My Visit to Kathmandu

Kathmandu, Nepal. As faithful readers of this blog will know, I have spent the last ten weeks in South Asia – Chennai, Kolkata, Pune, Colombo and Jaffna in Sri Lanka. See my previous entry  and the links in it to the first three. I am now completing ten days in the Himalayan country of Nepal, in Kathmandu, the valley (5,000 feet elevation) and capital city. I am tempted to say that the city is breathtakingly beautiful, standing as it does in shadow of the high Himalayas, including Mt. Everest. But sadly, the price of progress has been a heavy smog across the valley, and in March at least, one must acknowledge the mountains by faith alone.

Like Sri Lanka, about which I wrote several weeks back, Nepal too is a country in transition, learning how to function as a republic and work out the complexities of democracy after the abolition of the monarchy about six years ago. The Maoist civil unrest seems to be definitely a thing of the past, but unstable coalition governments are the rule of the day, even as a constitution for the new republic is still being argued and written. (The country seems to be where we Americans were in the 1780s, experimenting with “articles of confederation” that are at best only provisional, and will have to be greatly revised if post-royal Nepal is to live up to its promise.)

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I could go on and on about the culture and religions of the Kathmandu Valley. Hinduism and Buddhism are not entirely distinct here, as various forms of (Nepali and Newar cultural-linguistic) Buddhism and Hinduism intermingle, side by side, lived out in temples and pagodas where both religions are venerated. Buddhist shrines, such as the great stupas in Boudha and Swayambhunath still stand out in the geography and consciousness of the valley, and since the 1950s, there is also a significant Tibetan Buddhist community here, in the Boudha (Bodhnath) section of the city. Everywhere too is a distinctive form of Hinduism, with prominent shrines, such as those I managed to visit this week: Lord Siva’s Pasupati temple, holy for Hindus worldwide and the main site for cremations for the Hindus and Buddhists of the city; the Goddess temple at Dakshin Kali, just over the southern edge of the valley, where animal sacrifice is still regularly performed on Tuesdays and Saturdays; and at Budhanilkantha, the stunningly beautiful reclining image of Narayana (Visnu), an image at least twelve feet in length and carved from a single black stone, Narayana, his Sri nearby at her own shrine, all surrounded by images and symbols of Siva. (It is now my favorite place in the Valley.)

I could go on at length about all of this, but the Jesuit and personal historical context is probably more important here and so I must change topic. Jesuits (and other Christian missionaries) passed through Nepal as early as the seventeenth century, but in 1951, at the invitation of the king of Nepal, American Jesuits (from Chicago and Detroit, many already in Bihar, India) set up first one and then two St. Xavier schools, which quickly were ranked among the premier schools in the country. As I reported last summer, I taught at St. Xavier’s (in the city, the high school/boarding school), from 1973-1975. That is to say, my visit this week too place forty years after I was there for the first time. Only several of the long-term Western Jesuits are still working here – Fr. Cap Miller, Fr. Bill Robins – and the somewhat younger Greg Sharkey (about whom I will say more below); now the bulk of the work of Jesuits in the city and around the country is undertaken by Indian Jesuits who have dedicated their lives to teaching and ministry here. In the relative laxity of today’s Nepal, missionaries seem to be everywhere in the hills, a few of of whom seem ready to denounce Hinduism as evil, a religion of darkness. But the Jesuits, American and Indian, see the people of this country and their religions as Christ would see them: radiant with the one light of the one God, taking form in the words and actions and lives of God’s people through this ancient land. 

During my ten days here I had many occasions to meet “the boys” I taught forty years ago – now in their mid-50s or beyond, some of them grandfathers. I had many individual reunions, and two classes – 1975 and 1976 – sponsored get-togethers where I could see twenty or more of them at a time. They are still the same boys in a way – the same personalities, senses of humor, and religious predilections are evident – but now they are business men, doctors, members of Parliament, scholars and generals, inventers and salesmen, teachers and librarians. (Yes, it was a boys’ school.) They taught me how to teach, I have said many times, and taught me how to learn Hinduism, and it is consoling that they also remember me so vividly, forty years later.

I also met with an old friend, Krishna Maharjan, who worked at the school and then the research center nearby, cooking, serving, and in general helping to manage the houses in which Jesuits lived. Krishna, now retired, is just about my age, and I had formed a warmed relation with him back then – we even played handball together. It was wonderful to see him and his family, prospering, I think, in ways we couldn’t have guessed back then. All of this was also amazing, of course: to see how our lives have gone over the decades, me as a Jesuit indelibly marked by those two years, and they in their family lives and businesses, in a changing Nepal and following their Hindu and Buddhist paths. Forty years seems a very long time that somehow has also passed very quickly. We are both what we were then, and quite different too. (Buddhists and Hindus of course ponder this very issue: Is my self the same as it was back then? Have I lived through many selves over time? A flow of instants or an unchanging identity beneath?)

I had occasion to give two lectures, primarily for students (including twenty high school students from an international school in East Asia who unexpectedly appeared) at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute (RYI), affiliated with Kathmandu University. The Institute is inspired and guided by Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, a leading Tibetan abbot and intellectual and spiritual force in Boudha. I also spoke at a symposium there on the weighty theme of “Dharma and the Academy: Critical Reasoning about Faith, Doctrine, and Practice.” The three other speakers, and the Rinpoche who spoke at the end, were all deep into the study and practice of Buddhism, as was the audience of over three hundred people, but they did not seem unduly disconcerted by my reflections, “The Collaboration of Critical Reasoning and Faith in a Christian's Study of Hinduism.” Given how many were Christian at an earlier stage of life, perhaps it was of interest too to hear how I have woven together decades of studying Hinduism with decades of being-Catholic still. In our own ways, all four of us speakers and the Rinpoche himself seemed to converge on the ideal of the scholar-practitioner, the believer who studies and the scholar who meditates and travels the Way in community.

It was good to be there, as a welcomed guest and as a Jesuit speaking in that richly Tibetan, Buddhist, and international context. Here is one of those margins and borders where we Jesuits must be, if the Church is to serve and love and learn in today’s world, not just in the parts we know well, but beyond the zones of the familiar. Happily then, I was not the only Jesuit in the room, not by any means: Greg Sharkey (an American Jesuit of the New England Province) is a permanent fixture, so to speak, in town, having first arrived more than thirty years ago. He teaches at the RYI, and is a respected expert with wide knowledge of the Nepali, Newari, Tamang and Tibetan languages and cultures and ways of being Buddhist; his experiential learning is grounded too in his DPhil in Buddhist Studies at Oxford. He is clearly a well-known figure in the Boudha community — and well-loved, a clear favorite, it seemed to me, of the Rinpoche, if one can judge from their warm embrace. A wizard in discovering donors, he was also a cosponsor of Saturday’s symposium. Greg is clearly a go-to person for foreigners and Nepalis alike in their desire to learn religions and figure out how to negotiate the coming together of East and West in today’s changing Nepal. I stayed at his Desideri House, named after Ippolito Desideri, the eighteenth century Jesuit visitor to Tibet who in a remarkably short time learned and wrote in Tibetan and recorded at length some of the first reliable reports on Tibet to the West. Desideri House seems to have an open door and endless stream of visitors; it also hosts theology students from the Jesuit School in Berkeley and undergrad students from Boston College on their semester abroad. (The hospitality and meals are among the best in town, ably designed and prepared by the masterful Chandra and his able assistant Raju.)

Greg stands in that worthy and difficult place, in a borderland where the Church has hardly at all been present: the Jesuit, the Christian scholar-practitioner, near the Stupa, in that great circle of Buddhists who are Tibetan, Nepali and Newari, and Western. His is not the occasional dialogue according to some calendar or schedule, or simply upon the occasion of brief visits to South Asia (such as mine). He is here to stay, and his dialogue is for the long term, a commitment and way of life, lived right there, shared with Buddhist friends, teachers and students, at every festival and lecture and religious-cultural-political event: that is to say, Christ present, in simple, human guise, compassion and wisdom quietly shining there, standing with rather than apart from Buddhism. In a world of fewer and fewer Jesuits, Greg reminds us how important a single Jesuit can be, in a single, seemingly far-off place. Next time you are in Nepal, be sure to visit Desideri House.

As for me, I hope to be back in Cambridge by the weekend, and may have a final reflection to offer then. If you have been kind enough to read the previous blogs regarding this trip, feel free to pose some questions, either as comments, or by contacting me at [email protected]

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PJ Johnston
3 years 9 months ago
Ahh, I am envious. You are in my favorite place in the entire world, although it must mean even more for you because of your experiences there as a young Jesuit. I had somewhat different experiences of Christian-Buddhist encounter there, primarily remembering doctoral students from the United States speculating on how Fr. Sharkey must work for the CIA because "no Christian priest could possibly be enthusiastic about Buddhism" and almost being beaten up by an angry dharma student who didn't like my theology or politics - though I did end up taking refuge at RYI along with a theology student from Boston College, so the BC-RYI cultural exchange must be one of the more positive ones in the valley. (Perhaps Desideri House would have been better than Shechen as a residence). Sorry to reminisce excessively - I guess your post invites nostalgia. I did have a more serious question though. You wrote: "Hinduism and Buddhism are not entirely distinct here, as various forms of (Nepali and Newar cultural-linguistic) Buddhism and Hinduism intermingle, side by side, lived out in temples and pagodas where both religions are venerated." Have you read Hausner and Gellner's "Category and Practice as Two Aspects of Religion: The Case of Nepalis in Britain"(which actually speaks more about Nepal proper than you might expect from the title)? I use this in class, and I think it actually suggests a somewhat more radical thesis that I'd like to see what you think about. They observe in the article that when the first census was done in Nepal in the 1950s, it was necessary to train the census takers AND the people being interviewed in religious categories such as "Buddhism," "Hinduism," etc., which they otherwise would not have used. Might it make sense to say that the introduction of these categories actually changed Nepali religion, introducing new distinctions between people that have subsequently been politicized? Perhaps what you're seeing is the holdover from an earlier pattern of social organization, and the very idea of the two "religions" being separate things with distinct constituencies is newfangled, and primarily introduced by people like us.

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