The phoenix rising from the ashes is such a cliché for post-disaster writing but it’s a theme I find hard to shake. For those of us hailing from Coventry, UK, it’s a deep part of our culture. The city was wiped out in the blitz of November 1940 and rebuilt with a spirit of reconciliation, two charred timbers from the bombed cathedral still today arranged in a crucifix at the altar with the words “Father Forgive” engraved in stone beneath. The Phoenix is everywhere in Coventry.
Fast forward a few years to Hong Kong, and the two hemispheres of brain which once tried to make sense of the spoils of destruction littered around Coventry Cathedral – a twisted metal sculpture made of land-mined jeeps depicting a savior torn apart upon a cross – have a new challenge: write a piece making sense of the destruction of Kathmandu in the devastating April 2015 earthquake. The article for Dragonair’s relaunched Silkroad magazine, as part of a celebratory issue looking at the classic “Silk Road”, was commissioned a few weeks before the earthquake: following the disaster, editors decided to go ahead with the piece. The reincarnation theme was approved.
But reincarnation in Nepal has a dark side. Under Tibetan Buddhism, Kathmandu’s rising from the ashes is not a resurrection story but a hell story, since reincarnation is reserved for the pious few, and any city not following the religious doctrine is bound to fall yet again. Speaking to the personal assistant to the head Lama at Kathmandu’s leading monastery, Kopan Monastery, I was told that Nepal suffered the earthquake because it did not follow the 10 precepts (a kind of Mahayanan Ten Commandments).
There are right-wing Christians who believe the same, that gay marriage causes tornadoes, adultery yields oil spills. I wonder why such words from Westboro preachers cause social media outrage while an old man in a maroon robe saying essentially the same thing is greeted with veneration and holy respect. Maybe it’s the robes.
Or maybe it’s the wisdom beneath the robes. The Buddhist philosophy, if stripped of supernaturalism, does offer some cold comfort to destruction. Letting go of attachment – to a thing, a person, a city, a square, a life – was a lesson I learned right up on a Kathmandu hillside, at Kopan Monastery some years ago. It’s a liberating practice which can be achieved with zero religious belief and requires no special prayer, ritual or ceremony. One just… does it.
In theory anyway. It’s not actually that easy, but deadlines and editorial policies help. And so, I let go of social justice outrage at religious beliefs, I left behind the words of the Lama and focused, as was always going to happen, on the reincarnation itself: “Durbar Square may not look the same, but it was never meant to. The Square was a cultural and social hub for the whole Kathmandu Valley, and it will continue to be so, no matter what it looks like in its next life.”
I think it’s time for another visit.