Bodhnath And The Pilgrimage I Didn’t Realise I Needed To Make

A robe-clad monk was spinning a prayer wheel twice his size in a room to my left as I entered Tamang Gompa monastery. I watched him for a while, transfixed by the colours of the wheel – red, gold, green – as well as the written mantras as they span around faster than the monk was walking. A slight clanging noise repeated itself over and over as the wheel continued to spin. Outside, the sun had begun its voyage towards the horizon, casting shadows on the monastery and further blurring the fuzzy lines that lay between the real and the ethereal in what is a very sacred place.

Outside, the sun had begun its voyage towards the horizon, casting shadows on the monastery and further blurring the fuzzy lines that lay between the real and the ethereal in what is a very sacred place.

The riot of colours of the monastery building is what initially beckoned me to enter; that, and the three umbrellas that were resting on a terrace ledge on the first floor – one in blue, one in red, and then one in blue again. Whom were they sheltering from the low-lying winter sun and why were the questions that I asked myself. So I walked past two street vendors who were sat on the building’s steps selling umbrellas, fruit, prayer flags and incense, and made my way inside.

Bodhnath Kathmandu

The outside of the monastery

I padded my way up a flight of stairs to the right while admiring the Tibetan murals that adorned every inch of the walls. At the top of the stairs, I found the answer to whom the umbrellas were sheltering: a group of 30 or so devotees were sat on the floor of the monastery terrace, which overlooked Bodhnath stupa. They were sat waiting for something, that was clear, but at that point I was not sure what. Buddha’s eyes, which were etched into the golden top of the stupa, gazed over the scene.

I had come here specifically to see the stupa, as I was told it was a spiritual, peaceful place – that the air was somehow different here. It was, indeed, a very special place. But the way it made me feel is not something I can easily explain in words.

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The view of the stupa from the monastery’s rooftop

I looked around, wondering where to head next and spotted a door to the right that was being watched by two guards dressed in black. I made my way across the terrace and to the door to peek inside and found a medium-sized room that housed a gold-plated statue of Buddha. A sign by the door warned that no photographs were allowed inside, so I gestured to see if the guards wanted to keep my camera. They shook their heads to say no, so I removed my shoes and entered.

The coolness of the tiles soothed my feet as I walked across the floor. The room was heavy with the scent of incense and clouds of it wafted up into the air, as if they were messages in the form of smoke clouds from the Gods. To the left, three monks were sat on the floor, speaking in muted tones. One of them got up and walked over to me as I continued to deepen my journey into the room. I gazed at the magnificence of the golden statue of the Buddha.

A Buddha statue in a different monastery at Bodhnath

The room was heavy with the scent of incense and clouds of it wafted up into the air, as if they were messages in the form of smoke clouds from the Gods.

As I stood looking up at the statue, the group that was sat outside began to chant mantras; their soothing voices enveloped the room like a warm embrace. This, together with the overwhelming magnificence of the Buddha statue, caused a wave of emotion to wash over me, and I felt the hairs on my arms stand on end. The monk who had followed me across the room handed me a stick of incense to light as an offering at the altar. With this, my hands started to tremble and, without warning, tears began to stream down my face. There was no time to stop them. There was no time to reason with myself. But there was no room for reason. Only faith.

But there was no room for reason. Only faith.

I managed to steady my hands long enough to be able to make the incense stick catch with the candle light that was gently swaying before me. I then placed the incense stick into the vessel of sand, said thank you to the monk and stepped back to gaze at the statue again. I then decided not to control the tears. Instead I invited them to flow, soak my face, and wash away every one of my fears.

Prayer flags on the rooftop

***

Everything is impermanent – this is one of Buddha’s most important teachings. This and the root of all suffering is attachment. When things fell apart in the mere space of weeks last year, I experienced both of these things first hand. It had taken me almost three years to build a relationship with another person, only for it to be snatched away in an instant.

My answer to the chaos that ensued was to lose myself in books. I read anything that could soothe me, that could provide me with answers. The teachings of the Buddha were something that I kept returning to time and time again. Books by the Buddhist Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh in particular were constantly on my Kindle. Buddha’s teachings were the only thing that really gave me any sense of peace. They were the only thing that made any sense to me in the midst of the chaos.

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Butter lamps on the rooftop of the monastery

Although my sudden outburst of tears at Bodhnath did not make sense to me initially, I now understand why I felt the way I did. I was thankful. Buddha was a wise man – a wise man whose teachings are so invaluable and important that they’ve managed to withstand the test of time. All these years later, they were able to make a huge difference to me and the way I was feeling. I don’t say this lightly when I say that they saved me.

Seeing the statute of Buddha in all its glory together with the beautiful mantras that were being sung and the kindness of the monk who handed me incense made me feel an incredible surge of gratitude. I was doing my own pilgrimage to say thank you to Buddha.

And so I cried. I cried because words weren’t enough. Words are still not enough to do justice to how I felt in that moment.

But words are all I have now.

***

I allowed myself to feel what I needed to feel and once my tears dried up somewhat, I made my way back out onto the terrace. One of the security guards had been observing me the whole time and looked concerned. He could not speak English, but he still tried to ask me if I was okay.

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Pilgrims chanting mantras as the sun went down

“Why?” he asked while making movements with his hands that replicated the motion of wiping tears from his face. I could see genuine concern in his eyes.

“I’m okay,” I said and smiled. I welled up again.

“Here,” he said showing me to the red plastic chair that was his seat. He had a kind face that was deeply weathered by time. Although he could not speak English, he didn’t need to. One doesn’t need to speak your language in order to communicate compassion and humanity.

One doesn’t need to speak your language in order to communicate compassion and humanity.

I said dhanyabad (thank you) and took a seat among the pilgrims who were still chanting towards the stupa. A gentleman sat in front of me was repeatedly spinning a mini-prayer wheel that was stuck on the end of a stick. I looked to my right and saw a couple who must have been in their 50s. They were the only tourists other than me. The woman looked over at me, her eyes glazed with tears, and we smiled gently at each other in acknowledgment. Her partner had his head bowed and made no eye contact. He looked deep in thought; I wondered what pain had brought him there, what memories were playing over in his head.

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Pilgrims singing mantras as the sun went down

And the mantras continued, over and over again. I didn’t understand the words, but I didn’t need to. They soothed and enveloped me like a lullaby. I looked again at Buddha’s eyes, etched on the stupa. I looked at the sky, which had the gentle baby blue glow of golden hour as the sun made its final descent behind buildings and mountains. I tried to capture the essence of the moment in my mind, but I knew it was pointless. You cannot capture something as beautiful as that. You can only live it with every cell of your being and then set it free.

I thought of the circle of life. I thought of how everything – even that beautiful moment – would end. I thought of the things I’ve had and lost. I thought of the things I’ll have and lose in the future. I thought of how everything that rises falls, and how everything that falls rises again. I thought of how it feels to know what rock bottom really is, and I felt thankful – thankful to know I can be there and still rise again, stronger and wiser. Thankful to know that I’m stronger than I ever realised I am. Thankful for all the life lessons. Thankful for all the love I have in my life. Thankful for all the beautiful moments that will end.

Thankful.

And the prayer wheel continued to spin, over and over again. And the mantras continued to be sung, over and over again.

I’m thankful.

I’m thankful.

I’m thankful.

  • I love this.

    It shows the power of somewhere spiritual; it matters not if you share the same beliefs as those around you, you’re all on the same ‘journey’ and you all have the same spiritual ‘needs’. Being in a place of such sanctity brings out those needs and those feelings. Reflection; introspection; a time to think; a time to ‘pray’ (whatever ‘prayer’ means to the individual); a time to feel small, insignificant, and vulnerable; a time to lose yourself in thought.

    You may not have realised you needed to make it, but ‘something’ realised you did; you were in the right place at the right time, whether by luck or by destiny, and that is the power of the spirit 🙂

    • Andrea

      Thank you 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it.

      And I totally agree. I have a feeling it was destiny, but I am soppy like that 🙂