Tag Archives: Dharma

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.

 

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Pilgrimage – Part II

14 Aug

The name, “Sarnath”, had a kind of sinister inflection in my mind. It reminded me of Golgotha. But, as I traveled there, I learned that Sarnath is actually shorthand for a longer word that means “Lord of the Deer.” It was now the name for the area surrounding the deer park where the Buddha had given his first teaching of the Dharma to his 5 companions. Sarnath is located about 13km to the northeast of the ancient city of Benares (Varanasi) and I would stay there for a few nights and take a day trip to Sarnath.

The Ghats of Varanasi, India (2009)

The funny thing was that I wasn’t too far off by thinking of Golgotha on my way there because Varanasi had a skull-like form and netherworld glow to it. Its vertiginous old buildings vomited out steps that led down to the banks of the Ganges below. And there was the dark plume of smoke that seemed to continually float above one of the ghats in particular. I would soon learn that this was Manikarnika Ghat — the pre-eminent cremation ground in all of Hinduism. I could faintly see this ghat in the distance and wasn’t ready to experience its power on that first day. As it so happened, I was only able to spend just an hour or so around the ghats that were near my Varanasi hotel on that first day. The water level of the Ganges was so low that large sand bars were exposed. These weren’t small banks of sand, but instead were large mounds that rose several feet above the ground. The clouds overhead started moving fast as a wild wind picked up and then the exposed sand bars took flight — meaning twisters picked up the sand and blew them with a ferocity toward the ghats. I was swiftly caught in a severe sandstorm and wasn’t able to breathe or open my eyes. I put on my sunglasses, pulled my shirt over my mouth, and ducked behind a wall. Incredibly, the sand whipped around the wall and swarmed over me. I could feel my ears get plugged up and things got muffled. For a few moments, all my senses were snuffed out in some way and I was in the black. I had no idea if anyone else was around, but the streets had to be deserted. It then dawned on me that the locals must have known about these sandstorms. The monsoon was late and it was the end of June of 2009. These early afternoon winds must have hit the Ganges with some regularity, so the shopkeepers, faithful, and cricketers alike knew when it was time to take cover. I had no choice but to make my way back to the hotel until the sandstorm subsided. When I got to my room, I was hoping to cool down and clean off. Unfortunately, there were constant rolling blackouts that kept knocking out the A/C and the lights. I washed myself in the dark and laid down on my bed to recover. I silently hoped that when I visited Sarnath, the deer park would live up to its reputation as being a place of serenity and calm.

Dhamekha Stupa – Sarnath, India

The next day I flagged down a Bajaj rickshaw and told the driver to take me to Sarnath. Cruising on these 3-wheelers – whether a tuk-tuk in Thailand or elsewhere – is always the same. You suck in alot of exhaust and hot thick air while dodging motorcycles, bikes, pedestrians, trucks, and cars. Once in a while, you get a driver that is drunk, whacked out, or just too eager to take you to some brothel. It’s usually fun in any situation though. The tricky part is having enough cash on you to pay the driver after you (hopefully) barter out the price in advance. The road to Sarnath was long and winding and we did have a bump with a motorcycle, but that was resolved with an apology and some pulling back of the bent parts into place. I was dropped off at the entrance to the archaeological site. I paid the entrance fee and walked into a green park which contained the ruins of an old monastery, a flattened stupa, and some old broken pillars erected by Ashoka and destroyed many, many centuries later by Turkish invaders. Looming above it all was the only monument that was still largely intact. This was the Dhamekha Stupa. It had been built at the location where the Buddha had given his first sermon to his companions. It was where the wheel of the Dharma had first rotated into the world. The Stupa conveyed a majesty and simplicity to it. It looked like a giant brick thimble from afar. It had a sense of utility. As I got closer, the intricate detail and patterns that still remained on the lower half of the Stupa jumped out at me: floral wreaths, swirling patterns, and overlapping shakti symbols (perverted into what was known as the swastika in 20th century). I walked around the Stupa 3 times clockwise and imagined myself becoming part of the wheel. That was the utility of this structure – its design roped you in and you want to glom on to its side and become part of its pattern work. Sarnath did still contain an actual deer park, but this had been moved to a newer area and outside of the archaeological zone where the Dhamekha Stupa sat. Just a little further up the road, a modern version of the Mahabodhi temple had been built during the early 20th century, and behind this temple was the deer park– although from what I remember the deer were penned up in a corral which was part of a zoo where a donation or fee had to be paid. But, given the crush of humanity that India teemed with, it was still a relief to have some kind of haven for these deer which were ultimately descendants of those deer that had lived in the park during the Buddha’s time.

Detail – Dhamekha Stupa

The Dhamekha Stupa itself dates back to about 500 AD and was built over an earlier stupa that Ashoka had built upon his visit to Sarnath in the mid-3rd century. Ashoka had also erected an exquisite 4-headed lion capital that crowned a tall pillar he had placed in Sarnath to commemorate his visit. This lion capital was struck by lighting and had fallen to the ground intact. It was now housed in the Sarnath Museum which was around the corner from the park. The capital was epic in scope and purpose. 4 lions placed back-to-back-to-back-to-back and other animals like an elephant, bull, and horse spaced below them. A large wheel of the Dharma was thought to have been built over the head of the lions, but that wheel has been lost. Below the paws of each lion appeared to be another wheel design of some sort. It looked like a wheel of a chariot, but I thought it could have been a rendering of the wheel of the Dharma. This lion capital is now the emblem that is set smack dab in the center of the national flag of India. So, the Buddhist emperor, Ashoka, had left a legacy that went beyond just making his own pilgrimages to the key places of the Buddhist’s life. In his quest to memorialize these visits, he created a symbol for a new country which more than 2000 years later would seek to gain independence and forge its own identity and nationhood. One could see the hand of the Sangha behind this legacy. Because again, the lion capital would never have made it through the marauding and colonial plundering that depleted much of the old Mauryan dynasty of Ashoka without the watchful eyes of the Sangha. Like Sanghamitta’s act to salvage the Bodhi Tree, I was able to see the Lion Capital at the Sarnath Museum because of the Sangha’s dogged preservation of this important relic. As I returned back to Varanasi, I mentally prepared for the next day where I was determined to make the walk to Manikarnika Ghat and into the beyond.

Parinirvana

1 Aug

After many, many decades of traveling through different lands, kingdoms, villages, valleys, mountains, plains, and forests, the Buddha’s body began to fail him. He had grown old and was prone to sickness. Yet, he was determined to travel back to the place of his birth one last time. He told Ananda, one of the Buddha’s closest disciples, that they would travel to Lumbini and there the Buddha would pass on. Ananda wept and protested against the Buddha’s wishes. “When the Buddha is no longer in the world, who will teach us?” Ananda asked. The Buddha admonished him thus, “What more is that you want of me? I have taught you all I know with an open hand. I have kept nothing back. There is no hidden teaching, Ananda. My teachings are your teacher now. Follow them and you will stay true to me. Take refuge in yourselves and be islands unto yourselves. Hold fast to the Dharma as an island. Hold fast to the Dharma as a refuge. Resort to no other refuge.” Ananda then went to prepare the other disciples for their trip to Lumbini. As they began the journey, the Buddha became ill, but he pressed on the best he could until his body could no longer carry him. He did not want to leave his followers without speaking to them one more time, so as they neared the village of Kushinagar he told Ananda to prepare a mat for him to lay down upon between 2 large sala trees. The Buddha slowly lowered his body onto the mat and rested on his right side with his head propped up on a cushion so he could face his disciples. Although he was just a simple monk, there was something regal about how he reclined before his followers. Others in the village heard the Buddha was near death and was preparing to give his last sermon, so they gathered around him. They too were captivated by the Buddha’s “lion pose” as it thereafter became called. The Buddha was using his frail body to teach these people about death and that there was nothing to fear. “The moment has at last come. Do not forget that death is but the vanishing of a body. The body was born from parents and nourished by food, so sickness and death are unavoidable. But, although the human body must vanish, the wisdom of Enlightenment will exist in the truth and practice of the Dharma. You who see only my human body, do not truly see me. But, you who accept my teachings, you are the one who see me. So, you to whom the truth has been made known, make yourselves masters of it, practice it, meditate on it, and teach it to the others. Satisfy your desires only in the same way that the butterfly sips nectar from a flower, but do so without destroying its fragrance or its texture. Be mindful of the truths I have tought you and actively pursue the right practices in order to keep to the eightfold path that leads to Nirvana.” As the Buddha spoke, his eyes became heavy and he started to sink into a deep meditative state. Just when it appeared the Buddha had finished, he spoke his last words: “All things must grow old and be dissolved again. Seek out the truth and work out your salvation with diligence.” The Buddha then entered into the ultimate state of bliss. Some of his disciples despaired at the thought of going on without him, but Ananda and a few others assured the rest that the truth which the Buddha had taught them would live in their minds and they could now go out into the world, preach the Buddha’s message, and continue to foster the community that would support them along the way. The disciples and village people began to anoint the Buddha’s body with perfumes and garlands. Some music even began playing while the Buddha’s body lay in its final repose. A continuous stream of people passed by in order to pay their respects. Finally, when they were ready, they lit the funeral pyre that had been placed around the Buddha and the sky turned black — not from the smoke, but because of the sudden absence of both the late day sun and early evening moon. The earth quaked and a forceful wind snaked through the forest shaking all the trees and causing flowers and leaves to fall on the ground. When the flames of the pyre had become extinguished, so had the Buddha attained Nirvana. The disciples and other people who stood over the Buddha’s remains then did something that only human beings would do. They let their feelings for the Buddha take over and they all wanted to claim a share of his earthly remains. There was an overwhelming desire these people had to stay attached to the Buddha through some physical link. Not even Ananda nor the Buddha’s other most trusted disciples were able to stop this, and instead, they ceded to this desire. They agreed 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, although the Buddha had said otherwise, his body had not quite vanished. Instead, his relics would travel far and wide across the land and ocean and there would be stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics would make until they reached their final resting spots. And when they did reach their destinations, the most amazing shrines rose — created by the mortal hands of the faithful and the communities which supported them. For each would receive the Buddha’s message and each would take refuge.

Dharma

30 Jul

There would be many teachings in the Buddha’s long life, but the heart of these teachings was contained within the first sermon the Buddha gave to his 5 companions on that day.  There were 4 truths the Buddha wanted to share with them and each truth had to be recognized, its pursuit envisioned, and its attainment fully achieved in order for any person to become Awakened. “Think of these 4 truths as the footprint of an elephant,” the Buddha began. “Just as the footprints of all the other animals – tigers, deer, monkeys, and birds – in this forest can fit within the footprint of an elephant, in the same way, these 4 truths will provide the footprint for everything else you will ever learn.”  However, the Buddha prefaced his teaching of these 4 truths by explaining to his companions that one would never be able to pursue any of these truths through engaging in the practice of either extreme self-denial or extreme sensual indulgence. The companions had to follow the Middle Path in managing their lives and staying on the path that the Buddha could only map out for them. The first truth was based on those eye-opening visions the Buddha had experienced when he had gone outside the palace’s walls – sickness, old age, death, and the wandering stranger who spoke of suffering.  These realities of human existence could all be summed in one thing: there was suffering. From the moment of birth, each person took a step closer to aging, illness, and death. But, suffering did not manifest itself through the physical only. There was also mental and emotional suffering which most people had to face each day of their lives and this took the form of dealing with dissatisfaction in one’s life, being separated from what made one happy, and not getting what one wanted.  So, the Buddha told his companions that they had to accept the fact there was suffering in human life and they had to understand the physical and emotional incarnations of this suffering.  The second truth was acceptance of the underlying causes of suffering. Suffering was rooted in our attachments, our need to cling to things we believed made us feel better or made us look better in the eyes of someone else.  One’s desire to seek out that which was pleasing and to live a life only in pursuit of such desire was a common trait in all people.  And it was this same trait that had so many people become miserable in their lives because of how they could not cope with being cut off from what pleased them. The third truth the Buddha spoke of was simply the recognition that only when one detached and freed oneself from the innate desire to only seek out the pleasing could suffering end.  This was straightforward enough, but the spiritual practice and discipline that one had to apply to relinquish the blinding cravings for self-gratification that created suffering was not so easy. This was the fourth truth and it was more than just a statement. It embodied the same journey to Enlightenment that the Buddha had traveled and it was the essence of his teaching. After one accepts and understands the first 3 truths, one must recognize that the cessation of suffering will not occur through meditation and reflection alone. Again, extreme self-denial would not work. There had to be an active desire that would fuel one’s spiritual practice, but one could not let this desire to overcome and subvert the person.  The Buddha made sure to caution his companions about this. They would never be able to become Awakened if they only attached themselves to their cravings to attain Enlightenment. This compulsive  desire would have the adverse effect of creating suffering since they would become quickly dissatisfied with the clouded and forced nature of their findings. They would only awaken to the cessation of suffering through maintaining a Middle Way during their spiritual practice and the specific guidance the Buddha taught his companions for their practice consisted of 8 principles:  they each had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.  There was an ethical import to the “right” kind of mindset and conduct each of them would have to integrate in their actualization of these 8 principles.  The Buddha would illustrate the nature of each of these principles in many of his parables and lessons he would later teach. His sharing of these 8 guiding principles with his companions for the first time could be said to be similar to when Moses received the 10 Commandments.  When Moses was given the 2 tablets listing each Commandment he was told to share them with the Children of Israel so that they would have a set of principles to follow. These principles established ethical parameters around their dealings with one other and their worship of God.  Breaking of any of these of the 10 Commandments would bring with it penalties of either an earthly or divine nature depending on the transgression. The Buddha explained that following this 8-fold path of spiritual practice could lead to Enlightenment for his companions in their present lives.  There were no provisions for worshipping the Buddha or any creator of the world, and there were no penalties if one fell off this path — the only consequence would be that one would not attain the complete knowledge that came with being Awakened.  Further, the Buddha told his companions that after one had achieved Enlightenment, then the final goal was to consummate the end of suffering by extinguishing it fully – and that was when one reached Nirvana.  This was not Heaven as understood in the usual Western sense, but instead represented one’s passing into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – and it could be realized in life or upon death.  His companions absorbed all the Buddha spoke of on that day. They repeated the 4 truths and then discussed each of the 8 principles that they would incorporate into their spiritual practice going forward. They had become the Buddha’s first followers and wanted to travel with him to wherever he would go next. They had to spread his teachings and so they decided to go back to the site where the Buddha had attained his Enlightenment. The Buddha would return to see that king who had 6 years before asked him to rule the Magadha kingdom by side. The Buddha would now tell the king what he had learned and the king and all his subjects would convert to the Buddha’s teachings.  The Buddha knew he would need to establish a bond with the laity. He had to have a spiritual network that went beyond just those would follow him.  He would have to connect his ministry to the public and that meant creating a community. This community would then sustain him and his message.

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