issue 5 :: Spring, 1999

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ESSAY: Report from Nepal

by Michael Northam
[Michael Northam, my dear friend who records and performs under the names ERG and mnortham, recently took a trip to Nepal. This is his report to me:]
Nepal: An important break from the European situation. The closest one can go to shifting time and culture nearly completely. The Nepali calendar (which is now the year 2055) and the Tibetan people who are refugees in Nepal (whose year is 2025) are operating on completely different cultural paths than those of Europe or North America. It is refreshing to learn that our “Western” predicament is not global, but I am sorry to say that many people in Nepal are eager to have the same rat race as us. But nonetheless this trip has given me the impression that the cultural differences between Europe and North America are relatively superficial—there is no better condition—Western culture in general is on a tread mill where everyone is going nowhere. The Sisyphus predicament is as clear as ever for me, leading me to realize that I need to focus on finding the best crack to fit within and to stop chasing ideals: an important realization.
Geographically the landscape of Nepal—a nearly vertical world where most transportation is by foot, and there are many villages that take a week or three of walking to reach—really jarred my Western concept of movement and time. I walked a lot in the area around Pokhara and trekked for seven days from behind the Himalayan range of the Annapurna, through the deepest gorge in the world below Dhulingari (8200m) and on back to Pokhara. From desert-like landscape (similar to the Tibetan Plateau) in Lower Mustang back to the jungle-like landscape around Pokhara. During this trek and Pokhara and Katmandu I visited many Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries. I was fortunate to attend five Tibetan pujas or sound offerings from different monasteries I visited during the trek. These are one-two hour long recitals of text and mantras punctuated by dissonant trumpets, metal instruments and sound objects arranged in different systems depending on the time of the day and purpose of the event (i.e. a lesson or a special ritual for a particular meditation focus). I was surprised at the openness of the monks and the surpassingly relaxed nature of the rituals. Often there are breaks in the pujas where the monks stop, chat, sip tea or coke, then at an exact time everything starts up again. During the pujas, monks are relatively casual (yawning, stretching). Often there is cleaning taking place during the puja and younger monks are sometimes giggling at each other's mistakes.
You can listen to and download recordings Michael made during this trip.
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