Tag Archives: bodhisattva

The Importance of Being On Brand

18 Feb

When I first traveled to China and arrived at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in 2012, I remember seeing a glossy advertisement for Maserati as I walked through the jetway. Having visited many other countries in Asia where Chinese-made cars and motorbikes are ubiquitous, I got a kick out of this prominent promotion of a non-Chinese brand directed at freshly arrived visitors to China’s largest city. A year later I was in Beijing, and after viewing the embalmed body and orange-colored face of Mao Zedong, as I left his mausoleum, I had to “exit through the gift shop” where I was besieged by vendors selling also sorts of Mao trinkets and other Cultural Revolution merchandise. Where did this appetite for luxury and desire to cash in on “commie memorabilia” come from? More importantly, what would be the limits of the PRC’s tolerance for the growing materialistic impulses and capitalist desires of a newly moneyed generation?  I had these questions swirling around in my head as I walked past the countless storefronts of fancy Western brands and franchises that crowded the large city blocks of Shanghai.

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Old Shanghai nostalgia: suitcases & “commie memorabilia” for sale in the now demolished Dongtai Road Antique Market – Shanghai, China (2012)

Since I had a few days to spend in Shanghai after I returned from my travel to Mt. Emei and the Leshan Giant Buddha, I was keen to explore what remained in this megapolis of the Chinese Buddhist spirituality and religious practice of the generations before Mao’s Cultural Revolution. While most of the historical Buddhist schools, monasteries, and temples in Shanghai were destroyed, a few managed to survive or were reconstructed. Much of old Shanghai like the Dongtai Road Antique Market (which was on its last legs when I saw it in 2012) has been demolished to make room for shiny new developments, and so whether or not the remaining Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist temples in Shanghai may need to get relocated or continue as protected sites remains to be seen. Despite all the rapid change and reinvention, I did see 2 enchanting Buddhist temple complexes in Shanghai, as well as, a third temple that was recently restored with sleek features in sync with the bustling city sidewalks surrounding it.

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Longhua Pagoda constructed in 977 A.D. – Shanghai (2012)

First on my list was the Longhua Temple which is located in the far south of Shanghai. The Shanghai Metro (subway) manages to snake into most areas of the city and was my preferred means of transport. The Metro surfaced and then elevated above the city streets as it ventured into the city’s far southern reaches. I hopped off at a stop not too far from a brand new IKEA store that anchored the Xuhui Shopping Center. I then walked about 1km until I saw what once must have been among the tallest “skyscrapers” of old Shanghai — the Longhua Pagoda. This Pagoda is one of the oldest surviving Buddhist monuments in Shanghai and was built out of brick and wood in 977 A.D.  It is over 40 meters/132 ft tall and yellow in color (which brought to mind the color of the Beamless Brick Hall of Wannian Monastery at Mt. Emei).  Given its age and fragile state, the public cannot enter and walk up to the top of the Pagoda.

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Inside Longhua Temple complex

After paying the admission fee and receiving a bundle of incense sticks, I entered the temple complex which was sparsely filled with visitors. I took my time to enter all the prayer halls and pavilions and some of these buildings had signs and old photographs noting their historical significance. One particular statue stood out above all else at Longhua Temple. This was a serene and intricate statue of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara known as the embodiment of all seeing compassion. The statue was flanked on each of its sides by its arms which were fanned out as if hugging the world. Each of the statue’s “thousand arms” had their palms visible and within each palm was a watchful eye — symbolizing Avalokitesvara’s all seeing nature and omnipresence.

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The “Thousand-Armed” Avalokitesvara statue – Longhua Temple

I noticed a group of Chinese patrons bowing multiple times in front of this statue with their hands gripping lit incense sticks over their foreheads. They may have been praying for assistance and support in dealing with a difficult situation, or affirming their gratitude for the compassion that this Bodhisattva provides to the world. I intently watched the actions of this pious group. It was evident to me that religious practice was very much alive and well in Shanghai despite the 20th Century effort to snuff it out as an opiate of the masses.

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Detail of Avalokitesvara statue – a watchful eye contained in each palm

Unfortunately, Longhua Temple was not always as peaceful as the day I visited. It has a bloody past and served as the grounds for over 5,000 public executions of communist party members by the Kuomintang (KMT) national party in April 1927. A few decades after this purge, communist soldiers ransacked Longhua Temple and used statues like the Thousand-Armed Avalokitesvara for target practice. One can still see bullet holes in the walls of certain buildings at Longhua. As I walked out of Longhua Temple and into an adjacent park, I came across the “Longhua Martyrs’ Memorial Hall” which was built by the PRC in what was formerly the gardens of the Longhua Temple.  The Memorial Hall is free, and although all the exhibits are in Chinese, the sobering realization that the old gardens of Longhua Temple are a mass grave holding the remains of executed political prisoners needed no translation.

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Exterior of Jade Buddha Temple – Shanghai

After Longhua Temple, I took the Metro to west Shanghai to see the Jade Buddha Temple which dates back to the late 19th Century (although the original temple was destroyed and the present site was built in the late 1920s). As its name suggests, this temple contains 2 Buddha statues made of white jade. Both Buddhas were sculpted in Burma and had been acquired by a Chinese monk named Huigen who had been traveling through Burma in the early 1880s.

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Entrance to main prayer hall – Jade Buddha Temple

The story goes that Huigen had actually purchased 5 such jade Buddhas, but only 2 of these were transported back to his temple in Shanghai where special halls were built to house them. It is not clear what happened to the other 3 jade Buddhas. Since I had visited Burma and seen many jade and marble Buddhas there (Mandalay in Burma is still known for its mastery of marble & jade sculptures), I was curious to see how the 2 jade Buddhas of the Jade Buddha Temple compared.  

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The Seated Buddha of Jade Buddha Temple

Although photographs are not allowed of the 2 jade Buddhas, I did manage to surreptitiously snap a shot of the larger one — the “Seated Buddha”. This statue is displayed behind glass in its own hall which requires an entry fee that is separate from the general admission to the temple complex. Inside the hall, there is a railing in the back that keeps the public at a good distance away from the statue which is located in the front of the hall. The statue contains feminine features that are very similar to those I had seen in other Burmese statues of the Buddha. The seated pose of the statue depicts the Buddha in the “earth witness” (or bhumi-sparsha) mudra that was famously used by the Buddha to respond back to the demon, Mara, who was hoping to tempt the Buddha to give up his search for Enlightenment (see post: “Tempt” at https://wp.me/s2Bq4y-tempt). The second jade Buddha at the Jade Buddha Temple is found in another hall and is much smaller. This statue depicts a Reclining Buddha and is serpentine in the way its body is curved. I found it interesting that both of these 2 jade Buddhas which reflect the Theravada Buddhist tradition in Burma were acquired by Huigen, a monk of the Chinese Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The exquisite artistry of the 2 statues probably quelled any potential protests by fellow monks when Huigen returned to Shanghai and requested that the 2 Burmese-sculpted Buddhas be housed at their temple.

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Jing’an Temple (crowned with a mini-Mahabodhi Temple) at West Nanjiang Road – Shanghai

From the Jade Buddha Temple, I was back on the Metro and headed to Jing’an Temple. Nestled smack dab in the middle of Shanghai’s busy West Nanjiang Road, this temple could be mistaken upon first blush as some kind of modern religious theme park. The original temple that bore the name “Jing’an” dates back to the 3rd Century A.D., but that site was destroyed long ago and an entirely new temple was built at the current site of Jing’an Temple in 1216 A.D. from where it enjoyed centuries of unmolested religious activity and spiritual importance until the events of the 20th Century interfered.

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Central courtyard – Jing’an Temple

The present design and construction of Jing’an Temple took place in 1998 and incorporated some key Buddhist icons such as a mini-replica of the Mahabodhi Temple (found in Bodh Gaya, India) perched atop the temple and the Pillar of Ashoka (now in a museum in Sarnath, India) which pops out of the city sidewalk that borders the temple. When I entered Jing’an Temple, it dawned on me that this flashy temple fused together elements of China’s “Big 3” religious and philosophical traditions: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I saw distinct religious icons and offering areas for each of these 3 faiths inside the temple grounds and visitors were making their rounds to observe and pray before all of these.

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Central Buddha – Jing’an Temple

The central Buddha statue at Jing’an Temple appears to be made from iron or bronze and is nearly black in color. Directly behind this Buddha is a visually stunning panel that illustrates key episodes of the Buddha’s life (see first photograph in the post: “To the Wonder (again)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-PC).  While I can’t say that the present design and construction of Jing’an Temple captures any of the contemplative atmosphere or spiritual authenticity of either Longhua Temple or the Jade Buddha Temple complex, Jing’an Temple is very much “on brand” with the rest of the modern, reimagined Shanghai. It is a chic destination that allows lay people and devotees alike to practice (or go through the motions of practicing) their traditions of ancestral and spiritual worship.

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Yonghe Temple (Lama Temple) – Beijing, China (2013)

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I was in Beijing in 2013 where I witnessed the same kind of enterprising consumerism as in Shanghai. While most of the key historical sights in and around Beijing are connected to the city’s imperial past (Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, the Great Wall, etc.), there was one remaining Buddhist temple and monastery of interest. This was the Yonghe Temple (or Lama Temple) which also has its origins rooted in Beijing’s imperial past. This temple was first built in 1694 A.D. as a residence for the Qing crown prince. About 50 years later, the complex was reconfigured as a monastery and center for the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism.

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Stairway leading to main hall at Yonghe Temple

Not surprisingly, the entire layout and design of the Yonghe Temple is reminiscent of a mini-Forbidden City because the Qing Emperor’s son initially had lived there. During my visit, the Yonghe Temple was buzzing with visitors and monks were actively chanting mantras, playing drums and other instruments, and treating the public to the visual pageantry of Tibetan Buddhism. As I watched the interactions of the public and the monks, I could not shake the feeling that this spectacle seemed “staged”.  This was based only on my hunch and not anything else. But, it was hard for me to accept the legitimacy of this school or “lamasery” for Tibetan Buddhism given the stark absence of any photos or other acknowledgments of the current Dalai Lama (the 14th Dalai Lama). I also thought back to my experience at the moribund Tashilumpo Monastery in Tibet where the puppet Panchen Lama appointed by the PRC resides (see post: “For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-b4).

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Observing Tibetan Buddhist Monks at Yonghe Temple

The entire vibe inside Tashilumpo Monastery had come across as artificial to me and I felt a similar feeling at Yonghe Temple. Regardless of whether or not the monks at Yonghe Temple must follow a schedule set by the PRC and have to put on a good show for visitors, the Yonghe Temple did somehow survive the Cultural Revolution and is very well preserved. The best sight of the temple is found inside the “Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses” where one of the world’s largest Buddha statues made of sandalwood is located. This statue is 3-stories high and is housed within a colorfully painted space filled with Buddhist icons and symbols. The artistry and craftsmanship of both the statue and the interior of the pavilion are on par with what may still be seen in the monasteries and temples in Tibet. There is no doubt that the first wave of Tibetan Buddhists who traveled to Beijing to found the Lama Temple effectively replicated and shared their artistic skill and know-how in order to transform the once imperial residence into a center of religious teaching and worship that injected the spirit of Tibet into China.

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Sandalwood Buddha – Pavilion of Ten Thousand Happinesses at Yonghe Temple

As I said, the original buildings of Yonghe Temple had been planned and constructed by the Qing Emperor to mirror those of the Forbidden City.  Since I had visited the Forbidden City the day before seeing Yonghe Temple, its layout was fresh in my mind. While wandering through the Forbidden City (now called the “Palace Museum”), I had mentally replayed scenes from “The Last Emperor” and was able to pick out many of the exact same locations where Bernardo Bertolucci had been allowed by the PRC to shoot scenes for the film. Towards the north end of the Forbidden City, there is a rock garden area with leafy trees and I had ducked under one of these to take refuge from the scorching sun on the day of my visit. When I had cooled down, I walked up to an elevated platform where I was able to look beyond the tall walls surrounding the palace grounds. In the distance, I was surprised to see what appeared to be the shape of a stupa with Tibetan-like symbols and features.

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Beyond the walls of the Forbidden City – Bai Ta (the White Dagoba)

I used my camera’s zoom lens to take a closer look at this white structure and it was clear to me that this was some kind of Tibetan “chorten” (or stupa). Since this structure was located outside of the Forbidden City and had been built in the middle of an island in a lake, I wasn’t able to walk to it. Later on, I did some research into this curious sight and learned that this was “Bai Ta” (or the “White Dagoba”). It was built by the Chinese Qing Emperor to commemorate the first ever visit to Beijing by the-then Tibetan head of state, the 5th Dalai Lama. I was amazed by this. Apparently, none of the previous Dalai Lamas had ever visited, nor had entered into any alliance with, any Chinese Emperor. Since I had some knowledge about the 5th Dalai Lama’s great achievements and the vaunted place he held in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, it made sense to me why the Chinese Emperor had vigorously campaigned to meet with such a formidable and visionary man as the 5th Dalai Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama had done much to usher the Tibetan people into an age of advancement which had culminated with the construction of the Potala Palace in Lhasa (see post: “Sketches of Lhasa (#3)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-eQ). I remember viewing the 5th Dalai Lama’s tomb which is housed on its own floor within the Potala Palace and there are massive statues (one with an elephant with a huge pearl in its forehead) that surround it. When the 5th Dalai Lama arrived in Beijing in 1652 A.D., he was accompanied by 3,000 Tibetans and the journey from Lhasa had taken 9 months. No wonder the Chinese Emperor had built the Bai Ta stupa as the crowning feature on its own island in close proximity to the Forbidden City. This grand gesture clearly demonstrated that the 5th Dalai Lama was viewed by the Chinese as a strong independent leader of a foreign land and was someone with whom the Chinese Emperor wanted to establish fruitful foreign relations.

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Closer look at Bai Ta – Beihai Park, Beijing

In thinking back to my accidental spotting of Bai Ta from my vantage point at the Forbidden City, I have to believe that most visitors (including Chinese tourists too) are oblivious to this stupa which I did not see promoted as a point of interest in any travel guides or tourist brochures. Furthermore, whatever information that is provided to visitors about Bai Ta most likely reflects PRC-approved messaging. After all, how would the PRC reconcile the significance of Bai Ta with its long held claim that Tibet has always been a part of China? Assuming that the PRC does simply dismiss Bai Ta as an “off-brand” historical footnote of no importance, this monument’s indomitable presence piercing the skies above the grounds of old imperial Beijing emphatically suggests otherwise.

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

I left Xigatse filled with conflict. In a way, I had contributed to the puppetry orchestrated at Tashilumpo by not saying a word about the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama. I snapped some pics and smiled at the monks I saw there and shelled out some Yuans for the monastery’s coffers and it all rang hollow. I squirreled away my thoughts and jotted down notes about the experience as we got back onto the “Friendship Highway” and continued to our next destination, Gyantse. Earlier in the trip I had seen the 4 Tibetan drivers of our tour group excitedly pile into one of the Landcruisers and they were watching something. I became curious, so I went to the car and stuck my head inside.  There was a DVD player hung from the passenger-side sunshade and it was showing the Dalai Lama speaking in Tibetan. My tour guide was standing outside the car and he proudly said he had smuggled the DVD into Tibet from Kathmandu in order to share it with the drivers and others he would see when we reached Lhasa. The thrill on the drivers’ faces was infectious.  They hung on each of the words they were hearing and were scrutinizing all the gestures and facial ticks of the Dalai Lama. They joked and laughed loud. There was a childlike wonderment in their playfulness. It was like they were tasting forbidden fruit, but rather than feel any shame or fear about the experience, they were passing it around and each taking a huge bite. How that scene contrasted with what I felt as we drove out of Xigatse in carefully sustained silence.

Gyantse Khumbum

The town of Gyantse is known for its astonishing chorten (Tibetan for stupa) or “Khumbum” (hall of 100,000 images) as it is locally called. This chorten is part of Palcho Monastery and was built in the early 1400s. Like the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu, the Gyantse Khumbum has Eyes. But, unlike those other 2 stupas, the Khumbum is an interactive, multi-terraced pyramid of chapel rooms teeming with statues and wall paintings of the Buddha, wrathful Tibetan deities, and other important figures from Tibetan folklore.  Although there are a couple of other chortens that still stand elsewhere in Tibet, there is none that compares to the exquisite artistry and “in situ” magnificence of the Gyantse Khumbun. The structure itself sits within the center of a walled old town. The wall runs along the rim of the small mountain above the town. The Khumbum contains 7 floors and one can walk up to the sixth floor and stare right at the Eyes of the Khumbum that stare out over Gyantse. The interesting difference between the Khumbum and other stupas built elsewhere in Asia is that the Khumbum allows you inside it — you can enter each room that burrows inside the structure.  Most other stupas are not inwardly accessible, and indeed were built for the specific purpose of encasing some relic of the Buddha, so they were never meant to be entered. But, the Khumbum sucks you inside room after room, each with a different motif and message. It is a 3-dimensional rendering of a Mandala. It spirals upwards — each floor a square within circle — and one ascends in perfect cadence.  The path takes you into the center which is aloft and beats with consciousness.

Eyes of the Khumbum

There are 77 separate chapel rooms you can go inside as you walk up clockwise around each floor and escalate to the top. I had to go inside each of these rooms and it took me about 2-hours to complete the entire 6-floor circuit to the top floor. Each room was dark with no lights. I brought my flashlight and when I turned it on inside the room I either saw a mural painting, statue, or both.  All of these paintings and statues were created with extreme patience, skill, and brilliance. I was sad to learn that many of the statues were clay replicas because the originals had been destroyed during the liberation.  But, the murals — although some faded and worn — still evidenced the original brushstrokes by the monks who had made them.  What smacks you in the face about the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is its pronounced use of the visual arts to convey the Dharma. Somewhere in the Tibetan tradition an emphasis was placed on learning how to transform the Dharma from something that was orally passed on, discussed, and contemplated into a visual (as well as musical) form of expression that was designed for a shared experience.

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

There is no doubt in my mind that some Tibetan monks had to be great artists as well. The frescoes, murals, and statues I saw in the Khumbum (and elsewhere in Tibet) were not works that were commissioned by the monastery for the laity to paint. Wealthy Tibetan patrons did provide money to the monasteries and all monasteries were ultimately supported by the Sangha, but it was the monks themselves that created such a vivid, beautiful artistic legacy. I can only  theorize that perhaps because the focus of the Mahayana school is on the “anyone can become a bodhisattva” message that this teleological thrust caused generation after generation of Tibetan monks to seek different ways to communicate the Dharma — beyond just the verbal.  The medium of choice of 700 years ago was painting and sculpting. While other Buddhist traditions have definitely created masterworks in their designs of Stupas, ironwork, paintings, and sculptures, the intricate mandala frescoes, thangkas (silk embroidered paintings), and statues of deities created in Tibet are so interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist practice that the efficacy of the Dharma would dramatically deflate if it was separated from the art that has long been used to sustain it.

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

The Palcho Monastery has different buildings built around the Khumbum with one temple built on an outcrop of the small mountain above it. I climbed to this temple and inside were frescoes of Mandalas that almost appeared to be a bird’s-eye view of the Khumbum. Each Mandala is like a fingerprint and is unique — no 2 Mandalas are ever alike. Each reflects the most serious mind and commitment to detail. They are rooted in geometric precision and serve as a roadmap for the viewer to follow as he contemplates the Dharma. These Mandalas are reference guides that one has to interpret in order to actively engage and ponder the specific teaching held within the painting.  When I stood at the terrace of this temple I could see the Khumbum below me and the old fort across from me on the opposite end of the town. The fort stood on top of a very tall hill. As I began to psyche myself for the long walk over to the fort, I looked down again at the Khumbum and experienced a funny thing. Its Eyes appeared to be looking up at me. I had already come face to face with these Eyes when I reached the top of the Khumbum itself and the Eyes had stared out straight ahead. But, from the vantage point of the temple located above the Khumbum, the Eyes now seemed to be lifted up and searching me for an answer to a question. I just remember that the words which popped into my head at that exact moment were, “I’m trying.”  Nothing more, but I felt the Eyes lower. It was a sensation that I can only describe as a gut-check. Lhasa was next. I had to get the mindset.

Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face

27 Aug

Bodhnath Stupa – Kathmandu (2007)

Bodhnath Stupa rises like a giant white bubble over the flat rooftops that dominate the Kathmandu skyline. I was told Bodhnath was about 6km away from Thamel and I set out to walk there. That walk turned out to be an odyssey through slope after slope, trash heaps, crossing streams, dodging traffic, and side-stepping little Nepali dogs. When I got to the temple complex, it was surrounded by a village and curio shops run by Tibetans. There were several Tibetan monasteries spread around the area and I saw many Tibetan monks with their maroon-colored robes going about their daily activities. I followed a few of them into their monastery. It sat on a hill above Bodhnath. I could hear trumpets, the low bass tones of other horns, the tinny chimes of cymbals, and the blasts of a gong. I walked up ladder to the second floor of the monastery towards where the music was coming from and I peered through the doorway. I saw the monks playing all these instruments themselves. The music was interspersed with chanting and prayer. The pageantry, musicianship, and vocalization were heavenly and were in such contrast to the austerity of other Buddhist monasteries. When the monks stopped their service, I went back outside and looked out over the railing. Bodhnath was below me.  What struck me was the precise geometry of Bodhnath’s design. The central bubbled-shaped Stupa is so dominant that one could easily overlook the plinth it sits upon. This is a terraced platform which is in the form of a “Mandala” featuring concentric blasts of whitewashed stones jutting at precise mirroring angles. There are 4 stairways leading up each level of the rising platforms to the Stupa. This was the first Mandala that I had ever seen and to appreciate its design you had to observe it from above — either from the monastery I was standing at or from one of the rooftop restaurants of the buildings encircling the Stupa. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, but the circle is formed through a geometric diagram using a square with 4 gated entrances as the base. There is a circle contained in the center of this square and the square itself is contained with an outer circle.  Many different explanations exist for how the Mandala is invoked as part of the ritual and spiritual layering of Buddhist practice — especially in the Tibetan tradition which creates Mandalas in many different media, forms, and structures. In fact, one of the primary differences I have noticed between the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the Theraveda Buddhist school is the Tibetan Mahayana’s emphasis on color, art, and geometric splendor to convey the Buddhist path. All of these things are captured within the Mandala which can take the form of a fresco, a 3-dimensional structure, or sandpainting.  The Stupa of Bodhnath stands in the center of the Mandala. It is not certain whether this Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha which was the original purpose behind the erection of these shrines. Some believe that a piece of bone of the Buddha may be contained within Bodhnath which was built around 600 AD. The  primary base of the Stupa consists of hundreds of prayer wheels that are spun by the faithful as they complete the “kora” or circuit around Bodhnath. Each of the wheels contain the following mantra written in Sanskrit on the outside: “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Instead of having to orally chant these words, one can invoke them through spinning the wheels which releases the mantra into the universe. This mantra contains 6 syllables and each word has a duality of meaning – a yin and yang.  The current (14th) Dalai Lama has explained this mantra like this: “…the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.” When I read the mantra and the Dalai Lama’s explanation, it becomes apparent to me that the mantra acts like a “greatest hits of the Dharma”. This mantra sums up the essence of the Buddha’s journey – renunciation, the middle path, spiritual practice, and attainment of enlightenment – but personalizes it to the individual who chants it.  This idea that anyone can become a Buddha is central to the Mahayana tradition and the mantra encapsulates this concept within a mere 6 syllables.

The Eyes of Bodhnath

The most striking aspect of Bodhnath are the eyes. There are a pair of eyes painted on each of the 4 sides of the main Stupa. The depiction of eyes are unique to Tibetan Buddhist temples. None of the Pagodas, Dagobas, or Stupas that I have seen anywhere else in the world have had any human characteristics depicted on their exteriors. The core reason for the depiction of eyes comes from its connection to Mahayana Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Mahayana tradition is to not focus on the attainment of enlightenment only for the self, but to devote oneself to the enlightenment of all. Any person who is moved by such great compassion and who lives his life in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood for others is a bodhisattva. So, the depiction of the eyes on Bodhnath (or Swayambhunath – see below) is to broadcast the omnipresence of the Buddha’s teachings so that anyone can receive them. These all-seeing, never blinking eyes symbolize the universality of the Dharma which is to be shared with all people. There are no ears depicted because the Buddha did not want to hear the praise and chants of his followers, and instead of  a nose, there is a squiggle placed below and in the middle of the eyes. This is the Sanskrit representation of the number one, and, as its placement suggests, signifies the middle path.  Above each pair of eyes are 2 thick black eyebrows and in between them sits a third eye. This conveys the meditative practice Buddhism encourages in order to help purify the mind, body, and speech within oneself.

Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath sits atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. The eastern stairway that leads up to the temple is steep and is said to contain exactly 365 steps. There are so many macaques (monkeys) hopping around the wall and the steps as you get close to the temple that Swayambhunath is actually referred to as the Monkey Temple. There is a legend that a bodhisattva who lived on the hill grew his hair so long that he had a lice infestation. When he cast out the lice, they became the monkeys which now inhabit the temple complex. The sun was close to setting when I made it to the top of the stairs, and from there I noticed that I had the Stupa to myself.  Most of the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who come to Swayambhunath do so in the morning. There is a monastery on the hilltop, but I was sure the monks must have been inside having a sunset service. So, it was just me and the monkeys. Although curious, the monkeys were not the brazen kind which try to pry things from your hands or stick their hands in your pockets scrounging for food.  I did the kora around the Stupa and saw that it was flanked by 2 tall Sikhara-style temples which had been built by a Hindu King many years after the Stupa had been constructed.  These 2 flanking temples gave “Swayam-bo” (another nickname) a much different look and feel than Bodhnath.  Instead of a Mandala design, which corral visitors into 4 escalating gateways in order to circumambulate each level and gravitate towards the center, Swayam-bo is just an open circle with 2 Sikhara temples off to its left and right. The 2 temples are separate and disconnected from the Stupa. Yet, despite this separation, Swayam-bo’s design physically links the 2 great religions that came out of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is for this reason that Swayam-bo occupies an especially revered status in the minds of its pilgrims.

The Eyes of Swayambhunath

Swayam-bo’s eyes are also different.  While the eyes of Bodhnath are wide-eyed, blue, and somewhat ambivalent in their gaze, the eyes of Swayam-bo are narrowed, pale, and seem a bit cynical.  It is as if Bodhnath serves as the bigger beacon and broadly sends an “all are welcome” signal, whereas, Swayam-bo is more reserved and reticent. Swayam-bo may have a more scenic entrance than Bodhnath, but this entrance also requires the more arduous journey. It appears that one has to earn her keep in Swayam-bo’s gaze and this gaze also includes a third eye that is much more pronounced than the slight representation on Bodhnath.  The spiritual discipline and inward contemplation Swayam-bo radiates upon onlookers and pilgrims is more intense than the relaxed feel of Bodhnath. The prayer wheels around the base of Swayambhunath are more numerous, but smaller than those of Bodhnath. Each wheel carries with it the same 6-syllable mantra. I remember that when my eyes first met the eyes of Swayam-bo, I thought there was something familiar about the shape and feeling of those eyes. They penetrated through me and I could almost visualize the face that may have been behind those eyes. It was not one of the many depictions of the face of the Buddha that I had seen before. It was something or someone else. I was frustrated that despite my intense efforts at peeling through the layers of my memory, I could not place those eyes with a face from my past. I then realized it was a riddle.  The eyes, nose, and other elements of Swayam-bo may have individual symbolic meanings, but taken as a whole, there is a coordinated, veiled message there. That was what triggered the feeling of familiarity in me — there was a latent meaning that was literally staring me in the face. Bodhnath and Swayam-bo each convey the riddle differently due to their visual variations, but the understanding one can achieve after figuring out the riddle will be the same.  That is the power of these 2 Stupas and why they still stir such devotion. Their eyes beguile and beckon — they are at once fixed stares and reflective mirrors just as we are at once capable of great compassion and abject impurity.  They encourage and mind the faithful and that begets practice, method, and wisdom. Om Mani Padme Hum.

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