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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 back of Jing’yan Buddha 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.

 

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Dynasty Lost (and Found again)

25 Jan

On my last day in Yangon, I went back to the Schwedagon Pagoda and sat in contemplation of all the history it has stood witness to one last time. I then gathered myself and wheeled around exiting from its South Entrance. I headed down the hill and followed some general directions I had found on the internet that would lead me to the site I was looking for: the tomb of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

The Red Fort - Delhi, India (2009)

The Red Fort – Delhi, India (2009)

I had learned about Bahadur Shah a few years earlier during a trip to India. It was a story that gripped me– this was the 17th Emperor of the Mughal Dynasty. The end of the line of 3 centuries of a Dynasty that had begun with Babur the Great who was a descendant of Tamerlane and claimed ancestry with Genghis Khan. The dynastic lineage he spawned would include Humayon, Akbar the Great, and Shah Jahan — who built the Taj Mahal. Babur was laid to rest in what today is Kabul in Afghanistan. Nearly all the other Mughal kings were buried in magnificent mausoleums sprinkled around Delhi, Agra, Fatehpour Sikri, and other areas of North India. Yet, the last Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, had died in 1862 in Rangoon and was virtually forgotten until 1991. The British had removed him from his palace in the Red Fort in Delhi because of his part in the Indian rebellion or “mutiny” of 1857. At the time, the British East India Company had already begun what was to be their long-term occupation of India which initially began as a trading outpost and then morphed into a military colonizing force stretching from Calcutta down to Madras, across to Bombay, and up to Delhi. A band of Indians who could see the handwriting on the wall if these British forces continued their entrenchment in the region attempted to overthrow the British provisional government and troops who were in Delhi. The leaders of this group approached and enlisted the help of Bahadur Shah and although he had extremely diminished power and extended little influence outside of the walls of the Red Fort, he still wielded a symbolic appeal that could be used to rally the people under the banner of getting rid of a foreign occupier. The results of the uprising were catastrophic. The British crushed the rebellion and killed two of Bahadur Shah’s sons who had participated in the skirmishes. The British general presented Bahadur Shah with each of his son’s heads afterwards. After a 40-day trial in which the British “proved” Bahadur Shah’s role in the mutiny, he was convicted of various conspiratorial charges and treason and sentenced to exile in Rangoon where the British had set up another outpost. In 1858, Bahadur Shah and his wife marched with what was left of the royal court east from Delhi to Rangoon.

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah's tomb

Stone Marker found near Bahadur Shah’s tomb

He died in Rangoon 4 years later at the age of 87. He was buried on the same day of his death by the British. His grave was lost until 1991 when during excavation of a road just below the Schwedagon, Burmese construction workers hit a brick-lined structure that upon further investigation turned out to hold Bahadur Shah’s coffin. They also found a stone marker written in English, Urdu, and Burmese that made reference to the “Ex-King of Delhi” being buried near this spot. In his years of exile, Bahadur Shah wrote poetry, created beautiful calligraphy, translated Sufi texts, and reflected on his long life. He was acutely aware of what it would mean to die in exile as the last Mughal Emperor. In one of his final poems, he wrote the following (as has been translated into English), “Poor Zafar! Not even two yards of land were to be had, in the land of his beloved”.

Mausoleum of Humayon - Delhi, India

Mausoleum of Humayon – Delhi, India

While his ancestors such as Humayun, Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan, and others are still remembered and their mortal remains lay in some of the most incredible monuments ever built, Bahadur Shah was hastily buried in a shallow grave in a foreign land. The pages of history quickly swept by him. His descendants would fade into obscurity [a news article some years ago wrote of the existence of some of his descendants who are now apparently paupers in Kolkata – begging for money in train stations]. Yet, something interesting happened after Bahadur Shah’s grave was rediscovered in Yangon.

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan's Mausoleum) - Agra, India

Taj Mahal (Shah Jahan’s Mausoleum) – Agra, India

The Indian government assisted the Burmese in creating a shrine for the king, and this compound also includes the tombs of his wife and daughter whose graves were found nearby. As renewed interest in Bahadur Shah and his life caught on, people began to pay attention to his writings and commentaries were published about his poems, his translations of important Sufi texts, and other works.

Mausoleum of Akbar - Fatehpour Sikri, India

Mausoleum of Akbar – Fatehpour Sikri, India

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II

Shrine of Bahadur Shah II – Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) (2011)

When I arrived at his shrine, I was amazed by how many people were there. I thought maybe there would be just a few caretakers and I would be the only visitor. But, there were many people of all ages streaming in and out of the shrine. Some were having picnic lunches in the prayer hall, and others were sitting around the tombs of Bahadur Shah and his wife praying and socializing. These people were all also Muslims. I saw an immediate parallel between their devoutness at Bahadur Shah’s shrine and the Buddhist centrifugal pull of the Schwedagon Pagoda just up the road.

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

Tomb of Bahadur Shah

In watching the people at his shrine, it struck me that these people did not come here to pay tribute to Bahadur Shah because he happened to simply be the titular “last Mughal”, but rather because they held a saint-like esteem for him and his accomplishments as a poet and dervish.DSCN3102 His shrine emanated its own sacred energy within the shadow of the Schwedagon Pagoda.

Two and half a years after my trip to Myanmar, the country has definitely changed. Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, and instead, is a member of the Burmese parliament. The country has begun to open itself the world community, all political prisoners have allegedly been set free, and the tourist sector in the country is experiencing a boom. This could all be for the best as long as the government and people balance this growth with their traditions and preserve the incredibly legacy and monuments of their country. However, there are concerns about what appear on the surface to be ethnic or religious intolerance and violence — especially in Rakhine state where the Rohingya people  (an ethnic group originally from what is now Bangladesh and who are Muslims) are being persecuted by the Buddhist majority there.  But, what I saw at the shrine of Bahadur Shah shows that the Burmese people can certainly embrace different religious practice in the face of coming socio-economic change.  While his small shrine has none of the grandeur or awe-inspiring design of the mausoleums of his ancestors, it also lacks the museum-like austerity of those shrines.  Instead, Bahadur Shah’s shrine is alive and provides a peaceful site of contemplation and community for a Burmese religious minority. It is a refuge — and that’s perhaps more of an enduring legacy than that of any other Mughal Emperor.

Part II (Cont’d) – Fire

18 Aug

It is said that for any Hindu the most auspicious place to die is at Varanasi. If the person dies in the Ganges river itself or water from the river is splashed on the person as he dies, then this results in the attainment of supreme salvation. The person escapes the perpetual cycle of reincarnation and is transported to Mt. Meru which is the center of the universe and is similar to the Western concept of heaven. I could see the smoke billowing and smearing into the hazy bend of the Ganges before me. Manikarnika was the last major ghat at Varansi and was located at the far end of the city from where I was. I began the long walk towards the smoke. This would not be the first time I had observed the ancient rite of the Hindu funeral pyre.

Cremations at Pashupatinath – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

I had seen my first cremation in 2007 in Pashupatinath, which is a large Nepalese Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva in Kathmandu. Pashupatinath has its own cremation ghats which have been constructed on the banks of the Bagmati river and cremations take place 24 hours a day. Observers can walk over a bridge to the other side of the river and can watch the cremations talking place from that vantage point. Some of these ghats have roofs and raised platforms and these were where the wealthy had their funeral pyres. Those of less means were cremated right on the concrete slab of open air ghats that were nearest the river bank. What do we know of funeral pyres in the West? Certainly, we have cremations, but those are done in the back room of a crematorium with such technological gadgetry and speed that you get an incineration. So, as with many aspects of the way we live life in the West, we can choose to have instant gratification in death. The Hindu cremation is almost artistic in its ritual and choreography. The fact it can be viewed out in the open by non-family and strangers gives it the added element of the public theatre. It may take up to 6 hours for the pyre to burn itself out in some cases. How to describe the first cremation I watched at Pashupatinath? The first thing I can say was that I had to accept the decision I made to watch. I felt I would be invading the privacy of the family who was conducting the ceremony and I did not want to just gawk. At the same time, it would be ridiculous to sit on the other side of the river and pretend that you were not there to observe the cremation. When the body appeared, it brought everything into focus real quick.

Anointment – Pashupatinath

My eyes locked onto the scene, and in fact, I think it would have been disrespectful if I hadn’t held my gaze. It would have been disrespectful if I had looked elsewhere while this most shared actuality of the human existence was taking place. The body was carried by 3 men who shuffled down the steps and laid the man down on the pyre that had been prepared close to the river bank. He was wrapped in deep orange-colored robes. His head, hands, and feet could be seen. Then, other individuals – who appeared to be family members of the man — applied ointment to the man’s face, hands and feet. This ointment was a kind of cow butter and then other offerings like camphor, mango leaves, tumeric powder, and juniper or sandalwood were placed on or near the man’s body. The actual wood used for the funeral pyre was corkwood I think. After the anointing was finished, another man ambled out of the temple doorway above the ghat and approached the body with a torch that had been lit from a flame inside the temple. There were dried fronds of some kind placed on top of and around the sides of the body, and then the man carrying the torch began to light these fronds one by one in a clockwise manner. These fronds produced a dense smoke and triggered the wood below to begin to burn. As the smoke rose and blew across the river, I caught a faint scent of what seemed to me to be like candle wax. I could detect nothing more. The family members chanted a few refrains as they walked around the body clockwise. Some of them turned and sat down on the stone benches above the pyre.  I then noticed that another pyre that had already been burning for some time before I had arrived was about finished. A man showed up with a broom and began to sweep the ashes and remnants of the corpse directly into the Bagmati river. After a few strokes, nothing remained of the existence of that person. He had been swept into the everlasting right before my eyes and the river had taken it from there. I watched the river flow away from that spot and could see far downriver without obstruction. There was a man who appeared to be standing in the river and brushing his teeth. A couple of semi-clothed kids were swimming and playing just a little further downriver from the man. “How the swift current of life continued – uninterrupted,” I thought as I got closer to Manikarnika. But, the river I was walking alongside now was the Ganges whose source was the Himalayas and here at Varanasi it was starving without the rains of the monsoon. There were only a few rowboats that were crossing between the sandbars and carrying people across from one side to the other.

Boats waiting for the Monsoon – Varanasi (2009)

Most boats were drydocked or stranded on the land waiting for the rains to come. But, as I neared Manikarnika there was suddenly a crush of boats and people were just sitting in the boats looking at the activities going on in the ghat. The buildings of Manikarnika Ghat were charred by thousands of years of smoke. They stood like blackened sentinels from another time and were strikingly absent of the color and light that characterized the other ghats. This part of the Ganges was like the River Styx. It was the underworld and like any underworld there were guardians. The guardians of Manikarnika I learned were called Doms — a caste of untouchables. I almost got run over by 3 of them when I was craning my neck to look at one Manikarnika’s buildings and unknowingly walked across the main throughway of the temple when the Doms blasted out carrying a body on two long bamboo rods. The Doms of Manikarnika Ghat earn their living by conducting the funeral pyres for those Hindus fortunate enough to make it to Varanasi. The Doms charge fees for burning bodies that scale from a base price to an “all the frills” package depending on what the family wants to do. Paradoxically, as untouchables, the Doms are the only Hindus expected to touch the corpses, and so they complete the ceremony by sweeping the ashes and throwing any remaining bones of the body into the Ganges. Unlike Pashupatinath, where I observed the cremations from across the river, I was right in the middle of the cremation ghats at Manikarnika. I was only a few meters away from where the pyre burned. I watched for about 30-minutes before I felt soot falling on my shoulders and face and then realized I was breathing in the ashes of human flesh. This didn’t unsettle me. I understood the shared mortality between myself and these ashes that were being carried up in smoke. I understood the meaning of what the Buddha had said to those who surrounded him as he succumbed to his own death that day in Kushinagar. Nothing is permanent – everything transitions into something else and you have to work out your salvation yourself. What I was observing (and inhaling) was one Hindu’s last step toward a salvation that he had journeyed to during his mortal days on earth. This person had lived, loved, been angry, sad, forgiven, grown, apologized, and died. Now, he was breaking free and ascending to Meru, or heaven, or nirvana. And I breathed it in. I became lost in this realization and watched the fire burn.

Periphery of Marnikarnika Ghat

When I finally snapped out of it, I noticed the sun was getting lower in the sky and I had to make my way back to another ghat where a ceremony was to be performed. This ceremony was a blessing to the Ganges that Hindus conducted at sunset of each day of the year. It was called the Ganga Aarti and it took place at Dashashwamedh Ghat.  When I arrived at this ghat, there were throngs of people already claiming spots on the steps and they crowded near 5 raised concrete platforms that faced the Ganges. There were lights in the shape of parasols above each of these platforms and bells hung from iron bars connected to these lights.  As the sun set, the ghat was packed and 5 priests — who looked very young — took their position on each of the platforms. A man who sat behind them with a couple of musicians began chanting and singing through a microphone. Then, each of the priests began performing the ritual of the blessing in unison. Each priest carried with him 5 elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space (in the form of ether) that were symbolized by a flower, a water spray with a handkerchief, a brass lamp, a peacock fan, and a yak-tail fan. As each element was introduced and offered to the Ganges, the priests waved the materials clockwise and given the dust that was still in the air  and the twilight conditions, each item created a kind of vapor trail that clearly hung in the air around the priest before dispersing.  Each element took on an ethereal form and I guess that was the idea of the blessing — to have the faithful experience a tangible divine connection with the Maa (Goddess) Ganges who begat and sustained life. The ceremony lasted for an hour and at the end the priests walked down from their platforms towards the Ganges. They each kneeled down and placed a circular candle with flowers (called a diya) in the river which was slowly carried off by the current. There was a congruence between what I had experienced at Marnikarnika Ghat and the Ganga Aarti blessing. Each day Hindus gave thanks to the Ganges through a spiritual and symbolic offering at Dashashwamedh, and then just a few hundred meters away, they sought salvation through the physical offering of their bodies at Marnikarnika. That was the supreme personification of balance. That is Varanasi.

Pilgrimage – Part II

14 Aug

The name, “Sarnath”, had a kind of sinister inflection in my mind. It reminded me of Golgotha. But, as I traveled there, I learned that Sarnath is actually shorthand for a longer word that means “Lord of the Deer.” It was now the name for the area surrounding the deer park where the Buddha had given his first teaching of the Dharma to his 5 companions. Sarnath is located about 13km to the northeast of the ancient city of Benares (Varanasi) and I would stay there for a few nights and take a day trip to Sarnath.

The Ghats of Varanasi, India (2009)

The funny thing was that I wasn’t too far off by thinking of Golgotha on my way there because Varanasi had a skull-like form and netherworld glow to it. Its vertiginous old buildings vomited out steps that led down to the banks of the Ganges below. And there was the dark plume of smoke that seemed to continually float above one of the ghats in particular. I would soon learn that this was Manikarnika Ghat — the pre-eminent cremation ground in all of Hinduism. I could faintly see this ghat in the distance and wasn’t ready to experience its power on that first day. As it so happened, I was only able to spend just an hour or so around the ghats that were near my Varanasi hotel on that first day. The water level of the Ganges was so low that large sand bars were exposed. These weren’t small banks of sand, but instead were large mounds that rose several feet above the ground. The clouds overhead started moving fast as a wild wind picked up and then the exposed sand bars took flight — meaning twisters picked up the sand and blew them with a ferocity toward the ghats. I was swiftly caught in a severe sandstorm and wasn’t able to breathe or open my eyes. I put on my sunglasses, pulled my shirt over my mouth, and ducked behind a wall. Incredibly, the sand whipped around the wall and swarmed over me. I could feel my ears get plugged up and things got muffled. For a few moments, all my senses were snuffed out in some way and I was in the black. I had no idea if anyone else was around, but the streets had to be deserted. It then dawned on me that the locals must have known about these sandstorms. The monsoon was late and it was the end of June of 2009. These early afternoon winds must have hit the Ganges with some regularity, so the shopkeepers, faithful, and cricketers alike knew when it was time to take cover. I had no choice but to make my way back to the hotel until the sandstorm subsided. When I got to my room, I was hoping to cool down and clean off. Unfortunately, there were constant rolling blackouts that kept knocking out the A/C and the lights. I washed myself in the dark and laid down on my bed to recover. I silently hoped that when I visited Sarnath, the deer park would live up to its reputation as being a place of serenity and calm.

Dhamekha Stupa – Sarnath, India

The next day I flagged down a Bajaj rickshaw and told the driver to take me to Sarnath. Cruising on these 3-wheelers – whether a tuk-tuk in Thailand or elsewhere – is always the same. You suck in alot of exhaust and hot thick air while dodging motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, trucks, and cars. Once in a while, you get a driver that is drunk, whacked out, or just too eager to take you to some brothel. It’s usually fun in any situation though. The tricky part is having enough cash on you to pay the driver after you (hopefully) barter out the price in advance. The road to Sarnath was long and winding and we did have a bump with a motorcycle, but that was resolved with an apology and some pulling back of the bent parts into place. I was dropped off at the entrance to the archaeological site. I paid the entrance fee and walked into a green park which contained the ruins of an old monastery, a flattened stupa, and some old broken pillars erected by Ashoka and destroyed many, many centuries later by Turkish invaders. Looming above it all was the only monument that was still largely intact. This was the Dhamekha Stupa. It had been built at the location where the Buddha had given his first sermon to his companions. It was where the wheel of the Dharma had first rotated into the world. The Stupa conveyed a majesty and simplicity to it. It looked like a giant brick thimble from afar. It had a sense of utility. As I got closer, the intricate detail and patterns that still remained on the lower half of the Stupa jumped out at me: floral wreaths, swirling patterns, and overlapping shakti symbols (perverted into what was known as the swastika in 20th century). I walked around the Stupa 3 times clockwise and imagined myself becoming part of the wheel. That was the utility of this structure – its design roped you in and you want to glom on to its side and become part of its pattern work. Sarnath did still contain an actual deer park, but this had been moved to a newer area and outside of the archaeological zone where the Dhamekha Stupa sat. Just a little further up the road, a modern version of the Mahabodhi temple had been built during the early 20th century, and behind this temple was the deer park– although from what I remember the deer were penned up in a corral which was part of a zoo where a donation or fee had to be paid. But, given the crush of humanity that India teemed with, it was still a relief to have some kind of haven for these deer which were ultimately descendants of those deer that had lived in the park during the Buddha’s time.

Detail – Dhamekha Stupa

The Dhamekha Stupa itself dates back to about 500 AD and was built over an earlier stupa that Ashoka had built upon his visit to Sarnath in the mid-3rd century. Ashoka had also erected an exquisite 4-headed lion capital that crowned a tall pillar he had placed in Sarnath to commemorate his visit. This lion capital was struck by lighting and had fallen to the ground intact. It was now housed in the Sarnath Museum which was around the corner from the park. The capital was epic in scope and purpose. 4 lions placed back-to-back-to-back-to-back and other animals like an elephant, bull, and horse spaced below them. A large wheel of the Dharma was thought to have been built over the head of the lions, but that wheel has been lost. Below the paws of each lion appeared to be another wheel design of some sort. It looked like a wheel of a chariot, but I thought it could have been a rendering of the wheel of the Dharma. This lion capital is now the emblem that is set smack dab in the center of the national flag of India. So, the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, had left a legacy that went beyond just making his own pilgrimages to the key places of the Buddhist’s life. In his quest to memorialize these visits, he created a symbol for a new country which more than 2000 years later would seek to gain independence and forge its own identity and nationhood. One could see the hand of the Sangha behind this legacy. Because again, the lion capital would never have made it through the marauding and colonial plundering that depleted much of the old Mauryan dynasty of Ashoka without the watchful eyes of the Sangha. Like Sanghamitta’s act to salvage the Bodhi Tree, I was able to see the Lion Capital at the Sarnath Museum because of the Sangha’s dogged preservation of this important relic. As I returned back to Varanasi, I mentally prepared for the next day where I was determined to make the walk to Manikarnika Ghat and into the beyond.

Part I (Cont’d) – Tree

8 Aug

The Emperor Ashoka ruled much of the Indian subcontinent in the 3rd century BC. He had consolidated his kingdom and dynasty through many brutal wars. He was a destroyer. But, after one particularly horrific battle where he was left alone to survey the carnage of rotting corpses, burnt villages, and destruction he and his army caused, he had an awakening. He was disgusted at what he had done and how meaningless it all was. At that moment, he felt a warmth come over him and he swore he would change his life. Buddhism had taken hold of much of the subcontinent during the 200 years since the Buddha had passed. The Sangha had grown and become strong. This community filled many parts of Ashoka’s kingdom and so Ashoka sought out the Buddhist monks in his midst. He converted to Buddhism and adopted the Buddha’s teachings as his own. Going forward, he would live his life and root his kingdom and legacy in the name of the Buddha and practice only non-violence and tolerance. He had two children from his first wife – a son called Mahindu and a daughter named Sanghamitta – whose name meant “friend of the Sangha.” His two children would devote their lives to Buddhism and Ashoka himself set out to visit the key sites of the Buddha’s life: Lumbini, the Bodhi Tree at Magadha, the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon, and Kushinigar.

Bodhi Tree – Bodh Gaya

When Ashoka came to Magahda he saw the Bodhi Tree and he placed a grey sandstone slab under it to mark the spot where the Buddha had sat. Then, Ashoka commissioned the building of the original Mahadabodhi Temple. Ashoka loved the serenity of the forest and spent many days and nights sitting and sleeping under the Bodhi Tree. Legend has it that he spent so much time with the Tree that his wife became jealous. This jealousy drove her to the point where she poisoned the Tree and it rotted and decayed. Other traditions say that the Tree was toppled during a battle Ashoka had with another warring tribe who had sought to claim the forest and the remnants of the Magadha kingdom. We may not know what exactly happened to that original Bo Tree, but we do know that the young Princess Sanghamitta understood the importance of the Tree and was able to save a small cutting or sapling from the Tree after it had been felled. Fearing any reprisals from her mother or Ashoka’s enemies, she hid the small shoot in her long hair and took surreptitious care of it. Her brother, Mahindu, had already become a Buddhist monk and begun a mission to the south of the subcontinent — even as far as to the island nation of what is today, Sri Lanka. Sanghamitta was determined to take the cutting of the Tree to where her brother was since she knew the Tree would be safe there. She traveled under the cover of night from village to village until she reached the end of the subcontinent. From there, she took a boat and sailed to the northern tip of Sri Lanka. The cutting of the Tree was kept in a golden vase during the crossing from India to Sri Lanka. Once she reached Sri Lanka an advanced guard of King Tissa met her and they took her to the royal capital of Anuradhapura where Mahindu had successfully passed on the Buddha’s teachings to an eager people. Mahindu himself had taken to living in a rock cave just outside of Anuradhapura. (Little did I know while I was reading this story at Bodhi Gaya about Mahindu, a year later I would be fumbling [barefoot again] down a ravine while getting followed by dubious looking dogs as I tried to find this rock cave. It was off a plateau now called Mihintale about 13km away from Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka. A “mango tree” dagoba had also been built on the top of this plateau marking the location where Mahindu had first met King Tissa. A very holy site for Sri Lanka Buddhists).

Rock Cave of Mahindu – Mihintale, Sri Lanka

Mahindu traveled to Anuradhapura to meet his sister there and she gave him the vase with the sapling. Then, during an elaborate ceremony, Mahindu, Sanghamitta, King Tissa, members of the royal family, and other monks planted the tree in an elevated mound. This all took place in the 3rd century BC. For more than 2000 years afterwards, this sapling grew and was taken care of by successive members of the royal family and the monks who lived in Anuradhapura up to the present time. What happened next was that centuries later when the original Tree in Bodh Gaya was toppled again by an invading army, the Buddhist order in Anuradhapura took a sapling from their tree – reverentially called Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – and replanted it in Bodhi Gaya at the same site where the original Tree had sprouted. But, this Tree also was toppled and then in the late 19th century, the British viceroy or whatever who had control of th Bihar province had a new Bo Tree planted. It was this Tree that I saw in 2009. Although it was young (under a 150 years old), it was still mighty and massive with history. But, as I read the story about Sanghamitta I knew I would have to travel to Anuradhapura and see Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. And in 2010, I was in Anuradhapura — an electrifying plain strewn with enormous, bubble-shaped Dagobas which I will detail later — but first it was the Tree. The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree is the oldest “human tended” tree in the world. The monks in Anuradhapura have meticulous records of how generation after generation their order has taken care of the Tree. There were golden shrouds tied around knobby elbows of the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and various metal braces were placed around the tree in order to hold up and spread the weight of its lumbering branches. I had never seen such tender upkeep of any non-human being before. There were many pilgrims and lay people walking around the tree and praying in the covered shrines built around the tree. There was a rotating wheel of activity like being in a fair or carnival.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi Tree – Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (2010)

I sat in a corner of the Tree complex and was covered by the shade of one of Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi’s large, leafy branches. I clearly remember the feeling I had of just how insignificant my own life was. I had the life span of a gnat in the eyes of this Tree. No question about that. There was something undeniably supernatural about being in the presence of another living thing that was over 2 millennia old. When I thought back to Bodh Gaya, the connection this Tree had to the Buddha himself, and the journey the Tree had made with Sanghamitta to get to this place – it was almost too much to comprehend. Every culture or religion has its share of myths and legends that sustain and define its identity. The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden has been passed on by tradition as bearing forbidden fruit. The Bodhi Tree was just the opposite – it was a catalyst that led to the receipt of complete Knowledge in the case of the Buddha. The Tree was then an object to be revered and celebrated. Here, before me was its 2,200+ year old descendant. It had been cared for by the Sangha and would likely live on for another millennia, or until the Sangha was no more. Would there still be a Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi without the Sangha’s care? Would the Sangha have still been able to be as strong as it was in Anuradhapura without something tangible like the Tree to motivate it and stay true to the Buddha’s teaching? The two’s destinies had been intertwined. Each needed the other, but if either was to over-indulge on their attachment to the other, then there would be conflict and loss of purpose. As I stood up and was ready to leave the Tree complex, I noticed a few twigs and leaves that must have fallen from Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. I picked up a couple of them and put them in my bag. I guess I needed to stay attached to this experience in some way. I had done the same thing at Bodh Gaya the year before. Back to Bodh Gaya then. From there, I set out like the Buddha had to the deer park.

Pilgrimage – Part I

4 Aug

Mahabodhi Temple – Bodh Gaya, India (2009)

Like the Buddha, I was 35 when I first entered the forest at Magadha. But, that was a coincidence of course and most of the forest had long been cleared. The kingdom of Magadha itself was nothing more than a historical footnote. I had been pent-up for 15 hours in a rolling tin can called the “Marudhar Express” with no A/C because I had foolishly gone cheap and had settled for a 3rd class ticket. Big mistake – especially when the train stopped with no explanation in some field in the middle of nowhere for 3 hours and the temperature was about 90 degrees or more and I ran of water. But, I loved it in some masochistic way. I had the feeling of “earning it”. When I finally arrived, I was rabid in anticipation of what I would see and soon it appeared before me. A slender pyramid pierced above the forest canopy. It was unlike any other structure I had seen before – yet it was oddly familiar. It brought to mind some kind of Mayan-Egyptian hybrid and unlike much of the rest of the north Indian plains that I had recently traveled through, there was no trace of any Mughal design. There was a reason for that since the original design for this pyramid-shaped temple dated back to the 5th or 6th century, and the first Mughals did not appear on the scene until nearly 1000 years after. The area was now called Bodh Gaya and even the air had a different smell and thickness to it. This had little to do with humidity. It was late June and the monsoon had not yet arrived to the subcontinent. The land was parched to a dusty crisp after being beaten into submission by a cloudless sky and scorching sun for the last 3 months. But,the trees were still green and the grass around the temple complex was damp. Big spiny lizards scurried about. Something about the air was heavy. I tried to slow my approach so that I could take in my first looks with reverence. I stood at the top of a small hill that looked down into the temple complex. The Mahabodhi Temple was the focal center of the complex which contained hundreds of smaller shrines and other mini-temples erected in strategic corners. There was a lot to absorb because of the Mahabodhi Temple’s tiered and complicated design. The exterior of the temple had different levels and had intricate carvings of the Buddha and stories from his life cascading up and down and wrapping around the structure. The central spire was replicated in the form of quarter-sized spires that were built around it and yet connected to the same base platform. There was so much geometric detail and patterning that it was dizzying. I walked down the stairs and made my way to the temple’s opening. Inside the main chamber of the temple was a beautiful statue of the Buddha in a sitting pose with a saffron robe tied tightly around his body. There was one nun in a coffee-colored robe sitting on the floor — off to the right hand side of the statue. She was in deep prayer and I dared not disturb her. This Buddha image was thought to have a very close likeness to the Buddha himself and was very old. It also sat behind glass which was rare to see. The true “seat” of the Buddha though — the vajrasana or “diamond throne” — was directly behind the temple. This was the truly epic sight and as I went back outside and continued to walk clockwise around the temple, I stopped. There in front of me was the Tree. I will get into the story of this Tree later on, but when I first saw it, I thought it looked like a huge lung. The way its branches spread wide and low rather than grow straight up made it appear to breathe. The area around the trunk and base of the tree had been gated, but it was easy to look in between the railings. A grey slab of sandstone had been placed by the great Emperor Ashoka on the spot where the Buddha had sat over 2 millenia ago. The slab was now covered by a shiny orange-gold fabric and above it was a golden roof with lotus-like designs peering down. This was the diamond throne. The Great Awakening had flowered from that very spot.

Vajrasana (“Diamond Throne”) – Bodh Gaya

The Buddha himself had told his followers and the other people who had come to see him as he reclined in Kushinagar before his death that it would be of great benefit to them and anyone else who was interested in his teachings to visit those places associated with key events in the Buddha’s life. It was no surprise then that the site of his Enlightenment was very quickly turned into an important pilgrimage destination. After many centuries of thousands of monks, lay people, and other pilgrims streaming in and out of the forest to pray and bear witness at the Mahabodhi Temple, the diamond throne, and the Tree, the surrounding town itself was transformed into something resembling a Buddhist college town. It was dotted with many Buddhist learning centers, schools, and temples. Bodh Gaya became a microcosm of all the Buddhist cultures around the world. I could tell the difference between the Sri Lankan, Thai, and Tibetan monks who were living in the town based on the colors of their robes. As I ducked in and out of these different temples, I could see how each bore the unique and idiosyncratic hallmarks of the country it represented, but I also saw how each was still connected to the wheel the Buddha had spun. There was no doubt – even after the other travels I would make – the location of the Buddha’s Enlightenment now served as the spiritual heart of the world religion he had spawned. It was a tangible nerve center that pulsated out to all the other sects and traditions of Buddhism. Around the grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple were signs that marked each of the areas where the Buddha had meditated during those 7 weeks after he attained Enlightenment. Each sign made reference to some remarkable insight or interaction the Buddha had experienced at the applicable location. I tried to view the Tree from each of these 7 different vantage points. I envisioned the Buddha doing the same thing — looking back to where his old self had last been before becoming Awakened. I sat down in one of those spots and was able to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of the moment. My swollen bare feet had been through a lot over the last week and I thought it best to give them some quality time off, so I brought out a book and did some reading. I learned about Princess Sanghamitta and it was because of her prescient act many centuries ago that I was able to have this experience.

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