Archive | Dharma RSS feed for this section

Thunderbolts & Ringtones

20 Mar
DSCN1306

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.

DSCN1286

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.

DSCN1312

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. 

DSCN1438

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.

DSCN1445

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.

DSCN1334

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).

IMG_1521

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. 

DSCN1362

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.

DSCN1476

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.

IMG_1554

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.

IMG_1654

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.

DSCN1531

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.

DSCN1612

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.

IMG_1661

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.

DSCN1632

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. 

DSCN1545

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.

IMG_1608

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.

IMG_1611

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.

DSCN1265

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.

DSCN1153

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.

DSCN1186

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.

IMG_1462 2

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.

IMG_1502

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.

IMG_1471

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.

DSCN1212

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.

DSCN1385

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 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.

thumb_DSCN4581_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN5149_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4570_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4923_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4870_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4994_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN5005_1024

Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

thumb_DSCN5001_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4936_1024 copy

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. 

thumb_DSCN4897_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4947_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4702_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4817_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4742_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4772_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4804_1024

Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

thumb_DSCN4794_1024

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!

thumb_DSCN4673_1024

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.

thumb_DSCN4827_1024

A final look on the way out

Leaving Nothing But Footprints

21 Jan
Mt. Phu Si - Luang Prabang, Laos

Mt. Phu Si – Luang Prabang, Laos

Mt. Phu Si is a small hill (about 100m high) that stands above Luang Prabang.  On top of the hill is a gilded stupa with a white base called Wat Chomsi which pokes out from the thick green canopy of trees framing it. Mt. Phu Si also acts like a geographic boundary because it divides the old town of Luang Prabang from the new town which spreads out behind it towards the west. There are a couple of different routes that one can use to climb to the top of Phu Si. My plan was to walk up the hill from the stairs that were across from the Royal Palace and then come down via another route that would take me through a monastery complex. But, before doing the climb, I would have to wake up at the ghastly time of 6:30am in order to do a boat trip up the Mekong River to see the Pak Ou Caves. These caves are about 25km north of Luang Prabang and the river journey to and from the caves takes at least 4 to 5 hours, so I had to catch an early morning boat in order to have enough time to see the caves and then do an afternoon walk up Mt. Phu Si.

Cliffs along the Nam Ou River - Laos

Cliffs along the Nam Ou River – Laos

Below where Wat Xieng Thong sits at the eastern tip of old Luang Prabang, there is a small jetty where long wooden boats ferry people up and down the Mekong River. I hopped on one of these long wooden boats for a ride to the Pak Ou Caves at around 8:15am. As the boat slowly chugged to the middle of the river, I began to be slapped in the face with the early morning chill of a late December day in central Laos. I knew it would be cold, but in my haste to get up early and walk from my hotel to the jetty, I wore only a t-shirt and my tattered NorthFace “adventure” pants. I favored these pants because they had cut-away sections that could transform the pants into shorts (awesome!), but the pants were porous and provided me with no defense against the whipping wind bouncing off the river and into my core. So, I had to endure a brutal, teeth-chattering 2-hour journey to the caves while battling insidious thoughts of the inevitability of turning into an icicle. I had one brief respite from the freeze when the boat stopped at a whiskey brewing village along the way. I spent nearly the entire time there warming myself over a fire that was being used to make the whiskey (and sampling a few whiskeys) before returning to the boat. For the last half-hour of the boat ride, the sun was still struggling to bust out of the morning cloud cover. When it did happen to push through, I tried to put my face in any sunbeam I could find. While trying to stay in the sun, I noticed that although the Mekong became wider and wider as the boat traveled north, the river was still very shallow all around. This was the dry season and there had been no serious rain for months. I saw a few fishermen on small boats laboriously using wooden poles to push down on the riverbed in order to slowly move in the direction they wanted. The landscape also began to be dominated by limestone cliffs. It was at one of these cliffs — where the Nam Ou River met the Mekong — that the Pak Ou Caves had been founded and subsequently used for several centuries as shrines and places of worship.

Inside Tham Theung

Entrance to Tham Theung – upper cave of Pak Ou

There are two caves that make up the Pak Ou Caves. The lower cave is called Tham Ting and the upper cave is called Tham Theung. Tham Ting is actually an outcrop of the limestone cliff above it and is located just above the Ou river. Tham Theung, on the other hand, is in fact a cave which tunnels inside the limestone core for a few hundred meters and is positioned high above Tham Ting. Both caves contain countless statues of the Buddha — mostly wooden — in various standing and sitting poses.

Inside Tham Ting - lower cave of Pak Ou

Inside Tham Ting – lower cave of Pak Ou

When my boat docked at the entrance to the caves, I first walked up the stairs to see the upper cave of Tham Theung. The inside of the cave was dark and I had a small flashlight that came in handy as I made my way through the sections of the cave that were open to the public. Parts of the cave walls contain faded paintings and etchings of the Buddha. When I entered the central chamber of the cave, what I noticed was a large slab of stone that at one time may have served as a pedestal or platform for large statues of the Buddha — either in sitting or reclining poses.  If large statues had been placed or fixed into this stone backdrop, they had long been removed or pillaged but their presence seemed to remain. The key area of focus in the main chamber is a wooden replica of a stupa with a gold-colored tip that was wrapped with a ceremonial saffron-colored cloth at the time of my visit. This stupa sits on a squared platform with small Buddha statuettes placed around it. To the left of this stupa is a tall wooden pole that was also wrapped in a ceremonial cloth.

Inside Tham Theung

Inside Tham Theung

I was not able to find any information about the construction or meaning of the stupa or pole inside Tham Theung. There simply is not a lot of details or records about the origins and history of the Pak Ou Caves. One sign inside Tham Theung did mention that the caves are over a thousand years old, so this would mean that the caves likely predated Buddhism’s arrival in the region. I also did find out later that the local people of the region did have a tradition of seeking blessings from the “river spirit”, and so it would make sense that the initial purpose of the Pak Ou Caves was to allow for a place to make offerings to this deity.  At some point afterwards, the caves then became converted or combined to provide a place of Buddhist worship as well. However, the information on how and when this may have taken place is scant.

Stupa inside Tham Theung

Stupa inside Tham Theung

The lower cave, Tham Ting, has larger white statues that appeared to me to be of Khmer origin — such as lions. Because Tham Ting is really just a secluded area covered by an enormous overhang of the cliff above it, one can see the Nam Ou River and the surrounding scenery while standing inside in it. I think its accessibility to the riverfront allowed Tham Ting to serve as a waterside shrine and any passerby on a boat could easily dock alongside it, walk up to pray (or stay in the boat to do so), make an offering, or seek a blessing before venturing onward.

Tham Ting - lower cave of Pak Ou

Tham Ting – Khmer lion?

As a result of this quick accessibility, the amount of Buddhist statues and figures that populate what seems like every inch of the main altar platform of Tham Thing is staggering. The thick dust on most of these statues indicates they have not moved at all for centuries and are well-protected from the storms that hit the area during the monsoon season.

Statues galore

Statues galore – Tham Ting

DSCN7134

and more

I walked up and down the sides of Tham Ting studying the thousands of Buddha statues around me.  I was tempted to reach out and touch them, but thought better of that. If these statues had been resting unmolested in the same spot for centuries, then I did not want to be the one who disturbed them. I walked up to a vantage point on the far left-hand side of Tham Ting and took in all the tiny figures below. I felt like Gulliver in Lilliput!  With that last glance, I turned and walked back to my waiting boat which took me back to Luang Prabang. The return trip took about an hour and fifteen minutes and I wanted to grab some lunch before heading to Phu Si.  I was craving a local dish — fried Mekong riverweed. This is an oily, crispy, sesame-seed laden appetizer consisting of flash-fried riverweed plucked from the Mekong. It is served with a chili paste dip called “jaewbong”. It looks like pieces of a thin dark green fabric and upon first taste, there is a grittiness to it, but then that gives way to something eerily welcoming and delicious! I found a place on Sisavangvong Road and ordered the riverweed along with larb — minced meat salad — a staple of Laotian cuisine. A much-needed pick-me-up.

Wat Chomsi - summit of Mt. Phu Si

Wat Chomsi – summit of Mt. Phu Si

After lunch, I began to walk up the stairs leading to Mt. Phu Si. The first flight of stairs led to a big terrace and I saw a derelict temple (I believe it is called Wat Pa Huak) to my right with a warped teak roof. I went inside and saw some very interesting frescoes behind the altar and along the side walls which depicted scenes with tigers, villagers, and some kind of diplomatic exchange with a Chinese delegation — this image was very clear and showed Chinese women’s faces and their garb.

Fresco inside Wat Ha Puak - Phu Si

Fresco inside Wat Pa Huak

Continuing up the stairs, I reached a gated area where I purchased my entry ticket. One last of flight of stairs remained before I got to the top and there before me was Wat Chomsi. Wat Chomsi was constructed in its current form in the early 1800s — nearly 300 years after Luang Prabang’s heyday. Wat Chomsi has a small prayer room inside it with a seated Buddha altar. On the outside wall of the temple, the words “no intoxicants allowed inside temple” are written in English. This is because many tourists come to Mt. Phu Si to watch the sunset and they bring alcohol and sit around Wat Chomsi boozing — utterly oblivious to the fact that Wat Chomsi is a sacred Buddhist temple. From Wat Chomsi, I had sweeping views of old and new Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountains. Below me, I could see the angular rooftops of many temples — including Wat Visoun and the dark grey, stumpy stupa on its grounds called “That Makmo” by locals (makmo meaning “watermelon”).

That Mamko

That Makmo (or That Pathum)

As I headed away from Wat Chomsi, I walked past a missile launcher monument of some sort and came to an area that felt like a small, neglected Buddhist theme park. There were a few grottoes with large yellow painted Buddha images accompanied by walls adorned with long nagas (serpents). I strolled through this area until I came to a weathered painted sign that said “Imprint of Buddha’s Foot.

This way to the footprint

Doorway to Buddha’s Footprint

Needless to say, I was immediately intrigued and my mind cast back to my ascent of Adam’s Peak which I had climbed during the monsoon season years before in order to see the most revered Buddha’s Footprint in the world [see post: Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-hZ%5D. But, unlike that arduous trek, here I was with pristine conditions and an opened doorway in front of me. No one else was around and I would have the footprint all to myself. I crouched inside the small doorway and was surprised to see that it did not lead to any kind of room. Instead, there was only limited space where one could stick a head inside and look down at a light-colored stone within which was a shadowy foot-like impression.

Petromolph

What kind of petrosomatoglyph is this?

There were many things about this imprint that I found fascinating. First, it appeared to be a left foot with 5 pointy toenails and a pronounced arch. This was radically different from all other standalone depictions of Buddha’s feet that I had seen. These other depictions were all highly stylized depictions with Buddhist iconography (lotuses and wheels) and were completely flat, symmetrical (meaning all toes were the same size and the foot/heel were in a size bearing some geometric proportion to the toes). The imprint at Phu Si is also completely devoid of any artistic flourishes. It looked to me like a footprint left behind in concrete — albeit the person would have to be at least 20ft tall and in dire need of a toenail clipping! The overall look of the imprint also reminded me of some the casts that people have created from alleged “bigfoot” tracks left behind!

Wat Phra Bat Tai

Wat Phra Bat Tai

The next day, I happened to be visiting Wat Phra Bat Tai (a 17th century Buddhist temple with strong Vietnamese influence) and as I walked behind the monastery and towards the riverfront, I found a small chapel where another Buddha’s footprint was housed. This footprint could be seen in 2 ways — either through the main opening in front of the footprint, or through a hole behind the footprint.

Chapel of the Buddha's Footprint - Wat Phra Bat Tai

Chapel of the Buddha’s Footprint – Wat Phra Bat Tai

I studied the footprint from both openings and saw that it was very similar to the traditional depiction of Buddha’s footprint. The toes each were decorated with a wheel-like symbol. They were rounded — not pointy — and each was equal in size and shape to the other. As I compared the footprint at Wat Phra Bat Tai to the one at Phu Si, I thought that maybe the footprint at Wat Phra Bat Tai was created first and so had to have been known by the local people prior to the creation of the other imprint a Phu Si. But, there was something almost prehistoric about the footprint at Phu Si that stuck with me. Perhaps the footprint at Phu Si was not originally a depiction of Buddha’s foot at all — it could have been a natural formation in the rock and that formation had been in existence prior to the footprint at Wat Phra Bat Tai.

Footprint viewed from hole behind it

Footprint viewed from hole behind it

What may have then happened was that the people and monks around Phu Si interpreted (or modified) what was really a natural rock formation as a superhuman footprint that could only belong to the Buddha. While there are probably records held by the monks of Wat Phra Bat Tai that document the creation of the footprint there, I’m not sure what information may exist about the origin of the footprint at Phu Si.  My walk down Phu Si took me through a monastery on its eastern slope, so the monks there may know the story behind the footprint. But, as I’ve learned when trying to comprehend the sights, realms, and artistry of the East, things do not always lend themselves to tidy explanations or allow for fact-checking or cross-referencing. That doesn’t make these things any less real. Instead, it is up to the individual to understand these things through a lens which requires detachment from preconceived notions as to what the nature of things must be. I didn’t need to go on a quest in order to suss out the origin stories of these footprints. These were the indelible imprints left by the Buddha. I understood and leave it at that.

Pra Bang Man

16 Nov
Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang - Laos (20140

Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang – Laos (2014)

The origin of its name — Luang Prabang — is attributable to a small 1-meter high statue called the “Pra Bang”.  The Pra Bang is the most revered Buddha image in Laos and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC. The image shows the Buddha in the “double abhaya” mudra [see Laos Calling at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik%5D and was given as a wedding present to the Lane Xang King, Fa Ngum, by a Khmer King whose daughter King Ngum married in the mid-14th century AD. King Ngum was the first major king of what was to become the Lanna Kingdom and he reigned between 1353 to 1373 AD.  At that time, the Khmer Empire was at its height and Buddhism had been adopted as the new religion of the Khmer replacing Hinduism. King Ngum’s marriage to the Khmer princess was important not only for the purpose of cementing of royal blood lines, but ultimately it served as the ceremonial circumstance that allowed Buddhism to become the official state religion of Laos. The Pra Bang bestowed an immediate legitimacy to King Ngum that he was able to leverage as he further extended his sovereignty and helped push the boundaries of his kingdom.

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

The Pra Bang was kept in the royal palace at Luang Prabang through the centuries and taken out on a few important Buddhist holidays where it was paraded through the streets of the old capital. In 2013, a new temple called Wat Phabang was built solely to house the Pra Bang. The Wat Phabang is located on the grounds of the Royal Palace where the last Lao King, Sisavang Vatthana, resided starting in 1959 after the death of his father (King Sisavang Vong). As Laos became swept up in the socialist fervor and political change which blanketed most of Southeast Asia at the time, the idea of a “king” became untenable and King Vatthana was forced to abdicate and turn the country over to the Pathet Lao in the 1975. The King died a few years later and the Royal Palace was converted to a state museum.

The Royal Palace - Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace – Luang Prabang

When I went to see the Pra Bang at the Wat Phabang, I first walked into the Royal Palace and what I found most interesting was a salon area where various gifts were on display. These gift had been presented to King Vatthana by others leaders and heads of state from around the world as gestures of cultural exchange and goodwill. Most of the gifts represented some indigenous or artistic link to the country that was represented. I found it interesting that the gift from the United States was a couple of fragments of moonrock in small glass capsules along with a metal engraving containing a statement from President Nixon which said something to the effect of: “These pieces of the moon represent the continuing friendship of the U.S. with the Laotian people.”  I walked out of the Royal Palace and headed to Wat Phabang. The Wat Phabang is brand-spanking new and gleams brightly when the sun’s rays hit it. I bounded up the stairs to the opened door of the temple and found a rope blocking entry along with a security guard.  The public is not allowed inside the Wat Phabang and no photos of the Pra Bang are allowed. I craned my neck into the shadowed interior of the temple and could see the Pra Bang standing within an altar.  The familiar double abhaya mudra position of the image was clear. I also noticed that the Pra Bang had what appeared to be a crown on its head. I tried to snap a few photos surreptitiously of the Pra Bang, but it was difficult to capture a clear view of the image. Admittedly, the moment of my face to face with the Pra Bang felt a bit rushed given the fidgety security guard nearby and the other visitors awaiting their turn to stand in the doorway in order to peer at the image.

The procession of the Pra Bang - April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The procession of the Pra Bang – April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The next day when I was visiting Wat That Luang (the “Royal Monastery”), I met a young monk named Somchit Kittisak. He had selected “Jason” as his name in English and we struck up a conversation almost from the very moment I parked my bike in the shade of a tree and strolled into Wat That Luang’s grounds. As Jason showed me the inside of Wat That Luang and we walked around the two Thai-styles which flank the temple — one of which is a golden funerary stupa that holds the cremated remains of King Sisavong Vang — I asked him about when the Pra Bang is taken out of its temple and paraded through Luang Prabang. He told me that this ceremony took place in the spring which usually fell on the 18th of April.  On that the day, the Pra Bang is removed from its temple and placed on a carriage which is then pushed through the streets of Luang Prabang to another temple. When it arrives at the designated temple, select monks from around Luang Prabang are vested with the right to pour water on the image and perform other rites. After the ceremony is finished, the Pra Bang is taken back to Wat Phabang. I have stayed in touch with Jason and he emailed me some photos of the Pra Bang during its last procession. I was excited to see the pics and have a clearer look at the Pra Bang.

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Interestingly, as Jason and I discussed the Pra Bang ceremony, he brought up the “Burning Man” festival in the United States and asked me about it.  I never in my wildest dreams would have thought about the parallels between the Pra Bang parade and the Burning Man spectacle that takes place every August in the northern Nevada desert. I first laughed when Jason brought it up. But, then I thought about it some and said that at the very first Burning Man there may have been the same kind of spiritual force or energy that was similar to the effect the Pra Bang has in Laos when it is carried through the streets accompanied by pageantry and the public comes out en masse to see it.

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

But, I wasn’t sure what Burning Man represented now since all I had heard was that with each passing year it had  become more extravagant and “VIP”-oriented and it was no longer something that interested me. So, I had tuned it out. But, it was fascinating to see that in far off Luang Prabang a young monk like Jason had heard about Burning Man and wondered how it might represent the same kind of spiritual energy that he understood.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Aside from the Pra Bang, the most important site in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City). This temple was built by King Setthathirath in 1560 and there are many small chapels and other buildings — including a funerary temple and a temple that houses a golden carriage that was once used to carry the Lao Kings — found on its grounds. Everything about Wat Xieng Thong — its broad wooden flanks, bright green naga-style roof points, pillars, glass mosaics, red, gold & black coloring, and interior hall (or sim) — are wondrous.  But, perhaps, the most beautiful aspect of Wat Xieng Thong are the well-preserved Laotian stencil designs that are found all along its pillars, panels, exteriors, and interiors.

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

This stencil design process — called “mak mak” in Lao shorthand — is unique to Laotian arts and not something I’ve seen elsewhere in Buddhist religious imagery. There are a few shops in Luang Prabang which offer classes to foreigners who want to learn the Lao stencil process.  The stencilwork around Wat Xieng is over 400 years old — some patterns are infinitely intricate while others are straight representations of Buddhist iconography.

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Inside the main hall of Wat Xieng Thong is a seated Buddha flanked by 4 standing Buddhas with 6 smaller seated Buddhas placed in front of it. There are red circular wooden pillars which frame the central Buddha. Each pillar is detailed with intricate gold stencil designs, patterns, and images of the Buddha. One cannot walk behind the main seated Buddha because it sits up against the far wall of the temple. There is some space to the 2 sides of the altar area where one can walk through in order to see the Buddha from a side view. Off to the left-hand side of the Buddha, there is a replica of the Pra Bang that stands within its own altar.

Mak Mak

Exterior stencilwork – Wat Xieng Thong

The back of Wat Xieng Thong has a lush mosaic piece referred to as “Tree of Life” which was created in 1964 — as part of commemorations in Luang Prabang of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment.

Tree of Life mosaic - Wat Xieng Thong

Tree of Life mosaic – Wat Xieng Thong

The “Tree of Life” mosaic is seamless in the way that it integrates with the centuries old stencil designs which predated it. The mosaic elements of the Tree are so close in their look and feel to the stencil design elements of Wat Xieng Thong it is as if the 2 had been crafted by the same artisans at the same time. There are other glass mosaics found on the smaller chapels which sit on the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong. These mosaics depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, elephants, animals, and scenes of everyday life during Luang Prabang’s heyday as capital of the country. One of the chapels surrounding Wat Xieng Thong is called the “Red Chapel” or “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha”. Inside this chapel is a bronze Buddha statue in the reclining pose the Buddha assumed before his death. Only 1 or 2 people can enter this chapel at a time because it is very small and there is little standing room inside.

The "Red Chapel" / "Sanctuary of the Recliningg Buddha" on the left

The “Red Chapel” / “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha” on the left

Everyone must remove their shoes before entering and once inside the chapel it is better to sit down and absorb the windowless interior which is bright red and filled with hundreds of small gold Buddha statues. At the back of the temple is where the reclining Buddha image lies. Its central position in such a cramped space effectively commands one’s attention. There is no escaping the flowing beauty and almost haughty vibe of this image. The Buddha appears languid and bored through his facial expression and the manner in which his hand props up his head. The image also has an obsidian-like dark coloring and smoothness that enhances this “ice prince” effect.

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

There is an inscription on the statue’s base which states it was created under the instruction of King Setthatirath in what would have been 1569 AD. This image was at one point whisked away by the French who had on it display in Paris in the 1930s and then it was transferred to Ha Phreow in Vientiane for some time before being returned to Luang Prabang. The chapel of the reclining Buddha has red and gold coloring and mosaic work on its outside, and it stands out from the other chapels that dot the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong.

"Do Sa Fan" roof centerpiece - Wat Xieng Thong

“Dok So Fa” roof centerpiece – Wat Xieng Thong

When viewed from afar, the 7-tiered roof of Wat Xieng Thong is easy to see. The first tier is slung so low that it appears at first glance to nearly touch the ground. As your eyes follow each tier up above ibe another until you get to the final tier a final artistic flourish awaits. Located right in the center of Wat Xieng Thong’s last roof beam is the “dok so fa” — which can be translated from Lao to English as “jutting outward to the sky”. This decorative piece is meant to represent the Buddhist universe. At Wat Xieng Thong, there are multiple individual spires that cascade upward from the left and right side up to a center spire that stands above all the rest. This central spire represents the sacred mountain of Mt. Meru and the other spires below it show the rest of the universe as they come into and go out of existence through infinity.

Dok Sa Fa of Wat Maha That

Dok So Fa of Wat Maha That

I saw another interesting dok so fa at Wat Si Mahatat or Wat Maha That (the “Monastery of the Stupa”) which is located to the east of Luang Prabang. Wat Maha That was founded by King Setthathirath in 1548 and its dok so fa consists of 15 spires. Each spire is in the shape of a small pagoda similar in style to that of Wat Xieng Thong. This kind of ornamentation in the central roof beams of Lao temples is radically different than the simple roof ornamentation found in Thai temples [see photo of the dok so fa of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane in Laos Calling – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik]. When I had met Jason at Wat That Luang, I also asked him about the meaning of the dok so fa. When I pointed to the dok so fa sitting on top of Wat That Luang and asked him about Mt. Meru, he explained that the representation of the Buddhist universe was just one layer of the dok so fa and that it had a dual meaning. He explained that the moving upwards from each lower spire to the one above it and then ultimately reaching the central and highest spire was also meant to remind the Buddhist practitioner of the path towards attaining Enlightenment. At its core, the Buddha’s teaching to his followers was that the cessation of suffering could occur through maintaining a “Middle Way” and actively using 8 principles in their spiritual practice — one had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. In looking up at the dok so fa at Wat That Luang and counting each spire — whether from the left or right side – each set of spires led upwards to the central spire in 8 steps. The dok so fa was then a reminder to Jason and his fellow monks to follow the principles of spiritual practice that the Buddha taught in order to attain the ultimate goal — Enlightenment. It was incredible to see the convergence between art and spiritual practice through such an ornamentation.  I had only Jason to thank for providing me with that insight.

Post-script: Some months later, Jason sent me a video which provides a snapshot into the monastic life of young monks studying at Pasaviet Temple in Luang Prabang. Please take a look — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8RvVORSvEY&feature=share.  Jason himself appears at the beginning and strikes the call to prayer bell. The chanting is rich and flows out in waves of purity…

Long Time No Monk Chat

22 Jun
Central altar in Wat

Central altar in Wat Phan Tao (1848) –  Chiang Mai, Thailand (2006)

I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Because I bought my ticket within an hour of the train’s departure from Bangkok, all the sleeper cabins in the train were occupied. I took a seat in the 2nd class cabin which was very nice, except that the seats had limited recline and this would be an 11-hour train ride with stops along the way. When the train pulled into the Chiang Mai train station at around 10am, my first task was to find a place to crash for the next 3 days. I had not reserved a room anywhere, but knew that Chiang Mai would have no shortage of hostels, guest-houses, and hotels available for roving chaps like myself. I stumbled along the city centre area until I found a decent-looking guest-house with a room available. I fell asleep immediately as I flopped on the bed. Chiang Mai sits at an altitude of about 310m (1,000+ ft) and is cradled by the serenity of green hills and mountains. So, the air has a coolness to it — free of the stifling heat and humid canopy of Bangkok.  Although it is the second most populated city in Thailand, it does not project the incessant push and pull crammed sprawl of a big city. It is like a pocket of tranquility — filled with evening mist, forested enclaves, and a laid back attitude. When I woke up in the early afternoon after my short snooze on that first day, I looked out of the window of my room and instantly tuned into Chiang Mai. I understood the vibe. I actually felt relieved to be out of Bangkok and was ready to just get on a bicycle and roll around with no agenda.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296AD and was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for nearly 500 years. During that period, it was the main rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south.  The bulk of the many Wats in Chiang Mai contain golden Chedis designed in the Lanna-style — like narrow golden bells.  The influence of the next door Burmese can also be found in many Chedis in the city which have square bases. Each Wat in Chiang Mai consists of 3 elements: 1) the “viharn” which is usually a spacious roofed area which serves as the assembly / meeting area for monks; 2) the Chedi or Stupa which typically enshrines some important historical or body relic; and 3) the Buddha statues or images within the main chamber room of the Wat. As I biked around the city, my eyes became fixed on a white dot nestled between some green hills in the distance. This was Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep or “Doi Suthep” as it was called. Legend has it that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a vision in which he was compelled to dig at a site somewhere in Thailand. He unearthed a shoulder bone fragment at that site and believed it to belong to the Buddha. He took the relic to the king of Sukhothai who attempted to verify the authenticity of the relic by conducting a ritual to showcase its miraculous properties. But, when the relic did not exhibit any kind of special or supernatural power, the Sukhothai king gave the relic back to the monk. However, the story of this relic had traveled north to Chiang Mai which at the time was ruled by King Nu Naone. King Naone was very interested in the monk’s story and summoned the monk before him.  When the relic was showed to the King, it split into two pieces. King Naone placed one of the pieces on the back of a white elephant which took off towards the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. The elephant walked mid-way up one of the mountains, trumpeted 3 times, and then laid down and died.  The King took this as a sign that a temple was to be built on that site and the first Chedi was built there in 1383. Through the passing centuries, a large platform with multiple Chedis and a statue of the white elephant were constructed at Doi Suthep. I visited Doi Suthep on my second day in Chiang Mai and walked up a huge staircase framed with Nagas (Hindu serpent deities) which led up to the hill-site of Doi Suthep. The views of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep were incredible.

Rod iron Buddha Image window from Inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

Wrought iron window of Buddha image from inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

The other piece of bone that came into being after the relic had split in front of the King was interred within one of the Chedis af Wat Suan Dok (Flower Garden Temple) which is one of Chiang Mai’s oldest surviving temples. It dates back to 1373 and the temple is also the site of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University — an important Theravada Buddhist school where monks from all over Southeast Asia come to study. Wat Suan Dok has a program in conjunction with the university where monks meet foreigners interested in Buddhism. This program is called “Monk Chat” and I was hoping to make it to one of these sessions while I was in Chiang Mai. I headed west on my bike and because I wasn’t paying attention, I over-shot Wat Suan Dok. By the time I figured out that I had gone too far, I was in a very leafy area filled with tall trees. I decided to make a left turn onto one of the quiet side streets shooting away from the main road and to my delight I came to Wat U Mong. Wat U Mong is an idyllic forest monastery filled with meditation tunnels and stone Chedis. Wooden signs with sayings of the Buddha are tacked on hundreds of trees throughout the monastery grounds. I had arrived here completely by accident. I hopped off my bike and wandered.

Meditation tunnels - Wat U Mong

Meditation tunnels – Wat U Mong

I ducked into the meditation tunnels and sat on the cool tiled floor. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to focus my thoughts inward while inside the tunnel. I had not planned on trying to meditate — it just naturally happened. The tunnel was like a big neural pathway to facilitating meditation. A portal. The monks who had dug these caves really knew what they were doing!  I had one deeply meaningful and personal reflection which hit me like a lighting bolt while I was in the tunnel. I still remember it now — 8 years later as I type this. It is not something that I would share as part of this blog – but I do believe the realization I was able to attain in that tunnel at Wat U Mong was something that probably would not have come to me during the usual pace and activity of my life.  When I emerged out of the tunnel, I walked up to a clearing on a small mound and there before me was one of the most horrifying Buddha images that I had ever seen. This image was obsidian black — a blackness that accentuated the gauntness of the Buddha’s face, the jutted implosion of his ribcage, and the disintegration of his arms and legs.  I adjusted slowly to this Buddha which was strikingly incongruent to the usual brightly gilded and beautiful Buddha images I had seen in Thailand and throughout Asia.

Fasting Buddha - Wat U Mong

Fasting Buddha – Wat U Mong

This was the “Fasting Buddha” — a stark depiction of the Buddha when he hit a near dead-end in his quest for enlightenment. At that point in his life, he was following the ways of the strict ascetics of his time who believed that self-denial and deprivation were the proper spiritual paths toward attaining supreme knowledge [See post: “Wilderness” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-2n%5D. I began to understand why this image looked like some alien creature with little trace of any humanness — it was meant to serve as a reminder that even the Buddha had previously failed on his journey towards enlightenment and this failure took him to the brink of death.

Administrative Office / Monk Chat - Wat Suan Dok

Administrative Office / Monk Chat – Wat Suan Dok

As the afternoon was turning into night, I got back on my bike and double backed towards Wat Suan Dok. I had a funny feeling that the Monk Chat program would be closed because it was after 5pm. I pedaled as fast as I could. Within a few meters of my entrance to the temple grounds, I saw a modern-looking administrative building which I thought may be connected with the program. I was right. I entered the room and it appeared the place was closed. Sure enough, I saw a sign stating that the hours for Monk Chat were 9:30am to 5pm. It was now 5:35pm. My shoulders slumped and I turned away. As I was walking out, a voice called out to me. I looked back and there were 3 smiling monks before me. I went to greet them and they told me they were novice monks from Cambodia who were students at the university there.  They said that the official Monk Chat program for the day had finished, but wanted to know if I was interested in talking with them anyway since they wanted to practice their English. I excitedly agreed and sat down with them in a small room.  Since I was fresh off my experience in the meditation tunnels of Wat U Mong, I told the monks about it. I tried to explain how unbelievable it was to journey so nakedly inward in a flash of moment and come to an important realization that would otherwise elude one given the bombardment of distraction in everyday life.

Eson and friends

Eson (middle) and friends

One of the monks seemed very interested in the experience. His name was Eson and we shared some personal histories with one another for nearly an hour. When the monks had to finally get up and leave, Eson and I exchanged email addresses and for 3-years afterwards we continued to correspond with one another. In his last email to me, he told me that he had to leave the Sangha (the monkhood) in order to go back to Cambodia and help his family with their financial situation. He was going to become a taxi driver in Phnom Penh. I’m sad to say that we lost touch after that. He was probably around 20 to 22 years old when we met that day at Wat Suan Dok. He said something to me then which sounded funny and simple at the time, but has grown in its meaning to me over the years. He said people have “monkey mind” — meaning their thoughts, acts, behaviors, and wants dart like a monkey jumping from branch to branch of a tree. It is not in our nature to stand still and to focus in order to truly have intent behind any act of our mind, speech, or bodies. When one learns to quiet the mind, body, and speech in order to act with purpose, then that’s how spiritual growth takes root. But, that’s a skill one must learn and practice with tenacity over time. It is not easy. We are also all susceptible to outside forces that knock us off the branch — a branch we think we have under our control. I think back to the smile on Eson’s face when we said good-bye and then I envision him behind the wheel of his cab, navigating traffic as he adroitly drives a passenger to where they need to go. There’s a symmetry in that scene and my chat with him. I like that.

Reflections in a Golden Face

26 Nov
Burmese girl at Mandalay  Flower Market

Burmese girl at Mandalay Flower Market (2011)

There’s a stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, that reads: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else. / No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else/ But them spicy garlic smells, /An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…” Kipling wrote these lines in 1892 and in the full context of the poem, these words are being spoken by a soldier who has just come back from a 10-year stint in Burma and is describing his experience to the Kipling narrator who longs for a life in the East with a Burmese girl he left behind when he returned to London. Now, stuck in the cold drab confines of English city life, he reflects on his lost time in Mandalay and slips into the past as he listens to the soldier’s words.

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

Contrary to what may be a popular held belief, Mandalay is not on the ocean and does not have a bay. It is in the north part of Burma located far from the gulf and instead is nestled along the Irrawaddy River. It was the last capital of the Burmese kings and their beautiful teak Mandalay Palace compound burned to a crisp during World War II fighting in the city.  Today, Mandalay is Burma’s second largest city and is a dusty, gem-trading urban sprawl that serves as a crossroads for Burmese minorities from the northernmost corners of the country who come to Mandalay for supplies and work. In the city’s north boundary looms Mandalay Hill — a 760ft tall mound that is sprinkled with many monasteries, temples, and shrines connected by a series of covered stairways and paths which snake around the hill and up to its summit.

O Bein's Bridge - Amarapura

U Bein Bridge (1850 A.D.) – Amarapura

Within 50km of Mandalay lies the former capital of Amarapura (home of the oldest teak bridge in the world – U Bein Bridge) and Sagaing which is a center for international Buddhist study and learning and has hills laden with many monasteries and temples — most famous of which are the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and U Min Thonze Pagoda.

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze - Sagaing

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze – Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Budda  (13th century) - Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Buddha (13th century) – Sagaing

Mandalay contains one icon that beyond all else was the raison d’etre for my visit there: the Mahamuni Buddha. Along with the Schwedagon Pagoda and Golden Rock, the Mahamuni Pagoda which contains an image of the Buddha’s face cast in 554BC is the most venerated site of pilgrimage in Burma. Pictures or small replicas of the Mahamuni Buddha are found hanging in taxi cabs, stores, and restaurants all around Burma.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to his left.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to the left.

During the last half of the 6th century BC, the Buddha walked throughout India and beyond to spread his teachings. At one point, he went east and crossed what today is Bangladesh and dipped south to the Rakhine State area of modern Burma. There, he reached the city of Dhanyawadi which at that time was the capital of the Kingdom of Arakan. The Arakanese King  had already been exposed to Buddhism through those subjects and members of his court who had converted to the Buddha’s teachings, so he requested that the Buddha come to Dhanyawadi.

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka]

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka (earliest Buddhist scriptures)]

When the Buddha arrived, the King and the citizenry brought various gold and other precious objects as gifts for the Buddha who of course did not accept them. Instead, these objects were melted down and an image was cast of the Buddha’s  actual face. After the cast was created and the rest of the image’s body was put together, this image served to commemorate the Buddha’s visit to Dhanyawadi and passing generations of people were drawn to it in order to make offerings and stand witness to this likeness of the Buddha. The offerings took the form of diamonds, gold, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires which were affixed to the crown and chest of the Mahamuni Buddha. Then, gold leaf was applied to the Mahamuni Buddha continuously and this has resulted in several inches of thick gold layering on the image.  The image stayed in Dhanyawadi until the Arakan kingdom was sacked by the Mon Burmese who absconded with the Mahamuni Buddha and made it their own. The story goes that the Mahamuni Buddha was so large that it had to be cut into pieces for transport to Amarapura- which was then the capital city of Burma. It was then moved to Mandalay and has resided in its present compound after it was built in the 1780s by King Bodawpaya.

Matwalgyi Paya - Mingun

Mingun Pahtodawgyi – Mingun

King Bodawpaya was incredibly ambitious — not only did he consider himself a reincarnation of the Buddha, he also attempted to construct the largest stupa (and bell) in the world — on the other side of the Irrawaddy river just north of Mandalay. This was to be called the Mingun Pahtodawgyi — the Great Royal Stupa. It was never finished and today lies as huge brick stump that has since been split by an earthquake.

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

The Mahamuni Buddha compound is large with 4 points of entry and contains arcades or pavilions with covered walkways. There is a bazaar-like feel in these arcades where there are hundreds of shop stalls selling various religious ornaments, garlands, incense, and other offerings alongside books, home goods, food, and other supplies. On display in one of the temple courtyards is a set of 3 Khmer copper statues that were originally looted from the Khmer capital of Angkor in Cambodia by the Siamese kings of Ayutthaya in Thailand.  Ayutthaya was then sacked in the 16th century by the Mon king of the time, who took these pieces back to Burma. These statues today are rubbed by pilgrims as each contains some special merit.  If one follows any of these arcades they ultimately spill into the central area of the temple which then cascades in a series of archways into a small chamber. Inside this chamber is the Mahamuni Buddha which although in a seated position — appears at first glance to be standing over the continuous streams of monks, pilgrims, and people who are sitting below it. But, the Mahamuni is in fact seated in the mudra position where his right hand is pointed down — invoking the earth’s attestation to his attainment of Enlightenment and the vanquishing of Mara the tempter.

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

I approached the Mahamuni head-on and passed through a narrow arched corridor.  Each arch was divided into a base of red brick that gave way to a golden paint which rose to the ceiling. As I walked closer to the gleaming Mahamuni, the last 7 or so archways became more and more ornate with glyphic designs, flowers, and other intricate gilded patterns. There were people sitting on a carpeted area looking towards the light of the Mahamuni. Women were seated in the back of the carpeted area and men were seated closer to the Mahamuni. The area nearest to the Mahamuni was cordoned off and reserved only for monks. I slowed my gait as the great image began to reveal itself to me.

Mahamuni Buddha

Mahamuni Buddha

DSCN2840

Siddhartha Gautama?

It was set off in the darkened corridor by electric lights that framed the final archway that led to its chamber. This was truly an inner sanctum. The golden image was enhanced by lights from the ceiling of the chamber that bounced off it. A round face with closed oval eyes, broad flat nose, and pursed lips. This was the face — the face of Siddhartha Gautama before me. I sat down. He is 13ft high, but looks bigger. Something about the layering of old, medallions, necklaces, and other gems on his torso and crown make it look massive.  I studied the image. It smacked of humanness. I clearly saw features of a face that once did belong to someone. I had no doubt. This was not an idealized Buddha face as was omnipresent throughout Burma and elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Nor was this some kind of inanimate face like those found in other ancient statues of the Buddha. This image had a very different quality — a soul.  No wonder that at dawn of each day the face and teeth of the Mahamuni Buddha are cleaned in a carefully choreographed ritual by a senior monk.  As I sat cross-legged in the carpeted area reserved for men, I looked around at the people around me. Some had their eyes closed in silent prayer, yet others had their gazes fixed on the Mahamuni Buddha as if in a trance.

DSCN2836On the surface it could have appeared that we were worshipping a golden deity, but Buddhism is not about worship. It is about inward contemplation about the causes of suffering and discontent, understanding how such causes shackle us, and then breaking free from these shackles through an active pursuit towards ethical conduct, intention, speech, effort, and mindfulness. The image of the Buddha may be used as a point of focus for quieting one’s monkey mind, but he is not himself the focus. The Buddha never spoke to his disciples that he was to be worshipped. Nor did he teach about the need for worshipping any creator of the world. The focus of his teachings was on how to navigate a middle path toward the attainment of Enlightenment and after one had achieved that, then one would pass into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – which could be realized in life or upon death.DSCN2838 As I sat before the Mahamuni, I thought about what the other people around me were concentrating on. Were they here asking for a blessing, searching for answers, or merely basking in the radiance of the illuminated being before them?

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

I think back to that moment now and re-imagine the smells, sights, and sounds swirling around that chamber.  The fragrant incense permeating through the archways and the mix of garlands and exotic spices. The sight of golden rays shooting out from the Mahamuni. The quiet murmur of the monks’ chanting and the laity shuffling on the carpet.  A trinity of senses. In his poem, Kipling also invoked a trinity as he cited to the garlic, sunlight, and tinkling bells. From his grey London quarters, he thought about that — about romance, about the East. Today, from within the cramped office of Western modernity, I understand Kipling’s nostalgic sentiment. I understand that longing.

%d bloggers like this: