Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Punya and Pap in Public Health: Everyday Religion, Material Culture, and Avenues of Buddhist Activism in Urban Kathmandu

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Punya and Pap in Public Health: Everyday Religion, Material Culture, and Avenues of Buddhist Activism in Urban Kathmandu

Article excerpt

In the dense settlements of old Kathmandu city, an urban ecology is fueled by abundant natural resources and sustained by a complex web of predator and prey species, all in a space dominated by human presence and practices. These include everyday activities in temples, roads, and homes that are rooted in Buddhist and Hindu doctrines. Both traditions emphasize non-violence (ahimsa) to all living beings, and adherents seek merit (punya) daily from feeding some of them. In light of the still chronic outbreaks of diseases like cholera, and especially in light of the threat of future avian-vector epidemics, a new avenue of doctrinal interpretation favoring human intervention might be developed based on the Bodhicaryavatara, an important Mahayana Buddhist text. In the spirit of "engaged Buddhism," the discussion concludes with suggestions on how Newar Buddhist teachers today can use their cultural resources to shift their community's ethical standpoint and take effective actions.

   One should not kill a living being,
        nor cause it to be killed,
   nor should one incite another to kill.
        Do not injure any being,
   either strong or weak, in the world.
                          --Sutta Nipata 2.396

   If the suffering of many disappears because of the
           suffering of one,
   Then a compassionate person should induce that suffering
       For himself and for the sake of others.
                          --Bodhicaryavatara, Chapter VIII


A basic insight from the anthropological approach to history is that religion is central to a society's culture; and since that is true, religious traditions are integral to a group's adaptation to its environment. As the cultural ecology school of American anthropology founded by Julian Stewart and developed by Marvin Harris (and others) has shown, there are many examples in which religious norms have contributed to a community's ecological practices and its survival. Harris and his students developed prominent case studies regarding the cow in Hindu-dominated culture zones, and pigs in the Middle East and Polynesia. (2) Later studies revealed the complexity of these and other cases. One of the insights from this approach to culture is that just because a certain norm allows for successful ecological adaptation, it does not necessarily lead to the optimal equilibrium point. This paper explores a new context and situation in this realm, that between the Newar Buddhists of the Kathmandu Valley and their urban ecology.

It is important to indicate at the outset the various modalities through which "religion" most forcefully affects human life: (1) as a set of doctrines, usually codified in written texts, that provide a world view and norms of behavior; (2) as inspiring an ethos, or spirit of engagement with the world; and (3) as shaping prominent institutions that influence individuals, communities, or an entire society. These interconnected modalities will be drawn upon later.

Setting: Urban Kathmandu

The dense settlements of the old city of the Kathmandu Valley were built up around monastic centers (haha), deity temples (dega), and residential courtyards (cok), with narrow lanes connecting dozens of named neighborhoods (tols). The royal palaces occupied their central spaces; city settlement was informed by ancient Indic norms according to which the highest castes were closest to the king, with the lowest groups nearer to the town walls or living outside them. These urban centers, known for their distinctive domestic architecture and the artistry of their sacred buildings, were created by the Newars, a Tibeto-Burman language speaking people who have dominated the cultural life of the Kathmandu Valley for over one thousand years.

In most neighborhoods, houses continue to rise ever higher as the population of the Kathmandu Valley has grown seven-fold since 1980.The largest of the Newar "preindustrial cities" (Kathmandu, Patan, Bhaktapur) were also regional trade entrepots since the time of their origins, and their arts and artisans flourished. …

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