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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 Dagoba System – Anuradhapura

23 Feb

Entrance to Sri Jaya Maha - Anuradhapura (2010)

Entrance to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi – Anuradhapura (2010)

Imagine a flat plain stretched out before you for miles with giant white and red mounds popping up like bubbles. That’s Anuradhapura — the fabled Buddhist kingdom and seat of Sinhalese power in Sri Lanka for more than a millenia. It was where Mahindu first met King Davanampiyatissa (Tissa) and quickly converted him to Buddhism and where Sanghamitta had replanted a sapling of the Bodhi tree which she had smuggled to Sri Lanka from India. This sapling then took root as the now over 2,000 year old Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi [See August 8, 2012 post: “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree” https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/08/part-i-contd-tree/]. Standing sentinel around Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi are the Dagobas — the huge mounds of brick and stone corralled meticulously into bulbous heaps of worship. I had come to Anuradhapura from Sigiriya and was dropped off in the modern section of the city.  My plan was to get a room at the Tissawewa Resthouse which was located in the far eastern part of the archaeological park and I decided to walk there. I thought I could use the huge Dagobas that rose before me in the distance as markers to guide me to the hotel — big mistake.  The area was much larger than represented on my guidebook map and since it was the late afternoon, there were not many people around. The heat cooked me thoroughly during my 1 hour of non-stop walking until I finally caught sight of something that looked like a hotel and I zeroed in on it.  It turned out to be a small monastery, but I found a guard there who pointed to where my hotel was. When I entered, the proprietor looked up at me with surprise. I had not reserved a room, but apparently there was no one else staying at the hotel. So, I must have been the first lodger she had seen in some time. I shuffled off to my room and as soon as I got inside I thew off my backpack, pried apart the mosquito netting, and collapsed on the bed. I had to get off my feet which felt like they were on fire. I was staying for 3 nights and with the bike I was able to rent from the hotel, I would have easy access to all the wondrous sights of Anuradhapura — a place where at one time in history the world’s largest Buddhist kingdom had existed. It seemed like I had it all to myself.

Thuparama Dagoba - Anuradhapura

Thuparama Dagoba

The oldest of the Dagobas in Anuradhapura is also one of the smallest. It is called Thuparama. King Tissa built Thuparama in the 3rd century BC soon after his conversion by Mahindu. Inside Thuparama, Tissa encased a relic of the Buddha which he had received from the Emperor Ashoka as a gift.  This relic is thought to be a piece of the Buddha’s collarbone. Thuparama sits like a bell and there are stone pillars which still stand around it. These pillars most likely supported a wooden roof around Thuparama. The bell-shape design of Thuparama has served as the archetype for countless dagobas, shrines, and pagodas throughout the Buddhist world.

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba

After King Tissa’s, the next king, Dutugamanu, began the next phase of expansion at Anuradhapura. In 140BC, he built Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba which was 100m (33oft) tall and enclosed within its chamber were other relics of the Buddha, gems, gold, and statues. Some schools of Sri Lankan Buddhism believe that when the Maitreya (Future Buddha) returns, this chamber  inside Ruwanwelisaya will be opened and the new age of enlightenment will be ushered and the ignorance and suffering of today will be swiftly washed away. In the centuries after its construction, parts of the Dagoba were destroyed and burned at the hands of marauding armies from the north. But, the core base of the Dagoba has always remained intact and each time it was attacked, the Dagoba rose gain.

Mirisavatiya Dagoba

Mirisavatiya Dagoba

The last great Dagoba which King Dutugamanu built at Anuradhapura was Mirisavatiya Dagoba. The story goes that Dutugamanu carried a sceptre with him which had a bone of the Buddha encased in an orb at the top.  One day when Dutugamanu was scouting a location for construction of his new Dagoba, he accidentally fell and his sceptre flew out of his hands and landed in a pond. Dutugamanu took this as a sign that Mirisavatiya had to be built atop this pond and so the pond was dredged and diverted into a water tank. Mirisavatiya was then constructed over the site of where the sceptre had come to lay. The 2 most enormous Dagobas at Anuradhapura are also the ones most in need of repair. These are Abhyagiri Dagoba which was built in 88BC and has a height of 110m (370 ft), and Jetavanaram which was built in 275AD and was originally over 12om (400ft) tall.

Abhyagiri Dagoba

Abhyagiri Dagoba

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Jetavanaram Dagoba

Abhhyagiri’s brick interior is now exposed and crumbling and somehow bushes and other vegetation have started to grow near the top of the Dagoba. Similarly, the sikhara/spire at the top of Jetavanaram is broken, but at the time Jetavanaram was first built it was the world’s 3rd largest manmade structure behind 2 of the pyramids of Giza. The scars these 2 giant Dagobas bear fade into the background because of the magnitude of ingenuity and painstaking awe of their physical construction. Millions of bricks and other stones had to be quarried, stomped into shape by elephants, and then layered and fused into concentric bands which rose higher than anything else around the land. They are mountains made by human hands and dwarf everything else around them.

"A Man & His Horse" rock carving at Isurumuniya Rock Temple - Anuradhapura

“A Man & His Horse” rock carving at Isurumuniya Rock Temple – Anuradhapura

On my last day at Anuradhapura, I went back to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi and sat under a quiet corner where one of the great Tree’s branches covered me in the shade. I’ve previously recounted this moment in my prior post “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree“. What I would like to add is that as I gazed up at the Tree, I was also struck by this — as amazing as the Dagobas of Anuradhapura are — their immense size, symbol of spiritual loftiness, and engineering brilliance — they are ultimately each dormant teets. They have no milk — meaning they do not themselves provide sustenance to the community of monks and people who now live in Anuradhapura. It is the Tree which gives meaning to what Anuradhapura once was and continues to be today. It gives meaning to what these Dagobas represent. The Tree connects the past to the present and the present to the future. Its leafy branches billowed over my head as they were nudged by a passing wind. I turned my head so it went along with the wind and I was intensely aware that I was facing east. Sinhalese sailors used the same winds for their trade routes long ago. I had an idea of where I was headed next.

The Colossi of Gal Vihara

21 Jan

The Hatadage - Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

The Hatadage – Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

From Kandy, I hopped on a squat, 10-seat mini-bus that dropped me off somewhere in the direct center of the “cultural triangle” of Sri Lanka. I was off to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the lion rock fortress of Sigiriya, and the painted rock caves of Dambullah. This region of Sri Lanka was arid, stifling, and Serengeti-like — in dramatic contrast to the lush green hills of Kandy and the monsoon-saddled hill country where I had scaled Adam’s Peak. On these plains, the city of Polonnaruwa rose to become the seat of Sinhalese power and Buddhist culture after the fall of the Anuradhapura. I spent the day bicycling through the ruins of this once great city and was not surprised to learn that the Sacred Tooth had resided for decades in a specially constructed, circular structure here called the Hatadage. This structure had been built in the 12th century and originally had a large wooden roof and was ornately covered with stone statues, intricate moonstones, and reliefs that ran all along its sides. The roof was now long gone along with most of the statues, but the moonstones (these are like stone welcome mats each in the shape of a crescent and are patterned with elephants and other emblematic figures) which serve as the entry marker for each of the Hatadage’s 4 staircases survived the temple’s destruction. Aside from the Hatadage, Polonnaruwa is home to a remarkable set of statues carved out of a single block of granite. I have no idea how this granite found itself in the middle of the flat scrub land on which Polonnaruwa sits, but during the reign of Parakramabahu I this chunk of stone was transformed into 4 images of the Buddha– 3 of which ranked amongst the largest stone statues in all of South Asia for a time. These statues are collectively referred to as Gal Vihara and represent the consensus zenith of Sinhalese rock sculpture. Each captures the serenity and evocative power of 3 Buddhist mudras (gestures).

Largest of the 2 seated images at Gal Vihara

Buddha in samadhi mudra – Gal Vihara

The first is a seated image of the Buddha in dhyana or samadhi mudra which depicts the Buddha in deep meditation with one hand upon the other, both palms up and resting on his crossed legs. This representation of the Buddha’s hands is cradle-like and perfectly conveys the concentration and discipline necessary in navigating the path towards Enlightenment. This same image is duplicated in the form of a small stone statue of the Buddha that is found inside an artificial cave set apart from the main 3 Colossi images. The 3rd image at Gal Vihara is one that is unique in all of Buddhist sculpture. This image shows a standing Buddha with eyes closed and arms crossed on his chest with hands flat just above his elbows.

Standing image of Gal Vihara

Standing Buddha image – Gal Vihara

This posture was not one I had ever seen before and because of its proximity to the 4th and largest image — which is of the reclining Buddha in the lion pose he assumed at Kushinigar before he passed — I thought the standing image showed one of Buddha’s disciples (like Ananda) mourning the Buddha’s passing.  However, based on when archaeologists believe each of these statues were carved, some believe that the standing image was built well before the reclining image was constructed. While that doesn’t disprove the view that the sculptors still intended to create a joint scene of the standing disciple and the reclining Buddha given the large amount of stone to draw from, it would be unprecedented to have such an image dedicated to anyone other than Buddha at that time. In any case, if the standing image is of the Buddha, then many people do believe this posture does represent a mudra that has precedent in some ancient Indian traditions: the mudra of the acknowledgement of the sorrow of others. Whatever the case, this image conveys an emotional rather than spiritual or contemplative message. That’s what is radical about this statue.

Reclining Buddha - Gal Vihara

Reclining Buddha – Gal Vihara

The last image is giant and beautifully crafted. The cylindrical pillow on which the Buddha’s head rests seems so real that one can clearly grasp the depth of belief that must have moved the sculptors’ hands. In most parts of Asia where Buddhism spread there are monumental depictions of the reclining posture the Buddha assumed during the last moments of his earthly life before passing into parnirvana. As one stands before these images of the reclining Buddha and stills the distractions around oneself, there is a silent communication between the image and the observer that takes place. One that to me is about removing the fear of death, and instead, invoking the universality of the knowledge that can be attained in order to transcend mortality. I walked the length of the reclining Buddha image of Gal Vihara and then stepped back. I noticed a mound of granite slabs rising before me which faced down towards the statues. I walked up to the top of these slabs and was able to observe the whole Gal Vihara menagerie at one time and then I could see what it was — a short story.

A tale of Buddha - Gal Vihara

A tale of the Buddha – Gal Vihara

The start to the story begins with the first small seated image which has to be experienced by peering into a small rock cave. Then, when the observer comes out of the cave he is hit with the next image — which is that of the large seated statue of the Buddha captured in the throes of the deepest meditation. Next, is the image of the standing Buddha who after coming out of his meditation is now wrestling with the knowledge he has attained. Is this the knowledge of suffering in the world that most people do not see which chains them into repeating the same mistakes and reaping the same unhappiness over and over again? The Buddha integrates this knowledge as part of his teaching, and when the final moment of his life comes he is ready and accepting. The face of the Buddha in his reclining pose is depicted similarly across all Buddhist cultures.  His eyes are closed, his lips are shut, and his head is propped up by his right hand as it rests on a cushion. At Gal Vihara, the reclining Buddha’s mouth is curved upwards in a slight smile. There is a definite feeling of optimism which bursts out of the granite along with something else — effervescence.

Ecce Dens (Behold The Tooth)

11 Dec

Temple of the Sacred Tooth - Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

Temple of the Sacred Tooth – Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

After the Buddha’s death at Kushinagar, his disciples agreed to distribute the remnants of his cremated body between them. These relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — were divided into eight parts and each ultimately became preserved within the walls of specialized shrines.  These shrines are called Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas depending on the country in which they were constructed. The stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics undertook play an extremely important role in the national pride and history in the countries where the relics are found today.  Most — if not all of these relics — were never moved or relocated after they were enshrined (except due to bombings, wars, or natural disasters).  However, one relic — arguably the most visible and celebrated of all the Buddha’s relics — had no true fixed abode until the late 16th century. This relic was a Tooth — a large upper canine tooth of the Buddha to be exact. This Tooth had also been first smuggled into Sri Lanka around 370 A.D.  Just like the journey of the sapling taken from the Bodhi Tree, the Tooth was also hidden in the hair of a woman who evaded the clutches of various groups as she ventured out of India.  After the Tooth arrived in Sri Lanka, it was not simply viewed as a sacred vestige of the Buddha, but it was also infused with power — for he who possessed the Tooth had divine sanction to rule the country. Sinhalese king after king jockeyed for control of the Tooth and it passed from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Kotte and other Sinhalese kingdoms.  Every time a special shrine was built for the Tooth, the shrine was either destroyed or ransacked and yet the Tooth escaped — hidden by monks who lobbied their weight behind the king best suited to serve as protector and regent of the Tooth. Then, the Portuguese took control over the important coastal zones of Sri Lanka and slowly began to work their way inland as they tightened their grip. Although the Portuguese viewed the Sri Lankan people’s veneration of the Tooth as heathenism, they understood the power of the Tooth. They knew that they would never wield any penetrating influence over the Sri Lankan people if they did not possess it. So, the Portuguese set their sights on attacking the kingdom of Kotte where the Tooth was held at the time. Once the Portuguese sacked Kotte, the guardians of the Tooth had no choice but to hand it over. The Portuguese then shipped the Tooth out of the country to the Portuguese Bishop of Goa who unceremoniously smashed it. But, it was a fake!  The monks at Kotte had given the Portuguese a ringer and the Portuguese did not know the difference. During a volatile period in Sri Lanka’s history when the 16th century Sinhalese king, Wimaladharmasuriya I, began to challenge Portuguese colonial rule only to have another colonial power, the Dutch arrive at the same time so as to complicate the control of the island even further, the Tooth resurfaced in Kandy.

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

Kandy lays in the geographic and cultural heart of Sri Lanka, and so it was here that a permanent home for the Tooth was finally built — the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). There are lush hills that surround Kandy and in front of Sri Dalada Maligawa is a lake that was created in 1807 under the supervision of the last Sinhalese king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha.  The Tooth was placed within a golden casket that has since been lavished and studded with diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones by pilgrims and rulers of other Buddhist nations who have come to pay homage to the Tooth. Kandy has also has served as the host of the most spectacular Buddhist procession in the world — the Esala Perahera — which lasts for 10 days each year starting on the first full moon day in August.  A replica of the Tooth is carried on the back of the most magnificent elephant (the Maligawa Tusker) through the streets of Kandy. This tusker is lit up with bright lights and is accompanied by other elephants, male and female dancing troupes, drummers, reed-players, monks, dignitaries, and lastly, a statue of a standing Buddha. The taxidermied body of the most famous and longest-serving Maligawa Tusker, Raja, is even housed on the grounds of the Temple. The poya in Sri Lanka is a day when a full moon appears and it is a public holiday that allows most Sri Lankans to go to temples to pray and perform rituals.  Only on poya days does the Temple of the Sacred Tooth open its upper chamber where the Tooth’s reliquary sits.  I was lucky enough to be in Kandy on the July 2010 poya and the anticipation of the chamber doors being open on that day was thick in the air.  I knew thousands of pilgrims were in town because I was not able to find a room anywhere. I finally found a flophouse on the other side of Kandy Lake where I had no choice but to bed down that night. After I changed in my room and donned the requisite long pants, I made the walk around the lake towards the Temple. The immediate area surrounding the Temple is heavily fortified and security is tight (the LTTE attempted to bomb the Temple at one point during the civil war). But, once I was inside the Temple its bunker-like exterior was quickly forgotten and I was swallowed by the elegant and intricate harmony of tilework, masonry, and paintings around me.

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The lower floor of the main chamber building is called the pallemaluwa (pavillion of the low ground).  As I entered this room, there were 2 drummers stationed on the main pillars about 3 meters away from the inner chamber door which was closed. This door appeared to be made of iron or copper and bore ornate designs. There were 3 pairs of large elephant tusks framing it from each side.  I came to learn aftewards that this area is called hevisi mandapaya (drummers’ courtyard) and this is where the call to prayer booms on poya days through the drumming and playing of reed instruments by devotees.

Drummers' Courtyard - lower chamber

Drummers’ Courtyard – lower chamber

A broad teak staircase leads to the upper chamber of the Temple complex. When I began to walk up the stairs, I hit a sea of white. There were hundreds of people in a queue and they were nearly all clad head to toe in white linen clothes. These people were waiting anxiously for the doors of the vadahitina maligawa (Tooth Relic Shrine) to open.  I took my place in the line.  It was hot, sticky, and stuffy. People appeared to wilt around me, but no one was complaining.

In the Queue - upper floor

In the Queue – upper floor

As the drumming below continued, we stood in the line and patiently waited for the monks to open the chamber door.  It happened at 6:15pm. For at least 30 minutes or so, a steady stream of bodies whisked ahead towards the chamber. I felt like I was in a line waiting to ride a rollercoaster. The line had right angle turns that doubled-back on itself and then twisted ahead. The last part of the line veered around and in front of a wooden-barred, squared area that faced the chamber. In this area, there were monks and VIP individuals sitting on the ground.  These people chanted and prayed as they basked in a beaming glow that I could see emanate from the open doors. As I got closer to the chamber, the frenzy reached a fever pitch.  Bodies were draped on bodies, bare feet atop bare feet as we drew ever close. The combination of drumbeats, sweat, frangipani perfume, and chanting had me blitzed. My body moved ahead, but my mind was somewhere else — on another plane of consciousness. I tried to focus because I did not want to pass by the Tooth without having any ability to remember the experience.

Last turn toward the Tooth

Last turn towards the Tooth

I could see an orange-robed monk standing behind the chamber door. He would allow each person to stand for about 5 seconds and look at the golden casket that encased the Tooth and then would motion the person aside.

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

When my turn came, I strained with all my being to absorb the sight. The golden casket was set back about 2 meters from the open door and there were guards near it. It was bigger than I had expected and bejeweled beyond belief. Emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and other gems jumped out at me. What I was seeing was the outer golden casket for the reliquary that holds the Tooth. The reliquary itself is like a Russian matroyshka doll. There are actually 7 golden caskets — each of decreasing size and each placed inside the other. It is the smallest one which contains the Tooth. Pilgrims and the public only see the largest outer casket and it is electrifying. I tried to hold my gaze on its gleaming presence for as long as possible, but the swarm behind me pushed me away and I was thrown back into the line which moved away from the chamber and out towards the exit staircase.  I turned back though and was able to weave my way behind the VIP floor area where I could see the golden casket from afar, but then the chamber doors closed. A hush fell on those pilgrims who were still in the queue.  These people had travelled from afar and some held babies in their hands and others carried lotus blossoms. Each was here to lay eyes on this golden casket and seek a blessing from the Tooth.

Golden Casket - detail

Golden Casket – detail

As I waited again for the doors to open, I thought about the dramatic contrast I was experiencing. Just a few days earlier, I had walked up Adam’s Peak with nothing around me but the resolute fierceness of the monsoon winds and rain. Now, here I was completely enveloped by the flesh and pull of humanity. It was a dichotomy of extremes — one reflecting an ascetic rawness and the other smacked of the bacchanalian. Yet, the visceral spirituality of each was the same.  When the chamber doors opened again, I caught another glimpse of the casket and was then gripped by something. My legs wobbled and my face flushed.  Things had finally caught up with me and the adrenaline which had buoyed me through the heights of the last few days succumbed to exhaustion. I steadied myself, but I knew at some point I would have to wheel around and summon my last bit of energy to walk all the way back to the flophouse. For a moment, I had no idea where that was. For a moment, I had forgotten my self.

Summit (or Fellowship Found)

13 Nov

Getting close to the top? – Adam’s Peak

My sense of time got lost. I can only guess that I had been doing the ascent for over 3 hours and the lightness I had felt in my stride was now gone.  I was cramping in parts of my legs that I did not know existed and the bottom of my feet felt like they had collapsed. The angles of the stairs were extremely steep and each step up for me at that point was like accomplishing a small miracle.  My breathing was labored and I could only do about 4 to 5 steps before having to stop. I looked back behind me and couldn’t see much. I had entered into the whiteness above only to see that I had come out of the whiteness below. It was as if I was in purgatory.

Looking back into the mist

The journey for me at that point resembled a carefully designed torture exercise. It was meant to wean out those who could not mentally step up and steel themselves through the punishing ordeal. The stone steps had no give and they actually felt like they pushed back on my feet with each step I took. The air temperature had also noticeably dropped, but my body was so flushed that I felt hot. The rain still fell in an annoying barrage of pinpricks.  I pressed and pressed — my instincts told me I was close and that just around the next bend I would see the top. And then something appeared out of the mist and darted towards me.  I was startled. I had seen no signs of life — no birds, squirrels, or people ever since I had begun the journey. But, before me now was something on 4-legs bounding down to me in a blur. It was a fox-sized dog and it was treating me like I was the first thing on 2-legs it had seen in a very long time.   There was something strange about this dog. It gave a little squawk when it first saw me, but then looked at me as if it had been expecting me. I gave the dog a piece of an energy bar and it eagerly took it. I asked the dog, “Am I there yet?” It wagged its tail so I began walking up and it charged ahead of me.

Dog & entry gate to summit of Adam’s Peak

I saw the last flight of stairs that led up to an entry gate. I felt an adrenaline boost and I nearly levitated up the remaining stairs. On both sides of me were small, squatty shelters which appeared to be abandoned. They had a few windows and doors, but I saw no lights in them and heard no human voices. I came to the top of the stairs and steadied myself on the gate as I reached down to remove my shoes. My bare feet came out of their encasements swollen and grateful to be freed. I placed my shoes outside of the gate and entered. Interestingly, the dog who guided me to the summit did not follow me. He sat outside and I went in alone. I felt a chill run through my body as my feet touched the cold slabs of the stone floor.  The summit of Adam’s Peak comes to a head in the form of a square.  In the middle of the square is a raised shrine with one more staircase that must be climbed. I wasn’t ready to climb up to the shrine yet. I wanted to walk around it in a clockwise fashion first. I slowly began the small circuit around the shrine and as I did I saw how fast the monsoon clouds swirled around the summit. They relentlessly jetted across and through the mountain top. I had heard that on clear days one can look out from Adam’s Peak and see the city of Colombo in the distance. I was barely able to see 10 feet below me when I stood over the railing of the summit. After I finished the circuit, I walked towards the shrine in the center and it came into a foggy focus.  As I looked up, I saw 3 shapes tucked away along the wall. I couldn’t believe it — these were people standing silently in prayer. They must have come up before me or via another route. I was careful not to disturb them as I walked up the steps and I positioned myself on the same wall where the men stood. They were facing the footprint, but as I had heard, the footprint was behind steel doors that were locked. So, all I saw were the locked doors. But, the 3 men were so composed and their presence filled me with such reverence that I closed my eyes and as I listened to their whispered chants, I could see through the doors. It wasn’t a stone image of a human footprint that I saw. Instead, I saw the shared heritage of the human spirit and its quest for understanding its connection to the universe.

The Shrine housing the holy footprint

When the 3 men finished their praying, they looked at me — intrigued by my presence.  I said hello and one of them spoke a little English. He told me he was a reporter for a newspaper in Colombo and had come to climb Adam’s Peak for the first time and write about the experience. He had come up that morning with 2 individuals who had served as his guides and said their route had been very difficult because of the wind, rain, and other monsoonal conditions. I told him that I had climbed up myself that morning from the Dalhousie route. He wanted me to talk about my experience and my understanding of Buddhism, and so we chatted for a bit. He snapped a photo of me and then invited me to have a coffee and snack break in one of the shelters just below the shrine. He said there was one security person who lives at the summit during the non-pilgrimage season in order to watch over the shrine. I told him I would join them in a few minutes. The 3 men then walked away and I was left in the shrine by myself. The wind whistled straight through the shrine with such force that it almost carried me aloft a few times. After some time alone, another figure emerged out of the cloud sitting on the summit. It was a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk wearing a wet, chocolate-colored robe. He seemed very young and he nodded at me as he entered the shrine. I was able to figure out that he was there for noontime prayers and he began to prostrate himself before the footprint.

Noon prayers at the footprint

I was moved by his dedication — he was shivering and soaking wet — but there he was on his knees on the cold unforgiving ground doing his recitations in front of the hidden footprint. When the monk finished, he smiled at me and we tried to speak broken Sinhalese and English to one another. It didn’t matter what we were trying to say — and nothing really needed to be said. I followed him out of the shrine and saw 2 bells hung off a cable above one of the railings. The tradition is that each pilgrim rings these bells based on the number of ascents the pilgrim makes up to Adam’s Peak. I rang each bell 1 time.

Quiet contemplation

I found my way back to the entry gate and found my shoes. My feet felt like they had shriveled during the time I had spent at the shrine and they sank into my shoes. I walked toward the shelter on my left and saw a door slightly ajar. I entered it and found my 3 companions from the shrine sitting on bunks and the security guard was talking to them.  The individual who spoke English welcomed me inside and asked the security guard to get me a coffee and biscuit.  I was told there was no electricity or running water up here, so the security guard and monk that live at the summit had to get supplies brought up from people every other week or so during the monsoon season.  I took my coffee greedily since I needed something to warm my blood.  It was thick and dark with a chunk of sugar thrown in. A godsend. The security guard gave me a biscuit to eat along with my coffee and I thanked him. Here I was then: On top of Adam’s Peak with 4 Sri Lankan chaps sitting in the dark exchanging smiles and having coffee. I told them about a few of my travels to other Buddhist sites and each time my stories were translated into Sinhalese by the English speaker, I could see the others react with wonder. I learned that none of these individuals had ever been outside of Sri Lanka, so I was providing them with firsthand glimpses into these other lands.  I tried to speak in a non-boastful manner and told them that the trek up Adam’s Peak during the monsoon through such difficult conditions was the most incredible experience — although I didn’t even see the footprint!  It was the journey that was important and that journey had allowed me to meet them and the monk. We were now breaking biscuits with one another and connecting our separate worlds through a shared experience. That was the imprint we had come for — not a stony image but something of reflective resonance.  That’s what a pilgrimage was all about.

The Ascension – Adam’s Peak

6 Nov

Gateway to start of ascent

I felt good when I woke up that next day. I had some eggs and toast and a full pot of Sri Lankan premium black tea. Nothing — not wind, rain, cold — would hold me back from trekking up to Adam’s Peak. I set off with a brisk pace and at first couldn’t believe my good luck — the conditions were cloudy, but there was no rain. I actually thought the clouds may break-up and the sun would come out. The first leg of the trail took me through a base camp area for pilgrims. There were rows of concrete pit toilets, basic sleeping bunkers, and a large standing statue of the Buddha. I walked past these and then came to a grove where there was a statue of the Buddha in his lion pose (the reclining posture he took at Kushinagar before he died) and there was an ornately carved stoned gateway that marked the official entry to the path that would take me for the next 5km or so up to Adam’s Peak. The initial 1km was more or less a comfortable, steady incline where I walked on a muddy clay.  The next marker of note was a Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba that was built a few decades ago, and there were some stone benches for pilgrims to rest on here. Waterfalls streamed from the cliffsides above this pagoda, and as I looked beyond the ravine ahead that’s where I saw the heavy sitting mist ahead.

View of the Japan-Sri Lanka Friendship Dagoba

It was hard for me to judge where the summit was from here. I just couldn’t see anything above the mist. The mountain face was complete hidden. I wasn’t concerned by the situation. There was something completely exhilarating by just letting go and having nature dictate things. I would have to take one step at a time and rise further and deeper into the mist.  There was also no one else on the path! I had yet to see anyone coming down or passing me. During the pilgrimage season, I had heard people crammed on the narrow trails and when you got close to the top, there was only enough space for people to file by one at a time and so there could be hours of waiting while pilgrims carefully passed one another. I  did not have to worry about any human traffic jams. I was going to enjoy every step up. I had packed some food and water, and I would shoot some video along the way. The only traces of pilgrims that I saw were the many lost sandals strewn about here and there.

Self-explanatory signpost

About an hour and a half into the ascent, I noticed a steady rain was falling. Not big drops — only pinpricks and they felt sharp upon impact. I was inside the outer layer of the mist and every now and then I was blasted by a gust of wind. When I got to a rest area, I sat down and took about a 10 minute break. I could imagine that during the pilgrimage season this rest area had to be packed by tired pilgrims who would pass out some tea to drink and share conversation about how much longer it would take to get to the top. It was a bit eerie to sit there all alone thinking about how many souls typically filled the area as they sought the merit that would come from accomplishing the climb. I assumed that I was about halfway up to the summit at that point. As I got up and began to hike again, the wind grew stronger and buffeted against me. I would take a step up and get hit by a blast, and then take 3 or more steps, and get hit again. I put my head down and went through it the best I could, but my thighs and knees began to slowly ache. After about another 30 minutes, I came across a sign that said the Buddha had torn his robe in this spot and he had stopped his climb until he was able to mend the loose strands of his robe so they would not get caught on the brushes and rocks along the way.  In order to commemorate that moment, pilgrims take a long white string from this spot and carry it along the railing until the entire string has been unwound and released.  I could see all these strings placed along the path up from where the Buddha had torn his robe.  They hung like a tangle of wet spider webs and it energized me to be connected to the Buddha in such a concrete way. I was actually walking in his steps now and the strings before me were reminders of his own journey.

Stringed remembrances of the Buddha’s torn robe

Then, as the strings dropped away, I found myself in the mouth of a cloud. Visibility was limited to only about 20 feet or so and the rain was colder now. I told myself I must be about an hour away from the summit, but there was no way to know for sure. I couldn’t see the top. I couldn’t really see anything except endless steps that cascaded into whiteness. I was literally on a stairway to heaven, but had no idea how long it would take to get there. I powered through the next 30 minutes and then another 30 minutes, but whenever I thought – aha – this must be the last stretch – I was wrong! And that happened over and over again, but I noticed the trees dropping away and getting smaller and more rock face appearing. I kept on going driven by a spiritual hunger I had never known before. I rose higher and the steps became steeper and thinner. I was squarely in the center of the monsoonal cloud now. The rain continued to fall in sharp incessant beats. The wind was not only wild, but it howled and howled. So much so that I thought of the song “Wild Is The Wind” and began to sing it to myself. The stones were slippery and I had to sidestep dozens of tree branches, rock debris, and rivulets of mud. Each time I looked up I still only saw the thick cottony blanket of a cloud which enveloped the peak. I pushed myself upwards and into the cone — into what appeared to be the dividing line between cloud and sky, earth and heaven. It had to be at hand.

Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue

2 Nov

What Adam’s Peak looks like on a non-monsoon day

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Those were the last words that Adam heard as he was cast out of Eden. And where did his first step fall outside of the Garden? That was where I was headed. It has many names. Names tied to the many religious traditions which have revered it for several centuries. A few of these names are Ratnagiri, Shiva Padam, Mount Rohana, Samanalakanda, Pico de Adão or Adam’s Peak.  In Sinhalese, the proper religious name is Sri Pada or the “Holy Footprint”. It’s not a very tall mountain at 2243m (7,359ft), but it goes vertical from the forest floor to the clouds.  Years of pounding rains and erosion have chiseled it into a cone that dwarfs everything else around it.  At the top of Sri Pada is an imprint of a large human-looking foot in a rock. Legend has it that the footprint was first uncovered over 2000 years ago, when an exiled Sri Lankan King had been forced into living in a remote forest and then one day while hunting a deer he found his way up the mountain and stumbled upon the large footprint. Word of the footprint’s existence spread from there and it was deemed by the Sri Lankan Sangha to have been made by the Buddha’s left foot during one of the 3 trips he had made to Sri Lanka.  Certain Christian and Muslim traditions which took root in Sri Lanka through colonization and trade believed that this footprint was made by Adam himself when he fell out from Eden. Hindus who saw the footprint concluded that it had to be that of Shiva. Regardless of the exact divinity of the footprint, it is an object of deep veneration and during December to April of each year tens of thousands of pilgrims flock en masse to climb the mountain and pray at the shrine that has been built around the footprint. This shrine has metal doors that remain open during the pilgrimage season so that the footprint can be seen. However, the footprint image that is made available to the public is a man-made footprint complete with engraved depictions of the Wheel of the Dharma and other Buddhist symbols. The actual rock containing the footprint (or petrosomatoglyph) is found several feet below the public-facing external image and from what I understand this rock is not able to be viewed by the public. Based on writings of people who have seen the actual petrosomatoglyph, the footprint is nearly 5 feet long and would have to belong to a giant. Some accounts of the Buddha said that he was incredibly tall, but to have 5ft-sized feet certainly could not be possible. The Buddha was just a man who found a path and practice, and then was awakened. He was a giant in mind and purpose, but not in physical size. He could not have flown as Sri Lankan tradition believes he did from the top of Adam’s Peak down to Kelaniya in Colombo. I would have to personally make the climb, get to the shrine, and reflect on all of this.

Train to Hatton, Sri Lanka

I took a train from Colombo to Hatton which is a town in the middle of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country.  The elevation and climate of the area combine to produce some of the best tea on earth. Many tea estates and plantations dot the hills and some of these are open for tea tastings. From Hatton, I had to hop on a bus and then switch to a minibus in order to make the last leg of the journey to the village of Dalhousie which is located at the entry to the northern route to Adam’s Peak. Scottish tea planters apparently liked to bestow names from their own country onto the areas in Sri Lanka where they planted. I was staying at a guest house called the Yellow House. When I entered, it was immediately clear that I was only the person staying there. I did a quick recon walk down to the main area of the village and found it was completely deserted. There was not a soul around. When I went back to my guest house, I talked to the owner who said that during the monsoon season everyone left Dalhousie except for just a handful of people who worked in the tea estates around the area and maintained properties in the village.  He told me that if I was going to climb the mountain that it would be unlikely that I would see the sunrise because the mountain was encased in a cloud. He also cautioned that the mountain was extremely windy and rainy and that large chunks of the trail had been completely washed away. I thanked him for the info and said I was doing the climb. I wasn’t here to see a sunrise. I wanted to experience the same walk that the Buddha had undertaken over a millennia ago. I wanted to have my lungs burn, my legs quake, and my back ache in the same way as the Buddha must have felt when he did the steep climb to the summit.  I would leave in the early morning and hopefully get to the summit by noon. Before I left, I would make sure to see the proprietor one last time — just so he could be alerted to my absence if something were to happen and I failed to make it back. It was a morbid thought, but I nevertheless had to cover my base on that.

The first of ten thousand steps – “5km to Adam’s Peak”

So, that was my plan — to climb Adam’s Peak that next morning — come Hell or High Water.  While the High Water came in Biblical proportions, there was no Hell (despite my horribly mangled knees). Instead, there was something altogether different. A communion.

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