Tag Archives: Mahayana

The Cosmic Mandala

29 Jul
Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) - Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) – Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

From KL, I took a MH flight to Jakarta. Upon arriving, I first found an ATM, withdrew some rupiah (Indonesian currency), and bought a snack in order to get some small denominations. I then walked out of Soekarno–Hatta International Airport to a bus stop located close to the main terminal. When the first bus pulled up, I hopped on and luckily had the right amount of small rupiah notes to pay the fare without causing a scene. But, I did not know if I was on the correct bus or not. Since it was a local bus, its destination sign was written in Bahasa and I had no idea what it said. I just had a hunch that this bus had to go somewhere near the city center because I saw others with their luggage also get on and they looked like they lived in the city. With my face pressed on the window, I could see the shadows of tall buildings emerge in the smoggy distance, so I let out a sigh of relief knowing that the bus was headed in the right direction. As we entered the city limits, it took at least 45 minutes for the bus to navigate the tangle of traffic and multiple lane changes in order to get near to Merdeka Square (which is easy to identify from afar because of the tall pillar that shoots out of it).

National Monument at Merdeka Square - Jakarta

National Monument at Merdeka Square – Jakarta

I got off at the Square which was within walking distance of Jalan Jaksa road — a hub of cheap budget hotels and eateries. JJ is nowhere near as raucous or fun as Bangkok’s Khaosan Rd, but it has that same kind of feel about it. I hadn’t booked a room, so my plan was to stroll along Jalan Jaksa and see what was available. I was only staying in Jakarta for 2 days and was not too concerned about the quality of my accommodations. The heat and dense air during my walk to JJ with my backpack soon had me encased in a net of my own sweat. I took a wrong turn or 2 and didn’t find Jalan Jaksa until I wasted nearly an hour. When I saw the first hotel, I made a beeline for it and asked for a room. The hotel had no occupancy. Not a problem. I saw 3 or 4 other hostels/guest houses in the area, so I went on to the next one — and the next one — and so on — ALL were completely booked.  I was exhausted and sat down on a bench in a leafy area that blocked the sun. For a moment I thought about heading back to the main road, hailing a taxi, and going toward the new area of Jakarta where the big luxe hotels were found. But, my stubbornness got the better of me and I was determined to find a place in Jalan Jaksa. Then — in a first for me — I actually closed my eyes and nodded off for a bit. When I woke up, I remember the sun was setting and with a renewed vigor I covered nearly every inch of the JJ area until I found the best of all possible flophouses. It was like a cement hole with a bed and no hot water — that pretty much sums it up — but I greedily took it. Jakarta is a fast-paced city of industry and is in the process of reinventing itself from regional to global economic powerhouse. One area that I had a chance to explore and which thankfully has avoided the relentlessness of modernity is the northern area of the city known as Kota (formerly called Batavia). Kota contains the remnants of a time when Java was the jewel of the Dutch East Indies. The old city plan for Batavia is still evidenced in the form of cobblestone and canals that the Dutch engineered — unfortunately, these canals also ultimately led to the abandonment of this area of the city because the stagnant water in the canals was like manna from heaven for mosquito breeding and this led to an epidemic of malaria that killed thousands of people.

Fishing Boats of Sunlap Harbor - Jakara

Schooners of Sunda Kelapa port – Jakarta

As I walked around the canals and learned about the malaria that wreaked so much havoc, my mind connected that calamity with the December 2004 tsunami which had taken place 4 1/2 years before my trip to Indonesia. The 2004 tsunami was triggered by a 9.2 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that destroyed Banda Aceh on Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. In addition to that devastation, Indonesia had faced countless other earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the ensuing years — the most serious of which had occurred in 2006 when Mt. Merapi blew its top and spread fire and ash all near Yogykarta which was where I was headed next. My main reason in coming to Indonesia was to visit the magnificent Buddhist structure of Borobudur and the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan. Both of these sites were clustered in Central Java and only a day trip away from Yogykarta.

Sultan's

Sultan’s “Water Castle” (18th Century) – Yogyakarta

I left Jakarta via train from Gambir station and 8 hours later, I reached Yogykarta’s Tugu station. The 8 hours was long and the coach I was in was ice-cold (with songs from the American band, Chicago, playing on some kind of constant loop), but the journey was otherwise quiet and without any of the surprises, delays, or other unforeseen episodes that I have experienced with trains elsewhere in Asia. Immediately upon my exit from the train station, I felt at ease in Yogya. There was none of the worry of taking wrong turns or passing out on a bench like in Jakarta. Yogya was designed as a walled city within which there was a main palace area  — called the kraton — where the sultan lived. This palace complex is the heart of Yogya and is where the current sultan still resides. While it is Indonesia’s second largest city, Yogya has a laid back vibe — most men wear traditional batik button-up shirts, there is a large bird market, many arts & crafts stores, and lots of quiet neighborhoods. To the south of the kraton is an old square where 2 massive Banyan trees are located. There is a tradition that has been passed down through generations where a person is blindfolded, spun around, and then attempts to walk to the center of the 2 trees. If the person is able to do the walk, stops and takes the blindfold off, and finds herself standing in the middle of 2 trees, the person will receive a blessing of good fortune and health. I was able to sit off to the side of the square and watch people actually trying to do the blindfold walk — they all ended up way off course and when they took off the blindfold, they could only laugh at how far off base they were!  That scene captured the soul of Yogya for me.

Approach to Borobudur - Central Java, Indonesia

Approach to Borobudur – Central Java, Indonesia

On my second day in Yogya, I bought a ticket with a tour outfit that did a combined day trip to Borobudur and Prambanam. Borobudur is located about 40km northwest of Yogykarta, and from Borobudur to Prambanam is about 53km which goes back towards and east of Yogya. So, the day was going to be packed in tight, but I was glad that I would begin at Borobudur where most of our time would be spent before doubling back to Prambanam (along with a stop at a Mt. Merapi overlook). These 2 incredible monuments were built within 80 years of one another starting with Borobudur’s construction taking place in the 8th century AD. It is almost unheard of in the history of mankind to have 2 different religious kingdoms grow peaceably alongside one another for about 5 centuries, but that’s what took place with the Buddhist (Sailendra) and Hindu (Sanjaya) dynasties who founded them. The religious kingdoms of these sites and the power of their respective kingdoms ultimately declined when Islam took hold as the dominant religion in Java in the 13th century and spread throughout Indonesia (although Bali still maintains its own unique Hindu-Balinese blended religious practice). Today, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world.

The world's largest Mandala

Borobudur – the world’s largest Mandala

An electrical charge coursed through me as the blackish stone pyramid of Borobudur began to peek through the lush green trees surrounding it. Unlike other ancient Buddhist sites such as Anuradhapura, Bagan, and Angkor, which were all either large centers for Buddhist learning consisting of several temples, shrines, and monasteries, or in the case of Angkor — a capital of a large Hindu-Buddhist empire — Borobudur is a standalone structure. It is solitary — yet undoubtedly interactive because one must enter it in order to experience its planes of escalating consciousness. While there is not much by way of historical record of the intent and precise meaning of Borobudur, it is generally agreed that it was built as a kind of “walk-through” Mandala in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that depicts the Buddhist cosmos — peaking at a summit representing enlightenment.

Escalating planes of consciousness

Planes of escalating consciousness

The name “Borobudur” is possibly derived from an old Sanskrit phrase for “monastery on a hill”. Its first stone was likely laid down around 750 AD and its last was set 100 years later. It was abandoned by the 14th century and then disappeared under a layer of volcanic ash until 1815 when it was rediscovered. Borobudur is massive and densely packed with stone reliefs, carvings, statues of the Buddha in various mudras, and latticed stupas (within which are Buddhas).  From a ground view it is difficult to comprehend its perfectly designed geometry and form because of all the visually dizzying elements that pop up in front of you. But, from the sky, its Mandala design is clear. This design is virtually the same as those I’ve seen in Tibetan frescoes, but just happens to be 3-dimensional. There are 6 square terraces that lay on top of one another — the largest begins at the floor level and from there each terrace diminishes proportionally in its dimension as it ascends to the top. After the 6th square terrace, there are 3 circular terraces which mirrors the traditional Mandala design practice of fixing a circular design within a square perimeter (“Mandala” itself is the Sanskrit word for circle).

Gateway of southern staircase

Gateway of southern staircase with central stupa on the top of Borobudur

The entire structure is accessible through 4 main stairways that lead up from the base platform to the top. But, the purpose is not just to walk up one of these stairways all the way to the top. One has to complete the circuit of each terrace and then walk up on the stairs to the next terrace until one reaches the top. So, this takes some physical exertion, however, the purpose of this exercise is to allow for ample time to contemplate the life of the Buddha with the aid of the intricate storyboards carved into the sides each terrace. These carvings depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as, vivid epic snapshots from the history of the people who built Borobudur. As I walked through the narrow corridors of each terrace and eyed all these visuals — it felt like being inside one of those old penny arcade-type machines where thousands of images flip by so fast that the images appear to move (and initially these carvings and images of Borobudur were painted and contained color).

Detail of terrace carving

Detail of terrace carving

When I finally I walked up the last set of stairs to the top terrace, the corridors fell away, and instead, I was surrounded by several bell-shaped stupas with diamond-shaped openings. Within these stupas, there are seated Buddhas and some tourists were sticking their hands inside the openings in the attempt to the touch them. In the middle of the platform was 1 central stupa that had no openings and stood above all the rest. This stupa is “empty” in that unlike other true stupas that were erected in the ancient Buddhist world, there is no relic of the Buddha enshrined within in it. At one time, this stupa had a pillar on top of it, but that pillar was most likely destroyed in an earthquake long ago. Other stupas that dot the top terrace had either been damaged or crumbled so that the Buddhas inside them popped up like gophers from a hole. From the top terrace, I could see the surrounding jungle, and like many riddles of the ancient world, the idea of how all the rock for this monument was quarried from the distant mountains and brought to this location baffled me. But, as I’ve understood from visits to other sacred places in Asia — one should not let the arrogance of the modern age cast generations from a millennia ago as primitives with only simple minds and crude tools. These people had hearts (and hands) driven by an almost otherworldly faith that literally could move mountains.

Stupas & Buddha scattered on top of Borobudur

Stupas & Buddhas scattered atop Borobudur

The other interesting aspect of Borobudur is that it represents the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in a region that has been (and still is) deeply rooted in Theravada.  It was the Sinhalese merchants from Sri Lanka who brought their Theravada Buddhist practice with them as they made contact with the people of Southeast Asia. The Mahayana school made its way out of the landlocked mountain passes of India, Nepal, and what is today northeast Pakistan, and from there continued to spread overland into Central Asia, China, and Tibet. But, somehow in the middle of Java, Borobudur had sprouted as a Mahayana-based Mandala (with some possible Tantric overtones as some scholars believe).IMG_0490.JPG There are still questions as to what group of people injected Mahayana Buddhism into Java. These people may have originally come from the Malay peninsula or were seafaring merchants from elsewhere who brought the Mahayana tradition with them. The only other structure that I have ever seen that can also be considered a 3-dimensional, walk-through Mandala is Gyantse Khumbum in Tibet [see post: “Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa” at https://wordpress.com/post/38471034/800/]. But, while Gyantse Khumbum is itself an incredible structure — brightly painted with 100s of individual shrine rooms with statues and frescoes located on all its terraces — it was built as a component of a large monastery complex. Furthermore, the founding and construction of Gyantse Khumbum is chronicled and supported by the historical records of Tibetan monks. Borobudur sits all by itself — there are 2 smaller Buddhist structures located nearby — but there is no physical evidence of a larger complex within which Borobudur may have sat.  On the other hand, the Hindu complex of Prambanam which was built soon after Borobudur has many distinct temples and areas where people may have lived and worshipped — most of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of interaction between the Sanjaya Hindu dynasty of Prambanam and the Sailendra Buddhist dynasty of Borobudur, yet nothing else of the Sailendra dynasty physically remains other than Borobudur.

The end of the Buddhist road?

The end of the Buddhist road?

As I finished my survey from the top of Borobudur and began to walk down, I realized that I had reached the southernmost point of the ancient Buddhist world. Beyond Indonesia — the South Pacific & Micronesia. Below — Australia. For a moment I thought – where now?  If only I could put on a blindfold and walk out of Borobudur towards the jungle without worrying about where I would end up. But, I didn’t like the idea of fumbling off course. There was a method to these wanderings of mine, and I had to get back to where I had first found that wonder.

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Massage Road

29 Jul
Border crossing from Aryanthrapet, Thailand to Poitpet, Cambodia (2006)

Border crossing from Aranyaprathet, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia (2006)

A sense of unease marked my approach to Cambodia. My pre-trip research had revealed that while crossing into the Cambodian border town of Poipet from the Thai entry point of Aranyaprathet was no sweat, the trick would be getting from Poipet to Siem Reap – gateway to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. There were only 3 choices for available transport: (1) hitching a ride on a pickup truck; (2) hailing a taxi-like Toyota Camry, or (3) finding a bus. But, there were no reliable timetables for any of these options, so I had no idea what I would find once I got to Poipet. My preference was to go with #2 — the Toyota taxi. This option would cost more, but at least I would have some control over where it was going. The contrast between exiting Thailand and entering Cambodia was immediate. Thailand has an efficient infrastructure of roads and rail with a wide network of public transport running on fixed timetables. Cambodia was horribly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge for decades and is still trying to piece itself together. As I crossed over the border and entered Poipet, paved roads vanished and were subsumed by clay and rubble. I was told Poipet had a certain rhyme-like quality to it that brought to mind “toilet” and within a few strides into this desperate and grimy border town that was evident. But, I didn’t get much time to absorb the delights of Poipet because the skies quickly darkened and I was soon pelted by a hard beating rain. The clay under my feet transformed into a churning sludge and I ran fast to the first place I saw in the distance which had a roof. While waiting for the rain to stop, I met some other backpackers who were also headed to Siem Reap. They told me that they had a guide who had arranged for a bus to pick them up at 1pm. I was skeptical, but because I saw no sign of any other transportation and I thought the rain may have scared off other drivers, I decided to hang with them. I walked with the group over to a bus depot, and to my surprise, a vehicle entered and parked alongside us within a few minutes. However, it wasn’t a bus — mini-mini bus is more apt. How we fit 20 backpackers and 2 guides into that bus still boggles my mind (although years later I would be crammed into another mini-mini bus with 16 others for a 12hr journey in Laos that rivaled the drive to Siem Reap; to be described in an upcoming post).

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex - Angkor, Cambodia

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex – Angkor, Cambodia

It was 2006 when I travelled to Siem Reap and at that time the “road” from Poipet to Siem Reap consisted only of packed red clay with some iron panels laid flat in certain areas. Maybe the road has since been paved, but I experienced it at a time when it was called by locals as the “massage road” — a euphemism for the deep tissue pounding wrought on any individual who had the privilege to drive over it.  The numbing effects of the massage road took on further visceral meaning for me since I was lucky enough to be sitting on this mini-mini bus, which was packed to the gills with people, bags, and basically dragged its chassis on the ground during the entire time. I had studied a map and estimated that the journey would, at most, take 4 hours. Siem Reap was only around 165km away from Poipet.  But, the guides on the mini-mini bus had other ideas. The bus maintained a top speed of 30km/hr, which I could understand was necessary in spots where the road was filled with holes, trenches, or boulders, but the fact that we kept getting passed time and time again by other trucks and cars made me skeptical of what was really going on. We also stopped twice — once for a food & bathroom break — the second was by force when the bus suddenly veered off the road and pulled into a small village. The guides told us that the bus had a flat tire and so we had to get off the bus and wait until it was fixed. Everyone filed off the bus and I looked on incredulously as the bus then drove away with everyone’s bags still on board! The other backpackers were shaking their heads in disbelief and were all questioning the mysterious flat tire. It had been around 5 hours of torture so far. After about an hour of waiting around, the bus returned and the guides happily explained the tire had been fixed. The remaining hours of the trip unfurled in uncomfortable silence broken only by the occasional “ooouch” and “aaargh” of moaning coming from passengers who hit their heads on the roof of the bus or crushed one another when the bus hit another rock or went over hole. Nightfall had also cast us in an eerie blackness and there were no lights whatsoever along the way. So, a nervousness and fear of accident filled the bus. I was miserably cramped in my seat, stinking in my own sweat (no a/c on the bus), and had no feeling in my legs since my backpack rested on my knees and had cut off circulation. I had images dart in and out of my feverish mind: I saw myself skimming along the road on one of those Toyota Camry taxis, settling into my room Siem Reap, taking a shower, having a cold glass of water… My headed bobbed every now and then as fatigue forced me to shut my eyes, but then I would be violently jerked to a full state of alertness when the bus inevitably lurched in some direction.

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

After one particularly nasty jerk of the bus, my eyelids flew open and I saw a faint glow in the distance. These had to be coming from Siem Reap!! I would soon be getting off this bus! We got closer and closer, and then, inexplicably, we continued past the town and sank back into darkness. Some of the people in the front of the bus loudly asked the guides where we were going. One of the guides said that the bus was taking us to the station which was outside of town. But, when the bus finally stopped it was clear what had happened. The guides had hijacked us to some out-of-the way guesthouse. They dropped us off there and in a humdrum manner declared that this guesthouse had the best rates. They obviously would get a cut of all the room bookings from the owner of the guesthouse. I told them that I had reserved a room back in town, but they insisted my guesthouse was closed. At this point, my patience with the guides had run out and I just turned my back on them and walked away. Luckily, I found a tuk-tuk driver sitting outside the guesthouse. Two Japanese backpackers who had been on the bus with me walked over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had a place to stay in Siem Reap and was going there. They told me they also were staying in Siem Reap and asked whether they could ride into town with me. So, we struck an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to take the 3 of us to our respective lodgings in Siem Reap. When I arrived at my guesthouse (actually called Mom’s Guest House), the proprietor, Mrs. Kong, who was expecting me came out to greet me. The room I was staying in was $5 a night, but it was the best $5 I had ever spent by far in my life. It was 10pm, I had been on that bus for over 8 hours and was wiped out. My neck and shoulders were twisted up in knots and I was sore everywhere else. I had 3 days to immerse myself in Angkor, so I tried not to dwell on my maddening massage road ordeal. I thought only of the next day and the sights awaiting me.

Dancing Apsaras - Angkor

Dancing Apsaras

In the morning, I took a bike from Mrs. Kong and rode through the center of Siem Reap before I found my way to the entrance of Angkor — the last stretch of which passes by huge luxury hotels like Raffles and Le Meridien before the archaeological area begins. I purchased a 3-day pass (which requires a passport-sized photo for non-Cambodians) and spent the morning to dusk of each day exploring as much of the Khmer capital as I could. As described in a previous post (See “At The Dawn of Happiness” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Du), Angkor was founded as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century and was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which was originally meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. Buddhism was not adopted as the dominant religion of the Khmer Empire until King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the late 12th century. He ruled for 30 years (from 1181 to 1218AD) and is considered by most historians as the greatest Khmer King. He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism and one of his most important acts was to rededicate Angkor Wat as a Buddhist temple. He also actively expanded the city centre of the capital and constructed several new temples. Some of his most well-known additions to Angkor include Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon (Jayavarman’s face is built into the sides of many portions of this pyramid-like temple since he sought to depict himself as a bodhisattva of compassion), and Angkor Thom. Interestingly, within a few decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the practice of Mayahana Buddhism within the Khmer Empire was largely replaced by Theravada Buddhism. One of the reasons for this shift to Theravada practice is that King Jayavaraman VII had a son who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and became a monk in the Sinhalese Theravada tradition. When the son returned to Angkor, he espoused the Theravada teachings he had learned which quickly spread through the capital and throughout the Khmer Empire.

Silk Tree at Teah Prohm - Angkor

Silk Cotton Tree at Ta Prohm – Angkor

The Khmer Empire ultimately came to an end when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and conquered Angkor in the 15th century. Thereafter, the inhabitants of Angkor began to leave, the creeping jungle slowly swallowed it up, and it became lost for centuries. But, what was not lost was Theravada Buddhism which had taken root after King Jayavarman VII’s death and became further entrenched as a result of the conquering Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Cambodia notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge did their utmost to eradicate its practice. At the end of my first day at Angkor, I climbed up a hill called Phnom Bakheng which is located to the north of Angkor Wat. Many tourists and villagers go up to the top of this hill to watch the sunset and see how the fading sunlight changes the color of Angkor Wat which one can see below. From the hilltop, I was able to comprehend how enormous Angkor was and saw the boundaries and moats which the Khmer had so methodically engineered in order to protect and sustain its large population (ironically, one prevailing theory today as to why people ultimately abandoned the capital was that problems with proper irrigation for farming led to its collapse). I took several photos which captured the light dancing off Angkor Wat in all sorts of different shades. It was mesmerizing and I was rabid in anticipation of many more incredible scenes and photo ops that I would certainly experience over the next few days. Then, a funny thing happened. As I was pedaling on my bike and turning to exit the archaeological park which was closing, a small car with an attached food cart trailer came up on my left side. I tried to be sure that the car had a wide berth so it could pass me cleanly, but somehow my front wheel bumped a wheel on the trailer and I went flying over my handle bars. I don’t remember the pain of my fall. I only remember looking up and blinking at the face of someone staring down at me with concern. It was the driver of the car. He spoke a little English and asked me if I was OK. I stood up with a shakiness and tried to get my bearings. I saw the bent front frame of my bike a few meters away from me. I then looked down and saw my dented camera near my feet. I think somehow the impact of my fall was absorbed by my camera which I had strapped around my torso. I slowly wrapped my mind as to what had just happened and then I realized I was not seriously hurt. I exhaled in relief and looked at the man. I could only smile. He smiled back. I started to laugh and shake my head. I told him I was OK and shook his hand goodbye.

Female Monk - Angkor Wat

Female Monk – Angkor Wat

I was touched that he had stopped his car and come over to see if I was OK. He could have easily driven off, especially if he thought he had hit a tourist who was seriously injured. I picked up my camera and inspected it. It was dented, but the roll of film inside seemed unharmed and the camera appeared to still function. Little did I know that my camera was basically useless. Something inside the lens or shutter had cracked, and although I took over 12 rolls of film over the next few days, only a handful of the pictures were able to be developed. There you have it then — I had arrived via a ridiculously long and nerve-wracking journey and then found myself busted flat on the road during my first day at Angkor. I’m not sure I learned any lessons. I just picked myself off the ground, fixed the bent frame of my bike, and hopped back on. When it was time for me to leave and get back to Thailand, I did make sure to take one of those Toyotas back to the border. So, I guess that was a lesson learned — there was no way was I going to repeat the massage road experience. And you know how long the drive back to Poipet from Siem Reap took? 65 minutes.

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.

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

I left Xigatse filled with conflict. In a way, I had contributed to the puppetry orchestrated at Tashilumpo by not saying a word about the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama. I snapped some pics and smiled at the monks I saw there and shelled out some Yuans for the monastery’s coffers and it all rang hollow. I squirreled away my thoughts and jotted down notes about the experience as we got back onto the “Friendship Highway” and continued to our next destination, Gyantse. Earlier in the trip I had seen the 4 Tibetan drivers of our tour group excitedly pile into one of the Landcruisers and they were watching something. I became curious, so I went to the car and stuck my head inside.  There was a DVD player hung from the passenger-side sunshade and it was showing the Dalai Lama speaking in Tibetan. My tour guide was standing outside the car and he proudly said he had smuggled the DVD into Tibet from Kathmandu in order to share it with the drivers and others he would see when we reached Lhasa. The thrill on the drivers’ faces was infectious.  They hung on each of the words they were hearing and were scrutinizing all the gestures and facial ticks of the Dalai Lama. They joked and laughed loud. There was a childlike wonderment in their playfulness. It was like they were tasting forbidden fruit, but rather than feel any shame or fear about the experience, they were passing it around and each taking a huge bite. How that scene contrasted with what I felt as we drove out of Xigatse in carefully sustained silence.

Gyantse Khumbum

The town of Gyantse is known for its astonishing chorten (Tibetan for stupa) or “Khumbum” (hall of 100,000 images) as it is locally called. This chorten is part of Palcho Monastery and was built in the early 1400s. Like the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu, the Gyantse Khumbum has Eyes. But, unlike those other 2 stupas, the Khumbum is an interactive, multi-terraced pyramid of chapel rooms teeming with statues and wall paintings of the Buddha, wrathful Tibetan deities, and other important figures from Tibetan folklore.  Although there are a couple of other chortens that still stand elsewhere in Tibet, there is none that compares to the exquisite artistry and “in situ” magnificence of the Gyantse Khumbun. The structure itself sits within the center of a walled old town. The wall runs along the rim of the small mountain above the town. The Khumbum contains 7 floors and one can walk up to the sixth floor and stare right at the Eyes of the Khumbum that stare out over Gyantse. The interesting difference between the Khumbum and other stupas built elsewhere in Asia is that the Khumbum allows you inside it — you can enter each room that burrows inside the structure.  Most other stupas are not inwardly accessible, and indeed were built for the specific purpose of encasing some relic of the Buddha, so they were never meant to be entered. But, the Khumbum sucks you inside room after room, each with a different motif and message. It is a 3-dimensional rendering of a Mandala. It spirals upwards — each floor a square within circle — and one ascends in perfect cadence.  The path takes you into the center which is aloft and beats with consciousness.

Eyes of the Khumbum

There are 77 separate chapel rooms you can go inside as you walk up clockwise around each floor and escalate to the top. I had to go inside each of these rooms and it took me about 2-hours to complete the entire 6-floor circuit to the top floor. Each room was dark with no lights. I brought my flashlight and when I turned it on inside the room I either saw a mural painting, statue, or both.  All of these paintings and statues were created with extreme patience, skill, and brilliance. I was sad to learn that many of the statues were clay replicas because the originals had been destroyed during the liberation.  But, the murals — although some faded and worn — still evidenced the original brushstrokes by the monks who had made them.  What smacks you in the face about the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is its pronounced use of the visual arts to convey the Dharma. Somewhere in the Tibetan tradition an emphasis was placed on learning how to transform the Dharma from something that was orally passed on, discussed, and contemplated into a visual (as well as musical) form of expression that was designed for a shared experience.

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

There is no doubt in my mind that some Tibetan monks had to be great artists as well. The frescoes, murals, and statues I saw in the Khumbum (and elsewhere in Tibet) were not works that were commissioned by the monastery for the laity to paint. Wealthy Tibetan patrons did provide money to the monasteries and all monasteries were ultimately supported by the Sangha, but it was the monks themselves that created such a vivid, beautiful artistic legacy. I can only  theorize that perhaps because the focus of the Mahayana school is on the “anyone can become a bodhisattva” message that this teleological thrust caused generation after generation of Tibetan monks to seek different ways to communicate the Dharma — beyond just the verbal.  The medium of choice of 700 years ago was painting and sculpting. While other Buddhist traditions have definitely created masterworks in their designs of Stupas, ironwork, paintings, and sculptures, the intricate mandala frescoes, thangkas (silk embroidered paintings), and statues of deities created in Tibet are so interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist practice that the efficacy of the Dharma would dramatically deflate if it was separated from the art that has long been used to sustain it.

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

The Palcho Monastery has different buildings built around the Khumbum with one temple built on an outcrop of the small mountain above it. I climbed to this temple and inside were frescoes of Mandalas that almost appeared to be a bird’s-eye view of the Khumbum. Each Mandala is like a fingerprint and is unique — no 2 Mandalas are ever alike. Each reflects the most serious mind and commitment to detail. They are rooted in geometric precision and serve as a roadmap for the viewer to follow as he contemplates the Dharma. These Mandalas are reference guides that one has to interpret in order to actively engage and ponder the specific teaching held within the painting.  When I stood at the terrace of this temple I could see the Khumbum below me and the old fort across from me on the opposite end of the town. The fort stood on top of a very tall hill. As I began to psyche myself for the long walk over to the fort, I looked down again at the Khumbum and experienced a funny thing. Its Eyes appeared to be looking up at me. I had already come face to face with these Eyes when I reached the top of the Khumbum itself and the Eyes had stared out straight ahead. But, from the vantage point of the temple located above the Khumbum, the Eyes now seemed to be lifted up and searching me for an answer to a question. I just remember that the words which popped into my head at that exact moment were, “I’m trying.”  Nothing more, but I felt the Eyes lower. It was a sensation that I can only describe as a gut-check. Lhasa was next. I had to get the mindset.

Out of India [North – The Great Vehicle]

26 Aug

Dubai was nothing more than a desert port with a creek that ran through it 20 years ago. Now look at it. I gazed out of the window of the Burj Khalifa which is currently the tallest building the world. This building itself was not even around the last time I was in Dubai some 3 years earlier.

View from Observation Deck of Burj Khalifa – Dubai, U.A.E. (2010)

At that time, I was flying to Kathmandu via Muscat, Oman. I remember being surrounded by all types of South Asians hitching a red-eye flight on Emirates from Dubai to Muscat and from there they were transferring to flights on Oman Air to Jaipur, Lucknow, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Chittagong. Each of these chaps carried with them the same style of briefcase with masking tape on the outside that spelled out their destinations in large English block-letters. I could only assume that these briefcases were stuffed with dirhams and dollars amassed during their stints as a wait staff, kitchen help, construction workers, housekeepers, and taxi drivers in Dubai. I was going to Kathmandu and was to land sometime between 7:30am to 8am. That flight was horrible because of the unbelievable body odor emanating from the gentleman who was sitting next to me. The only thing that got me through was the in-flight movie that played on a large screen from the front of the coach cabin. This was a Bollywood movie that had been released earlier that year and it was called Eklayva: The Royal Guard. It was in Hindi and had English subtitles. It starred Amitabh Bachchan and completely roped me in — so much so that when it ended I was wiping tears off my face and I looked around the cabin and saw a few Nepali men doing the same thing. But, the overpowering smell of B.O. then hit me again and I had to suck it up for another hour or so until we landed.

Barnes & Noble “franchise” – Thamel – Kathmandu, Nepal (2007)

The Thamel area of Kathmandu is a kindred spirit of the Khao San road of Bangkok with its cramping of backpackers and hostels. But, unlike the linear and more orderly Khao San, Thamel is a crooked corridor of fabric, fish, pashmina, wool and curio stalls — each entrenched within shaky looking buildings with rooftop terraces that are perched on a hill which is then in turn surrounded by the Himalayan foothills. I made the mistake of getting a cheaper room (no A/C – again a mistake) that opened up right above a busy bend of Thamel, and so the endless cacophany of bike-rickshaws, motos, squat Suzuki taxis, and other strange vehicular contraptions — each bleeping or blipping their horns — kept me awake each night. Although the Buddha had been born in Lumbini which is in southern Nepal, the vast majority of Nepalis practice Hinduism. Buddhism still had a vibrant presence over parts of Nepal and that was primarily due to huge numbers of Tibetan exiles who had crossed over the Himalayas during the last 5 decades after the Chinese annexed Tibet.  The Nepali and Tibetan Buddhists practice Mahayana (the “Great Vehicle”) Buddhism which is one of the 2 main schools of Buddhism that developed in the centuries after the Buddha’s death — the other school being Theravada (the “Doctrine of The Elders”).  The Mahayana school traveled North and then northeast out of India, while the Theravada school traveled South and then southeast out of India.  I had come to Kathmandu to see 2 very important Buddhist Stupas and to also receive my Chinese visa and Tibetan travelers permit in order to travel overland to Tibet.  On my first night in Kathmandu, I found myself on a rooftop bar drinking a couple of Gorka beers and eating the staple Nepali meal of dhal bhat: a platter of rice and lentils surrounded by small round tin dishes of vegetables, curried meat, and cucumber dip. I started with a few steamed yak meat momos as well (I would eat a lot of yak during this trip).  That night, I saw perhaps the best cover band in the subcontinent – there were 3 guitar players, 1 bass player, 1 drummer, and 1 conga player. This band played everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Don’t Let Me Down” and the  audience and patrons loved every second of it. They even clamored for an encore after the band finished their set and they came back and sang 3 more songs.  The combination of the music, Thamel feel-good vibes, and pure air of the Himalayan foothills had me glowing that night.  Kathmandu still had a sliver of its 60s “freak street” cred to it. It was hard for me to believe that only 6 years earlier, the Nepali Crown Prince, Dipendra, had snapped during a royal family party and killed 9 members of his family including his parents (the King and Queen of Nepal) before shooting himself and dying in a coma 3 days later.  No doubt there was still tension in the air that summer because of the Nepali Maoist insurgency that was spreading through the country, but on that night at least things seemed to be centered and carefree. I wanted to slip away into the deep funk of sleep, but the characters of the Thamel night had other ideas. Not to mention that the cool air of the Himalayan foothills that I was expecting (hence the decision to get a room with no A/C) was a no-show, and instead, Kathmandu was blanketed with warm and heavy humidity. So, I thought about Mt. Meru and Everest looking over me out in the yonder. I knew they were close — just a bit further North. That cool air was within reach.

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