In November 2005, Ram Bahadur Bomjon or the popularly known ‘Buddha Boy’, a Nepali youth who began meditating beneath a pipal tree in his local village of Ratanapuri, Bara district, in May of that year, claimed he would achieve full Buddhahood within six more years of deep meditative practice. Bomjon’s claim followed an initial feat of ten months of apparently uninterrupted fasting, also in sustained meditation; other apparent miracles ensued following his exposure to the world media, the scientifically curious, and not least the Buddhist faithful in his native Nepal, in south Asia and much further afield, in the West.
It is six years now, in late-2011: is Bomjon now the Buddha he is believed by many to be? Hundreds of thousands of his sympathisers wait on his every word with bated breath.
The resonance with the original is telling: the Buddha of our aeon, Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, also came from Nepal, 2,600 years ago, his mother had the same first name of Maya Devi, he also performed extreme austerities for six years before attaining enlightenment beneath a pipal tree. (Voluntary fasting was a large part of Siddhartha Gautama’s, and general, yogic practice then and before, and still is now among the Hindu ascetics of modern India.) Bomjon’s family are from the Nepalese Tamang community, many of whom are devout Vajrayana Buddhists. He was in 2005 by his own lights already a rinpoche, or precious reincarnated being with already profound levels of realization, but he has become for the popular spiritual imagination a living Buddha. He is also, however, a pop-culture figure for faux-worship and satire, made the subject of bumper stickers and You Tube cartoons.
Bomjon’s extraordinary physical feat of meditating for at least ten months apparently without food or water, is remarkable by any standards, especially if it is true. (There is in this some uncertainty due to interrupted medical observation of Bomjon subsequent to the critical period of fasting; he was also thought to have moved, perhaps taken sustenance, when behind a hessian screen put up periodically for his privacy.) There are of course many thousands, if not millions, of authentic yogis in South Asia, in and outside of monasteries, many of whom have been documented to have achieved almost unimaginable feats of voluntary bodily control and apparent immunity to a range of normal biological requirements for survival. This does not make their achievements miracles, nor their practitioners living enlightened Buddhas.
Which is where the advent of Ram Bomjon is genuinely compelling: his messianicity has been proclaimed from the beginning. It is already curious that while claiming a solitary ascetic practice that sought no attention, Bomjon began sitting in a place conspicuous to the local people who know him. What then appeared in late-2005 as an espousal of him by the local Tibetan Buddhist Sakyapa hierarchy became a first religious contextualization of Bomjon, as both a Buddhist avatar, and more specifically a Tantric yogi who had so mastered his nervous system as to be able to sweat at will, in mild conditions and without any bodily movement. (Marlon Brando was well-known for doing the same in some of his early auditions!) Bomjon’s teenage brother also speaks humbly of a topknot manifesting spontaneously in Bomjon’s long hair, as in one of the physical signs of the Buddha. Other apparent miracles can be observed on YouTube footage—a naked Bomjon performs puja in the flames of a fire, or he is described as unaffected by a cobra-bite.
After the initial ten-month period of apparent fasting, Bomjon disappeared into the jungle of Bara district in March 2006 to seek another place for less-disturbed meditation. At this point also the police froze the bank-account of the local committee managing the crowds of pilgrims who had come to him with donations—an amount then of more than Rps. 600,000. Much of this revenue came from an entrance-fee to view him, and the pamphlets, books, cassettes and DVDs sold promoting Bomjon as a new Buddha. Bomjon’s formal religious (rather than purely ascetic) status was further authorised by the monastic title of Palden Dorje—again confirmed in an ‘official website’: http://www.paldendorje.com, which offers sensitively framed footage of Bomjon’s various public addresses since 2007.
In a lay-yogi’s robe, Bomjon sits on a newly-built raised vasana painted white and gold, with steps on each side. Pilgrims come from near and far to hold worshipful puja, burning incense and making prayers, or line up inside a cordoned area to offer katag to the near-Buddha. It’s a peaceful and uncanny vision, redolent with the saffron succour of old India and its oldest myths of the salvation of the soul through the form of a youthful enlightened being. It is hard to imagine that not far away in neighbouring thick jungle, and not too long ago, Maoist revolutionaries have for decades lived clandestinely and fought the national army in a bitterly-contested bid for freedom. The promise of freedom, even in an old culture such as that of Nepal, comes in many guises.
Available for a global audience on You Tube are Ram Bomjon’s two speeches of August 2007, one of which is closed-eyed, the other longer and more open-eyed. They are similar in their effect, and what I suggest below of the ‘closed-eyed’ speech can also be said of the ‘open-eyed’ one. Bomjon speaks in the monotonous tones of an adolescent reciting a reasonably well-memorized speech. There is no sign of a smile or an emotional gauge of his audience. He keeps his eyes closed for virtually the entire roughly eight minute performance. He pauses now and then, it seems in nervousness, at having lost his place or of being uncertain how to proceed. The broadcast in Nepali on the “Supreme Master TV” station offers an onscreen English translation of this speech, but even without translation Bomjon’s diction suggests a disconnect between syntax and the natural speech-rhythms required to express it. About five minutes into the speech he repeats, then corrects himself, and for the very first time lightly smiles, bashfully, a very human and self-conscious gesture, as any young performer in a school presentation would before he regains his place after stumbling.
The speech given in October 2009, an appeal against the mass animal slaughter of the Gadhi Mai Festival in Nepal evinces still more the same ‘performative glitch’. It is a movingly painful performance: also roughly ten minutes long, it begins boldly but from 8.30 Bomjon’s uncertain delivery, his own discomfort, is palpable. Who has written a possible original text—Bomjon himself? or an uncredited mentor? One Western witness and blogger, a seeker sympathetic to Bomjon, writes that “Strangely, he concluded halfway between a sentence, trailing off, letting the words, both spoken and unspoken, hang in the air,” before “the brief spell of serenity quickly degenerated into a frenzy again as Palden Dorje returned to his pedestal and people began lining up to receive darshan.”
The verbal content of Bomjon’s speeches might be uncharitably described as Buddhist platitude, if its somewhat alarmist and righteous, even apocalyptic, urgency were not so clearly sincere in intent. In a corrupt and fast degenerating world, it is only the law of dharma that will rescue all beings from the current irreversible results of negative action. It is the karmic function of the bodhisattva, of whom Bomjon is one ‘on the way’, to proclaim the Buddha’s holy truth in such times as these. Bomjon’s worthy truth is unsurprising; its high-messianic tone however is. Rarely does missionary Buddhism become so personalised; but this is not normal missionary Buddhism when the speaker is an ostensibly enlightened Buddha.
Does poor public speaking alone disclaim Bomjon as such? (His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama also reports his great apprehension when as a novice he was first called upon to speak to crowds of thousands in the early fifties in Tibet.) The answers are not so simple, but the given facts and the questions they raise certainly muddy the waters of the orthodox Buddhist representation surrounding Bomjon himself, willing but inadequate poster-boy (it would appear) for the religious hierarchy that guides him.
If Bomjon is a visionary near-Buddha who has spent the previous four years in a profound and virtually mute immersion in esoteric planes barely conceivable by even seasoned meditators, he is also an amazingly natural, human, and in that sense ordinary, one. His performative paralysis is only a brief if consistent moment, but it betrays, resoundingly, an authentic natural humanness amidst all the built-up ceremony and high-flown spiritual rhetoric. There is little sense of a new Buddha having spoken, of the gravitas, charisma or power of a highly-realised mature being offering his own natural words and self-won insight into the nature of reality. Indeed, the previously-quoted witness writes that “The young man suddenly shifted gears into overdrive, ludicrously blessing with a pace so quick he was practically bonking people on the head with the dorje as they passed.”
Religious Buddhism holds that an authentically enlightened being can most effectively transmit its values because they are concentrated in him, or her, in their purest, most essential, unalloyed, uncorrupted or corruptible, realized form. In Bomjon religious Buddhism receives a partly convincing and telegenic messianic throwback to the archetype of Sakyamuni Buddha, a young man who appears to fulfil all the needed criteria. There is nothing cynical here, Tibetan Buddhism is if anything globally respected for its general lack of taint, of maintaining a record for transparency: H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama is of course its universally-respected paragon.
Unless of course the claim is simply not true: that Bomjon is not a bodhisattva or Buddha, but rather a highly gifted young ascetic. H.H. the Dalai Lama has only ever claimed the status of a simple monk (despite the supreme religious office he has been called upon to assume). Bomjon however loses this modest representation from the beginning. Bomjon is reified (by himself and by significant others) in a way that can only work in an old primary culture where religion serves symbolic and archetypal ends, not purely epistemic ones, and where gods are still respected and worshipped as such, where literal truth is not something that carries the primary value it does to the Western mind. On this level, a psychologically and culturally very real one, little blame can be placed.
However, in the West at least, which (arguably) prides itself on its capacity for impartial discrimination, ontological exactitude and epistemic integrity, it is increasingly impossible to take on faith something which is only uncertainly true at best. Culturally, psychologically and ethically it is proving difficult for agnostic Western culture to sustain the myth of reification (though theistic religion, and scientistic ‘faiths’ like contemporary neo-Darwinism, hold on tenaciously) when more provisionally true, multiple, cross-fertilising and mutually-productive interpretations can do a good working job of understanding what ‘the truth’ might ultimately signify. Fifty years of recent Western philosophy has at least reached such a consensus. We live in an hermeneutic age, not an absolutist one: this is of course the enormously threatening gauntlet held out to Islam and fundamentalist Christianity alike. Even in terms of Buddhism itself ‘enlightenment’ is merely a word, one which carries a varying wealth of signification, wears an infinitude of guises (or even, most radical of all, none at all). Even if Bomjon’s Sakyapa entourage mean only the global good in elaborating in messianic terms the possibly much more prosaic nature of Bomjon’s attainment, doing so is still manipulating the reception of whoever it is he might more authentically be.
If this is a deception of a kind, then however benign it also unfortunately succeeds in compromising whatever is of value in Bomjon’s public ‘ascendency.’ What would be of inestimable use would be if Bomjon were able to offer in his own words a description of his yogic and other experience as it is, without metaphysics—and with or without the sustenance of food. (Regarding such austerities the Buddha made it explicitly clear that such extremes of tapas were of no essential benefit or use to anyone vis-à-vis achieving enlightenment: hence the Buddhist ethico-pragmatic ‘Middle Way.’) Because Bomjon embodies a far more complex, and confused, nexus of religious, metaphysical, mythological and ethical forces and subconscious cultural assumptions than those that have been simplistically projected onto and then publicly represented by him. Those complexities are rich, real and interesting, and it would be enlightening to explore and perhaps come to understand them.
Instead, what the world is offered is a closed term: Bomjon-as-Buddha, seated on a throne, reifies a complex human person to be a single, essential ‘something’ in ontologically disturbing ways. By absolutising something as fixed in an essential identity, little room is left for nuance, natural ambiguity, irony, shifts of emphasis, undirected trajectories of unexpected influence. Its translation into the common cultural currency tends to require a univocal, often dogmatic, form of interpretive transmission. It implies monolingual authority rather than a dialogical mutuality. A symbol taken as really-existing catalyses a chain-reaction of associated demands and conditions that can, and do, become economic and political, that enter into manipulations of power indistinguishable from the enmeshments of saṃsāra. It is disturbing to discover, more recently, that Bomjon has been accused during 2010 of violently assaulting young men come to disturb his meditative retreat. It would be impossible to verify this also; its mere appearance smacks of slander, but that only rehearses, all too inevitably, the enmeshment already alluded to.
In Nepal, as elsewhere in the Buddhist world, the criteria for belief, for better and for worse, remain steeped in mytho-poetic tropes of deep cultural continuity as well as social conservatism. Where the individual autonomy of scepticism might be seen as a threat to deeper social cohesion and identity, it is diminished as a form of existential integrity. Where the depth of tradition still provides much of the psychic social bulwark for increasingly unstable and erratically modernizing societies, of which Nepal is a prime example, the old forms of security cannot go questioned, let alone deconstructed.
Who would demand they should be? If Ram Bahadur Bomjon may never redeem and ‘save the world’ from its real misguidedness, we can at least be grateful that he gives us all pause to consider that misguidedness itself, and perhaps his own as well, and provide for that rare space in which all of us, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike, can try to dream again. We look to see how much of that all-too-possible freedom he will invite us to dream along with him in the time to come.
(2010; August- December 2011)