Saturday, April 6, 2013

Spiritual and not so spiritual tourism in Nepal

Foreigners come for spiritual enlightenment in the ancient Buddhist region and instead get hooked on facials and foot massages

by Sonja Schaefer, Guest Writer

On the north end of the Boudha Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, I lounged on some steps in front of a Buddhist monastery to people watch. Away from the commotion, I was no longer the object of attention with my blond hair, 5’9” height and outfit of jeans and light blue fleece jacket. Instead, I could be the onlooker. 

I observed the casual tourists and Buddhist devotees, nuns and monks adding their steps to the unceasing clockwise circumambulation of the stupa — a Buddhist shrine. With the sun warming my skin and the peaceful spinning of prayer wheels all around me, I was beginning to feel like a part of this community.

During my five-week stay, I spent two-and-a-half weeks on my own observing Buddhism after studying about it at Pacific Lutheran University. I spent my days milling around the Buddhist monuments, frequenting famous Lama’s speeches and becoming familiar with the western Buddhist community.

However, I was soon to learn that there is a line between feeling like a part of the community and actually being part of the community. I had been hoping, like the thousands of spiritual tourists who come to this mountainous region each year, to immerse myself in the culture completely. What I found, however, is that what tourists get is often more of an excursion — whether cultural, spiritual or material — than an immersion. This is especially the case in Nepal.

After a time, a Caucasian woman in her 50s, Linda Rouse, sat down next to me on those steps.

She told me she had lived and taught yoga in the area on and off for five years. She said she was more of a “Universalist,” but also said she understood the basics of Buddhism and approved of practices like meditation, awareness and equanimity.

We both shifted our gaze to the passers-by, the models of such practices and principles, continually spinning the prayer wheels, shifting the beads on the prayer beads and mumbling mantras as they circled the stupa.

Rouse said she often came to watch the Buddhists circle the stupa because she had a lot of respect for their spiritual devotion, a thing she considered lacking in the States. I asked if she knew some Nepali, assuming that with five years here, she would, but she said she did not.

I asked what kind of things she did, and it became clear that she liked being a “stereotypical” tourist. Instead of assimilating with the Nepali she said she enjoyed foot massages at a fancy acupuncture place. She had a membership at the Hyatt Hotel, the enormous, gated hotel known for housing wealthy foreigners. She told me she went there for facials, as she rubbed cream on her wrinkly face.

Rouse recommended I stick to the “clean, Western cafes and restaurants.” She noted the expensive Ariya, and Flavor’s cafe as such restaurants. Both of these were decorated modernly with light wood chairs and white walls without decoration and simple hanging lamps above each table. Not exactly a Nepali experience.

She said the Nepali places off the road were dirty with old grease, poop and spit. When I chuckled at that, she said, “no, seriously.” As a goodbye, Rouse said “Divine Blessings.”

I met many more people like Rouse in Nepal: people who enjoyed an adventure into the birthplace of Buddha, but did not take the time to see how the average Buddhist Nepali went about living and practicing.
At Nagi Gumpa, A Tibetan Buddhist nunnery, I joined the daily Western crew and noted a peculiarity about spiritual tourism. The concept seemed to apply to all the foreigners in Nepal: Nepal was a place to escape from “real life,” for an “excursion” into Buddhism.

For example, some foreign lodgers would kick off the day at 5:30 a.m. by joining the nuns in the daily puja — act of worship — at dawn. However, they would slip out of the gumpa, or sanctuary, before the breakfast of chickpeas and butter tea was served. They would head to the kitchen for a more diverse array of porridge, pancakes, fruit and curd. No Nepali nuns slipped into the kitchen. This was an authentic nunnery in the hills north of the Kathmandu Valley, and the foreigners remained aloof.

Although Westerners came here to immerse themselves in Buddhism, they were neglecting certain aspects of the authentic and traditional Buddhist life. With these experiences, I began to question if foreign immersion into a new society, in this case, traditional Tibetan Buddhism in Nepal, can even exist.

Martin, a Netherlander, joined me on the trail to Shivapuri peak just above Nagi Gumpa. After a brief introduction, we got to the subject that was of common interest to us both: Buddhism.

Martin  said he initially came here to learn about the dharma, or doctrine, of Tibetan Buddhism. He had been agnostic before finding meditation a few years earlier. After practicing on his own for a year or two, he quit his insurance job and flew to Nepal.

He joined the Kopan Monastery to take classes in Buddhism. After a semester of study, Martin said he hoped to travel to sacred monasteries and monuments, and spend some months hiking.

Martin seemed to be eager to spend time with the other Westerners and ride out the time in luxury. When hiking, teahouses or restaurant-lodges are at almost every mile marker, and one doesn’t have to carry much food, safety equipment or camping gear.

I began to question his original intent of coming to Nepal to learn more about Buddhism. It seemed like he really just desired a vacation before returning to the Netherlands.

The closest I came to witnessing immersion in action was in the case of the nun Ani Sangye from Delaware. Sangye had donned maroon robes and shaved her head five years prior to our meeting. She lived at the nunnery and was simultaneously finishing up her master’s in Buddhism at Kopan Monastery with Tibetan language proficiency. Sangye had been back to the United States only once in the five years and planned on staying in Asia in the future.

Yet, still, she joined us — the Westerners — in the kitchen for a mealtime here and there and spent time working on her laptop. Both of which the other nuns did not do. I questioned if she could ever be as devout as the other nuns. 

I realized that her connection to her life before Nepal, such as her family back home and other Westerners in Nepal, who she communicated with in English, hindered her immersion. Sangye’s pursuit of her master’s  made it clear that she still was fixated on “diploma” education. She didn’t just drop everything and live the 
nun’s regular daily routine of puja, cleaning and meditation.

Maybe it is psychological baggage, such as technology, comfort, efficiency and productivity that binds us Westerners to our old lifestyle. Maybe it is the desire for time-framed escape with the remembrance of a home waiting for our return. Maybe it is simply having family or connections elsewhere.

Strings remain attached to us. They keep us tied to our life outside of Nepal before we even really get to know the true Nepal.

This is the problem with tourism, especially spiritual tourism. No one is really getting a chance to immerse themselves wholly. A simple commodity such as a kitchen for Westerners in which to congregate and speak English can mean the difference between immersion and excursion.