-  Sunday 11 April 2021

Bodhnath and Dalai Lama


These two metonyms evoke history, politics and faith. The huge chorten of Bodhnath is a Nepali spatial reality. We have circumambulated it since the 5th century whereas the institution of the Dalai Lama in the sacerdotal state of Tibet occurred in the 15th century. Bodhnath as a trope has always struck me as a locus, a power surrounded by prayer wheels and Tibetan fetish that increased after Dalai Lama left Tibet with about one hundred thousand Tibetans after the Tibetan resistance to the Chinese occupation collapsed in 1959. Some of the refugees settled in Nepal. After that the locus of Tibetan Buddhism, the quiet Bodhnath chorten cared and loved by the Tibetan traders and pilgrims also for centuries, and its periphery became vibrant and livid. The small history of a holy sanctuary became mixed with the turbulent history of the Tibetan diaspora, and the politics associated with the grand exit of the head of the theocratic state.
Peter Moran's book Buddhism Observed (2004, Routledge) opened up another very interesting and important discourse in the history of this small universe. In this book Moran measures tremors in Bodhnath and sees 'cultural disjunctures and national displacements' (187). The solid, quiet and continuous presence of a stable locus, the Bodhnath chorten that a Japanese Obaku Zen monk Ekai Kawaguchi saw through the window of his friend Buddha Bajra where he stayed first in 1899, experienced 'cultural disjunctures and displacements' after the historical avalanche in the sacerdotal state of Tibet in 1959. The house where the Japanese monk stayed is located on the western side of the chorten which still stands supported by beams. Outside this house, carved on a metal plate does stand Kawaguchi today. To Kawaguchi the chorten was the symbol of stability and the periphery a minuscule Tibet. In his next stay here in 1905 Kawaguchi felt inspired to write a memorandum in English to prime minister Chandra Shumsher Rana with suggestions about developments and education.

The chorten universe remains the same as Kawaguchi saw then. The changes are peripheral. The displaced came to circumambulate the chorten which has always stood as stable as Kangrimpoche or the Kailash. The 'nationally displaced' created their specular nations around it. Peter Moran saw another level of history in the Western people's Buddhism that grew around this chorten. People came in waves and created what Mary Louis Pratt calls 'contact zone' here. Moran finds this trope productive because 'subjects are constituted by the contacts'. He sees the Western subjects, the Buddhists, constituted in Bodhnath. They were/are drawn by the "meditative technologies and western subjects' desires and expectations to learn them". (190).

I am struck by a third reading. The Economist (December 24, 2005) has published a story about the Tibetan diaspora in India and Nepal. The story quotes Dalai Lama as saying 'my death would be a serious setback' for the Tibetans living on 'the wrong side of the mountains'. The report covers the difficult journeys that the parents make from Tibet during the harsh winter times to avoid arrest and bring children to Dharmashala in India for better education. The parents get arrested sometime and suffer the ordeal of being separated from their children forever. But the report links Nepal to this story on one score. It says Nepal racked by insurrection, ordered the shutting of the Dalai Lama's representative office, and of a Tibetan welfare centre in January 'to curry favour with China'. The Dalai Lama remains the sensitive subject for China.

Little over a year ago a great furore was created by the arrest of the fleeing Tibetans by the Nepali police and their extradition to China. This incident made some American senators among others angry with Nepal. As a result, supply of Nepali garments to America was nearly embargoed. Nepali teams travelled to Washington for lobbying to curry favour to prevent the embargo on the supply of Nepali garments. Western discourses for and against Nepal were published in the media which involved exchanges of opinions among the western expatriates in Nepal. Now it seems absurd to play the game of currying China's favour, and it is ironical that this game should still remain on the card.

The politics of shutting down Dalai Lama's office will be very costly for Nepal because this card which need not have been played at all will only sensitise China to the non-issues being used as bargaining chips by Nepal. At this stage, however, China will not be too keen on bartering Dalai Lama's Kathmandu office with guns. China must be more concerned about the democratic alliance's criticism of its support to the non-democratic rule in Nepal than addressing the issue of the Tibetan refugees selling Tibetan fetish around Mahabodh, and asking Nepal to lock up the minuscule office of the friendly and warm fellow, the representative of Dalai Lama in Kathmandu.

Mahabodh remains a constant power and symbol of love that gets epitomised in the personalities of the enlightened, warm and charismatic monks born in the lovely alpine valleys of Nepal, who work in the serene monasteries behind the chorten.

Source :



Other articles by reporter ABHI SUBEDI

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