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How Tourism In Kathmandu, Nepal Is Affecting The Interpretation Of Self Within Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism

Updated on April 7, 2015
Missing Link profile image

Missing Link is originally from rural Ohio. He currently lives in Hillsboro, OR. with his Wife and two Sons.

Thamel, Nepal...a part of Kathmandu.  This picture was taken by a photographer in 2002
Thamel, Nepal...a part of Kathmandu. This picture was taken by a photographer in 2002

I wrote the folliowing in 1990 and have transferred it to this hub. The pictures, information from, and the links have been added for this hub but all else is from my original creation. 

"By common consent the Tibetans possess an apparent equanimity and cheerfulness of demeanour in the most distressing of circumstances, but this calm exterior often conceals an inner sense of utter hopelessness and loss of all purpose in life. With few exceptions, such hopes as they dare to express, are set not on rebuilding new lives for themselves and their fellow sufferers in foreign lands, but on a speedy return to a liberated Tibet, and they forget, understandably enough, that the Tibet they knew has by now been swept away for ever, and if ever they return there, they will presumably have to come to terms with an entirely new generation of Tibetans who, however glad they may be to escape from the Chinese yoke, will nonetheless be trained in the ways of their present Communist rulers" (Snellgrove and Richardson 1968:269).

In 1959, things got to be so bad in Tibet that many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, had to flee. To stay would have meant certain oppression and persecution. Many Tibetans followed the lead of the Dalai Lama and went to Dharamsala, India while others went to Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal, Switzerland, the United States, and other countries. As the Chinese tightened their control on Tibet, the Tibetans' situation became more dismal. In the years after 1950, the Chinese destroyed more than 6,000 of Tibet's monasteries and killed approximately 1.2 million Tibetan people. The Chinese are now in the process of raping Tibet's natural resources, are using Tibet as a toxic waste dump and are in the process of building nuclear missile installations in Tibet. Many of the fleeing Tibetans came to the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, and it is those Tibetans whom I will focus upon in this chapter.

Red Cross and the Nepalese government provided the most needy Tibetans to reach Nepal with food and clothing and helped them to resettle. Those who had a trade were allowed to exercise it in the handicraft center at Kathmandu, which had "facilities for weavers, tailors, carpenters, and shoemakers. The center's school also provide[d] vocational training" (Schechtman 1963:365, brackets mine). The Tibetans adapted rapidly to Nepal; nevertheless, it was a far cry from Tibet. For the first time ever, many Tibetans were exposed to paved roads and, of course, automobiles, television, airplanes, Hindus, etc. The Tibetans found themselves in a culture radically different from the one they had come from. The Tibetans were exiles now and could only wait for the day when they, along with the Dalai Lama, could go back to Tibet.

Although there are many things in Kathmandu which the Tibetans had never experienced, perhaps the most incredible impact on their new life was their exposure to western tourists. Who were these strange white people who walked around with strange looking things dangling from their necks? Who were these strange people who seemed to have so much of everything including lots of money?

Kathmandu is one of the most dreamed about places to visit among westerners. There are several reasons for this. Kathmandu is known and has been known for a long time as a very spiritual and religious place to visit. This is one reason why Kathmandu is so attractive to tourists. Tourism, more so than the spiritual ambiance of Kathmandu, has had an effect on the lives of Tibetans simply because Tibetans come from a nation that was highly spiritual.

Hindu and Buddhist shrines and holy places are common sites and the presence of Sadhus, monks, temple monkeys, and the amazing Himalayas make Kathmandu a very attractive place to visit. It was here the American counterculture of the 1960s found asylum; Kathmandu was a place where they could groove and feed their minds.

"Nepal is a beautiful, gentle country with none of the tensions of Western civilisation. Small wonder that many young people flock to its towns and villages, either by air or overland, looking for a tranquility they cannot find elsewhere" (All Asia Guide 1986:373).

Due to reasons such as these, many tourists started to visit Kathmandu.

Today, tourism rules Kathmandu. The largest airport in Nepal, Tribhuvan International Airport, is located on the outskirts of Kathmandu and this makes it easy for large numbers of tourists to enter the country. "With the passage of time, and the introduction of jet services to and from Kathmandu, the inflow of foreign tourists is creeping higher every year. In 1985, a total of 181,000 tourists visited Nepal" (All Asia Guide 1986:373). With the growing numbers of tourists have come the influx of western culture, western ideology, and competing ideas.

The more Tibetans became exposed to western culture and competing ideas, the more they were forced to become part of an economy based on cash. Trading, as it had been in Tibet, was not so much the norm in Kathmandu, and as a result, the Tibetans found themselves pulled into an organized monetary system. Tibetan exiles in the 1950s were at first motivated to make money because they, in their unfamiliar exiled status, were very poor and desperately needed funds. Today, the temptation to make money is present in the form of tourists who have lots of money and many of the Tibetans have succumbed to this temptation.

Due to many Tibetans being skilled craftspeople and to their motivation to better their own and their family's life in Nepal, they quickly began improving their economic position. This was feasible in large part due to the presence of tourism. Most of the crafts Tibetans make for tourists are centered around religious aspects of Mahayana Buddhism. One often sees Tibetans selling paintings, carpets, sculptures, etc. with images invoking aspects of Mahayana Buddhism. So, while Tibetans are becoming prosperous off of tourism, they are also perpetuating their beliefs through the crafts they manufacture and in a way are spreading the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism to the tourists who buy such goods.

"The famous Gurkha soldiers were for a long time Nepal's largest foreign-currency earners, remitting much of their earnings home, but now tourism and garment exports earn more" (All Asia Guide 1986:374). As Tibetans began to make more money and as their fundamental needs were met, they started buying luxury items such as motorcycles, televisions, vcrs, etc. In Kathmandu, the Tibetans have been told by the mass media that things such as these are good and desirable, besides, many of the tourists they came into contact with in Nepal, as well as a few of the Nepalese, have things such as these.

Even though this is true, the sense I got from being around Tibetans is that they find pleasure in many modern goods, but they are not attached to these goods or the pleasures they derive from these goods as are so many westerners. While overseas, I asked many Tibetans, "If you could go back to a free Tibet and live in the manner you did before the Chinese invasion, would you go?". Without hesitating and without exception, they all said "yes". This indicated to me that Tibetans had not become overly attached to their life in Kathmandu.

Tibetans' exposure to competing ideas and western ways has affected child rearing. As Tibetan parents have begun to work more and more, less time is being spent with their children. Tibetan parents often rely upon schools and monasteries to properly educate their children and instill within them traditional Tibetan attitudes. In Tibet, parents took care of their children until they were old enough to enter the monastic realm and then the monastery provided for them the rest of their life. This was the case with one third of the pre-1950 Tibetan population. This is still done among the Tibetans in Kathmandu, but, as I will discuss later, the monastic realm and educational system are also being threatened by western influences. Tibetan children are being socialized according to tradition, but they are also being socialized in reference to a consumer ethic.

The more Tibetans have become affected by their exposure to competing ideas and western influences, the more the power of the traditional monastic realm has begun to dwindle. Recently, Tibetan Buddhism has become a very hip religion to be associated with among Americans, especially among college students who are throwbacks to the sixties. Because of this, there has grown an entire market that deals in Tibetan literature, tapes, etc. This popularity is largely a result of the "magical, mystical, home of the Yeti Tibet" which has been portrayed in such popular works as Alexandra David-Neel's Magic and Mystery in Tibet and Lobsang Rampa's The Third Eye. Tibet has been called "the land of the snows" (Himalayas translated) and is known to the Nepalese as "the land of the gods". It is this reputation which makes Tibet, Tibetans, and Mahayana Buddhism so appealing to many people. As far as spirituality is concerned, Tibet was about as exotic as they came. If you are a westerner and can say you have taken initiation under the guidance of a Rinpoche (usually reincarnated lamas but one can also inherit the position of Rinpoche), you are considered by most westerners to be "very cool".

Westerners are willing to pay big bucks to have Tibetan Rinpoches come to America to speak and to teach about Buddhism. High ranking lamas have justified these world wide travels by saying not only are they helping to bring Tibetan Buddhist teachings to people who could not travel overseas, but that they are also garnering more awareness and economical support for the Tibetan situation. This is largely true, but nevertheless, the monks back at the home monastery are often without their mentors. Many monks I met dream about coming to America like their teachers, but they do not have the financial means nor the passport to do so. While their Rinpoches are jet-setting around the world, their students are preoccupying themselves with other things.

Some westerners go to Kathmandu to take classes from Buddhists. What is happening is that high ranking Buddhists/teachers are spending so much time with westerners that the Tibetan monks themselves are being denied the amount of time with their teachers they had in the past. As a result, it seems that the practice of Buddhism is becoming less pervasive in their lives. Throughout the Kathmandu Valley region, one often sees monks sitting in cafes and browsing among the many shops.

If Tibetans were still in pre-1950 Tibet, they would be very isolated from the world; there would be very few disturbances and competent teachers would be close at hand. Besides, their entire culture revolved around religion and whether they be monk, nomad, peasant, noble, etc., people in pre-1950 Tibet were by tradition, inextricably linked to their religion.

The more Tibetans have become affected by their exposure to competing ideas and western influences, the more traditional education has become threatened. Tibetan exile "students are taught to regard themselves as heirs of a distinct and noble tradition, which in turn leads them to perceive their 'feelings, habits, and customs' as being 'entirely different' from those of Indians [or Nepalese]" (Nowak 1984:88-89, brackets mine), but often, this is made difficult. Tibetan children are no longer in a society where Buddhism is all-pervasive and, as a result, much of their time away from school is spent around the television, shops, Nepalis, etc. Often when Tibetan children get home from school, one or perhaps both of their parents are out working, many of them in the markets. As a result, the parents often do not get to spend the amount of time they would like to with their children.

This lack of family togetherness is often compensated for by circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa. This is usually done in the early evening; before dinner and after most parents have returned from work. Stupa is the name given to the traditional Indian cask in which Buddha's body was cremated. The stupa "has subsequently become for Buddhists what the cross is for the Christians" (Batchelor 1987:64). The stupa is a complex symbol, each part of which represents different stages on the way to enlightenment. Around the Boudhanath stupa are several hundred prayer wheels. Tibetans believe that in walking around the stupa and by spinning the prayer wheels attached to the stupa, one accumulates merit for the next life. The turning of prayer wheels also helps Tibetans concentrate their attention and focus on the recitation of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. The recitation of this mantra is used "as a means of concentrating the mind upon the meaning of compassion while its associations and vibratory resonance evoke corresponding feelings in the heart" (Batchelor 1987:47).

The social outcasts of Kathmandu, i. e. beggars, lepers, handicapped, mad, are aware that the great stupa in Boudhanath is a very special, religious place to the Tibetan community and also that it is among the top places visited by tourists. The stupa is surrounded by many shops, most of these being operated by Tibetans who wish to sell their goods to tourists. For these reasons, many social outcasts frequent the stupa area in hopes that they will be given money either by the Tibetans or by tourists. While in Kathmandu, I lived right beside the Boudhanath stupa and spent many, many hours frequenting the area and over time, I became quite familiar with the social interactions that took place there.

The Tibetans are drawn toward the stupa by its symbolic significance. Tourists are drawn there to snap a few pictures of the structure as well as to view the Tibetan people and to visit monasteries and shops. The Tibetans have founded shops there because they realize the area is one visited by many tourists. The Tibetans sell their goods to the tourists and make money. Some of the money they make is given to the beggars. This act of compassion reinforces and perpetuates the practice of qualities associated with Mahayana Buddhism and also helps sustain the lives of the beggars.

In short, the Tibetans are profiting from the goods they sell to tourists but at the same time, they use much of their profit to maintain the stupa, to donate to local monasteries, and to give to those in need. This description of a social interaction which takes place around the Boudhanath stupa indicates to one how knowledgeable the parties involved are. The tourists, the Tibetans, and the beggars are all agents with some degree of power and influence.

Tourism is one of the biggest influences that has enabled and motivated the Tibetans to strive for and make monetary profit. Throughout many handicraft centers in Kathmandu, Tibetans spin wool for carpets which are prized by tourists. "The industry is Nepal's largest foreign exchange earner after tourism and its largest private employer" (Chadwick 1987:51). The

"foreign revenue from booming sales of these thick, boldly patterned rugs is welcome to a nation with few exports. In addition, the Buddhist shrine known as Bodhanath on Kathmandu's outskirts has become a window on Tibet for tourists, Nepal's chief source of income after foreign aid" (Chadwick 1987:53-54).

There are small groups of Tibetans

"in northern India and Nepal who earn a living for themselves by weaving carpets in traditional Tibetan designs or by producing carved tables, domestic vessels, ornate swords and daggers and such things as may make a ready appeal in a tourist market" (Snellgrove and Richardson 1968:269).

By catering to tourists' desires, many Tibetans can make, and some have made, large amounts of money. Not only do they sell their indigenous crafts to tourists, but Tibetans also manage and own many of the hotels and restaurants throughout Kathmandu. Today's visitors to Kathmandu lodge mostly in Thamel, the most active tourist spot in all of Kathmandu. There, tourists find themselves among trekking-gear shops which are run mostly by Tibetan businesspeople. It is important to stress that the making of money is still a relatively new concept to Tibetans. In pre-1950 Tibet, trade was very much the basis upon which Tibetan society functioned. In pre-1950 Tibet, the "Tibetan economy was not based on cash..." (Richardson 1962:15). In Kathmandu, tourists can also find restaurants, many of them Tibetan, offering various types of cuisine.

Through their years in exile, generational differences have arisen among Tibetans. These differences are potentially hazardous to Tibetans' traditional interpretation of self. "While the older people wish for nothing so much as to return to Tibet, living always with their memories, the young are torn between their exposure to the modern world and the legendary homeland of which they hear so much" (Dalal 1987:37). Most of those who are now in their late 20s or early 30s were either born in exile or know of Tibet only through stories, literature, and Tibetan oriented education.

"While many Tibetan women still wear the traditional dress, few men do, and then only on special occasions. The long hair, the jewels in the ears, the distinctive hats and long boots are a thing of the past. Every youngster wears jeans, and older Tibetans who are not lamas of monks, dress in trousers and shirts" (Dalal 1987:38).

In the future, Tibetans might again begin to turn to their traditional past, but for now, many of them seem to be imitating western ways.

The alterations mentioned earlier that are taking place in the family, the monastic realm, and within traditional education, have the capability to affect Tibetans' sense of national identity and their traditional interpretation of self.

"As might be expected, the contrast between ideals ('work for our people'; 'never give up your Tibetanness') and reality ('my family cannot make it economically') hits these young people hard, especially when, as individuals, they suddenly see themselves as Tibetans, working with or competing against Indians [and Nepalis] who are, after all, citizens in their own country. For them, dealing with the tension between traditional (kin-and group centered) ideology and present-day (individualistically focused) experience involves a very necessary attempt at reinterpreting the personal and social implications of what is and what ought to be" (Nowak 1984:47, brackets mine).

In the Tibetan outlook, what ought to be simply is not. The Mahayana Buddhist qualities of compassion, cooperation, and love are still very much alive in Kathmandu and are still at the center of Tibetans' lives, but the practice and traditional view of these qualities is being threatened by the encroachment of tourism and various other forces. As the practice and interpretation of these qualities begins to be questioned and as the applicability and validity of Mahayana Buddhism comes under pressure, faith in Mahayana Buddhism may also dwindle. If not dwindle, then perhaps aspects of Mahayana Buddhism will have to be reinterpreted to fit the context in which Tibetans in Kathmandu now find themselves.

Perhaps an analogy may help. A high school senior who has come from a rural, strictly agricultural, economically poor background is accepted as a student at a liberal arts college. While at college, this student comes in contact with many different people, the likes of which he never realized existed. At first, he treats these people with genuine kindness and friendliness because this is how this person was raised and besides, these traits promote cooperation, a trait very much needed in an agricultural area. Many of the people with whom this person interacts are very wealthy and extremely materialistic and are from highly populated areas and therefore, often do not enjoy the presence, comments or company of other people, especially the company of those who are at a marked variance from their own lifestyle. What often appears to be signs of genuine honesty and friendliness from these people is in reality a facade. Oftentimes, they say things they do not mean and sometimes even compliment this farm boy, but in a manner really meant to degrade.

The great Boudhanath stupa near Kathmandu, Nepal.  Nepalese historians trace its construction to the 5th century.  It is one of a number of ancient, sacred landmarks in the area.
The great Boudhanath stupa near Kathmandu, Nepal. Nepalese historians trace its construction to the 5th century. It is one of a number of ancient, sacred landmarks in the area.

For a while, the farmboy's attempts to socially interact are crushed and after a while, he learns the ways of the other students. No matter how much he may want to live according to his past ways, the memories of the times he has been crushed or made fun of will forever stick with him. After four years in college, the farmboy has grown accustomed to the ways of the other students and has even adopted some of their ways, and yet, is still not like those around him. He is not what he use to be nor has he become like the other students.

I think the same thing is true for the Tibetan people in Kathmandu. They are still Tibetan Mahayana Buddhists at heart, but do not and cannot live the life their ancestors did in pre-1950 Tibet. They are not like the western tourists who frequent Kathmandu but they have gradually adopted several western practices, e. g., a mild degree of materialism and commodities, the use of printed money, the English language, etc. As time passes, and as the interaction between tourists and Tibetans continue, it seems likely that Tibetans will adopt more traits previously thought to be strictly western.

Despite the very real dangers that challenge Tibetans'

"sense of personal and group integrity (alienation from self or other Tibetans, disillusionment over hopes and expectations that will never come true, confused ethnic identity in the wake of the Tibetan diaspora), these people are indeed struggling to interpret their situation; that is, they are attempting to rescue the possibility of an ongoing cultural heritage by elaborating, refashioning, and creating new meaning out of the dialectical interaction of their past and present ideologies and experiences" (Nowak 1984:2).

The major forces which could repel the need for reinterpretation of certain aspects of Mahayana Buddhism seem to lie within the family, the monastic realm, and within traditional education. If ways could be found to transmit traditional Tibetan ways through these institutions while sheltering the participants from outside interference, then perhaps their traditional ways could be largely preserved. In Kathmandu, I do not see how this is possible, and therefore, it seems their traditional interpretation of self is in grave danger.

Mathieson and Wall have made us aware that

"Tourism has undoubtedly enabled cultures to be rehabilitated and made them known to the rest of the world. However, mass tourism has also controlled the direction in which this rejuvenation takes place and many developments may not be conducive to the survival of the cultures in which they are embedded" (1982:176).

I have tried to show in this paper how and why I think it will be hard for Tibetans to continue living according to their traditional beliefs. As for if they will permanently lose much of their traditional beliefs, I simply do not know. This will become more evident as events transpire.


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    • VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA profile image

      VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 7 years ago from India.

      Tibet can be freed only by India... as and when Kashmir is fully with India, I think, next target will be freedom of Tibet.

      All countries except one, tend to be selective on the basis of profit and loss. Only America see every thin in the other way... serving the interests of America! And to keep up the pride of America! With these principles in mind, they are losing their interests everywhere and losing their pride. I expect they will come to the right sense at the earliest.

      India only sees everything based on principles.

    • Missing Link profile image

      Missing Link 7 years ago from Oregon


      I too wish Tibet could someday be free again.

      Yes, there has been no shortage of injustice and selective attention or involvement around the world when it comes to conflicts, invasions, occupations, etc.

      Thanks much for reading and commenting!

      Best Wishes!!

    • VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA profile image

      VENUGOPAL SIVAGNA 7 years ago from India.

      It is pathetic to see a vast country like Tibet being tortured and persecuted by Chinese oppression. Even if one country, or even if one person is persecuted in this world, there is no meaning in saying that someone protects freedom and democracy.

      If it was Kuwait, if it was Iraq's Kurds, if it was an African country, with full of resources is persecuted, the Americans will come to their aid, or pretend to "liberate" them from their oppresssors, because of benefits involved.

      If a Srilankan Tamil is persecuted, if a Cambodian, Chilean or if a Tibetan is persecuted, what is the use for America in protecting them? Such selective preference has resulted in losing hold on the world for America. For liberating a very very small country Kuwait from Iraq, the whole Allied western armies rallied on the shores of Persian Gulf..... just to divide the reaps among themselves. They turned a blind eye on the Bengali sufferings in 1971, Srilankan Tamils in 2009, Cambodian sufferings in 1970s, Chilean sufferings in 1970-80s and Tibetan sufferings in 1959-60. Will America chalk out a clear strategy and policy of protecting whoever is persecuted in any corner of the world. This may be done through the UNO.

      Tibet should be first liberated from Chinese oppression.