[the world is not enough]

Topic: Nepal

It is generally in times of stress and trouble that people turn to messiahs, but the Nepali “Buddha boy” is something stranger still: a messiah who will submit to scientific verification.

The 15-year-old has been sitting under a peepal tree for six months, supposedly without eating or drinking. He has also been bitten by a snake — twice. Not surprisingly, he’s become an object of pilgrimage (and attendant donations and commerce), and some have come to believe he’s the reincarnation of the historical Buddha. Now local leaders are going to allow scientists to study the boy, though without touching him. If nothing else, they can watch to verify whether he indeed remains in meditation all night.

It’s stories like these that remind me just how different and alien Asia was when I lived there. It made me remember an incident on our visit to Patan (scroll down to “Is It Real?”), in the Kathmandu Valley:

A boy in the square pointed us toward a monumental carved doorway into the courtyard of an adjacent palace. “Come see! Ritual!” he shouted. Inside the courtyard we discovered a mostly Nepali group of spectators ringing a troupe of masked dancers who shivered and twitched to the rhythms as several young men played bell cymbals and an older man drummed and crooned a strange wordless chant. In the center, one dancer paid elaborate homage to the bloody severed head of a buffalo, next to which an assistant held a butter torch. Eventually the dancers were all given swords covered in tikka (colored powder used for rituals), and they began a slow, whirling group dance.

I can make guesses as to what the ceremony was about, but what stands out is its very strangeness — the wild, matted hair of the masks; the old men underneath dressed as tribal women with earings and bracelets and necklaces; the hypnotic clang of the cymbals and the ragged line of the old man’s wordless singing; the raw power of the sacrificed head still trickling blood.

It was moments like that, or being told matter-of-factly about reincarnations and miracles at Kopan Monastery, that made us realize we had stepped into a different world that seemed to function by different rules than the ones we knew and accepted.

I didn’t believe in miracles, and I still don’t, but it was also ridiculous to imagine that all these earnest monks were simply lying. So what was going on? I don’t know. Indeed, if you’re looking to not-know, I strongly recommend a visit to the Indian subcontinent. There is value in discovering the limits of your own explanations for things. Ideally, instead of lunging for some new set of explanations, one can learn to accept a level of ambiguity, complexity and obscurity. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.