Tag Archives: Buddhism

To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul

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

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

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

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

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Vipassana Pagoda – Gorai (Mumbai) (2014)

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

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Interior dome – Vipassana Pagoda

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

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Photo inside Pagoda showing relics of Buddha

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

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Train to Aurangabad

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

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Dreams of Ajanta – (Maharashtra state, India)

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

 

William of Yangon

10 May

On the day I was to visit the Schwedagon Pagoda, I squeezed in a side trip to see 2 other sights. I first walked north of the hill where the Schwedagon sits and then sloped down into a “people’s park” area that was closed off to the public. Past this park was an army monument of some sort and then I found myself strolling along on a busy road. I had only a snapshot map of this part of the city and the street signs were written only in Burmese. So, I was mostly going off instinct as I roamed about and after about an hour of aimlessness, I admitted to myself that I had to be going in the wrong direction. Since I was looking for 2 huge statues, I knew that these had to be housed under very large roofs and the road I was walking on showed no signs of leading to any big buildings. So, I turned around and scanned the horizon in the opposite direction. There in the distance above the palm trees, I saw a reddish-rust colored roof. It was enormous — like the size of an airplane hangar. I turned and started walking towards it.

View of Chaukhtatgyi Paya from Ngahtatgyi Paya

Roof of Chaukhtatgyi Paya (on right) from window in Ngahtatgyi Paya, Yangon (2011)

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The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha

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From Feet to Head – 65m

I was looking for the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha — a 65m (213ft) long statue of the Buddha in the lion pose he held at Kushinagar prior to his death. Although just over a century old, this image was known for capturing the Buddha in a particularly beautiful way. When I got to the grounds of the Chaukhtatgyi complex, I first entered an area where there was a labyrinth of alleyways with corrugated iron roofs. I followed one of these alleyways and it took me through a monastery which was in bad shape. There were fragments of smashed windows and charred cement rooms with nothing in them. I saw a few monks milling about silently, but it was clear that most of the monks were gone. I read later that a lot of the monks in this monastery had been arrested or fled during the 2007 uprisings in Yangon. I hooked a right into one of the corridors I could see rising upwards and followed it until I reached the main building which contained the roof I had seen from afar. I took off my shoes and entered a huge hall. The space had the feel of a warehouse. There were large iron bars, pillars, posts, and other exposed framework propping up the large roof. Near the center and occupying most of the interior space of the hall was the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. I was jarred by what I saw. This was a Buddha depicted in shiny porcelain white with bright red lips, thick protruding black eyelashes, fingernails and toenails painted in pink, and eyes encircled in light blue. On his head was a golden tiara-like crown of gold and jewels and his body was wrapped in a flowing golden robe detailed with diamonds and silver trim. The bottom of his feet contained various symbols of Buddhist iconography organized in neat columns and rows. A small raised platform was erected a few meters away from the head of Chaukhtatgyi which allowed people to view the statue from close to eye-level with the statue’s head. DSCN1934From this vantage point, I grasped the enormity of the statue. It didn’t fit within the viewfinder of my camera or my own sight line. The image could only be seen in one take when viewing it at a slight angle. I stepped down from the platform and I looked up at the Buddha’s right arm which was propping up his head. There was clearly a “come hither” attitude that emanated from the statue. This was a sensuous and seductive Buddha — something much different from what I had ever seen. His eyes were wide open and he wore an enticing smile. This depiction was incongruent to the story of the Buddha who because of his debilitating pain and sickness was not able to make the journey back to his birthplace in Lumbini. Instead, when his physical body could no longer carry him, he had no choice but to lay down and talk to his disciples and followers from a position on the ground. In other reclining Buddha images — including that of Gal Vihara [see previous post: “Colossi of Gal Vihara” at www.startupkoan.com/2013/01/21/the-colossi-of-gal-vihara] — the Buddha’s eyes are closed, his head is lowered, and there may be just a trace of a smile on his face as he passes into Nirvana.DSCN1932 The blissed out images of the reclining Buddha I had previously seen were much different from the glammed up Buddha before me. But, as I walked around the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha and saw how its beauty was set off against the stark nuts and bolts interior of the huge hall, I understood the contrast. The industrial interior made sense. It provided an austere frame in which to effectively illuminate the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. It conveyed a vivid illustration of how even in the face of death, there was transcendent beauty.

Entrance to Ngahtatgyi Paya

Entrance to Ngahtatgyi Paya

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The Ngahtatgyi Buddha

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Side view of teak throne

After I exited the Chaukhtatgyi Paya, I looked over the landscape in front of me and I could see brass spires of the next sight rise up from another hill across the street. This was the Ngahtatgyi Paya. I had to walk up a long stairway to get to this pagoda. There was also a $2 entry fee, which I paid with my crisp dollars that were accepted without question. I took off my shoes again and went inside. The room was dark and a completely different experience enveloped me than what I had just felt at Chaukhtatgyi. Right in front of me was a large seated Buddha wearing a pointed crown encrusted with precious gems and diamonds and a robe that appeared to have an armored sash or vest over it. This statue was framed by a mammoth teak throne which was carved in intricate detail and patterns. Again, I had never seen a Buddha like this. It had the same white face and painted features as the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha, but that was where the similarities ended. This seemed to be a warrior Buddha. I walked around the statue ogling the teak throne– the wood used to build it must have been insanely heavy to raise and affix to the statue let alone carve with such flourish. As I came back out from behind the Buddha, a man was looking at me. He was wearing a longyi, a simple dark collared shirt, and eyeglasses. He was not Burmese. He said “Hello” to me in English and I was startled at first since I had not met a foreigner so far during my time in the country. He told me his name was “William” and that he had been living at the monastery on the grounds of the Ngahtatgyi Paya for the last 2 years. He was an American and was probably in his 60s. He told me he was studying Buddhism and living alongside the monks at the monastery. Many questions flooded my brain as I took in William. He did not seem to be a burn-out or hippy, but something about him struck me as…disingenenous. He certainly was attempting to blend into Burmese society with his garb, but he gave me the feeling of perhaps not being so truthful about how or why he was in Yangon. I wasn’t in the mood to ask him a barrage of questions in order to debunk or flesh out his story further. I decided instead to ask him about the Ngahtatgyi Buddha and what he knew of it. He told me the word “Nga Htat” meant 5-tiered or 5-story which applied to the layering of the roof that contained the Buddha. The Buddha itself was over 14m (45ft) tall. He also said that the gems, diamonds, and gold in the Buddha’s crown were worth more than $2 million US dollars.DSCN1953DSCN1952 I tried asking him a bit about how the government was treating the monks in the country and he said things had settled down and things were OK now. His answers were short and he was soft-spoken. I couldn’t make out whether he was there to serve as an unofficial guide to foreigners who came to the pagoda, or whether he was there to pray. I told him a little about some of my other travels and interest in how Buddhism evolved as it spread through Asia. After chatting for some time, I felt the day was slipping away from me and I had to go to the Schwedagon. So, I thanked William for the conversation and told him I had to go. He entreated me to stay and to go inside the monastery with him to eat and meet with the monks. I told him that I had plans to spend the rest of the day at the Schwedagon and I wanted to be there as the sun went down. I said that perhaps I would come back to Ngahtatgyi at the end of next week when I returned to Yangon after exploring other parts of the country. He seemed let down and then I sensed that he wanted money. He never asked for it openly, but I saw it in his shuffling demeanor and lowered eyes. As I went to get my shoes, I pulled open the small daypack I had with me and searched for some cash. The first thing I found was a $1 bill and I grabbed it. I knew that I had some other small bills, but I had to keep these for the Schwedagon. I gave William the buck and said goodbye. He looked at me with a smile and nodded as he took the single bill. I didn’t look him in the eyes as I took my leave. I could have given him more if I took the time to dig through the billfold case I had with me. But, I just didn’t want to bother. I took off in a hurry hoping to shake off any bad karma I may have picked up by rejecting William’s offer for dinner at the monastery. I tried to pick up my pace as I walked towards the Schwedagon, but with each step I felt the weight of my cheapness and guilt. How could I have so cavalierly dismissed William and his offer? What bugged me even more was that despite all the incredible experiences I had been fortunate to have over the last few years because I had been open-minded and put myself out there — here I was at this moment — just another cynic. An emptiness hit me.

Rangoon Night

12 Mar

City centre neighborhood – Yangon, Myanmar (2011)

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) on a thick and misty summer night in June 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military junta had not yet begun to relax its grip. On the day before my arrival, a plane carrying the actress, Michelle Yeoh, who was filming a movie (“The Lady”) in which she was starring as Suu Kyi had landed in Yangon. But, Yeoh was not allowed to enter the country and was forced to fly back to Bangkok. Yeoh had wanted to discuss the role and film with Suu Kyi, but the government decided to nix the visit.  It was extremely difficult for any foreign dignitaries or visitors to see Suu Kyi at her house which sat on Inya Lake.  In 2009, a wacked out American who had created makeshift paperboard fins swum the length of that lake to “rescue” Suu Kyi.  His “heroics” instead only succeeded in having Suu Kyi’s house arrest extended by the government. Before coming to Burma, I had screened a documentary called “Burma VJ” about the September 2007 uprisings led by the Buddhist monks and others which had been crushed by the government.  Most of these monks had either been arrested, beaten, and sent to Insein Prison where they were never seen again. Others managed to flee the country to Thailand and elsewhere.  I had heard that solo travelers who came to Burma could expect to get followed by government agents. Even more troubling was that due to all the economic sanctions on the country, one had to travel only with cash — pristine, unmarked U.S. bills to be exact. There was no way to wire money into the country or to use credit cards.  There were two currency exchange conversion rates — one was set by the Myanmar government and arbitrarily computed — and the other was set by the black market — which could only be found in the back alleys of street markets, or in the back rooms of hotels where foreigners stayed.  I read a few horror stories about travelers who came to Burma with U.S. bills which were not accepted because of small creases or the absence of a preferred circulation letter or number. These travelers ended up having their trips cut short since they could not fund things.  I had gone to my bank a week before I set off for Burma and asked for the newest printed U.S. bills they had and was able to receive newish bills in different denominations.  I then took extreme care to protect and keep these bills in the flattest state possible until I got to Burma. I knew that when I found a place in Yangon where I could change the U.S. bills into the local Kyat currency, I could expect to receive so many Kyat that they piled up like a literal brick.  So, I had visions of walking around with this brick of money in my backpack as I did my circuit through the country. In 2011, there were also rumors swirling that the military junta was planning to raze much of Yangon — including the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda. The government had already moved the capital from Yangon to an obscure outpost in the middle of the country called Nay Pyi Daw and they were building duplicates of Burma’s iconic sights there.  Suffice it to say that this was a trip that would require strong presence of mind, thoughtful planning, and a little luck…

Monks in the rain - Yangon

Monks in the rain – Yangon

It was trade which had brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma over a millennia ago. When Sinhalese merchant sailors had left Sri Lanka and crossed the Bay of Bengal, they hit land in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River basin. This great river shoots up and curves through the heart of Burma — and that’s how the Dharma first spread. Within a few centuries, the teachings of Buddha had spread from Burma through all of Southeast Asia.  I had mapped out an intense itinerary through the core Buddhist sights of Burma and this meant that I would have to fly to some of the places on Burmese airlines — some of which had dubious safety records. I was to meet a travel agent in Yangon on my second day in order to pay for my plane tickets in cash since there was no other way to purchase tickets in advance. So, I was a bit anxious about getting this taken care of in addition to remaining within my tight daily budget. On that night of my arrival in Rangoon, I hopped into the first cab I found outside the airport. As we drove to my hotel, I saw and smelled the dilapidated state of everything around me — the unpaved roads, lack of street lights, muddy markets spilling out their wares in the street, and crumbling storefronts. The cab I was in had no windshield wipers. My driver had to stick his right hand out of his window and use a closed umbrella to wipe away the rain as he drove with his left hand! I was sitting in the back seat and the open window had me sucking in rain drop after rain drop. I could only laugh nervously to myself — and for a flash — I wondered if this trip would end up as a disaster.

Schwedagon Pagoda - perched above Yangon

Schwedagon Pagoda – perched above Yangon

This was a pariah nation and if things went bad for me, I would have little recourse and limited money to buy my way out. But, these doubts quickly vanished when something astonishing came into focus on the hill to my left. It was almost extraterrestrial in design and luminescence. I knew then that I was in for the epic. It burst.

Out of India [South – The Doctrine of the Elders]

27 Oct

Gangaramaya Temple – Colombo, Sri Lanka (2010)

In May 2009, the 30-year-old civil war that had been waged in Sri Lanka effectively ended with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran – the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tamils are a largely Hindu minority in Sri Lanka who live in the north and northeast of the country, and in the early 1980s, a militant, separatist group led by Prabhakaran. The LTTE or Tamil Tigers employed various terrorist-like tactics (including the use of vest-wearing female suicide bombers) in an effort to gain independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. I visited the country in June/July 2010 and was intrigued by how such a bloody armed conflict could have gone on as long as it had within a predominantly Buddhist nation. It seemed like the last vestige of the Dharma must have been cast out because otherwise how could any devout Buddhist sanction the killing of another person? I grappled with this question from the moment I landed in Sri Lanka’s capital city, Colombo. I had taken an overnight flight to Colombo from Dubai and the contrast between the dry, desert landscape and sultry, tropical blanket that covered me when I first stepped outside could not have been more extreme.  I flagged down a taxi and began the long drive to Colombo. There was no highway or expressway at that time which linked Colombo to Bandaranaike Airport, and instead, we were just on a sinewy, congested 2-lane road.  But, this drive gave me my first insight into the omnipresent nature of the Buddhist faith in Sri Lanka.  I saw may small shrines, temples, and monuments along the way. At one point, my cab driver stopped at a light that was near a road-side Buddhist shrine and did a quick, respectful prayer before the light turned green and we drove away. There were only small windows into the tangible pulse of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heart.

Buddha statues – Gangaramaya Temple

Sri Lanka is an island that hangs like a teardrop in close proximity to India’s southernmost point. Yet, despite this proximity, the visual and cultural impact of Sri Lanka more closely brings to mind the look and feel of Southeast Asia and not the Indian subcontinent. Part of the reason for this is that the dominant Buddhist school that took hold in most of Southeast Asia was the Theravada tradition — the “Doctrine of the Elders”.  Sri Lanka was the petri dish in which Theravada was cultivated, groomed, and then exported abroad. In Bodh Gaya (India), I had learned the story of Princess Sanghamitta who had saved a cutting of the sacred Bodhi Tree which she then brought to her brother, Mahindu, who was a Buddhist monk already spreading the Dharma in Sri Lanka. I thought I would be seeing old sites tied to a Buddhist tradition that was likely no longer relevant or integrated into the everyday life of Sri Lankans. I thought the sangha or community of monks and laity had been weakened or marginalized by years of strife, war, and thirst for material possessions, the internet, and etc.  I could not be more wrong. What I found instead was an incredibly vibrant, active brand of Buddhism that provided a social infrastructure for lay people, monks, families, and other individuals of all walks of life to have a role in sustaining the Dharma — whether through giving alms, performing rituals, conducting parades and ceremonies, or undertaking pilgrimages to holy sites on the island.

Relief on outside wall of Gangaramaya showing Mara tempting the Buddha

The great surprise of Sri Lanka is that in the midst of its core Buddhist culture and tradition are various colorful odds and ends– remnants of Portuguese colonization such as striking Catholic churches and surnames, tea estates formerly owned by the British who supplanted the Portuguese with their own Anglican Tudor-designed churches and the Tamils they brought to Sri Lanka to work the tea plantations, and sprinkled here and there are mosques and calls to prayer in Arabic. The island took me on an immensely satisfying journey — both physically and spiritually — where I worked my way down to the south and then circled back up through the Hill Country, on to Sri Lanka’s cultural center, and finally up to its northern plains and ancient past. There is such radical contrast in the terrain and atmosphere in this small country. In the southern point of the island lays the colonial town of Galle and there stands an old Portuguese fortress with large sea-walls which held back the waves of the 2004 tsunami — although many people died around Galle and in the other low-lying areas of the southern Sri Lankan coast. But, things began for me first in Colombo where I had come to see the Gangaramaya Temple and the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara Dagoba (“Dagoba” being the Sinhalese word for Stupa) which marks the spot where the Buddha spoke during a visit he had made to the island. Both sites were remarkably active with streams of people and pilgrims pouring in and out, praying, sitting in contemplation, and performing rites. On the outside of the Gangaramaya Temple, there are very detailed reliefs which vividly depict stories from the life of the Buddha. These reliefs are all found on one large exterior wall of Gangaramaya and this wall itself looks like 2 large, gilded doors which reminded me of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” (the Renaissance-era doors created on the eastern side of the Baptistry of St. John in Florence). Ghiberti’s doors contain reliefs showing the story of Adam and Eve and other stories from the Old Testament, and that same kind of snapshot storytelling was impeccably conveyed in the reliefs found on Gangaramaya’s outside wall. From Colombo, I set off for the Hill Country. I hopped a train at Colombo Fort railway station and soon rose from the coast to the hills where I was surrounded by rolling greenery and tea bushes. When the sunlight hit these bushes and a wind rustled them slightly, they would flicker like gold. It was the monsoon season and I was headed to a sacred mountain. A mountain that I was intending to scale despite being told that no one — not even the most devout pilgrims — climbed the mountain during the time of the monsoon. I was unmoved. I would do the climb — not because it was there — but because I had to. It was a calling.

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.

Apple

18 Jul

Plato wrote of humans chained in metaphoric caves of their own minds. We were content to watch the shadows on the walls from our chained positions and believed those shadows were reality.  How they danced and entranced us. We sat there watching them skip, move, fade in and flash out. Most people would never be able to unbind themselves from the trappings of their minds and get outside themselves to see what caused the shadows. To find the light.  Was it then so strange that Siddhartha was baffled at what he saw?  Though he was 29 what had he known?  The shadows had captivated and nurtured him.  He lived in the garden so to speak, but he also knew desire and had accepted its sensual gifts. While on this day the Apple of forbidden knowledge appeared before him, there was no fall with Siddhartha. The dichotomy of the East and the West appears. Adam was cast out of Eden after the bite.  Knowledge had specifically been kept away from him.  With greater understanding into his world and deeper insight into himself and Eve what would have happened? Imbalance, fear, and suffering? Siddhartha would learn of such things too, but after his taste there was first wonder. An ashen faced man doubled-over and feverish was in front of Siddhartha. The poor man tried feebly to muffle his cough in front of his Prince, but his hacking only got worse. His eyes welled up with puss and his skin was knotted and hanging off him in places. “This is sickness,” his carriage driver said. Siddhartha’s eyes got big. “Sickness?”.  He had heard that word somewhere. Perhaps in the tales he had heard as a youth. But, it was just a fantastical concept. He had never seen a sick person nor had he experienced sickness himself.  Now he was face to face.  His wonder began to fade.  If this man was sick, who else could have such sickness?  He felt something stir inside. It was an odd feeling and one that he could not place. It was guttural as if in his stomach. His heart and mind were still clear, but the stirring was to make its way up. It was moving. Siddhartha had to return to the palace. He turned away from the sick man and thought about his father, mother, wife, and child. Could they all become sick too? He could not banish the image of the sick man from his mind. He had to get outside the walls again.

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