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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 billows 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

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 (1850AD) – 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

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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.

The Python Who Was Once A Monk

10 Sep

I woke up to more of the same monsoon conditions the next morning. There was little else to do but put my soaked clothes back on, grab a bite at the hotel, and check out. I had to walk back down the switchback path to the Yatetaung Bus terminal. The tenacity of the rain lessened with each step of my descent. At the terminal shed, I found a truck waiting to be filled with passengers. I hopped on and took a seat in the truckbed. I had told my driver to expect me back by 11am that morning, but there was no telling when the truck would actually depart from the terminal since the schedule was not fixed. When the truck finally started up after being about 3 quarters filled, I put my head down, shut my eyes, and braced my body for the jostling that it would endure on the drive down to Kinpun. Surprisingly, the trip was more mellow and faster than I expected. I got out after the truck parked and began walking towards where my driver had dropped me off the day before. Within a few minutes, my driver appeared out of a vendor stall and greeted me. I couldn’t believe his timing and thanked him for being ready to pick me up.

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

As we started the drive back to Yangon, I told him to stop off in Bago because there were a few important Buddhist sites I wanted to see there. We headed first for the Shwemawdaw Paya (or Golden God Pagoda). This Pagoda is the tallest structure in Bago which was known as Pegu during the time it served as the capital of the Mon dynasty in the 14th century. The Shwemawdaw Paya was built in the 10th century and contains a golden spire that is the trademark of most Burmese Mon-era pagodas and rises up to 114m (375ft) in height. My driver dropped me off at the entrance and I had to pay the usual entrance fee and take off my shoes. The Shwemawdaw resembles the Schwedagon in it its overall design, but sits in a much more stripped and austere atmosphere. I raised my camera to snap a few pictures, but there was nothing. A water bubble was inside the lens. My camera had been waterlogged by the experience at the Golden Rock. I tried shaking the camera, wiping it, and blowing on it– thinking that at some point the bubble would dry out and disappear. I gave up after a while and walked around the Shwemawdaw and headed back to the car a bit depressed. Our next site was the Mahazedi Paya which was unlike any other pagoda I had seen before. On first blush, it had a somewhat Mayan feel to it — like Kukulkan – the grand pyramid at Chichen Itza. The top of Mahazedi had the familiar golden spire, but its base was layered with escalating flat, white stones. In my desperation to be able to capture at least one image of this Pagoda, I tried shaking my camera back to life and clicked photo after photo until the images became less watery — maybe one of these would be clear enough.

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Near the Mahazedi was the Shewethalyaung Buddha. This was a huge, reclining Buddha that had been built in 994AD and had a length of 55 meters. Its look and feel was very different from the only century old Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon.

Scene memorializing the building of the Shwethalyauang Buddha

Scene depicting dedication of the Shewethalyaung Buddha

On the backside of the Shewethalyaung, was a mosaic memorializing its construction. Just around the corner from the Shewethalyaung was a large statue of 4 different Buddha images seated back-to-back in 4 different directions. This statue is called Kyaik Pun Paya and is believed to have been first built in the 7th century. The 4 images show (Siddhartha) Buddha along with 3 other Buddhas that are part of Burmese Theravada tradition — each is 27m (90ft) tall. The eye-popping details of the glasswork and tile work in these seated Buddhas’ crowns, sashes, and fingernails are incredible; especially since they sit under no roof and are exposed to the full force of lower Burma’s sun and rain.

Kyaik Pun Paya

Kyaik Pun Paya – the 4 Seated Buddhas

Fingernail of one of the seated Buddhas of Kyaik Pun Paya

Fingernail of one of the Kyaik Pun Paya Buddhas

My camera seemed to regain some basic functioning after all my hysterical jostling and blowing. That gave me a little relief because I had not yet seen the primary purpose for my stop in Bago. I was fixated on seeing something — and this was not a temple, pagoda, monastery, or statue. It was something of deep veneration, but of the flesh. A reincarnation of a Burmese monk who had lived in the Hsipaw monastery in north Burma over 100 years ago. This monk had a special respect and admiration for animals and had been involved with the development of farming in lower Burma. When he died, a baby Burmese python found its way into a small monastery that bordered a farm in Bago. The farmers and monks noticed the docile and contemplative nature of the snake, and they had no doubt it was the monk from Hsipaw who come back to them in the form of the snake. This form then was the result of the monk’s karma. For nearly 120 years after the snake’s arrival, the farmers and monks in the area have cared for the snake — they have built the snake its own temple room, feed the snake a diet of freshly prepared whole chickens every few weeks, and bathe the snake. The snake is now over 18 feet long, 3 palms-wide in girth, and its legend is known throughout Burma. I told the driver about the snake, and he did not understand me at first. But, I had printed out the name of the snake’s monastery and pointed it out on the map I had. He let out a quick chuckle when he understood where I wanted to go. The road to the monastery was not paved, so he stopped the car about a half kilometer away and I had to walk from there. I told him I would come back quickly because I knew he had to get be back to Yangon by a certain time.

Outside of the Python's temple room

Outside of the Python’s temple room

I saw a few kids playing in the fields around the monastery. Just inside the monastery grounds, there was a statue of the Buddha seated underneath a hooded cobra which is based on a legend of how the Buddha was protected from a vicious storm inflicted by Mara after the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Off to my left was a flat and rectangular one floor building with a roof trim gilded with serpentine motifs. I entered. It was hot and stuffy inside with one fan hanging over head.

Man and Python laying together

Man and Python together

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Put your money on the Python

On one side of the room was a white tub of water which the python could use when it wanted. Posters showing monks who were responsible for the care of the pythons through the years hung around the metal-mesh windows of the room. Some of these pictures were from decades ago because the python was small enough then to be draped over a monk’s shoulders. In the right-hand corner of the room, a green satin garb hung from the ceiling. I could only interpret this to be either the reincarnated monk’s original clothing, or some kind of offering that had been left for the python. The python itself happened to be laying beneath the garb on a raised platform that was filled with cushions and ran alongside the back wall and right corner of the room. There was a man sleeping on the platform just to the left of the snake. By the man’s feet was a small table that displayed a couple of books in Burmese about the snake. The snake was huge and curled up in a flat position. My eyes followed the coils of its body until I finally found its head and saw its eyes — which were open. The python was so subdued that I saw it flicker its tongue only one time. The positioning of the sleeping man’s body and his quiet, nearly non-existent breathing was identical to that of the python. The only difference was that the snake’s eyes were open and the man’s eyes were shut!

Paying respects to the Python

Paying Respect

I went right up to the snake and there was a silver offering tray in front of it where people had left money. A woman then appeared out of nowhere and she motioned me to follow her lead. I pulled out a few Kyat and gave it to her. She brushed the money on one of the massive coils of the python while reciting a prayer. She then left the bills on top of one of the coils that was closest to her. The python was nonplussed and didn’t react at all. I tried to take a few pics of the snake and my camera again malfunctioned. My heart sank. I moved away to let some other devotees have an audience with the python as I fiddled with my camera. I was determined to capture some image of this amazing creature. As I tried in vain to get my camera to work, I felt someone standing behind me and I turned around. It was my driver. There he was barefoot and smiling sheepishly at me. He had never seen the snake before. I stood back to let him pass, and then I watched as he went to the lady by the snake and handed her some Kyat. He bowed his head and brought his hands together in supplication during the woman’s prayer. When he finished, he walked back to me and nodded which I understood as: “I’ve done my duty.” Despite his initial chuckling when I told him that I wanted to see the snake, his faith was too strong. He had been compelled to come before the python and pay respect. I wasn’t ready to peel myself away from the snake. I have read that crocodiles can live up to 90 years old and tortoises can live over 200 years, so it is not beyond reason that a Burmese python (which is one of the largest and most adaptable snakes on the planet) may live over 100 years — especially given the daily care and attention this python received from the monks and local community. Seeing the photos in the room of the growth of this snake with different monks through the decades further evidenced the unbroken chain of custody of the python. I pondered the incredible age and history of the being in front of me.  Snakes are tainted by Biblical lore and generally feared. In the Everglades region of the United States, the same Burmese pythons are alien invaders and are hunted with impunity each year.  All that was turned inside out before me.  My eyes made a final fix on the snake’s eyes. Was there any consciousness present — any manifestation of the monk’s spirit? What I felt I saw in that last moment with the snake was a watchfulness.  It was not the sleeping man who was watching over and protecting the snake, but rather it was the snake who was standing sentry. Over a century ago, this python had slithered its way into this community — perhaps to find shelter and shield itself from the scorching heat of the surrounding fields, or perhaps it was karma.  Whatever the reason, it was this community who now took refuge in the snake.

To Be A Rock And Not To Roll [The Space Between]

15 Aug

The grade was steep and although the path was wide and paved, I was basically going up a river. The rain had swallowed up the entire surface area and I was ankle-deep in a fast-moving current that had small whirlpools in areas.  I tried to carefully pick out each of my steps hoping I could find some higher ground here and there.  My sandals became dislodged from my feet a couple of times and I had to waste energy in backtracking as I chased them downstream and grabbed them before they were lost.  Not another soul was around.  I had an uneasy feeling because I really had no idea as to where I was heading. I was a man facing nature at its most unforgiving and I was just winging it. My umbrella was useless — it basically snapped at one point and I used it more for balance than anything else. There was no shelter — although there were sheds along the way which one could use during the pilgrimage season — these were all closed.  After about 30 minutes or so, I felt my mouth drying out and I cursed at myself for leaving my bottle of water in my driver’s car.  Ironic. Here I was with water all around and yet I thirst.  I had no choice but to keep climbing up through the current. I stuck to each switchback with my head bowed and eyes focused on the next step.  Then, I came to the fork in the road. I stood there for at least 10 minutes hoping someone would walk by and I could ask them which way led to the Golden Rock. But, there was no one around.  I had this strange thought that popped in my head: I was so tired and dehydrated that I actually felt the desire to climb up a tree and rest there until the rains stopped.  Then, from the vantage point of the tree I was sure to see the Golden Rock or some buildings that would be near it.  It was like a hallucination — and I brought myself back to reality. The wind was whipping around and the rain was relentless. My body temperature was starting to drop as the rain penetrated into all of my pores.  I had 2 choices — either go left or right. The fog bank was milky thick and visibility was non-existent. I chose to take the left path — it felt natural and aligned with the journey so far. It turned out to be the right choice — within 15 minutes I came to a large wooden gate.  Relief.  I walked through the gate and I could see the official entry building to the Golden Rock in front of me. The steps leading to my hotel were on my right. I went straight to the hotel — which was a small mountain top compound. At the front desk, I fished out my special case from inside my daypack. Inside this case was where I had stashed my passport and money. My hotel voucher was destroyed and my passport was wet around the edges, but the inside Myanmar visa page was intact. I handed the shriveled remnants of the voucher to the hotel clerk, who thankfully did not protest and gave me my room key and pointed out the direction to my room. It was close 2pm so I had little time to waste. I had no change of clothes other than one other t-shirt inside the daypack which was also wet. I dried out the best I could and then took 2 hotel towels and wrapped them around my legs and torso and then threw on my wet shorts and spare t-shirt on top. I layered myself with my windbreaker and poncho again I actually thought I had put together something waterproof. Silly thought.

3 Brave Pilgrims

3 Pilgrims braving the elements

I went outside and the rain and wind instantly swallowed me. I bolted to the entry building where I paid my $5 entry fee to the Golden Rock and received a pass. I got to the first pair of Chinthes that were stationed in front of the passageway that led to the Golden Rock. I had to remove my shoes and walk barefoot from here on out. I could barely see, but I picked out 3 forms in front of me. They seemed like a sign. Barefoot and enveloped by the monsoon, I followed them. Off to my left side, I first saw the Kyaukthanban Pagoda or the “stone boat stupa” — which legend has it represents the ship that carried the Golden Rock from the sea and transported it to Mt. Kyaiktiyo in the 11th century. From there, I had to walk another 700 meters or so until I came a plaza are where there was a rectangular glass room and then beyond that was the actual viewing platform that surrounded the Golden Rock. It was floating in the mist like an orb. It was nearly impossible for me to aim my camera since the winds and driving rain were so strong.  I despaired at the thought I would not be able to capture any image of the sight before me. I heard the clicking of the camera shutter, but all I saw was a watery blur in the viewfinder.  Conditions and visibility continued to worsen as I encircled the Rock. I walked below it and came out on the right side.

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Viewing platform – Golden Rock (Mt. Kyaiktiyo)

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The Golden Rock – monsoon season

I was slapped around and was frustrated because I wasn’t able to find a relaxed viewpoint in order to just absorb the ethereal sight in front of me. I never saw the Golden Rock waver or shake in the fierce wind and rain. It stood firm like a stern sentinel. Suddenly, lights turned on and the Rock came alive in a bright and fuzzy golden hue.

DSCN2045 I saw some monks appear ahead of me who entered the glass room area I had seen earlier. This was a prayer room. I followed them inside and spent about an hour in unmolested contemplation. I was finally able to reflect on the physical being before me. And I say “being” because although the boulder is not an organism, there is something sentient about it.

Hanging off the precipice

Hanging off the precipice

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Prayer Room with monks at the Golden Rock

Prayer Room with monks at the Golden Rock

This Rock dangles before you. It must have purpose — for that’s how it came to rest where it does.  The heaviness of the boulder is incontrovertible. It is immovable. Whether due to the strand of hair or a glitch in nature– it defies physics. It hangs off the cliff — embodying the brink of some truth. It was truth that we are after which is right there before us but perhaps just out of reach. That’s what the Golden Rock conveyed to me.  After the monks finished their prayers and walked away, I realized it was now sunset. The grounds of the Golden Rock would be closing, so I had to walk back to the entrance gate and find my shoes. I was ecstatic to see that they had not been blown away or carried off by the rain. That night in the dinner hall of the hotel I met a Burmese guy named Chang. He was a tour guide showing the Golden Rock to 2 Chinese tourists. He spoke Mandarin and English. He told me his daughter was working in Singapore and that was the dream city for him. As we talked, our conversation turned to the Golden Rock. Chang was in his early 60s and said he had grown up in Mon State — a province that includes Mt. Kyaiktiyo. When he was a teenager, he and a friend had snuck into the grounds of the Golden Rock late at night.  They each had gone on either side of the Rock and held a long wire between them. They took this wire and inserted it in between the Golden Rock and the base rock on which it sat. As they slowly walked and guided the wire underneath the Golden Rock, they thought at any second it would get caught on something.

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Close-up of Golden Rock at point of rest

They were convinced that there had to be some manmade trick that kept the top rock from rolling over.  Some pole, glue, or other fixture had to anchor the Golden Rock.  The wire passed through underneath — cleanly. It didn’t get stuck or caught on anything.  I nodded my head after Chang finished his story. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t think words were necessary.  I could see from Chang’s eyes and intense reflection as he recited that moment from so many years ago, he was telling me the truth. The wire had passed through. Enough said.

Blended Rites

21 Jul
A momentary glimpse of Sun at the Schwedagon

Sunlit Schwedagon

I began a slow circuit around the Schwedagon. Every corner, square, and space had its own unique energy.  There were so many different things going on in each area that it was hard to stop and focus on any individual element. The entire platform felt like a microcosm of a city with the Pagoda standing in the center with its golden luminescence radiating outward in gleaming waves.  There is a method to the manner in which all the pavilions, nooks, statues, and mini-chedis (stupas) are scattered about.  They are clustered based on chronology of when they were built and also based on the utility in which they serve. So, depending on which entrance the individual takes to come up to the Schwedagon, one can focus his/her time on the particular area containing those prayer rooms or pavilions one wants to use for that time of day of their visit.  Some of the designs of these stupas and other buildings are grandiose in their intricacy. They contain mirrored prisms and mosaics on their outsides and others reflect stupa designs found elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Other structures dotting the Pagoda’s platform are more stark and austere in their design and look, yet these still also inspire awe and are the focus of particular devotion.

Sampling of the many stupas around the Schwedagon

Sampling of the many stupas around the Schwedagon

One taller stupa I saw instantly brought to my mind the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India. On the outside of this stupa were colorfully painted scenes of important Buddhist moments in Burma’s history.  I ducked my head into many of the individual prayer rooms and pavilions. There was something pure in the supplication I witnessed emanating from the people in these rooms.  In one particular room a group of Burmese women were sitting on the floor and singing prayers in beautiful harmony; in another room there were people chanting quietly to themselves.  There were so many individual structures all around that I didn’t know where to investigate next.  The density of these structures and the activity taking place inside them had me working hard to pace my sensory intake. I had to find some clearing where I could get a reprieve from everything and just breathe — and then, almost as if by cue — I turned a corner and there was a wide open space before me.

Burmese women reciting prayers in one of the many "tazaungs" or pavillions

Burmese women reciting prayers in one of the many “tazaungs” or pavilions

There were no structures or statues or anything else in this space and it had a definite boundary made from dark grey stones. It was completely bare except that there were people sitting and kneeling down upon it. Upon closer examination of this space, I realized that there were 2 stars in front of me — one smaller star was contained within a larger star. Each star had 16-sides and because of that the stars were almost circular in their overall pattern.  It then occurred to me that this space may have been created to map the circumference of the base of the Schwedagon Pagoda. Of course, the space was much smaller than the platform on which the Pagoda sat, but I thought that in some parallel universe if the Pagoda were to levitate from where it currently stood and then came down on top of the star-shaped space, it would fit. I found out later that this area was used as a “wish-fulfilling” space by people. It faced the Pagoda at a slight diagonal and there was also an incense altar in front of it. People came to this specific space in order to makes wishes before the Schwedagon and to then bestow offerings in the form of burning incense sticks or placing flowers at the altar.

The "wish-fulfilling" star-shaped area

The “wish-fulfilling” star-shaped area

I walked into the middle of the smaller star and as I was contemplating making my own wish, someone came up from behind and greeted me with a few spare words in English. It was a monk. He was short and wore glasses. He was wearing a maroon colored robe that didn’t seem to quite fit. He kept playing with it and trying to cover his shoulders while I attempted to speak to him. We had trouble understanding one another, but I gathered he wanted to know where I was from. I told him that I had walked to the Schwedagon from Ngahtatgyi Paya and he smiled as I talked excitedly about seeing the seated Buddha there. He asked me to follow him. With my experience with William still fresh in my mind, I didn’t hesitate. I was going to hang with this monk for as long as he would let me.  As we walked, he asked me the month and year I was born. I thought this was a bit odd, but I told him. He processed the information I gave him and then honed in on a particular part of the Pagoda.

View of the Schwedagon from the wish-fulfilling area

View of the Schwedagon from the wish-fulfilling area

We rounded a corner and headed straight to a brown wooden post that fronted the Pagoda. This post had a sign affixed to it with a designation written in Burmese. The monk told me there were different posts around the Pagoda and that each post was connected to a planet and faced a particular direction. These planetary posts each also had a particular animal assigned to them.  I learned afterwards that the Burmese have a strong cultural affinity with astrology and have developed their own zodiac calendar that specifically has 8 weekday signs (Wednesday is broken down into morning and afternoon parts and these 2 parts count as separate signs). Each of these weekday signs is represented by one of the 8 posts stationed around the Schwedagon Pagoda. I would have had no clue about the significance of these posts had the monk not found me. The post we were in front of faced East and it was the post designated for the Moon. Its animal sign was the tiger and the day of the week it was connected to was Monday.  Under this post was a small statue of the Buddha sitting atop a water basin and holding an empty bowl in his hands. A statue of a tiger sat on the ground in an opening below the basin. The monk handed me a plastic cup and told me to fill the cup with water from the basin and to then pour it over the Buddha. I think I had to do 12 sets of pours.  As I poured each cup of water over the Buddha statue, the monk chanted some mantras in Burmese. Once I finished, he motioned me to follow him and we snaked our way through a labyrinth of stupas and statues until we entered a small room that was tucked between some other structures. My immediate feeling as we entered was that this was a chapel room. In the forefront of this room were 2 large footprints of the Buddha with toes facing toward a trinity consisting of the Buddha flanked by 2 disciples.

The chapel room - footprints of Buddha

The chapel room – footprints of Buddha

Moving as quickly as we had done from the open-aired ritual in front of the Schwedagon to the intimacy of this enclosed chapel room had a jarring impact. The monk and I stood behind the heels of the 2 footprints. Because both footprints were filled with water, I could see our faces reflected in each of them along with the faces of the trinity.  The Buddha was in the center, so his image was split between the 2 footprints — depending on where I looked. I became intensely subdued and clear-headed. I could see the monk’s face take on a more serious look as well and he closed his eyes in prayer. He began a methodical chant. I followed his lead by shutting my eyes and becoming completely still. After he finished, he told me to put my hands in each of the footprints and to dab the water from each on my forehead. He performed the same action at the same time I did.  He tried to explain something about what we had just done, but I didn’t quite understand what he said. I could tell that we had conducted some kind of mix of Burmese astrological invocation and Buddhist practice, but I didn’t grasp the details of the meaning and import of this consecration. After we exchanged our last words, the monk whipped his robe around his bare shoulders and left. When I came out of the chapel room just a few seconds afterwards, there was no sign of him.  It was almost as if he had come to the Schwedagon that day just to find me. Serendipitous. He gave me insight into the true significance of the Schwedagon. It wasn’t some historical relic or archaeological monument that one just bought a ticket to enter, walk around, and photograph. It was alive. It pulsed. It was the center of the Center — a beating heart. People came there to connect and plug into it in many different ways depending on what they needed. As I scanned the area hoping to catch a final glimpse of the monk, I think I learned something else. A few hours earlier, I had entered the Schwedagon in a not so sure-footed or spiritually sound manner. Then, I had been given a light to follow. As suddenly as this light had come, it had vanished. It was up to me to understand the experience. To remember it. And to then — hopefully — recognize it in whatever form it may reappear.

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