Tag Archives: monks

Reflections in a Golden Face

26 Nov
Burmese girl at Mandalay  Flower Market

Burmese girl at Mandalay Flower Market

There’s a stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, that reads: “If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else. / No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else/ But them spicy garlic smells, /An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells; On the road to Mandalay…” Kipling wrote these lines in 1892 and in the full context of the poem, these words are being spoken by a soldier who has just come back from a 10-year stint in Burma and is describing his experience to the Kipling narrator who longs for a life in the East with a Burmese girl he left behind when he returned to London. Now, stuck in the cold drab confines of English city life, he reflects on his lost time in Mandalay and slips into the past as he listens to the soldier’s words.

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

View of Mandalay Hill from palace wall

Contrary to what may be a popular held belief, Mandalay is not on the ocean and does not have a bay. It is in the north part of Burma located far from the gulf and instead is nestled along the Irrawaddy River. It was the last capital of the Burmese kings and their beautiful teak Mandalay Palace compound burned to a crisp during World War II fighting in the city.  Today, Mandalay is Burma’s second largest city and is a dusty, gem-trading urban sprawl that serves as a crossroads for Burmese minorities from the northernmost corners of the country who come to Mandalay for supplies and work. In the city’s north boundary looms Mandalay Hill — a 760ft tall mound that is sprinkled with many monasteries, temples, and shrines connected by a series of covered stairways and paths which snake around the hill and up to its summit.

O Bein's Bridge - Amarapura

U Bein Bridge (1850AD) – Amarapura

Within 50km of Mandalay lies the former capital of Amarapura (home of the oldest teak bridge in the world – U Bein Bridge) and Sagaing which is a center for international Buddhist study and learning and has hills laden with many monasteries and temples — most famous of which are the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and U Min Thonze Pagoda.

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze - Sagaing

45 Buddha images of U Min Thonze – Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Budda  (13th century) - Sagaing

97ft high Soon U Ponya Shin Buddha (13th century) – Sagaing

Mandalay contains one icon that beyond all else was the raison d’etre for my visit there: the Mahamuni Buddha. Along with the Schwedagon Pagoda and Golden Rock, the Mahamuni Pagoda which contains an image of the Buddha’s face cast in 554BC is the most venerated site of pilgrimage in Burma. Pictures or small replicas of the Mahamuni Buddha are found hanging in taxi cabs, stores, and restaurants all around Burma.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to his left.

The Buddha pointing down from atop Mandalay Hill to the land below where he prophesied the founding of Mandalay. Ananda to the left.

During the last half of the 6th century BC, the Buddha walked throughout India and beyond to spread his teachings. At one point, he went east and crossed what today is Bangladesh and dipped south to the Rakhine State area of modern Burma. There, he reached the city of Dhanyawadi which at that time was the capital of the Kingdom of Arakan. The Arakanese King  had already been exposed to Buddhism through those subjects and members of his court who had converted to the Buddha’s teachings, so he requested that the Buddha come to Dhanyawadi.

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka]

View of Sandamuni Paya from Mandalay Hill [each of the white stupas contains a marble slab with a page of the Tripitaka (earliest Buddhist scriptures)]

When the Buddha arrived, the King and the citizenry brought various gold and other precious objects as gifts for the Buddha who of course did not accept them. Instead, these objects were melted down and an image was cast of the Buddha’s  actual face. After the cast was created and the rest of the image’s body was put together, this image served to commemorate the Buddha’s visit to Dhanyawadi and passing generations of people were drawn to it in order to make offerings and stand witness to this likeness of the Buddha. The offerings took the form of diamonds, gold, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires which were affixed to the crown and chest of the Mahamuni Buddha. Then, gold leaf was applied to the Mahamuni Buddha continuously and this has resulted in several inches of thick gold layering on the image.  The image stayed in Dhanyawadi until the Arakan kingdom was sacked by the Mon Burmese who absconded with the Mahamuni Buddha and made it their own. The story goes that the Mahamuni Buddha was so large that it had to be cut into pieces for transport to Amarapura- which was then the capital city of Burma. It was then moved to Mandalay and has resided in its present compound after it was built in the 1780s by King Bodawpaya.

Matwalgyi Paya - Mingun

Mingun Pahtodawgyi – Mingun

King Bodawpaya was incredibly ambitious — not only did he consider himself a reincarnation of the Buddha, he also attempted to construct the largest stupa (and bell) in the world — on the other side of the Irrawaddy river just north of Mandalay. This was to be called the Mingun Pahtodawgyi — the Great Royal Stupa. It was never finished and today lies as huge brick stump that has since been split by an earthquake.

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

Exterior of Mahamuni Pagoda

The Mahamuni Buddha compound is large with 4 points of entry and contains arcades or pavilions with covered walkways. There is a bazaar-like feel in these arcades where there are hundreds of shop stalls selling various religious ornaments, garlands, incense, and other offerings alongside books, home goods, food, and other supplies. On display in one of the temple courtyards is a set of 3 Khmer copper statues that were originally looted from the Khmer capital of Angkor in Cambodia by the Siamese kings of Ayutthaya in Thailand.  Ayutthaya was then sacked in the 16th century by the Mon king of the time, who took these pieces back to Burma. These statues today are rubbed by pilgrims as each contains some special merit.  If one follows any of these arcades they ultimately spill into the central area of the temple which then cascades in a series of archways into a small chamber. Inside this chamber is the Mahamuni Buddha which although in a seated position — appears at first glance to be standing over the continuous streams of monks, pilgrims, and people who are sitting below it. But, the Mahamuni is in fact seated in the mudra position where his right hand is pointed down — invoking the earth’s attestation to his attainment of Enlightenment and the vanquishing of Mara the tempter.

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

Cascading archways leading to the Mahamuni Buddha

I approached the Mahamuni head-on and passed through a narrow arched corridor.  Each arch was divided into a base of red brick that gave way to a golden paint which rose to the ceiling. As I walked closer to the gleaming Mahamuni, the last 7 or so archways became more and more ornate with glyphic designs, flowers, and other intricate gilded patterns. There were people sitting on a carpeted area looking towards the light of the Mahamuni. Women were seated in the back of the carpeted area and men were seated closer to the Mahamuni. The area nearest to the Mahamuni was cordoned off and reserved only for monks. I slowed my gait as the great image began to reveal itself to me.

Mahamuni Buddha

Mahamuni Buddha

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Siddhartha Gautama?

It was set off in the darkened corridor by electric lights that framed the final archway that led to its chamber. This was truly an inner sanctum. The golden image was enhanced by lights from the ceiling of the chamber that bounced off it. A round face with closed oval eyes, broad flat nose, and pursed lips. This was the face — the face of Siddhartha Gautama before me. I sat down. He is 13ft high, but looks bigger. Something about the layering of old, medallions, necklaces, and other gems on his torso and crown make it look massive.  I studied the image. It smacked of humanness. I clearly saw features of a face that once did belong to someone. I had no doubt. This was not an idealized Buddha face as was omnipresent throughout Burma and elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Nor was this some kind of inanimate face like those found in other ancient statues of the Buddha. This image had a very different quality — a soul.  No wonder that at dawn of each day the face and teeth of the Mahamuni Buddha are cleaned in a carefully choreographed ritual by a senior monk.  As I sat cross-legged in the carpeted area reserved for men, I looked around at the people around me. Some had their eyes closed in silent prayer, yet others had their gazes fixed on the Mahamuni Buddha as if in a trance.

DSCN2836On the surface it could have appeared that we were worshipping a golden deity, but Buddhism is not about worship. It is about inward contemplation about the causes of suffering and discontent, understanding how such causes shackle us, and then breaking free from these shackles through an active pursuit towards ethical conduct, intention, speech, effort, and mindfulness. The image of the Buddha may be used as a point of focus for quieting one’s monkey mind, but he is not himself the focus. The Buddha never spoke to his disciples that he was to be worshipped. Nor did he teach about the need for worshipping any creator of the world. The focus of his teachings was on how to navigate a middle path toward the attainment of Enlightenment and after one had achieved that, then one would pass into a state of spiritual and physical bliss – freed of suffering – which could be realized in life or upon death.DSCN2838 As I sat before the Mahamuni, I thought about what the other people around me were concentrating on. Were they here asking for a blessing, searching for answers, or merely basking in the radiance of the illuminated being before them?

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

Monk at Sandamuni Paya

I think back to that moment now and re-imagine the smells, sights, and sounds swirling around that chamber.  The fragrant incense permeating through the archways and the mix of garlands and exotic spices. The sight of golden rays shooting out from the Mahamuni. The quiet murmur of the monks’ chanting and the laity shuffling on the carpet.  A trinity of senses. In his poem, Kipling also invoked a trinity as he cited to the garlic, sunlight, and tinkling bells. From his grey London quarters, he thought about that — about romance, about the East. Today, from within the cramped office of Western modernity, I understand Kipling’s nostalgic sentiment. I understand that longing.

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To Be A Rock And Not To Roll [The Space Between]

15 Aug

The grade was steep and although the path was wide and paved, I was basically going up a river. The rain had swallowed up the entire surface area and I was ankle-deep in a fast-moving current that had small whirlpools in areas.  I tried to carefully pick out each of my steps hoping I could find some higher ground here and there.  My sandals became dislodged from my feet a couple of times and I had to waste energy in backtracking as I chased them downstream and grabbed them before they were lost.  Not another soul was around.  I had an uneasy feeling because I really had no idea as to where I was heading. I was a man facing nature at its most unforgiving and I was just winging it. My umbrella was useless — it basically snapped at one point and I used it more for balance than anything else. There was no shelter — although there were sheds along the way which one could use during the pilgrimage season — these were all closed.  After about 30 minutes or so, I felt my mouth drying out and I cursed at myself for leaving my bottle of water in my driver’s car.  Ironic. Here I was with water all around and yet I thirst.  I had no choice but to keep climbing up through the current. I stuck to each switchback with my head bowed and eyes focused on the next step.  Then, I came to the fork in the road. I stood there for at least 10 minutes hoping someone would walk by and I could ask them which way led to the Golden Rock. But, there was no one around.  I had this strange thought that popped in my head: I was so tired and dehydrated that I actually felt the desire to climb up a tree and rest there until the rains stopped.  Then, from the vantage point of the tree I was sure to see the Golden Rock or some buildings that would be near it.  It was like a hallucination — and I brought myself back to reality. The wind was whipping around and the rain was relentless. My body temperature was starting to drop as the rain penetrated into all of my pores.  I had 2 choices — either go left or right. The fog bank was milky thick and visibility was non-existent. I chose to take the left path — it felt natural and aligned with the journey so far. It turned out to be the right choice — within 15 minutes I came to a large wooden gate.  Relief.  I walked through the gate and I could see the official entry building to the Golden Rock in front of me. The steps leading to my hotel were on my right. I went straight to the hotel — which was a small mountain top compound. At the front desk, I fished out my special case from inside my daypack. Inside this case was where I had stashed my passport and money. My hotel voucher was destroyed and my passport was wet around the edges, but the inside Myanmar visa page was intact. I handed the shriveled remnants of the voucher to the hotel clerk, who thankfully did not protest and gave me my room key and pointed out the direction to my room. It was close 2pm so I had little time to waste. I had no change of clothes other than one other t-shirt inside the daypack which was also wet. I dried out the best I could and then took 2 hotel towels and wrapped them around my legs and torso and then threw on my wet shorts and spare t-shirt on top. I layered myself with my windbreaker and poncho again I actually thought I had put together something waterproof. Silly thought.

3 Brave Pilgrims

3 Pilgrims braving the elements

I went outside and the rain and wind instantly swallowed me. I bolted to the entry building where I paid my $5 entry fee to the Golden Rock and received a pass. I got to the first pair of Chinthes that were stationed in front of the passageway that led to the Golden Rock. I had to remove my shoes and walk barefoot from here on out. I could barely see, but I picked out 3 forms in front of me. They seemed like a sign. Barefoot and enveloped by the monsoon, I followed them. Off to my left side, I first saw the Kyaukthanban Pagoda or the “stone boat stupa” — which legend has it represents the ship that carried the Golden Rock from the sea and transported it to Mt. Kyaiktiyo in the 11th century. From there, I had to walk another 700 meters or so until I came a plaza are where there was a rectangular glass room and then beyond that was the actual viewing platform that surrounded the Golden Rock. It was floating in the mist like an orb. It was nearly impossible for me to aim my camera since the winds and driving rain were so strong.  I despaired at the thought I would not be able to capture any image of the sight before me. I heard the clicking of the camera shutter, but all I saw was a watery blur in the viewfinder.  Conditions and visibility continued to worsen as I encircled the Rock. I walked below it and came out on the right side.

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Viewing platform – Golden Rock (Mt. Kyaiktiyo)

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The Golden Rock – monsoon season

I was slapped around and was frustrated because I wasn’t able to find a relaxed viewpoint in order to just absorb the ethereal sight in front of me. I never saw the Golden Rock waver or shake in the fierce wind and rain. It stood firm like a stern sentinel. Suddenly, lights turned on and the Rock came alive in a bright and fuzzy golden hue.

DSCN2045 I saw some monks appear ahead of me who entered the glass room area I had seen earlier. This was a prayer room. I followed them inside and spent about an hour in unmolested contemplation. I was finally able to reflect on the physical being before me. And I say “being” because although the boulder is not an organism, there is something sentient about it.

Hanging off the precipice

Hanging off the precipice

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Prayer Room with monks at the Golden Rock

Prayer Room with monks at the Golden Rock

This Rock dangles before you. It must have purpose — for that’s how it came to rest where it does.  The heaviness of the boulder is incontrovertible. It is immovable. Whether due to the strand of hair or a glitch in nature– it defies physics. It hangs off the cliff — embodying the brink of some truth. It was truth that we are after which is right there before us but perhaps just out of reach. That’s what the Golden Rock conveyed to me.  After the monks finished their prayers and walked away, I realized it was now sunset. The grounds of the Golden Rock would be closing, so I had to walk back to the entrance gate and find my shoes. I was ecstatic to see that they had not been blown away or carried off by the rain. That night in the dinner hall of the hotel I met a Burmese guy named Chang. He was a tour guide showing the Golden Rock to 2 Chinese tourists. He spoke Mandarin and English. He told me his daughter was working in Singapore and that was the dream city for him. As we talked, our conversation turned to the Golden Rock. Chang was in his early 60s and said he had grown up in Mon State — a province that includes Mt. Kyaiktiyo. When he was a teenager, he and a friend had snuck into the grounds of the Golden Rock late at night.  They each had gone on either side of the Rock and held a long wire between them. They took this wire and inserted it in between the Golden Rock and the base rock on which it sat. As they slowly walked and guided the wire underneath the Golden Rock, they thought at any second it would get caught on something.

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Close-up of Golden Rock at point of rest

They were convinced that there had to be some manmade trick that kept the top rock from rolling over.  Some pole, glue, or other fixture had to anchor the Golden Rock.  The wire passed through underneath — cleanly. It didn’t get stuck or caught on anything.  I nodded my head after Chang finished his story. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t think words were necessary.  I could see from Chang’s eyes and intense reflection as he recited that moment from so many years ago, he was telling me the truth. The wire had passed through. Enough said.

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.

Rangoon Night

12 Mar

City centre neighborhood – Yangon, Myanmar (2011)

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) on a thick and misty summer night in June 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military junta had not yet begun to relax its grip. On the day before my arrival, a plane carrying the actress, Michelle Yeoh, who was filming a movie (“The Lady”) in which she was starring as Suu Kyi had landed in Yangon. But, Yeoh was not allowed to enter the country and was forced to fly back to Bangkok. Yeoh had wanted to discuss the role and film with Suu Kyi, but the government decided to nix the visit.  It was extremely difficult for any foreign dignitaries or visitors to see Suu Kyi at her house which sat on Inya Lake.  In 2009, a wacked out American who had created makeshift paperboard fins swum the length of that lake to “rescue” Suu Kyi.  His “heroics” instead only succeeded in having Suu Kyi’s house arrest extended by the government. Before coming to Burma, I had screened a documentary called “Burma VJ” about the September 2007 uprisings led by the Buddhist monks and others which had been crushed by the government.  Most of these monks had either been arrested, beaten, and sent to Insein Prison where they were never seen again. Others managed to flee the country to Thailand and elsewhere.  I had heard that solo travelers who came to Burma could expect to get followed by government agents. Even more troubling was that due to all the economic sanctions on the country, one had to travel only with cash — pristine, unmarked U.S. bills to be exact. There was no way to wire money into the country or to use credit cards.  There were two currency exchange conversion rates — one was set by the Myanmar government and arbitrarily computed — and the other was set by the black market — which could only be found in the back alleys of street markets, or in the back rooms of hotels where foreigners stayed.  I read a few horror stories about travelers who came to Burma with U.S. bills which were not accepted because of small creases or the absence of a preferred circulation letter or number. These travelers ended up having their trips cut short since they could not fund things.  I had gone to my bank a week before I set off for Burma and asked for the newest printed U.S. bills they had and was able to receive newish bills in different denominations.  I then took extreme care to protect and keep these bills in the flattest state possible until I got to Burma. I knew that when I found a place in Yangon where I could change the U.S. bills into the local Kyat currency, I could expect to receive so many Kyat that they piled up like a literal brick.  So, I had visions of walking around with this brick of money in my backpack as I did my circuit through the country. In 2011, there were also rumors swirling that the military junta was planning to raze much of Yangon — including the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda. The government had already moved the capital from Yangon to an obscure outpost in the middle of the country called Nay Pyi Daw and they were building duplicates of Burma’s iconic sights there.  Suffice it to say that this was a trip that would require strong presence of mind, thoughtful planning, and a little luck…

Monks in the rain - Yangon

Monks in the rain – Yangon

It was trade which had brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma over a millennia ago. When Sinhalese merchant sailors had left Sri Lanka and crossed the Bay of Bengal, they hit land in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River basin. This great river shoots up and curves through the heart of Burma — and that’s how the Dharma first spread. Within a few centuries, the teachings of Buddha had spread from Burma through all of Southeast Asia.  I had mapped out an intense itinerary through the core Buddhist sights of Burma and this meant that I would have to fly to some of the places on Burmese airlines — some of which had dubious safety records. I was to meet a travel agent in Yangon on my second day in order to pay for my plane tickets in cash since there was no other way to purchase tickets in advance. So, I was a bit anxious about getting this taken care of in addition to remaining within my tight daily budget. On that night of my arrival in Rangoon, I hopped into the first cab I found outside the airport. As we drove to my hotel, I saw and smelled the dilapidated state of everything around me — the unpaved roads, lack of street lights, muddy markets spilling out their wares in the street, and crumbling storefronts. The cab I was in had no windshield wipers. My driver had to stick his right hand out of his window and use a closed umbrella to wipe away the rain as he drove with his left hand! I was sitting in the back seat and the open window had me sucking in rain drop after rain drop. I could only laugh nervously to myself — and for a flash — I wondered if this trip would end up as a disaster.

Schwedagon Pagoda - perched above Yangon

Schwedagon Pagoda – perched above Yangon

This was a pariah nation and if things went bad for me, I would have little recourse and limited money to buy my way out. But, these doubts quickly vanished when something astonishing came into focus on the hill to my left. It was almost extraterrestrial in design and luminescence. I knew then that I was in for the epic. It burst.

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.

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