Overseas Briefing

By Guest Contributor

In between classes and exploring the city, I often stop at the View Himalayan Restaurant and Terrace, one of ten or more rooftop cafes overlooking the Stupa in Boudha, Nepal — one of the holiest sites in all of Kathmandu. In the distance to my right I can make out the green hills of Kathmandu valley through a pollution-induced haze; yet, in three weeks of frequenting the Boudha cafes, a glimpse of the Himalayas beyond still eludes me.

The forty-foot Boudha Stupa looms large beyond me, draped in prayer flags. In Buddhist culture, the Stupa is an important site where many come to pray. The large dome structure is believed to contain remains of the Buddha, as well as religious relics from many centuries ago.

The recently restored blue, red, white and black eyes of Kasyapa Buddha, the “primordial Buddha,” stare at me with surprising hostility from the top of the monumental structure. The Buddha is surrounded by gold tiles, white marble, and is rich in religious and cultural significance. The Tibetan exile community in Nepal grew around this sacred Buddhist spot, and hundreds of practitioners vie for prime circumambulation space each morning and evening.

The View Himalayan’s menu includes organic coffee, along with momos (Tibetan dumplings), chicken curry, and vegetable chow mein. Like all of the stupa cafes, it caters to a largely foreign clientele.  Prices are a bit steeper than other establishments, but a beer still costs three dollars. I stop in often for the free wifi, spectacular view, and endless people watching. Yet here, where I am so removed from the dirt noise action life of the streets below, I wonder whether I am experiencing the “real” Nepal?

I live with a real Tibetan family, study real Tibetan language, religion and politics and interact each day with a real Tibetan community, but I am not, after all, in Tibet. From where I sit, I can watch real Tibetans making real prostrations and turning real prayer wheels, but mixed in I spot a few shaved white heads. Westerners masquerading as monks: an outrage! Yet they too represent a real part of the Boudha community. I believe that studying Tibetan culture in Nepal, alongside thousands of other like-minded foreigners is as “real” as any other experience.

Next door, a woman sells prayer beads and “traditional Tibetan handicrafts.” A few shops farther, Tibetan carpets made by Nepalis with wool from New Zealand hang on display; the Tibetan carpet factory owner most likely lives in Switzerland. Locals and tourists frequent these stores; neither group seems overly concerned with who produces the goods or with what materials.

Visitors to Nepal and other Buddhist countries, especially those interested in Buddhist philosophy, sometimes complain about the way the religion is practiced. They are so superstitious. They don’t know anything about Buddhism. They are not real Buddhists. The monks have cell phones and listen to music; they are not real monks. Alex, a Russian trekker who sat down at my table for a few minutes, offered his opinion of the Boudha Stupa: “Too many people go around, produce too much energy. It is not good.” He referred, of course, to those same practitioners I described, who arrive in droves before and after work to circumambulate and “make merit” for themselves and reverse the karmic cycle.

Ultimately, I don’t care if the View Himalayan Restaurant and Terrace is genuinely Nepali. For that matter, I am not too worried about discovering any definitively authentic Tibetan, Nepali or Buddhist culture. Considering such a thing does not exist, it would prove a pointless use of my time. Instead, I focus on engaging with the people, places and practices surrounding me in as authentic a manner as possible. I think the Tibetan monk who just sat at the table next to mine would approve.

Written by TOBY ISRAEL ’14 from Kathmandu, Nepal

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.