Stupa at Boudhanath
For the next three months I’m living in Kathmandu, Nepal at a Tibetan Monastery called Pullahari. In the weeks leading up to my departure from the US, when people asked me where I was going I would answer “About an hour walk uphill from the big famous stupa with the Buddha eyes.” It felt right to place myself in human-scale relation to a near-mythical Buddhist landmark rather than to simply rattle off the names of a city & country on a subcontinent that most of my friends have never visited. In terms of my decision to come here and the activities that I’ll be immersed in while here, it’s the social, intellectual and metaphorical contexts of this place that relevant. The geography of nation-states is mainly an afterthought.
In both Tibetan and Indian religions, there are traditions that view the Indian subcontinent itself as a holy entity. For centuries, people have done pilgrimage to 24 spots spread across the continent that correspond to chakras on a body (metaphorically — it’s not like the feet are in the south and the head is in the north.). Some Hindus view these as corresponding to the body of Shiva while Tibetans associate them with the body of Chakrasamvara — a yidam (tib. ཡི་དམ་), or representation of mind’s enlightened nature and its capacity to act skillfully for the benefit of beings. Whether Shiva, Chakrasamvara, or something else, the main thing to know is that the physical place is seen as being spiritually alive in ways that are almost completely foreign to anyone living in the modern post-industrial world. I point this out because, while the political geography of this place seems almost irrelevant to my current sabbatical, the physical place itself naturally plays a prominent role.
Boudhanath area in a haze
The city of Kathmandu sprawls through the northern two thirds of Kathmandu Valley. The lowest point in the valley is roughly 1500m (4,000 ft) above sea level and is surrounded by peaks that are about 2000m-2600m (6,500-8,000 ft). Beyond those peaks are the actual snow-covered mountains, ranging from 3.500-6.000m+ (10,000-18,000ft+). The part of the city that was once the ancient kingdom of Kathmandu occupies the northern half of the valley. It’s flanked by two prominent hills, each with an ancient giant stupa on it. In the west is Swayambunath, which is sometimes called the “wrathful” stupa. In the east is Boudhanath, which is the stupa you’ve probably seen on postcards, in storybooks, and in ads for trekking adventures.
There’s a photo of Boudhanath in the early 1970s that gives you a sense of how much has changed in the past 40 years. It shows the stupa and a few buildings surrounding it. Beyond that, there are only fields and the occasional monastery. Now, there’s barely a field to be found between Boudha and the mountains that ring the valley. What fields remain stand out as emerald terraces, worked using agricultural methods that have been stable for generations.
Edge of Kathmandu Valley north of Kopan District
If you face northeast at Boudhanath with the stupa at your back and walk uphill for roughly half an hour, you’ll find yourself on a hillside below Kopan Monastery, main seat of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. Continue around the bend and up the hillside and you will arrive at Pullahari, seat of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and the location of Rigpe Dorje Institute.
For the past 15 years or so, Pullahari has hosted a 3-month long study program for westerners, often referred to as “the winter programme”. It was initially started by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche as a way to train his students to be skillful translators of the meaning contained in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. Khenpo Tsultrim is famous for many things and I would love to write about all of them. For now, suffice it to say that he is one of the greatest living masters of the Kagyu Lineage, a true wandering yogi, and also one of the top scholars of the Kagyu Lineage. He’s particularly famous for his presentation of madhyamika prasangika (Middle Way Consequence School) according to the Shentong view. The best place to find more information on Tibetan Buddhist philosophy as presented by Khenpo Tsultrim is in his book Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, which was arranged and edited by Shenpen Hookam.
Students settling into class at Rigpe Dorje Institute
Every year, the structure of the Rigpe Dorje winter programme at Pullahari is the same – two months of intensive study focused on Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language, followed by a week-long break and then a two-week meditation retreat focused on that year’s philosophical content. In the past, they structured the curriculum to work through one chapter of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara each year, culminating with the 9th chapter on precise knowledge (tib. ཤེས་པ་ shepa). Recently they’ve switched to a 5-year cycle that instead works more explicitly through the various historical Buddhist philosophical schools, but still climaxes in year 4 (that’s this year) with Shantideva’s presentation of (rangtong) madhyamika prasangika in chapter 9 of bodhicharyavatara and then concludes in year 5 with a presentation of Mahamudra and the shentong view.
Pullahari is a beautiful place full of flowers, spectacular traditional Buddhist art, wonderful architecture, monks chanting pujas, and scholars scrutinizing the patterns of mind. Situated on a mountain top above Boudhanath and Kathmandu, it has expansive views on three sides. It’s the ideal environment for combining meditation with scholarly discipline. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to write more about this magical place and share more of the photos I’ve taken.
Monks sweeping Pullahari Shrine Hall at sunrise
5th floor Hallway of shrine hall at Pullahari
In 1999, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche composed a song about Pullahari. We sing an english rendition of it every morning at the opening of the first class.
In Pullahari, with its good clean earth,
Its water so sparkling clean and its clean fresh air,
Here in the solitude of this secluded place,
With its spacious scenery and relaxing view,
To listen and reflect on the Teachings here,
In Pullahari, what a lucky star!
View to the west from roof of Pullahari shrine hall.