Enlightened Business, Meditatation, Musings & Adventures

Materialism, Benefit, Disengagement and Stupas

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

The stupa in Boudha has a magical, peaceful quality. When you approach it on foot, you can actually feel it before you see it. The air changes, sounds become less sharp, and people move more slowly. Around the stupa is a wide, paved circular path where people do “khorra” (tib. འཁོར་ར་) – circumambulation – all day & night while saying prayers,

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

talking with friends, meditating or simply passing time. This circular plaza surrounding the stupa, sometimes called the “khorra path”, is lined with shops selling local wares like Buddhist statues, Tibetan thangkhas, incense, jewelry, and shawls. When you emerge from a side street onto the khorra path, one’s natural impulse is to to be swept up in the flow of happy, peaceful energy flowing clockwise around and around. What a wonderful thing to pour oneself into!

In 2011, I coordinated travel plans with my mother and her friends Anita & Larry so that we could meet in Kathmandu. I was coming from Bodhgaya & Varanasi while they had arrived days earlier from Delhi and the Golden Triangle. When I arrived from the airport, while walking along the khorra path in search of the hotel where they were staying, I saw my mother emerge from the cicumambulating crowd with a joyful ease that I’ve never seen her embody anywhere else. With a backdrop of the sun-dappled stupa and elderly Tibetan ladies counting prayers on rosaries, I saw a lighter, happier version of this person I’ve known my whole life.

The busy khorra path and shops

The busy khorra path and shops

According to legend, the Boudhanath stupa was built in the 5th or 6th century CE. It was begun by an old woman and later finished by her four sons. It’s commonly said that the four of them later reincarnated as the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen (tib. ཁྲི་སྲོང་ལྡེ་བཙན), his minister, the Indian pandita Shantarakshita and the great realized master Padmasambhava who together brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.

A lot can be said about Stupas and their purpose. In one sense, they’re said to act like anchors giving stability to Buddhist wisdom and its practice in a land. While that might be true, there’s an inner sense that particularly resonates with me. In Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s recent book Not for Happiness he talks about stupas as a bold challenge to the belief that spiritual pursuits have anything to do with material practicality. He quotes Patrul Rinpoche in pointing out that those who walk the authentic spiritual path must abandon the idea that you can fix the material world; to believe that the material world can be fixed, even for the benefit of others, is just another kind of material clinging. Building stupas speaks directly to that view, because Stupas have no practical function. They take a lot of time and resources to build and maintain, for what? Many of them don’t even have doors. They’re like a satire of all the foolish worldly projects we pour so much effort into.

3 workers whitewashing the stupa

Whitewashing the stupa – maintenance operations are ongoing year-round.

So why build them? Because authentic happiness doesn’t come from external things. Erecting and maintaining these odd structures is a substantial investment in the habits and patterns that go beyond hapless participation in the destructive cycles of confused life. It punches a hole in the ordinary rhythms of things so that people might see a glimmer of alternative.

Sitting by the Boudha stupa or walking around it today, it’s easy to reflect on the amazing beauty that can come from this kind of project. Nearly 1500 years ago a handful of people put their resources into something that made absolutely no sense from a practical perspective. According to tradition (and plausible given the philosophical & cultural context of the time), they did it because they truly wished to do something beneficial in the world and they believed that the only way to achieve real benefit for oneself and others is to completely abandon all attempts to seduce the world into giving us what we want, to instead scrutinize our own minds and to strip away even the most subtle forms of ignorance. It’s like that seemingly irrational selfless act put a kink in the armor of ignorant existence. Over time, thousands of beings have come across this anomaly in the flow of things and their minds have been changed by it. Each one has added a bit to the system, and taken away other bits. The cumulative effect is manifestly present. Anyone can go there and witness it.

In light of all these reflections, I find it interesting that, far from being anti-commerce or somehow divorced from daily activity here, the stupa seems naturally mixed with everyday operations. Rather than condemning the practicalities of life, there’s the air of engaging with and elevating them. Giving up material clinging, even going so far as to let go of the idea that we can fix the world for the benefit of others, does not mean doing nothing. Nor does it mean climbing high on a pedestal and looking down judgmentally at the rest of les miserables. This abandonment is something much more subtle and much more challenging because it must happen in our hearts and minds. Inwardly we have no choice but to abandon material views while outwardly we must constantly seek skillful ways to make the world better: to increate happiness, to decrease suffering, to rejoice in positive qualities and to wash away false differences for all beings.

Buddhist practitioners, surrounded by small stupas, doing prostrations on wooden boards on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

Buddhist practitioners doing prostrations on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa


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