Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition
In 1990—the year Shopping for Buddhas was first released by Harper & Row—Tim Berners-Lee created the foundation for the World Wide Web. The Hubble Space Telescope was launched. Namibia gained its independence, and Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison after 27 years.
That very same year, Nepal itself changed profoundly. The upheavals in Eastern Europe and the USSR spurred a Jana Andolan, or “Peoples’ Movement,” the beginning of the end for Nepal’s absolute monarchy. (See my “Brief Political Postscript” for more details). Well, here we are, a quarter of a century later. We now have two robots scrambling around on Mars, and Nepalis connect on Twitter and Facebook. The late Nelson Mandela graces South Africa’s currency.
Still, the mindset of a Hindu Kingdom is slow to change. The Republic of Nepal still does not have a working, ratified constitution, and the Kathmandu Valley itself has not quite blossomed (to say the least) in the manner of Bangalore or Taipei. This will take some time.
On the other hand, it may be just as well that some things change slowly. Much of what drew me to Nepal in 1979, and keeps me coming back, is its atmosphere of divine chaos—the sense that anything can, and does, happen. The interwoven cultures that thrive beneath the Himalaya are like a mysterious vine—ripening with metaphors and life lessons.
One autumn afternoon, during a recent visit to the Kathmandu Valley, I rode my rented motorcycle across the Bagmati Bridge, and up the long hill to Kathmandu’s sister city, Patan. As usual, I was shopping for buddhas; and as usual, it didn’t take much to distract me.
A short walk through Patan’s narrow roads led me to a low entrance, and into the courtyard of Mahabauddha: The Temple of a Thousand Buddhas. The temple’s architecture is fascinating—an odd blend of Nepali and South Indian—but what caught my eye was a sign, nailed on a brick wall across the chowk:
YOU MAY TAKE PHOTOGRAPHS FROM
THIS BUILDING GET THE BEST VIEW OF
MAHABAUDDHA, HIMALAYAS & OTHER
TEMPLES WE ARE HAPPY TO HAVE YOU
THERE IS NO CHARGE
I ducked inside. One pitch-dark flight of steps led to another. Finally I reached the small roof, overlooking the closely-packed neighboring buildings. Almost all the rooftops were blazing with well-groomed flower gardens, oases of color amid the cement patios and electrical wires. A steady breeze blew in from the south.
On the rooftop beside mine, just a few yards away, three generations of Nepalis stood together. They acknowledged me with a brief namasté, then went back to their business. There was a smiling white-haired patriarch wearing a smart topi cap; a young man, probably in his late 20s, in a blue blazer; and a seven-year-old girl. The elderly man held a red and yellow paper kite in one hand, and a wooden spool of string in the other.
With the gleeful expression of a kid one-tenth his age, the man tossed the kite into the air. But the wind was sketchy, and—despite a few close calls—the kite couldn’t find an updraft. After several failed attempts, he handed the younger man (his son, I guessed) the spool. Now the wind picked up. With a few deft motions, he coaxed the kite into the breeze. It spun, but began gaining altitude. The girl watched, awestruck. The spool spun with a low whirr, paying out string at a dizzying speed. Before it seemed possible, the kite was a speck in the sky—swooping and gyring far above the ravens and raptors.
At that point, the daughter was handed the spool. With wide eyes she stepped bravely forward and, imitating her father’s gestures, took control of their emissary to the clouds. Though the girl now held the string, all three people were fully engaged in the flight—mentally, physically, and spiritually. Their zeal was so contagious that I could almost feel the kite tugging my own arms.
Something was happening here, something beneath the visible tableau. Watching the family directing their kite, I realized with a flash that I was witnessing an entire culture in microcosm.This was what the Himalayan cultures have excelled in cultivating: the power of magic. This is their gift. With their incense and prayer flags, their sacred architecture and tantric rituals, their ability to breathe life into wood, metal and stone, the people of Nepal and Tibet have spent centuries forging two-way bonds between the material and ethereal realms. It may have seemed like paper, sticks and string—but the tiny kite was a conduit for direct communication between heaven and earth.
I am not sure, looking forward, where things are heading. The world will spin on, and our technology—as my late friend Arthur C. Clarke famously said—will become ever more “indistinguishable from magic.”
That distinction will be blurred, but it will not disappear. Not all technologies are assembled in factories. A remarkably clear blueprint for cultivating awareness, and for perfecting wisdom and compassion, was developed in South Asia more than 25 centuries ago—and it still finds beautiful expression in Nepal.
So we will build colonies on Mars, our eye movements will direct cloudbursts of information, and revolutions will continue to empty one pedestal after another. But none of these advances will overtake the deep, quiet awakening of the Prince formerly known as Siddhartha.
Shopping is fun, and maybe you and I are not among those people who can resist ducking into an art gallery or curio shop. But for a spiritual recharge, our wallets will be of dubious use. Our ultimate quest, I suspect, will never be fulfilled with a receipt from the Department of Archeology. What we’re really after, of course, is to be the Buddha of our dreams.
Lord Buddha said,
“This is true suffering; this is true cause; this is true cessation; this is the true path.
“Know the sufferings; give up their causes; attain the cessation of suffering; follow the true path.
“Know the sufferings although there is nothing to know; relinquish the causes of misery although there is nothing to relinquish; be earnest in cessation although there is nothing to cease; practice the means of following the true path although there is nothing to practice.”
—BUKKYO DENDO KYOKAI, The Teaching of Buddha
ON THE morning of Monday, 19 October, 1987, I woke up at a place called Gosainkund—a pocket of sacred lakes, dedicated to Lord Shiva, some 4,380 meters high in the Nepali Himalayas.
I’d made the trek up to this holy site with Karen, my stateside lover, who had flown from California to visit me in Nepal for a few weeks. We spent the first spectacular evening performing a kora—a devotional, clockwise circuit around the lake—pausing every few minutes to stare west, over the panorama of cloud-shrouded mountains that emerged into the sky. “It looks like Heaven,” Karen said. I could see what she meant; how the bolts of sunlight pierced through the clouds and spread like an oriental fan across the spine of the Himalayas, illuminating the vapors trapped below.
Our accommodation in the one-room Gosainkund Lodge was basic: straw mats on a stone floor. We inflated our air mattresses, ate some Chinese noodles, and climbed into our bags to sleep.
Sometime during the night, the wind picked up. It began as a low drone, rising and falling with an ominous cadence—like the voices of monks in a tantric choir. We felt icy particles alight and melt on our cheeks and noses, exposed from the maws of our mummy bags. Once during the night I woke up, bladder twitching, and felt around. It was weird—everything seemed wet and cold. I flopped back down, damned if I was going to go outside to piss.
I remember the fatal moment when I opened my eyes and saw that the lodge was full of snow. It had blown right in under the roof and covered us, our gear, our bags, everything. Karen went outside and shrieked—the place was buried waist deep in snow, and it was still falling, blowing in furiously, gusting through the shutters and under the roof, an icy, biting, relentless blizzard.
What to do? Wait at Gosainkund, this tiny way station at over four thousand meters, and risk being marooned forever? Or attempt the descent, along cliff-hanging mountain trails, in a blinding snowstorm?
Our porter tried leaving, dressed in sneakers and Karen’s socks, with a woolen blanket wrapped around his shoulders, and returned after five minutes. Saakdaina—“Impossible.” The path was utterly invisible, totally snowbound. An hour or two later another Nepali came staggering in. He brought horrible news. There was a dead woman on the trail, he said. Frozen. She’d been on her way to Gosainkund last night, when the storm hit….
But Gosainkund was no place to hang around. Here it was, 6:30 a.m., and we already felt as if we’d been stuck in that cramped, frigid little stone hut forever. The storm might let up in ten minutes; it might rage for a week. In the latter case, we could just as easily die of sheer boredom….
Clearly, there was no alternative. So, joining forces with a similarly marooned Swiss couple—two beefy, strapping Aryans—their porter, and ours, we bundled ourselves up in every last bit of clothing we had brought and set off down the mountain.
The first hundred steps were sheer panic. Snow up to our crotches; stumbling, falling, trying to follow the deep blue footprints left by the Swiss couple plowing on up ahead. The path had been so magnificent yesterday morning—now it was Death’s cakewalk. Karen was nearly hysterical at first, blindly blundering along, an L.A. girl consummately out of her element. As were we all.
But the worst was yet to come. Rounding the edge of the lake, we found ourselves on a high, unprotected ridge. The wind howled furiously, blinding us with ice needles, trying with all its might to blow us off the mountain, over the sheer drop that lay some two meters to our left. Left hand frozen, eyes frozen, frozen snot cracking off my face, I clung desperately to the back of Karen’s pack as the wind shoved her pitilessly toward the edge of the universe.
In the distance, beyond a white haze, I could see the hardy Swiss couple vanishing from sight. They plowed determinedly onward—followed by our pathetically attired porter, whose meager blanket whipped uselessly across his thin shoulders.
Above our heads, dead birds, wings broken and shredded, flew through the air like shrapnel. I gripped Karen’s hand with numb fingers as we cut down from the ridge and turned directly into the blinding snow, tripping and falling with every other step. At one point I just lay there, spread-eagled, like a drowning man—ready to give it all up. To just surrender, stop fighting this terrible deluge.
But no—we hauled ourselves up, convinced that we could reach the first teahouse, another half-hour away at most; we could see it, a safe haven of boiled water and shelter, far, far below.
We stumbled onward, praying and rolling down the mountainside, and arrived just in time to see the roof blowing off, and the little family that lived there fleeing for their lives, with all their belongings, including three children, strapped to their backs.
There was no more path, no more objective reality at all. I watched, stunned, as the Sherpa family leaped into the river—a raging, muddy torrent—and ran with it. They knew, in their infinite mountain wisdom, that it was flowing down, down—and down was where we wanted to go. We followed them, running blindly, slipping over frozen stones in animal panic.
An eternity later, we arrived in the village of Sing Gompa. We had dropped thousands of meters; it was pouring with rain. There were two rooms left at the lodge. We fell in out of the storm, into the dining hall, and immediately met the dazed, disbelieving stares of thirty Israeli trekkers, who were drinking rakshi and singing Hebrew folk songs. The Swiss couple vanished immediately. Karen and I drank tea and ate chocolate, finally building up the strength to crawl down the hill to our room.
Not a single thing in our packs had remained dry: socks, cameras, Band-Aids, batteries—everything was drenched through and through. We hung our soaking wet clothes over every surface and collapsed, utterly spent, onto our cots.
Lucky, so very lucky to be alive.
“Goddamit!” I hollered.
“What’s wrong?!” Karen looked at me in a panic.
“Look at the foam pads they put on these cots! Jesus—they’re thin as shit! We had such nice, thick ones in that upstairs room, two days ago. What a rip-off! How do they expect us to sleep on these?!”
As soon as we got back to Kathmandu, we heard about the stock-market crash. It had occurred on Black Monday, the very same day that we had almost lost our lives in the storm—one of the worst storms to hit Nepal in recorded history.
At that moment I was enlightened, and realized: “Life and wealth are transitory. The only way to protect yourself against these implacable truths is to invest in Buddhas. That way, even if the stock market tanks, you have something real; something that will continue to appreciate in value. And even if that fails—if the market for Asian art dries up completely, if there’s an apocalypse or something—well, then, you still have the Buddha, and you can learn non-attachment from it.”
I’ve always had a hard time buying things. Anything. I grew up in a family where I was taught that anything bought simply for pleasure, for the sheer enjoyment of life, was a waste of money. Not a sin exactly—Jews don’t really believe in sins—but an unforgivable self-indulgence, worthy of crippling guilt. There was always some distant, abstract “future” when I might need that money—as if the $1.50 I spent on a James Bond souvenir program would cripple my retirement fund.
The situation in my family was so bad, for so long, that only last year did my mother finally break down, go out to the store, and buy herself the one thing she has desperately desired since she was a little girl—and the one thing she didn’t even pretend she could afford while my father was alive. This item wasn’t a Buddha; almost the opposite. It was a mink coat.
Shopping itself, as we all know, can be a very liberating experience. It is a measure of our self-esteem that we allow ourselves to shop; a measure of even greater self-esteem if we shop for something expensive. In Western civilization, of course, this is taken even a step further, and the truly respected people are the ones who can spend money hand over fist on the utterly useless, or the wildly extravagant. My father was fond of saying that ours is the only society where people actually go out and spend three or four dollars a week for plastic bags to throw out their garbage in.
The point is that, aside from the value of a stable financial investment and the various spiritual benefits that might accrue from owning my very own Buddha, there was the liberating idea of shopping to get excited about. It was just what I needed to give this particular trip to Nepal a focus of sorts.
And at the end of it all—at the climactic moment, if I ever did find the Buddha of My Dreams—I would perform the ritual of “Letting Go” of a fairly large amount of money.
How much money? Good question. A hundred bucks might not buy me much, even in impoverished Nepal. No, this had to be brazen, wanton, cathartic. I would go all out, push my finances to the limit, and spend as much as $300 for a flawless little statue of the Buddha.