Friday, November 03, 2006

"Destabilizing" in a Mandala

Kathmandu Valley, Nepal -- There are some places on this planet one wants to visit merely because of the way they roll off the tongue . . . Timbuktu, Chicoutimi, Mandalay, Kathmandu.

For many, just hearing or saying their names invokes feelings and images of mystery, adventure, romance and discovery.

I’m writing this from the second floor balcony of the Thorong Peak Guest House, in the Thamel neighborhood of one of those distant places . . . Kathmandu.

International in flavor, the Thamel is this city's densely-packed “shopping” area, the crossroads of a city that is itself a crossroads of southern and northern Asia, where the icy high Himalaya dramatically meets the Indian plains.

Most of those who come to Kathmandu as a stop-over or destination for sightseeing, trekking and/or climbing at some point gather in the Thamel.

It is 9:00am, the sun is quickly warming the remains of the cool night. To the north, the outline of high Himalyan peaks are emerging from the morning mist. Surrounded by rhododendron plants and ferns, I'm engulfed by a sweet cacophony of cooing pigeons and chattering parrots and parakeets.

I arrived in Kathmandu yesterday with Maya, with whom I connected in Delhi. She was there with her husband Fred, the three of us became friends in Dharamsala this past May. Maya, who is Israeli, will be attending the same 30-day retreat as I beginning next week.

Fred remained in India. After seeing Maya off he was to ride the overnight bus north from Delhi to Dharamsala where he is the supervisor of the rebuilding of a Tibetan Buddhist meditation center (gompa) in the forest a few kilometers above the town.

I enjoy travel to the Indian subcontinent because it is a destination for so many unique people like Fred and Maya, and friendships made here can become very special, as ours has.

After purchasing our 60-day Nepali visas at the charming little Kathmandu airport, and a short car ride into town, Maya and I walked around the Thamel . . . it had gotten dark and each of us, over and over, found ourselves with our minds blown. This place is like a dream.

The Lonely Planet guidebook just touches upon it:

“For many people, arriving in Kathmandu is a shock – the sights, sounds and smells can lead to a sensory overload: there are narrow streets and lanes with carved wooden balconies perched above tiny hole-in-the-wall shops, town squares packed with extraordinary temples and monuments; and fruit and vegetable markets alive with a constant throng of humanity"

Where Maya and I walked last night -- the "old" part of the city -- seems unchanged from the Middle Ages, architecturally, energy-wise and culturally.

Surreal and almost psychedelic, we felt as though we had wandered onto an Indiana Jones-type movie set. But even the great Spielberg couldn't create this.

Only in Varansi have I seen ancient buildings like these, but never have I seen streets with more enticing nooks and crannies, marketplaces with goods and sights and sensations like these, nor a more eclectic set of people sharing in it.

The energy carries you through the gnarled streets, all seemingly connected by back passages and alleyways until you emerge into one of the countless wide open squares with people and colors swirling about and around some sort of temple, shrine, pagoda, stupa or statue, many of them centuries old. (It is not uncommon to see merchants peddling their incense or fresh vegetables at the feet of a 1,000-year-old statue of Brahma or Saraswati or Buddha.)

It is impossible not to be absorbed, and then, through a crack between the buildings, the whole thing becomes sublime as one sees the magnificent Himalaya sitting off in the distance, a glimpse of white in the blue sky, sacred, glorious and awe-inspiring, and you feel a sensation not unlike what a bird must feel in the moments before it floats into flight.

So the two worlds collide in your head and heart -- the magnificent Himalaya and the timeless 14th century old city -- and with every step the joy of anticiaption oozes. You simply "know" the unforgettable unexpected is right around the bend – and in its delight it will touch deeply.

It is like wandering in a mandala.

I recently read of the Tibetan notion that the key to pilgrimage is danang, the sacred vision that transfigures the environment into a pure realm of enlightened energies. Therefore, in Tibetan tradition the idea of pilgrimage is not simply to visit sacred sites, but to facilitate an inner transformation at places that challenge conventional ways of seeing. (In this sense, the more “destabilizing” the better.)

It has become tired cliche to invoke Dorothy Gale's "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" as the wonders of Oz unfolded. But I understand the feeling.

I’ve never seen a city as inviting to the wanderer as Kathmandu. I was not expecting this.

If this is “destabilizing” I think I'm ready for it.