A pair of eyes was steadily following us as we circled Kathmandu’s largest stupa: Boudhanath Temple, the holiest shrine for Tibetan Buddhists outside their country. There was nowhere to hide from the unblinking gaze on our clockwise promenade along the circumferential alley. Even at lunch in a nearby restaurant, the steady stare pierced through the window overlooking the stupa. Those Buddha eyes were all-seeing as they were ever-present.
The eyes, including a third one, were looking out from each cardinal direction on this multi-tiered stupa. Boudhanath was the only recognizable structure from a plane in flight; its distinctive white and circular form stood out from the brown bricks and dirt roads of Kathmandu. From a bird’s-eye view or at street level, the stupa was unmistakably shaped like a mandala, a miniature universe in Buddhist symbology. Taken together, these symbols represented the path to enlightenment. The circular road and winding platforms led to all-knowing wisdom.
One’s spiritual journey, however, was another’s sightseeing promenade. Souvenir shops and restaurants enveloped the circumference of the stupa. Glaringly out of place in a religious and heritage site, the fancy pocket development had powered a vortex of human traffic. Tourists and shoppers outnumbered Tibetan pilgrims and monks wrapped in scarlet robes. It made the faithful and the religious stand out in the crowd, as was a couple of young monks sharing an umbrella I could not resist snapping a photo of. They seemed oblivious to the fact that they were being watched, not only by Buddha eyes, but more so by camera-toting foreigners.
Rotund religious objects abounded around the stupa. A row of prayer wheels lined the frescoed wall. Inscribed with Sanskrit prayer chants, they were spun by those who, for some reason, could neither recite nor read written prayers. I saw an elderly woman, her face contorted in ineffable agony, praying by the wheels. Giant bronze bells hung inside prayer rooms guarded by either monk or dog. Pilgrims walked around them clockwise as they prayed. Prayer flags strung on strings radiating from the top of the stupa fluttered in the wind, which carried the blessings written on them to the world beyond. Unlike the stillness in meditation favored by other Buddhist sects, prayer here was kinetic; it involved movement and walking. Prayer was truly a journey to enlightenment.
More than an hour later, we stopped for lunch at Roadhouse Cafe, an Italian restaurant with a view. The Buddha eyes were still watching us partake of wood-fired pizza and our guide’s favorite food: momo (Tibetan and Nepali dumpling), all spherical, of course. Such was the energy of Boudhanath. It was plugging into the cosmic cycle, spinning along in harmony with the galaxies until you could see a clear, comprehensive view of the universe.
We made a full circle to Buddha eyes a few days later. Alighting from a bus from Pokhara, we flagged down a taxi to take us to our digs, Hotel Buddha Land. Apparently, the mere mention of Buddha in Kathmandu could lead you to only one place. The ride took longer than expected. We suspected the driver of going around in circles for a higher fare – until he stopped right at the entrance of Boudhanath. But how could we fault the cabbie? We were in Buddha’s country of birth, and all roads led to his all-seeing eyes.