Tag Archives: Hindu

Mystery and Man at Bagan

22 Oct
Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan.

Dhammaget Temple (left)

Dhammayangyi Temple (left) – Built in 12th Century

DSCN2366Like a mantra those words cycled in my brain during my 2-hour flight on Air Bagan from Yangon.  When the small plane took off and went above the monsoon blanket above the city and into crystal blue sky, excitement slapped me in the face. Despite the awesomeness of the Schwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Bagan was going to be the highlight of my trip to Burma. There are places you remember — so massive in impact and experience — that they elude the grasp of words. I spent 3 days pedaling around on a bicycle and basically had the whole archaeological park to myself. That’s not an exaggeration. At the risk of minimizing this spellbinding and enchanting place, let me first provide a few facts about the old Kingdom of Bagan (formerly, Pagan). It was the first true “capital” city of Burma and is located smack in the center of the country. Its central geography and layout alongside the Irrawaddy River allowed for easy access and trade within the country as well as with foreign peoples. From the Gulf of Mottama in the south, Sinhalese sailors were able to steer their boats up the Irrawaddy to Bagan where they stopped  for trade, supplies, and rest. They also brought with them their Theravada faith which spread like wildfire amongst Bagan’s Mon inhabitants. From the west and north, Indian and Chinese merchants came to Bagan and brought with them the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist schools along with Hindu and Vedic traditions.

Bagan Skyline

Bagan rooftops

Between the 9th and 13th centuries,  Bagan ultimately became the center of Buddhism in the world. Its plains swelled to over 10000 temples and pagodas at its zenith. There were over 3000 monasteries and all Buddhist traditions were represented and studied there alongside traditional Mon religious and folk teachings. No question though that Theravada Buddhism left the most enduring legacy here. Each King who came to rule Bagan during its 500 year reign sponsored the construction of his own set of temples and pagodas.  These temples all rose into the sky with pinprick accuracy in dimension and purpose and featured elaborately designed corridors, stairways, altars, and chambers.  During my drive from the airport, I was whisked through “new” Bagan which was a blur of grey cement buildings and dusty roads where Burmese citizens today live. I then passed through a tree-lined road that led to “old” Bagan — the archaeological park. I was lucky enough to be staying in a bungalow in old Bagan so I would have access to the park as soon as I left the hotel compound. It was 3 days of exploration absorbed through flared nostrils, chapped lips, and bleary eyes. It felt like a safari.  I would get up early, do a bike ride to a different area of the park, walk and climb into and atop temple after temple, and then head back to my hotel at sundown. There were large black scorpions squashed on pathways and huge colonies of bats in some temples. Some gates to temples were locked and others had dark tunnels and passageways that could only be passed through with a flashlight. But, these gave way to secretive frescoes, mosaics, and the most amazing statues of the Buddha “in situ”. That was the best part.

DSCN2241 DSCN2393Within most of the temples in Bagan are multiple statues of the Buddha — each unique in their image and effect and some powerfully set off with electric lights within the dark chambers where they stand or sit. Each face conveys a specific feeling. Somehow these statues had not been stolen away by imperialist or marauding powers and ended up in a faraway museum. They were still here — sitting or standing in the exact spots where they had first been placed. Some may have been falling apart — alabaster coverings gone, paint chipped away, pieces lopped off by earthquake or pillage — but most were largely intact.

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Elephant fresco - Sulamani Temple

Elephant fresco – Sulamani Temple (12th century)

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Only an incredibly devout people could have so carefully chiseled, molded, and gilded these Buddha statues through each passing century of Bagan’s heyday. But, then in the late 13th century, the Mongols swept down into Burma from China and the inhabitants of Bagan had to desert the city and no further temples or pagodas were built there afterwards. Over 2000 temples and pagodas have survived to the present day.

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The Golden Sikhara of Ananda Temple in background

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Bupaya (originally built in 9th century) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

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Shwezigon Pagoda (11th century)

The lust to see every major temple and pagoda in the park drove me to push myself beyond exhaustion and common sense. I ran out of water at one point and was way out in the north-west reaches of the park where there was absolutely nothing but parched brush-land and remnants of brick structures.  There was no shade in order to ward off the pounding of the sun. There was no trail or path for my bike to take and I had no choice but to walk and carry my bike on my shoulders in some places.  To make matters worse, my bike’s rear tire was flat.  In the distance I saw what appeared to be a modern building — like some kind of watchtower. I thought it was a mirage because there was nothing else around it and it seemed ridiculously out-of-place. As I walked up to it, I looked up in bewilderment. It was indeed a watchtower — complete with an elevator that took you to the top in order to survey the plains of Bagan stretching out below.  I went inside and found a restaurant on the first floor, but there was not a soul there. I paced back and forth and made some noise until one person finally came out to greet me. I bought 3 bottles of water and hydrated myself. This person did not speak English, but I could tell he was amused by the sight of me chugging down the water in breathless gulps. I made it back to my hotel that night with my legs and back annihilated. Yet, I got up the next day and repeated the experience — this time to the far southern area of the park.  I dug deep into every corner of Bagan that I possibly could — spelunking through temple caves, inhaling the musty odors of untouched corridors, and sitting in chamber rooms in quiet contemplation. But, it was not enough.  You cannot condense a 500 year epoch into 3 days on a bike.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The highlights of my wanderings through the temples and pagodas of Bagan were: Bupaya (the oldest /and smallest pagoda first built in the 9th century – it sits right above the Irrawaddy River and was likely the first consecrated Buddhist site in Bagan);  the Shwezigon Pagoda (which is thought to have served as the template for the design of most other pagodas in Burma);  Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan — almost Mayan in design and aura); Dhammayazika Pagoda (a compact, faded golden pagoda); Ananda Temple (likely the most glorious temple in Bagan with 4 incredible standing Buddhas inside 4 separate chamber rooms); Thatbyinnyu Temple (tallest structure in Bagan); Sulamani Temple (magical frescoes); and Shwesandaw Pagoda (thought to contain a hair relic of the Buddha).

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple (12th century)

On the afternoon of the second day, as I was pedaling around and a bit lost, I saw a familiar pyramid-like spire in the distance. When I arrived at the structure, I was surprised to see a very accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple found in Bodh Gaya, India. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya was built in the 5th or 6th centuries and was constructed at the site of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most important temple in Buddhism. (See “Pilgrimage – Part I” http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f). King Htilominlo of Bagan had commissioned the construction of a temple based on the designs and specifications of the Mahabodhi Temple. It was finished in 1218 AD. It was a revelation for me to see that here in Bagan which is many thousands of miles away from Bodh Gaya, the King and his people were able to construct such an accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple — about 700 years after the Mahabodhi Temple itself had been built! They did not have the benefit of photographs or the ability to share information and images like we do today with such ease. The King had to have received handwritten sketches and designs of the Mahabodhi Temple which were most likely carried overland from India to Bagan. And then — one hard to actually build the temple based on those sketches and designs.

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Although the Mahabodhi Temple of Bagan is smaller in size and doesn’t dominate the skyline like the original Mahabodhi, it contains the same intricate square patterns of Buddha engravings that run up the length of each side of the main temple structure in the same way as in the Mahabodhi. I was blown away by the way these people had exchanged ideas in such a progressive manner.

Thatbinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple (12th century)

On my last day, I climbed to the top rung of the Shwesandaw Pagoda with wobbly legs, found a flat stone, and sat down waiting for the sunset.  A light wind whistled through the plains and swirled around the pagoda. I looked out toward the north of Bagan and tried to envision how each of the temples that dotted the landscape before me had been built. For 500 years, this place had been the center of the center — a bustling crossroads between India and the Far East. Teeming with monks, buzzing with scholarly debate, and filled with streams of students from all the great Buddhist traditions of the time. Ruled over by Kings and served by a unified populace who must have reached deep with themselves and found the belief that caused them to literally move mountains in order to create temple after temple on these plains.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda (11th century)

Then, it all stopped. The monks and people vanished. The Kings moved south to rule. All that was left were the temples. I slowly scanned the scene before me starting from my far left and moving to my right. I noticed an almost supernatural symmetry in how the temples and pagodas before me were spaced between one another and within the framework of the mountains that bordered these plains.  We often look back at our ancestors of long ago with wonder — but it is sometimes the wonder of disbelief tinged with the presumption of our own superiority.  When we dismiss the accomplishments of our ancestors with questions or statements of “how could they do that” with their “primitive tools” and “lack of technical knowledge or science”, we ultimately shortchange ourselves.  Mankind has always wanted to fundamentally understand the following: Why Are We Here?  What Came Before? and What Comes After?  The quest for answers to these 3 questions has driven us to continue to strive further into the physical and metaphysical — into ourselves, the environment, and space. Yet, despite the modern age and its global connectivity which allows for the passing of knowledge across thousands of miles with a double-click, we are perhaps ultimately no closer today to answering these 3 questions than those Buddhists who had meditated on them through 5 centuries at Bagan. These were centuries similar to mankind’s more recent achievements in the industrial age, and likewise, witnessed the incredible exchange of ideas and concepts between different cultures and culminated in the construction of skyscraping monuments. I gripped the stone beneath me hard.  I wanted the mineral deposits from the stones seeped into my skin and underneath my fingernails. Human hands had built this place. Hands that belonged to a powerful and determined people — moved by something profound.  I wanted to be moved by that as well.

Wilderness

22 Jul

Siddhartha was lost in the forest. He had made a break from all trappings of his former life and had nothing more than his conviction. He needed to learn to quiet his mind and realized he needed a teacher. He had heard of 2 Hindu masters and so he searched for them.  When he found them he explained his quest and how he could not keep his mind from darting from idea to doubt and back again.  The masters agreed to take on Siddhartha as their student and he studied all night and day with them. Weeks rolled by and then months. They taught him how to focus on his breath and to breathe in the world around him in the correct way. They showed him how to tame his body with his mind and to balance.  They explained that Siddhartha would never get on the true road that would lead towards the answers he wanted until he could still the world first and become one with it so that there was no external or internal but only one breath that rose and fell in unison.  Siddhartha mastered the art of meditation and his teachers were very pleased with him. Yet, within the deepest beatitudes of his meditative journeys, he still had not come any closer to discovering the way to end suffering.  His restlessness was noticed by his 2 masters and they told Siddhartha that perhaps he should go to another forest. This forest was much further south and in the heart of a thriving kingdom at that time. In that forest, there were others like Siddhartha living simply and freed of the shackles of attachments. So, Siddhartha began another long walk and headed toward Magadha.  He crossed parched plains and his feet were cracked and deep red like the clay he walked on day after day.  When at last he reached the forest, he saw that it was different from where he had just come from. This new forest was not densely stacked, but instead sprinkled with umbrella branched trees scattered across hills and gulleys with lakes and ponds in between.  Siddhartha felt an immediate connection to the area as if this was where he had been born. But, of course he was now far from Lumbini. He had entered a new land with its own King. This King had seen Siddhartha as he had entered into the kingdom and was intrigued by his presence. There was an air of determination about Siddhartha that captivated the King and so the King had summoned Siddhartha before him. When the King learned that Siddhartha himself had once been a prince, the King could barely contain his excitement. He knew there had to be reason why Siddhartha had so roused him. The King asked Siddhartha to stay in his palace and to help him rule. Siddhartha smiled and said he was after something else and that he only asked for the King’s consent to let him go into the forest of Magadha.  The King agreed but asked Siddhartha that should he ever find the answers to what he was looking for that he would return and teach it to him.  Siddhartha saw many different individuals in the forest. There were Brahmins, yoginis, sadhvis, and others.  But, Siddhartha was drawn to 5 individuals in particular who reminded him of that wandering man he had encountered. All 5 were ascetics and practiced the most extreme type of self-denial.  They only drank a spoonful of water after their mouths had completely dried and they thirsted like a man near death. They only allowed themselves individual grains of uncooked rice when they hungered. They slept on the forest floor with no matting and spent nearly all their time in meditation or in debate over how close each was to overcoming suffering in this world.  They each believed that through concentrated willpower they could conquer the sufferings normal people had to endure and achieve some kind of sublime peace of mind.  But, they did not how to articulate this in a way that they themselves could understand and they were also competitive with one another. They pushed the limits of their physical austerities.  When Siddhartha joined them they were leery at first. He seemed to be like any other interloper who was looking for some quick path to actualizing some limitation within him.  Yet, when they saw his seriousness and his highly skilled meditation practices, they grew to respect him and accepted Siddhartha within their ranks.  The 5 then became 6.  Day after day, they drove each other further and further as they took on more and more exposure to the elements around them. They accepted pain, hunger, the heat of the midday sun, the pounding rains of the monsoon, and the wild animals around them.  6 years went by like this and Siddhartha had become nothing more than an exposed rib cage with hollowed out eyes and drooping earlobes.  He had gotten no closer.  Doubt began to cloud his concentration and he was not able to maintain his meditation. He was just like that sick man he had first seen. He had become frail and weak and it was not just his body but his mind too. How could he get to the answers he sought when he barely had energy to draw in a breath?  As he lost his focus and came out of his meditation, his ears caught some faint echoes of music. He tapped into whatever reserves he had left in order to attune to the source of these sounds and heard strings being plucked and strummed. A musician must have been passing through the forest.  The music was so harmonious. He knew that to have such melodies come out of one instrument that instrument had to be in balance. The strings could not be too tight otherwise the notes would be sharp. If they were too loose, they would be flat. There had to be a tempered slackness to the strings so they could be struck and blend together. A compromise had to be attained between the sharp and flat.  He slowly came out of his repose and steadied himself with a stick as he found his legs. He was nothing more than a skeleton  and he was covered in dirt and rot. He went towards a river and began to wash himself. There, a woman appeared who planned on making an offering to the forest spirits who had blessed her with a child. When she saw Siddhartha, she thought he was one of those spirits and presented him with the milk rice dish she had prepared. Siddhartha nodded and accepted the bowl from the woman. What he did not know was that his 5 ascetic companions had been watching him. They had seen him break his meditation and followed his meander to the river. They were disgusted by the sight of Siddhartha accepting the food and eating it. This act had confirmed their initial doubts about him. The prince inside Siddhartha had won out and Siddhartha was not true to the spiritual quest like they were. They turned away from him and left the forest. They went out in search of a new wilderness in order to continue to their practice free from the abomination they had just observed. Siddhartha was enjoying his meal so much that he did not notice his companions leave. Siddhartha felt his body become alive again, and soon he felt that familiar stirring and it sharpened his mind.  He thanked the woman and told her he was not a spirit but only a man. A man searching for a path that would lead to the end of all suffering. Thanks to her, he had the strength now to get on that path. And for the first time he himself had a clear picture of what this was. A middle path.

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