Friday, April 3, 2009

The One-Eyed Monkey of Swayambhu; for my boys

Bishow in the white cap.

Butternut Squash with baby monkeys.

Once, when you were very young, I journeyed to Kathmandu, Nepal, as I sometimes do, to search for the silver rings set with jewels, precious golden-faced statues, tantric drums and ceremonial horns, and all of the other exotic treasures that we sell to our customers. Back in those days there was a king who ruled the country, but his subjects were very poor, and this caused a great disturbance throughout the land. A group of people, who called themselves the Maoists, opposed the king and they would regularly call for strikes to show their anger toward the King's government. On strike days, it was forbidden to travel by vehicle or to open a shop to sell anything. If a person did open their shop, supporters of the Maoists would come and threaten them. They might destroy the shop or demand money from the shop and if one was to travel by vehicle, it was certain that someone would pick up a rock and throw it at the vehicle and then others would pick up rocks and throw them, until that person would have to stop and walk if they still could.

I knew that a strike had been called and, not wanting to lose one of the precious few days that I had to hunt for treasures in that kingdom, I made arrangements with my friend Bishow to walk to Swayambunath from my hotel. Bishow, who was a loyal companion to me when I visited Kathmandu, had first to walk several miles from his village of Patan to meet me at my hotel. He got up very early and when he arrived we had a nice breakfast of eggs and toast with marmalade and roasted tomatoes and garlic and a small pot of hot coffee with boiled milk and lots of sugar before we set off for our long walk to Swayambunath.

Swayambunath is the spiritual heart of the Kathmandu valley. The people of the valley say that, long, long ago, before the written word, so long ago that all you ever hear is 'in the primordial past,' there was a great lake in the circular shape of a mandala where dwelt the serpent king Kartonag. This was long before the birth of the Gautama Buddha, it was in the time of the Vipaswi Buddha. The Vipaswi Buddha came to the lake and said magic words and threw a lotus root into it. He said that when the lotus blossomed, swayambu, the Self-Existent One, would spontaneously reveal itself as flames of five colours from the lotus. And it happened that when the root took hold and grew and blossomed, another Buddha, the Sikhi Buddha, came and sat down to meditate by the lake. Sikhi Buddha plunged into the water and was absorbed in the spirit of the Self-Existent One. Many years later, Visambhu Buddha arrived at the lake. He prophesied, "A Bodhisattva shall come and let the water out of the lake and this will become a wonderful place to live and a place for pilgrims and tourists. And one day it happened. The Bodhisattva Manjushri heard about this mystical lake of the Self-Existent One. He journeyed from his home in China and with his sword he cut through the hill at Chobar gorge and drained the lake into the Bagmati river. The stupa of Swayambunath is at the top of the hill where the lotus first took root and flowered and burst into colorful flames.

Swayambu also has another name, 'The Monkey Temple.' This is because monkeys live all over the hill where the stupa is. The monkeys usually sit peacefully picking through each others fur, or scavenging for food among the leaves. Sometimes pilgrims or villagers come and feed the monkeys which causes the monkeys to chase one another around noisily, especially if they think that one of their friends has found a tasty morsel and isn't sharing it.

My companion Bishow and I had a happy long walk on a beautiful warm day to the foot of the hill of Swayambunath. We had come to find the stone carvers who are usually all up and down and around the 300 steps that lead to the stupa at the top. Buddhist pilgrims who take long journeys to important Buddhist holy places will often carve prayers into stones that they find along their journey. I have seen them carrying large stones on their heads as they travel to a temple, and when they arrive they place the stone as a tribute to their faith somewhere near the stupa. On each stone is usually written the mantra, "Om Mani Padme Hum," which means " A Jewel in a Lotus," and this is the most common expression of Buddhist enlightenment.

It was not long after tourists arrived at Swayambu that the stones began to disappear from the stupa. And soon the entrepreneurs who lived in the area started a new kind of business. The stone carvers who lived near the stupa were some of the poorest of the poor in the Kingdom. With nothing to sell but rocks, they took nails and carved stones that they found on the ground or in the river bed. Then with a marker, they decorated the prayers, and they began to sell their prayer stones to the treasure hunters, like myself. Bishow and I climbed step over step and every stone carver we met had a more beautifully carved stone than the one before. And the higher we went the more spectacular the carved images of compassionate eyes and Buddha, and dragons, all with the mantra inscribed on the back. Finally about 200 steps up we had a large bag full of heavy prayer stones which Bishow generously carried for me.

It was at this time that I caught sight of a large old monkey with bushy gray hair and only one good eye. That ugly monkey was looking at us, and then at me. When our eyes met, I knew right away that he had spotted our bag and must have thought that something very tasty could be in that bag. So I turned to Bishow and said quietly, "Put down the bag." But Bishow does not always understand what I say and so he pulled the bag closer to his body and held it more tightly. The one eyed-monkey got mad at me for apparently not wanting to share with him. Before I took another step, he ran over and grabbed my thigh just above my knee and gave me a good hard bite. That made me mad. I raised my hand and smacked that monkey on the side of his head, very hard on his ear. He took off running into the woods. Bishow and I stood for a moment looking at the blood dripping down my leg.

Bishow was dreadfully concerned for my well being. "Monkey has poison on the tooth," he said. So when we got to the top of the steps we sat down and he decided that he must try to suck the poison out of my leg. I was not so sure that this was a good idea, but he was so concerned and so persistent, that I let him try to suck the blood from my leg. You must understand that it is a sin for a Hindu man to sit next to a married woman. For him to lift my short skirt and put his lips to the bare leg of a married woman must have been an awful sin.

When I stopped bleeding, we walked down the back side of Swayambu thinking that we would stop and buy some iodine or alcohol for the wound. But there was the strike. Nothing was open, no drugstore nor clinic, not anything. That is when I became very sad. I was thinking of you, and of your father, and I began to cry. Bishow thought that I was in pain, but I wasn't. I was just very, very sad that I might not be able to get back to my family and be the healthy mother that I was when I left. I was sad because I missed you terribly. We walked for more than an hour back to the hotel, hoping that something might be open. But nothing was open. When I got to the hotel, I ordered a whiskey and poured it on my leg. Every thing turned out fine. I returned home with my treasures to sell and here I am to tell the tale.

And the moral of the story is that sometimes you just have to spank the one-eyed monkey.

All true. I swear.


  1. This is a quite amazing story.
    Magic and real indeed.
    I would have been pretty scared had I been bitten by a monkey.
    We saw lots of monkeys in India but I was a little wary of them.
    R. says they are all like to pee in your ear.....
    Have you ever thought of wring a book about your adventures?

  2. Fortunate indeed to have the companionship of Bishow..not every friend will suck up poison!
    Your stories inspire one to stay on the Dharmic path, perhaps to walk alongside Bodhisattvas, and drain a lake or two.

  3. I was fascinated by the whole exotic story. I hope your son appreciates it as well. It should be in a book with illustrations of the places and the gorge and the flames and the monkeys and your brave friend. So different from here. Blogging is so enlightening!---and fun!

  4. I am fairly new to your blog. I did not see a link to a place to view the jewelry. Do you have a website?

  5. What an incredible story! I am so glad that old monkey didn't have "poison tooth". I would love to see the prayer stones.

  6. I am so glad that you enjoyed the story, but I expected someone to tell me that they fell off their chair laughing at the double entendre at the end of the story.

    My business is called A World of Good, Inc. There are pictures of prayer stones on the himalayan cultural craft page.

    I also have a pendant using a prayer stone from the stone carvers and a bezel from the silver smiths.

  7. I have passed an award on to you, Butternut, please visit my blog and choose either one, as they both have the same text. Please keep writing - I really look forward to it.

  8. Yes! i agree, a book, and I would be first to order Butternut (and it was so nice to see you with the monkeys!), I loved this story. I think i'll go look at the website now, thank you for that!

  9. oh, congratulations on your award! it is very much deserved.

  10. I just got introduced to your blog... and was pleasantly surprised at someone from PA writing about Nepal.. I am from a place in India that is very, very close to Nepal.

  11. The monkeys I "met" in India were very fierce. None of them ever bit me - thank God! - though they stole my bananas one time. I was scared to death of them.

    You are so brave. Wow!

  12. I writing, in Hungarian. I read you I love Far East, I was in Tibet, and in Nepal. That is the reason. Peace, and Thanks for visiting me! :))

  13. So glad I found time to wander around your blog pages today!