Seeing and Not Seeing

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Maha Devi temple–sits amidst 5th Century ruins, enclosing Buddha’s birthplace.

This time in Nepal has been more interesting in some ways than the first visit a year ago, and also less interesting in other ways. I took a short trip to Lumbini to see the temples erected there by many nations to honour the birthplace of Buddha. Wealthy nations have shown up grandly. But the entire Lumbini Land Trust park can be seen in a half a day or less.

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Inside the Chinese Temple in Lumbini

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Inside the German temple–no photos allowed.

I am noticing things that seem new, as well as more familiar not-so-appealing things that I can do without (dirt and dust, traffic congestion, ubiquitous macho motorbike riders).  Interacting with more people, noticing what has changed and mainly what has not changed since the earthquake, I am gratified for the renewal of relationships and also disturbed by the depth of dysfunction I observe and which is described to me by Nepalis.

As a tourist, I have brought an intention to chronicle my travels. I carry my camera most of the time. Initially, I was not so conscious of when to use it, except at obvious opportunities. But there is so much more to being in a foreign culture than collecting the images of the alien, the extraordinary, the novel or the historic. I’m conscious of more subtle moments that are just as arresting, that ring so deeply true, and which are more revealing of our commonalities–or our differences–than some grand alien image– like the two couples with whom I stuck up a conversation as we all walked to the Maha Devi temple in Lumbini the other day; or like the lunchtime conversation I had with two teenage girls about how they circumvent parental controls on their social lives.

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I’ve heard some very disturbing revelations about the endemic corruption and have come to loath “the government”—i.e. bureaucrats– for what appears to this westerner as unblinking amorality, more than pitying them for or marveling at the depth of their seeming incompetence.

But it turns out that there is traditional basis for what we would regard as common bribery. Nepal has operated in part as a gift culture which sanctions the lubrication of relationships with a gift as an ethical gesture of respect. In the modern context, however, the essence of the gift has morphed into something grotesque, reaching epidemic proportions, souring authentic support and crippling national development.

I wonder about tourists who have only a few days, a week, or even a couple of weeks here  to decide what interests them, to taste the many flavors and decide what they wish to hold as resonant images of their stay. I am not a photographer in any technical sense. I know virtually nothing about the art. I don’t think that means I cannot be an artist because the inner eye is always active, but I rely on the camera to do most of the work for me, to choose shutter speed, to adjust for motion, lighting, etc.

The artist is one who sees beyond the ordinary, or even one who sees the ordinary in a piercingly direct way, the one who is willing to do the inner work while the camera does the outer work. Which is also something anyone can do without the camera. The more time I spend here, the more the novelty peels away. The more my seeing changes, settles down, so to speak, the more directly I see what is. I have gone from noticing the artifacts of human achievement, of culture and history, to noticing the human.

Roger Lipsey cites the root meaning of the word epiphany as ‘the sudden disclosure of the sacred, as if it is shored up behind barriers and unexpectedly breaks into human awareness.’ Through active stillness…we can relinquish some of our fixation on the wild, associative mind and reactive emotions, leaving the force of our attention free to circulate and infuse the inner pathways of the body and mind, opening to deeper layers of consciousness. When we connect to the implicit order of what is and surrender to the energy that organizes all things, a new channel for creative realizations is deeply activated.

—-David UlrichThe Widening Stream

All of this is not quite epiphany. It is merely an interest in a different quality of experience. But in down-shifting to a slower mental gear, it is possible to capture what might otherwise be invisible. This is what elevates mere photographic chronicle to the level of art or mere observation of culture to immersion. The sacred does emerge.

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Artisan at Swayambu

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Lighting devotional candles at Swayambu

Moving around this country, getting out of the city and meandering through the more traditional culture of the countryside, one cannot help but notice how women hold up this world. Their labors are many and hard. They are in the fields, in the home, cooking, mothering, laundering or carrying water. While men sip tea, their perseverance is difficult to comprehend. But it is true everywhere and throughout time.

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From my hotel window.

This is also one of the poorest countries on the planet. It’s annual GDP is exceeded by that of the US about every 10 hours. As such, and because of its location, it is subject to geopolitical forces beyond its control. India is deeply involved in politics. China is involved in commercial development, but also pressuring Nepal to crack down on Tibetan refugee political activity. The dilemma of Nepal, its potential, its internal dysfunction and external powerlessness weighs heavily on the Nepali psyche, already influenced by an ancient fatalism about life in general. There is an ongoing brain drain of young people. Millions of Nepalis labor outside the country, remitting money to their families who might not otherwise support themselves. The government prohibits wiring money elsewhere because it is so starved for foreign currency and because there was so much laundering going on.

Reconstruction at Boudanath stupa

Reconstruction at Boudanath stupa

It is also a place that reveals how my culture has made me, conditioned my view. Western culture also seems to have an enormous influence on the people I interact with all day long. I, and my Nepali counterpart have both been colonized by the images and ongoing exposure to the character of the western lifestyle, influencing my expectations and his aspirations.

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In the small interactions with hotel staff, merchants, vendors of all sorts, being in traffic, experiencing how things work–or don’t work–I notice my expectations about how things are supposed to be (like having power, hot water, food cooked properly, telephone networks that can handle the call traffic, internet, breathable air, paved roads, traffic control, no cockroaches), triggering a subtle frustration at times, fleeting judgments, realizing I bring a lot of my own western baggage to this place. Which may explain so many interactions I have with Nepalis: insecurity and passive aggression. It’s one thing to be able to choose a service occupation, quite another to be forced into it because there is little other opportunity.

DSC04748So we are both stuck, to a certain extent, in roles that do not reflect either of our realities.  To recognize that we both have been colonized by the dominant story would mean we might realize we are not seeing each other in any authentic way.

There are many different ethnic groups in Nepal (at least 100), cultures that predate America by many centuries, some now seeking sovereignty, adding immensely to the complexity of internal politics. There are sources of conflict so old and endemic I could not possibly comprehend them on my own. Yet it is western culture that seems to drive envy, awe, caution, curiosity, entitlement (reflexively overcharging westerners for everything), competition and dread.  So there are real and deep obstacles to meeting on level ground; so much baggage on both sides to unwind and discard. Meanwhile, we are captured in a dance not entirely of our own making.

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