Tag Archives: Mahayana

Thunderbolts & Ringtones

20 Mar
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Looking up at the massive Buddha Dordenma – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Bhutan contains a cocooned ecosystem where Buddhist thought, spirituality, and culture are in perpetual contact with every aspect of life in the country. All the buildings share certain design and thematic characteristics and have limitations placed on their height. Most citizens appear to prefer wearing traditional clothing that was in vogue in the country centuries ago, rather than, adopting the contemporary fashion trends of the outside world. There are no prominent entertainment establishments such as standalone bars, clubs, or similar venues although I saw a few snooker halls. The desire for instant gratification or the need to purchase goods in bulk is non-existent. The one visible hallmark of modernity that seems to have captured the interest of the Bhutanese is the smartphone and the global connectivity that comes with such devices. But, even smartphones or tablets are still used in ways to support the Dharma in Bhutan as I observed during my visit when I saw a monk reciting Buddhist sutras through the help of his iPad which displayed all the verses for him. So, ultimately everything in Bhutan seems to circle back to a Buddhist animus that pulsates through the country.

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Buddha Dordenma constructed in late 2015

On our first full day in Thimpu, our guide drove us through the hills south of town to visit a new monument that had just opened some months earlier: the Buddha Dordenma (or Buddha Point).  This monument consists of a gigantic seated Buddha (over 50m/170ft tall) surrounded by a semi-circle of several smaller Bodhisattva statues draped with scarves. Each of these Bodhisattvas is positioned in a manner that suggests they are making an offering or seeking a blessing from the Buddha that sits above them.

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One of the several Bodhisattvas situated around the Buddha

At the time of my visit, there was a large staircase and park area below the main platform of the Buddha Dordenma that was still being constructed. Additionally, the passage into the base of the statue which was to consist of an altar area with hundreds of small statues and other Buddhist objects was not yet open. Regardless of these unfinished aspects of the monument, the vantage point of this monument was spectacular and we could see the entire layout of the large Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong) in the distance along with the rest of Thimpu. 

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View of Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Thimpu Dzong)

From Buddha Dordenma, we drove down to Thimpu Dzong which was originally built in the 1640s A.D. by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It was enlarged in the subsequent centuries by Bhutanese Kings so that it could continue to serve as the primary ruling residence while also housing all the key civil ministries and providing residences for the leadership of the Bhutanese monastic order. Thimpu Dzong also became the venue for one of the most well-known dance festivals or “tsechus” in Bhutan held annually in honor of Guru Rinpoche which features elaborate robed and masked performers. While there is a throne room and a large meeting room for government ministers at Thimpu Dzong, the current King has a separate residence at a nearby property and the Bhutanese National Assembly (parliament) now also uses another building in Thimpu for its meetings.

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Monks entering Changangkha Lhakhang built in the 12th Century – Thimpu

Our next stopping point was the Changangkha Lhakhang monastery which was built in the 12th Century. This Buddhist monastery and temple is one of the oldest in Bhutan and is known as a destination for couples seeking good luck blessings for their newborns. In the back outside area of Changangkha Lhakhang, there are rows of prayer wheels embedded in the white walls and every single one of these were spun by pilgrims and worshippers as they dutifully performed their “kora” (or circuit) around the main temple hall.

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The artful symmetry of prayer wheels at Changangkha Lhakhang

Just as I had seen years earlier in Tibet and Nepal, these prayer wheels contained the 6 syllable mantra: om mani padme hum. Through the act of spinning these prayer wheels, one releases the mantra into the universe multiple times with rapid succession as she continues to walk and spin each wheel along the kora.  No doubt that this walk and spin method of prayer is a much easier and effective way of praying instead of having to orally chant the mantra over and over again. (For further understanding of the significance of the “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra see post: “Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-7c).

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Prostration outside main prayer hall of Changangkha Lhakhang

We finished our walk around Changangkha Lhakhang and then prepared to head off on the slow, winding road towards Bhutan’s former capital, Punakha. On the way out of Thimpu, we first stopped at the National Memorial Chorten which was built in 1972 in memory of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (“Dragon King”) who was the current King’s grandfather. This chorten was buzzing with people and it seemed especially popular with older Bhutanese citizens who were huddled together talking and enjoying the gardens of the memorial complex. The chorten itself reflects a Tibetan design that is similar to Bai Ta or the White Dagoba that is next to the Forbidden City in Beijing (see post “The Importance of Being on Brand” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-VU). I could not go inside the chorten, but I was able to look through the door at its base and could see a small altar area with a framed photo of the 3rd Druk Gyalpo inside. 

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The National Memorial Chorten built in 1972 – Thimpu

The distance from Thimpu to Punakha is about 85km (52miles), but the highway is a one-way, narrow road and there were long stretches where Indian laborers were working in the attempt to widen or repave the road. So, we had to idle at the side of the road a few times and wait until a bulldozer or other construction equipment was removed from the road in order to let our vehicle pass. Around the midway point of our drive, the road sidewinded to a higher elevation and we passed through a gully where prayer flags were strung above and across the road and along its sides. Our guide told us that we would get our own prayer flags blessed by a monk in a temple in Punakha, and then when we returned on the same highway, we would stop and fasten our prayer flags in this area. But for now, we continued driving onward until the road crested at Dochu La pass.

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The 108 memorial chortens of Druk Wangyal Chortens

At a height of 3,140m/10,300ft, Dochu La allows for views of the highest peaks of the Bhutanese Himalayas on a clear day. Aside from these incredible views, Dochu La is also known for its somber memorial called the Druk Wangyal Chortens. This memorial was built in 2005 and is comprised of 108 “mini-chortens” clustered together on a mound that looks like one bulbous stupa from a distance. Each of the 108 chortens represents the martyrdom of a Bhutanese soldier who died during an operation to quell an insurgency of Assam separatists from India that took place in southern Bhutan. I walked to the top of Druk Wangyal Chortens, and while I couldn’t see any of the mountains in the distance because of the cloudy conditions, the view was still breath-taking. I was above some of the clouds which were moving fast and it seemed that all the chortens around me were floating. For a moment, I fell into a daydream where I felt my body was also floating in tandem with the clouds around me. I only snapped out of it when I heard my guide calling me back to the car.

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View atop the Druk Wangyal Chortens – Dochu La

We descended from Dochu La and as the clouds parted, the golden green valley of Punakha appeared below us. We veered off the main highway before arriving at Punakha in order to see a nunnery and an eye-popping stupa that had been built on one of the hills. This stupa is very similar in its design to the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu. It sits on a terraced platform which is in the form of a mandala with a square base and circular form in the center. The central pillar of the stupa features 2 eyes on each of its 4-sides gazing out in all directions which is meant to symbolize the omnipresence of the Buddha and the accessibility of his teachings — the Dharma. This stupa was built within the last 20 years or so by a relative of the Bhutanese royal family and is maintained by the nuns who live in the small nunnery near it.

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Nepali-style stupa at nunnery on the road to Punakha

As we left the stupa and nunnery, our guide began telling us about the history of Punakha. It had been the capital of Bhutan for nearly 300 years until the mid-twentieth century. Its most visited sight was the Punakha Dzong which was constructed in 1638 A.D. at the direction of Zhabrung Ngawang Namgyal whose embalmed body is kept in a sealed room at the Dzong.

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Punakha Dzong constructed in 1638 A.D. – Punakha, Bhutan

Punakha Dzong is a cornucopia of beautiful murals, lofty architecture, and rooms filled with magical thangkas (silk embroidered or painted banners) hanging from wooden beams. Because no photos are allowed inside any of the buildings, I could only snap photos of the outside areas of the Dzong which did not capture the wall-to-wall artistry inside the halls and prayer rooms, But, the artwork on the outside buildings is well-preserved, so it at least provides a glimpse of the meticulous skill and talent of the Bhutanese artisans responsible for the treasures at Punakha Dzong. Many of the external and interior murals are illustrations of fantastic landscapes, geometric patterns, different manifestations of Guru Rinpoche, and Buddhist iconography such as the Dharma wheel, deer, tigers, and birds.

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Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche and Buddhist iconography on entranceway to prayer hall at Punakha Dzong

Our guide explained to us how Guru Rinpoche was interpreted and depicted in 8 different forms in the Bhutanese Buddhism tradition. Each of these different forms was associated with a particular teaching or Buddhist virtue and was meant to provide a metaphor for deeper understanding and related meditative purposes. Two of the most prevalent of Guru Rinpoche’s forms are: “Senge Dradog” (the protector and guide of the Buddha symbolizing the ferocity and power of the awakened mind) and “Dorje Drolo” (the wrathful, indestructible crazy wisdom that comes with the awakened mind). Senge Dradog (known in Tibetan as “Chana Dorje“) is depicted as a blue demon-like figure with a third eye in its forehead, a crown of 5 skulls on its head, a snake around its neck, and a tiger loincloth around its waist. In its right hand, Senge Dradog wields a thunderbolt and is preparing to strike with it. The Dorje Drolo manifestation of Guru Rinpoche is similar to Senge Dradog except that it is red and it is standing on the back of a pregnant tigress. Dorje Drolo is particularly significant in Bhutan because the famous “Paro Takhtsang” (“Tiger’s Nest” monastery) was built at the cave site where Guru Rinpoche in the form of Dorje Drolo buried hidden texts and treasures while traveling on the back of a tigress he had subdued. Images of Senge Dradog and Dorje Drolo are found lurking all over Punakha Dzong and both represent the need to shake off the emotional obstacles and ignorance of life in order to receive the powerful clarity of knowledge that zaps one right between the eyes when becoming truly enlightened.

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Detail of door at Punakha Dzong with Senge Dradog image

The grounds of Punakha Dzong also showcase multiple courtyards where dance festivals and other large gatherings take place. One of these courtyards has a mid-sized bodhi tree that may have been grown from a cutting of either the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India, or its progenitor in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f and “Part I (Cont’d) – Tree” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4P). I wasn’t able to get the origin of the tree verified by my guide, but I knew that there was a practice from centuries ago where monks who studied or visited the sacred Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya or Anuradhapura would take a small sapling of these trees and return to their own temple or monastery where they planted it.

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Bodhi tree in one of the large courtyards of Punakha Dzong

After our visit to Punakha Dzong, we got situated at our lodging in Punakha which was situated on the valley floor. All around us were tall lush grass, rice paddies, and even greener hillsides standing sentry.  We spent 2 nights in Punakha and at dawn of each day the chanting of monks from the surrounding hillsides would wash over us. There were no televisions or other distractions and we were completely immersed in an idyllic, peaceful landscape with warm and friendly people. I could only assume that the Gross National Happiness score of Punakha must be incredibly high. 

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The prayer wheel keeper at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

On our last day at Punakha, we went on a hike through some rice fields on the way to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. It was a sunny, glorious day and as we emerged from the rice fields we entered a small building that housed a huge prayer wheel that was under the supervision of a 88 year old man. Our guide introduced this prayer wheel keeper and his friend to us and we spent a few minutes chatting with them. They noticed a “Bodhisattva” tattoo that my friend had in Sanskrit on his shoulder and they talked excitedly about this. It wasn’t clear to me whether they simply had never seen such a tattoo, or whether they were impressed to see this Mahayana Buddhist concept adopted in such a way by a foreigner. In either case, they were incredibly fascinated by the tattoo. After we left the prayer wheel keeper, we had to walk uphill for about 40 minutes to the chorten which sat high above us.

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Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we reached the top of the hill, I was encased in sweat and my shirt was stuck to me like a latex glove. But, I now had my first look at Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. This chorten was constructed in 1999, but it has the aura of an ancient building. We walked inside the chorten and climbed the stairs to the top where there is an outside observation platform. Our guide discussed the construction of the chorten and pointed out some of the other sights below us.

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Water fountain outside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

When we returned back inside the chorten, our guide began explaining some of the stories behind the murals. Many of these murals showed important moments in Bhutan’s history, but a few also included some curious images such as shaggy-haired yetis and other Bhutanese legendary creatures. Just as our guide was speaking about these remarkable things, a bizarre ringtone blared from my friend’s cell phone. He had no cell phone service in Bhutan, yet his cell phone was loudly ringing.  All of us — our guide and driver included — were startled and exchanged befuddled looks of amazement. Our guide himself had no cell phone service while standing inside the chorten which was on a hillside more than 7km away from Punakha. We all laughed it off and our guide went on to finish his discussion about the murals. When we had hiked back down to the car, my friend checked his cell phone again, and now, he had several ghostly black & white photos and short videos saved on his phone! One of the photos even had a mysterious made-up word on it. We didn’t know what to make of any of this. Was it just a technical glitch, an accidental butt dial, or crazy divine intervention sparked by my friend’s “Bodhisattva” tattoo? Looking back on that day, I’d like to think that instead of being thunderstruck, we had received a spiritual wake-up call from Senge Dradog. That seems the best explanation for the phantom ring inside Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Happiness is a Place (Not a State of Mind)

8 Mar

Ever since I had visited Tibet in 2007, I knew what I wanted my next destination to be. This was going to be a trip to a small Himalayan Buddhist kingdom whose own history reflected the rich Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality of Tibet. This was Bhutan — the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Given Bhutan’s geographic location tucked between the mountains of the Tibetan Autonomous Region [controlled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)] and India’s snaky northeastern borders [portions of which are also claimed by the PRC], planning a trip to this isolated country would be tricky. First, any foreigner or non-Bhutanese citizen cannot independently fly into Bhutan and travel around the country unchaperoned. As a legacy of its fiercely insular past, Bhutan has a rigorous application process for all foreigners to complete in order to be granted a tourist visa. Each foreign visitor must register with a Bhutanese-based tourist agency which books all hotels and meals (which have different tiers depending on the visitor’s budget). The fees paid to the Bhutanese tourist agency include payment of a daily tourist tariff that is applied towards the hiring of a Bhutanese guide and driver who accompany all foreigners throughout the visit. Second, no non-Bhutanese airlines are permitted to fly to Bhutan, so instead, any visitor must use one of 2 Bhutanese airlines (Bhutan Airlines & Druk Air) in order to fly there. These 2 Bhutanese airlines each serve only a handful of other Asian countries. So, because of the careful coordination, financial cost, and chunk of time that was necessary to properly plan a trip to Bhutan, it took nearly a decade after my visit to Tibet until I was ready to head there. This long passage of time had allowed Bhutan to develop and open itself in new ways to the outside world. Bhutan also had a young king as the head of its constitutional monarchy and he had encouraged foreign investment, relaxed trade restrictions, and modernized Bhutan’s telecommunications infrastructure to allow for internet and WiFi services. The timing of my trip to Bhutan in 2016 took place then at a unique moment where technological innovation and foreign influence were impacting this remote spiritual haven to an unprecedented degree.

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Standing Buddha and Buddha Dordenma (Buddha Point) in distance – Thimpu, Bhutan (2016)

Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rinpoche (also known as Padmasambhava) in the 8th Century A.D. Guru Rinpoche was likely born in north India and he traveled to Tibet where he shared and taught the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism before venturing further east and crossing over the mountains into the lush valleys of Bhutan. Bhutan was a cluster of various fiefdoms controlled by regional warlords for many centuries after Buddhism took root. It was not until the 17th Century when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led battle after battle that Bhutan became a unified nation with borders very much the same as it has today. Zhabdrung Namgyal is held in high esteem as the founder of the Kingdom of Bhutan and he zealously defended Bhutan from outside invading armies — his chief adversary being the 5th Dalai Lama who led Tibetan armies in several incursions into Bhutan in the attempt to seize the neighboring country.

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Paro Dzong constructed in 1644 A.D. & its watchtower (now the National Museum of Bhutan) – Paro, Bhutan (2016)

As part of his defense strategy, Zhabdrung Namgyal constructed important dzongs in strategic areas of Bhutan. These dzongs were fortress-temples with massive, thick walls that protected the administrative offices, monastic residences, and areas of worship inside. Each dzong was helmed by a governor and was like a small city-state that effectively secured key regions of the country. Perhaps the most important aspect of Zhabdrung’s rule was his creation of a government whose actions were not to be separate or disconnected from spirituality, but instead, emanated from the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion for all living beings.

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Novice monks walking through Paro Dzong

This government ethos that Zhabdrung promulgated was the reverse of the separation of church and state that exists in the United States and other Western countries. Every Bhutanese king since Zhabdrung Namgyal has maintained this creed which had a reinvention in the 1970s when the-then King of Bhutan coined the term, “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). The King explained that this concept was far more important to the Bhutanese than the country’s Gross Domestic Product. GNH encompassed a deeper meaning beyond that of a holistic guiding principle. It was a concrete, trackable economic indicator like inflation, spending, and other cost of living metrics. Additionally, the Bhutanese constitution expressly mandated that it was the government’s responsibility to promote and optimize GNH for its citizens. The Bhutanese government uses a formula to compute the annual GNH that is based on data collected from its citizens through surveys and other feedback. This data reflects criteria such as living standards, health/welfare, education, environmental quality, community vitality, and work-life balance. Ultimately, the higher the calculation of annual GNH will correlate to how well the government has performed in meeting its responsibility to provide the Bhutanese people with a beneficial economic system that is in sync with the natural environment and all sentient beings.

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Off into the western horizon — Mt. Everest

As I finalized details for my trip to Bhutan, I had to also take into consideration the season and the availability of flights from those few Asian cities that the 2 Bhutanese airlines served.  I also had a good friend who was looking for a spiritual adventure of sorts, and so, once he learned about my trip, he was eager to join. I was able to have our seats booked on a Bhutan Airlines flight for late August 2016 that would fly from Bangkok, Thailand to Paro, Bhutan. Our flight from Bangkok left at 6:30 a.m. and was only about half-filled with people. The plane had a stop in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and as we remained in our seats, a steady stream of Indians passed by us as they boarded and soon filled the plane to capacity. These were laborers who were flying to Bhutan to provide much needed manpower on the many construction projects taking place all over the country. Once the plane took off from Kolkata, I saw the Hooghly river and the green rice paddies below steadily recede as the Himalayas approached. I had my fingers crossed and hoped the cloud coverage would be minimal so perhaps Mt. Everest would be visible. Within about 10 minutes, off into the western horizon, the unmistakable outline of a massive snowcapped peak appeared. It was Everest. It pierced through the clouds like a welcoming beacon — one that I had not seen since my 2007 flight from Lhasa to Kathmandu. Excitement welled up inside me as the plane crossed over the Himalayas and Bhutan was at hand.

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The descent to Paro International Airport – Bhutan

As we began our descent, the mountains tightened around us and at times the plane’s wingtips seemed close enough to touch them (no wonder only Bhutanese airlines fly into the country). When we landed, I walked onto the tarmac and felt a warm glow caress my face. I looked around and was surrounded by the bluest of blue skies and greenest of green trees and hillsides. We had arrived in the town of Paro which is about 50km (31 miles) from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu. After we cleared passport control, our guide and driver who were each wearing “ghos” (Bhutanese traditional male garb like a kimono) greeted us and placed white prayer scarves around our necks. It was as if we had arrived in the mythical land of Shangri-La.

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On the tarmac at Paro International Airport

We put our bags in the car and then drove towards our first stop to see the Paro Dzong and its watchtower which had been converted to the National Museum of Bhutan in 1960. The National Museum provided us with an overview of the history, culture, natural environment, and spirituality of Bhutan. Below Paro Dzong, we stopped off to enter a very old chorten called Dumtse Lhakhang that had been built in the early 15th Century by Thangtong Gyalpo who was known for constructing iron bridges that spanned key rivers in Bhutan. While Dumtse Lhakhang is unassuming from the outside (aside from its Tibetan design), it had incredible, complex murals of Buddhist legends inside its tight confines. We had to climb up small wooden ladders to get to the top floor of the chorten where legend had it that the spirit of a demoness was trapped. Unfortunately, no photos are allowed inside Dumtse Lhakhang, so its exquisite interior and any evidence of the demoness remain hidden to the rest of the world.

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Dumtse Lhakhang built in 1430s A.D. – Paro, Bhutan

We left Paro and drove towards to Thimpu where we were to spend our first few nights. There was a lot of excited chatter during the drive between our guide and us as he had many questions about our lives in the United States and we of course wanted to learn about his life in Bhutan. We discussed everything from Bhutanese dishes like emo datshi (chili peppers and melted cheese) and Red Panda beer (barley infused with juniper) to GNH and the Buddhist spiritualism that penetrated all facets of life in the country. Since we were staying in the country for 8 days, there would be many more conversations with our guide about these topics and much more. He was very knowledgeable and brought both a sense of humor and seriousness to the many Buddhist and historical sights we had lined up to visit.

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Directing “gridlock” in downtown Thimpu

After about 45 minutes of driving and passing troops of white langur monkeys along the way, I could see the hills of Thimpu drawing near. It had been a long day of travel given the early start that morning from Bangkok and I was looking forward to getting out of the car and decompressing. We exited from the main highway and pulled onto a road going to the city center where we came to a sudden stop at a traffic circle behind other cars. In the middle of the traffic circle, there was a uniformed Bhutanese man with an intense expression who was directing traffic with dramatic movements of his white-gloved hands. Our guide said that there were no traffic lights anywhere in Bhutan — including Thimpu, its most populous city with about 110,000 people. I watched the traffic guard methodically guiding, waving at, and stopping cars with a rhythmic choreography. It looked to me like he was breakdancing at times. I had to smile. GNH was starting to make sense.

Behold A White Horse

31 Jan

About 15 months after my visit to the Ajanta and Ellora Caves in India, I was in a small town in western China called Dunhuang. When the Silk Road trading routes were at their height of use and long caravans filled with spices, silk, grains, teas, fruits, gunpowder, precious stones, and other in-demand goods were busy treading back and forth from the East to the West in the 4th to 15th Centuries A.D., Dunhuang was a boomtown. It sat at a key crossroads of the southern Silk Road trade route and offered weary travelers an oasis of refuge as they battled the elements of the Gobi desert in the northeast and the Taklamakan desert in the west.

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Not a mirage – megadunes of Mount Mingsha looming over dusty Dunhuang, Gansu, China (2016)

Since the easternmost starting point of the Silk Road was the city of Xi’an in east-central China, I guess it made sense that I had to transit there in order to catch the only connecting flight to Dunhuang. I began the first leg of the journey on a China Eastern flight from Shanghai to Xi’an which was about a 2-hour flight. In Xi’an, I had a 2-hour layover and then hopped on the once-a-day flight from Xi’an to Dunhuang which took another 3-hours. Everywhere in China is on Beijing standard time. So, although I was over 3000km (nearly 2000 miles) from Shanghai when I landed in Dunhuang, I lost no hours. I was still in the same time zone from when I started, but other than that, I was in a completely different world.

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The mythic oasis of Crescent Moon Spring Temple where travelers gave offerings to the Bodhisattva Guanyin for safe passage through the desert

To use a “Star Wars” analogy, Dunhuang is like the outer rim desert trading outpost of Tatooine. The town sits in Gansu province which extends from Sichuan province at its most southern border all the way to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region at its northwest border. Its population reflects this positioning since I saw many Uighur people who live and work in their own district in Dunhuang (packed with Uighur food vendors, restaurants, mosques, and schools), while a good chunk of “new” Dunhuang is filled with the neon lights and hot pot glitz that I’ve seen in Sichuan’s capital city, Chengdu. From the moment I arrived in Dunhuang, I found no one who spoke English and it was a major feat just to finagle a taxi ride from the airport to my hotel. After I was able to check-in at my hotel (which required the use of a translation app by the front desk clerk), I wandered through Dunhuang’s downtown and noticed that all the stores, restaurants, and other public establishments had thick, clear plastic curtains that one parted like the Red Sea in order to enter. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why these obstructive curtains were everywhere.

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Climbing up the dunes near Mingsha

There are “megadunes” of desert sand that frame Dunhuang like a massive mountain range. These ginormous sand dunes are known to make “chiming sounds” (which is what “Mingsha” — the name of the highest dune means) and shift quickly when the wind rustles through them. The town gets blanketed with sand when powerful gusts blast the dunes. So, the plastic curtains on all the doorways are an absolute necessity. Luckily, I had arrived in late winter, and aside from the brisk temperatures, the winds were calm. I had come to Dunhuang for one purpose: to see the fabled Mogao Caves.

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Approaching the Mogao Caves

These caves were first dug into the side of what I would call a massive “petrified” sand cliff in the the 4th Century A.D. The very first cave was carved out because of the vision seen by a Buddhist monk who had settled in Dunhuang. On a meditative walk through the desert plains outside the town, a near-blinding, shining halo consisting of a Thousand Buddhas appeared before him. Determined to capture his vision on the spot, he began digging into the side of the sand cliff where he saw the Buddhas. After this cave was dug, he dedicated it as a shrine to his vision and began using it for prayer and sharing it with others. This socialization of the cave naturally lead to other monks creating their own similar caves alongside the first cave and this went on and on for 1000 years all the way through the 14th Century. Each subsequent cave iterated on previous caves in some way and pushed the artistic envelope by getting bolder and more intricate with the paintings, sculptures, and design & size of the caves themselves. Word of these stunning caves in the desert soon spread and attracted a wide-ranging group of pilgrims, traders, religious leaders of other faiths, and tourists of the day who stopped at Dunhuang with their trade caravans.  A mind-boggling total of 732 caves (that have been excavated) were dug.

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Exterior views – Mogao Caves

When the Silk Road routes began to wane in the 15th Century, Dunhuang also shrunk in size and significance. As a result, the Mogao Caves were largely swallowed whole by the sand with a remaining few used as a temporary homes for squatters, and later, as jails. In 1900, the world rediscovered the unparalleled collection of Buddhist art at Mogao, when a local caretaker who was curious about the strange path of cigarette smoke followed it to a blocked cave. Inside this cave (today called Cave 17 or the “Library Cave”), there was a treasure trove of old manuscripts, woodblock paintings, scriptures, musical instruments, ritual artifacts, and other Buddhist art.  Within a few years, there was a rush of international archaeologists eager to gather the spoils of the find, and as result, much of these artifacts ended up spread around the world or sold to private collectors. Fortunately, the Chinese government has come to recognize the importance of the Mogao Caves and has done a commendable job in preserving these fragile caves for posterity to behold.

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Exterior views

As part of their preservation efforts, there is a strict daily quota placed on the number of visitors who may enter the Mogao Caves. Additionally, only a small portion of the over 700 caves are open during any day for ticketed visitors. The rest of the caves are kept locked. I had been unable to register for a ticket in advance through the official Mogao website, but since it was the low season for tourism in the area, I felt good about my chances to buy a ticket directly at the ticket office.  I had a bit of a challenge in finding the right bus to get to the Mogao park headquarters (about 25km from Dunhuang) due to the language barrier, but my hand gestures combined with repeating “Mogao, Mogao” finally resonated with a local who scribbled directions to the bus stop on a piece of paper and pointed me to a driver who then read the note and took me there.  At the bus stop, I jumped on the first green-colored bus I saw (I had read that the bus to Mogao was green). I paid my fare directly to the collector on the bus and about 30 minutes later the bus pulled up to the park gates.  I saw a small queue of people and walked to the back of this line. As a foreigner, I had to buy the foreigner ticket admission which was tied to a specific timed entry to the cave complex. After sitting in a waiting area for 15 minutes or so, I was ushered by park staff into a state-of-the-art dome theater that showed a high quality animated & live action film about the history of the Mogao Caves.  

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Exterior Cave 437 and Cave 444

Once the film finished, everyone in the theater was chaperoned to shuttles which took us up a small hill to the entrance to the caves. I walked towards the turnstiles of the entrance when I got off the shuttle, but was stopped and told to wait until my guide arrived. No visitors are allowed into the cave complex without a guide. The guides have keys to those caves that are designated as open on any day, and the guides open and lock each cave as they take the visitors around the cave complex. Since I was the only English-speaker that day, I received an English-speaking guide who provided me with a very intimate, one-on-one experience through the caves. She liked the fact I was asking many questions and demonstrated my curiosity about the caves and the Buddhist art inside because it allowed her to practice her English in a more comprehensive way. She also unlocked and took me inside many additional caves that were usually not open to visitors in order to continue our discussions. It was like having a private, VIP tour of the all the art held in the Vatican.

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Colorful Buddha image painted on the outside wall of one of the Mogao Caves

In most of the caves, there are no lights whatsoever, so my guide and I used our own flashlights to shine on the multi-colored fresco paintings and stucco sculptures inside. As our flashlights moved along the walls above and around us, it was like a slow reveal of the mysteries of the universe. Because of the fragile state of these wall and ceiling paintings, no photos are allowed in any of the caves and only the larger caves housing the mammoth-sized statues have a few electrical lights installed in them. The rest of the caves are more or less kept as they were centuries ago aside from some temperature control equipment. In certain caves, I saw smoke residue blackening wall paintings and my guide told me that was due to people living in certain caves in the early 20th Century. Unlike the paintings inside the Ajanta Caves, which have largely faded or been damaged, the cave paintings at Mogao are very much intact and their colors are still vivid — no doubt due in part to the arid desert climate and cold interior of the caves. There also has been international collaboration in order to digitally map and restore certain sections of the caves, so that the Mogao Caves may continue to be analyzed and studied without the need for physical intrusion.

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Exterior Cave 16 and 17 (the Library Cave)

Two highlights at the Mogao Caves are the “Giant Buddha” in Cave 130 and the “Reclining Buddha” in Cave 148.  There are a few other large Buddha statues tucked within the belly of Mogao, but these 2 sights are the ones that I will always remember. Cave 130 is the centerpiece of Mogao and the Buddha inside is colossal. It is the third largest stone constructed Buddha in the world. 

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Cave 130 – housing the “Giant Buddha”

As I entered Cave 130, I had to almost immediately lift my eyes upwards because there was little room in the cave to see anything else other than the colossus above. This statue rises up 6 floors. The full length of the interior walls and ceilings are all beautifully painted with colorful Buddhist iconography and decorative themes. The Giant Buddha was built in the 8th Century A.D. and is over a 1000 years old. Yet, other than some grime, soot, and a little fading here and there, the statue is in very good condition. Clearly, it was built to last through the ages.

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Sign outside Cave 130 with image of the Giant Buddha inside

Cave 148 houses a long Reclining Buddha and behind it are over 30 life-sized statues of disciples, arhats, and other monks. The cave is a tight, claustrophobic space with a low ceiling. I felt I was inside a tube-like kaleidoscope of thousands of cascading Buddhas painted above me as stories from the Buddha’s life filled the side walls.  The Reclining Buddha statue itself reminded me of a 14-meter long Reclining Buddha I had seen 4 years earlier at the Dambulla Caves in central Sri Lanka. The Dambulla Caves are thought to have first been dug in the 1st Century B.C., so they are older than the Mogao Caves and likely influenced the Buddhist art and sculptures at Mogao. In comparing a photo I took of the Reclining Buddha in Dambulla (known as the “Cave of the Divine King”) with a photo of the Reclining Buddha at Cave 148 in Mogao (as shown in the sign outside the cave), there is a strong similarity in the depictions of the flowing Buddhas on the ceiling of each cave and the coloring and certain features of the statue.

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Reclining Buddha at the “Cave of the Divine King” – Dambulla Caves, Sri Lanka (2010)
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Sign outside Cave 148 with image of the Reclining Buddha inside

As I was writing this blog and looking over my photos from my trip to Dunhuang, I remembered that although I had come to Dunhuang to see the Mogao Caves which were beyond staggering and jaw-dropping in their artistic genius and beauty, I was most touched by a tale of a horse named Tianliu or “White Dragon”. On the outskirts of Dunhuang, just across the Danghe river, is an old Buddhist monastery called Puguang Temple.  In the courtyard, there is a rather unassuming pagoda called the White Horse Pagoda. It was originally built in the 4th Century A.D. as a shrine to the beloved white horse of an Indian Buddhist monk named Kumarajiva who had ridden this horse through treacherous desert conditions as he ventured out of what is today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kumarajiva’s goal was to preach about Buddhism all the way east until he reached Xi’an. He had stopped at the Puguang Temple in Dunhuang to teach there for a few days.  The night before he was to leave Puguang for Xi’an, his horse fell ill. On that same night, Kumarajiva had a dream where the horse spoke to him and explained that it would not be able to continue the journey. A despondent Kumarajiva chastised the horse for abandoning the duty to spread the Buddhist scriptures right when they had reached the half-way point to their final destination. The horse replied: “I have fulfilled my task. Ahead of you, not far from here, you will find Crescent Moon Spring where the heavenly steeds gather. There you will find another white horse waiting for you. It will accompany you to the East.”

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White Horse Pagoda – Dunhuang

The next morning, the horse had died. Kumarajiva first built a small altar for the horse and performed Buddhist rites of mourning there for 9 days. Still overcome with the emotion of the loss, he directed his grief towards the building of White Horse Pagoda. Unfortunately, the original pagoda which had stood for over 1500 years was destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, but in the early 1990s it was rebuilt. A solemn mood washed over me as I stood looking at the replacement pagoda. There was a lone prayer scarf tied to the protective gate around it. Other than this, the pagoda had no signs of any offerings or ritual items. In fact, there was no one else at the temple and it felt deserted. Just as I gathered myself and was about to turn and go, a breeze billowed through the dormant trees and the tiny bells atop the pagoda began to chime in step. The high-pitched pinging grabbed my attention. There was something familiar about the sounds that rang out — like a cheerful call of the spirit, or just maybe, the triumphant neigh of a horse.

The Hammer & Chisel

17 Jan

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Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra state, India (2014)

Legend has it that in the early-19th century an English hunting party (chasing tigers, of course) was treading through the thick brush above the Waghura river in central India, and when peering at the gorge in front of them, saw what appeared to be openings in the cliff face. The group then maneuvered its way down and was met by a local boy who guided them into one of the openings in the cliff face where magnificent Buddhist rock carvings and wall paintings emerged. We know this story actually took place because Captain John Smith who was part of the hunting party carved his name and date in one of the colorful murals in the large temple cave now known as “Cave No. 10”.  Smith’s name is still visible today with a piece of clear plastic protecting it from people who may want to scrawl their initials or names over it.

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Cave No. 10 (200 B.C.) – Ajanta

It is hard to provide appropriate context for the immense size and head-scratching impact of Ajanta. There are about 30 caves of Buddhist worship tunneled into sheer rock. The rock itself is a type of basalt that has volcanic origins. It is near black in color and hard to the touch. Beginning in 200 B.C. and continuing through the 7th Century A.D., the Buddhist monks and their followers in the area took on the herculean task of patiently hammering, chiseling, and removing debris, and then repeating this manual process for what must have felt like an eternity. Their tools may have evolved slightly between each generation who took over the work, but the human hands powering these tools did not change. Just hands, no machines. That was it. But, the power of their beliefs and focus on creating ever-lasting temples in stone must have allowed for a divine hand to propel their backbreaking daily toil. These stone crafters not only created open spaces that would fill with outside light and serve as large prayer or assembly rooms, but also strategically left other portions of the interior rocks intact for specific sculptural, decorative, or structural purposes. In addition to all of this, highly skilled artisans painted murals on the sides of the cave walls depicting scenes of the Buddha’s life and filled the roofs with geometric patterns, floral motifs, and other symbols. Each cave was designed like its own Sistine Chapel.

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Interior ceiling – Ajanta Cave No. 2

I ducked in and out of all the caves of Ajanta and each one had its own unique elements. While many of the murals and ceilings have decayed and vanished, most of the rock sculptures are in fairly good condition.

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Interior ceiling with floral motif

In one of the smaller caves, I was pondering a particularly beautiful stone Buddha in the teaching mudra pose (dharmachakra) and I noticed something. At first I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I was in a dark area near the back of the cave and there were a few electrical lights on the floor which illuminated the Buddha. These lights appeared to cast shadows around certain features of the statue. I gazed intently at what the totality of the shadows created which was a perfect outline of a bell-shaped Buddhist stupa. I was dumbstruck and did a double-take. The outline of the stupa was unmistakable. I couldn’t believe it. Was this just a coincidence? Or did the monks who sculpted this Buddha statue (and others like it in the other caves) know that when the sun sat in the right spot in the horizon and its light poured through a specific cave window, the Buddha would reveal a secret — the hidden stupa?

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The shadow outline of a bell-shaped stupa is revealed

The stupa’s bell-shaped design is thought to have been based on the shape of ancient burial mounds, and similar to a burial mound, the stupa’s purpose was to serve as a ceremonial monument that was to enshrine a sacred relic (usually connected to the Buddha himself). I remember reading something about precise dimensions always being used to build stupas in India and Sri Lanka and those dimensions had some correlation with the design of Buddha images. But, I had never heard of this interplay between a Buddha image being engineered in a way that would allow a hidden stupa to be formed by the shadows cast off from its design.  I wanted to ask someone about this, but I’ve kept the moment to myself until now. I‘m sure what I saw was no random accident. I’ve seen and read enough at this point in my life where I no longer underestimate the ingenuity of earlier generations who understood the natural world and knew how to work in concert with it.

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Cave No. 4 – Ajanta

Ajanta represents perhaps the zenith of Buddhism’s artistic and cultural influence in India which was sparked from the time of India’s first Buddhist king, Ashoka, who ruled over most of the subcontinent in the 2nd Century B.C.  Within a few centuries afterwards, Buddhism’s hold in India began to precipitously decline and its teachings transmigrated and diverged as they spread east across the rest of Asia. Interestingly, while no more caves were dug into the gorge at Ajanta after 650 A.D., about 100km away in Ellora, massive new rock temples were being sculpted out of the same kind of basalt rock.  Were these craftsman the last generation of monks and artisans from Ajanta who simply hit the “wall” (so to speak) and decided to pick up and apply their skills to the Ellora site? Having a strong king to sponsor such a move would definitely have helped. And that seems to be the prevailing theory — pointing to King Krishna I, who ruled in the 7th Century A.D. and oversaw the spectacular cutout of massive temples from the hillside rock at Ellora.

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Ellora Cave No. 32 – Maharashtra state, India (2014)

The Ellora caves are not – in key areas – actual tunnels dug into rock face like at Ajanta. Instead, Ellora features a long, sloping embankment of basalt rock where huge temples have been carved out and lay in the open.  The most famous Ellora sights are its Hindu rock temples. Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) is the largest single rock temple in the world. Dedicated to the Hindu deity, Shiva, it is a masterpiece of human achievement and throngs of tourists and pilgrims walk around it, climb up its ancient stairs, and lay offerings inside the temple.  There are elephants, bulls, and other Hindu sculptures clustered around an elaborate gateway that leads to the temple which has an antechamber, assembly hall, inner sanctum, and towers.  There are multiple floors and you can walk up the cliff above Kailash Temple and enjoy a viewpoint that shows the temple’s intricate roof with its lion-like statues and mandala-like central piece.

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Kailash Temple (Ellora Cave No. 16) – view from cliff above it

Although Kailash Temple is Ellora’s most commanding sight and must have absorbed most of the time and skill of the craftsmen, the other cave temples are not all similarly Hindu in design and spiritual purpose.  Ellora consists of more than 30 caves or rock temples and there are several Buddhist and Jain caves built alongside one another around the same time as the Hindu temples were created. Ellora is a rockside smorgasbord of these 3 faiths — each born in India with its own distinct thematic artistic flourish and iconography, but all having a shared sense of how to create a sacred place of worship that was both contemplative and functional.

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Kailash Temple

The grandest of the Buddhist caves at Ellora is Cave No. 10 or the “Carpenter’s Cave”. It has at least 2 floors and served as a monastery. The monks’ rooms were carved into the second floor above the prayer hall. The stone “ribs” that make up the roof of the temple are very similar to those in Cave No. 4 at Ajanta, so there must have been shared engineering knowledge between these craftsmen. The large Buddha image in the back center of the main hall is seated in the teaching mudra position and is flanked by two disciples. Rising behind and above this Buddha is a bulbous stupa with some decorative ornamentation encircling it.

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Ellora Cave No. 10 (known as “Carpenter’s Cave”)

When I first walked out of the sunlight and into this cave, my eyes needed a few seconds to adjust to the darkness. When I was able to see inside, I locked eyes with what was clearly a supreme being seated before me. The sense of its power is immediate and concrete.  This may be because of the solid rock that surrounds you which is devoid of any “give”.  In the hard, dank cave one is stripped bare and vulnerable. There is a stark absence of distraction and I don’t recall there being any kind of echo.  The Buddha is not there to judge, but to provide a spiritual focal point. The stupa behind the Buddha represented to me the sacred that is to be unlocked within oneself.  That’s what I felt in the room. I then thought of the heightened spiritual vortex that must have gripped this cave when it was alive with all those monks who had lived there. I imagined them sitting on the cave floor, chanting, meditating, and perhaps even being transported to other spiritual dimensions or worlds.  Maybe that show, “Ancient Aliens”, wasn’t too far off with its theories about who (or what) built these things?

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.

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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 at the top

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 of 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.

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.

thatbinku

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.

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