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Steeped-in-legend Swayambhunath

by Tenzin Namgyal, at 2nd Annual Drukpa Council, 22nd April 2010 - More than proving their unwavering faith in the dharma, it was a test of the limits of a human heart and perseverance for the 10,000 pilgrims from across the world circumambulating the Swayambhunath chorten. With the main monument situated atop a hill, pilgrims were circumambulating at its base.

It is believed that the whole hill is a Rangjung (self-arisen) chorten.

Walking briskly takes an average person at least 30 minutes to complete a round, while old people take an hour.

The 15th century Swayambhu purana, a Buddhist scripture about the origin and development of Kathmandu valley, tells of a miraculous lotus the Buddha had planted, which blossomed from the lake covering Kathmandu valley.

The lotus mysteriously radiated a brilliant light, thus the place name, Swayambhu, means 'self-created or self-existent'.

Stone inscription evidence reveals that the chorten was already an important Buddhist pilgrimage destination since the 5th century AD, although its origins date back much before the arrival of Buddhism in the valley.

Saints, sages and divinities travelled to the lake to venerate this miraculous light for its power to grant enlightenment.

Bodhisatva Manjushri (Jampelyang), the god of wisdom, was one of the divinities, who made the trip. Meditating at the sacred mountain of Wu Tai Shan on the China-Tibet border, he saw a vision of the Swayambhu light. Manjushri immediately flew across the mountains of China and Tibet upon his blue lion to worship the lotus.

Impressed by the radiant light and the power of the lotus to cleanse sins, Manjushri drained out the lake to make Swayambhu accessible to human pilgrims.

With his great sword of wisdom, Manjushri cut a gorge on mountains surrounding the lake. The water drained out and Kathmandu valley was born. The lotus was transformed into a hill and the light became the Swayabhunath stupa, stone inscriptions say.

Swayambhunath stupa today is the most ancient and enigmatic of all holy shrines in Kathmandu valley in Nepal. It is believed that circumambulating the ridge 13 times a day will wash away all sins and bad merit accumulated so far, including left over from past lives.

His Holiness the late Dudjom rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje, the head of Nyingma school, had told his patrons that it was equal to prostrating 100,000 times.

He had also said that doing so would liberate sentient beings from lower realms and that any religious kora (circumambulation), for that matter, could cleanse sentient beings of bad karma and liberate from them from samsara.

Learned Buddhist masters explained that, while making kora, a person should engage the body in circumambulation, the speech in chanting prayers and the mind focused on Buddha dharma.

From the base of the hill are 365 steps, leading up to the monument guarded by two lions. On all four sides of the neck of the main monument are a pair of eyes of the Buddha. They convey the message of Buddha's omniscience.

Nepali numeral one sits between the eyes, which is interpreted in the Swayambhu purana as symbolising a single way to enlightenment, which is the Buddhist path.

Between the pair of eyes is a single one, signifying the wisdom to look within. No ears are drawn because it is said the Buddha is not interested in hearing prayers in praise of him.

The area surrounding the monument is filled with temples, painted images of deities and numerous other religious symbols. Many small shrines with statues of tantric and shamanistic deities and prayer wheels dot the monument.

Every morning, before dawn, hundreds of people from Nepal, Tibet and a few from Bhutan circumambulate the monument.

Meanwhile, all 10,000 Buddhist pilgrims led by His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the spiritual head of Drukpa Lineage, lit 100,000 butter lamps and recited Zangchoed moenlam, regarded as the most important prayer among the Buddhist teachings, on concluding the 13th kora.

The kora, which begun at one in the morning, ended at 10, nine hours after it started. Among the pilgrims were 200 Bhutanese devotees.