by Gavin Shwahla

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“I no longer believe that people are born without virtue. It gets beaten out. Misfortune threshes our souls as a flail threshes wheat, and the lightest parts of ourselves are scattered to the wind.”

― Danielle Teller

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Breathing fills my lungs with broth. A face rag is all I have to filter oxygen atoms from the fog of pollution that is the Kathmandu air. Like the sky meeting the ocean, the haze meets a river — more trash than water. Ashes smoke, some with embers still hot from the fires that send garbage into the air. Tin-roofed shacks sit feet away, doubling as waterfront condominiums. A woman sweeps dirt off a slab of concrete in front of her door with nothing more than a bundle of straw. Her neighbor does the same.

The real estate becomes cramped, streets narrow and apartments are built into each other. Piles of rubble that were once homes alleviate the claustrophobic conditions, like a fallen tree in the forest, opening the canopy.  Surrounded by this forest of bricks and hustle is Swayambhunath; The Monkey Temple. 

The path to the temple is long, straight, and made of stairs. The air now attacks with each exerted breath — with every other step. As we climb, I wonder what would hurt more, inhaling the polluted air or the oxygen deficient air of Everest (pollution burns, but at least it has oxygen, I suppose). The taste of the air resides as I’m greeted by the temple’s namesake at the top.

The Rhesus macaques take full advantage of their spiritual sanctuary, living off of the handouts of gracious yet ignorant tourists. I watch as a young monkey scrapes out the remains from a candy wrapper, only stopping to look at me with my own eyes. He decides I’m a threat and takes his treat to security.

Above the primates, the eyes of Buddha watch eternally over the entire valley, like a spiritual Santa Claus. With one eye to represent compassion, the other for love, and a third to symbolize enlightenment, it’s a reminder that karma is omnipresent (he’s making a list, checking it twice). It was here, at the center of where love, compassion, and enlightenment look out into the universe, that a man offered me a story.

He was a short man, average height for a native Nepali. He must have been middle aged, experienced I’d say, but nothing indicated a threat. I gave him the respectable amount of trust as I would any new person.

As if from thin air, he appeared beside me. My friend, from Nepal herself, notices him only after he’s spoken. “I tell you about this”, he asked. His English was just strong enough to get his point across. He gave me no time to ignore. The man told me not his name, but instead the tale of Swayambhunath.

Through Buddhist beliefs, life is seen as suffering by default. Life is meaningless without purpose, and what gives life purpose is being sensitive, nurturing, and compassionate. Only by practicing these qualities will karma favor you. The man tells me what life has already taught me, that what is important in life are relationships, experience, and love. “Materials no good. Money no good.” He preaches to me like some kind of Buddhist missionary. At the conclusion, he tells me what the eyes of the temple represent. He shakes my hand and asks my name. I tell him. “Gavin, nice to meet you,” he says like a friend. I thanked him for the lesson and turned away. “You want to give me something,” were his exact words as he stepped in front of me. My friend begins to intervene but the man is persistent, “No. No. He want to give me something.”

As the words reached my brain, my heart sank. Not from fear, but from disgust. The nerve of this guy to corrupt a place older than he could comprehend, that has brought people closer to their faith for thousands of generations just to use the purest of principles, love, compassion, enlightenment, for his own temporal desire. To have the audacity to tell me or anyone, “Materials no good. Money no good.” He preached it! All for a lousy tip. I felt stupid, tricked, duped! He was the macaque, I was the candy wrapper, and money was the smear of chocolate inside.

As a child I would refer to money as “just green paper.” Today I still do not let currency reach the center of my life; as someone who has adopted ideals similar to those of Buddhism, this felt personal.

The man obviously did not share the same beliefs… or maybe he does, but his situation has pushed him to contradict his own way of life? What if his wife was the woman sweeping concrete in his family’s tin shack? I have no way to know for sure. I wanted to argue his hypocrisy, to try to convince him he didn’t need to soil these ideals for petty cash — it wouldn’t have mattered. His body language was strong, he knew what he wanted from the beginning. He had recited the same story that very morning, if not the hour.

Not only did he contradict the ideals he spoke of, he exploited the polite, personable nature of all the Nepali people I had met who asked for nothing in return, giving his entire culture a dark stigma. Thankfully, I knew otherwise — one man does not represent an entire culture. Though, what if I didn’t, or he had been the only person I had a conversation with? My perspective would have been compromised.

Life may be suffering, but people are good. There are complex, numerous factors that sway us toward what may be right or wrong. What is good and what is bad is more of a gray area than two opposing views. Often it is rooted in perspective, just as this situation was. I felt sorry for the man of the monkey temple. I knew I was being scammed but I didn’t want to believe that the principles of my life could be used in such a corrupt way. What I came to see was a man who wasn’t strong enough to be good, to be selfless. I don’t know his situation, but he had also just lost my trust. I wanted to push him away and keep my rupees, but I would’ve just used it to get some cheap trinket from a vendor. Nepal is young and still developing, most people don’t come from much. However, I do.

His words have been processed, my emotions have been felt through. The man now asks again, his hand extended, “you want to give me something?” I give him 100 rupees, the equivalent of one U.S. dollar. I won’t miss that dollar. It’ll mean more to him, unfortunately, and if he uses it for drugs or booze then all I have to say is, “party hard my dude.”  At the very least I bought an experience that challenged my perspective, even if it did leave me with soul crushing moral confusion for a time. My only regret is that I didn’t help him in another way. I hope he used it well.