Tag Archives: Burmese King

Enter The Pagoda

21 Jun
2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

Its name can be broken down as follows: “Schwe” (or Shwe) meaning “Golden”; and “Dagon” meaning something like “hilltop” and also refers to the name of the northern district of Yangon where it sits atop Singutarra Hill. This hill is about 58m (100ft) tall, but it is wide and spans a large area. The pagoda itself rises to a height of 111m (328 ft) and tapers into a gem-laced spire that is capped with a 78-carat diamond. Recent news stories have shown barefoot dignitaries walking around the base platform of the Schwedagon. But, the first thing one must consider before making the climb towards the top is which entrance to use. There are 4 entrances – from the North, South, East, and West. Each of these entrances has its own ambience and distinct features. So, your ascension to the Pagoda platform will provide you with a different sensory (and likely spiritual) experience depending on which entrance you choose. I arrived near the West entrance of the Schwedagon in the late afternoon out of breath and off-kilter due to my experience with William at Ngahtatgyi Paya. I was about to purchase my ticket and take off my shoes before entering when I noticed that this particular entrance had a series of escalators that moved upwards under a covered corridor. Something about having my first visit to the Schwedagon occur via an electric peoplemover rubbed me the wrong the way, so I didn’t enter from the West Entrance.  Instead, I weaved my way around traffic and potholes in the sidewalk for another 45 minutes or so in order to get to the South entrance. When I arrived at the South Entrance and faced the 2 Chinthes standing sentry (half lion/half dragon statues), I could tell this was the proper entrance to use for one’s first visit.

Southern Entrance - Schwedagon Pagoda

South Entrance – Schwedagon Pagoda

I paid a $5 entry fee and camera fee, took off my shoes, and handed them to a clerk who tucked them away in shoe locker area. I entered a cavernous covered corridor of rising steps. These steps were not crumbling old stone steps. They were sleek marbled steps and cool to the feet. I saw vendor stalls on both sides of me where various trinkets, souvenirs, photographs, offerings, books, paper umbrellas, and depictions of the Schwedagon, the Buddha, and other famous Buddhist sites around Myanmar were being sold.

Interior - Southern Entrance

Interior – South Entrance

As I walked up, I noticed that every once in while there was a gap in the covered entryway where one could go outside. So, I darted through these openings and went outside to look around. I was able to see people ducking in and out of small buildings that were in the middle-area of the hillside, and then saw a tall modern-looking tower on the eastern side of the hill, which I realized was a huge free-standing elevator shaft that was used by those pilgrims and individuals who  were not able to walk up to the Pagoda. When I turned back towards the outside of the entryway itself, I was able to pick out some details that I would have never seen had I not gone outside. In one particular section there were 2 large wooden balustrades carved into giant crocodiles. The roof itself was a cascade of green corrugated iron with beautiful and intricately gilded trim. I could have spent an hour or more just wandering around the middle areas around the hillside absorbing all the incredible nuances of the design of the South Entrance and the life that had sprouted around it. But, I hadn’t yet been to the Pagoda itself and I knew that it would take me a few hours to complete one circuit around the base platform. I went back into the entranceway and continued to walk to the top without stopping.

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim - Southern Entrance

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim – South Entrance

The anticipation in me swelled as I got closer and closer. The Schwedagon is believed by the Burmese to be over 2600 years old and the hill on which sits was originally used as an internment spot for previous incarnations of religious and spiritual significance conducted by the people who lived in the area at that time. Inside the core of the Pagoda, 8-hairs of the Buddha are encased. Unlike other body relics of the Buddha which are contained in the Stupas, Dagobas, and Pagodas around the Buddhist world, these hairs were not taken after the Buddha’s death. Instead, the story is that the Buddha himself during his life plucked these 8 hairs from his head and gave them as a gift to 2 brothers who were from Burma but who had been in north India trading at the time they met the Buddha. The Buddha had just become awakened — enlightened — after spending 49 days meditating in what is today Bodh Gaya. [See previous post “Mahabodhi”: https://startupkoan.com/2012/07/24/mahabodhi%5D. The 2 Burmese brothers came across the Buddha and upon seeing him and being overcome by his presence and enlightened state, they gave him a gift of some honey cake. The Buddha had been fasting during his meditation so he gratefully accepted the food. In exchange, the Buddha gave the brothers the 8 hairs and the brothers — understanding the significance of their fateful meeting with the Buddha — were determined to take back the hairs to King Okkalapa in Burma. On their travel back to Burma from India, the brothers were robbed and 4 of the hairs were lost. However, when they opened the box containing the hairs in front of the king, they were amazed to see that there were 8 hairs again! The king seeing this as a sign made the proclamation to inter these hairs in a pagoda he would build atop Singuttara Hill. An unbroken chain of monks have guarded the hairs and the Pagoda ever since. Though the Pagoda has been attacked, burned, stricken by earthquakes, and rebuilt in parts through the centuries, it still is the single most important Buddhist shrine in Burma and perhaps the oldest Stupa in the world.

the Golden Hilltop

the Golden Hilltop

When I took my first step out from the covered walkway and onto the marbled platform of the Pagoda, I was hit by something which I can only describe as an oxymoronic — there was a harmonious cacophony of dueling and glittering colors, theme-park like festiveness juxtaposed against disciplined spiritual practice, and frenetic yet controlled circuitry. People from all walks of life were strewn around the base platform — the plinth. Some on the ground, others sitting under roofed pavilions, and others performing blessings, prayers, and prostrations in front of select posts and pillars. There were all kinds of statues — like nats (spirits from Burmese, pre-Buddhist tradition), 3-headed elephants, and all sorts of Buddhas holding every pose and mudra imaginable. There were 2 large iron bells, Bodhi tree offshoots, hundreds of mini-chedis (small Stupas), separate prayer rooms, and a menagerie of other stone, wooden, marble, and painted depictions of Buddhist iconography. I twisted my head and neck around as I tried to focus on these sights, but as I did so the slick and wet marble platform underneath my bare feet betrayed me and I nearly fell horribly on my back. I could have been seriously hurt from the fall which would have been a disaster. But, somehow I caught myself. I took a deep breath and steadied my balance. My heart was beating fast as if in syncopation with the swirling sky above. Sun and clouds kept playing hide and seek. I was game.

Bones of Reverence

11 Apr

The colonial remnants of Yangon give rise to a feeling of crumbling disrepair that one may experience in other once bustling capitals. Perhaps the crumbling is not as accelerated and disheartening as what can be seen in Havana, but it is difficult to imagine these buildings getting a second life like, for example, the colonial art deco buildings which front the Bund in Shanghai. Before I set off to explore the glorious grounds of the Schwedagon Pagoda, my first taste of Rangoon would have to begin in the heart of the old city center. I walked south from my hotel and passed by a few embassies until I reached the National Museum. Inside were various treasures, gems, statues, and archaeological finds from a bygone era including the grand “Lion Throne” of the last king of Burma — King Thibaw Min — taken from the Royal Palace in Mandalay.

Bogyoke (General) Aung San Market - Yangon

Bogyoke (General) Aung San Market – Yangon

After the museum, I continued walking south and made a left on Aung San Road which took me to the Bogyoke Market. This old Market consists of a large bazaar complex with covered stores, as well as, a labyrinth of alleys and free lancing gem and currency traders. As I walked along, on a few different occasions there were children who came up to me and tried to sell me two books that were in English — one was “Burmese Days” by George Orwell and the other was a Rudyard Kipling collection of poems/short stories which featured Kipling’s “The Road To Mandalay”. Many men and women had swaths of dried ointment on their faces. I learned that this facial paste was a natural sunblock / moisturizer called “thanaka ” and was made from the bark of a mixture of different trees. Thanaka is applied to the face and once it dries it remains visible (mostly under the eyes and on the cheeks). When I first saw the faces of those locals who had applied thanaka to their faces, it brought to mind the facial markings that I’ve seen in documentaries about tribal people living in New Guinea or in the Amazon jungle. I also noticed many men wore a long sarong wrap–called a longyi– instead of pants. This was tied in a knot just above their waist and seemed to be very comfortable. I tried one of these on in the market just for fun, but decided again buying one because I was on a tight budget and didn’t want just buy things based on fancy.

Sula Pagoda - central Yangon

Sule Pagoda – standing above Yangon traffic

I turned south from Bogyoke Market and onto Sule Paya Road which not surprisingly led to Sule Paya (Pagoda). This sight was at once incredible and incongruous. There before me rose a gold spire which was smack dab in the middle of a major 4-way thoroughfare where a crush of cars, buses, and motos were driving directly to, from, and around it. This Pagoda which had served as ancient spiritual beacon for so many centuries is now a 151 foot high, 2,000-year old, gilded traffic circle!! I would have to double back and enter Sule Pagoda later because at the time I was headed to the far east side of Yangon.

Sule Pagoda's central Stupa

Sule Pagoda’s central Stupa “Kyaik Athok”

From Sule Paya, I continued south until I hit Strand Rd and from there I headed east and walked along a path which fronted the Yangon River. I saw a few jetties along the way with boats which ferried people across the river or up and down it to other cities. This walk took me past the old Courthouse, Customs House, the famed Strand Hotel, and other buildings — most of which were dilapidated and abandoned. I was headed to the Botataung Pagoda — which while not as awe-inspiring in terms of its size and design as either the Sule or Schwedagon Pagodas — nevertheless occupies an extremely special place in the Burmese pantheon of Pagodas. As described in an earlier post, “Parinirvana” (see link https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/01/parinirvana), after the Buddha died his disciples decided to distribute the Buddha’s relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — into eight parts. Whoever received any relic would have to preserve them within the walls of specialized shrines — what became Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas — depending on the country in which these were constructed. So, a “Pagoda” in its pure meaning and purpose would have to contain some physical element or connection to the Buddha. But, of course once the relics became encased within the Pagoda, the relic was never seen again, or it was only accessible by secretive corridor or chamber only known by those monks entrusted with its safekeeping. During World War II, Burma was caught between the expansionist dreams of the Japanese and a series of counter-offensives by the Allied forces. Many bombings and firefights took place all over Burma between 1942-1945. One of these firefights completely destroyed the beautiful teak and stilted Burmese Royal Palace in Mandalay.  In Rangoon, there were many air raids and during one bombing run (by the Brits) which was to target those docks and jetties being used by the Japanese, a bomb went off course and scored a direct hit on the Botataung Pagoda. This Pagoda which the Burmese believe was first built by their Mon ancestors over 2,500 years ago– at the same time as the Schwedagon — was destroyed in 1943.

Botataung Pagoda

Botataung Pagoda

It wasn’t until after WWII finished and Burma received its independence in 1948 that the Botataung was rebuilt. As the process of rebuilding began and excavations were made, the core relic chamber was found. It was still intact. This chamber was opened and inside were statues of the Buddha, precious gems, gold, Brahmanic script documenting the original founding of the Pagoda, and most profoundly — a strand of human hair and bone fragments from the Buddha himself. When Botataung was reconstructed after the war, the Burmese left the interior of the Pagoda hollow and created a maze-like path which allowed anyone to walk through the inside of Botataung. No other Stupa, Dagoba, or Pagoda from the ancient Buddhist world has been opened up in such a way to the public.

Entering the central Stupa of Botataung

Entering the central Stupa of Botataung

When I entered the Pagoda itself, it was a remarkable moment. I was used to observing such shrines from a purely external perspective. The Buddhist practice is to walk clockwise around a Stupa while reciting mantras or silently contemplating the path towards enlightenment. My practice was to use the circumambulation in order to observe these shrines from every possible angle and vantage point — both near and far. I would absorb the essence of the structure while I stood in wonder of its design, construction, and the purpose it served. Now, I was actually going inside one of these things and entering the mystery itself.  So, even though Botataung’s interior passage had only been created some 60 years before, I still had a feeling of converging with something ancient. The inside was entirely gold-plated with plastic shields covering the lower portions of the walls. There were Dharma wheels, Buddhist symbols, and other iconography. I followed a narrow path which took me to a central area that led to an opening. This opening was like a doorway, large enough for only 2 people to stand in side by side, and contained a barrier which prevented anyone from going beyond it.

Buddha's Sacred Hair Relic - Botataung Pagoda

Buddha’s Sacred Hair Relic in the central chamber of Botataung

When I took my position in the opening, I saw that there was an empty space below me where donations and other offerings had been thrown. On the ornately decorated wall across from me was a sign in English stating: “BUDDHA’S SACRED HAIR RELIC.”

Closer look at the Hair Relic

Closer look at the Hair Relic

There it was: a single strand of hair curled within a glass case which was enshrined by an ivory frame that was studded with gems, diamonds, and gold. It was difficult to see from where I stood, but it was there. I was alone for a few minutes standing there inside Botataung and I was swept up in deja vu. I was reminded of when I first sat under Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura and before that had stood under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya. These experiences were all physically separate, but were connected and part of the same consciousness. I moved aside when some other people showed up and then I made way out of Botataung. I walked around the central Stupa and came to a separate lime-green octagonal building. A sign above it said in English: “Buddha’s Body Relic Pagoda”. Inside was an octagonal glass display box and within it was a glass reliquary resting on a raised silver stand.

Inside the Buddha Body Relic Pagoda - Botataung complex

Inside the Buddha Body Relic Pagoda – Botataung complex

Within this reliquary was another small glass container that sat on a round red cushion which came out of golden lotus flower. I peered in close and saw a few white colored, pebble-sized fragments.

As close as it gets...

As close as it gets…

Unlike the Temple of the Sacred of the Tooth in Kandy where I had to imagine the Tooth resting within a small chalice within the great golden external shell that was shown to the public, here before me was something visible and unadorned. The fragments were positioned in a triangular manner on the cushion and stripped of any ceremony. But, these were not pieces of decrepit ossified tissue which had long since been sucked dry of their marrow. These were sacraments — corporal keys to understanding. When Christ said “This is my body” and then broke the bread into pieces which he distributed to his disciples this was a deliberate invocation. The Buddha never instructed that his disciples hold onto his physical body. The decision to pick out the Buddha’s relics from his funeral pyre and to then carry them to far away lands for enshrinement was one that his disciples made themselves. So, this idea of ritualized practice where faith is connected to the physical body appears to again be another common trait between Western and Eastern traditions. This practice may have been born out of triggers which were the inverse of one another — that is, the affirmative instruction given by Christ and the absence of instruction given by the Buddha. But, the end result was the same: a transformation of the physical into the spiritual. I felt a deep understanding of this concept at that moment as I viewed these fragments which was strange because I’m not a subscriber to any religion or any kind of disciplined spiritual practice. But, I did feel it…in my bones.

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