Boudhanath is in the heart of Kathmandu. It wasn’t always—50 years ago, it was surrounded by green fields and empty space—but the city has slowly come to surround it (Kathmandu now sprawls in every direction, spreading across the valley with vibrant determination). With every mantra chanted along its walkway, the city pulses with life.
Boudhanath is a giant stupa built Kathmandu-style: a huge white dome topped with a golden pyramid, the whole thing crowned with a parasol fluttering overhead. Great piercing eyes are painted on each of the four sides of the pyramid, so that no matter where you are, the Buddha’s gaze is there to greet you. Layers of walkways surround the stupa, providing pilgrims with opportunities to circumambulate at different levels.
I was circumambulating the stupa with my son when it happened. We were doing the walkway with hundreds of others, enjoying the “early morning traffic” as we called it. We threaded our way between the diverse body of congregants: monks on cell phones, old women fingering their malas, young people catching a moment of prayer before they headed off for the day. On the outskirts, beggars held out their palms, some with broken bodies, others with young children on their laps. Street dogs chased each other as they scavenged for morsels of food.
We went round and round, taking it all in. Every once in a while, one of us would move closer to the stupa and spin a prayer wheel, filling our palms with the metal texture. If a dog got close, we patted them affectionately (even though we weren’t supposed to). And then at the expected location, my son hopped off the walkway to buy a container of corn to feed the birds. It was his favorite part.
Boudhanath is home to hundreds of overfed pigeons who love the Buddhist need to generate merit in the mornings. They have their spot where they wait eagerly for pilgrims to scatter grains in their direction. My son bought his container and was soon scattering them according to his own logic. Predictably, the birds swarmed him, and he spent the next 10 minutes walking among them, moving through their pecking bodies, and every once in a while (when I wasn’t looking), charging into them with exuberance.
After the grains had been devoured, he returned the empty container to the salesperson and we made our way back to the circuit. We were about to step into the traffic when an elderly monk jumped in front of us with his hand out.
I was surprised.
“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked.
I think “stop” was the limit of his English vocabulary, because he did not attempt to explain further. Instead, he pointed to the ground with his finger. And there, a few inches from my foot, was a black beetle.
I wasn’t sure what was wrong. Was it poisonous? Was I supposed to be looking at something else? What was the matter?
A young man holding a motorcycle helmet added himself to the scene. The monk spoke with him urgently in Tibetan. He then started bending down when the young man waved him away and bent down himself. He picked up the beetle between his fingers and threw it into a potted plant by the stupa. My son and I just watched dumbly until the monk waved us to move forward again. Back into the circuit we went.
It took me a moment to process what had happened. Was I just inserted into a scene from the book Seven Years in Tibet? Is that what had just happened? I have spent the better part of my academic career trying to understand Buddhism and Buddhist communities, all the while doing my utmost not to idealize any of it. I have protected myself from romantic interpretations, have always tried to remember the critical lens, and have taught my students diligently in the same way. The scene from Seven Years in Tibet when Heinrich Harrer struggles with his construction project because the Tibetans refuse to kill the worms they kept encountering in the earth has always puzzled me. Tibetans are notorious meat eaters, if nothing else. This impression we often have of Tibetans acting out of extreme non-violence has always been farfetched.
And yet there I was, in a scene of my own. A monk stopped us to save a beetle. It was right out of a movie, a scene I am trained to be skeptical of. That same monk was probably going to eat buffalo momos for lunch. But he would not let me squish an innocent beetle? What am I to make of all of this?
Maybe that everyone is their own person? Maybe this monk was not going to eat buffalo for lunch. Or maybe he would, but it does not cancel the fact that he avoided stepping on bugs whenever possible. Or maybe it meant something entirely different that was private to him and his experience of beetles?
The truth is that the truth is not available to me. I don’t know why this monk did what he did. What I do know is that I cannot let this scene be transformed into a generalization about monks or Tibetans or pilgrims at Boudhanath.
But I also know that I am thinking about it. And I am glad he helped me avoid killing that bug.