Creative non-fiction / August 2008 (Issue 4)

A Buddhist Warrior

by SuzAnne C. Cole

My husband and I anticipated a hiking trip to Nepal with both pleasure and anxiety. We longed to climb in the Himalayas, but news reports of rebels assassinating Nepalese police and robbing tourists frightened us. However, our tour company promised that our itinerary avoided the areas where the rebels held sway. They also sent a brochure with a picture and profile of our guide, Prem Gurung. We learned that he spoke English, Nepali, and mountain tribal dialects, and that he had retired from the Brigade of Gurkhas, British soldiers with a reputation for loyalty and professionalism. Looking at his photograph, I saw compassion, steadiness, and good humor, and believed I could trust him and that we would be safe.

Arriving in Kathmandu by way of San Francisco, Tokyo, and Bangkok, we barely registered the initial greetings of Prem and our Kathmandu city guide, Bimal, although we appreciated the marigold leis they draped around our necks and the swift trip to our hotel. Turning down the offer of an immediate day trip, we chose instead a nap and a tour the next day, and said goodbye. However, after falling into bed and sleeping for a couple of hours, we awoke, restless, with too many hours until nightfall. So we ventured out alone, only to be quickly defeated by a confusing swirl of color, heat, dust, diesel fumes, unruly traffic, wandering animals, and blaring horns. We didn't even dare crossing the street. Retreating, we had an early supper and went to bed again.

The next morning, Prem took my arm and Bimal took my husband's as we stood on the curb. "Remember," said Prem with a small smile, "in Nepal, the horn is the first brake," before guided us deftly through the maelstrom of traffic to Pashupati, a large Hindu temple. Entering the temple gates, I smelled something burning, both oddly sweet and unpleasant. "Hindu barbecue," joked Prem.

Bimal, wearing red Hindu tikas on his forehead and throat, gave a tight smile. Soon we saw the source of the odor; shrouded bodies being cremated on the banks of the murky Bagmati River. Watching and questioning, I learned Prem was Buddhist, and that our trip coincided with Dasain, the biggest annual Hindu festival. Thousands of animals, from water buffalo to birds, are sacrificed on this holiday, sacrifices which are anathema to the Buddhists. I knew from guidebooks that most Nepalese are Hindus; only in the mountains do the Buddhists dominate. Gagging on the smoke, at that moment, I wished to be in the mountains, too. I asked Prem about his military service; his father had been a Gurkha as were his two brothers. Prem enlisted at 16, and despite having only a 4th grade education, was one of 200 selected from 20,000 applicants. His family name, Gurung, means "door protector"; because of the valor of their tribe, its members were honored just below the Brahmin. His military training was rigorous; Gurkhas who did poorly on the rifle range were staked naked on ant piles, and a common training exercise was running up and down mountains with forty kilos of rocks in a backpack. No wonder Prem, even retired, was still sturdy and tough, all muscle and no fat.

Mary and Joe, the other hikers, joined us the next day, and we flew to Pokhara where we climbed a mountain to view a Buddhist temple. Prem instructed us in the respectful method of circling it—removing boots and walking clockwise so that our “pure” right sides always faced the temple. As we left, a drunken man accosted four young native girls, loudly demanding alms and frightening them. Prem quickly approached and suggested the drunk leave; when he looked into Prem's face, he did. I wondered later if the drunk had not left, if Prem would have drawn from his backpack his Gurkha dagger, the long, wickedly curved blade so feared by Britain's foes.

Later that day, begging children swarmed us; Prem gently shooed them away, telling us that the caste system was responsible for their begging, not the children themselves. They had neither pride nor self-respect, he said, because they were "untouchables," condemned by birth to the worst of everything from schooling to housing to jobs. He showed us how to answer their petitions with the greeting, Namaste, “I salute the God in you”; they responded in kind and left us alone.

Later, at last hiking in the Himalayas, we encountered leeches at every water crossing. Looking like tiny brown threads, they were hard to see on our boots, so Prem would kneel and inspect us after we'd walked through a stream. Finding any, he brushed them off with leaves, saying "Go, little brothers," even though I, after my first bite, would have gladly smashed them into the ground.

On our last night in Nepal, at a grand farewell dinner, when Prem said, "I am not a good Buddhist," I knew what he meant. He'd been a soldier, he drank alcohol and ate meat. Yet I also disagreed with his self-evaluation. For I had seen him quietly set aside his hard-cooked eggs at breakfast to share later with our porters who received only roasted corn for their meal. He'd called me "Dede," Elder Sister, and asked me to lead our small procession into villages so that I would be the first to receive the welcoming leis, wet towels, and lemon drinks.

I also remembered the time on the trail when he met a fellow tribal member who told him a woman of the tribe had recently died. He then blamed himself for having a small glass of wine at dinner when he should have, had he known, been in mourning, and abstained from alcohol. And I remembered visiting a Buddhist monastery with him where red-robed monks sat in rows, continuously praying aloud for the souls of the animals sacrificed by the Hindus. Touching the crown of his head, his mouth, and his heart with palms pressed together, Prem performed three full-length prostrations. As we left the monastery, he said quietly to me that during our journey together, he'd prayed for us every day that we might not have evil thoughts, words, or feelings.

For me, Prem modeled the Buddhist Middle Way of self-development by following the Eightfold Path of right belief, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and meditation. In doing so, he became my spiritual as well as my travel guide.

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