March 11, 2012

An Inspiring, Memorable Day with the Pied Piper of the Bodhnath Begging Camp

Here's the Pied Piper -- my pal James Hopkins -- just before we walked down into the tent camp behind him that houses a community of beggars from India. Six years ago, James started a micro finance project -- Quilts for Kids Nepal -- to provide work for the mothers, and educational opportunities for their kids. I've been intrigued by this project for years and was delighted that this visit to Nepal gave me the chance to see it first hand.

James and Buddhism and Beggars
James spent 23 years as an investment broker. I first met him because he had been the investment adviser for one of my good friends. Not cast in the traditional Wall Street mold, James was becoming increasingly absorbed in his Buddhism studies. He and his girl friend (they lived in a houseboat on Washington's waterfront, not in a Fifth Avenue condo) had made several trips to India and Nepal, learning about Buddhism. 

Eventually, James experienced the classic professional "Is this all there is?" moment and decided to retire early (real early, since that was eight years ago when James was just 43). He moved to Kathmandu to pursue his study of Buddhism at a monastery associated with Bodhnath, one of the remaining places in the world where Tibetan Buddhism is openly practiced and studied.

Nepal and Buddhism and Hinduism
Religion is a cornerstone of life in Nepal. Hinduism is the official religion, and government statistics indicate that about 80% of Nepalis are Hindu, and about 10% Buddhist. But most independent research suggests that Buddhists in the country represent about 20% of the total population.

Those statistics don't matter much in Nepal. While religion rips apart nations elsewhere, Nepal peaceably blends its two major religions. The Nepali love of festivals may partly explain this harmony. Hey, why not celebrate both Hindu and Buddhist festivals?)

James and the Bodhnath Beggars 

This enormous stupa pulses with life, as thousands of Buddhist pilgrims walk around it, always in a clockwise direction. With its adjacent shops and restaurants, the stupa is the focus of life for local Buddhists. Many westerners, like James, are also drawn to this holy place of Tibetan Buddhism.

It was particularly crowded on Thursday, when James and I visited, since a major Buddhist festival (timed  with the full moon) was underway. Good deeds performed that day are rewarded by a multiplier of hundreds of thousands in karma.

A major tenet of Buddhism is a desire to free all beings from suffering. Early in his studies at Bodhnath (or Boudha), James asked how he could put that concept into practice. His question lead to the birth of Quilts for Kids Nepal.

A five-minute walk from Boudha is a field where hundreds of homeless Indian beggars live in tents. James isn't quite sure why they came here. Most are from the Indian state of Rajasthan, where the summers are brutally hot James says perhaps they chose Kathmandu for the climate.

The beggars live here in a traditional Hindu way, with two or three generations together. Mostly uneducated, the women typically marry by 18, start a family, and begin taking care of in-laws, too.

When James first began visiting the camp, he saw that the men and children went out onto the streets of Kathmandu to beg during the day, while the women stayed home sewing quilts from scraps of cloth. Some of those quilts looked attractive, James thought.

Quilts for Kids Nepal
James thought he could use the quilts to solicit donations for a project that would 1) empower the women and 2) educate the children. 

Each quilt sells for $170. That money sends one child from the begging camp to school for one year, and also covers the cost of school supplies, two school uniforms, a backpack, books and two pairs of shoes. 

At the nearby Kumari Elementary School, the children sponsored by the project learn not only the fundamentals of math, science, computers, English and Nepali, but also basic life skills, like health and personal hygiene. 

James' project -- Quilts for Kids Nepal -- gives the women an invaluable sense of pride, especially since their work is now responsible for securing an education for their children.

Join Me on My Tour
James receives a warm welcome as soon as we enter the camp:

It's another sunny, mild March day in Kathmandu, so some of the women work on their quilts outside. 

The project is always changing. One recent creation was this special "sewing house," where the most skilled women work on highly prized quilts that generate more money than the other quilts. The seated woman and her daughters are probably the camp's best quilters.

Every place we go, smiling kids surround us:

As we left the camp, James was greeted by Bimala, a good friend who had been a leader in the project until she started a family. Her second child is on the way.

Full Moon over Boudha: A Perfect Ending to this Special Visit
James and I walked back to Boudha for dinner at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the stupa. We watched the full moon rise. Kathmandu's pollution gives it a nice orange glow:

James and I almost forgot to get a photo of the two of us. My cab driver obliged:

Here's a nice video on the project made by the Conscious Action Network, which supports people all over the world -- like James -- "who are making a difference."

Here's the link to the Quilts for Kids Nepal website. Please note that you can make a contribution on the site.

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