Tag Archives: pagoda

To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul

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Scenes of the Buddha’s life: the teaching of the Dharma at Sarnath & attaining Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya [from back of Jing’yan Buddha in Shanghai, China] – (2012)

So, I had to get back. And in the week of Christmas 2014, I returned to India, the egg. This time I was arriving in Mumbai.  It had been 5 years since my first trip to the country when I gritted through the drought of parched north India and took a slow train from Delhi to Kolkata. Along the way, I was able to make my first pilgrimage to the sites of Bodh Gaya (where Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and awakened as the Buddha) and Sarnath (where the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma before his disciples in a small deer park near the holy Hindu city of Varanasi). [see posts: “Pilgrimage – Part I” and “Pilgrimage – Part II” at https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/04/pilgrimage-part-i and https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/14/pilgrimage-part-ii%5D.  When I walked outside of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and made my way to the taxi area — ohhh, that smell. It just took one whiff. Something opened in my mind and transported me to another plane of consciousness.  A mix of ash, dash of incense (like sandalwood), and the warm stench of urine. The smell wafts into your core and the rings of Mumbai’s smog circulate that smell into an orbit around the sprawling cityscape.  Yet, the smell is not repulsive. It is strangely welcoming and familiar– albeit a familiarity that is connected to something  deep and buried in us. Like some primordial chord that gets struck once the odor gets recognized by some vestigial sense receptor in us.  After a 15-hour non-stop flight from the United States, I was suddenly alive with wonder. The plan was this: 2 weeks to take a train from Mumbai to Aurangabad to see the 1500 year old rock caves carved in the gorge of Ajanta and hills of Ellora during Buddhism’s zenith in India. From Aurangabad, I would fly back to Mumbai and hop on a connecting flight to Goa.  I wasn’t interested in the beaches or hanging out with Russian tourists there– Christmas in Goa would be something special, but I had no idea I would come to face to face with the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier while I was there.

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Sunset over Haji Ali Darga Mosque – Mumbai, India (2014)

Mumbai itself does not have much by way of historical Buddhist temples or structures. It is dominated by Hindu religious fervor, but there is a sizable community of Muslims, as well as Parsis (Zoroastrians), in the city. A good chunk of today’s Mumbai consists of reclaimed land where former islands were brought together to form one landmass by the Portuguese during the 16th century.  One of the most memorable sights is the Haji Ali Darga Mosque that sits out in the Arabian Sea near the Worli neighborhood of Mumbai. Like Mont St. Michel in medieval France, this religious shrine becomes an island when the water rises at high tide and covers the stone walkway that leads to it.  The shrine was built to house the coffin of Haji Ali who died as he was returning from Mecca — his coffin somehow fell off the ship transporting his body to India and was found floating in the sea. The shrine was then built at the location where the coffin was recovered.

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Vipassana Pagoda – Gorai (Mumbai) (2014)

The one interesting Buddhist structure in Mumbai that I visited was the Global Vipassana Pagoda way out in the north of Mumbai.  The construction of this pagoda and its meditation hall began in 2009 and there was still some work remaining in order to finish the project when I saw it. The pagoda itself is a copy of the Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). [see post: “Enter the Pagoda” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/06/21/enter-the-pagoda%5D. Inside the pagoda there is a huge empty space — a space that is framed by one of the largest interior domes in the world.

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Interior dome – Vipassana Pagoda

What caught my eye as I walked around a plexiglass area for visitors to peer inside the dome was a photograph showing what appeared to be pearls, but what were actually relics of the Buddha — pieces of bone that had transformed into shiny small balls.  These relics had been placed into a ceremonial vessel that was then interred inside the Vipassana Pagoda.

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Photo inside Pagoda showing relics of Buddha

The English messaging on the photo had me scratching my head: “most of the bone relics turn into this shape“. I had seen bone relics before such as at the Botataung Pagoda in Burma [see post: “Bones of Reverence” at https://startupkoan.com/2013/04/11/bones-of-reverance%5D, and these relics had not taken the shape of pearl-like shiny balls. I had also witnessed cremations in India and Nepal and it was hard to believe that human bones would form such shapes after being burned.  But, even if the messaging on the photo was simply an inaccurate English translation, India is more magic than logic. It is a land where ancient custom and ritual butt up against Bollywood and technology, so one must try to make sense of it all.  When I found myself in an old Goan cathedral a week later, I would see the 550 year old body of St. Francis Xavier at rest in a glass coffin. I saw little decay.  Instead of a human skeleton, I saw a fleshy black corpse with hair on its head, fingernails, toenails, eyeballs, and teeth all intact.  So, if without any mummification, the Saint’s body had been miraculously preserved — why couldn’t some of the bones of the Buddha turn into pearl-like balls after his cremation?

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Train to Aurangabad

While I was a bit hesitant to travel by train (2nd class coach) again in India after my last experience years earlier, I went ahead and bought a train ticket from Mumbai to Aurangabad.  The train left in the early afternoon and took about 7 hours. I ended up sitting next to a professor who entertained me with various YouTube videos that discussed conspiracy theories of terrorists plotting to attack India and the West. Of course, I was well aware of the siege of Mumbai that had taken place in 2008 by an Islamic fundamentalist group from Pakistan who entered the city by boat and attacked Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal palace and other buildings. So, I did not feel it was my place to point out some of the preposterous statements in the videos he showed me. I was rewarded for this because when our train arrived in Aurangabad the professor told me he was being picked up in a car and could drop me off at my hotel.  I took one look at the dusty torn up state of the Aurangabad train station and the void I had entered. There were no signs, lights, or any viable exit from the chaos of vendors, tuk-tuks, and tangle of bodies and bags around me. I eagerly said yes and jumped into the backseat of his car.

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Dreams of Ajanta – (Maharashtra state, India)

Excitement gripped me that first night in Aurangabad as I knew I would be seeing the legendary Ajanta caves the next day.  I had once seen an “Ancient Aliens” episode on the History 2 channel in the States — where the theory of “ancient astronauts” with advanced tools had dug and carved these otherworldly shrine caves into the black stone of Ajanta. I was hooked and had to see these for myself. So, here I was.

 

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.

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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.

To Be A Rock and Not to Roll [The Route Up Mt. Kyaiktiyo]

7 Aug

I was soaked to the bone, tired, dehydrated, and bogged by doubt. I had come to a fork somewhere in the middle of a road that was cloaked in a monsoon cloud. I flashed back to my climb up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka which had occurred almost exactly a year to the day I now found myself [see previous post regarding the encounter with Adam’s Peak: https://startupkoan.com/2012/11/02/sri-pada-adams-peak-prologue/].  That had turned out to be an incredible experience — but this time I may have taken things too lightly. I was glib — not prepared, had no map, no food or water. There were 2 paths before me. I could see no more than 3m in any direction. The rain pounded down in a manner that I still cannot properly describe. This was invasive and insidious rain. I was carrying a pathetic excuse for an umbrella and wearing a thin poncho, windbreaker, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I had my camera and a small daypack tucked between my shirt and bare skin. Everything inside — the pristine U.S. dollars, my passport, hotel voucher, etc. — was in jeopardy of being ruined.  If I chose the wrong path, I probably would not have realized it for a long period of time, and then I would probably be too exhausted to walk back.  I stood there mutely, licking the rainwater pooling on the corners of my mouth — at an utter loss.  I was on a journey to get to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in eastern Burma. The elevation is only about 1100m (3400ft), but this is no ordinary mountaintop. It is where the holy Golden Rock sits. The Golden Rock consists of a large round boulder — perched at a ridiculously precarious angle atop a small cliff-face. The boulder is covered with layers and layers of flattened golden foil placed by the faithful over the centuries. A 7m (24ft) golden pagoda spire has been placed on the top of it. Inside this spire is a single strand of hair which belonged to the Buddha.  It is this hair which keeps the boulder from rolling over the precipice on which it rests — oblivious to the winds, rains, earthquakes, and other natural and manmade disasters that smack against it.  From the second I had seen an image of the Golden Rock, I knew I had to make the journey.  I had come during the monsoon season which was the “off” pilgrimage season, and so the route would be more arduous and the conditions unpredictable.

Betel Nut seller - Bago market

Betel Nut seller – Bago market

My trip had begun that morning from Rangoon where I had booked a driver to take me about 150km east through the old town of Bago, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mottama, and then up to the small village of Kinpun. Kinpun is more or less a mountain base camp where travelers and pilgrims can pick up supplies before venturing to Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The most common way to get to the top of mountain and see the Golden Rock is to hop on one of the specially outfitted trucks which come and go during the morning until the late afternoon. These trucks have flatbeds with rows of wooden slats/benches that people can sit on. The trucks zoom up the winding road until they reach the Yatetaung bus terminal. No vehicles are allowed to go any further than this terminal. From there, one has to walk up to the top of the mountain which should take about 45 minutes to an hour.  I had reserved a room at one of the 2 hotels on the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo which was close to the Golden Rock, so my plan had been to get to the hotel and check-in by 2pm and then spend the rest of day until sunset at the Golden Rock. I would come down the mountain the next day and my driver would meet me in Kinpun and take me back to Rangoon.  When I arrived at Kinpun on the day of my trip up the mountain, I found one of the trucks waiting for passengers.  I paid the truck driver around 1200 Kyat and climbed onto the truckbed and found an open slat to sit on.

A bit of a squeeze - but headed in right direction

A bit of a squeeze in the truckbed – but at least no rain

Sitting in the back of a truck - headed toward Mt. Kyaikhtiko

Securing bags while driving up

Within a few minutes afterwards, all the slats were occupied by other people — who seemed to be locals. There were no backs to the slats, but despite the cram and having elbows, knees, and arses in one’s face, it seemed cozy.  It was not raining at Kinpun and while the sky was cloudy there was the occasional glimmer of sun. The truck began driving up the mountain which transformed into a lusher landscape with each twist that took us higher. People were chatting and laughing along the way. One of the men who I assumed was an assistant of the driver was securing bags and luggage that had been stored in the front compartment of the truckbed while the truck was doing hairpin turns. I was cautiously optimistic that perhaps the monsoon would skirt around the mountain, but then — like we crossed some boundary — the heavens opened and the rain fell — HARD. Everyone in the truck put their heads between their knees and tried to shield themselves.  All voices abruptly quieted and only the swishy sounds of switching gears and the truck sliding along the wet road remained.  I remember clutching my camera and daypack tightly against my stomach and silently counting off the minutes — thinking that the 10 miles up to the bus terminal would not take more than 30 minutes.  But, as the rain kept hitting me, I dropped the counting and just steeled myself to stay warm and focused on the walk up to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo that was waiting for me.

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

When the truck pulled into the bus terminal — which was nothing more that an iron shed help up by a few posts — I disentangled my legs and arms from the person next to me, shook off the rainwater, and walked down the step-ladder that was affixed to the truck dock. I looked out of the shed and hoped to find a storefront with a roof to run under before figuring things out. As I scanned the scene, I met the eyes of a very young female Buddhist monk in pink who was barefoot and standing with other female monks collecting alms from a few people in the area. She didn’t have an umbrella with her and her robes were drenched. She struck me as completely ambivalent.  When the alms collection finished, she trudged off in the mud and disappeared in the mist like an apparition.  I darted out of the shed to a small building across the way. The mist was getting heavier now and visibility was starting to get reduced.  It was around 1pm and I had to get moving.  I found a sign in Burmese with an arrow pointing up and to the left. I interpreted this to mean: “Golden Rock – This Way”.  After a few strides up, I was confident I was headed the right way. Then, something made me turn around and look behind me. I did not see a single person around — anywhere. What happened to all the people who had come up with me on the truck?  There was no trace of them. The mountain and the rain seemed to be waiting just for me.

Blended Rites

21 Jul
A momentary glimpse of Sun at the Schwedagon

Sunlit Schwedagon

I began a slow circuit around the Schwedagon. Every corner, square, and space had its own unique energy.  There were so many different things going on in each area that it was hard to stop and focus on any individual element. The entire platform felt like a microcosm of a city with the Pagoda standing in the center with its golden luminescence radiating outward in gleaming waves.  There is a method to the manner in which all the pavilions, nooks, statues, and mini-chedis (stupas) are scattered about.  They are clustered based on chronology of when they were built and also based on the utility in which they serve. So, depending on which entrance the individual takes to come up to the Schwedagon, one can focus his/her time on the particular area containing those prayer rooms or pavilions one wants to use for that time of day of their visit.  Some of the designs of these stupas and other buildings are grandiose in their intricacy. They contain mirrored prisms and mosaics on their outsides and others reflect stupa designs found elsewhere in the Buddhist world. Other structures dotting the Pagoda’s platform are more stark and austere in their design and look, yet these still also inspire awe and are the focus of particular devotion.

Sampling of the many stupas around the Schwedagon

Sampling of the many stupas around the Schwedagon

One taller stupa I saw instantly brought to my mind the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India. On the outside of this stupa were colorfully painted scenes of important Buddhist moments in Burma’s history.  I ducked my head into many of the individual prayer rooms and pavilions. There was something pure in the supplication I witnessed emanating from the people in these rooms.  In one particular room a group of Burmese women were sitting on the floor and singing prayers in beautiful harmony; in another room there were people chanting quietly to themselves.  There were so many individual structures all around that I didn’t know where to investigate next.  The density of these structures and the activity taking place inside them had me working hard to pace my sensory intake. I had to find some clearing where I could get a reprieve from everything and just breathe — and then, almost as if by cue — I turned a corner and there was a wide open space before me.

Burmese women reciting prayers in one of the many "tazaungs" or pavillions

Burmese women reciting prayers in one of the many “tazaungs” or pavilions

There were no structures or statues or anything else in this space and it had a definite boundary made from dark grey stones. It was completely bare except that there were people sitting and kneeling down upon it. Upon closer examination of this space, I realized that there were 2 stars in front of me — one smaller star was contained within a larger star. Each star had 16-sides and because of that the stars were almost circular in their overall pattern.  It then occurred to me that this space may have been created to map the circumference of the base of the Schwedagon Pagoda. Of course, the space was much smaller than the platform on which the Pagoda sat, but I thought that in some parallel universe if the Pagoda were to levitate from where it currently stood and then came down on top of the star-shaped space, it would fit. I found out later that this area was used as a “wish-fulfilling” space by people. It faced the Pagoda at a slight diagonal and there was also an incense altar in front of it. People came to this specific space in order to makes wishes before the Schwedagon and to then bestow offerings in the form of burning incense sticks or placing flowers at the altar.

The "wish-fulfilling" star-shaped area

The “wish-fulfilling” star-shaped area

I walked into the middle of the smaller star and as I was contemplating making my own wish, someone came up from behind and greeted me with a few spare words in English. It was a monk. He was short and wore glasses. He was wearing a maroon colored robe that didn’t seem to quite fit. He kept playing with it and trying to cover his shoulders while I attempted to speak to him. We had trouble understanding one another, but I gathered he wanted to know where I was from. I told him that I had walked to the Schwedagon from Ngahtatgyi Paya and he smiled as I talked excitedly about seeing the seated Buddha there. He asked me to follow him. With my experience with William still fresh in my mind, I didn’t hesitate. I was going to hang with this monk for as long as he would let me.  As we walked, he asked me the month and year I was born. I thought this was a bit odd, but I told him. He processed the information I gave him and then honed in on a particular part of the Pagoda.

View of the Schwedagon from the wish-fulfilling area

View of the Schwedagon from the wish-fulfilling area

We rounded a corner and headed straight to a brown wooden post that fronted the Pagoda. This post had a sign affixed to it with a designation written in Burmese. The monk told me there were different posts around the Pagoda and that each post was connected to a planet and faced a particular direction. These planetary posts each also had a particular animal assigned to them.  I learned afterwards that the Burmese have a strong cultural affinity with astrology and have developed their own zodiac calendar that specifically has 8 weekday signs (Wednesday is broken down into morning and afternoon parts and these 2 parts count as separate signs). Each of these weekday signs is represented by one of the 8 posts stationed around the Schwedagon Pagoda. I would have had no clue about the significance of these posts had the monk not found me. The post we were in front of faced East and it was the post designated for the Moon. Its animal sign was the tiger and the day of the week it was connected to was Monday.  Under this post was a small statue of the Buddha sitting atop a water basin and holding an empty bowl in his hands. A statue of a tiger sat on the ground in an opening below the basin. The monk handed me a plastic cup and told me to fill the cup with water from the basin and to then pour it over the Buddha. I think I had to do 12 sets of pours.  As I poured each cup of water over the Buddha statue, the monk chanted some mantras in Burmese. Once I finished, he motioned me to follow him and we snaked our way through a labyrinth of stupas and statues until we entered a small room that was tucked between some other structures. My immediate feeling as we entered was that this was a chapel room. In the forefront of this room were 2 large footprints of the Buddha with toes facing toward a trinity consisting of the Buddha flanked by 2 disciples.

The chapel room - footprints of Buddha

The chapel room – footprints of Buddha

Moving as quickly as we had done from the open-aired ritual in front of the Schwedagon to the intimacy of this enclosed chapel room had a jarring impact. The monk and I stood behind the heels of the 2 footprints. Because both footprints were filled with water, I could see our faces reflected in each of them along with the faces of the trinity.  The Buddha was in the center, so his image was split between the 2 footprints — depending on where I looked. I became intensely subdued and clear-headed. I could see the monk’s face take on a more serious look as well and he closed his eyes in prayer. He began a methodical chant. I followed his lead by shutting my eyes and becoming completely still. After he finished, he told me to put my hands in each of the footprints and to dab the water from each on my forehead. He performed the same action at the same time I did.  He tried to explain something about what we had just done, but I didn’t quite understand what he said. I could tell that we had conducted some kind of mix of Burmese astrological invocation and Buddhist practice, but I didn’t grasp the details of the meaning and import of this consecration. After we exchanged our last words, the monk whipped his robe around his bare shoulders and left. When I came out of the chapel room just a few seconds afterwards, there was no sign of him.  It was almost as if he had come to the Schwedagon that day just to find me. Serendipitous. He gave me insight into the true significance of the Schwedagon. It wasn’t some historical relic or archaeological monument that one just bought a ticket to enter, walk around, and photograph. It was alive. It pulsed. It was the center of the Center — a beating heart. People came there to connect and plug into it in many different ways depending on what they needed. As I scanned the area hoping to catch a final glimpse of the monk, I think I learned something else. A few hours earlier, I had entered the Schwedagon in a not so sure-footed or spiritually sound manner. Then, I had been given a light to follow. As suddenly as this light had come, it had vanished. It was up to me to understand the experience. To remember it. And to then — hopefully — recognize it in whatever form it may reappear.

Enter The Pagoda

21 Jun
2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

Its name can be broken down as follows: “Schwe” (or Shwe) meaning “Golden”; and “Dagon” meaning something like “hilltop” and also refers to the name of the northern district of Yangon where it sits atop Singutarra Hill. This hill is about 58m (100ft) tall, but it is wide and spans a large area. The pagoda itself rises to a height of 111m (328 ft) and tapers into a gem-laced spire that is capped with a 78-carat diamond. Recent news stories have shown barefoot dignitaries walking around the base platform of the Schwedagon. But, the first thing one must consider before making the climb towards the top is which entrance to use. There are 4 entrances – from the North, South, East, and West. Each of these entrances has its own ambience and distinct features. So, your ascension to the Pagoda platform will provide you with a different sensory (and likely spiritual) experience depending on which entrance you choose. I arrived near the West entrance of the Schwedagon in the late afternoon out of breath and off-kilter due to my experience with William at Ngahtatgyi Paya. I was about to purchase my ticket and take off my shoes before entering when I noticed that this particular entrance had a series of escalators that moved upwards under a covered corridor. Something about having my first visit to the Schwedagon occur via an electric peoplemover rubbed me the wrong the way, so I didn’t enter from the West Entrance.  Instead, I weaved my way around traffic and potholes in the sidewalk for another 45 minutes or so in order to get to the South entrance. When I arrived at the South Entrance and faced the 2 Chinthes standing sentry (half lion/half dragon statues), I could tell this was the proper entrance to use for one’s first visit.

Southern Entrance - Schwedagon Pagoda

South Entrance – Schwedagon Pagoda

I paid a $5 entry fee and camera fee, took off my shoes, and handed them to a clerk who tucked them away in shoe locker area. I entered a cavernous covered corridor of rising steps. These steps were not crumbling old stone steps. They were sleek marbled steps and cool to the feet. I saw vendor stalls on both sides of me where various trinkets, souvenirs, photographs, offerings, books, paper umbrellas, and depictions of the Schwedagon, the Buddha, and other famous Buddhist sites around Myanmar were being sold.

Interior - Southern Entrance

Interior – South Entrance

As I walked up, I noticed that every once in while there was a gap in the covered entryway where one could go outside. So, I darted through these openings and went outside to look around. I was able to see people ducking in and out of small buildings that were in the middle-area of the hillside, and then saw a tall modern-looking tower on the eastern side of the hill, which I realized was a huge free-standing elevator shaft that was used by those pilgrims and individuals who  were not able to walk up to the Pagoda. When I turned back towards the outside of the entryway itself, I was able to pick out some details that I would have never seen had I not gone outside. In one particular section there were 2 large wooden balustrades carved into giant crocodiles. The roof itself was a cascade of green corrugated iron with beautiful and intricately gilded trim. I could have spent an hour or more just wandering around the middle areas around the hillside absorbing all the incredible nuances of the design of the South Entrance and the life that had sprouted around it. But, I hadn’t yet been to the Pagoda itself and I knew that it would take me a few hours to complete one circuit around the base platform. I went back into the entranceway and continued to walk to the top without stopping.

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim - Southern Entrance

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim – South Entrance

The anticipation in me swelled as I got closer and closer. The Schwedagon is believed by the Burmese to be over 2600 years old and the hill on which sits was originally used as an internment spot for previous incarnations of religious and spiritual significance conducted by the people who lived in the area at that time. Inside the core of the Pagoda, 8-hairs of the Buddha are encased. Unlike other body relics of the Buddha which are contained in the Stupas, Dagobas, and Pagodas around the Buddhist world, these hairs were not taken after the Buddha’s death. Instead, the story is that the Buddha himself during his life plucked these 8 hairs from his head and gave them as a gift to 2 brothers who were from Burma but who had been in north India trading at the time they met the Buddha. The Buddha had just become awakened — enlightened — after spending 49 days meditating in what is today Bodh Gaya. [See previous post “Mahabodhi”: https://startupkoan.com/2012/07/24/mahabodhi%5D. The 2 Burmese brothers came across the Buddha and upon seeing him and being overcome by his presence and enlightened state, they gave him a gift of some honey cake. The Buddha had been fasting during his meditation so he gratefully accepted the food. In exchange, the Buddha gave the brothers the 8 hairs and the brothers — understanding the significance of their fateful meeting with the Buddha — were determined to take back the hairs to King Okkalapa in Burma. On their travel back to Burma from India, the brothers were robbed and 4 of the hairs were lost. However, when they opened the box containing the hairs in front of the king, they were amazed to see that there were 8 hairs again! The king seeing this as a sign made the proclamation to inter these hairs in a pagoda he would build atop Singuttara Hill. An unbroken chain of monks have guarded the hairs and the Pagoda ever since. Though the Pagoda has been attacked, burned, stricken by earthquakes, and rebuilt in parts through the centuries, it still is the single most important Buddhist shrine in Burma and perhaps the oldest Stupa in the world.

the Golden Hilltop

the Golden Hilltop

When I took my first step out from the covered walkway and onto the marbled platform of the Pagoda, I was hit by something which I can only describe as an oxymoronic — there was a harmonious cacophony of dueling and glittering colors, theme-park like festiveness juxtaposed against disciplined spiritual practice, and frenetic yet controlled circuitry. People from all walks of life were strewn around the base platform — the plinth. Some on the ground, others sitting under roofed pavilions, and others performing blessings, prayers, and prostrations in front of select posts and pillars. There were all kinds of statues — like nats (spirits from Burmese, pre-Buddhist tradition), 3-headed elephants, and all sorts of Buddhas holding every pose and mudra imaginable. There were 2 large iron bells, Bodhi tree offshoots, hundreds of mini-chedis (small Stupas), separate prayer rooms, and a menagerie of other stone, wooden, marble, and painted depictions of Buddhist iconography. I twisted my head and neck around as I tried to focus on these sights, but as I did so the slick and wet marble platform underneath my bare feet betrayed me and I nearly fell horribly on my back. I could have been seriously hurt from the fall which would have been a disaster. But, somehow I caught myself. I took a deep breath and steadied my balance. My heart was beating fast as if in syncopation with the swirling sky above. Sun and clouds kept playing hide and seek. I was game.

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.

Bones of Reverence

11 Apr

The colonial remnants of Yangon give rise to a feeling of crumbling disrepair that one may experience in other once bustling capitals. Perhaps the crumbling is not as accelerated and disheartening as what can be seen in Havana, but it is difficult to imagine these buildings getting a second life like, for example, the colonial art deco buildings which front the Bund in Shanghai. Before I set off to explore the glorious grounds of the Schwedagon Pagoda, my first taste of Rangoon would have to begin in the heart of the old city center. I walked south from my hotel and passed by a few embassies until I reached the National Museum. Inside were various treasures, gems, statues, and archaeological finds from a bygone era including the grand “Lion Throne” of the last king of Burma — King Thibaw Min — taken from the Royal Palace in Mandalay.

Bogyoke (General) Aung San Market - Yangon

Bogyoke (General) Aung San Market – Yangon

After the museum, I continued walking south and made a left on Aung San Road which took me to the Bogyoke Market. This old Market consists of a large bazaar complex with covered stores, as well as, a labyrinth of alleys and free lancing gem and currency traders. As I walked along, on a few different occasions there were children who came up to me and tried to sell me two books that were in English — one was “Burmese Days” by George Orwell and the other was a Rudyard Kipling collection of poems/short stories which featured Kipling’s “The Road To Mandalay”. Many men and women had swaths of dried ointment on their faces. I learned that this facial paste was a natural sunblock / moisturizer called “thanaka ” and was made from the bark of a mixture of different trees. Thanaka is applied to the face and once it dries it remains visible (mostly under the eyes and on the cheeks). When I first saw the faces of those locals who had applied thanaka to their faces, it brought to mind the facial markings that I’ve seen in documentaries about tribal people living in New Guinea or in the Amazon jungle. I also noticed many men wore a long sarong wrap–called a longyi– instead of pants. This was tied in a knot just above their waist and seemed to be very comfortable. I tried one of these on in the market just for fun, but decided again buying one because I was on a tight budget and didn’t want just buy things based on fancy.

Sula Pagoda - central Yangon

Sule Pagoda – standing above Yangon traffic

I turned south from Bogyoke Market and onto Sule Paya Road which not surprisingly led to Sule Paya (Pagoda). This sight was at once incredible and incongruous. There before me rose a gold spire which was smack dab in the middle of a major 4-way thoroughfare where a crush of cars, buses, and motos were driving directly to, from, and around it. This Pagoda which had served as ancient spiritual beacon for so many centuries is now a 151 foot high, 2,000-year old, gilded traffic circle!! I would have to double back and enter Sule Pagoda later because at the time I was headed to the far east side of Yangon.

Sule Pagoda's central Stupa

Sule Pagoda’s central Stupa “Kyaik Athok”

From Sule Paya, I continued south until I hit Strand Rd and from there I headed east and walked along a path which fronted the Yangon River. I saw a few jetties along the way with boats which ferried people across the river or up and down it to other cities. This walk took me past the old Courthouse, Customs House, the famed Strand Hotel, and other buildings — most of which were dilapidated and abandoned. I was headed to the Botataung Pagoda — which while not as awe-inspiring in terms of its size and design as either the Sule or Schwedagon Pagodas — nevertheless occupies an extremely special place in the Burmese pantheon of Pagodas. As described in an earlier post, “Parinirvana” (see link https://startupkoan.com/2012/08/01/parinirvana), after the Buddha died his disciples decided to distribute the Buddha’s relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — into eight parts. Whoever received any relic would have to preserve them within the walls of specialized shrines — what became Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas — depending on the country in which these were constructed. So, a “Pagoda” in its pure meaning and purpose would have to contain some physical element or connection to the Buddha. But, of course once the relics became encased within the Pagoda, the relic was never seen again, or it was only accessible by secretive corridor or chamber only known by those monks entrusted with its safekeeping. During World War II, Burma was caught between the expansionist dreams of the Japanese and a series of counter-offensives by the Allied forces. Many bombings and firefights took place all over Burma between 1942-1945. One of these firefights completely destroyed the beautiful teak and stilted Burmese Royal Palace in Mandalay.  In Rangoon, there were many air raids and during one bombing run (by the Brits) which was to target those docks and jetties being used by the Japanese, a bomb went off course and scored a direct hit on the Botataung Pagoda. This Pagoda which the Burmese believe was first built by their Mon ancestors over 2,500 years ago– at the same time as the Schwedagon — was destroyed in 1943.

Botataung Pagoda

Botataung Pagoda

It wasn’t until after WWII finished and Burma received its independence in 1948 that the Botataung was rebuilt. As the process of rebuilding began and excavations were made, the core relic chamber was found. It was still intact. This chamber was opened and inside were statues of the Buddha, precious gems, gold, Brahmanic script documenting the original founding of the Pagoda, and most profoundly — a strand of human hair and bone fragments from the Buddha himself. When Botataung was reconstructed after the war, the Burmese left the interior of the Pagoda hollow and created a maze-like path which allowed anyone to walk through the inside of Botataung. No other Stupa, Dagoba, or Pagoda from the ancient Buddhist world has been opened up in such a way to the public.

Entering the central Stupa of Botataung

Entering the central Stupa of Botataung

When I entered the Pagoda itself, it was a remarkable moment. I was used to observing such shrines from a purely external perspective. The Buddhist practice is to walk clockwise around a Stupa while reciting mantras or silently contemplating the path towards enlightenment. My practice was to use the circumambulation in order to observe these shrines from every possible angle and vantage point — both near and far. I would absorb the essence of the structure while I stood in wonder of its design, construction, and the purpose it served. Now, I was actually going inside one of these things and entering the mystery itself.  So, even though Botataung’s interior passage had only been created some 60 years before, I still had a feeling of converging with something ancient. The inside was entirely gold-plated with plastic shields covering the lower portions of the walls. There were Dharma wheels, Buddhist symbols, and other iconography. I followed a narrow path which took me to a central area that led to an opening. This opening was like a doorway, large enough for only 2 people to stand in side by side, and contained a barrier which prevented anyone from going beyond it.

Buddha's Sacred Hair Relic - Botataung Pagoda

Buddha’s Sacred Hair Relic in the central chamber of Botataung

When I took my position in the opening, I saw that there was an empty space below me where donations and other offerings had been thrown. On the ornately decorated wall across from me was a sign in English stating: “BUDDHA’S SACRED HAIR RELIC.”

Closer look at the Hair Relic

Closer look at the Hair Relic

There it was: a single strand of hair curled within a glass case which was enshrined by an ivory frame that was studded with gems, diamonds, and gold. It was difficult to see from where I stood, but it was there. I was alone for a few minutes standing there inside Botataung and I was swept up in deja vu. I was reminded of when I first sat under Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura and before that had stood under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya. These experiences were all physically separate, but were connected and part of the same consciousness. I moved aside when some other people showed up and then I made way out of Botataung. I walked around the central Stupa and came to a separate lime-green octagonal building. A sign above it said in English: “Buddha’s Body Relic Pagoda”. Inside was an octagonal glass display box and within it was a glass reliquary resting on a raised silver stand.

Inside the Buddha Body Relic Pagoda - Botataung complex

Inside the Buddha Body Relic Pagoda – Botataung complex

Within this reliquary was another small glass container that sat on a round red cushion which came out of golden lotus flower. I peered in close and saw a few white colored, pebble-sized fragments.

As close as it gets...

As close as it gets…

Unlike the Temple of the Sacred of the Tooth in Kandy where I had to imagine the Tooth resting within a small chalice within the great golden external shell that was shown to the public, here before me was something visible and unadorned. The fragments were positioned in a triangular manner on the cushion and stripped of any ceremony. But, these were not pieces of decrepit ossified tissue which had long since been sucked dry of their marrow. These were sacraments — corporal keys to understanding. When Christ said “This is my body” and then broke the bread into pieces which he distributed to his disciples this was a deliberate invocation. The Buddha never instructed that his disciples hold onto his physical body. The decision to pick out the Buddha’s relics from his funeral pyre and to then carry them to far away lands for enshrinement was one that his disciples made themselves. So, this idea of ritualized practice where faith is connected to the physical body appears to again be another common trait between Western and Eastern traditions. This practice may have been born out of triggers which were the inverse of one another — that is, the affirmative instruction given by Christ and the absence of instruction given by the Buddha. But, the end result was the same: a transformation of the physical into the spiritual. I felt a deep understanding of this concept at that moment as I viewed these fragments which was strange because I’m not a subscriber to any religion or any kind of disciplined spiritual practice. But, I did feel it…in my bones.

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