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BIDUR, Nepal – Celebrations of Buddha's birthday in Nepal were muted on Monday, as the faithful turned their prayers to loved ones lost in the country's massive earthquake and worries that the tragedy might be the start of a much larger reckoning.
According to Buddhist scripture, when the land becomes burdened — by pollution, overpopulation or simply too much evil — a cleansing may be in order. First there is an earthquake and then fire. Next, a storm and possibly a tsunami.
"This is just the beginning," said Premaya Lama, caretaker of the Nedyon Unphong Thapchyo Monastery, a half-built prayer house festooned with sun-faded prayer flags flapping in a gentle breeze on the banks of the Trishuli River in Nepal's central Nuwokot district.
"It is written, and so it shall come," she said. Yet she told the faithful gathered at the monastery Monday not to worry — just pray, and be with your families. "No one is immortal. No one is safe."
Though Buddha is said to have been born around 563 BC as a prince in Nepal, Buddhists comprise just 9 percent of Nepal's 28 million people. His birthday, known here as Buddha Jayantha and celebrated during a full moon in April or May, is the most important for those who follow the faith.
But on this year's birthday, there's little air of celebration. Temples are closed, congregations vastly reduced and monastery life disrupted by fear.
Like the majority Hindu population, Buddhists are searching for ways to understand and move on from the April 25 quake that killed more than 7,300 and leveled scores of mountain villages. In some cases, they are struggling.
Prabesh Tamang, 19, whose parents were killed when the four family homes in his housing complex collapsed, vowed not to celebrate on Monday. "I went yesterday, but it is very painful. God took my parents, and I am angry with him."
But a few hours later, Tamang entered the humble riverside prayer house and joined his neighbors sitting on the floor. They listened to the monk chanting prayers. They breathed the calming incense, and lit candles in front of photographs of lost family members on an altar over which a gold Buddha statue sat serene.
"We think that if we die together, we will find comfort," said Tamang's neighbor and friend, 13-year-old Babin Tamang, who also lost his home though his family was spared. "That is why we are staying together. When I am with my family, I am not afraid."