Life As A Kite
Imagined travels in a world after England
The Path is a Spiral
2nd - 25th March 2017
In the beginning, there were trees on the mountainside, fruit trees of every kind. Apples, pears, peaches and pomegranates, kumquats and coconuts, mangos and watermelons: enough to feed all of the people at the beginning of the world. And, at that time, they took only the fruit they needed to satisfy their hunger. They were filled with the enough that they had, and they were content.
There came a day, however, when a man took two apples from a tree: one for his here-and-now hunger, and one that he saved for later. Though he did this secretly, he was watched by a woman who thought to herself, ‘If he took one more than he needs, then I will take two more than I need,’ and this she did. And although she did this secretly, she was watched by others who thought to themselves, ‘If she took two more than she needs, then we shall take all we can.’ And this they did.
So it went on until others thought, ‘If these are taking more fruit than they need, then we shall take the very trees.’ And this they did, building fences and walls around first one tree and then another until, in no time at all, each tree was confined and enclosed, and the mountain was divided by titles of tenure, deeds of dispossession. And some of the people were sated and some of the people starved, for suffering is caused by the delusion of ownership.
And that is how we came to be where we are now – miserliness, meanness, narrow-mindedness, inequality, the illusions of having and not-having – when before, why, there was abundant fruit on the mountainside, enough for everyone to be full and content at the beginning of the world.
When his story is finished, the twenty-year-old Lama casts a shy smile around the gompa, hopes his English was up to the task, blinks for approval at the room of students who have come from across the globe to study at this monastery, Kopan, in Kathmandu.
Sitting beneath the giant golden statue of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the little Lama is a professional guru in embryo form, a chrysalis Zopa stretching his fledgling robes at the dawn of his career. This sermon was as much an exercise in public speaking for him as it was as a lesson in Tibetan mythology for us. He glances uncertainly at his retinue on the front row, at his tutors, his two language advisors, at the Venerable Canadian who is teaching our course. ‘But this is not a Buddhist story,’ he says quickly, anxiously, fearful of error. ‘Obviously, there is no beginning to time in Buddhism. It’s just an old folk tale from Tibet, nothing more. But I like it.’ He receives the reassuring nods he seeks from his tutors, smiles relief, dares the audience to ask questions.
Inevitably, the first to wave her me-sir-me-sir hand in the air is Creepy Girl, the Australian woman who ferociously occupies the cushion closest to teacher at the front of the class. She is always the first in the gompa at the start of the day, the last to leave at the end, has mastered the art of look-at-me prostrations – prayer hands to head, to mouth, to heart; bows, bends and spreads herself ostentatiously on the floor whenever a figure of authority walks into the room, refuses to look mere mortals in the eye, a blindness for equals.
Three rows behind Creepy Girl, sits Ciara. Here in Kopan, there is no Gildas to confide in, but there is Ciara – an Irish adventurer who has been travelling the world for months, years, living in post-money communities, hunting utopias – a habit we both share. Red-haired and eager-eyed, she soaks up all stimuli with an open-minded sympathy that puts me to shame. We have talked, Ciara and I, in the canteen, albeit in whispers, exchanged tales of Atlantis and Ys. She has been on the road for longer than me, but her way is more gentle, less jaded. ‘You’re such a fucking bitch,’ Ciara had laughed when I told her about Creepy Girl, ‘and she does not look like Glenn Close in the slightest.’ ‘She does,’ I protested, ‘in Fatal Attraction. See how she looks at the lamas. Something about her jaw.’ ‘Creepy Girl, man, that’s so fucking mean,’ and she had changed the subject.
But here, now, in the gompa, Creepy Girl is almost clawing the little Lama’s bare toes for attention, for the privilege of a personal enlightenment. I want Ciara to turn around to me and smile, an okay-bitch-I-see-it-now wink, but she doesn’t. At least Creepy Girl’s desperate fawning has not paid off: the young Lama invites someone else to ask the first question. Oh, blessed lesson in humility, the Australian shall have to console herself, biting her lip until it hurts.
The first questioner asks: ‘How were you recognised as the reincarnation of Lama-someone-or-other?’ The young Lama gives an embarrassed laugh, tells a story of how monks came to his home when he was four years old and showed him a selection of prayer beads. Miraculously, he chose the beads that had been owned by the previous Lama, proving beyond reasonable doubt that he must be the reincarnation of their dearly departed teacher. ‘I have no memory of that, of course, nor of being Lama-someone-or-other. But this is what they tell me.’ And what is the hardest thing about being a reincarnated guru? ‘The expectations of other people,’ he says, avoiding eye contact with his tutors, ‘especially those who knew the last Lama.’ Poor kid, I think. Poor little inmate. How on earth do you stay sane when all your keepers are deranged?
In the front row, Creepy Girl semaphores so keenly for attention that her desperation can be seen from the god-realm. ‘Me now, me now,’ she windmills, and the little Lama invites her to speak. She asks about hell beings going up the rebirth ladder, demi-gods going down. How many words can signify nothing, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. If I only had a pin.
Outside, a moonrise; a blood moon brooding over the humble rooftops of Kathmandu. She is always red here, this moon, dyed by the dust of an earthquake that still has not settled. The soot of centuries, once roused, will not so easily go to sleep, silts the atmosphere, satiates the air, layers your eyes, your tongue, your lungs. Face scarves are a must: just look at the tint of your spit.
Down there, the lowly city is steeped in dust, rubble, in pot-hole and phlegm. Around us, the rim of the Himalayas runs the horizon, containing this dust bowl of debris and fume, pollution and poverty. Up here – the monastery is perched on the top of a rocky promontory on the edge of the city – the air is clean; a sky-island of the blessed above the strata of contamination. We can breathe easily here in this eyrie of entitlement. The monks sleep well, untainted by earthly dirt. The monastery gardens are confined by fences, walls, demarcations of possession. The irony may be lost on the little Lama and his inadvertently Communist sermon.
And what, specifically, are the good deeds that a hungry ghost can do to be reincarnated as a human being? – Creepy Girl continues, indulgently owning the Q&A spotlight, all concern, all compassion. When I spoke with her in the canteen on the first day of this course, she knew nothing of the Nepalese earthquake that killed nine thousand people two years ago. She had missed the quaint piles of rubble that still feature in every street and suburb of this broken city. Her conversation is all wholeness-and-oneness, all otherworld not this-world, truth-of-god and flow-with-the-river-of-life, drowns in the meaninglessness of unmeasurable nouns.
Besides, earthquakes are a consequence of karma, isn’t that what Lama Zopa had told us back in Tushita? Did you hear the one about that butcher’s shop in Kathmandu? Flattened in the earthquake: instant death for the butcher and all his family: instant karma. And what of the nine thousand who died? Karma too. And the thousands more now homeless who scratch a scanty existence on the streets? Hush now, questioner; let us speak of ghosts and pins.
I have had enough of these words, this thin air: compassion for phantoms, disdain for the sacraments of flesh and blood. Test my ideas as a goldsmith tests the quality of a metal, so the Buddha had said. But, if the metal is found to be fool’s gold, he does not give a refund. You have paid to stay here for a week, the giant statue smiles down at me, sublimely smug. He does this thing, this statue, with his fingers that could be a blessing or a close-the-door-on-your-way-out gesture, divinely couldn’t care less. I hold an ace of patience up my sleeve, play chicken with the Buddha until one of us should blink, count minutes, hours, days until this lesson – whatever its purpose – is done. Oh, Smugness: if I were made of fool’s gold, I could afford not to blink like you.
‘And for how many days does a mind float in the intermediate realm after it has left the body?’ the Australian woman asks. Curiously, this is the one question she should be able to answer, personal experience and all that. One thing is certain: if Gildas were here, with his what-the-fuck insouciance, his irreverence and I’m-out-of-heres – if he were here, the madhouse would be infinitely more bearable. But he is not and, in the darkness at the back of the gompa, there is nothing better to do than replay the journey.
* * *
There are a thousand kilometres between Tushita and Kopan. After fleeing the meditative heights of Himachal Pradesh, you and Gildas take a bus down to the dusty plains of the sub-continent. From Delhi to Sarnath, Varanasi to Gorakhpur, crossing an imagined border between imagined states, India to Nepal, Sunauli to Pokhara.
The road is well-hoofed; the holy cows eat the same shit, their own shit, plastic shit, carcass shit, whichever path you take. Clump and slog along the same tuk-tuk-howling, rupee-hungry street-reek, gutter-stink, the cow is ever-acquiescent, careless of death – not because she is immune to mortality, but because life is hard, suffocating as hunger, steady as starvation. Stoic, she bows her horns to the hands that grab, grateful to the distraction of trash, wrappers, toilet-stained waste she transubstantiates to the eucharist of milk. Fingered dry, she fills a pail for morning chai, lunchtime lassi: yours for three hundred rupees and a week of gastroenteritis.
Varanasi is the holiest of the seven holy cities, a circus-city of faith and fantasty, receives the waters of the goddess Ganges whose tides can wash the sins of a lifetime. Away from the hungry, dusty, stenchy streets, the river laps the stone steps of the ghats – the quayside embankments where half-naked devotees perform their ritual ablutions each day. In an hour before sunrise, a local waterman rows you in a decrepit wooden boat downstream to observe the ceremonies of death and absolution. You follow a promise of smoke.
Lining the riverside ghats, men and boys of all ages strip down to underpants, wade in the water. Cupping hands, they offer water to the gods, dip their heads beneath the waves, over and over and over again: each submersion another sin forgiven. They emerge after minutes, breathless with the exertion, spewing foul water that has absolved their sins while simultaneously contracting intestinal parasites, dysentery, typhoid, hepatitis A and, occasionally, cholera: the fringe benefits of religious observation.
Silently, Gildas points at the headless corpse of a cow that is drifting past, that is swimming faster than your little boat in its eagerness to make some urgent appointment in the afterlife. Faeces in various degrees of decomposition lap against the sides, disturbed by the sweeping oars. You and Gildas exchange a glance when a man in a passing vessel scoops handfuls of the river to his lips.
‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?’ you suggest.
‘What doesn’t kill him today will kill him tomorrow,’ Gildas states with medical certainty.
‘Ganges is special river,’ says the boatman. ‘You can drink her; she is holy. I promise you, no one ever get sick from drinking Ganges. No one. You try?’ Politely declined, the boatman laughs knowingly, never missing a stroke.
‘And these guys are what?’ Gildas asks, pointing at the naked old men sitting cross-legged on the ghatside, their wild hair matted, their emaciated bodies daubed with white paint. ‘Oh, these are Sadhus, do not look at them in the eye,’ the boatman says, twinkling with mischief. ‘Sadhus are holy men, very special. They eat flesh of dead men, souls of dead men, get special powers. If you look in his eye, he will take your mind away; you are yourself no more. I knew a man from South Africa, he look Sadhu in the eye, went mad that very same day. Climbed to top of very high hotel, threw himself off. Dead. Probably. No, never look Sadhu in the eye.’
The sun is rising above the brim of the river. The sky is all Indian spice: orange and gold, fire on flaming water. Red waves tongue the boat, the oars, the stone steps of the sacred ghats. The scent of smoke grows richer, meatier, as you drift closer to Manikarnika Ghat where the cremations take place, to a small crowd of figures on the embankment, two or three pyres burning steadily on the stone terraces. ‘No cameras here,’ the boatman says as he steers you towards the quay, bumping against other boats berthed at an ancient jetty. ‘Special place. Not good to photo the dead.’
And here is death, significant, succulent, the air steeped with its flavour. You are silent, stilled by an awful recognition of something primordial. Bones in the fire, red waves lapping the steps, dogs in doorways, shadows, alleys, patient and black as the pacing crows. ‘And that man, the one with the shaved head,’ says our boatman, pointing at the man in white robes who is standing beside the nearest pyre, ‘he is maybe son, maybe brother of dead man. He takes dead man’s soul for nine days as the body is burning. He live in dead man’s house, sleep in dead man’s bed, eat dead man’s food, nine days while body burns. Until this happens, look.’
You watch as the man with the shaved head searches among the embers, finds what he is looking for, draws out a thigh bone still clinging to a clump of burned flesh and throws this remnant of his relative into the river. It splashes a metre or so from the boat. Dogs emerge from their shadows to stare after lost meat. ‘Now dead man’s soul can go, be... what is the word?’ ‘Reincarnated?’ you suggest. ‘Yes, that is it,’ the boatman says. ‘Better life next time because Ganges take him at end of this life.’
‘Who decides where the bodies are burned?’ you ask the boatman as he pushes the boat away from the jetty with his oar. ‘The priests, Brahmins,’ he replies, looking over his shoulder. ‘Best positions on ghat costs money, lots of money. Brahmins know how much each family is worth, how much they can pay. You don’t argue with Brahmin. Varanasi is only place in India you don’t argue money. Always accept the Brahmin’s price. Rich people pay much, get nice spot on steps of Ganges, get good life, rich life, next time. Poor people pay less, get done in that chimney.’ He points at the large industrial crematorium chimney up the embankment, behind the ghats. ‘Not so good next life.’
‘So if you’re can’t afford to pay the priest for a good funeral, you end up poor in the next life,’ you say, ‘and the priest always end up rich?’ The boatman laughs again, shrugs, rows in a half-circle to turn down the Ganges, away from the ghats where the tributaries of capitalism and religion converge. ‘How it is,’ he says, looking backwards over his shoulder to row forwards.
‘You okay?’ Gildas asks quietly. Yes, you reply. And then, understanding the relevance of the question, acknowledge his kindness. ‘Thank you, yes.’
The fire of dawn subsides, loses its spice. Sadhus with dangerous eyes sit in the temple shade; Brahmins strolling the ghats own the stones with wealthy steps, tenured possession. Stench, the stink of corruption, rotten as the smoke of burning bodies, skulks the chartered river from upstream to down, source to sea, birth to death and back again, again, again.
* * *
“We are not going in circles; we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.”
It is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. I have it read before, am reading it again, is good company in this monastery at Kopan. Sitting in the gloom at the back of the gompa, no one seems to have noticed me reading. All eyes are fixed on the Venerable Canadian. She is a milder, less choleric version of the Venerable American at Tushita.
Head-shaved and saffron-robed, a near identical clone of her counterpart in India, the Venerable Canadian sits at her lectern under the great, gold Buddha statue. Her voice is pure plainsong, monotonously bland, reciting the same lessons I have heard before: the Three Refuges, Four Noble Truths, Five Precepts, Six Perfections, Eight Fold Path, Twelve Links of Dependant Arising, Thirty-Six Wrong Views, Forty-Seven Samosas, Fifty Spring Rolls: Buddha bingo, a full house. Pick a number, any number; bet a Bodhisattva has got that number. Numerology is a big thing here, the division of woo into mathematical certainties. So is numerophilia: the love of numbers – though one would think that too is an attachment.
I tune in to this Venerable’s lesson. We who follow Tibetan Buddhism call ourselves “inner beings” not Buddhists, she says, because we focus on our inner world, our minds. We come to know which thoughts cause happiness and which cause suffering. We can use meditation as a tool to change the pattern of our thoughts, manage our relationships in healthier ways, eliminate negative emotions from our lives. We can learn new habits of behaviour, cope with the challenges of death, bereavement, the break-up of relationships. For it is our minds that create our reality.
Our minds create our reality.
Partially true, I think. But only partially, and barely that. For what if you, the Venerable, should be confined between the stones of a house that no longer stands because the edge of tectonic plates, full fathoms five beneath your face, have tripped on subterranean stress and broken the world upon your head. Did the earth move to pay for your sins in a previous life? Seismic karma, the ultimate in egoism. You think created this?
And what if you, the Venerable, should kneel at night in a chapel, say, or an attic overlooking the sleeping Downs, or a study scented with whiskey and wood-polish, shivering in the two-bar glow of an electric heater while Gethsemane unleashes his sorrow, his shame upon your body-shell-left-behind, and your mind makes shapes in the corners, cornices, the shadow and shelter of alcoves. Say, whose reality would that be? And would you smile your work to see?
But if you, the Venerable, should make a habit of seeking seismic situations then maybe you have a point. If you develop a tendency to return to faultlines, fractures, tectonic complexes, a compulsion for physics more potent than your own, then maybe you can take some blame. If you should find yourself, no longer tethered by the debris of a broken house, now free as a kite to spoil that freedom by hunting thunders under the ground, addicted to rubble, to ruin, then this – I grant you, Venerable – may be one reality our mind creates: the catastrophes we are compelled to repeat.
The sun rolls over the pinnacles of the temple, sinks among the scales of the shadow-play mountains. In here, in twilight, the bodies are blanketed silhouettes, sniffling, shifting from one uncomfortable position to another. At the front of the class, the Australian woman creeps her cushion ever closer to teacher, playing grandmother’s footsteps with the guru: What’s The Time Misses Wolf. The altar lights are suddenly illuminated and the Buddha blazes, en-lightened with flashing distraction, casino-rich in gold and electric wonder. Pay no attention to the monk with the plug behind the curtain.
‘You go travelling to other lands,’ says the Venerable Canadian. From the shadows at the back of the temple, beyond the boundary of Buddha-light, I glance up from my book, caught by the slight change in the Venerable’s tone from colourless catechism to something more genuine, human almost. ‘You go to India, to Nepal; you climb a mountain, mountains, the Himalayas. You get drunk, take drugs, take lovers, have sex, do all sorts of things always looking for an outside answer to your inside suffering. But the only way out of suffering is to change the way you think. It is not out there, but in here, within us. We need to recognise that our mind is the cause of our own suffering.’
Sometimes, Venerable, but not all the time. Not when there are earthquakes, for one thing. Not when there are little Gethsemanes in darkened places. Our mind doesn’t create those things. But sometimes we may have a tendency to repeat the same dangers, a habit of building our homes on epicentres.
In the darkness, a companion, the Valkyrie. All teeth, she waits. The mind creates such creatures, I own. Monsters beget monsters, rubble begets rubble. And we both know rubble; look what I leave.
* * *
You go travelling to other lands. You go to India, Nepal; Varanasi to Gorakhpur, Sunauli to Pokhara. You expel a stomachful of spirituality, poverty, private enterprise and palak paneer as the Holy Cow expels you from Hindustan, bound over bodies sleeping on the floor to puke in a bin at train stations. You climb a mountain, mountains, the Annapurna mountain range to Poon Hill. Five days there and back, three thousand metres above a rising sea, an outside answer to an inside question.
The first hour of the first day plays false promises of sunlight on nasturtiums, forests of flowering rhododendrons, tin pots of geraniums on the steps of stone villages. Five easy kilometres on a gentle incline, though your stomach is still raw, empty and clenched with the sickness of India, the Holy Cow’s valediction. You overtake overburdened Sherpas, donkeys laden with a week-load of provisions, elderly hikers hailing, ‘Namaste!’ with beginner’s hope and low-altitude heartiness. A toddler turns mid-way across the dirt track, overtaken by the surprising tide of foreign backpackers, cries: ‘Chocolate? Chocolate?’ like he has almost missed Christmas. Namaste, namaste!
‘Why do we do this thing we are doing?’ Gildas asks some metres ahead. He stops and turns to look back at you trailing behind, frowns as though confused – which he never is; as though the sun is in his eyes – which it isn’t, which means he is playing another rhetorical game. See where it leads.
‘You don’t mean this specific thing we’re doing now, climbing a mountain.’ You say it as a fact so he need not reply. ‘You mean, why come to Nepal?’ ‘Nepal,’ he answers with a maybe-shrug, ‘India, Thailand, Cambodia, South America, any country we go, are going. What is the point of this thing we do?’ ‘Big question,’ you reply. ‘I don’t know. To run away, find Utopia. I don’t know. Why do you travel?’
He looks away without answering and walks towards the rope bridge that will take you from one side of the valley to the other and then up, up to the forested mountains, eventually to the summit of Poon Hill. And this is how you go, sometimes not speaking for hours. And when you do, it is usually to pick up the strings of a previous conversation that have been left untied far below. There is no hurry to finish this game, wherever it leads.
In the afternoon, rain: light at first, barely noticeable, cooling the sweat of the climb. Birethanti village: northerly three or five, increasing, wintery showers, rain later, moderate becoming poor. Gastroenteritis: veering north-westerly, backing south-easterly, gale or severe gale, poor becoming poorer, any port in a storm.
Saturated by late afternoon, bone-cold and gut-sundered, there is now an urgency to finish this stretch. You prepared badly: a waterproof would have been good, a settled stomach even better. At some shelter with a shit-hole in a shed, the Sherpas and nodding donkeys overtake you with knowing namastes. Do not ask how many kilometres to the next village: all distance is meaningless, equally mean. And can you get there by candlelight? What does that matter when there is only stone to see: clench and stone, and shiver and stone, following footsteps on stone and stone.
After all theories of time and distance have been unravelled, there is only the grey, purgatorial grey, timeless discomfort. Sight and sound eventually coalesce around the silhouettes of houses: the village of Ulleri takes form in the evening gloom. You take the first room you find: a bed, thin blankets, wind through the windows, a cold hole-in-the-floor toilet. Sufficient for Epicurus, good enough for you, though Gildas has the wherewithal to seek something more substantial elsewhere. Mumble bonsoir, a soup of potatoes, bite of some pie and shiver to sleep.
‘I don’t know why we go to these places,’ says Gildas the next morning, taking up the thread of ideas left loose the day before. Soup and sleep seem to have done their magic; the day begins auspiciously enough. Ulleri to Ghorepani: northerly, two or three, fog, moderate. Gastroenteritis: moderate becoming calm, the Holy Cow’s curse decreasing.
‘It is selfish, no?’ Gildas continues. ‘We go to far distant place to see the genuine country, to look at the poor people in the poor countries so we can say, “Oui, I have seen India, Nepal”, post photos on Facebook, pictures of the Taj Mahal or Ganges or sunrise on some mountain, or this people there.’ He points to a small house on the terraced hillside, a woman and two children tending vegetables in the little strip of land they have reclaimed from the gradient for a subsistence existence.
‘And, what,’ he asks, ‘this makes us think we are – interesting? – we are interesting to other people, to ourselves. What-the-fuck good does it do? Yes, we spend the money in this places to be there, but the money it is not going to people who need it. Money is going to the mafia, the corporations, not to her. But we post photo of Himalayas on Facebook, think we are interesting, and go home. Is selfish, no? I think is selfish.’
It is clear now that he was never playing some rhetorical game. He is thinking aloud, interrogating himself, yourself, your causes and effects, the purpose of each step on this path to wherever. He is a rationalist, naturally, a critical thinker from the country that cradled the Age of Enlightenment, asking existential questions about the whys of what is being done, by whom, and for what benefit. Metrics are in his genes. If the world is sinking in a post-truth slough, then such questions are candles against the oncoming dark.
And it kindles, his inquiry, the memory of another question, one you once asked the-love-you-left-behind: ‘What, do you think, is the purpose of your existence?’ But questions can be dangerous, that one in particular; received as a violation of acceptable kitchen discourse, reimagined and recast instantly on social media as: ‘WTF: My boyfriend just asked, “what is the point of your existence?!”’ – to which the Valkyrie, maternally vigilant, led an OMG chorus of reactive outrage at the nasty-bad question that should never be asked. Let them bay thought-crime at the back door. Philosophy is best suited to mountains.
‘What is the point of any of it?’ you ask aloud. ‘Exactement,’ Gildas mutters; ‘is selfish, no?’ – and now you remember you are not talking about the point of existence but simply about travelling to faraway places, though the same rules apply. ‘It can be selfish - egotistical,’ you say, ‘it is, or it can be. But there’s more to it than that, there has to be.’ ‘Hmm,’ he says, already shaking his head.
You would talk more but here, see, you have arrived at The Steps. For the next hour or two, three, more, you climb a steep stone staircase that some giant, over many thousands of years, built into the mountainside. You stop every fifteen or so levels to catch elusive breath, imagine a cigarette that will not do, glance up at Gildas’s shape disappearing into the fine mist, overtaken by donkeys, Sherpas – ‘namaste, namaste,’ – overhanging rhododendrons, bends in the slate-grey ascent, wonder how much more of this breathless labour there is to go. It is not the destination but the journey – was that it? – and something about Ithaca, and you are not going in circles, but upwards, a spiral or something equally labyrinthine for four hours, five, now six, now more to the endless tread of pulse-thick inhalations, exhalations, what-is-the-points and a perverse desire for a fuck-it-all roll-up in the pissing, pissing moderate-to-poor rain.
A black dog, solidly black in the all-else intangible grey, keeps pace from nowhere, coyly half-catches your eye but, fearing rejection, alleges his attention is on possible ambushes from the undergrowth. Neither you nor the dog are so uncouth as to acknowledge the fact you are strangers, comfortable with the companionable silence. He climbs beside you for kilometres, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind, a reference of black in the grey-green everything. At last, Gildas, waiting on a wall, shakes his head with a weary, fuck-this look. ‘Can you see that dog too?’ you ask, catching breath. Gildas nod-frowns like you have lost your senses, which you probably have. Some trust must have been broken, for the dog trots off into the mist like you were never his.
* * *
Smoking is forbidden within the walls of Kopan, but the young security guard, prematurely po-faced with the power of Keys, does allow me out of the gate during daylight hours. No amount of grateful namaste-ing will crack his facade of disapproval, but we learn to live with each other’s flaws.
In the morning, after first meditation and an early breakfast, I follow the pot-holed road that curls around this hillside, away from the monastic citadel and down to a concrete block that serves as a smoking seat, a view of the valley. Leafless trees flutter with strings of sun-faded prayer flags. A late, waning moon lingers over the city, over yawning car horns and dust-coloured croup. The dogs of Kathmandu sing matins with roosters; hens rise from the rubble. And here, a patchwork of small market-gardens hoed neatly into the hillside, terraces of berry bushes, brassicas, legumes, a lonely goat tethered to a rope, plotting liberation and pillage. In the beginning, there were trees on the mountain, fruit trees of every kind.
‘Would it be bad for my karma if I cadged some tobacco?’ It is red-haired Ciara with the sun. Walking up the road back towards the monastery, she must have broken free of the compound even earlier than I did. She joins me on the concrete seat and accepts a roll-up, the lighter.
‘I don’t know about your karma,’ I say, ‘but smoking is an attachment, and attachment is sin. Talking of which, did you see Creepy Girl all over the Lama last night?’
‘Stop it,’ she warns, breathing smoke. ‘You’re terrible. I didn’t think there was sin in Buddhism?’
‘Sin, wrong-view; pot-ay-to, pot-ah-to. Whatever they call it, we’re always heading towards somebody’s version of hell. But they’re clever with this attachment malarkey, don’t you think? They’ve really got their hooks in you if you’re can’t be attached to anyone or anything except a smug gold statue. Unrequited love at its most sublime.’
‘Ah, man,’ she laughs in her sing-song Irish accent, ‘you just don’t like any of it. It cracks me up that you’re still here, you fucking hate it. Why are you still here?’ ‘All the bad karma I’ve got to work through,’ I smile and she rolls her eyes; ‘besides, I don’t hate all of it, just the hell realms and hungry ghosts.’ ‘And the reincarnation and karma and attachment?’ ‘Well, obviously those too.’ ‘Right,’ she says, ‘so it’s just the Buddhism in Buddhism you hate?’
‘I’m attached to that,’ I say, pointing at the neat little allotment plot with the berry bushes, the vegetables and the scheming goat, ‘that garden. Well, not that particular strip of earth, but the idea of it. Of growing enough to live off; sufficient, nothing more, but free. Attachment isn’t a sin, being attached to people or to ideas; that’s the wrong word.’
‘You can be attached to fruit without owning the trees,’ says Ciara, passing the roll-up back to my fingers.
‘Exactly. It’s ownership that’s the problem: the idea that we can possess things, people, places, lovers, friends, animals, children, the planet. Ownership fucks our minds. It’s delusional to think we can put fences around things and claim that they’re somehow ours, that we can own anything outside of our skin. I’d like to think we can have attachment without ownership. That make any sense?’
‘U-huh,’ Ciara says thoughtfully, kicking her heels against the concrete slab. Then, more energetically, she tells me about the new-world communities she has lived in during her travels: a permaculture village in Scotland, a post-capitalist colony in Italy, that one in Portugal where some two hundred people explored the principles of free love, polyamory.
‘That place, it was difficult at times, obviously, bound to be difficult because of how we’re brought up in patriarchy. But it worked, the polyamory, up to a point. It wasn’t religious but we’d get together on Sundays in the main hut and share what was going on, you know, inside us. Jealousy, desire, infatuations, betrayals – which weren’t betrayals, of course, because nobody owns anybody. Jesus, even acting out how we’d want to kill a lover who’d gone off with someone else, we shared it all in front of everyone, talked and talked it into the open. And it worked, it did work. It was freedom. You’ll laugh at me, I know, but there was something beautiful about it, there was.’
I don’t laugh but ask her how long she lived in that community. ‘Months – ten? eleven? – til it was time to move on.’ ‘And now?’ ‘Now indeed. I’ll stay here in Kopan for a while, I think. I want to be somewhere calm. Where better than a monastery in Nepal?’ ‘But do you buy any of their woo-woo?’ I ask, nodding towards the monastery. ‘Honestly, man, what are you like?’ she laughs, reclaims the dog-end from my hand, does not answer.
When we return to the monastery, there are some five or six members of our group smoking outside the gate. As in Tushita, the company of renegades grows larger each day. Here in Kopan, however, there seems to be no appetite for revolution, perhaps because the regime is less rigid, the Venerable less vicious.
One of the smokers, a cute, bearded Spanish guy with more than a passing resemblance to Che Guevara, waves his mobile phone in the air when he sees me. Che and I have already shared tobacco, politics and life stories outside the monastery walls. He told me that he had lived in England, Nottingham, for two years, working in a Spanish restaurant. Until the Brexit referendum, he had had no problems. Two days after the vote, the windows of the restaurant were smashed and words sprayed on the wall of his house told him: ‘Foreigners go home. England has spoken’. He accepted the warning and is returning to Valencia. Half in jest, Che has offered to marry me so that I too can live in Europe. I told him that, if I didn’t already have an Irish passport, I would marry him on the spot.
Now Che is shaking his head. ‘You seen the news?’ he says and the morning sun loses its warmth. For a moment I think about turning around, going back the way I came, returning to the view of the berry-bush gardens where the outside world does not intrude, where there is no news of the apeman’s advance, of defeat upon defeat. Che holds up his phone. ‘Looks like Geert Wilders is going to win the Dutch elections,’ he says, referring to the Trumpesque leader of the far-right party in The Netherlands. The Enlightenment flickers, shrinks from the night; nationalism drags its them-and-us knuckles across the sea to mainland Europe, and the world simmers to a spectacular extinction. ‘Another country to fall. I guess France will be the next.’ And fuck is all I can say.
Che shrugs, que sera sera. ‘I think there will be a war,’ he says as we walk together through the monastery gate, ignoring the glare of the reproachful guard. ‘Is what happens. We forget the fascism, forget the darkness until it returns and then is war again. Is a cycle, is how it goes.’
I sit in the shadows at the back of the gompa, look out of the window. Outside, there are troops of monks running between accommodation blocks, young monks – less than ten years old, probably don’t even know they are monks – sprinting to classes in sandals and robes, heads shaved, identically anonymous, religious cannon fodder. From the hall above the canteen, chanting begins, old-men’s chanting, deep as a frog chorus, deep as indoctrination, as belief in the belly.
The Venerable Canadian taps her microphone at the front of the gompa. ‘The way things appear to us is not the way they are,’ she begins the lesson. ‘Things do exist, but now in the way we think. We think things exist independently of our minds. But all things are empty of a true existence. Not just things, but concepts too, like democracy, equality, women’s rights, freedom.’
And Buddhism, I think; that too is empty of an existence outside of our minds, isn’t it. Karma, reincarnation, enlightenment and obedience, all of your notions. And power too. Power most of all. But until we all realise that power – be it that of gods, of kings or of masters – only exists in our minds, dear Venerable, do not tell me to dispense with the concept of freedom.
I close my eyes, listen to chanting, the rhythm of footsteps on stone and stone.
* * *
The Steps go on and on, spiralling up the mountainside in a game of hide-the-peak. You reach Ghorepani at sunset: another stone village, stone streets, stone walls, pots of geraniums and plots of terraced vegetables, but The Steps have ended at last, thank fuck. Gildas finds a large hostel at the end of the village with a view of valley, just half an hour’s walk from the summit of Poon Hill. You both agree, telepathically, not to climb any further today, but to sit beside the wood fire in the draughty dining room, and steam dry.
Listen to the conversations of travellers in designer hiking gear, North-Face skin and Birkenstock stubbles, performances of cultural capital and private school pomposity. Oh, the view, the sunrise from Poon Hill is awesome, awesome. Have you seen it? Not yet, but it’s awesome. ‘No one should have three children if they earn less than $100,000,’ a young trust-fund American shouts to his colleague. ‘Double your salary every five years, else get out the company. If they don’t promote you each year, they don’t want you, and you don’t want them. Am I right?’
‘I don’t know any Nepalish, Nepalese; what do they even speak?’ asks one English girl with a Daddy-bought-me-a-Bentley accent. ‘We British are hopeless at languages, hopeless.’ ‘Don’t ever say that, don’t you dare say that,’ her co-performer interjects, all head-girl, top-dog Tory. ‘The British aren’t hopeless, we’re Great,’ – enunciated with a capital “G” – ‘and, anyway, everyone speaks English everywhere so of course we don’t need to speak whateverish.’
Gildas arches his eyebrows. ‘Sláinte, I am no longer British,’ you reply, raising a glass of Irish coffee, and he nods agreeably. Tomorrow, he will get up at five to see that awesome sunrise; now he is going to bed. You may or may not get up at five, you may or may not climb Poon Hill. Tonight, you turn your back on the privilege of fire, the talkers, travellers who never really left home, and watch through the window the spine of the horizon, tiny lights in wooden huts, lives carved out of the free mountainside. A shooting star, the first on this journey, falls from Orion’s belt.
Sleep past dawn, dream of calendars and continents, a tail-string drawn over a map of the world, time runs out and the waters rise. Wake with the strange premonition that this point, this place, is the half-way day, the mid-way station, to wherever. From here, the spiral takes a meridian curve. You never reached the summit, never saw the sunrise at Poon Hill, no pinnacle of enlightenment for you. But it is the journey not the destination that counts and, besides, the bed is warm, sufficient. There are other sunrises; let designer hikers have this one, post their photos on Facebook.
‘There was no sunrise,’ says Gildas returning later to the room, ‘but we did see a snow-rise.’ And he is right: outside the window, the mountains are gone, the paths are disappearing, and the sky is thick with falling snow.
Downstairs, around the fire, a Sherpa guide is explaining to an agitated crowd of Birkenstocks, BenchMades and Princeton Tecs that the unexpected blizzard has made the trail ahead impassable. He has telephoned other Sherpas further along the Annapurna Mountain Range who said it had been snowing all night with no sign of abating, and judging by the size of the flakes, it could last for days. ‘So what are we supposed to do?’ shouts Tory Head-Girl, hands on her hips: as if missing out on the ruddy sunrise wasn’t unfair enough. Unruffled, the Sherpa smiles; tantrums and snowstorms, he has weathered them all. Stay here at the hostel, see if the storm subsides in a few days, he says. Or go back down the way you came – but you would have to leave now: a race against snow.
In a few days, the isolated hostel could well turn into the Conservative Hunger Games: blood sports are second nature to them, so you and Gildas decide to leave now. Badly prepared, holes in your old boots, a cardigan and a jacket, no designer waterproof or adventure fleece, but at least you will be going somewhere, unwinding the spiral. Fresh prints in the crackling snow, flakes settling on hair and eyelashes, but you are leaving the storm behind faster than you can imagine, faster than is safe, flying down The Steps now gravity is a friend. Retreat comes naturally, flight to a kite. You smoke under the cover of rhododendrons, wait for Gildas to catch up, ask, him ‘What did you learn from this journey?’ ‘That not all sunrises are worth to get out of bed,’ he says with a half-smile. ‘And you?’ ‘That I should prepare better. That I can cross a rope bridge without Diazepam. That the way back down is always easier.’ Bien, he says, trudging on.
It takes barely seven hours to descend the twenty-five kilometres that took two days to climb. Silent on the bus back to Pokhara, silent in the rain in search of a hostel, in the morning Gildas is sick, trembling, feverish, asks for a doctor. You arrange transport to a clinic, take charge of his things at the hostel, wait for news, wait. When he returns in the afternoon, he is more like himself. The colour has returned to his cheeks and he brandishes a packet of tablets like a trophy. ‘I was right,’ he says triumphantly, ‘malaria.’
* * *
In the manicured gardens of Kopan, the jasmine vines are in blossom. Their perfume is most potent in the mornings and evenings, so I sit on a stone bench at these times of day and watch old nuns circumambulating the richly painted stupas, young monks chasing each other among the fountains. The tall walls of this spiritual fortress enclose the lawns, the statues, the temples and dormitories, creating a timeless sense of peace, security.
But the way things appear to us is not the way they are: neither peace nor security exist independently of our minds. I could stay here forever like these blessed bald folk, smiling at butterflies and counting the ways of woo. But outside the walls of this illusion is another reality that only the most monstrous of minds could have created, a them-and-us world where windows are broken and people thrown out of their homes, where armies march and the only place to run is into the rising sea. And just down there, not five kilometres away from where we sit, is a dusty pit of bleak destitution invented by humans for humans. No wonder the all-seeing gods have lost their minds.
The bell rings for the next lesson, and I follow the stepping stones towards the gompa. At the point before my path convergences with another, Creepy Girl materialises on the parallel trail, her eyes fixed serenely on some indescribable bliss in the middle distance. ‘Hello, how are you?’ I say as I let her pass. Although she is smiling to herself, her Glenn Close jaw fixed in a grimace of painful compassion, she does not acknowledge my existence, for to do so would be to break – what? – the pretence of enlightenment, the game of roles, whatever it is she believes we are playing.
As she walks away, I wonder why it bothers me so much, this minor snub of one human being by another. It is partially my ego, I admit, which demands to be acknowledged as existing. But, more than that, it is also fear. Fear that she – and, by extension, others – could fall so blindly for an ideology, for the mere role they are acting within that ideology, that they no longer recognise the humanity we share. The psychosis of difference: if they are not us, then what would we would not do to them if our ideology demanded?
‘The ‘I’ is a myth, a mere label that we tag onto our body and mind, it does not exist,” says the Venerable Canadian in our last, aptly timed lesson. ‘If I criticise you unjustly for something you didn’t do, you’d think “How dare she say that to me?” If I ask you to stand up here naked in front of everyone, you’d feel humiliated, you’d think, ‘But they are all looking at me!’ They would be looking at your body, but where is the “me”? The “I” delusion surges at moments of strong emotion, when we feel threatened or vulnerable. But the “I” is an entity that doesn’t exist; it is an invention of the mind.’
I can accept this little bauble from the Venerable’s box of assorted odds and sods, something of value amid the tangle of woo. “I” am a fiction, a tale I tell myself, a porous anthology of fragments, sensations, experiences and memories that have been synthetically woven into a one-man narrative. We are all auto-biographers, each one of us, cutting and sewing our stories together from random scraps to keep ourselves intact. The Canadian is Venerable, Creepy Girl is enlightened, and I am a kite. The art is to achieve consistency while knowing that we are not.
Enough now that I have something to keep. The Venerable moves on to other, less useful topics. Above her, Smugness, the Shakyamuni Buddha, boasts a composure of fool’s gold, does talk-to-the-hand with his fingers. One of us must compromise, so I blink, let the Buddha win.
Tomorrow, I will close the door on the way out of the monastery, leave the walled gardens of Kopan behind and follow the road down the mountain to the city of rubble and dust. For now, “I” return to my book, cut out a sentence about spirals and paths, to be embroidered into a narrative on some other day.
* * *
Gildas will not take a beer. ‘Because of the malaria?’ you ask, leaning in to cheers your pint to the six other raised glasses. ‘Sláinte,’ says Ciara. ‘Wait, what? You have malaria?’ Gildas shrugs, all peut-être que, basking in the sudden spotlight of notoriety. He has arrived in Kathmandu the same day you left Kopan: a double reason to celebrate. ‘Malaria,’ he says as though weighing trifles, ‘maybe kidney infection. Something, they not sure.’ Whatever the diagnosis, it is a memorable way to introduce him to the survivors of Kopan.
While Gildas cooly brushes aside the barrage of question, Che leans towards you and grins beautifully. ‘You know, they lost by eight percent, the fascists,’ he says, tapping the screen of his phone. Emotionally resigned to yet another defeat, neither of you were prepared for the sun-rising news that Geert Wilders would lose the Dutch elections: another reason to celebrate. ‘By eight percent. Not one or two, but eight. Maybe Europe is waking up, you think so? Maybe people are realising they don’t want the Nazis back in Europe, yes?’
‘Maybe,’ you reply, ‘although there’s still Le Penn and the French elections. And England’s still blindly marching to the drums of Brexit.’ ‘I say it before: if you want I will marry you, you can stay in Europe,’ he laughs, raising his class. ‘See, there is hope.’
On the other side of the table, Gildas is playing his what’s-the-point-of-travelling game with Ciara and the others. ‘So we post photographs of a thing, say the Taj Mahal, on Facebook and we think that makes us interesting,’ he says, stirring things up. ‘And then we go home. Is selfish, no? I think is selfish.’ As his provocation is greeted with predictable outrage, Gildas winks surreptitiously at you.
‘Jesus, man, not at all,’ cries Ciara. ‘It’s about experiencing the world, meeting new people and learning all sorts of – Jesus, where do I even begin?’ Another, a German woman, says, ‘This is the one life we have, and it’s experiences like travelling that enrich it, make it worthwhile.’ A third, from Portugal: ‘It’s not selfish, it’s the human impulse to go beyond what we know, because otherwise,’ she raises her hands in a what’s-the-point gesture.
‘Because otherwise we may as well stay in our caves, like apemen,’ you say, ‘and throw stones at shadows on the horizon.’ Because Utopia will not be found by sitting on your arse. You have had time to think about this one. You may not have seen the sunrise on Poon Hill or glimpsed Nirvana at the feet of a graven image, but you have seen a simple half-acre of land, unbordered, unfenced by illusions of ownership: fruit trees and berry bushes, brassicas and salad leaves, a patch left fallow, a goat tied to a stake. And perhaps, in the end, that is all it will look like. But next time, not built on an epicentre of earthquakes.
There are more drinks, more debates, controversies and compromises. Sitting on cushions on the floor of the veranda, the rhythm of ideas keeps pace with the clinking of glasses, with cheers exclaimed in six different languages until midnight comes to dusty Kathmandu. The bar gradually empties until your low, lamp-lit table is the last tent of light in the courtyard.
Before the waiters ask you to leave and this one remaining light is extinguished, you will say your goodbyes, for the kite flies east tomorrow. You will present two gifts, prayer flags from a hermit-farmer in Karnataka, one for Gildas, one for Ciara. And you will swear to see them all again in some other place at the end of your journeys. But until then, the lamp still burns, the concepts flow and the narrative goes, not in circles, but upwards.