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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.

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The Colossi of Gal Vihara

21 Jan
The Hatadage - Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

The Hatadage – Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

From Kandy, I hopped on a squat, 10-seat mini-bus that dropped me off somewhere in the direct center of the “cultural triangle” of Sri Lanka. I was off to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the lion rock fortress of Sigiriya, and the painted rock caves of Dambullah. This region of Sri Lanka was arid, stifling, and Serengeti-like — in dramatic contrast to the lush green hills of Kandy and the monsoon-saddled hill country where I had scaled Adam’s Peak. On these plains, the city of Polonnaruwa rose to become the seat of Sinhalese power and Buddhist culture after the fall of the Anuradhapura. I spent the day bicycling through the ruins of this once great city and was not surprised to learn that the Sacred Tooth had resided for decades in a specially constructed, circular structure here called the Hatadage. This structure had been built in the 12th century and originally had a large wooden roof and was ornately covered with stone statues, intricate moonstones, and reliefs that ran all along its sides. The roof was now long gone along with most of the statues, but the moonstones (these are like stone welcome mats each in the shape of a crescent and are patterned with elephants and other emblematic figures) which serve as the entry marker for each of the Hatadage’s 4 staircases survived the temple’s destruction. Aside from the Hatadage, Polonnaruwa is home to a remarkable set of statues carved out of a single block of granite. I have no idea how this granite found itself in the middle of the flat scrub land on which Polonnaruwa sits, but during the reign of Parakramabahu I this chunk of stone was transformed into 4 images of the Buddha– 3 of which ranked amongst the largest stone statues in all of South Asia for a time. These statues are collectively referred to as Gal Vihara and represent the consensus zenith of Sinhalese rock sculpture. Each captures the serenity and evocative power of 3 Buddhist mudras (gestures).

Largest of the 2 seated images at Gal Vihara

Buddha in samadhi mudra – Gal Vihara

The first is a seated image of the Buddha in dhyana or samadhi mudra which depicts the Buddha in deep meditation with one hand upon the other, both palms up and resting on his crossed legs. This representation of the Buddha’s hands is cradle-like and perfectly conveys the concentration and discipline necessary in navigating the path towards Enlightenment. This same image is duplicated in the form of a small stone statue of the Buddha that is found inside an artificial cave set apart from the main 3 Colossi images. The 3rd image at Gal Vihara is one that is unique in all of Buddhist sculpture. This image shows a standing Buddha with eyes closed and arms crossed on his chest with hands flat just above his elbows.

Standing image of Gal Vihara

Standing Buddha image – Gal Vihara

This posture was not one I had ever seen before and because of its proximity to the 4th and largest image — which is of the reclining Buddha in the lion pose he assumed at Kushinigar before he passed — I thought the standing image showed one of Buddha’s disciples (like Ananda) mourning the Buddha’s passing.  However, based on when archaeologists believe each of these statues were carved, some believe that the standing image was built well before the reclining image was constructed. While that doesn’t disprove the view that the sculptors still intended to create a joint scene of the standing disciple and the reclining Buddha given the large amount of stone to draw from, it would be unprecedented to have such an image dedicated to anyone other than Buddha at that time. In any case, if the standing image is of the Buddha, then many people do believe this posture does represent a mudra that has precedent in some ancient Indian traditions: the mudra of the acknowledgement of the sorrow of others. Whatever the case, this image conveys an emotional rather than spiritual or contemplative message. That’s what is radical about this statue.

Reclining Buddha - Gal Vihara

Reclining Buddha – Gal Vihara

The last image is giant and beautifully crafted. The cylindrical pillow on which the Buddha’s head rests seems so real that one can clearly grasp the depth of belief that must have moved the sculptors’ hands. In most parts of Asia where Buddhism spread there are monumental depictions of the reclining posture the Buddha assumed during the last moments of his earthly life before passing into parnirvana. As one stands before these images of the reclining Buddha and stills the distractions around oneself, there is a silent communication between the image and the observer that takes place. One that to me is about removing the fear of death, and instead, invoking the universality of the knowledge that can be attained in order to transcend mortality. I walked the length of the reclining Buddha image of Gal Vihara and then stepped back. I noticed a mound of granite slabs rising before me which faced down towards the statues. I walked up to the top of these slabs and was able to observe the whole Gal Vihara menagerie at one time and then I could see what it was — a short story.

A tale of Buddha - Gal Vihara

A tale of the Buddha – Gal Vihara

The start to the story begins with the first small seated image which has to be experienced by peering into a small rock cave. Then, when the observer comes out of the cave he is hit with the next image — which is that of the large seated statue of the Buddha captured in the throes of the deepest meditation. Next, is the image of the standing Buddha who after coming out of his meditation is now wrestling with the knowledge he has attained. Is this the knowledge of suffering in the world that most people do not see which chains them into repeating the same mistakes and reaping the same unhappiness over and over again? The Buddha integrates this knowledge as part of his teaching, and when the final moment of his life comes he is ready and accepting. The face of the Buddha in his reclining pose is depicted similarly across all Buddhist cultures.  His eyes are closed, his lips are shut, and his head is propped up by his right hand as it rests on a cushion. At Gal Vihara, the reclining Buddha’s mouth is curved upwards in a slight smile. There is a definite feeling of optimism which bursts out of the granite along with something else — effervescence.

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.

Wheel

26 Jul

Although he could stand on his own and had decided he would share what he had learned and understood, the Buddha was not quite ready to leave the site of his awakening.  He spent 7 weeks lingering. During that time he meditated and thought through his teachings.  He circumambulated the tree — placing himself in different areas where he could face the seat from which it had all happened. During his fifth week, a Brahman — a member of high caste society — saw the Buddha sitting in contemplation. Something about the look of calm and peace upon the Buddha’s face struck the Brahman.  The Brahman stepped close to the Buddha and asked him, “What caste are you?”  The Buddha opened his eyes. This was the first person he had interacted with since that woman who mistook him for a forest spirit those many months ago. “I come from no caste and it matters not as to who I am,” the Buddha replied. The Brahman was stunned.  This was a land where one’s identity was defined by the caste within which one was born. So, your fate in this life was set in stone from the second you entered. If you were born a Brahman as he was, then the fates had smiled upon you because your life had the highest worth and you received entitlements due to such worth.  “Surely you jest! You cannot think that the Dalits or untouchables are of the same worth as the Brahmans?” “One does not become a Brahman by birth. It is only by one’s deeds that one is a Brahman.”  The Buddha saw the look of shock on the Brahman’s face and knew he had to sketch a more vivid picture of what he meant. “If one wishes to make a fire, then one will use any dry piece of wood to do so. So, just as fire can come from any type of wood, a noble or wise person can rise from any caste. Only through knowing the truth does one become wise and that does not happen at birth. For at birth, there are only attachments to be clung to that obscure the truth. But, when one frees himself from these attachments and realizes the truth behind why things are the way they are, then one becomes wise. Then one becomes what you call a Brahman. But, what I would call being Awakened.”  The Brahman wobbled in awe. He had never heard such words nor had such words ever been uttered.  The Buddha had just given his first teaching! Though neither he nor the Brahman would have ever planned on their meeting resulting in a sermon. It had just happened. The Brahman could only thank the Buddha for his words and then he shuffled off still pondering the message that had been shared with him. As the Buddha watched the Brahman walk away, he realized that he would have to present his teachings through a framework that would be transparent and easy to understand. He knew he could explain the first step towards arriving to the supreme understanding he had attained. This was the Middle Path and it more or less was a general guide to living day-to-day that people would understand. But once one had committed to this Middle Path, then one would have to proceed through acceptance of certain fundamental truths of man’s existence. The Buddha could boil these down to 4 truths although the last truth itself had various spokes of guidance that he would need to further breakdown for ease of transferring such knowledge. But, he would explain the 4 core truths of his teaching  to his 5 companions through use of imagery they could grasp. He set out to find them and the journey took the Buddha across the bends of the holy Ganges a few different times until he came to ancient city of Benares.  Benares was dusty, chaotic, and filled with ghats or platformed steps that led down to the banks of the river below. Each ghat had its own distinct purpose and personality based on what ceremony or practice it was connected to.  There were no parks or spaces of solitude in Benares, but he was told of a small park known for its pockets of deer that lay just a few miles to the north of the city – away from the river.  The Buddha headed to this deer park and as he entered, there he saw his 5 companions — all grossly emaciated with looks of anguish on their faces as they still practiced extreme self-denial in their desire to find their own answers.  His companions slowly started to recognize the Buddha when they noticed his shape walking towards them. They began to snicker amongst themselves.  There could be no way they would welcome him back within their ranks. Yet, as the Buddha got closer and closer, they began to sense something different about the prince they had previously known. There was an undeniable glow and aura of wisdom surrounding him. He walked without effort and within a few seconds he had glided before them. They instinctively sat around him and offered him the few grains of rice they had stashed away for themselves. The Buddha did not want to eat, he only asked if they were ready to learn what he had discovered.  Any doubt the companions had about the Buddha evaporated in that moment. They could see the profound change that had come over him and they wanted to accept his teaching.  With his companions gathered around him, the Buddha began. The wheel of truth had started its first rotation.

Mahabodhi

24 Jul

The scene appears simple enough. One man alone sitting under a tree.  Yet, the serenity of this moment was the equivalent of a spiritual earthquake in the history of mankind. There was a Great Awakening and the tree itself was transformed so much so that it became the parent of its own lineage of Sacred Banyan Fig trees and bore its own taxonomy — ficus religiosa.  There could be no other Bodhi trees elsewhere in the world if such trees could not be traced to the single tree that Siddhartha had sat under. So, what happened to Siddhartha himself? After the defeat of Mara, Siddhartha was no more. He had ceased. Instead, he was a transient being who neared the light. His understanding swelled and as he felt the final remnants of his mental struggles and doubts disintegrate, he passed through the light and he could see the world now from the light’s vantage point.  He understood the world as it truly was and realized the cause of suffering and how to remove it.  There were specific truths that were revealed to him and these truths formed the foundation of the steps one had to follow in order to eliminate suffering.  These truths were the answers to his quest. How simple they were!  They were right before him all along, but he could not see them because of the chains of ignorance and attachment that kept him in the dark. As he embraced this supreme knowledge, the light seeped through all his pores and consumed his body.  He had meditated under the tree for 49 days.  But, he did not thirst or hunger. His senses were not dulled. He was satiated and ebullient. When he at last opened his eyes, it was as if he was a newborn looking upon the world for the first time. There were no longer any flickering shadows or other earthly distractions. Feelings of pride, greed, covetousness, or worry that plague all people were unknown notions belonging to the someone he used to be.  He was free of these, but not completely.  He believed in the middle way and that included grappling with doubt from time to time. Was it his duty to teach?  Look how his companions had so easily turned their backs on him. Would he find anyone receptive to what he had discovered? Was the world ready? He was not convinced of this right away. He debated with himself and in so doing realized that was why he had to teach. There had to be exchange and discourse.  For what was the point of attaining Enlightenment if he was not willing to then demonstrate the perfections of what he had learned?  He thought of his 5 companions. They would need to see him and he would let them prod their doubting fingers into what he had to say. Only then would they understand how he had Awakened. Only then would they know him as the Buddha.

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