The lesson of Lumbini: Find your story of peace

I did not want luxury travel I remind myself, I wanted experience. I wanted a story to tell. Still, after 11 hours on a bouncing bus with bad suspension, a seat that refuses to stay upright, a window that wont shut, and loud Nepali music blasting in my ears, my discoverer side is wavering. I resolve never to complain about long haul economy flights across the ocean in the comfort of Qantas ever again. We have driven for hours through the winding jungle covered hills, across the plains they call The Terai, land historically so infested with malaria carrying mosquitos it was only inhabitable by indigenous folk. Eventually we are just 8 kilometres from the Indian border in the village of Lumbini. This is the birthplace of the Buddha, the prince born as Siddhartha Gautama in 623 B.C.

Stepping off the bus late at night into the dark dusty village is a shock, it’s dark as pitch with no electricity, we are promptly approached by Indian children begging, stray mangy dogs wander past, and people walking or cycling into the dark beyond. Lumbini’s main street is dirty and dusty, a short 100 metres of dirt road. With only spasmodic electricity the nights here are dark, as mother nature intended. It’s a very distressing sight that leaves me somewhat depressed. That long bus ride for this place?

History tells that Siddhartha Gautama left the palace and was so distressed by the poverty of the people outside the palace walls that he went in search of an end to their suffering. I wonder what he would think today, after thousands of years it seems little has changed. Can we humans ever change the suffering of others?

Tomorrow I will tour the site of the buddha’s birth. In my mind I imagine a tour to a few shabby temples. I resign myself to practice being in the moment no matter what that reveals.

Next morning we enter the main gate of Lumbini World Peace Park, a World Heritage listed pilgrimage site for buddhists across the globe. My grim expectations of the night before are promptly overturned. Countries from all over the world have built their own style of buddhist temples here, to honour this sacred place where the buddha was born. We wander through miles and miles of paths nestled within The Terai scrub land. This is a remarkable place carved out of seemingly unusable jungle and swamp, turned into a place where peace is marked. No car or motor traffic is allowed, only pedestrians and bicycles. Strolling one hears only the sounds of water birds hidden in scrub trees. The winter sun lies low and red on the horizon, and many miles away the snow covered himalayan mountains peak tantalisingly though the haze. Hidden within the scrub, each monastic centre is a unique sanctuary of manicured gardens, monastic residences, temples, stupas and shrines. The contrast is not lost — manicured green tranquil gardens oppose jungly malaria infested marshland  — paradise versus the netherworld.

There are so many temples. Three days wandering does not allow me to see all. Their variety is impressive: Myanmar’s emerald green and gold spire sparkles like a woman’s emerald jewels; Manang’s tibetan monolithic temple depicts finely detailed thanka paintings telling Buddha’s life story. Germany’s statued gardens tell the cycle of the wheel of life, from birth to death. On and on they go, each temple telling a story for those who take time to hear it. Everything here has meaning. Hand gestures of each statue reveals a message (mudras – knowledge, peace, circle of life etc). Mandalas represent the wheel of life. Thanka paintings tell the story of fighting demons to find release from suffering. However, these stories are not just of one man, they are the story of us all. Humanity. Our story of peace versus struggle.

We each have this story. Life is peace. Life is struggle.

Bookmarking each end of the peace zone is the Maya Devi temple and the World Peace Pagoda. World Peace Pagoda is a white marble shrine, it’s purpose is to spread peace into the world. At the other end, kilometres down the central peace canal, we see Maya Devi Temple glimmering.

Maya Devi temple is the treasure of Lumbini. This, so the story goes, is the exact spot of Buddha’s birth. Queen Maya Devi, Siddhartha’s mother, nearing the end of her pregnancy, left the royal palace headed for her maternal home to prepare for the birth of her child. On route she unexpectedly began to labour, and gave birth to her prince son under a tree with her hand maidens in attendance. Some time after, Siddhartha’s father, King Suddhodana, marked the spot where his son was born. Today this site is the Maya Devi temple.

We are required to leave our shoes at the beginning of the garden that covers several acres. We wander barefoot in the garden, past rings of stupas and monasteries erected in the  3rd to 5th centuries B.C. Past ancient stupas celebrating the buddha’s teachings, erected long before the birth of the christian Christ. In the centre is a white building that houses the most sacred spot, a 3rd century B.C archeological find (in the background of accompanying photo). Inside it is dark, no photos are allowed here. People are quietly meditating around the perimeter. A centre stone marks the exact birthplace of the buddha; an ancient rock that lies behind glass and protects the mark made by the king where his son was born. It lies in the darkness. We shine a torch to see the exact spot where the buddha was born. The birth of a story too.

After a few quiet moments we exit the temple into the light, surrounded by bodhi trees with thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the breeze (see photo). Monks, mediation groups, and lone peace seekers sit quietly across the acres. A group from a Japanese sangha are chanting softly. Local women are squatting, cutting the grass with hand shears.

On this site, story after story is revealed amidst thousands of years of archeological history. At birth the buddha took 7 steps,  on each step a lotus appeared. Maya Devi was spellbound by the beauty of Lumbini, so she bathed in the sacred pool in the gardens, then grasped a tree and gave birth. All story? Perhaps. It matters not. The key message is this, we humans live inside the stories we create. True or not true does not matter. Fact or myth does not matter. What matters is how the story works for us. Whether we use it for peace or struggle.

Lumbini is a humbling experience. No wars have been fought in the name of the buddha, so this peace site is true to its story.

I am reminded of the key messages we use to help our fellow humans when they are struggling with their own stories of trauma and pain – hold stories lightly. Perhaps there is a corollary too — when the story brings peace, bring it closer. Allow your peaceful stories to bubble to the surface and bring peace within. Perhaps this is a story I can tell to myself too.

thuchuche, Louise

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Avoidance and values come with powdered milk

January 15, 2014

I am once again in Kathmandu. I’ve had too many trips here to count them now. Landing at the crumbling red bricked ‘international’ airport feels familiar. It’s not too long before I am onto the infamous Kathmandu ring road, dense with traffic. In addition to cars and motorbikes one can see tractors, wagons with hand made motors belching out smog, cows straying anywhere they please, and of course busses and trucks. Everything in this landlocked hilly country moves around in a truck or a bus. It is winter now so the air is dense with smog, there is no wind in the valley to blow it away. Along the ring road is the flotsam and jetsam of a busy chaotic impoverished city; plastic bags and rubbish everywhere. I curse again the invention of plastic; as we drive over bridges and see rivers clogged with piles of plastic.

There is a sadness about Kathmandu now. One imagines the days, just 60 years ago when motor vehicles had not entered the valley; emerald green farmland, life moved at the speed of man walking. Kathmandu described back then as Shangri La. Now the emerald green is disappearing behind concrete, the urban sprawl growing by the day, chocking out the green air and returning eye watering smog. Silently killing the residents. The political situation here continues to be unsettled. The politicians are locked in a battle to decide the new constitution with just 5 days left. There is tension, everyone talking about whether it will be settled peacefully.

Why am I here then?

Because there is a beauty and charm in the people of Nepal that draws me. As they say, ‘one comes for the mountains and returns for the people.’ The people are kind and peaceful. I dont know if it is because the population has little material goods, so they cherish family, friends and food. Perhaps it is their 125 different ethnicities and mix of Buddhism, Bon and Hinduism that fosters quiet acceptance between neighbours. I am fascinated by their good humour and peaceful ways that is at odds with the political turmoil. What I do know is there is beauty in this crazy smog filled place.

I am on a writing sabbatical with hopes to see the peoples through my lens of contextual behavioural science. I have personal reasons to be here too; more on that later.

My apartment is a tiny two rooms on the outskirts of Kathmandu, with a shared bathroom and no hot water. A neighbourhood where few, if any, white women have even ventured. The apartment is in a four story block with my room on the rooftop; my window looks out at a shared rooftop, and across the valley. Nargajin’s 2600 metre presence is right outside my window. The whole building uses the space just outside my window for washing and drying laundry and sitting in the sun. The apartment block is a little community. Two new babies have arrived in the past few weeks, each day the women sit on the roof sunning the babies, while grandmothers and sisters tend the new mothers and do her chores. People are reserved and mostly kind. I don’t speak Nepali but the women smile, the kids practice English words to me as I climb the stairs, and those who are unsure are too polite and reserved to make eye contact.

As I write it is school holidays and all the kids in the block are playing, running up and down the stairs, cries of “Ama” (Mum) ringing out. All the kids play together, little pre-school age kids with preteens. In this block there are no playdates, no kids who are sad because they are not invited to play.  Just by virtue of proximity everyone has someone to play with. I wonder about our ‘constructed’ play arrangements for kids there days. Is it helpful to play only with ‘chosen’ friends? What do we lose by not playing in the neighbourhood? These kids play on the stairs, in the streets, and on the roof outside my window where I write. It reminds my of my own childhood, playing in the streets with all the kids until we were hungry or it got dark.  This Nepali apartment block is like that. It is a small community of mostly Tamang people (Taming are of Tibetan origin).

Laxmi and Pemba are now at my window, their faces pressed against the glass, calling out,”Hello Auntie., Auntie.” Laxmi is 8, she has the most gorgeous smile and perfect Nepali head wobble, which means ‘ok ok’. She is alway the first to shout out and practice her English, ‘Auntie, how are you today?” She comes into my apartment whenever she smells cooking and the door is open, hoping to be given toast, a cookie, or some other morsel. Her friend Pemba is 12, with quite good English. Today the girls lean in the window and want to talk to me, even though I politely say that I am working, they see me on my computer and say, “Games, games.” I say ’No work.” They shake their head and continue on as if I’d said nothing, “Auntie hello. Hello Auntie. How are you today?”

I relent, open my window and they lean in and begin chatting in Nepali. I understand only a few words. Laxmi repeatedly says, “sheekaunu, sheekaunu.” I laugh and shrug trying to say I don’t understand but the girls wont be deterred. I can tell Laxmi has no idea why I wouldn’t understand someone speaking, she has no knowledge of other people outside her small community, so she slows her speech down like I am simple minded – s.h.e.e.k.a.u.n.u. Nope. I still dont get it. So she tries even slower sssshhhheeeekaaauuunnnuuuu. I laugh out loud, “Speaking slowly wont help me but Laxmi”. We break into fits of laughter.

The girls spy a cup with some powered milk, and say, “Khanu (eat) powdered milk Auntie?” I pass the cup to them, they laugh and spoon mouthfuls of powdered milk in. Pure delight. Faces smeared with white powder, they laugh and chatter in Nepali. No sooner is it all gone and they start asking, “Biscuit?” “No” I say, “time to work.”

I am here to write, I have plans to shut down email and immerse myself in this place so I can write. This is my values move, but truthfully there is equally escape here – toward and away are equally present. The last few years have been the hardest I have ever experiences, relationship changes, financial difficulties that followed, working 7 days a week to try and keep up. Meanwhile our new book, The Thriving Adolescent, was half written; too far in to stop working. Fortunately when I tried to hand it back my co-author Joseph would not let me. My friends and family have carried me through this difficult time.

Now it is time to restore my health. Rest in a peaceful community and write. Laxmi and Pemba are still smiling at the window, even though they don’t believe me I open my laptop and try to write.

I wonder how often avoidance and values are experienced at the same time and equally contribute to wellbeing?