. What trust that is. I hope beyond hope to see these people again.

Since I am leaving Nepal for another country, I want to write down the lessons this place has taught me before I move on.

I noticed early in my time in Nepal that I experienced more eye contact with other people. This made me uncomfortable, at first ~ why was everyone looking at me? I realized part of it had to be my obvious foreign-ness. The awkwardness I felt due to being new to the country slowly melted into appreciation. When I walk to the stupa in the morningtime I feel at peace with eyes, with saying “Tashi delek” and “Namaste.” I became comfortable with people in a way I’ve never felt before. Eye contact became normal for me. I began to fold my hands together and bow back when older Tibetan people did so to me. The smiles I witnessed were so genuine. I eventually realized that the underlying difference behind this interaction, person to person, is the lack of cellphones.

Devotion. I grew up in the Bible Belt (northwest Florida) and became disenchanted with religion because of specific experiences. I have learned to redefine the concept though, and I have the deepest respect for it. First in Pharping, when my group watched and Hindu festival and then when Tenchoe, one of our Tibetan language teachers and an incredible friend, showed us how to perform a prostration (folded hands to forehead, chin and chest, then bowing to the ground). In Boudha I have had the greatest honor of seeing people walk, every day, around the stupa. This is korra, or circumambulation. People performing korra often hum mantras (om mani pemme hum) and spin prayer wheels for the benefit of all sentient beings. As people enter or exit the stupa area, often their hands reach their forehead and their eyes close in solemn recognition of the stupa, which has religious items in its apex and enormous Buddha eyes painted on each side. Each and every day, people gather around the stupa and walk, circling to the peaceful sound of pigeons cooing and the chatter of hundreds of humans in one place.

Promises have specific importance here. “Be careful to keep your promises,” we were all warned in introductions to living in Nepal and India. Perhaps it is different back home and perhaps it is just an excuse, but I have truly learned the seriousness of keeping my word. Why use language to convey something untrue ~ to make promises which are impossible to keep? There is a beauty in respecting other humans so very much as to be honest.

The complexity and reality of religions which are often romanticized on my side of the world:I realized quickly upon arriving in Nepal that there is a LOT about Buddhism that I don’t understand. There are deities that I didn’t study when I took a (wonderful) course in Buddhist Philosophy, and the two (philosophy and religion) simply cannot be separated in context. The newer generation of Buddhists is concentrating less and less on ritual (according to Reuben’s incredibly detailed research) yet it is an essential part of Buddhist practice here in Nepal and India. The philosophy is the other part, a fundamental part, but truly the two are too deeply intertwined to separate.

Language is of utmost importance. It is fundamental to sharing worlds. The frustration of being unable to describe something or understand something is almost painful. I have learned only a small amount of Tibetan language yet the words I have learned have been useful in beginning conversations. When I can share or understand even a little, I’ve received only glowing smiles and approval. Also, almost everyone I’ve met here speaks at least three languages fluently and I feel deeply ashamed that I only speak one. It is almost a duty, I feel, to make the effort to communicate instead of expecting the effort to come from others. This is a common experience for English speakers, I think, because it is easier for us to get by with only our original language. But in doing so, we miss something. Perhaps not everyone feels this way ~ I don’t really know how to explain it ~ but I think it is some kind of truth.

The gravity of refugees. Young children who identify as Tibetan, whose families are Tibetan, but who has no idea what the landscape of Tibet looks like. Traditions that are being held onto so tightly by the last generation, but are in danger of being lost with the transition to the next. A language which is changing, will inevitably change, as new foreign words are introduced and the language is impacted by everywhere Tibetans live in diaspora. A religion, so defined by a place and a culture, with everything at stake. People who have no access to a passport, who have family across the border but have no chance of seeing them again. But so, so, SO much hope.

This is my last post under “Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples.” It has been such a journey. I am humbled and in love and in peace.

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