Sunday, 8 February 2015

The Buddha of Humility

I went travelling round Asia in the '90s and, in about 1996, I ended up in Kathmandu in Nepal. I remember visiting Buddhist temples with prayer-flags fluttering in the breeze, a rather scary ceremony at a temple to Kali (that I left quite quickly), six feet tall marigolds, the burning ghats and seeing a body being burned in a bonfire, and going out in the freezing pre-dawn to see the sun rise over Mount Everest. I caught cold in Kathmandu and remember wandering round New Delhi a few days later with a bag full of tissues.

The other thing I came back from Kathmandu with is a better understanding of humility and humanity and a Buddha image that I think of as the Buddha of Humility.

The Kathmandu Valley is the home of the cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, ancient royal cities in their own right for the Nepalese. They're all quite close and full of old wooden monuments, palaces and temples, some of which are still in use. And grand squares that host markets mainly focused on us foolish travellers who will pay anything for our essential souvenirs.

I have Buddha images from all over the East - no, I'm not going to buy a Buddha image from a garden centre or trendy shop in Covent Garden or Brixton when I can get them from where they were made and where they mean something. I have delicate Buddha images from Thailand and Sri Lanka and India. I even have a small head of the Buddha made from volcanic rock from Borobadur in Java, Indonesia. My most intricate image is made of sandalwood from Varanasi near the site where Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment. I got that image after I'd made an offering to Mother Ganga at dawn beside the burning ghats at Varanassi, visited the Deer Park and the site of the first ever Buddhist monastery. I'd also been blessed in a Jain temple. That's a special image.

But the Buddha of Humility is also special. It reminds me of my own behaviour and where I need to improve.

I went to Bhaktapur to see the royal palace and temples and, walking through the town square, saw there was a market selling mainly tourist stuff so I thought I'd have a browse after viewing the temples. And I did. Tarpaulins spread on the ground to define the 'stall' area and people all wrapped up crouching over each 'stall'. A small brass Buddha image about four inches tall caught my attention - the Buddha subduing Mara with one hand and the other hand holding the supplicants bowl while sitting on a lotus flower. A common image in Nepal and Tibet.

I asked how much it was and the old woman looking after the stall showed me the asking price on a calculator. Too much I indicated and halved the price. No, that's too low indicated the woman and showed me a new price on the calculator. We agreed a price and I said thank you. And I promptly paid the original asking price, not the agreed price. It was a matter of pennies to me but a lot to her so I thought I'd just pay the full price anyway for the little statue to remind me of Bhaktapur.

And as I walked away with my little brass Buddha wrapped in newspaper in my bag it dawned on me what I'd done. I'd played with this old woman because I could. Because a few rupees this way or that means little to me but means a lot to her. I thought I was being helpful and generous but all I was being was another Western tourist playing the cash game with the locals. I wonder: did she mind or was she just pleased to get more rupees out of the tourist wandering round in the heat of the day? It's humbling and a lesson well learned.

That Buddha image sits on the top of the bureau in my living room as a reminder of far off days and strange sights and a little old woman sitting on the ground selling stuff to tourists. Namaste.

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