Swayambhunath is a shrine for Tibetan Buddhists, Newari buddhists (indigenous Nepalis) and Hindus. There are devotional practices including the customary circumambulation, burning incense, drumming, lighting butter lamps, singing, recitation of prayers and receiving blessings from the Hindu goddess Saraswati going on constantly around the stupa, as well as the inevitable commerce.
The complex surrounding the central stupa of Swayambhunath is, next to Boudhanath on the east side of Kathmandu, the second holiest site for Tibetan Buddhists in Nepal. It sits at the top of a hill west of the city. It is 1500 years old. It’s been restored 15 times, the most recent renovation having been completed in 2010, sponsored by a California Nyingma Meditation Center, which could very well have been the Berkeley Nyingma Institute.
It is also called the Monkey Temple since it is occupied by many monkeys.
As mythology goes, Swayambu is “self-sprung” or arose from a “self-created”(eternal) flame sustained by mysterious forces not unlike that which kept the lamp of (the Jewish holiday) Chanukkah burning for eight days without fuel. In buddhism, the notion of being self-created is also reminiscent of the nature of reality itself, arising from nothing whatsoever.
Swayambhunath is approached by 365 steps up the east side of an 80 meter hill to the stupa level. I took the road up to the stupa on my scooter. That was only after taking my sweet time checking out the minor, and newer, stupas at the street level, where the prayer wheels are getting a serious workout and Padhmasambava (Guru Rinpoche) is on prominent display.
At the top of the stairway is an enormous dorje flanked by snow lions.
The stupa also displays four buddhas (of the five buddha families) in locked and iron-gated niches at the base of the dome.
The entire design symbolizes various aspects of the path to enlightenment, particularly the circular base within a square platform (the basic structure of all Tibetan mandalas) and the 13 levels of the crown of the stupa, representing 13 stages on the way to enlightenment.
The distinctive face on Nepali stupas includes the eyes of Buddha, being both wisdom and compassion, and the “nose” that is actually the Nepali number “one,” implying the unity of all things. But another way to interpret this “face” is that the in order to “see” properly into the unity of all things, one must look beyond the visible. One must look into the heart. This is not an interpretation of my own making, but what has been expressed to me in conversation with Nepalis about this symbolism. I have not found any confirmation of this interpretation, but it works for me.