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Fear & (Ego) Dissolving in Haa

29 Mar

Legend, mysticism, and historical facts sometimes appear to be one and the same in Bhutan. There are so many stories and accompanying evidence about the existence of incredible spiritual practitioners, the taming of demons, and hiding of relics that it is difficult to separate the purely fantastical from actual events. In my previous post, I shared the story about the phantom cell phone ring and strange photos/videos that appeared on my friend’s phone while we were inside the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten (KYNC) outside of Punakha. So, I had personally experienced inexplicable phenomena in the country and had a grasp for how stories passed on orally from ancestral generations of Bhutanese could possibly strain credulity. The day after our visit to the KYNC, we left Punakha and stopped first at Chime Lhakhang which was a monastery built in 1499 A.D. and dedicated to Lam Drukpa Kuenley (known as the “Divine Madman”) who was a Buddhist master and poet, as well as, fun-loving drunk and vagabond.

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Image of Drukpa Kuenley (the Divine Madman) and his “flaming thunderbolts”

Similar to the Senge Dradog manifestation of Guru Rinpoche, Drukpa Kuenley embodied the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of “Crazy Wisdom” and wielded his own version of a flaming thunderbolt — a large wooden phallus. Depictions of phalluses and their ejaculatory flames are found painted on the sides of houses, or dangling like wind chimes from the rooftops of the village buildings surrounding Chime Lhakhang. Because Drukpa Kuenley employed an irreverent approach to his Buddhist teaching, he used the phallus as a way to force people to look at those darker aspects and truths of reality that society did not want to acknowledge. He was known to shake up unenlightened persons through his drunken sermons where he wielded the phallus for emphasis of his teachings. Apparently, his unique method of sermonizing also resulted in Drukpa Kuenley’s seduction of thousands of women who would seek his blessing. One of Drukpa Kuenley’s most well-known feats was his subjugation of a fearsome demoness who lived in Dochu La. After he had captured this demoness, he buried her in a mound upon which Chime Lhakhang was later built.

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Pilgrims in the courtyard of Chime Lhakhang

When I walked towards Chime Lhakhang, I saw a sign in English that provided a short history of Drukpa Kuenley and the monastery. The sign stated that Kuenley was born in 1455 and died in 1570, so he would have lived to 115 years old. I don’t know if this was his actual age or an exaggeration, but he was a Tibetan Buddhist mystic with an unassailable joie de vivre and the force of his personality could have extended his life well beyond the average lifespan of the time.

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Entrance to main temple of Chime Lhakhang

Chime Lhakhang consists of one primary building which is the temple room and it is surrounded by an outer wall of prayer wheels. I remember 2 immediate sensations overtaking me when I walked inside the temple: first, the charred smell of juniper and butter lamps; and second, the crisp, creaking sounds of the dark planks of wood on the floor. We were able to see the actual wooden phallus that Kuenley used over 500 years ago in his teachings. This same phallus is still sought after for blessings by pilgrims and others who come to Chime Lhakhang praying for health, well-being, and fertility. Based on the large number of worshippers at Chime Lhakhang and our guide’s own veneration of Drukpa Kuenley, it was evident to me that the Divine Madman’s legacy is very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Bhutanese today.

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In the land of smiles – outside wall of Chime Lhakhang

Our next destination was in the far western reaches of Bhutan — the Haa Valley.  As had been promised by our guide when we had first arrived in Punakha, when we returned through the Dochu La pass and came to a designated prayer flag area, we got out of the car, took a few minutes to seek a blessing for safe passage, and then fastened our own prayer flags (which we had blessed at KYNC) on top of a hillock.

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Fastening prayer flags

We then continued west for several hours until we reached the highest vehicle road in Bhutan at Chele La which is at a height of 3,988m/12,700+ft. We stepped out for some air at Chele La and walked through corridors of tall white mandihar spirit flags erected in memory of deceased relatives. The combination of the thick cottony fog and the fluttering of the flags produced an eerie, ghostly sensation which foreshadowed our upcoming stay in Haa.

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Mandihar spirit flags – Chele La

Haa is a rural outpost that primarily serves as a military base and training site for both the Indian Army and Royal Bhutanese Army. Since Haa is close to the Chinese-occupied Tibetan border, Bhutan has enlisted the support of its neighbor, India, in order to maintain a large army presence in the event that the Chinese invade Bhutan. Haa recently opened to tourists in the early 2000s, and at the time of my visit in 2016, there were only 2 hotels in the town. My friend and I stayed in a historical, 2-story farmhouse on the outskirts of Haa and we were dropped off there in the late afternoon. Our guide and driver stayed in one of the hotels. We walked through the surrounding area of our farmhouse and saw meadows, rocky creeks, empty shrines with glowing butter lamps, a strangely-shaped cow skull, other scattered bones, and no signs of people except for the distant, chilling sounds of a buzzsaw. When night fell and we returned to the farmhouse, none of the lights inside worked. I fumbled through the dark on the first floor of the farmhouse and somehow managed to find a fusebox. I instinctively flipped all the switches and –voila– we had lights which was a godsend since we only had a small flashlight and both the bedrooms and bathrooms were on the second floor. When we walked up the staircase to the second floor and found the bedrooms, a large cockroach or beetle scurried through the sheets of my friend’s bed. He ended up sleeping on top of the sheets as a result. During the night, the farmhouse seemed to come alive with various squeaks and thuds, and at one point, we both heard footsteps that appeared to come from the wooden staircase. I was too sleepy to investigate, and instead, held my breath in a mix of fear and anticipation of something or someone entering my room. However, nothing happened and I assumed that perhaps the caretaker of the farmhouse had walked up the stairs late that night in order to check on things. But, we never saw anyone at the farmhouse during our stay.

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Serene but spooky scenes at Haa

When our guide returned the next morning to pick us up, we mentioned the strange sounds and the issue with the lights at the farmhouse. He let out a chuckle and apologized, but then casually remarked that on the same day of our arrival, 2 Japanese tourists had also been scheduled to stay at the farmhouse. However, they arrived there earlier, took one look at the farmhouse, and then had demanded to stay at one of the hotels in town instead! They ended up staying at the same hotel as our guide who learned about the story through his chatting with the guide of the 2 Japanese tourists.

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Haa Dratshang/Lhakhang Nagpo (White Chapel) from 7th Century

Perhaps because of its remote location and possible poltergeist vibe, Haa contains some very interesting Buddhist sights. We first visited Haa Dratshang (also known as Lhakhang Nagpo or the “White Chapel”) which houses the monastic order of the Haa Valley. The grounds of the White Chapel were being renovated and the buildings had been scrubbed clean and were gleaming. It was hard to believe that the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo had constructed both the White Chapel and Lhakhang Karpo (the “Black Temple”) on the same day so long ago in the mid-7th Century A.D.

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Lhakhang Karpo (the Black Chapel)

When King Songsten Gampo descended from the mountains of Tibet and entered the Haa Valley, he wanted to initially construct 108 monasteries. He released one white pigeon and one black pigeon in order to scout locations for the first 2 monasteries. Where the white pigeon landed is where he ordered that the White Chapel be built, and where the black pigeon landed is where he had the Black Chapel built. We walked about a quarter of a mile to the Black Chapel which was not connected to the same complex as the White Chapel. The Black Chapel is actually gray in color and consists of one squat building which was unlocked for us by a monk. The Black Chapel was built on the remains of a lake and inside it there is a trapdoor that leads to where a lake spirit resides.

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Shek Drak hugging the cliffside above Haa Dratshang

From the Black Chapel, we drove slightly up one of the nearby hillsides and then did a short hike up to the cliffside shrine of Shek Drak. When we arrived at the shrine, we waited for a monk to open the locked door and allow us inside the shrine which contained an altar and prayer area used for meditative retreats.

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Cliff-face view of Shek Drak

While Shek Drak provided for outstanding views of the Haa Valley below, it was not the cliffside shrine I had come to see. My primary reason for coming to Haa was to see the Juneydrag (or Juneydrak) Hermitage which was a shrine shrouded in spiritual power and the home of a relic belonging to a dakini (Sanskrit word for “sky dancer” or a powerful female spiritual priest). This dakini was Machig Labdron who lived from 1055 to 1149 A.D. She was born in Tibet and traveled throughout the region and into what is today Bhutan. Machig Labdron not only mastered Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhist traditions, but also spawned her own Buddhist spiritual lineage which took hold amongst her followers and was passed on through today.

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Image of Machig Labdron on rocks outside of Juneydrag Hermitage

The key aspect of spiritual practice that Machig Labdron mastered and taught is called “chod“. This intense meditative practice refers to the complete cutting off or separating of one’s ego from all attachments. The goal of this practice (as I understand it) is to disassociate oneself from the shackles and obstructions of the physical world by visualizing the dissolution of these mental chains, and then connecting to the emptiness of consciousness that actually binds everything. An interesting aspect of chod practice is the use of fear to heighten the intensity of the ritual. As a result, practitioners will seek out places like graveyards and other fear-inducing places in order to optimize their chod practice.

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Juneydrag Hermitage – 8th Century

One look at the precarious perch of Juneydrag Hermitage on the cliff overhead made it clear to me why Machig Labdron had sought this location for her meditative practice. This small shrine is built over a cave in the cliffside where Guru Rinpoche himself had meditated in the 8th Century. Two centuries later, Machig Labdron had climbed up to the same cave for her own solitary retreat. She had left behind a relic from her stay — her right footprint was imprinted on the sidewall of the cave. I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing this footprint and it brought to mind my previous pursuits of the Buddha’s footprint on the summit of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, as well as, the 2 giant footprints I saw in Luang Prabang, Laos (see posts: “Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-hZ and “Summit (or Fellowship Found)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-ja; and post: “Leaving Nothing But Footprints” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Lq). The veneration of these footprints in stone (petrosomatoglyphs) has a long tradition in Buddhist Asia. But, here at Juneydrag, was the chance to see a footprint that was not tied by legend to the Buddha himself, but to someone else. Yet, I couldn’t help think about how much of Machig Labdron’s story was fact versus fiction. Some stories about Machig Labdron say she was originally born as a male and then transformed into a female after studying and mastering the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Despite my possible doubts, I was on a mission to find out what was inside Juneydrag and so I headed up the trail to the shrine with my guide in tow.

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The hermit of Juneydrag emerges from below

After about an hour of zig-zagging on and off the trail, hoisting ourselves up rope pulleys, and climbing wooden ladders, we came to an entrance door that was locked. This door was not not connected to the shrine itself, but instead was part of an outer barrier built on a narrow part of the trail where it was difficult to climb around or over it. I knocked on the door and waited for someone to come. My guide rather quickly gave up and said sometimes the hermit who is the keeper of the shrine leaves to get supplies, or will not respond because he is in deep meditation. I decided to knock one more time and then yelled out “kuzu zangpo la” which means “hello” in Bhutanese. Miraculously, a figure clad in red flowing robes emerged out of small dwelling below us. It was the hermit. He wore a wizened face and seemed to be from another world. He didn’t say much as he unlocked the door and then whisked my guide and I towards the entrance of the shrine.

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Stepping down into the cave temple at Juneydrag

As we stepped down into the mouth of the cave, we passed by demon-like figures and Tibetan Buddhist symbols painted on the rock walls. The interior of the cave was very small, and aside from a few flickering candles, there was not much light. The hermit motioned me to go to the lefthand side of the cave and there it was: the delicate imprint of Machig Labdron’s right foot. It was undeniably a human-made foot imprint. I knelt and touched Machig Labdron’s stony toes 3 times as the hermit chanted. I then placed an offering of a few Bhutanese ngultrum (Bhutanese currency) at the base of the small altar inside the cave. My guide had never seen the footprint either, so he also made an offering and received a blessing from the hermit. There was a near telepathic energy exchanged between the hermit, my guide, and myself as we stood in this 1,300 year old space and our eyes bounced off the footprint to the gnarled rocky interior of the cave and to one another. I definitely felt a communicative bond and a sense of shared warmth between the three of us although we didn’t say one word.

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With the hermit of Juneydrag (2016)

When we felt it was time to exit, we walked out into the sunlight and I sheepishly asked if I could have a photo taken with the hermit. He agreed, but asked that I not share the photo. Since 4 years have now passed after my visit to Juneydrag and I have read that many of the hermits in Bhutan rotate between caring for shrines and temples all around the country, I’ve decided to post my photo with the hermit for the first time here. I do so only with the utmost respect and profound gratitude for this man and the disciplined watch he kept over Juneydrag. While I may never be able to have the spiritual discipline or capacity to practice chod, I have tried to be mindful of adopting the following lesson attributed to Machig Labdron:

Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go places that scare you.”

Though our visit to Haa had real moments of suspense and spookiness, it all made sense. There can be harmony between the power of fear and the quest for understanding.

Thunderbolts & Ringtones

20 Mar
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Looking up at the massive Buddha Dordenma – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Bhutan contains a cocooned ecosystem where Buddhist thought, spirituality, and culture are in perpetual contact with every aspect of life in the country. All the buildings share certain design and thematic characteristics and have limitations placed on their height. Most citizens appear to prefer wearing traditional clothing that was in vogue in the country centuries ago, rather than, adopting the contemporary fashion trends of the outside world. There are no prominent entertainment establishments such as standalone bars, clubs, or similar venues although I saw a few snooker halls. The desire for instant gratification or the need to purchase goods in bulk is non-existent. The one visible hallmark of modernity that seems to have captured the interest of the Bhutanese is the smartphone and the global connectivity that comes with such devices. But, even smartphones or tablets are still used in ways to support the Dharma in Bhutan as I observed during my visit when I saw a monk reciting Buddhist sutras through the help of his iPad which displayed all the verses for him. So, ultimately everything in Bhutan seems to circle back to a Buddhist animus that pulsates through the country.

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Buddha Dordenma constructed in late 2015

On our first full day in Thimpu, our guide drove us through the hills south of town to visit a new monument that had just opened some months earlier: the Buddha Dordenma (or Buddha Point).  This monument consists of a gigantic seated Buddha (over 50m/170ft tall) surrounded by a semi-circle of several smaller Bodhisattva statues draped with scarves. Each of these Bodhisattvas is positioned in a manner that suggests they are making an offering or seeking a blessing from the Buddha that sits above them.

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One of the several Bodhisattvas situated around the Buddha

At the time of my visit, there was a large staircase and park area below the main platform of the Buddha Dordenma that was still being constructed. Additionally, the passage into the base of the statue which was to consist of an altar area with hundreds of small statues and other Buddhist objects was not yet open. Regardless of these unfinished aspects of the monument, the vantage point of this monument was spectacular and we could see the entire layout of the large Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong) in the distance along with the rest of Thimpu. 

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View of Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong)

From Buddha Dordenma, we drove down to Thimpu Dzong which was originally built in the 1640s A.D. by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It was enlarged in the subsequent centuries by Bhutanese Kings so that it could continue to serve as the primary ruling residence while also housing all the key civil ministries and providing residences for the leadership of the Bhutanese monastic order. Thimpu Dzong also became the venue for one of the most well-known dance festivals or “tsechus” in Bhutan held annually in honor of Guru Rinpoche which features elaborate robed and masked performers. While there is a throne room and a large meeting room for government ministers at Thimpu Dzong, the current King has a separate residence at a nearby property and the Bhutanese National Assembly (parliament) now also uses another building in Thimpu for its meetings.

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Monks entering Changangkha Lhakhang built in the 12th Century – Thimpu

Our next stopping point was the Changangkha Lhakhang monastery which was built in the 12th Century. This Buddhist monastery and temple is one of the oldest in Bhutan and is known as a destination for couples seeking good luck blessings for their newborns. In the back outside area of Changangkha Lhakhang, there are rows of prayer wheels embedded in the white walls and every single one of these were spun by pilgrims and worshippers as they dutifully performed their “kora” (or circuit) around the main temple hall.

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The artful symmetry of prayer wheels at Changangkha Lhakhang

Just as I had seen years earlier in Tibet and Nepal, these prayer wheels contained the 6 syllable mantra: om mani padme hum. Through the act of spinning these prayer wheels, one releases the mantra into the universe multiple times with rapid succession as she continues to walk and spin each wheel along the kora.  No doubt that this walk and spin method of prayer is a much easier and effective way of praying instead of having to orally chant the mantra over and over again. (For further understanding of the significance of the “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra see post: “Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-7c).

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Prostration outside main prayer hall of Changangkha Lhakhang

We finished our walk around Changangkha Lhakhang and then prepared to head off on the slow, winding road towards Bhutan’s former capital, Punakha. On the way out of Thimpu, we first stopped at the National Memorial Chorten which was built in 1972 in memory of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (“Dragon King”) who was the current King’s grandfather. This chorten was buzzing with people and it seemed especially popular with older Bhutanese citizens who were huddled together talking and enjoying the gardens of the memorial complex. The chorten itself reflects a Tibetan design that is similar to Bai Ta or the White Dagoba that is next to the Forbidden City in Beijing (see post “The Importance of Being on Brand” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-VU). I could not go inside the chorten, but I was able to look through the door at its base and could see a small altar area with a framed photo of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo inside. 

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The National Memorial Chorten built in 1972 – Thimpu

The distance from Thimpu to Punakha is about 85km (52miles), but the highway is a one-way, narrow road and there were long stretches where Indian laborers were working in the attempt to widen or repave the road. So, we had to idle at the side of the road a few times and wait until a bulldozer or other construction equipment was removed from the road in order to let our vehicle pass. Around the midway point of our drive, the road sidewinded to a higher elevation and we passed through a gully where prayer flags were strung above and across the road and along its sides. Our guide told us that we would get our own prayer flags blessed by a monk in a temple in Punakha, and then when we returned on the same highway, we would stop and fasten our prayer flags in this area. But for now, we continued driving onward until the road crested at Dochu La pass.

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The 108 memorial chortens of Druk Wangyal Chortens

At a height of 3,140m/10,300ft, Dochu La allows for views of the highest peaks of the Bhutanese Himalayas on a clear day. Aside from these incredible views, Dochu La is also known for its somber memorial called the Druk Wangyal Chortens. This memorial was built in 2005 and is comprised of 108 “mini-chortens” clustered together on a mound that looks like one bulbous stupa from a distance. Each of the 108 chortens represents the martyrdom of a Bhutanese soldier who died during an operation to quell an insurgency of Assam separatists from India that took place in southern Bhutan. I walked to the top of Druk Wangyal Chortens, and while I couldn’t see any of the mountains in the distance because of the cloudy conditions, the view was still breath-taking. I was above some of the clouds which were moving fast and it seemed that all the chortens around me were floating. For a moment, I fell into a daydream where I felt my body was also floating in tandem with the clouds around me. I only snapped out of it when I heard my guide calling me back to the car.

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View atop the Druk Wangyal Chortens – Dochu La

We descended from Dochu La and as the clouds parted, the golden green valley of Punakha appeared below us. We veered off the main highway before arriving at Punakha in order to see a nunnery and an eye-popping stupa that had been built on one of the hills. This stupa is very similar in its design to the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu. It sits on a terraced platform which is in the form of a mandala with a square base and circular form in the center. The central pillar of the stupa features 2 eyes on each of its 4-sides gazing out in all directions which is meant to symbolize the omnipresence of the Buddha and the accessibility of his teachings — the Dharma. This stupa was built within the last 20 years or so by a relative of the Bhutanese royal family and is maintained by the nuns who live in the small nunnery near it.

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Nepali-style stupa at nunnery on the road to Punakha

As we left the stupa and nunnery, our guide began telling us about the history of Punakha. It had been the capital of Bhutan for nearly 300 years until the mid-twentieth century. Its most visited sight was the Punakha Dzong which was constructed in 1638 A.D. at the direction of Zhabrung Ngawang Namgyal whose embalmed body is kept in a sealed room at the Dzong.

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Punakha Dzong constructed in 1638 A.D. – Punakha, Bhutan

Punakha Dzong is a cornucopia of beautiful murals, lofty architecture, and rooms filled with magical thangkas (silk embroidered or painted banners) hanging from wooden beams. Because no photos are allowed inside any of the buildings, I could only snap photos of the outside areas of the Dzong which did not capture the wall-to-wall artistry inside the halls and prayer rooms, But, the artwork on the outside buildings is well-preserved, so it at least provides a glimpse of the meticulous skill and talent of the Bhutanese artisans responsible for the treasures at Punakha Dzong. Many of the external and interior murals are illustrations of fantastic landscapes, geometric patterns, different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, and Buddhist iconography such as the Dharma wheel, deer, tigers, and birds.

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Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche and Buddhist iconography on entranceway to prayer hall at Punakha Dzong

Our guide explained to us how Guru Rinpoche was interpreted and depicted in 8 different forms in the Bhutanese Buddhism tradition. Each of these different forms was associated with a particular teaching or Buddhist virtue and was meant to provide a metaphor for deeper understanding and related meditative purposes. Two of the most prevalent of Guru Rinpoche’s forms are: “Senge Dradog” (the protector and guide of the Buddha symbolizing the ferocity and power of the awakened mind) and “Dorje Drolo” (the wrathful, indestructible crazy wisdom that comes with the awakened mind). Senge Dradog (known in Tibetan as “Chana Dorje“) is depicted as a blue demon-like figure with a third eye in its forehead, a crown of 5 skulls on its head, a snake around its neck, and a tiger loincloth around its waist. In its right hand, Senge Dradog wields a thunderbolt and is preparing to strike with it. The Dorje Drolo manifestation of Guru Rinpoche is similar to Senge Dradog except that it is red and it is standing on the back of a pregnant tigress. Dorje Drolo is particularly significant in Bhutan because the famous “Paro Takhtsang” (“Tiger’s Nest” monastery) was built at the cave site where Guru Rinpoche in the form of Dorje Drolo buried hidden texts and treasures while traveling on the back of a tigress he had subdued. Images of Senge Dradog and Dorje Drolo are found lurking all over Punakha Dzong and both represent the need to shake off the emotional obstacles and ignorance of life in order to receive the powerful clarity of knowledge that zaps one right between the eyes when becoming truly enlightened.

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Detail of door at Punakha Dzong with Senge Dradog image

The grounds of Punakha Dzong also showcase multiple courtyards where dance festivals and other large gatherings take place. One of these courtyards has a mid-sized bodhi tree that may have been grown from a cutting of either the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, or its progenitor in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f and “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4P). I wasn’t able to get the origin of the tree verified by my guide, but I knew that there was a practice from centuries ago where monks who studied or visited the sacred Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya or Anuradhapura would take a small sapling of these trees and return to their own temple or monastery where they planted it.

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Bodhi tree in one of the large courtyards of Punakha Dzong

After our visit to Punakha Dzong, we got situated at our lodging in Punakha which was situated on the valley floor. All around us were tall lush grass, rice paddies, and even greener hillsides standing sentry.  We spent 2 nights in Punakha and at dawn of each day the chanting of monks from the surrounding hillsides would wash over us. There were no televisions or other distractions and we were completely immersed in an idyllic, peaceful landscape with warm and friendly people. I could only assume that the Gross National Happiness score of Punakha must be incredibly high. 

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The prayer wheel keeper at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

On our last day at Punakha, we went on a hike through some rice fields on the way to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. It was a sunny, glorious day and as we emerged from the rice fields we entered a small building that housed a huge prayer wheel that was under the supervision of a 88 year old man. Our guide introduced this prayer wheel keeper and his friend to us and we spent a few minutes chatting with them. They noticed a “Bodhisattva” tattoo that my friend had in Sanskrit on his shoulder and they talked excitedly about this. It wasn’t clear to me whether they simply had never seen such a tattoo, or whether they were impressed to see this Mahayana Buddhist concept adopted in such a way by a foreigner. In either case, they were incredibly fascinated by the tattoo. After we left the prayer wheel keeper, we had to walk uphill for about 40 minutes to the chorten which sat high above us.

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Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we reached the top of the hill, I was encased in sweat and my shirt was stuck to me like a latex glove. But, I now had my first look at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. This chorten was constructed in 1999, but it has the aura of an ancient building. We walked inside the chorten and climbed the stairs to the top where there is an outside observation platform. Our guide discussed the construction of the chorten and pointed out some of the other sights below us.

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Water fountain outside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we returned back inside the chorten, our guide began explaining some of the stories behind the murals. Many of these murals showed important moments in Bhutan’s history, but a few also included some curious images such as shaggy-haired yetis and other Bhutanese legendary creatures. Just as our guide was speaking about these remarkable things, a bizarre ringtone blared from my friend’s cell phone. He had no cell phone service in Bhutan, yet his cell phone was loudly ringing.  All of us — our guide and driver included — were startled and exchanged befuddled looks of amazement. Our guide himself had no cell phone service while standing inside the chorten which was on a hillside more than 7km away from Punakha. We all laughed it off and our guide went on to finish his discussion about the murals. When we had hiked back down to the car, my friend checked his cell phone again, and now, he had several ghostly black & white photos and short videos saved on his phone! One of the photos even had a mysterious made-up word on it. We didn’t know what to make of any of this. Was it just a technical glitch, an accidental butt dial, or crazy divine intervention sparked by my friend’s “Bodhisattva” tattoo? Looking back on that day, I’d like to think that instead of being thunderstruck, we had received a spiritual wake-up call from Senge Dradog. That seems the best explanation for the phantom ring inside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Happiness is a Place (Not a State of Mind)

8 Mar

Ever since I had visited Tibet in 2007, I knew what I wanted my next destination to be. This was going to be a trip to a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom whose own history reflected the rich Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality of Tibet. This was Bhutan — the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Given Bhutan’s geographic location tucked between the mountains of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [controlled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)] and India’s snaky northeastern borders [portions of which are also claimed by the PRC], planning a trip to this isolated country would be tricky. First, any foreigner or non-Bhutanese citizen cannot independently fly into Bhutan and travel around the country unchaperoned. As a legacy of its fiercely insular past, Bhutan has a rigorous application process for all foreigners to complete in order to be granted a tourist visa. Each foreign visitor must register with a Bhutanese-based tourist agency which books all hotels and meals (which have different tiers depending on the visitor’s budget). The fees paid to the Bhutanese tourist agency include payment of a daily tourist tariff that is applied towards the hiring of a Bhutanese guide and driver who accompany all foreigners throughout the visit. Second, no non-Bhutanese airlines are permitted to fly to Bhutan, so instead, any visitor must use one of 2 Bhutanese airlines (Bhutan Airlines & Druk Air) in order to fly there. These 2 Bhutanese airlines each serve only a handful of other Asian countries. So, because of the careful coordination, financial cost, and chunk of time that was necessary to properly plan a trip to Bhutan, it took nearly a decade after my visit to Tibet until I was ready to head there. This long passage of time had allowed Bhutan to develop and open itself in new ways to the outside world. Bhutan also had a young king as the head of its constitutional monarchy and he had encouraged foreign investment, relaxed trade restrictions, and modernized Bhutan’s telecommunications infrastructure to allow for internet and WiFi services. The timing of my trip to Bhutan in 2016 took place then at a unique moment where technological innovation and foreign influence were impacting this remote spiritual haven to an unprecedented degree.

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Standing Buddha and Buddha Dordenma (Buddha Point) in distance – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) in the 8th Century A.D. Guru Rinpoche was likely born in north India and he traveled to Tibet where he shared and taught the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism before venturing further east and crossing over the mountains into the lush valleys of Bhutan. Bhutan was a cluster of various fiefdoms controlled by regional warlords for many centuries after Buddhism took root. It was not until the 17th Century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led battle after battle that Bhutan became a unified nation with borders very much the same as it has today. Zhabdrung Namgyal is held in high esteem as the founder of the Kingdom of Bhutan and he zealously defended Bhutan from outside invading armies — his chief adversary being the 5th Dalai Lama who led Tibetan armies in several incursions into Bhutan in the attempt to seize the neighboring country.

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Paro Dzong constructed in 1644 A.D. & its watchtower (now the National Museum of Bhutan) – Paro, Bhutan (2016)

As part of his defense strategy, Zhabdrung Namgyal constructed important dzongs in strategic areas of Bhutan. These dzongs were fortress-temples with massive, thick walls that protected the administrative offices, monastic residences, and areas of worship inside. Each dzong was helmed by a governor and was like a small city-state that effectively secured key regions of the country. Perhaps the most important aspect of Zhabdrung’s rule was his creation of a government whose actions were not to be separate or disconnected from spirituality, but instead, emanated from the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion for all living beings.

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Novice monks walking through Paro Dzong

This government ethos that Zhabdrung promulgated was the reverse of the separation of church and state that exists in the United States and other Western countries. Every Bhutanese king since Zhabdrung Namgyal has maintained this creed which had a reinvention in the 1970s when the-then King of Bhutan coined the term, “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The King explained that this concept was far more important to the Bhutanese than the country’s Gross Domestic Product. GNH encompassed a deeper meaning beyond that of a holistic guiding principle. It was a concrete, trackable economic indicator like inflation, spending, and other cost of living metrics. Additionally, the Bhutanese constitution expressly mandated that it was the government’s responsibility to promote and optimize GNH for its citizens. The Bhutanese government uses a formula to compute the annual GNH that is based on data collected from its citizens through surveys and other feedback. This data reflects criteria such as living standards, health/welfare, education, environmental quality, community vitality, and work-life balance. Ultimately, the higher the calculation of annual GNH will correlate to how well the government has performed in meeting its responsibility to provide the Bhutanese people with a beneficial economic system that is in sync with the natural environment and all sentient beings.

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Off into the western horizon — Mt. Everest

As I finalized details for my trip to Bhutan, I had to also take into consideration the season and the availability of flights from those few Asian cities that the 2 Bhutanese airlines served.  I also had a good friend who was looking for a spiritual adventure of sorts, and so, once he learned about my trip, he was eager to join. I was able to have our seats booked on a Bhutan Airlines flight for late August 2016 that would fly from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan. Our flight from Bangkok left at 6:30 a.m. and was only about half-filled with people. The plane had a stop in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and as we remained in our seats, a steady stream of Indians passed by us as they boarded and soon filled the plane to capacity. These were laborers who were flying to Bhutan to provide much needed manpower on the many construction projects taking place all over the country. Once the plane took off from Kolkata, I saw the Hooghly river and the green rice paddies below steadily recede as the Himalayas approached. I had my fingers crossed and hoped the cloud coverage would be minimal so perhaps Mt. Everest would be visible. Within about 10 minutes, off into the western horizon, the unmistakable outline of a massive snowcapped peak appeared. It was Everest. It pierced through the clouds like a welcoming beacon — one that I had not seen since my 2007 flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Excitement welled up inside me as the plane crossed over the Himalayas and Bhutan was at hand.

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The descent to Paro International Airport – Bhutan

As we began our descent, the mountains tightened around us and at times the plane’s wingtips seemed close enough to touch them (no wonder only Bhutanese airlines fly into the country). When we landed, I walked onto the tarmac and felt a warm glow caress my face. I looked around and was surrounded by the bluest of blue skies and greenest of green trees and hillsides. We had arrived in the town of Paro which is about 50km (31 miles) from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu. After we cleared passport control, our guide and driver who were each wearing “ghos” (Bhutanese traditional male garb like a kimono) greeted us and placed white prayer scarves around our necks. It was as if we had arrived in the mythical land of Shangri-La.

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On the tarmac at Paro International Airport

We put our bags in the car and then drove towards our first stop to see the Paro Dzong and its watchtower which had been converted to the National Museum of Bhutan in 1960. The National Museum provided us with an overview of the history, culture, natural environment, and spirituality of Bhutan. Below Paro Dzong, we stopped off to enter a very old chorten called Dumtse Lhakhang that had been built in the early 15th Century by Thangtong Gyalpo who was known for constructing iron bridges that spanned key rivers in Bhutan. While Dumtse Lhakhang is unassuming from the outside (aside from its Tibetan design), it had incredible, complex murals of Buddhist legends inside its tight confines. We had to climb up small wooden ladders to get to the top floor of the chorten where legend had it that the spirit of a demoness was trapped. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside Dumtse Lhakhang, so its exquisite interior and any evidence of the demoness remain hidden to the rest of the world.

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Dumtse Lhakhang built in 1430s A.D. – Paro, Bhutan

We left Paro and drove towards to Thimpu where we were to spend our first few nights. There was a lot of excited chatter during the drive between our guide and us as he had many questions about our lives in the United States and we of course wanted to learn about his life in Bhutan. We discussed everything from Bhutanese dishes like emo datshi (chili peppers and melted cheese) and Red Panda beer (barley infused with juniper) to GNH and the Buddhist spiritualism that penetrated all facets of life in the country. Since we were staying in the country for 8 days, there would be many more conversations with our guide about these topics and much more. He was very knowledgeable and brought both a sense of humor and seriousness to the many Buddhist and historical sights we had lined up to visit.

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Directing “gridlock” in downtown Thimpu

After about 45 minutes of driving and passing troops of white langur monkeys along the way, I could see the hills of Thimpu drawing near. It had been a long day of travel given the early start that morning from Bangkok and I was looking forward to getting out of the car and decompressing. We exited from the main highway and pulled onto a road going to the city center where we came to a sudden stop at a traffic circle behind other cars. In the middle of the traffic circle, there was a uniformed Bhutanese man with an intense expression who was directing traffic with dramatic movements of his white-gloved hands. Our guide said that there were no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan — including Thimpu, its most populous city with about 110,000 people. I watched the traffic guard methodically guiding, waving at, and stopping cars with a rhythmic choreography. It looked to me like he was breakdancing at times. I had to smile. GNH was starting to make sense.

The Importance of Being On Brand

18 Feb

When I first traveled to China and arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in 2012, I remember seeing a glossy advertisement for Maserati as I walked through the jetway. Having visited many other countries in Asia where Chinese-made cars and motorbikes are ubiquitous, I got a kick out of this prominent promotion of a non-Chinese brand directed at freshly arrived visitors to China’s largest city. A year later I was in Beijing, and after viewing the embalmed body and orange-colored face of Mao Zedong, as I left his mausoleum, I had to “exit through the gift shop” where I was besieged by vendors selling also sorts of Mao trinkets and other Cultural Revolution merchandise. Where did this appetite for luxury and desire to cash in on “commie memorabilia” come from? More importantly, what would be the limits of the PRC’s tolerance for the growing materialistic impulses and capitalist desires of a newly moneyed generation?  I had these questions swirling around in my head as I walked past the countless storefronts of fancy Western brands and franchises that crowded the large city blocks of Shanghai.

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Old Shanghai nostalgia: suitcases & “commie memorabilia” for sale in the now demolished Dongtai Road Antique Market – Shanghai, China (2012)

Since I had a few days to spend in Shanghai after I returned from my travel to Mt. Emei and the Leshan Giant Buddha, I was keen to explore what remained in this megapolis of the Chinese Buddhist spirituality and religious practice of the generations before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While most of the historical Buddhist schools, monasteries, and temples in Shanghai were destroyed, a few managed to survive or were reconstructed. Much of old Shanghai like the Dongtai Road Antique Market (which was on its last legs when I saw it in 2012) has been demolished to make room for shiny new developments, and so whether or not the remaining Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist temples in Shanghai may need to get relocated or continue as protected sites remains to be seen. Despite all the rapid change and reinvention, I did see 2 enchanting Buddhist temple complexes in Shanghai, as well as, a third temple that was recently restored with sleek features in sync with the bustling city sidewalks surrounding it.

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Longhua Pagoda constructed in 977 A.D. – Shanghai (2012)

First on my list was the Longhua Temple which is located in the far south of Shanghai. The Shanghai Metro (subway) manages to snake into most areas of the city and was my preferred means of transport. The Metro surfaced and then elevated above the city streets as it ventured into the city’s far southern reaches. I hopped off at a stop not too far from a brand new IKEA store that anchored the Xuhui Shopping Center. I then walked about 1km until I saw what once must have been among the tallest “skyscrapers” of old Shanghai — the Longhua Pagoda. This Pagoda is one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monuments in Shanghai and was built out of brick and wood in 977 A.D.  It is over 40 meters/132 ft tall and yellow in color (which brought to mind the color of the Beamless Brick Hall of Wannian Monastery at Mt. Emei).  Given its age and fragile state, the public cannot enter and walk up to the top of the Pagoda.

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Inside Longhua Temple complex

After paying the admission fee and receiving a bundle of incense sticks, I entered the temple complex which was sparsely filled with visitors. I took my time to enter all the prayer halls and pavilions and some of these buildings had signs and old photographs noting their historical significance. One particular statue stood out above all else at Longhua Temple. This was a serene and intricate statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara known as the embodiment of all seeing compassion. The statue was flanked on each of its sides by its arms which were fanned out as if hugging the world. Each of the statue’s “thousand arms” had their palms visible and within each palm was a watchful eye — symbolizing Avalokitesvara’s all seeing nature and omnipresence.

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The “Thousand-Armed” Avalokitesvara statue – Longhua Temple

I noticed a group of Chinese patrons bowing multiple times in front of this statue with their hands gripping lit incense sticks over their foreheads. They may have been praying for assistance and support in dealing with a difficult situation, or affirming their gratitude for the compassion that this Bodhisattva provides to the world. I intently watched the actions of this pious group. It was evident to me that religious practice was very much alive and well in Shanghai despite the 20th Century effort to snuff it out as an opiate of the masses.

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Detail of Avalokitesvara statue – a watchful eye contained in each palm

Unfortunately, Longhua Temple was not always as peaceful as the day I visited. It has a bloody past and served as the grounds for over 5,000 public executions of communist party members by the Kuomintang (KMT) national party in April 1927. A few decades after this purge, communist soldiers ransacked Longhua Temple and used statues like the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara for target practice. One can still see bullet holes in the walls of certain buildings at Longhua. As I walked out of Longhua Temple and into an adjacent park, I came across the “Longhua Martyrs’ Memorial Hall” which was built by the PRC in what was formerly the gardens of the Longhua Temple.  The Memorial Hall is free, and although all the exhibits are in Chinese, the sobering realization that the old gardens of Longhua Temple are a mass grave holding the remains of executed political prisoners needed no translation.

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Exterior of Jade Buddha Temple – Shanghai

After Longhua Temple, I took the Metro to west Shanghai to see the Jade Buddha Temple which dates back to the late 19th Century (although the original temple was destroyed and the present site was built in the late 1920s). As its name suggests, this temple contains 2 Buddha statues made of white jade. Both Buddhas were sculpted in Burma and had been acquired by a Chinese monk named Huigen who had been traveling through Burma in the early 1880s.

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Entrance to main prayer hall – Jade Buddha Temple

The story goes that Huigen had actually purchased 5 such jade Buddhas, but only 2 of these were transported back to his temple in Shanghai where special halls were built to house them. It is not clear what happened to the other 3 jade Buddhas. Since I had visited Burma and seen many jade and marble Buddhas there (Mandalay in Burma is still known for its mastery of marble & jade sculptures), I was curious to see how the 2 jade Buddhas of the Jade Buddha Temple compared.  

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The Seated Buddha of Jade Buddha Temple

Although photographs are not allowed of the 2 jade Buddhas, I did manage to surreptitiously snap a shot of the larger one — the “Seated Buddha”. This statue is displayed behind glass in its own hall which requires an entry fee that is separate from the general admission to the temple complex. Inside the hall, there is a railing in the back that keeps the public at a good distance away from the statue which is located in the front of the hall. The statue contains feminine features that are very similar to those I had seen in other Burmese statues of the Buddha. The seated pose of the statue depicts the Buddha in the “earth witness” (or bhumi-sparsha) mudra that was famously used by the Buddha to respond back to the demon, Mara, who was hoping to tempt the Buddha to give up his search for Enlightenment (see post: “Tempt” at https://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The second jade Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple is found in another hall and is much smaller. This statue depicts a Reclining Buddha and is serpentine in the way its body is curved. I found it interesting that both of these 2 jade Buddhas which reflect the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Burma were acquired by Huigen, a monk of the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The exquisite artistry of the 2 statues probably quelled any potential protests by fellow monks when Huigen returned to Shanghai and requested that the 2 Burmese-sculpted Buddhas be housed at their temple.

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Jing’an Temple (crowned with a mini-Mahabodhi Temple) at West Nanjiang Road – Shanghai

From the Jade Buddha Temple, I was back on the Metro and headed to Jing’an Temple. Nestled smack dab in the middle of Shanghai’s busy West Nanjiang Road, this temple could be mistaken upon first blush as some kind of modern religious theme park. The original temple that bore the name “Jing’an” dates back to the 3rd Century A.D., but that site was destroyed long ago and an entirely new temple was built at the current site of Jing’an Temple in 1216 A.D. from where it enjoyed centuries of unmolested religious activity and spiritual importance until the events of the 20th Century interfered.

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Central courtyard – Jing’an Temple

The present design and construction of Jing’an Temple took place in 1998 and incorporated some key Buddhist icons such as a mini-replica of the Mahabodhi Temple (found in Bodh Gaya, India) perched atop the temple and the Pillar of Ashoka (now in a museum in Sarnath, India) which pops out of the city sidewalk that borders the temple. When I entered Jing’an Temple, it dawned on me that this flashy temple fused together elements of China’s “Big 3” religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I saw distinct religious icons and offering areas for each of these 3 faiths inside the temple grounds and visitors were making their rounds to observe and pray before all of these.

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Central Buddha – Jing’an Temple

The central Buddha statue at Jing’an Temple appears to be made from iron or bronze and is nearly black in color. Directly behind this Buddha is a visually stunning panel that illustrates key episodes of the Buddha’s life (see first photograph in the post: “To the Wonder (again)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-PC).  While I can’t say that the present design and construction of Jing’an Temple captures any of the contemplative atmosphere or spiritual authenticity of either Longhua Temple or the Jade Buddha Temple complex, Jing’an Temple is very much “on brand” with the rest of the modern, reimagined Shanghai. It is a chic destination that allows lay people and devotees alike to practice (or go through the motions of practicing) their traditions of ancestral and spiritual worship.

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Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple) – Beijing, China (2013)

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I was in Beijing in 2013 where I witnessed the same kind of enterprising consumerism as in Shanghai. While most of the key historical sights in and around Beijing are connected to the city’s imperial past (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, etc.), there was one remaining Buddhist temple and monastery of interest. This was the Yonghe Temple (or Lama Temple) which also has its origins rooted in Beijing’s imperial past. This temple was first built in 1694 A.D. as a residence for the Qing crown prince. About 50 years later, the complex was reconfigured as a monastery and center for the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Stairway leading to main hall at Yonghe Temple

Not surprisingly, the entire layout and design of the Yonghe Temple is reminiscent of a mini-Forbidden City because the Qing Emperor’s son initially had lived there. During my visit, the Yonghe Temple was buzzing with visitors and monks were actively chanting mantras, playing drums and other instruments, and treating the public to the visual pageantry of Tibetan Buddhism. As I watched the interactions of the public and the monks, I could not shake the feeling that this spectacle seemed “staged”.  This was based only on my hunch and not anything else. But, it was hard for me to accept the legitimacy of this school or “lamasery” for Tibetan Buddhism given the stark absence of any photos or other acknowledgments of the current Dalai Lama (the 14th Dalai Lama). I also thought back to my experience at the moribund Tashilumpo Monastery in Tibet where the puppet Panchen Lama appointed by the PRC resides (see post: “For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-b4).

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Observing Tibetan Buddhist Monks at Yonghe Temple

The entire vibe inside Tashilumpo Monastery had come across as artificial to me and I felt a similar feeling at Yonghe Temple. Regardless of whether or not the monks at Yonghe Temple must follow a schedule set by the PRC and have to put on a good show for visitors, the Yonghe Temple did somehow survive the Cultural Revolution and is very well preserved. The best sight of the temple is found inside the “Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses” where one of the world’s largest Buddha statues made of sandalwood is located. This statue is 3-stories high and is housed within a colorfully painted space filled with Buddhist icons and symbols. The artistry and craftsmanship of both the statue and the interior of the pavilion are on par with what may still be seen in the monasteries and temples in Tibet. There is no doubt that the first wave of Tibetan Buddhists who traveled to Beijing to found the Lama Temple effectively replicated and shared their artistic skill and know-how in order to transform the once imperial residence into a center of religious teaching and worship that injected the spirit of Tibet into China.

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Sandalwood Buddha – Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at Yonghe Temple

As I said, the original buildings of Yonghe Temple had been planned and constructed by the Qing Emperor to mirror those of the Forbidden City.  Since I had visited the Forbidden City the day before seeing Yonghe Temple, its layout was fresh in my mind. While wandering through the Forbidden City (now called the “Palace Museum”), I had mentally replayed scenes from “The Last Emperor” and was able to pick out many of the exact same locations where Bernardo Bertolucci had been allowed by the PRC to shoot scenes for the film. Towards the north end of the Forbidden City, there is a rock garden area with leafy trees and I had ducked under one of these to take refuge from the scorching sun on the day of my visit. When I had cooled down, I walked up to an elevated platform where I was able to look beyond the tall walls surrounding the palace grounds. In the distance, I was surprised to see what appeared to be the shape of a stupa with Tibetan-like symbols and features.

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Beyond the walls of the Forbidden City – Bai Ta (the White Dagoba)

I used my camera’s zoom lens to take a closer look at this white structure and it was clear to me that this was some kind of Tibetan “chorten” (or stupa). Since this structure was located outside of the Forbidden City and had been built in the middle of an island in a lake, I wasn’t able to walk to it. Later on, I did some research into this curious sight and learned that this was “Bai Ta” (or the “White Dagoba”). It was built by the Chinese Qing Emperor to commemorate the first ever visit to Beijing by the-then Tibetan head of state, the 5th Dalai Lama. I was amazed by this. Apparently, none of the previous Dalai Lamas had ever visited, nor had entered into any alliance with, any Chinese Emperor. Since I had some knowledge about the 5th Dalai Lama’s great achievements and the vaunted place he held in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, it made sense to me why the Chinese Emperor had vigorously campaigned to meet with such a formidable and visionary man as the 5th Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama had done much to usher the Tibetan people into an age of advancement which had culminated with the construction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa (see post: “Sketches of Lhasa (#3)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-eQ). I remember viewing the 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb which is housed on its own floor within the Potala Palace and there are massive statues (one with an elephant with a huge pearl in its forehead) that surround it. When the 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in 1652 A.D., he was accompanied by 3,000 Tibetans and the journey from Lhasa had taken 9 months. No wonder the Chinese Emperor had built the Bai Ta stupa as the crowning feature on its own island in close proximity to the Forbidden City. This grand gesture clearly demonstrated that the 5th Dalai Lama was viewed by the Chinese as a strong independent leader of a foreign land and was someone with whom the Chinese Emperor wanted to establish fruitful foreign relations.

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Closer look at Bai Ta – Beihai Park, Beijing

In thinking back to my accidental spotting of Bai Ta from my vantage point at the Forbidden City, I have to believe that most visitors (including Chinese tourists too) are oblivious to this stupa which I did not see promoted as a point of interest in any travel guides or tourist brochures. Furthermore, whatever information that is provided to visitors about Bai Ta most likely reflects PRC-approved messaging. After all, how would the PRC reconcile the significance of Bai Ta with its long held claim that Tibet has always been a part of China? Assuming that the PRC does simply dismiss Bai Ta as an “off-brand” historical footnote of no importance, this monument’s indomitable presence piercing the skies above the grounds of old imperial Beijing emphatically suggests otherwise.

The Calming Influence of A Giant

7 Feb

After I had journeyed through Tibet in 2007, I made a vow to myself to never set foot in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). My reasons for that are chronicled in my previous posts about my first-hand experience of the treatment of Tibetans and their vanishing culture under the oppressive policies of the PRC (click the “Tibet” heading under the “Categories” section to read those posts). Yet, even before I traveled to Dunhuang, China to see the Mogao Caves in 2016, I had already visited the PRC on 2 different occasions with the first taking place in November 2012. My 2012 trip was spurred by 2 things: first, China had embarked on a fascinating “re-branding” blitz that had begun during the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and second, my youngest brother was living in Shanghai and working on the design and construction of one of the massive new projects that was part of this “new China” — Disney Shanghai. I wrestled with the decision to go to China, but ultimately relented after convincing myself that the visit could provide me with insight into the attitudes and pulse of the upcoming generation there. In order to procure my Chinese visa, I had to have my brother write an “invitation letter” asking me to visit him in China and then I sent this letter along with an application fee and my flight arrival and departure information to the Chinese consulate in the U.S. While I was interested in seeing the soaring demand for consumerism and luxury Western brands in Shanghai, I had another destination in mind: Chengdu. So, after a couple of days getting acclimated to the frenzied pace of Shanghai, I was soon boarding a long domestic flight to what was once China’s western frontier.

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Wenshu Pavillion, Wenshu Temple – Chengdu, China (2012)

Chengdu was the 5th largest city in China at the time of my visit. This sprawling city sits about 2,000km (1,200 miles) from Shanghai and is located in the southwestern corner of China in Sichuan province. It is the last major city in this region of China before the mountains and the Tibetan plateau begin to rise and dominate the landscape. Chengdu is perhaps best known today for 2 things: food and pandas. There’s no doubt that Chengdu is the culinary capital of China with its fiery cuisine which features the spicy Sichuan peppercorn. There are thousands of hot pot restaurants where diners boil their own meat, noodles, and vegetables in a broth saturated with Sichuan peppers and spices. Additionally, the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding is about 20km outside of downtown. The sole purpose of this conservation park is to breed, nurse, and in some cases, release Giant Pandas into the surrounding forests.

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Bottle feeding Giant Panda cub at the Chengdu Research Base for Giant Pandas

Long before the gastronomy and panda craze, Chengdu was one of the “Three Kingdoms” that controlled China in the 3rd Century A.D.  Emperor Liu Bei had his palace in Chengdu and ruled what was called the Shu kingdom. His period of rule has been romanticized in important Chinese books and novels as a golden era of great learning, prosperity, and cultural exchange. Contemporary Chengdu is filled with construction cranes, huge buildings, and the city is connected by a  “flyover” highway where cars whiz above the city without the bother of traffic lights. A few key historical sights in Chengdu include the old district (called Jinli), the Tibetan quarter filled with raucous snooker halls, the Wuhou Shrine (Liu Bei’s burial mound), and Wenshu Monastery (originally called “Xin Xiang Temple”) — the oldest and best preserved Buddhist monastery in Chengdu.

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The Thousand Buddha Pagoda – Wenshu Temple

Wenshu Temple was built sometime in the 6th Century A.D. during the rule of Emperor Wendi of the Sui dynasty.  It is a large complex with multiple buildings and prayer halls. The most arresting feature of the temple is the Thousand Buddha Pagoda in the courtyard. In the 19th century, a well-known Chinese monk who had studied at Bodh Gaya in India brought back a fingerbone relic that is now thought to be enshrined inside the Pagoda.

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The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa at the Golden Summit – Mt. Emei, Sichuan province, China (2012)

Given Chengdu’s geographic location on the western frontier of China, it served as a natural corridor for the arrival of Buddhism into China. Buddhism is an alien religion in China. Confucianism and Taoism were long entrenched as the dominant philosophical and religious schools of thought before Buddhism began to spread from the Himalayas and deserts in the West to the populated Chinese regions in the East. About a 2-hour drive south of Chengdu is perhaps the exact location where Buddhism first took hold in China — Mt. Emei (Emeishan). This mountain is one of the “4 Sacred Mountains of Chinese Buddhism” and is where the Buddhist monk, Samantabhadra (called Puxian by the Chinese), first arrived on the back of a white elephant with 6 tusks. Puxian taught in the Mahayana Buddhist school and is viewed today as a Bodhisattva associated with meditation and spiritual practice.  The first Buddhist temple in China was built on the slopes of Emeishan in the 1st Century A.D. The entire Emeishan region is a UNESCO site and there is a lot to see. My goal was to reach the “Golden Summit” and visit the key temple complexes that dotted the mountain. From Mt. Emei, I wanted to travel about 35km east to see the largest pre-modern statue in the world which was an ancient Giant Buddha carved into a riverside cliff.  Because of the tricky overland travel and the non-existence of English in West China, I decided to hire an English-speaking guide and driver in Chengdu who would take care of the logistics for getting to all these sites.

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Walking up the icy steps towards the cable car station at Mt. Emei

It was late November and an early winter chill was in full effect at the base of Mt. Emei where we purchased admission tickets for a cable car that would take us up to the Golden Summit. The journey to the cable car station itself required a combination of riding a shuttle bus, walking up steep stairways, and being on the lookout for hyperactive Tibetan macaques. Going up these stairways was treacherous given the ice and people were buying special shoe covers from eager vendors in order to walk safely. There are over 30 Buddhist monasteries and temples spread around Mt. Emei from its base (Baoguo Monastery), mid-mountain (Wannian Monastery), and top (Golden Temple, Silver Temple). Of all of these, Wannian Monastery is one of the oldest and most eye-popping in its aesthetic and impact.

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The yellow Beamless Brick Hall of the Wannian Temple complex – Mt. Emei

In keeping with the traditional layout of Mahayana Buddhist monasteries, the Wannian Monastery consists of multiple buildings which include an entry gate, prayer halls dedicated to the Buddha and Maitreya (Future Buddha), drum & bell towers, assembly pavilions, library rooms, and monk dormitories. The most unique of these buildings is the “Beamless Brick Hall” which one cannot miss due to its yellow color and dome. There are no wooden supports or pillars inside this building which is constructed by brick and is likely based on stupa and dagoba designs found in India and Sri Lanka. Directly underneath the dome is an astounding bronze statue of Puxian that was cast in the 10 Century A.D.  Puxian is holding a teaching scepter and sits in a lotus flower that rests atop a 6-tusk white elephant. The statue is over 7 meters/24ft high and is the absolute focal point of all activity inside.

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Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

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Bronze statue of Puxian from 10th Century A.D. – Wannian Monastery

When I tried to walk around the elephant in order to observe the statue from different vantage points, I noticed a group of Chinese individuals who were taking turns rubbing one of the back legs of the elephant. I could only interpret this as some kind of good luck tradition and noticed that the rubbed area of the elephant’s leg had eroded and was black. From Wannian Monastery, a shuttle took us further up the mountain to Jieyin Monastery which sits at an elevation of 2,540 meters. From there, we walked up another stairway to the cable car station. At this elevation, visibility was extremely limited due to thick clouds and fog. As the cable car started its way up, I braced myself for the probable disappointment that the Golden Summit itself would be completely encased in suffocating cloud cover.

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Above the “sea of clouds” with the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple in the distance – Mt. Emei

The cable car neared the summit within about 6 or 7 minutes and as it emerged out of the thick clouds, incredibly, my face was met by warm sunlight and I saw nothing but blue skies. The elevation of the “Jinding” (Golden Summit) of Mt. Emei is just above 3,000m (10,000ft) and in the distance way above the sea of clouds it is possible to see the tallest mountain in Sichuan, Mount Gongga (over 7,550 meters/nearly 25,000ft). As I began walking towards the main platform of the Golden Summit, I had to shield my eyes from the blinding golden temples and pavillions that were coming into view.  The summit platform itself was a fanatical sight of white elephants carrying the Dharma wheel on their backs, white trees, and in the center, a looming, frosted gold vision: the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa. 

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Walking towards the “Ten-Faced Puxian” stupa at the Golden Summit

The Ten-Faced Puxian stupa was built in 2006 and is 48 meters/127ft tall. Despite its recent vintage, there’s something magical about this statue. Perhaps the frost and passing mist that I saw around the statue added to its spectral quality, but I had never seen a stupa crowned with such a dynamic statue and was mesmerized. It was hard to pull my eyes away. At the base of the stupa, there was a doorway and when I walked inside I saw a statue of the Maitreya fronted by an altar area for prayer and offerings. The “Ten Faces” of Puxian represent the 10 virtues of truth that Puxian taught during his life.  Alongside the stupa are the Golden Temple and Silver Temple, and hanging on a cliff in the distance, is the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.

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The Golden Temple & Ten-Faced Puxian stupa

After spending about an hour wandering the Golden Summit and marveling at the perfect blanket of clouds below, we made our way back to the cable car and descended down the mountain. My driver then drove us east for about an hour until we reached another UNESCO site — the Leshan Giant Buddha (called “Da Fo”).  While the Ten-Faced Puxian stupa is a masterwork of modern design, the Leshan Giant Buddha is probably the most stupefying single statue of the ancient world.

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Riverside view of the Leshan Giant Buddha – Sichuan province, China (2012)

This statue was built in 8th Century A.D. and is 71 meters/233ft high. I first viewed this colossus from a boat which takes visitors across an intersection of rivers to a waiting area directly in front of the Giant Buddha. Today, the rivers are tranquil, but 1,300 years ago, there were 3 mighty rivers that merged in the same spot and due to their whitewater rapids and rocks, boats were routinely tossed and thrashed like rag dolls. It was because of these concerns that a local Buddhist monk named Hai Tong began his quest to build a guardian statue that would be blessed and serve to calm the wild waters. He spent 20 years of his life trying to raise money for his project and was rebuffed at every turn until he finally gouged out one of his eyes in dramatic protest. Apparently, this desperate act did the trick and money for the project quickly poured in from regents and locals. Construction started in 723 A.D., and although Hai Tong died before the project was completed, his disciples faithfully carried out his wishes until the statue was finished in 803 A.D.

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Statue of Hai Tong and entrance to the spartan cave he lived in during construction of “Da Fo”

The entire Giant Buddha statue is made of stone except for the ears which are built from wood and clay was used to fuse the large head to the torso.  At one point, the statue had a roof over it to protect it from the weather and other elements, but this feature was destroyed long ago. The statue is thought to represent the Maitreya (the future Buddha), and alongside it are other smaller stone statues, tombs, the remains of an old temple, and a few pagodas perched on the surrounding hilltops.

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Eye-to-eye with the Leshan Giant Buddha

After our boat turned back to the dock, we drove across a bridge and arrived at the official entrance to the Leshan Giant Buddha where we purchased our tickets. The visit to the Leshan Giant Buddha starts from the top where the statue’s head rises just above the cliff plateau. From there, one must patiently and carefully walk down the “Nine-Turn Cliff” to get to the bottom of the statue. Signs in Chinese and English are posted warning visitors who suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease, or “old-age” not to walk down the Nine-Turn Cliff.

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Carefully descending the Nine-Turn Cliff

On my way down the Nine-Turn Cliff, it became immediately clear why the need for the warning. The stairway is steep and the railing that separates you from a likely lethal fall is not very high. To complicate things, people are haphazardly stopping all along the way to snap photos, rest, or chit-chat, so you have to be on high-alert for human traffic jams and not bump into the person ahead of you.  It is also difficult to pass slow-pokes given the narrow stairway. If someone twists an ankle or gets a panic attack and needs to turn around and walk upstream against the slog of people coming down, this could trigger a nightmare scenario of being temporarily stuck.

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Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

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A colossus

When I reached the bottom, I walked behind a large incense urn and kneeling area and stared up. This statue was constructed in only 80 years over 1,300 years ago. That seemed inexplicably fast to me. I could see lush bushes and vines growing out of certain areas of the statue (I learned later that every few years Chinese officials undertake the painstaking effort of removing all this greenery which always grows back). This symbiotic relationship between the Giant Buddha and the vegetation that sprouts out of it reminded me of large whales that have barnacles attached to them. These bushes that had managed to take root in the statue made the statue appear alive and sentient. Then, I had a funny thought that the Leshan Giant Buddha was not just the world’s largest pre-modern statue, but also the world’s largest Chia Pet!

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The climb back up

After viewing the Giant Buddha from below, I had to go back up through another stairway on the opposite cliffside. The walk up was very slow and claustrophobic in certain places given the tight tunnel-like switch-backs dug into the cliffside. As I climbed higher and looked down at the river below, I could see it was shallow with sediment piled up in certain places. Interestingly, this sediment was all the result of the construction of the Giant Buddha. All of the silt, rocks, and other sludge which had been removed from the cliff in order to carve the statue were not carted away or transported elsewhere for other uses. Instead, all of this excavated cliffside debris simply fell into the wild rivers below, and gradually, the rivers were reshaped and the once raging rapids ceased. So, the Giant ultimately accomplished what Hai Tong had sought long ago — it had calmed the rivers.

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A final look on the way out

Behold A White Horse

31 Jan

About 15 months after my visit to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in India, I was in a small town in western China called Dunhuang. When the Silk Road trading routes were at their height of use and long caravans filled with spices, silk, grains, teas, fruits, gunpowder, precious stones, and other in-demand goods were busy treading back and forth from the East to the West in the 4th to 15th Centuries A.D., Dunhuang was a boomtown. It sat at a key crossroads of the southern Silk Road trade route and offered weary travelers an oasis of refuge as they battled the elements of the Gobi desert in the northeast and the Taklamakan desert in the west.

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Not a mirage – megadunes of Mount Mingsha looming over dusty Dunhuang, Gansu, China (2016)

Since the easternmost starting point of the Silk Road was the city of Xi’an in east-central China, I guess it made sense that I had to transit there in order to catch the only connecting flight to Dunhuang. I began the first leg of the journey on a China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Xi’an which was about a 2-hour flight. In Xi’an, I had a 2-hour layover and then hopped on the once-a-day flight from Xi’an to Dunhuang which took another 3-hours. Everywhere in China is on Beijing standard time. So, although I was over 3000km (nearly 2000 miles) from Shanghai when I landed in Dunhuang, I lost no hours. I was still in the same time zone from when I started, but other than that, I was in a completely different world.

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The mythic oasis of Crescent Moon Spring Temple where travelers gave offerings to the Bodhisattva Guanyin for safe passage through the desert

To use a “Star Wars” analogy, Dunhuang is like the outer rim desert trading outpost of Tatooine. The town sits in Gansu province which extends from Sichuan province at its most southern border all the way to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at its northwest border. Its population reflects this positioning since I saw many Uighur people who live and work in their own district in Dunhuang (packed with Uighur food vendors, restaurants, mosques, and schools), while a good chunk of “new” Dunhuang is filled with the neon lights and hot pot glitz that I’ve seen in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. From the moment I arrived in Dunhuang, I found no one who spoke English and it was a major feat just to finagle a taxi ride from the airport to my hotel. After I was able to check-in at my hotel (which required the use of a translation app by the front desk clerk), I wandered through Dunhuang’s downtown and noticed that all the stores, restaurants, and other public establishments had thick, clear plastic curtains that one parted like the Red Sea in order to enter. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why these obstructive curtains were everywhere.

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Climbing up the dunes near Mingsha

There are “megadunes” of desert sand that frame Dunhuang like a massive mountain range. These ginormous sand dunes are known to make “chiming sounds” (which is what “Mingsha” — the name of the highest dune means) and shift quickly when the wind rustles through them. The town gets blanketed with sand when powerful gusts blast the dunes. So, the plastic curtains on all the doorways are an absolute necessity. Luckily, I had arrived in late winter, and aside from the brisk temperatures, the winds were calm. I had come to Dunhuang for one purpose: to see the fabled Mogao Caves.

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Approaching the Mogao Caves

These caves were first dug into the side of what I would call a massive “petrified” sand cliff in the the 4th Century A.D. The very first cave was carved out because of the vision seen by a Buddhist monk who had settled in Dunhuang. On a meditative walk through the desert plains outside the town, a near-blinding, shining halo consisting of a Thousand Buddhas appeared before him. Determined to capture his vision on the spot, he began digging into the side of the sand cliff where he saw the Buddhas. After this cave was dug, he dedicated it as a shrine to his vision and began using it for prayer and sharing it with others. This socialization of the cave naturally lead to other monks creating their own similar caves alongside the first cave and this went on and on for 1000 years all the way through the 14th Century. Each subsequent cave iterated on previous caves in some way and pushed the artistic envelope by getting bolder and more intricate with the paintings, sculptures, and design & size of the caves themselves. Word of these stunning caves in the desert soon spread and attracted a wide-ranging group of pilgrims, traders, religious leaders of other faiths, and tourists of the day who stopped at Dunhuang with their trade caravans.  A mind-boggling total of 732 caves (that have been excavated) were dug.

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Exterior views – Mogao Caves

When the Silk Road routes began to wane in the 15th Century, Dunhuang also shrunk in size and significance. As a result, the Mogao Caves were largely swallowed whole by the sand with a remaining few used as a temporary homes for squatters, and later, as jails. In 1900, the world rediscovered the unparalleled collection of Buddhist art at Mogao, when a local caretaker who was curious about the strange path of cigarette smoke followed it to a blocked cave. Inside this cave (today called Cave 17 or the “Library Cave”), there was a treasure trove of old manuscripts, woodblock paintings, scriptures, musical instruments, ritual artifacts, and other Buddhist art.  Within a few years, there was a rush of international archaeologists eager to gather the spoils of the find, and as result, much of these artifacts ended up spread around the world or sold to private collectors. Fortunately, the Chinese government has come to recognize the importance of the Mogao Caves and has done a commendable job in preserving these fragile caves for posterity to behold.

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Exterior views

As part of their preservation efforts, there is a strict daily quota placed on the number of visitors who may enter the Mogao Caves. Additionally, only a small portion of the over 700 caves are open during any day for ticketed visitors. The rest of the caves are kept locked. I had been unable to register for a ticket in advance through the official Mogao website, but since it was the low season for tourism in the area, I felt good about my chances to buy a ticket directly at the ticket office.  I had a bit of a challenge in finding the right bus to get to the Mogao park headquarters (about 25km from Dunhuang) due to the language barrier, but my hand gestures combined with repeating “Mogao, Mogao” finally resonated with a local who scribbled directions to the bus stop on a piece of paper and pointed me to a driver who then read the note and took me there.  At the bus stop, I jumped on the first green-colored bus I saw (I had read that the bus to Mogao was green). I paid my fare directly to the collector on the bus and about 30 minutes later the bus pulled up to the park gates.  I saw a small queue of people and walked to the back of this line. As a foreigner, I had to buy the foreigner ticket admission which was tied to a specific timed entry to the cave complex. After sitting in a waiting area for 15 minutes or so, I was ushered by park staff into a state-of-the-art dome theater that showed a high quality animated & live action film about the history of the Mogao Caves.  

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Exterior Cave 437 and Cave 444

Once the film finished, everyone in the theater was chaperoned to shuttles which took us up a small hill to the entrance to the caves. I walked towards the turnstiles of the entrance when I got off the shuttle, but was stopped and told to wait until my guide arrived. No visitors are allowed into the cave complex without a guide. The guides have keys to those caves that are designated as open on any day, and the guides open and lock each cave as they take the visitors around the cave complex. Since I was the only English-speaker that day, I received an English-speaking guide who provided me with a very intimate, one-on-one experience through the caves. She liked the fact I was asking many questions and demonstrated my curiosity about the caves and the Buddhist art inside because it allowed her to practice her English in a more comprehensive way. She also unlocked and took me inside many additional caves that were usually not open to visitors in order to continue our discussions. It was like having a private, VIP tour of the all the art held in the Vatican.

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Colorful Buddha image painted on the outside wall of one of the Mogao Caves

In most of the caves, there are no lights whatsoever, so my guide and I used our own flashlights to shine on the multi-colored fresco paintings and stucco sculptures inside. As our flashlights moved along the walls above and around us, it was like a slow reveal of the mysteries of the universe. Because of the fragile state of these wall and ceiling paintings, no photos are allowed in any of the caves and only the larger caves housing the mammoth-sized statues have a few electrical lights installed in them. The rest of the caves are more or less kept as they were centuries ago aside from some temperature control equipment. In certain caves, I saw smoke residue blackening wall paintings and my guide told me that was due to people living in certain caves in the early 20th Century. Unlike the paintings inside the Ajanta Caves, which have largely faded or been damaged, the cave paintings at Mogao are very much intact and their colors are still vivid — no doubt due in part to the arid desert climate and cold interior of the caves. There also has been international collaboration in order to digitally map and restore certain sections of the caves, so that the Mogao Caves may continue to be analyzed and studied without the need for physical intrusion.

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Exterior Cave 16 and 17 (the Library Cave)

Two highlights at the Mogao Caves are the “Giant Buddha” in Cave 130 and the “Reclining Buddha” in Cave 148.  There are a few other large Buddha statues tucked within the belly of Mogao, but these 2 sights are the ones that I will always remember. Cave 130 is the centerpiece of Mogao and the Buddha inside is colossal. It is the third largest stone constructed Buddha in the world. 

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Cave 130 – housing the “Giant Buddha”

As I entered Cave 130, I had to almost immediately lift my eyes upwards because there was little room in the cave to see anything else other than the colossus above. This statue rises up 6 floors. The full length of the interior walls and ceilings are all beautifully painted with colorful Buddhist iconography and decorative themes. The Giant Buddha was built in the 8th Century A.D. and is over a 1000 years old. Yet, other than some grime, soot, and a little fading here and there, the statue is in very good condition. Clearly, it was built to last through the ages.

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Sign outside Cave 130 with image of the Giant Buddha inside

Cave 148 houses a long Reclining Buddha and behind it are over 30 life-sized statues of disciples, arhats, and other monks. The cave is a tight, claustrophobic space with a low ceiling. I felt I was inside a tube-like kaleidoscope of thousands of cascading Buddhas painted above me as stories from the Buddha’s life filled the side walls.  The Reclining Buddha statue itself reminded me of a 14-meter long Reclining Buddha I had seen 4 years earlier at the Dambulla Caves in central Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Caves are thought to have first been dug in the 1st Century B.C., so they are older than the Mogao Caves and likely influenced the Buddhist art and sculptures at Mogao. In comparing a photo I took of the Reclining Buddha in Dambulla (known as the “Cave of the Divine King”) with a photo of the Reclining Buddha at Cave 148 in Mogao (as shown in the sign outside the cave), there is a strong similarity in the depictions of the flowing Buddhas on the ceiling of each cave and the coloring and certain features of the statue.

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Reclining Buddha at the “Cave of the Divine King” – Dambulla Caves, Sri Lanka (2010)
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Sign outside Cave 148 with image of the Reclining Buddha inside

As I was writing this blog and looking over my photos from my trip to Dunhuang, I remembered that although I had come to Dunhuang to see the Mogao Caves which were beyond staggering and jaw-dropping in their artistic genius and beauty, I was most touched by a tale of a horse named Tianliu or “White Dragon”. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, just across the Danghe river, is an old Buddhist monastery called Puguang Temple.  In the courtyard, there is a rather unassuming pagoda called the White Horse Pagoda. It was originally built in the 4th Century A.D. as a shrine to the beloved white horse of an Indian Buddhist monk named Kumarajiva who had ridden this horse through treacherous desert conditions as he ventured out of what is today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kumarajiva’s goal was to preach about Buddhism all the way east until he reached Xi’an. He had stopped at the Puguang Temple in Dunhuang to teach there for a few days.  The night before he was to leave Puguang for Xi’an, his horse fell ill. On that same night, Kumarajiva had a dream where the horse spoke to him and explained that it would not be able to continue the journey. A despondent Kumarajiva chastised the horse for abandoning the duty to spread the Buddhist scriptures right when they had reached the half-way point to their final destination. The horse replied: “I have fulfilled my task. Ahead of you, not far from here, you will find Crescent Moon Spring where the heavenly steeds gather. There you will find another white horse waiting for you. It will accompany you to the East.”

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White Horse Pagoda – Dunhuang

The next morning, the horse had died. Kumarajiva first built a small altar for the horse and performed Buddhist rites of mourning there for 9 days. Still overcome with the emotion of the loss, he directed his grief towards the building of White Horse Pagoda. Unfortunately, the original pagoda which had stood for over 1500 years was destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, but in the early 1990s it was rebuilt. A solemn mood washed over me as I stood looking at the replacement pagoda. There was a lone prayer scarf tied to the protective gate around it. Other than this, the pagoda had no signs of any offerings or ritual items. In fact, there was no one else at the temple and it felt deserted. Just as I gathered myself and was about to turn and go, a breeze billowed through the dormant trees and the tiny bells atop the pagoda began to chime in step. The high-pitched pinging grabbed my attention. There was something familiar about the sounds that rang out — like a cheerful call of the spirit, or just maybe, the triumphant neigh of a horse.

The Hammer & Chisel

17 Jan

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Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra state, India (2014)

Legend has it that in the early-19th century an English hunting party (chasing tigers, of course) was treading through the thick brush above the Waghura river in central India, and when peering at the gorge in front of them, saw what appeared to be openings in the cliff face. The group then maneuvered its way down and was met by a local boy who guided them into one of the openings in the cliff face where magnificent Buddhist rock carvings and wall paintings emerged. We know this story actually took place because Captain John Smith who was part of the hunting party carved his name and date in one of the colorful murals in the large temple cave now known as “Cave No. 10”.  Smith’s name is still visible today with a piece of clear plastic protecting it from people who may want to scrawl their initials or names over it.

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Cave No. 10 (200 B.C.) – Ajanta

It is hard to provide appropriate context for the immense size and head-scratching impact of Ajanta. There are about 30 caves of Buddhist worship tunneled into sheer rock. The rock itself is a type of basalt that has volcanic origins. It is near black in color and hard to the touch. Beginning in 200 B.C. and continuing through the 7th Century A.D., the Buddhist monks and their followers in the area took on the herculean task of patiently hammering, chiseling, and removing debris, and then repeating this manual process for what must have felt like an eternity. Their tools may have evolved slightly between each generation who took over the work, but the human hands powering these tools did not change. Just hands, no machines. That was it. But, the power of their beliefs and focus on creating ever-lasting temples in stone must have allowed for a divine hand to propel their backbreaking daily toil. These stone crafters not only created open spaces that would fill with outside light and serve as large prayer or assembly rooms, but also strategically left other portions of the interior rocks intact for specific sculptural, decorative, or structural purposes. In addition to all of this, highly skilled artisans painted murals on the sides of the cave walls depicting scenes of the Buddha’s life and filled the roofs with geometric patterns, floral motifs, and other symbols. Each cave was designed like its own Sistine Chapel.

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Interior ceiling – Ajanta Cave No. 2

I ducked in and out of all the caves of Ajanta and each one had its own unique elements. While many of the murals and ceilings have decayed and vanished, most of the rock sculptures are in fairly good condition.

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Interior ceiling with floral motif

In one of the smaller caves, I was pondering a particularly beautiful stone Buddha in the teaching mudra pose (dharmachakra) and I noticed something. At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I was in a dark area near the back of the cave and there were a few electrical lights on the floor which illuminated the Buddha. These lights appeared to cast shadows around certain features of the statue. I gazed intently at what the totality of the shadows created which was a perfect outline of a bell-shaped Buddhist stupa. I was dumbstruck and did a double-take. The outline of the stupa was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Was this just a coincidence? Or did the monks who sculpted this Buddha statue (and others like it in the other caves) know that when the sun sat in the right spot in the horizon and its light poured through a specific cave window, the Buddha would reveal a secret — the hidden stupa?

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The shadow outline of a bell-shaped stupa is revealed

The stupa’s bell-shaped design is thought to have been based on the shape of ancient burial mounds, and similar to a burial mound, the stupa’s purpose was to serve as a ceremonial monument that was to enshrine a sacred relic (usually connected to the Buddha himself). I remember reading something about precise dimensions always being used to build stupas in India and Sri Lanka and those dimensions had some correlation with the design of Buddha images. But, I had never heard of this interplay between a Buddha image being engineered in a way that would allow a hidden stupa to be formed by the shadows cast off from its design.  I wanted to ask someone about this, but I’ve kept the moment to myself until now. I‘m sure what I saw was no random accident. I’ve seen and read enough at this point in my life where I no longer underestimate the ingenuity of earlier generations who understood the natural world and knew how to work in concert with it.

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Cave No. 4 – Ajanta

Ajanta represents perhaps the zenith of Buddhism’s artistic and cultural influence in India which was sparked from the time of India’s first Buddhist king, Ashoka, who ruled over most of the subcontinent in the 2nd Century B.C.  Within a few centuries afterwards, Buddhism’s hold in India began to precipitously decline and its teachings transmigrated and diverged as they spread east across the rest of Asia. Interestingly, while no more caves were dug into the gorge at Ajanta after 650 A.D., about 100km away in Ellora, massive new rock temples were being sculpted out of the same kind of basalt rock.  Were these craftsman the last generation of monks and artisans from Ajanta who simply hit the “wall” (so to speak) and decided to pick up and apply their skills to the Ellora site? Having a strong king to sponsor such a move would definitely have helped. And that seems to be the prevailing theory — pointing to King Krishna I, who ruled in the 7th Century A.D. and oversaw the spectacular cutout of massive temples from the hillside rock at Ellora.

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Ellora Cave No. 32 – Maharashtra state, India (2014)

The Ellora caves are not – in key areas – actual tunnels dug into rock face like at Ajanta. Instead, Ellora features a long, sloping embankment of basalt rock where huge temples have been carved out and lay in the open.  The most famous Ellora sights are its Hindu rock temples. Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) is the largest single rock temple in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu deity, Shiva, it is a masterpiece of human achievement and throngs of tourists and pilgrims walk around it, climb up its ancient stairs, and lay offerings inside the temple.  There are elephants, bulls, and other Hindu sculptures clustered around an elaborate gateway that leads to the temple which has an antechamber, assembly hall, inner sanctum, and towers.  There are multiple floors and you can walk up the cliff above Kailash Temple and enjoy a viewpoint that shows the temple’s intricate roof with its lion-like statues and mandala-like central piece.

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Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) – view from cliff above it

Although Kailash Temple is Ellora’s most commanding sight and must have absorbed most of the time and skill of the craftsmen, the other cave temples are not all similarly Hindu in design and spiritual purpose.  Ellora consists of more than 30 caves or rock temples and there are several Buddhist and Jain caves built alongside one another around the same time as the Hindu temples were created. Ellora is a rockside smorgasbord of these 3 faiths — each born in India with its own distinct thematic artistic flourish and iconography, but all having a shared sense of how to create a sacred place of worship that was both contemplative and functional.

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Kailash Temple

The grandest of the Buddhist caves at Ellora is Cave No. 10 or the “Carpenter’s Cave”. It has at least 2 floors and served as a monastery. The monks’ rooms were carved into the second floor above the prayer hall. The stone “ribs” that make up the roof of the temple are very similar to those in Cave No. 4 at Ajanta, so there must have been shared engineering knowledge between these craftsmen. The large Buddha image in the back center of the main hall is seated in the teaching mudra position and is flanked by two disciples. Rising behind and above this Buddha is a bulbous stupa with some decorative ornamentation encircling it.

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Ellora Cave No. 10 (known as “Carpenter’s Cave”)

When I first walked out of the sunlight and into this cave, my eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. When I was able to see inside, I locked eyes with what was clearly a supreme being seated before me. The sense of its power is immediate and concrete.  This may be because of the solid rock that surrounds you which is devoid of any “give”.  In the hard, dank cave one is stripped bare and vulnerable. There is a stark absence of distraction and I don’t recall there being any kind of echo.  The Buddha is not there to judge, but to provide a spiritual focal point. The stupa behind the Buddha represented to me the sacred that is to be unlocked within oneself.  That’s what I felt in the room. I then thought of the heightened spiritual vortex that must have gripped this cave when it was alive with all those monks who had lived there. I imagined them sitting on the cave floor, chanting, meditating, and perhaps even being transported to other spiritual dimensions or worlds.  Maybe that show, “Ancient Aliens”, wasn’t too far off with its theories about who (or what) built these things?

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