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The Calming Influence of A Giant

7 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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The Thousand Buddha Pagoda – Wenshu Temple

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Underneath the dome of the Beamless Brick Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Golden Temple & Ten-Faced Puxian stupa

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

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

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

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

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

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Eye-to-eye with the Leshan Giant Buddha

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

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Carefully descending the Nine-Turn Cliff

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

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Offering a prayer at the foot of the Leshan Giant Buddha

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A colossus

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

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The climb back up

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

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A final look on the way out

Behold A White Horse

31 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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Climbing up the dunes near Mingsha

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

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Approaching the Mogao Caves

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

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Exterior views – Mogao Caves

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

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Exterior views

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

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Exterior Cave 437 and Cave 444

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

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

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

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Exterior Cave 16 and 17 (the Library Cave)

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

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Cave 130 – housing the “Giant Buddha”

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

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Sign outside Cave 130 with image of the Giant Buddha inside

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

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

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

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White Horse Pagoda – Dunhuang

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

The Hammer & Chisel

17 Jan

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Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra state, India (2014)

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

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Cave No. 10 (200 B.C.) – Ajanta

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

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Interior ceiling – Ajanta Cave No. 2

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

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Interior ceiling with floral motif

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

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The shadow outline of a bell-shaped stupa is revealed

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

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Cave No. 4 – Ajanta

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

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

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

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

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

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Kailash Temple

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

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

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

To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul

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Scenes of the Buddha’s life: the teaching of the Dharma at Sarnath & attaining Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya [from the panel behind the Buddha at Jing’an Temple in Shanghai, China] – (2012)

So, I had to get back. And in the week of Christmas 2014, I returned to India, the egg. This time I was arriving in Mumbai.  It had been 5 years since my first trip to the country when I gritted through the drought of parched north India and took a slow train from Delhi to Kolkata. Along the way, I was able to make my first pilgrimage to the sites of Bodh Gaya (where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and awakened as the Buddha) and Sarnath (where the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma before his disciples in a small deer park near the holy Hindu city of Varanasi). [see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” and “Pilgrimage – Part II” at https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/04/pilgrimage-part-i and https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/14/pilgrimage-part-ii%5D.  When I walked outside of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and made my way to the taxi area — ohhh, that smell. It just took one whiff. Something opened in my mind and transported me to another plane of consciousness.  A mix of ash, dash of incense (like sandalwood), and the warm stench of urine. The smell wafts into your core and the rings of Mumbai’s smog circulate that smell into an orbit around the sprawling cityscape.  Yet, the smell is not repulsive. It is strangely welcoming and familiar– albeit a familiarity that is connected to something  deep and buried in us. Like some primordial chord that gets struck once the odor gets recognized by some vestigial sense receptor in us.  After a 15-hour non-stop flight from the United States, I was suddenly alive with wonder. The plan was this: 2 weeks to take a train from Mumbai to Aurangabad to see the 1500 year old rock caves carved in the gorge of Ajanta and hills of Ellora during Buddhism’s zenith in India. From Aurangabad, I would fly back to Mumbai and hop on a connecting flight to Goa.  I wasn’t interested in the beaches or hanging out with Russian tourists there– Christmas in Goa would be something special, but I had no idea I would come to face to face with the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier while I was there.

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Sunset over Haji Ali Darga Mosque – Mumbai, India (2014)

Mumbai itself does not have much by way of historical Buddhist temples or structures. It is dominated by Hindu religious fervor, but there is a sizable community of Muslims, as well as Parsis (Zoroastrians), in the city. A good chunk of today’s Mumbai consists of reclaimed land where former islands were brought together to form one landmass by the Portuguese during the 16th century.  One of the most memorable sights is the Haji Ali Darga Mosque that sits out in the Arabian Sea near the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai. Like Mont St. Michel in medieval France, this religious shrine becomes an island when the water rises at high tide and covers the stone walkway that leads to it.  The shrine was built to house the coffin of Haji Ali who died as he was returning from Mecca — his coffin somehow fell off the ship transporting his body to India and was found floating in the sea. The shrine was then built at the location where the coffin was recovered.

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Vipassana Pagoda – Gorai (Mumbai) (2014)

The one interesting Buddhist structure in Mumbai that I visited was the Global Vipassana Pagoda way out in the north of Mumbai.  The construction of this pagoda and its meditation hall began in 2009 and there was still some work remaining in order to finish the project when I saw it. The pagoda itself is a copy of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). [see post: “Enter the Pagoda” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/06/21/enter-the-pagoda%5D. Inside the pagoda there is a huge empty space — a space that is framed by one of the largest interior domes in the world.

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Interior dome – Vipassana Pagoda

What caught my eye as I walked around a plexiglass area for visitors to peer inside the dome was a photograph showing what appeared to be pearls, but what were actually relics of the Buddha — pieces of bone that had transformed into shiny small balls.  These relics had been placed into a ceremonial vessel that was then interred inside the Vipassana Pagoda.

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Photo inside Pagoda showing relics of Buddha

The English messaging on the photo had me scratching my head: “most of the bone relics turn into this shape“. I had seen bone relics before such as at the Botataung Pagoda in Burma [see post: “Bones of Reverence” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/04/11/bones-of-reverance%5D, and these relics had not taken the shape of pearl-like shiny balls. I had also witnessed cremations in India and Nepal and it was hard to believe that human bones would form such shapes after being burned.  But, even if the messaging on the photo was simply an inaccurate English translation, India is more magic than logic. It is a land where ancient custom and ritual butt up against Bollywood and technology, so one must try to make sense of it all.  When I found myself in an old Goan cathedral a week later, I would see the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier at rest in a glass coffin. I saw little decay.  Instead of a human skeleton, I saw a fleshy black corpse with hair on its head, fingernails, toenails, eyeballs, and teeth all intact.  So, if without any mummification, the Saint’s body had been miraculously preserved — why couldn’t some of the bones of the Buddha turn into pearl-like balls after his cremation?

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Train to Aurangabad

While I was a bit hesitant to travel by train (2nd class coach) again in India after my last experience years earlier, I went ahead and bought a train ticket from Mumbai to Aurangabad.  The train left in the early afternoon and took about 7 hours. I ended up sitting next to a professor who entertained me with various YouTube videos that discussed conspiracy theories of terrorists plotting to attack India and the West. Of course, I was well aware of the siege of Mumbai that had taken place in 2008 by an Islamic fundamentalist group from Pakistan who entered the city by boat and attacked Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal palace and other buildings. So, I did not feel it was my place to point out some of the preposterous statements in the videos he showed me. I was rewarded for this because when our train arrived in Aurangabad the professor told me he was being picked up in a car and could drop me off at my hotel.  I took one look at the dusty torn up state of the Aurangabad train station and the void I had entered. There were no signs, lights, or any viable exit from the chaos of vendors, tuk-tuks, and tangle of bodies and bags around me. I eagerly said yes and jumped into the backseat of his car.

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Dreams of Ajanta – (Maharashtra state, India)

Excitement gripped me that first night in Aurangabad as I knew I would be seeing the legendary Ajanta caves the next day.  I had once seen an “Ancient Aliens” episode on the History 2 channel in the States — where the theory of “ancient astronauts” with advanced tools had dug and carved these otherworldly shrine caves into the black stone of Ajanta. I was hooked and had to see these for myself. So, here I was.

The Cosmic Mandala

29 Jul

Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) - Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) – Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

From KL, I took a MH flight to Jakarta. Upon arriving, I first found an ATM, withdrew some rupiah (Indonesian currency), and bought a snack in order to get some small denominations. I then walked out of Soekarno–Hatta International Airport to a bus stop located close to the main terminal. When the first bus pulled up, I hopped on and luckily had the right amount of small rupiah notes to pay the fare without causing a scene. But, I did not know if I was on the correct bus or not. Since it was a local bus, its destination sign was written in Bahasa and I had no idea what it said. I just had a hunch that this bus had to go somewhere near the city center because I saw others with their luggage also get on and they looked like they lived in the city. With my face pressed on the window, I could see the shadows of tall buildings emerge in the smoggy distance, so I let out a sigh of relief knowing that the bus was headed in the right direction. As we entered the city limits, it took at least 45 minutes for the bus to navigate the tangle of traffic and multiple lane changes in order to get near to Merdeka Square (which is easy to identify from afar because of the tall pillar that shoots out of it).

National Monument at Merdeka Square - Jakarta

National Monument at Merdeka Square – Jakarta

I got off at the Square which was within walking distance of Jalan Jaksa road — a hub of cheap budget hotels and eateries. JJ is nowhere near as raucous or fun as Bangkok’s Khaosan Rd, but it has that same kind of feel about it. I hadn’t booked a room, so my plan was to stroll along Jalan Jaksa and see what was available. I was only staying in Jakarta for 2 days and was not too concerned about the quality of my accommodations. The heat and dense air during my walk to JJ with my backpack soon had me encased in a net of my own sweat. I took a wrong turn or 2 and didn’t find Jalan Jaksa until I wasted nearly an hour. When I saw the first hotel, I made a beeline for it and asked for a room. The hotel had no occupancy. Not a problem. I saw 3 or 4 other hostels/guest houses in the area, so I went on to the next one — and the next one — and so on — ALL were completely booked.  I was exhausted and sat down on a bench in a leafy area that blocked the sun. For a moment I thought about heading back to the main road, hailing a taxi, and going toward the new area of Jakarta where the big luxe hotels were found. But, my stubbornness got the better of me and I was determined to find a place in Jalan Jaksa. Then — in a first for me — I actually closed my eyes and nodded off for a bit. When I woke up, I remember the sun was setting and with a renewed vigor I covered nearly every inch of the JJ area until I found the best of all possible flophouses. It was like a cement hole with a bed and no hot water — that pretty much sums it up — but I greedily took it. Jakarta is a fast-paced city of industry and is in the process of reinventing itself from regional to global economic powerhouse. One area that I had a chance to explore and which thankfully has avoided the relentlessness of modernity is the northern area of the city known as Kota (formerly called Batavia). Kota contains the remnants of a time when Java was the jewel of the Dutch East Indies. The old city plan for Batavia is still evidenced in the form of cobblestone and canals that the Dutch engineered — unfortunately, these canals also ultimately led to the abandonment of this area of the city because the stagnant water in the canals was like manna from heaven for mosquito breeding and this led to an epidemic of malaria that killed thousands of people.

Fishing Boats of Sunlap Harbor - Jakara

Schooners of Sunda Kelapa port – Jakarta

As I walked around the canals and learned about the malaria that wreaked so much havoc, my mind connected that calamity with the December 2004 tsunami which had taken place 4 1/2 years before my trip to Indonesia. The 2004 tsunami was triggered by a 9.2 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that destroyed Banda Aceh on Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. In addition to that devastation, Indonesia had faced countless other earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the ensuing years — the most serious of which had occurred in 2006 when Mt. Merapi blew its top and spread fire and ash all near Yogykarta which was where I was headed next. My main reason in coming to Indonesia was to visit the magnificent Buddhist structure of Borobudur and the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan. Both of these sites were clustered in Central Java and only a day trip away from Yogykarta.

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Sultan’s “Water Castle” (18th Century) – Yogyakarta

I left Jakarta via train from Gambir station and 8 hours later, I reached Yogykarta’s Tugu station. The 8 hours was long and the coach I was in was ice-cold (with songs from the American band, Chicago, playing on some kind of constant loop), but the journey was otherwise quiet and without any of the surprises, delays, or other unforeseen episodes that I have experienced with trains elsewhere in Asia. Immediately upon my exit from the train station, I felt at ease in Yogya. There was none of the worry of taking wrong turns or passing out on a bench like in Jakarta. Yogya was designed as a walled city within which there was a main palace area  — called the kraton — where the sultan lived. This palace complex is the heart of Yogya and is where the current sultan still resides. While it is Indonesia’s second largest city, Yogya has a laid back vibe — most men wear traditional batik button-up shirts, there is a large bird market, many arts & crafts stores, and lots of quiet neighborhoods. To the south of the kraton is an old square where 2 massive Banyan trees are located. There is a tradition that has been passed down through generations where a person is blindfolded, spun around, and then attempts to walk to the center of the 2 trees. If the person is able to do the walk, stops and takes the blindfold off, and finds herself standing in the middle of 2 trees, the person will receive a blessing of good fortune and health. I was able to sit off to the side of the square and watch people actually trying to do the blindfold walk — they all ended up way off course and when they took off the blindfold, they could only laugh at how far off base they were!  That scene captured the soul of Yogya for me.

Approach to Borobudur - Central Java, Indonesia

Approach to Borobudur – Central Java, Indonesia

On my second day in Yogya, I bought a ticket with a tour outfit that did a combined day trip to Borobudur and Prambanam. Borobudur is located about 40km northwest of Yogykarta, and from Borobudur to Prambanam is about 53km which goes back towards and east of Yogya. So, the day was going to be packed in tight, but I was glad that I would begin at Borobudur where most of our time would be spent before doubling back to Prambanam (along with a stop at a Mt. Merapi overlook). These 2 incredible monuments were built within 80 years of one another starting with Borobudur’s construction taking place in the 8th century AD. It is almost unheard of in the history of mankind to have 2 different religious kingdoms grow peaceably alongside one another for about 5 centuries, but that’s what took place with the Buddhist (Sailendra) and Hindu (Sanjaya) dynasties who founded them. The religious kingdoms of these sites and the power of their respective kingdoms ultimately declined when Islam took hold as the dominant religion in Java in the 13th century and spread throughout Indonesia (although Bali still maintains its own unique Hindu-Balinese blended religious practice). Today, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world.

The world's largest Mandala

Borobudur – the world’s largest Mandala

An electrical charge coursed through me as the blackish stone pyramid of Borobudur began to peek through the lush green trees surrounding it. Unlike other ancient Buddhist sites such as Anuradhapura, Bagan, and Angkor, which were all either large centers for Buddhist learning consisting of several temples, shrines, and monasteries, or in the case of Angkor — a capital of a large Hindu-Buddhist empire — Borobudur is a standalone structure. It is solitary — yet undoubtedly interactive because one must enter it in order to experience its planes of escalating consciousness. While there is not much by way of historical record of the intent and precise meaning of Borobudur, it is generally agreed that it was built as a kind of “walk-through” Mandala in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that depicts the Buddhist cosmos — peaking at a summit representing enlightenment.

Escalating planes of consciousness

Planes of escalating consciousness

The name “Borobudur” is possibly derived from an old Sanskrit phrase for “monastery on a hill”. Its first stone was likely laid down around 750 AD and its last was set 100 years later. It was abandoned by the 14th century and then disappeared under a layer of volcanic ash until 1815 when it was rediscovered. Borobudur is massive and densely packed with stone reliefs, carvings, statues of the Buddha in various mudras, and latticed stupas (within which are Buddhas).  From a ground view it is difficult to comprehend its perfectly designed geometry and form because of all the visually dizzying elements that pop up in front of you. But, from the sky, its Mandala design is clear. This design is virtually the same as those I’ve seen in Tibetan frescoes, but just happens to be 3-dimensional. There are 6 square terraces that lay on top of one another — the largest begins at the floor level and from there each terrace diminishes proportionally in its dimension as it ascends to the top. After the 6th square terrace, there are 3 circular terraces which mirrors the traditional Mandala design practice of fixing a circular design within a square perimeter (“Mandala” itself is the Sanskrit word for circle).

Gateway of southern staircase

Gateway of southern staircase with central stupa at the top

The entire structure is accessible through 4 main stairways that lead up from the base platform to the top. But, the purpose is not just to walk up one of these stairways all the way to the top. One has to complete the circuit of each terrace and then walk up on the stairs to the next terrace until one reaches the top. So, this takes some physical exertion, however, the purpose of this exercise is to allow for ample time to contemplate the life of the Buddha with the aid of the intricate storyboards carved into the sides each terrace. These carvings depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as, vivid epic snapshots from the history of the people who built Borobudur. As I walked through the narrow corridors of each terrace and eyed all these visuals — it felt like being inside one of those old penny arcade-type machines where thousands of images flip by so fast that the images appear to move (and initially these carvings and images of Borobudur were painted and contained color).

Detail of terrace carving

Detail of terrace carving

When I finally I walked up the last set of stairs to the top terrace, the corridors fell away, and instead, I was surrounded by several bell-shaped stupas with diamond-shaped openings. Within these stupas, there are seated Buddhas and some tourists were sticking their hands inside the openings in the attempt to the touch them. In the middle of the platform was 1 central stupa that had no openings and stood above all the rest. This stupa is “empty” in that unlike other true stupas that were erected in the ancient Buddhist world, there is no relic of the Buddha enshrined within in it. At one time, this stupa had a pillar on top of it, but that pillar was most likely destroyed in an earthquake long ago. Other stupas that dot the top terrace had either been damaged or crumbled so that the Buddhas inside them popped up like gophers from a hole. From the top terrace, I could see the surrounding jungle, and like many riddles of the ancient world, the idea of how all the rock for this monument was quarried from the distant mountains and brought to this location baffled me. But, as I’ve understood from visits to other sacred places in Asia — one should not let the arrogance of the modern age cast generations from a millennia ago as primitives with only simple minds and crude tools. These people had hearts (and hands) driven by an almost otherworldly faith that literally could move mountains.

Stupas & Buddha scattered on top of Borobudur

Stupas & Buddhas scattered atop of Borobudur

The other interesting aspect of Borobudur is that it represents the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in a region that has been (and still is) deeply rooted in Theravada.  It was the Sinhalese merchants from Sri Lanka who brought their Theravada Buddhist practice with them as they made contact with the people of Southeast Asia. The Mahayana school made its way out of the landlocked mountain passes of India, Nepal, and what is today northeast Pakistan, and from there continued to spread overland into Central Asia, China, and Tibet. But, somehow in the middle of Java, Borobudur had sprouted as a Mahayana-based Mandala (with some possible Tantric overtones as some scholars believe).IMG_0490.JPG There are still questions as to what group of people injected Mahayana Buddhism into Java. These people may have originally come from the Malay peninsula or were seafaring merchants from elsewhere who brought the Mahayana tradition with them. The only other structure that I have ever seen that can also be considered a 3-dimensional, walk-through Mandala is Gyantse Khumbum in Tibet [see post: “Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa” at https://wordpress.com/post/38471034/800/]. But, while Gyantse Khumbum is itself an incredible structure — brightly painted with 100s of individual shrine rooms with statues and frescoes located on all its terraces — it was built as a component of a large monastery complex. Furthermore, the founding and construction of Gyantse Khumbum is chronicled and supported by the historical records of Tibetan monks. Borobudur sits all by itself — there are 2 smaller Buddhist structures located nearby — but there is no physical evidence of a larger complex within which Borobudur may have sat.  On the other hand, the Hindu complex of Prambanam which was built soon after Borobudur has many distinct temples and areas where people may have lived and worshipped — most of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of interaction between the Sanjaya Hindu dynasty of Prambanam and the Sailendra Buddhist dynasty of Borobudur, yet nothing else of the Sailendra dynasty physically remains other than Borobudur.

The end of the Buddhist road?

The end of the Buddhist road?

As I finished my survey from the top of Borobudur and began to walk down, I realized that I had reached the southernmost point of the ancient Buddhist world. Beyond Indonesia — the South Pacific & Micronesia. Below — Australia. For a moment I thought – where now?  If only I could put on a blindfold and walk out of Borobudur towards the jungle without worrying about where I would end up. But, I didn’t like the idea of fumbling off course. There was a method to these wanderings of mine, and I had to get back to where I had first found that wonder.

Flesh & Devotion in KL

29 Mar

Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain righthand corner - (2008)

Singapore skyline with Merlion fountain lefthand corner – (2008)

The shared southern border between Myanmar and Thailand separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and is a sliver of tropical paradise and sporadic guerilla fighting that ultimately ends in the bulbous Malay peninsula. The city-state of Singapore is an island at the tip of this peninsula where the Strait of Johore sets it apart from Malaysia. Although geographically it is part of Southeast Asia, Singapore is very different from the rest of the region. I arrived there in 2008 and my plan was to use the city as my jumping off point as I traveled by bus to the old colonial town of Melaka in Malaysia, then on to Kuala Lumpur (KL), and from KL I would fly to Jakarta — the goal being to travel to central Java and visit Borobudur. The pyramid-like, walk-through mandala structure of Borobudur is one of the most incredible creations of the Buddhist world, and interestingly, is found in Indonesia — the most populous Muslim country in the world. While most of the big cities of Southeast Asia are busy putting up skyscrapers, investing in public transportation, and leveraging their natural resources for economic gains, there is still a noticeable push-pull between the old and the new — and in most of these cities, the Theravada Buddhist tradition provides a (usually) progressive socio-cultural heartbeat. Remarkably, the tension between the old and the new is not present in Singapore. Given its small size and the vision of its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore is a gleaming testament to modernity without the baggage of the past.

Raffles Hotel - (main building completed in 1899)

Raffles Hotel – (main building completed in 1899)

Singapore does contain remnants of the colonial era as evidenced in the hillside residential quarters, the Raffles Hotel, and in old government buildings. There are also certainly economic disparities between newly arrived immigrants and the established majority population which consists of Malay people who have mixed with the descendants of Chinese merchants and traders — many of whom decided to remain in the area after the Great Wall was built and sealed off their overland return to China. Singapore also has many distinct religio-ethnic quarters such as Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and even has its own Chinatown. I was able to walk to the Chinatown district from the city centre of Singapore and saw some interesting Tao-Buddhist temples. As I walked further into the Chinatown area, I came across a sparkling building. It was four-stories tall and perfect in its design and symmetry. This was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple which had just opened one year earlier. The temple had been built by contributions and endowments from prominent Singaporeans and Chinese Buddhists and it contained a tooth relic said to have belonged to the Buddha which had originally been enshrined inside a pagoda in Burma. Similar to the sad fate of other pagodas in Burma [see post: Bones of Reverence at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-qv], this unfortunate pagoda was destroyed by a WWII bombing raid and found in its ruins was a small reliquary containing the tooth relic.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple - Singapore

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple – Singapore

The relic was thereafter kept in the care of the Burmese sangha for decades until it was brought to Singapore. In contrast to its arresting exterior, the inside of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple seems a bit too museum-like and artificial — not much mystery. On the 4th floor of the temple, one can see a gold 2-meter high stupa where the tooth is kept [no photos are allowed inside the temple].  I was happy to have found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple while in Singapore, but it brought to mind no comparison at all to the history, majesty, and spiritual power of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka [see post: Ecce Dens (Behold the Tooth) at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kB].

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya - Temple of 1,000 Lights

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya @ Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore

Another Buddhist sight of a note in Singapore is the Thai-influenced Temple of 1000 Lights. This temple was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m high/300 tonnes) seated Buddha. As recounted in my previous post [see post: Remains of the Wat-age at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6], the features of this large Buddha are strikingly reminiscent of those of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan in Bangkok. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built over 3 centuries apart.

Christ Church (built in 1753) - Melaka, Malaysia

Christ Church (built by Dutch in 1753) – Melaka, Malaysia

From Singapore, I hopped on a bus north to Melaka in Malaysia. Melaka — like Goa, Galle, and Macau — is a former Portuguese (later Dutch, then British) colonial enclave in Asia. The food and people there have a mixed ancestry and the old colonial center is bathed in roseate colors which pop out. The passageway of ocean that lays in front of the town is called the Strait of Malacca which is one of the busiest trade waterways in the world — and full of piracy. After a day’s worth of exploring the town, it was time for me to get to the capital. KL is a bustling, fun metropolis — not quite on par with all the efficiencies of Singapore, but gaining traction each day and also not as sterile. In contrast to the secular nature of Singapore, KL is the capital of Muslim-majority Malaysia. The skyline is dominated by the minaret-capped Petronas Towers and the KL Menara (Tower).  I began in the old city center — Merdeka Square — and strolled towards KL’s Chinatown district where I walked along a major street called Medan Pasar.  Along this road stands a small group of 5 or so weathered early 20th century buildings — out of place with the rest of the area given their coloring and Victorian-influenced design, but there is something organic about them — as if they could belong nowhere else.

Sri Maha Mariamman - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

Sri Maha Mariamman – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2008)

After continuing south in this area for about 10 minutes, I stopped and looked across the street at the Sri Maha Mariamman. This is the oldest Hindu temple in KL and dates back to 1873. Its front entry has a 5-tiered tower that is 23m (75ft) high and filled with all sorts of colorful Hindu deities which look to be climbing all over one another and clamoring for attention. This temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Mariamman who is venerated as the protector of Hindus during their travels in foreign lands. But, the temple also serves as the launching off point for the annual “Thaipusam” festival and procession that began in KL in 1892. It originated with those Hindus — mostly from the Tamil state in India — who the British had brought to Malaysia as indentured servants to provide the workforce that built the roads, buildings, and homes throughout the British imperial realm.

Entry Gate to Batu Caves

Entry Gate to Batu Caves – 15km outside KL

“Thaipusam” comes from the combination of the Tamil word “Thai” which is the time of year that corresponds to January/early February (when the festival takes place) and “Pusam” which is the name of a star that is at its highest point in the sky during that time. The focus of the festival is Lord Murugan (a son of Lord Shiva) and it allows the faithful to both physically and spiritually re-enact and remember the moment when Murugan was given a special spear by his mother (Parvati), so he could defeat an evil demon.

Lord Muruga Statue and stairway into Batu Caves

Lord Murugan Statue and stairway up to Batu Caves

Inside Sri Maha Mariamman is a silver chariot which is used to carry statues of Lord Murugan and his 2 consorts through the streets of KL all the way to the Batu Caves — which are about 15km outside of the city. The devout follow the chariot and pierce their torsos with crescent-shaped metallic objects while carrying heavy containers of milk on their shoulders or by hand. This milk is then poured as offerings made at the shrines found inside the Batu Caves.

Step 211 - getting there...

Step 211 – getting there…

Thaipusam is a festival that smacks of pain above all else. It is extremely punishing and long (lasting up to 8-hours), and because it was designed for the specific purpose of worshipping the super-masculine traits of Lord Murugan, the displays of strength and endurance are integral and cannot be shirked. I had to take a local bus from the temple to the Batu Caves which appeared before me like an unnatural monolith soon after the urban sprawl of KL had faded. After passing through the entry gate, the first thing I saw was the giant statue of Lord Murugan and at 43m (140ft) high it is the world’s tallest statue of him. To the left of the statue is a wide staircase consisting of 272-steps — each step is numbered so the faithful know exactly where they are as they put one foot carefully in front of the other while nearing the end of their difficult march.

Inside main chamber - Batu Caves

Inside main chamber – Batu Caves

Needless to say, many people pass-out or collapse on these stairs during Thaipusam. So, there are many medics and ambulances ready to whisk away the afflicted or injured. The Batu Caves are like a limestone amphitheater with prowling monkeys and eye-catching statues sitting in crevices and outcrops of the Caves.

Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Muruga, Nandi

Hindu Holy Family: Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati & Murugan with Shiva’s Nandi (Bull)

The nerve-center and focal point of the Caves is the shrine containing the “murti” of Lord Murugan – which is  considered by Hindus as the literal embodiment of the divine spirit of Murugan himself. This small image — made of silver and adorned with garlands — was consecrated over a 100 years ago. Even though I visited the Caves when the Thaipusam festival was not taking place, I still had to maneuver through a ravenous pack of pushers and shovers  — each vying for a look at the murti.  I tunneled my way through the throng, got close, and raised my camera above the rest in order to take a photo.

Murti of Lord Muruga

Murti of Lord Murugan – Batu Caves

Jockeying for position amidst the crowd made for a not so steady hand when snapping the pic. Besides, my legs were still wobbly from the walk up all those stairs. I could not fathom the stamina and steely resolve necessary to complete the procession during Thaipusam. An uninterrupted, 8-hour march with one’s flesh flayed like a fish and bleeding — all the while having to carry heavy jugs of milk?!?! AND THEN, the pay-off for having made the 15km walk is facing 272-steps of vertiginous torture?! Even if I were to be ensnared by the pageantry of the festival and motivated by the fervor of the faithful around me, I don’t think I would be able to complete this rite. So, my only photo of the murti of Lord Murugan came out a bit shaky — O, me of little faith.

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.

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