Tag Archives: monastery

William of Yangon

10 May

On the day I was to visit the Schwedagon Pagoda, I squeezed in a side trip to see 2 other sights. I first walked north of the hill where the Schwedagon sits and then sloped down into a “people’s park” area that was closed off to the public. Past this park was an army monument of some sort and then I found myself strolling along on a busy road. I had only a snapshot map of this part of the city and the street signs were written only in Burmese. So, I was mostly going off instinct as I roamed about and after about an hour of aimlessness, I admitted to myself that I had to be going in the wrong direction. Since I was looking for 2 huge statues, I knew that these had to be housed under very large roofs and the road I was walking on showed no signs of leading to any big buildings. So, I turned around and scanned the horizon in the opposite direction. There in the distance above the palm trees, I saw a reddish-rust colored roof. It was enormous — like the size of an airplane hangar. I turned and started walking towards it.

View of Chaukhtatgyi Paya from Ngahtatgyi Paya

Roof of Chaukhtatgyi Paya (on right) from window in Ngahtatgyi Paya, Yangon (2011)

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The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha

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From Feet to Head – 65m

I was looking for the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha — a 65m (213ft) long statue of the Buddha in the lion pose he held at Kushinagar prior to his death. Although just over a century old, this image was known for capturing the Buddha in a particularly beautiful way. When I got to the grounds of the Chaukhtatgyi complex, I first entered an area where there was a labyrinth of alleyways with corrugated iron roofs. I followed one of these alleyways and it took me through a monastery which was in bad shape. There were fragments of smashed windows and charred cement rooms with nothing in them. I saw a few monks milling about silently, but it was clear that most of the monks were gone. I read later that a lot of the monks in this monastery had been arrested or fled during the 2007 uprisings in Yangon. I hooked a right into one of the corridors I could see rising upwards and followed it until I reached the main building which contained the roof I had seen from afar. I took off my shoes and entered a huge hall. The space had the feel of a warehouse. There were large iron bars, pillars, posts, and other exposed framework propping up the large roof. Near the center and occupying most of the interior space of the hall was the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. I was jarred by what I saw. This was a Buddha depicted in shiny porcelain white with bright red lips, thick protruding black eyelashes, fingernails and toenails painted in pink, and eyes encircled in light blue. On his head was a golden tiara-like crown of gold and jewels and his body was wrapped in a flowing golden robe detailed with diamonds and silver trim. The bottom of his feet contained various symbols of Buddhist iconography organized in neat columns and rows. A small raised platform was erected a few meters away from the head of Chaukhtatgyi which allowed people to view the statue from close to eye-level with the statue’s head. DSCN1934From this vantage point, I grasped the enormity of the statue. It didn’t fit within the viewfinder of my camera or my own sight line. The image could only be seen in one take when viewing it at a slight angle. I stepped down from the platform and I looked up at the Buddha’s right arm which was propping up his head. There was clearly a “come hither” attitude that emanated from the statue. This was a sensuous and seductive Buddha — something much different from what I had ever seen. His eyes were wide open and he wore an enticing smile. This depiction was incongruent to the story of the Buddha who because of his debilitating pain and sickness was not able to make the journey back to his birthplace in Lumbini. Instead, when his physical body could no longer carry him, he had no choice but to lay down and talk to his disciples and followers from a position on the ground. In other reclining Buddha images — including that of Gal Vihara [see previous post: “Colossi of Gal Vihara” at www.startupkoan.com/2013/01/21/the-colossi-of-gal-vihara] — the Buddha’s eyes are closed, his head is lowered, and there may be just a trace of a smile on his face as he passes into Nirvana.DSCN1932 The blissed out images of the reclining Buddha I had previously seen were much different from the glammed up Buddha before me. But, as I walked around the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha and saw how its beauty was set off against the stark nuts and bolts interior of the huge hall, I understood the contrast. The industrial interior made sense. It provided an austere frame in which to effectively illuminate the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. It conveyed a vivid illustration of how even in the face of death, there was transcendent beauty.

Entrance to Ngahtatgyi Paya

Entrance to Ngahtatgyi Paya

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The Ngahtatgyi Buddha

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Side view of teak throne

After I exited the Chaukhtatgyi Paya, I looked over the landscape in front of me and I could see brass spires of the next sight rise up from another hill across the street. This was the Ngahtatgyi Paya. I had to walk up a long stairway to get to this pagoda. There was also a $2 entry fee, which I paid with my crisp dollars that were accepted without question. I took off my shoes again and went inside. The room was dark and a completely different experience enveloped me than what I had just felt at Chaukhtatgyi. Right in front of me was a large seated Buddha wearing a pointed crown encrusted with precious gems and diamonds and a robe that appeared to have an armored sash or vest over it. This statue was framed by a mammoth teak throne which was carved in intricate detail and patterns. Again, I had never seen a Buddha like this. It had the same white face and painted features as the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha, but that was where the similarities ended. This seemed to be a warrior Buddha. I walked around the statue ogling the teak throne– the wood used to build it must have been insanely heavy to raise and affix to the statue let alone carve with such flourish. As I came back out from behind the Buddha, a man was looking at me. He was wearing a longyi, a simple dark collared shirt, and eyeglasses. He was not Burmese. He said “Hello” to me in English and I was startled at first since I had not met a foreigner so far during my time in the country. He told me his name was “William” and that he had been living at the monastery on the grounds of the Ngahtatgyi Paya for the last 2 years. He was an American and was probably in his 60s. He told me he was studying Buddhism and living alongside the monks at the monastery. Many questions flooded my brain as I took in William. He did not seem to be a burn-out or hippy, but something about him struck me as…disingenenous. He certainly was attempting to blend into Burmese society with his garb, but he gave me the feeling of perhaps not being so truthful about how or why he was in Yangon. I wasn’t in the mood to ask him a barrage of questions in order to debunk or flesh out his story further. I decided instead to ask him about the Ngahtatgyi Buddha and what he knew of it. He told me the word “Nga Htat” meant 5-tiered or 5-story which applied to the layering of the roof that contained the Buddha. The Buddha itself was over 14m (45ft) tall. He also said that the gems, diamonds, and gold in the Buddha’s crown were worth more than $2 million US dollars.DSCN1953DSCN1952 I tried asking him a bit about how the government was treating the monks in the country and he said things had settled down and things were OK now. His answers were short and he was soft-spoken. I couldn’t make out whether he was there to serve as an unofficial guide to foreigners who came to the pagoda, or whether he was there to pray. I told him a little about some of my other travels and interest in how Buddhism evolved as it spread through Asia. After chatting for some time, I felt the day was slipping away from me and I had to go to the Schwedagon. So, I thanked William for the conversation and told him I had to go. He entreated me to stay and to go inside the monastery with him to eat and meet with the monks. I told him that I had plans to spend the rest of the day at the Schwedagon and I wanted to be there as the sun went down. I said that perhaps I would come back to Ngahtatgyi at the end of next week when I returned to Yangon after exploring other parts of the country. He seemed let down and then I sensed that he wanted money. He never asked for it openly, but I saw it in his shuffling demeanor and lowered eyes. As I went to get my shoes, I pulled open the small daypack I had with me and searched for some cash. The first thing I found was a $1 bill and I grabbed it. I knew that I had some other small bills, but I had to keep these for the Schwedagon. I gave William the buck and said goodbye. He looked at me with a smile and nodded as he took the single bill. I didn’t look him in the eyes as I took my leave. I could have given him more if I took the time to dig through the billfold case I had with me. But, I just didn’t want to bother. I took off in a hurry hoping to shake off any bad karma I may have picked up by rejecting William’s offer for dinner at the monastery. I tried to pick up my pace as I walked towards the Schwedagon, but with each step I felt the weight of my cheapness and guilt. How could I have so cavalierly dismissed William and his offer? What bugged me even more was that despite all the incredible experiences I had been fortunate to have over the last few years because I had been open-minded and put myself out there — here I was at this moment — just another cynic. An emptiness hit me.

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Sketches of Lhasa (#2)

11 Oct

Rock paintings of Lamas outside Drepung Monastery

Drepung Monastery was built in 1416. It is the largest of all Tibetan monasteries and is also a university for monks seeking formal instruction in Buddhism. It was the primary residence of the Dalai Lamas until the 5th Dalai Lama finished the Potala Palace. The tombs of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Dalai Lamas are all housed in the main temple of the Drepung which is located just a few kilometers to the west of Lhasa and sits on the top of a small hill. A good chunk of the original monastery complex was destroyed during the 1959 PRC liberation of Tibet. When I visited in 2007, Drepung was so quiet that it seemed deserted. So, a year later, I was incredulous as I read the limited news releases coming out of Tibet, which reported that some of the monks at Drepung had been apprehended (and likely never seen again) for taking part in the uprisings which had erupted that spring in Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet.  The entire monastery was then “closed” by the PRC for many months after it had crushed the dissent. I don’t think I saw more than a couple of monks in the entire monastery complex when I was there. I had the enormous assembly hall all to myself.  This hall contains tall columns and cushioned areas where the monks gather for prayer, ceremony, and debate. I strolled around the space with a relaxed stride and had no sense of time or urgency. I soaked up the details of each of the beautiful thangkas that rolled down from the rafters and beneath my feet were thick, multi-patterned Tibetan carpets.

Main Temple – Drepung Monastery

I veered off to the right side of the assembly hall and entered a few rooms where the ceilings were very high. In these rooms, I noticed wide shelves running up the sides of the walls and hitting the ceiling. Wire-like meshing had been placed outside of some of the shelves and parts of the items on the shelves crammed into this meshing. Due to the low light in these rooms, I had to use my flashlight to take a closer look at the shelves. I wanted to know what these ancient-looking, boxy items were.  I was able to see loose, rectangle-sized parchment leaves bound together by wood-like binding. They must have been over 300 years old.  Some of the parchment was nothing more than debris held only in place by centuries of inertia. These rooms were old libraries from Drepung’s earliest monastic university days. I wondered if they had ever been cataloged or interpreted by archaeologists, religious scholars, or any PRC agency.  I couldn’t believe that these books were sitting idly on these shelves untouched and crumbling into dust. The loss of knowledge is like losing anything else. Once it is gone there is only the memory of it and then the communication of that memory depends on who dictates it. I guess that’s how it goes.

Fresco – Drepung Monastery

On the walls around the assembly hall, the Drepung has striking frescoes showing “end of the world” scenes of man being ravaged by demons and beasts. These images reminded me of the “Garden of Earthly Delights” triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch in the 15th century. The parallels were uncanny. I spent so much time studying these frescoes that when I finally made my way out of Drepung, I saw that my tour group shuttle had gone. I was not bothered since I had plans to ditch the group anyway. I knew there was another monastery nearby that I could walk to. This was the Nechung Monastery which although small in size contains the mystical soul of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nechung “Oracles” all used to live in this monastery and had their own special monks which tended to them.  I did not know what or who the “Oracle” was until I watched Martin Scorsese’s film, Kundun. The Nechung Oracle is a man who has the ability to serve as the medium between the earthly world and the spiritual realm. Through trance, reciting of mantras, and ritualized dance (complete with a heavy, ornate headdress), the Oracle opens himself to be possessed by the spirits who then are consulted on matters of prophesy, governmental affairs, the protection of the Dharma, and the security of the Dalai Lama. The process of undergoing a possession by the Oracle was sometimes so debilitating that the Oracle would be bedridden for weeks or even months afterwards. The Nechung Oracle was a state official in the government of pre-PRC Tibet and to this day serves as an important advisor to the Dalai Lama in exile. The Nechung Monastery had a very different vibe to it than any other monastery I had seen in Tibet.  It had been thoroughly destroyed in 1959 and rebuilt in part, but when I entered, I felt like I was walking through something that was still lying in smoking ruins.  Without the Nechung Oracle there, the monastery was dead. I know it is strange to say that about something which is made of nothing more than wooden beams and mortar, but there was only a feeling of death in Nechung.

Paintings on outside of Nechung Monastery

These feelings were reaffirmed by the harrowing paintings that had survived or been retouched on some of the walls of the central temple. These paintings showed menacing demons and serpents with their teeth and claws bared. Human skulls and flayed human skins were painted around door frames and along walls. Eyeballs dangled out of heads.

Detail of painting – Nechung Monastery

I thought about those Oracles who through the past centuries had passed through the doors which I myself walked through that day. I sensed the faint murmurs of something that to me was supernatural. There was a kind of spiritual “power source” emanating from Nechung — but this power source no longer had the medium it needed in order to be harnessed and wielded. It was flickering into oblivion – just like the books I had seen in Drepung.  A horrible realization struck me as I walked out of the Nechung:  Extinction.  It was happening right before my eyes.

For the 11th Panchen Lama (abducted)

21 Sep

Main Temple [Tombs of the 3rd, 4th, & 5th Panchen Lamas] – Tashilumpo Monastery

Tashilumpo Monastery was built sometime in the 1400s and has served as the seat of the Panchen Lamas ever since.  The Panchen Lamas are the second most important spiritual lineage in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism which the Dalai Lama heads. The Panchen Lama selects the next Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama selects the next Panchen Lama. Unlike the current Dalai Lama who went into exile in 1959, the-then 10th Panchen Lama stayed in Xigatse and aligned himself with Beijing. He broke with the Dalai Lama in a very public way and welcomed the liberation of Tibet. Then, the 10th Panchen Lama did something unprecedented. He did a reverse renunciation — meaning he gave up his vows as an ordained Buddhist monk, got married, and had children. He assumed some ministerial government post in Beijing and did not return to Tibet. But, after nearly 3 decades of playing the part of the reformed Tibetan-turned-model PRC citizen, he went back. He returned to his old quarters at the Tashilumpo Monastery and observed first-hand what was left of it.  Certain chunks of the monastery and areas where the old tombs of the previous Panchen Lamas were interred had been completely destroyed during the liberation.  Something must have stirred inside the 10th Panchen Lama at that point because when it came time for him to give a speech in Xigatse before an assembled crowd of monks, pilgrims, townsfolk, and his PRC caretakers, he lamented the “gains” made as a result of the liberation of his country.  Although these words may have at worst been a backhanded criticism of the PRC, his public rebuke was felt in Beijing.  The 10th Panchen Lama fell dead the next day. It was said he had died of a heart attack. The year was 1989. In that same year, a Tibetan boy was born in Lhari County located in eastern Tibet. His name was Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and he was identified as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in 1995. Once his identity became publicly known, the PRC promptly abducted Nyima and his parents. They were whisked away from Tashilumpo and have never been seen since. He was 6 years old.  He may have been defrocked and re-engineered into a model Chinese citizen [like the 10th Panchen Lama had voluntarily done all those years before], or something more sinister may have happened. The world may never know. The PRC swiftly appointed their own Panchen Lama in Nyima’s place and this replacement Panchen Lama lives in Tashilumpo under the supervision of the PRC. The strategy here is clear: The PRC’s Panchen Lama will identify the next (15th) Dalai Lama who will already be PRC-selected and who will then be reared in the PRC school of Tibetan Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama and his advisors know the game being played and understand the stakes. But, what of the 6-year-old Nyima abducted in 1995?  He would have turned 23 in 2012. If he is still alive, has he been completely stripped of all vestiges of his faith, language, culture, and purpose?  Or has been able to hold on to these while smiling at his PRC captors as he goes through the motions of his reformation?  I thought of him as I entered the grounds of Tashilumpo. At 6 years of age, he must have just begun to have a general understanding of his faith and incarnation and then one day he was yanked from this predestined life and thrust into a physically arrested existence. The mental wherewithal to withstand such a traumatic and schizophrenic ordeal would be too much fo the average person. Nyima may have been average in body, but as the incarnation of the 11th Panchen Lama, he was certainly not average in mind and spiritual capacity. Tashilumpo was still his home.

The Maitreya – Tashilumpo

Tashilumpo consists of a bunch of connected and separate buildings — temples, shrines, assembly halls, a central courtyard, and living quarters spread out over a large area. The monastery abuts a rocky hill and a standalone large white wall with red trim rises on the right-side of its border. As I got my bearings, I noticed some Tibetan pilgrims walking past me so I decided to follow them.  They walked towards to 2 mid-sized Stupas and began circumambulating each of these. I saw a large building nearby and so I climbed the stairs towards the doorway. After paying a few Yuans in order to take photos and removing my shoes, I entered the temple. The smell of burning juniper and yak candle wax wafted over me.  What a multidimensional and enchanting aroma. If only there had been a way to have captured that scent and recast it into something visual.  But, upon reflecting on that moment years later, perhaps the answer to that was right in front of me then.  I followed the scent trail into a cavernous chamber. Emerging out of the dark and towering overhead was a wondrous sight. It was illuminated by a lone white light. A giant hand was positioned in a Buddhist mudra (gesture) or chakgya in Tibetan. The tips of the thumb and index finger were touching and formed a circle. All the other fingers were extended upwards. This was the “vitarka mudra” or the teaching gesture made right before the turning of the wheel of Dharma. But, the massive blissful face I was gazing up at was not that of the Buddha. It was the Maitreya. Most Buddhist traditions hold to a prophecy that another Buddha is to be born and will bring back the Dharma to the world.  There will come a time on earth when the path to Enlightenment is lost and the Dharma has been forgotten. Ignorance and self-indulgence will run rampant. At such time, the Maitreya will appear and resurrect the Dharma — teaching it in a pure form like the Buddha had first done in Sarnath. The Maitreya at Tashilumpo is the largest gilded statue in the world. It was built in 1914 and is 85ft high. At its base were large photographs of the 9th, 10th, and 11th [PRC-appointed] Panchen Lamas. All I could think of was, “Thank God they didn’t destroy this too.”

Fresco – Tashilumpo

One of the busloads of Chinese tourists had arrived at Tashilumpo and the serene calm of the monastery was quickly shattered. I tried to avoid them, but they gravitated into the main temple of Tashilumpo where the tombs of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Panchen Lamas rested. The corridors around this temple had lively, colorful frescoes which depicted Tibetan Bon-Buddhisht deities and stories from the Buddha’s life. I assumed that the monks who resided in the monastery had painted them all through the centuries. They were like a visual record passed on from one generation of monks to the next.  I then looked on incredulously as many of the Chinese tourists began to file past me — and one after the other — rubbed their hands and fingers all over the frescoes. Dozens upon dozens of fingers were depositing their oils, dirt, and skin cells onto these treasures with no regard for their upkeep.  The frescoes did not have any protective covering at all. I was horrified by what I saw. I tried looking for the Chinese tour guide leader but to no avail, so I made sounds of chastisement as these tourists went passed me. I think a few of them caught my drift. I would also see similar touching and rubbing of frescoes and other artwork in the monasteries at Lhasa. I think that the Chinese tourists must have believed it was good luck to rub and touch these frescoes, but it was extremely upsetting to observe. I imagined walking through the Vatican and running my hands along the frescoes of Raphael. The Tashilumpo frescoes were masterworks in the same vein and connected the past to the present. They would certainly disappear in a decade or so if the endless rubbing was not stopped or prevented in some way.

Monk and tourist – Tashilumpo

I walked out of the main temple and into the outdoor courtyard. A tall Tibetan prayer pole was staffed in the center. I headed towards the pole and when I looked up at the rafters I was startled by what I saw. A very young monk was standing on the second floor and peering over the scene. He was wearing the yellow hat of the Gelug order. But, he was not smiling, and instead seemed perturbed. He wore a scowl. I thought I was hallucinating. I immediately thought of the 11th Panchen Lama who must have experienced the same view when he had lived at the monastery. I reached for my camera in order to capture this extraordinary image, and then a Chinese tourist popped out of the blue and posed alongside the boy. The tourist started to smile in a cheeky way just as I snapped the photo. Then, right after this tourist left, I tried again to take a picture of the monk alone, but an onslaught of other tourists bumrushed the monk. Each jostled with one another as they attempted to take a photo with him. The young monk quickly retreated and I could hear excited chatter in Mandarin all around me. I put down my camera. I understood now that while the Tashilumpo monks may still live, practice their faith, conduct their rituals, debate, and work at the monastery, Tashilumpo was no longer a truly “living” monastery. It had become a museum and a folk-like curiosity for PRC citizens. Without the legitimate Panchen Lama present and in residence, the complex was filled with a disquiet — a disenchantment. I saw that disenchantment on the young monk’s face. I wonder whether the monks at Tashilumpo envision a time when the 11th Panchen Lama will return.  I think they must for this reason: The same faith they have in the return of the Maitreya would also sustain their belief in a time when the Panchen Lama will come home. I can only hope that the artistry, pageantry, and tradition of Tashilumpo do not have to be completely erased in order to trigger the reappearance of the Panchen Lama. For the 11th Panchen Lama in his 17th year of abduction, we remember and have not forgotten.

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