24 August, 2003

Walking the World for Peace

Personalities: Walking the World for Peace By Sushma Joshi
(Sushma Joshi is a writer based in NYC. She can be reached at: sushma@alumni.brown.edu)
The Nepal Digest, Year 14, Volume VIII, Issue 1, Published On Sunday Aug 24, 2003 (Bhadra 07, 2060), New York, USA

A year after two airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, thousands of people gathered on September 11, 2002, to remember the event. In Washington Square Park, New York City, hundreds spoke out against war on an all night vigil. The country was engaged in bombing Afganisthan, and there was talk of war against Iraq. Activists from all ages and backgrounds rallied to the call for peace.

As the night progressed, Keika, a friend from Japan, met up with Japanese friends who had walked for a month in a peace march from Albany to New York City. "The oldest person in the march is a Nepali monk, and he is seventy-three years old," she said. "He was one of the most energetic people in the walk." My interest piqued - I am also from Nepal - I walked over to the group of people, including some wearing the robes of monks, sitting beneath a tree.
Sitting with a straight back in red and saffron robes of a Tibetan monk was an older man with a distinctly Newari accent. "I am delighted to see you," he said, pressing my hands. He said he had been walking for the past two weeks. His name, he said, was Monk Krishnaman.

(Monk Krishna Man Prajapati)

Krishnaman-ji explained to me that he did not have formal training like other Tibetan monks, but that he had been following his guru Chokyi Nyima's Kagyu tradition for the last ten years. The Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, who practice Thervada Buddhism, are not usually found in the Tibetan, or Mahayana tradition.

Mr. Manandhar came to it in an unusual way, via his work at the American consulate. Working as a librarian for the American library for twenty-seven years, Mr. Manandhar was often asked to take Embassy visitors to see the sights of Kathmandu. He drove them to Boudha, where a large number of Tibetan monasteries and shrines are located. His exposure to Tibetan Buddhism convinced him he wanted to follow the Mahayana path, and that is how he ended up following that tradition.

"There are two reasons for me becoming a monk," he says. "The Hindu tradition says a man should spent his youth getting married and raising a family. When he reaches 60-65 years old, he should give up his householder life to pursue a life of ascetic study. In the Tibetan tradition, a family with four or five children gives one of those to a monastery to train as a monk or nun. My mother Krishna Laxmi Manandhar was one of the first patrons and donors of Anand Kuti, a Thervada monastery. Her wish was that one of her sons should become a monk. Her attempts to get her younger son to be a monk failed. So I fulfilled her wishes."

In 1982, the Reiyukai Institute, a cultural institute that acts like the Alliance Fracaise or the Goethe Institute of Japan, conducted an essay competition in Nepal. Krishnaman Manandhar submitted an essay titled "Sakyamuni and I." Written after three months of intensive study, the essay won the first prize, allowing the author a free one month trip to Japan. His mother, hearing about this, told him, "I stole a gold bangle to send you to study in Allahbad. You have justified that with your accomplishments." "I made my mother happy," he says.

His wife, from whom he remains estranged, is harder to please. Initial tensions between his wife and mother forced him to choose sides, and he ended up being on his mother's side, he admits. His wife, who moved out of their home, does not like him being a monk. "I asked her to join me as a nun," he says, "but she says her faith is not strong enough." "The same woman," he says, his face changing from monkish calm to householder turbulence, "can create heaven or hell inside the same home. My wife was suspicious of my every interaction with women, and she created the latter atmosphere." His son, who runs his own computer business, is doing very well. Dismissing undercurrents of marital and familial tensions aside with a flick of his hand, Krishnaman-ji says, "The whole world is my family. I never feel any homesickness."

The American Library, pleased to hear about the trip to Japan, also offered Mr. Manandhar a three month, all expenses-paid, study tour. While visiting the MET musuem in NYC, he realized that they had a collection of musical instruments from almost every part of the world, except Nepal. He corresponded with the museum. They said they would put Nepali instruments on display if he were to provide them. Mr. Manandhar went back to Nepal and approached the government for a national donation to the museum, but his proposals were ignored. Finally, after five years of fund-raising, and with a significant contribution from his own pension check, Mr. Manandhar sent a set of antique, functional panchay baja to the museum.

The then US Ambassador met with Mr. Manandhar after reading his story in the newspaper. Finding out that the instruments had been brought with Mr. Manandhar's personal funds, he wrote to the museum, voicing his thoughts about a museum appropriating objects gratis from a Third World donor, and advocating for reimbursement. The museum eventually sent him a $1500 "honorarium", enough to pay for another trip to the US.

This kind of proactive approach characterizes Monk Krishnaman's approach to life. " This is what the Bhagvad Gita says: do your karma, but do not expect anything in return. If you do it to get something back, you will be disappointed."

This is a sound strategy, if we are to judge by his past accomplishments. The Monk has successfully raised funds for the children of Chokyi Nyima's monastery. He has also traveled the world in peach marches, his material needs taken care of by layspeople who support him generously whereever he goes. His charisma and strong leadership skills can be traced back to his family background - his father was Compounder Chandraman, the personal medic of King Tribhuwan. Chandraman acted as the liaison between the King and the underground political parties during the time when the Monarchy was strongly suppressed by the Rana regime. When their plotting was found out, four leaders were hung by the Ranas. Chandraman, miraculously, escaped - his account was straightforward and convincing. The Ranas, thinking he was a simple Jyapu (peasant), let him off lightly with confiscation of all property and a life sentence.

Mr. Manandhar's first peace walk was between Kathmandu and Lumbini in 2001, when the Japanese inaugurated the largest peace pagoda in Buddha's birthplace. The walk was 460 kilometers long, and took one month. Krishnaman-ji joined the peace march from Seattle to Ground Zero, NYC, after the WTC bombings. He started in Washington D.C and walked for a month. Other peace marches followed: from Albany to NY, and then from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Future projects and invitations to lead marches keep arriving.
His most urgent project, however, remains an interfaith stupa, build on the model of Swayambhu, that will represent six world religions. The land and the initiative, he hopes, will come from local Quaker families of Bucks County, PA, where he plans to go for a peace walk in September 2003.

"When we were on the peach march, people said prayers from their own religious tradition at the end of the day. Then we talked about our experiences," he says, "I thought about an interfaith stupa during that time. The Peace Stupa will have six stupas, representing Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Native American religions."

Whether as a monk or as a cultural ambassador, Mr. Manandhar is doing his share of bringing intercultural harmony to a troubled world. "If my health holds," he says, "I have been invited to lead a peace walk in Mexico. And then in Jordan." When it comes to peace, the world, it seems, is the limit.