BUDDHA JAYANTI 2021: A PERSONAL MEDITATION
“Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” Shakyamuni Buddha
On 26 May 2021, the Buddhist world celebrated Vesak Day, commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of Shakyamuni Buddha. ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ proudly proclaim the colourful tailgates of hundreds and thousands of Nepali trucks and lorries as they ply the dusty, dangerous roads of this Himalayan nation, where Buddha — or Prince Siddhartha as he was then — was indeed born 2,565 years ago in Lumbini near the modern-day border with India.
In Nepal, where Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism are seamlessly blended, Vesak is celebrated as Buddha Jayanti, jayanti being Sanskrit for ‘victorious’. In normal times on this day, the faithful flock to two of Kathmandu’s pre-eminent sacred sites, Swayambunath and Boudhanath, to do kora — clockwise circumambulation — of their massive chorten (stupa), light butter lamps and pray with special fervour as all good deeds are multiplied a thousand fold on this holy day.
But these are far from normal times as Nepal struggles to contain its deadly second wave of COVID-19 which is causing the health system to collapse under the weight of the heavy, incessant demands that are being made of it. The 40% RT-PCR positive average over the previous week had unenviably put Nepal in the global №1 slot, making it the centre of international media attention.
Many Nepalis were undoubtedly dividing their time on this year’s Buddha Jayanti between the sacred and the secular, between scaled down religious observances, perhaps at quieter locations, and essential grocery shopping as supermarkets, both big and small, had been ordered to close from 28 May under new, stricter, lockdown protocols issued by the Kathmandu District Office in an attempt to stop the spread. However, I decided to stay — and pray — at home. It seemed fitting to quietly meditate on the past week during which COVID had appeared to tighten its grip and threaten even the peace and serenity of the ‘sanctuary’ Arjun, my Nepali partner, and I had created for ourselves in Budhanilkantha on the northern edge of the Kathmandu Valley.
Thursday, 20 May: New cases: 8,277 (Kathmandu Valley: 3,232); Total cases: 488,645 New fatalities: 190; Total fatalities: 5,847; RT-PCR Tests: 21,695; Active cases: 115,852
Since the horrific surge in the daily case load,, topping out at 9,635 just three days previously, shopping had become an increasingly stressful activity. Most people were at least wearing masks — a few, like us, using a fabric mask over a ‘knotted and tucked’ surgical mask — but social distancing was an anathema to most Nepalis, forcing us to use another tactic: buy foodstuffs at the shops with the least congestion outside.
Oddly the shop front of the little dairy we patronized in the Old Budhanilkantha main street was locked. It had recently stopped serving morning tea to customers on a few chairs placed on the pavement outside and had cordoned off the entrance as rudimentary protective measures. However, seemingly these had not been enough: we learnt that the chubby-faced shopkeeper and several family members had contracted COVID and were isolating at home.
Arjun and I looked at each other, silently pinpointing the last time we had interacted with him and calculating when we could be sure not to have been infected: official contact tracing was unknown here and was practised, if at all, as an individual responsibility.
Friday, 21 May: New cases: 8,407 (Kathmandu Valley: 2,447); Total cases: 497,052; New fatalities: 177; Total fatalities: 6,024; RT-PCR tests: 22,353; Active cases: 116,192
Arjun had been trying in vain to contact a dear friend for the previous 48 hours: prior to that, the friend’s brother had been answering the calls and from him Arjun had learnt that, having contracted COVID while hospitalized for the much-delayed surgical removal of kidney stones, he had been in a critical condition for several days, dependent on oxygen, increasingly in short supply, for his every painful breath. But suddenly the mobile had been switched off. In my heart I already knew the reason for that and finally, after a frantic volley of phone calls, my suspicion was confirmed: the battle had been lost on 18 May. Arjun was in a state of denial all morning: it took a couple more phone calls to mutual friends to make him accept the sad reality.
Until now the daily death toll had been merely a number for us both, a faceless and nameless statistic. But now one of the 196 fatalities for 18 May had a face and a name: Sanu Lama, married, in his late forties with a young daughter. He had been well-known as the ‘Robin Hood of Kathmandu’, helping the vulnerable who had been tricked or deceived through means which sometimes teetered on the fine line between the judicial and extra-judicial. A club and restaurant owner he had, apocryphally, introduced the first snooker table into Nepal. But above all he was Arjun’s much-loved and respected dai (big brother), one of his few friends to whom I had been introduced. And now he had gone. COVID had hit home.
Saturday, 22 May: New cases: 8,591 (Kathmandu Valley: 2,318); Total cases: 505,643 New fatalities: 129; Total fatalities: 6,153; RT-PCR tests: 19,357; Active cases: 115,806
The total case load in Nepal finally crossed the psychological half-million mark, alarmingly high in the context of a total population of less than 30 million. And yet, on this very day, parliament, headed by the much-criticized prime minister, K.P. Oli, was formally dissolved as political power-struggles continued, and elections were called. The English language ‘My Republica’ astutely summarized the abhorrence and immorality of the situation: “It is an inhuman cruelty to dissolve parliament and announce midterm elections while people are dying due to the lack of treatment, medical supplies and vaccines against COVID-19. The government’s first priority should be vaccines in this hour.”
Worse was to follow, with at least one political candidate’s PR flier being pasted across coveted oxygen cylinders. And even worse was predicted. November elections would coincide with Nepal’s two biggest back-to-back festivals of Dashain and Tihar: in the minds of many, India’s devastating case surge in April was linked, at least in part, to the same combination of elections and a major festival (Kumbh Mela), whilst experts were already predicting a third wave in Nepal at exactly the same time. It seemed a recipe for disaster.
Sunday 23 May: New cases: 7,598 (Kathmandu Valley: 2,821); Total cases: 513,241; New fatalities: 193; Total fatalities: 6,346; RT-PCR tests: 18,965; Active cases: 115,547
On this day the case-load for Lalitpur (694) was proportionately high: it was difficult not to make a link between this and the holding of the annual Rato Macchindranath Jatra there a week previously in an ill-advised bending of the lockdown rules. The organizers had promised compliance with protocols — masks, social distancing and so on — but photos and videos of the event had shown crowds of tightly packed participants and by-standers alike, many with masks sloppily worn.
In the afternoon I was able to have face time with Tsering Dawa and Tashi Paljor, my unofficial and official lama godsons respectively at Kag Chode Gompa, Kagbeni, Mustang. There had been an outbreak of COVID at the monastery and Tashi had been among those who had tested positive: thankfully he and the others had all recovered. How, I wondered, could COVID have penetrated even into Kagbeni, so comparatively remote and virtually untouched until now by the virus? Rumour had it that the finger of blame firmly pointed at the throngs of Hindu pilgrims from India, who traditionally stopped to take a ritual bath at the confluence (“beni”) of the Kali Gandaki and Jhong Rivers and perform rites in honour of their deceased ancestors before continuing to their main objective, the sacred shine at Muktinath some 7km away. And I wondered not for the first time why flights from India had not only not been halted but Indians were actually allowed to transit through Nepal to other destinations while land-borders were still open. Only one answer: politics. It was, however, good to see my godsons’ smiling faces on the screen, Tashi removing his mask nervously from time to time. But the three of us were more than sad that COVID had spoiled the plans for us to meet and spend meaningful time together along with the rest of my lama family.
The only good thing to emerge from this growing feeling of fear and sadness was that, using Sanu dai’s untimely demise and the promised 2 million doses of AstraZeneca from the UK as leverage, I was finally able to persuade Arjun, a stubborn anti-vaxxer, to register for vaccination. Like many in Nepal, he was distrustful of the Chinese vaccines which had previously been made available in limited numbers, even though as part of the tourism sector he would have been prioritized.
Monday, 24 May: New cases: 7,220 (Kathmandu Valley: 2,785); Total cases: 520,461; New fatalities: 185; Total fatalities: 6,531; RT-PCR tests: 19,846; Active cases: 115,447
My birthday, my second under lockdown in Nepal. On 24 May the previous year, the 65th day of that initial lockdown, there had been a total of only 603 cases and just nineteen new cases. How small those numbers now seemed, how needless the fear I had felt every time I had left the safety of my guesthouse room. A year ago I had gone to Kaathe Swayambhu to worship and had a birthday cake on which the requested wording had been comically mangled to read ‘Happy Birthday Lockdown.’ This time round ordering a birthday cake was deemed too risky; having a family celebration was out of the question; and my heartfelt prayers were silently uttered in nature’s shrine as we went for a short celebratory walk in the foothills of Shivapuri on our doorstep.
Tuesday, 25 May: New cases: 8,387 (Kathmandu Valley: 2,613); Total cases: 528,848; New fatalities: 169; Total fatalities: 6,700; RT-PCR tests: 22,306; Active cases: 117,261
The morning dawned cloudy and overcast, heralding the imminent onset of the monsoon, accompanied by more devastating news: another of Arjun’s friends, Ngima Dendi Sherpa, a native of Khotang like himself, had died of COVID the previous day. The two men’s lives had followed similar paths, literally and metaphorically. Dendi had first worked as a Lukla-based porter, carrying the bags of trekkers and climbers bound for the Everest region, before successfully scaling the career ladder and becoming managing director of his own company, Happy Feet Mountaineers. Ironically three of his clients had triumphantly summited Everest just a matter of days earlier. The tragedy of his early death — in his forties, healthy and strong — was amplified by the juxtaposition of posts on his Facebook page: on 22 May friends had been wishing him happy birthday; two days later — this time on my birthday — they were expressing their sadness on hearing of his passing and sending condolences to his wife and children. Arjun was once again shocked and bewildered: they had been playing snooker together just before my return to Nepal on 14 April; they had promised to play again after I left. How was it that the promise could no longer be kept?
Wednesday, 26 May: New cases: 6,716 (Kathmandu Valley: 1,493); Total cases: 535,525; New fatalities: 145; Total fatalities: 6,845; RT-PCR tests: 19,030; Active cases: 117,077
I had been trying for many, many days to make contact with my bhai raja, Sonam Sherpa, who was working on an Everest expedition. The news of COVID cases in Everest Base Camp among support staff and clients alike — vehemently denied by the authorities — and their subsequent evacuation by helicopter had been worrying. After his first summit in 2018 Sonam had confided in me that he would never attempt it again: I knew that it was only financial hardship after more than a year with no work, no income, that had tempted him to go into the Death Zone for a second time. Finally, on this holy day, his mobile connected and was answered. He was safe, on his way down from Everest, but without having summited. The client with whom he had been paired as a climbing buddy had been a friend of Dendi Sherpa: after hearing news of his decease, he had given up his summit bid, flying out with friends by helicopter from Camp II directly to Kathmandu and leaving fourteen precious oxygen cylinders at the South Col. Sonam was making his way down to Lukla on foot, tired and deprived of the emotional boost of having summited. My heart went out to him.
* * * * *
On the evening of Buddha Jayanti, as the clouds thickened and obscured all hopes of seeing the promised Super Moon. As I read of the nascent ‘No vaccine, no vote’ movement, arising as a desperate attempt to coerce those in power to implement a meaningful and far-reaching vaccination programme, I was left trying to make sense of all that had been happening during the past week. There had been birthdays, but there had also been deaths. There had been continued health and security for Arjun and me, but there had also been fear and anxiety. There had been a recovery and a safe return of a loved one, but there had also been bereavements and losses. But above all I questioned, where was the wisdom, where, in the midst of it all, was the enlightenment in the minds of men? When leaders fail to lead and politics became paramount; when volunteers and NGOs, not government, are the ones extending desperately needed help and support; when people fail to see that only through collaboration and cooperation can the storm be weathered, how can we move forwards? How can we come through this crisis somehow better and enhanced as individuals and societies? How can the so-called ‘new normal’, with its implicit hope of something different, something improved, be anything more than a worn out, jaded repetition of the old, failed normal?
Even on this day of enlightenment, it seemed there were no answers.