Tag Archives: Buddhist art

Thunderbolts & Ringtones

20 Mar
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Looking up at the massive Buddha Dordenma – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Bhutan contains a cocooned ecosystem where Buddhist thought, spirituality, and culture are in perpetual contact with every aspect of life in the country. All the buildings share certain design and thematic characteristics and have limitations placed on their height. Most citizens appear to prefer wearing traditional clothing that was in vogue in the country centuries ago, rather than, adopting the contemporary fashion trends of the outside world. There are no prominent entertainment establishments such as standalone bars, clubs, or similar venues although I saw a few snooker halls. The desire for instant gratification or the need to purchase goods in bulk is non-existent. The one visible hallmark of modernity that seems to have captured the interest of the Bhutanese is the smartphone and the global connectivity that comes with such devices. But, even smartphones or tablets are still used in ways to support the Dharma in Bhutan as I observed during my visit when I saw a monk reciting Buddhist sutras through the help of his iPad which displayed all the verses for him. So, ultimately everything in Bhutan seems to circle back to a Buddhist animus that pulsates through the country.

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Buddha Dordenma constructed in late 2015

On our first full day in Thimpu, our guide drove us through the hills south of town to visit a new monument that had just opened some months earlier: the Buddha Dordenma (or Buddha Point).  This monument consists of a gigantic seated Buddha (over 50m/170ft tall) surrounded by a semi-circle of several smaller Bodhisattva statues draped with scarves. Each of these Bodhisattvas is positioned in a manner that suggests they are making an offering or seeking a blessing from the Buddha that sits above them.

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One of the several Bodhisattvas situated around the Buddha

At the time of my visit, there was a large staircase and park area below the main platform of the Buddha Dordenma that was still being constructed. Additionally, the passage into the base of the statue which was to consist of an altar area with hundreds of small statues and other Buddhist objects was not yet open. Regardless of these unfinished aspects of the monument, the vantage point of this monument was spectacular and we could see the entire layout of the large Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong) in the distance along with the rest of Thimpu. 

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View of Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong)

From Buddha Dordenma, we drove down to Thimpu Dzong which was originally built in the 1640s A.D. by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It was enlarged in the subsequent centuries by Bhutanese Kings so that it could continue to serve as the primary ruling residence while also housing all the key civil ministries and providing residences for the leadership of the Bhutanese monastic order. Thimpu Dzong also became the venue for one of the most well-known dance festivals or “tsechus” in Bhutan held annually in honor of Guru Rinpoche which features elaborate robed and masked performers. While there is a throne room and a large meeting room for government ministers at Thimpu Dzong, the current King has a separate residence at a nearby property and the Bhutanese National Assembly (parliament) now also uses another building in Thimpu for its meetings.

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Monks entering Changangkha Lhakhang built in the 12th Century – Thimpu

Our next stopping point was the Changangkha Lhakhang monastery which was built in the 12th Century. This Buddhist monastery and temple is one of the oldest in Bhutan and is known as a destination for couples seeking good luck blessings for their newborns. In the back outside area of Changangkha Lhakhang, there are rows of prayer wheels embedded in the white walls and every single one of these were spun by pilgrims and worshippers as they dutifully performed their “kora” (or circuit) around the main temple hall.

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The artful symmetry of prayer wheels at Changangkha Lhakhang

Just as I had seen years earlier in Tibet and Nepal, these prayer wheels contained the 6 syllable mantra: om mani padme hum. Through the act of spinning these prayer wheels, one releases the mantra into the universe multiple times with rapid succession as she continues to walk and spin each wheel along the kora.  No doubt that this walk and spin method of prayer is a much easier and effective way of praying instead of having to orally chant the mantra over and over again. (For further understanding of the significance of the “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra see post: “Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-7c).

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Prostration outside main prayer hall of Changangkha Lhakhang

We finished our walk around Changangkha Lhakhang and then prepared to head off on the slow, winding road towards Bhutan’s former capital, Punakha. On the way out of Thimpu, we first stopped at the National Memorial Chorten which was built in 1972 in memory of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (“Dragon King”) who was the current King’s grandfather. This chorten was buzzing with people and it seemed especially popular with older Bhutanese citizens who were huddled together talking and enjoying the gardens of the memorial complex. The chorten itself reflects a Tibetan design that is similar to Bai Ta or the White Dagoba that is next to the Forbidden City in Beijing (see post “The Importance of Being on Brand” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-VU). I could not go inside the chorten, but I was able to look through the door at its base and could see a small altar area with a framed photo of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo inside. 

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The National Memorial Chorten built in 1972 – Thimpu

The distance from Thimpu to Punakha is about 85km (52miles), but the highway is a one-way, narrow road and there were long stretches where Indian laborers were working in the attempt to widen or repave the road. So, we had to idle at the side of the road a few times and wait until a bulldozer or other construction equipment was removed from the road in order to let our vehicle pass. Around the midway point of our drive, the road sidewinded to a higher elevation and we passed through a gully where prayer flags were strung above and across the road and along its sides. Our guide told us that we would get our own prayer flags blessed by a monk in a temple in Punakha, and then when we returned on the same highway, we would stop and fasten our prayer flags in this area. But for now, we continued driving onward until the road crested at Dochu La pass.

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The 108 memorial chortens of Druk Wangyal Chortens

At a height of 3,140m/10,300ft, Dochu La allows for views of the highest peaks of the Bhutanese Himalayas on a clear day. Aside from these incredible views, Dochu La is also known for its somber memorial called the Druk Wangyal Chortens. This memorial was built in 2005 and is comprised of 108 “mini-chortens” clustered together on a mound that looks like one bulbous stupa from a distance. Each of the 108 chortens represents the martyrdom of a Bhutanese soldier who died during an operation to quell an insurgency of Assam separatists from India that took place in southern Bhutan. I walked to the top of Druk Wangyal Chortens, and while I couldn’t see any of the mountains in the distance because of the cloudy conditions, the view was still breath-taking. I was above some of the clouds which were moving fast and it seemed that all the chortens around me were floating. For a moment, I fell into a daydream where I felt my body was also floating in tandem with the clouds around me. I only snapped out of it when I heard my guide calling me back to the car.

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View atop the Druk Wangyal Chortens – Dochu La

We descended from Dochu La and as the clouds parted, the golden green valley of Punakha appeared below us. We veered off the main highway before arriving at Punakha in order to see a nunnery and an eye-popping stupa that had been built on one of the hills. This stupa is very similar in its design to the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu. It sits on a terraced platform which is in the form of a mandala with a square base and circular form in the center. The central pillar of the stupa features 2 eyes on each of its 4-sides gazing out in all directions which is meant to symbolize the omnipresence of the Buddha and the accessibility of his teachings — the Dharma. This stupa was built within the last 20 years or so by a relative of the Bhutanese royal family and is maintained by the nuns who live in the small nunnery near it.

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Nepali-style stupa at nunnery on the road to Punakha

As we left the stupa and nunnery, our guide began telling us about the history of Punakha. It had been the capital of Bhutan for nearly 300 years until the mid-twentieth century. Its most visited sight was the Punakha Dzong which was constructed in 1638 A.D. at the direction of Zhabrung Ngawang Namgyal whose embalmed body is kept in a sealed room at the Dzong.

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Punakha Dzong constructed in 1638 A.D. – Punakha, Bhutan

Punakha Dzong is a cornucopia of beautiful murals, lofty architecture, and rooms filled with magical thangkas (silk embroidered or painted banners) hanging from wooden beams. Because no photos are allowed inside any of the buildings, I could only snap photos of the outside areas of the Dzong which did not capture the wall-to-wall artistry inside the halls and prayer rooms, But, the artwork on the outside buildings is well-preserved, so it at least provides a glimpse of the meticulous skill and talent of the Bhutanese artisans responsible for the treasures at Punakha Dzong. Many of the external and interior murals are illustrations of fantastic landscapes, geometric patterns, different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, and Buddhist iconography such as the Dharma wheel, deer, tigers, and birds.

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Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche and Buddhist iconography on entranceway to prayer hall at Punakha Dzong

Our guide explained to us how Guru Rinpoche was interpreted and depicted in 8 different forms in the Bhutanese Buddhism tradition. Each of these different forms was associated with a particular teaching or Buddhist virtue and was meant to provide a metaphor for deeper understanding and related meditative purposes. Two of the most prevalent of Guru Rinpoche’s forms are: “Senge Dradog” (the protector and guide of the Buddha symbolizing the ferocity and power of the awakened mind) and “Dorje Drolo” (the wrathful, indestructible crazy wisdom that comes with the awakened mind). Senge Dradog (known in Tibetan as “Chana Dorje“) is depicted as a blue demon-like figure with a third eye in its forehead, a crown of 5 skulls on its head, a snake around its neck, and a tiger loincloth around its waist. In its right hand, Senge Dradog wields a thunderbolt and is preparing to strike with it. The Dorje Drolo manifestation of Guru Rinpoche is similar to Senge Dradog except that it is red and it is standing on the back of a pregnant tigress. Dorje Drolo is particularly significant in Bhutan because the famous “Paro Takhtsang” (“Tiger’s Nest” monastery) was built at the cave site where Guru Rinpoche in the form of Dorje Drolo buried hidden texts and treasures while traveling on the back of a tigress he had subdued. Images of Senge Dradog and Dorje Drolo are found lurking all over Punakha Dzong and both represent the need to shake off the emotional obstacles and ignorance of life in order to receive the powerful clarity of knowledge that zaps one right between the eyes when becoming truly enlightened.

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Detail of door at Punakha Dzong with Senge Dradog image

The grounds of Punakha Dzong also showcase multiple courtyards where dance festivals and other large gatherings take place. One of these courtyards has a mid-sized bodhi tree that may have been grown from a cutting of either the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, or its progenitor in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f and “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4P). I wasn’t able to get the origin of the tree verified by my guide, but I knew that there was a practice from centuries ago where monks who studied or visited the sacred Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya or Anuradhapura would take a small sapling of these trees and return to their own temple or monastery where they planted it.

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Bodhi tree in one of the large courtyards of Punakha Dzong

After our visit to Punakha Dzong, we got situated at our lodging in Punakha which was situated on the valley floor. All around us were tall lush grass, rice paddies, and even greener hillsides standing sentry.  We spent 2 nights in Punakha and at dawn of each day the chanting of monks from the surrounding hillsides would wash over us. There were no televisions or other distractions and we were completely immersed in an idyllic, peaceful landscape with warm and friendly people. I could only assume that the Gross National Happiness score of Punakha must be incredibly high. 

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The prayer wheel keeper at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

On our last day at Punakha, we went on a hike through some rice fields on the way to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. It was a sunny, glorious day and as we emerged from the rice fields we entered a small building that housed a huge prayer wheel that was under the supervision of a 88 year old man. Our guide introduced this prayer wheel keeper and his friend to us and we spent a few minutes chatting with them. They noticed a “Bodhisattva” tattoo that my friend had in Sanskrit on his shoulder and they talked excitedly about this. It wasn’t clear to me whether they simply had never seen such a tattoo, or whether they were impressed to see this Mahayana Buddhist concept adopted in such a way by a foreigner. In either case, they were incredibly fascinated by the tattoo. After we left the prayer wheel keeper, we had to walk uphill for about 40 minutes to the chorten which sat high above us.

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Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we reached the top of the hill, I was encased in sweat and my shirt was stuck to me like a latex glove. But, I now had my first look at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. This chorten was constructed in 1999, but it has the aura of an ancient building. We walked inside the chorten and climbed the stairs to the top where there is an outside observation platform. Our guide discussed the construction of the chorten and pointed out some of the other sights below us.

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Water fountain outside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we returned back inside the chorten, our guide began explaining some of the stories behind the murals. Many of these murals showed important moments in Bhutan’s history, but a few also included some curious images such as shaggy-haired yetis and other Bhutanese legendary creatures. Just as our guide was speaking about these remarkable things, a bizarre ringtone blared from my friend’s cell phone. He had no cell phone service in Bhutan, yet his cell phone was loudly ringing.  All of us — our guide and driver included — were startled and exchanged befuddled looks of amazement. Our guide himself had no cell phone service while standing inside the chorten which was on a hillside more than 7km away from Punakha. We all laughed it off and our guide went on to finish his discussion about the murals. When we had hiked back down to the car, my friend checked his cell phone again, and now, he had several ghostly black & white photos and short videos saved on his phone! One of the photos even had a mysterious made-up word on it. We didn’t know what to make of any of this. Was it just a technical glitch, an accidental butt dial, or crazy divine intervention sparked by my friend’s “Bodhisattva” tattoo? Looking back on that day, I’d like to think that instead of being thunderstruck, we had received a spiritual wake-up call from Senge Dradog. That seems the best explanation for the phantom ring inside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

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.

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.

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