Culture & Tradition

Understanding Buddhism in the Himalayas

Regardless of one’s beliefs, the plethora of monuments, temples, statues and spiritual imagery representative of Buddhism in the Himalayas have a special attraction that locals and visitors alike feel while walking through remote villages, valleys, and ridges. It seems that wherever one looks, shrines, mantra stones, prayer flags, and other aspects of Buddhism greet one on the trail and dot the landscape.

Here, some common things you may encounter are briefly explained, as well as ways you should show respect to Buddhism in the Himalayas (and avoid accidentally offending a guide or the locals!)

Stupas are among the oldest monuments in Asia; found in all Buddhist cultures. In ancient times, people interred the remains of important persons in reliquary mounds. According to sutra, the collections of Buddha’s teachings, the Buddha instructed his followers to enclose the relics remaining after his cremation in stupas to inspire faith in devoted persons.

Stupas represent the enlightened mind of a Buddha, as statues and images represent enlightened body, and sacred texts represent enlightened speech. Stacked shapes demonstrate the five elements purified upon awakening, from gross to subtle: the square base of earth, the dome of water, the spire of fire, the upper parasol of air, and the peak of space.

Understanding Buddhism in the Himalayas

North Stupa of the Samye Monastery, Central Tibet. Photo: Michael Smith

Eight types of stupas correspond with eight major events of Buddha’s life, though countless styles and artistic variations occur. In Himalayan society, stone carvers etch Sanskrit mantras into stones to generate merit (think “good karma”), often to honor the deceased, arranged along cairns or at the base of stupas for devoted persons to circumambulate with veneration.

Like all holy objects, stupas and mantra stones should never be climbed or sat upon. Walking clockwise around a stupa shows respect by keeping it on one’s right, considered to be the clean side of the body. To show veneration to the sacred nature of the stupa, one can take off their hat, bow and touch the stupa with the forehead. Chorten, the Tibetan word for stupa, means “basis for worship”: the physical manifestation of enlightenment for persons to make offerings, prayer, and meditation.

Understanding Buddhism in the Himalayas

Tibetan Buddhist mantras decorating rocks in McLeod Ganj. Photo: Geoff Stearns

Ubiquitous five colored prayer flags (‘lungta’ in Tibetan, or “wind horse”) are printed with mantras and aspiration prayers for prosperity, long life, good health, world peace, harmony, and so forth. Ultimately, the intention behind any Buddhist prayer is for every sentient being to be liberated from all suffering and established in indestructible peace and happiness.

It is believed that hanging prayer flags increases the conditions and circumstances harmonious with success. Five colors of the five elements, and their energy purified as the wisdom of awakening, are ordered from gross to subtle (yellow as earth, green as water, red as fire, white as air, and blue as space).

It is excellent to hang prayer flags high, where the wind carries positive aspirations through the atmosphere into space, especially at the beginning of a journey or important task. Do not step on prayer flags, but gather them in a high place where people will not tread on them.

Understanding Buddhism in the Himalayas

Prayer wheels. Photo: Pranav Bhasin

Prayer Wheels come in all sizes, from handheld wheels to enormous wheels that are three meters tall! The wheel contains a roll of long thin paper of printed mantras in tiny letters, so a prayer wheel 30 centimeters high may contain one hundred thousand mantras or more. The most common mantra is “Om Mani Padme Hum”, a chant of universal love and compassion. Spinning the wheel clockwise sends out the supreme positive intention, that all beings obtain total freedom. Prayer wheels may be powered by different elemental means: running water, blowing wind, the heat of fire, and even by solar panels.

The transcendent meanings behind these symbols have inspired Himalayan wanderers for centuries. Keeping sacred understanding in mind while traversing the high passes and sweeping valleys, a trek in the Himalayas may become a transformational pilgrimage that just may cause all of one’s positive aspirations to be fulfilled.

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Michael D. Smith

Michael D. Smith

Michael grew up in Louisiana, where he spent most of his time reading or walking in the woods, and later worked in New Mexico as a trekking guide. Since 2004 he has instructed on college study abroad programs in North India and Nepal, and when not teaching or leading travel groups, he volunteers with earthquake recovery and environmental projects. He currently resides in Kathmandu with his wife and her family, but manages to visit his cultural home roots back in New Orleans each spring.

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