Tag Archives: Buddhist

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.

Blended Rites

21 Jul

A momentary glimpse of Sun at the Schwedagon

Sunlit Schwedagon (2011)

I began a slow circuit around the Schwedagon. Every corner, square, and space had its own unique energy.  There were so many different things going on in each area that it was hard to stop and focus on any individual element. The entire platform felt like a microcosm of a city with the Pagoda standing in the center with its golden luminescence radiating outward in gleaming waves.  There is a method to the manner in which all the pavilions, nooks, statues, and mini-chedis (stupas) are scattered about.  They are clustered based on chronology of when they were built and also based on the utility in which they serve. So, depending on which entrance the individual takes to come up to the Schwedagon, one can focus his/her time on the particular area containing those prayer rooms or pavilions one wants to use for that time of day of their visit.  Some of the designs of these stupas and other buildings are grandiose in their intricacy. They contain mirrored prisms and mosaics on their outsides and others reflect stupa designs found elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Other structures dotting the Pagoda’s platform are more stark and austere in their design and look, yet these still also inspire awe and are the focus of particular devotion.

Sampling of the many stupas around the Schwedagon

Sampling of the many stupas around the Schwedagon

One taller stupa I saw instantly brought to my mind the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India. On the outside of this stupa were colorfully painted scenes of important Buddhist moments in Burma’s history.  I ducked my head into many of the individual prayer rooms and pavilions. There was something pure in the supplication I witnessed emanating from the people in these rooms.  In one particular room a group of Burmese women were sitting on the floor and singing prayers in beautiful harmony; in another room there were people chanting quietly to themselves.  There were so many individual structures all around that I didn’t know where to investigate next.  The density of these structures and the activity taking place inside them had me working hard to pace my sensory intake. I had to find some clearing where I could get a reprieve from everything and just breathe — and then, almost as if by cue — I turned a corner and there was a wide open space before me.

Burmese women reciting prayers in one of the many "tazaungs" or pavillions

Burmese women reciting prayers in one of the many “tazaungs” or pavilions

There were no structures or statues or anything else in this space and it had a definite boundary made from dark grey stones. It was completely bare except that there were people sitting and kneeling down upon it. Upon closer examination of this space, I realized that there were 2 stars in front of me — one smaller star was contained within a larger star. Each star had 16-sides and because of that the stars were almost circular in their overall pattern.  It then occurred to me that this space may have been created to map the circumference of the base of the Schwedagon Pagoda. Of course, the space was much smaller than the platform on which the Pagoda sat, but I thought that in some parallel universe if the Pagoda were to levitate from where it currently stood and then came down on top of the star-shaped space, it would fit. I found out later that this area was used as a “wish-fulfilling” space by people. It faced the Pagoda at a slight diagonal and there was also an incense altar in front of it. People came to this specific space in order to makes wishes before the Schwedagon and to then bestow offerings in the form of burning incense sticks or placing flowers at the altar.

The "wish-fulfilling" star-shaped area

The “wish-fulfilling” star-shaped area

I walked into the middle of the smaller star and as I was contemplating making my own wish, someone came up from behind and greeted me with a few spare words in English. It was a monk. He was short and wore glasses. He was wearing a maroon colored robe that didn’t seem to quite fit. He kept playing with it and trying to cover his shoulders while I attempted to speak to him. We had trouble understanding one another, but I gathered he wanted to know where I was from. I told him that I had walked to the Schwedagon from Ngahtatgyi Paya and he smiled as I talked excitedly about seeing the seated Buddha there. He asked me to follow him. With my experience with William still fresh in my mind, I didn’t hesitate. I was going to hang with this monk for as long as he would let me.  As we walked, he asked me the month and year I was born. I thought this was a bit odd, but I told him. He processed the information I gave him and then honed in on a particular part of the Pagoda.

View of the Schwedagon from the wish-fulfilling area

View of the Schwedagon from the wish-fulfilling area

We rounded a corner and headed straight to a brown wooden post that fronted the Pagoda. This post had a sign affixed to it with a designation written in Burmese. The monk told me there were different posts around the Pagoda and that each post was connected to a planet and faced a particular direction. These planetary posts each also had a particular animal assigned to them.  I learned afterwards that the Burmese have a strong cultural affinity with astrology and have developed their own zodiac calendar that specifically has 8 weekday signs (Wednesday is broken down into morning and afternoon parts and these 2 parts count as separate signs). Each of these weekday signs is represented by one of the 8 posts stationed around the Schwedagon Pagoda. I would have had no clue about the significance of these posts had the monk not found me. The post we were in front of faced East and it was the post designated for the Moon. Its animal sign was the tiger and the day of the week it was connected to was Monday.  Under this post was a small statue of the Buddha sitting atop a water basin and holding an empty bowl in his hands. A statue of a tiger sat on the ground in an opening below the basin. The monk handed me a plastic cup and told me to fill the cup with water from the basin and to then pour it over the Buddha. I think I had to do 12 sets of pours.  As I poured each cup of water over the Buddha statue, the monk chanted some mantras in Burmese. Once I finished, he motioned me to follow him and we snaked our way through a labyrinth of stupas and statues until we entered a small room that was tucked between some other structures. My immediate feeling as we entered was that this was a chapel room. In the forefront of this room were 2 large footprints of the Buddha with toes facing toward a trinity consisting of the Buddha flanked by 2 disciples.

The chapel room - footprints of Buddha

The chapel room – footprints of Buddha

Moving as quickly as we had done from the open-aired ritual in front of the Schwedagon to the intimacy of this enclosed chapel room had a jarring impact. The monk and I stood behind the heels of the 2 footprints. Because both footprints were filled with water, I could see our faces reflected in each of them along with the faces of the trinity.  The Buddha was in the center, so his image was split between the 2 footprints — depending on where I looked. I became intensely subdued and clear-headed. I could see the monk’s face take on a more serious look as well and he closed his eyes in prayer. He began a methodical chant. I followed his lead by shutting my eyes and becoming completely still. After he finished, he told me to put my hands in each of the footprints and to dab the water from each on my forehead. He performed the same action at the same time I did.  He tried to explain something about what we had just done, but I didn’t quite understand what he said. I could tell that we had conducted some kind of mix of Burmese astrological invocation and Buddhist practice, but I didn’t grasp the details of the meaning and import of this consecration. After we exchanged our last words, the monk whipped his robe around his bare shoulders and left. When I came out of the chapel room just a few seconds afterwards, there was no sign of him.  It was almost as if he had come to the Schwedagon that day just to find me. Serendipitous. He gave me insight into the true significance of the Schwedagon. It wasn’t some historical relic or archaeological monument that one just bought a ticket to enter, walk around, and photograph. It was alive. It pulsed. It was the center of the Center — a beating heart. People came there to connect and plug into it in many different ways depending on what they needed. As I scanned the area hoping to catch a final glimpse of the monk, I think I learned something else. A few hours earlier, I had entered the Schwedagon in a not so sure-footed or spiritually sound manner. Then, I had been given a light to follow. As suddenly as this light had come, it had vanished. It was up to me to understand the experience. To remember it. And to then — hopefully — recognize it in whatever form it may reappear.

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