Following a tour of the Thrangu Yangtse Monastery in Namo Buddha, Raju, my cycling companion, and I checked into a guesthouse.
Our late August cycling escapade included a stretch from Kathmandu to Dhulikhel and the final leg, an uphill ride southwest, to Namo Buddha (totaling 45km) from an intersection called Kabhre Bhanjyang on the Banepa-Bardibas highway.
During our evening meal, Palden Tamang, the lodge owner, asked us if we dropped by the Namo Buddha stupa, erected by a king in memory of his youngest son in 4,000 BC.
We hadn’t but hearing him made our jaws drop. We had only toured the grand Yangtse Monastery, built in 1979 with pagoda-style gilded roofs, chaityas, and vihars (chambers) sitting on a hilltop overlooking a stunning landscape.
Although I had been to Namo Buddha before, I took the Yangtse Monastery to be Namo Buddha. Most visitors make the same mistake.
The next day, after quickly dusting off our mountain bikes, we rode to the stupa. We imagined the shrine would occupy a quiet site, but tea shops and shops, selling everything from incense sticks and ghee lamps to souvenirs and bottled dalle khursani (red cherry pepper chili) among other miscellaneous items flanked the stone-paved path.
As we entered the premises, the white-painted structure on an elevated platform looked like the Swayambhunath stupa’s replica. Closer, it appeared more of a chorten with a miniature dome.
With a gilded tiered lotus and a gajur (pinnacle), and below it the harmica or four-sided block, painted with half-closed eyes of Buddha, the vajradrishti (wisdom eyes), it was reminiscent of Swayambhunath and Boudhanath.
While mini chortens with the crest painted gold dotted the main stupa, manis (prayer wheels) skirted the platform. Prayer flags made the surrounding explode in a riot of colors, lending the area a tranquil and hallowed ambiance. The shrine looked deserted but for a handful of devotees.
The shrine, clinging to the brow of a forested hill, dropped abruptly to a lush valley with rice fields and clusters of villages to the west. At the furthest end, we could see the town of Panauti. Curious to gather some info, we dropped by a tea shop.
By a stroke of luck, we met the shrine’s chief priest, Kanchha Lama. He was seated in a corner sipping tea. Dressed in a maroon monk’s robe, what struck us most was his black bowler hat. We were in for a big surprise when the priest told us he was 87. He looked hale and hearty for his age.
Pleasantries over, the priest shed light on the ancient history of Namo Buddha, the site previously called Hiran Giri, a forested hill for ascetics and hermits to practice meditation and seek wisdom.
“According to ancient lore, the story goes back 6,000 years, during the reign of King Shingta Chenpo over Panchali Desh (the present-day Panauti),” the priest began while recounting how Namo Buddha came into existence.
Legend has it that the Panchali King had three sons. Among them, the youngest, Semchen Chenpo (the Great Being, also Mahakaruna), humble and endowed with high intellect and divine wisdom, had committed himself to serving all sentient lifeforms with infinite compassion and empathy.
During a tour of the hills, the three brothers stumbled upon a tigress in a cave, prone on the floor, motionless. Five of her cubs appeared, sleeping beside her. Alarmed, Semchen’s two brothers nocked their bows with arrows, ready to shoot, but the youngest prince restrained them, and without disturbing the tigress and the cubs, they left for their camp.
Prince Semchen, believing something was amiss, revisited the cave, and his hunch proved to be correct. The tigress still lay inert, the cubs trying to suckle their mother’s nipples.
The prince realized the tigress was dying of starvation, and that he must save her and the cubs. Without a second thought, he slashed one of his arms and fed the tigress some warm blood. Upon being revived, the tigress pounced upon the prince and devoured him, leaving only the bones.
Following great mourning and funeral rites, the royal family collected the prince’s remains in a sandalwood casket, buried it at Hirangiri forested hill, and built a stupa over the grave.
Little did anyone know that Prince Semchen would be reborn not once but take several life forms to serve humanity. His ultimate resurrection occurred in Lumbini as Prince Siddhartha Gautam, who renounced worldly pleasures, regality, and wealth, attained moksha and nirvana, and became Gautam Buddha (the ‘awakened’ or ‘enlightened one’).
When Buddha (also Shakyamuni) traveled to Nepal to spread his teachings, he visited the stupa, the burial ground of Prince Semchen. He folded his hands in reverence to the shrine because Buddha knew the prince was none other than himself in his earlier life.
“Since Buddha bowed down in salutation to the shrine, this place got the name Namo (homage) Buddha,” said Kanchha Lama, the chief priest as he wrapped up the soul-stirring tale about sacrifice, spirituality, and reincarnation.