Tag Archives: reclining Buddha

Remains of The Wat-age

26 Apr
The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho -  Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

“Bangkok” is not the actual name of the city. The name kicks off with “Krung Thep” (which means something like “village of wild plums”) and consists of several adulatory words strung together and pronounced in rapid fire Thai which describe the city’s key hallmarks — one of which (not surprisingly) is that this is the place where the Emerald Buddha resides. Another part of the name is the call out that unlike Ayutthaya — this city is “impregnable”. Just like its verbose sprawl of a name, Bangkok is a free-wheeling, international mecca attracting all sorts of colorful characters. On the surface, a visitor to the city is bombarded with rush-hour traffic along with the incessant commercialism and hedonistic glitter of a behemoth capital of the tropics, but if one takes the time to go behind this facade, the steady pulse of Theravada Buddhism can easily be experienced in the countless temples (wats), shrines, monasteries, and other grounds of contemplation not yet swallowed up by rampant urbanism.

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Head of Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

I start first with Wat Pho which is a restored temple built over the grounds of what was likely the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The Wat Pho complex is adjacent to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The current temple design of Wat Pho was created in the early 1800s by King Rama III and houses a 43m (141ft) long Buddha in the lion/reclining pose. This Buddha is tightly squeezed within the temple and has the facial and body characteristics found in the  classical style of the Sukhothai period. The Buddha is made of a brick core and a plaster exterior that has been covered and smooth over with gold foil. Its face bears a slight smile — reminiscent of the smile of the stone Reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka (see “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR).  While not as long as the reclining Buddhas I’ve seen in Burma (i.e., the Shewethalyaung Buddha in Bago, Burma built in 994AD and 55m long — see “The Python Who Was Once A Monk” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-wW; or the 65m long Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Rangoon — see “William of Yangon” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-s1), the feet of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho contain a unique artistic flourish.

Mother-of-Pearl feet

Mother-of-Pearl feet

The statue’s feet are 3m high and 4.5m long and the bottom of each foot has been meticulously inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These mother-of-pearl soles have then been carved and divided into 108 rectangular tiles which depict specific Buddhist iconography and symbols — such as cranes, tigers, elephants, lotus blossoms, and altars. Within the center of each foot is a dense circular flower petal design which invokes the wheel of the Dharma. Behind the statue, the 108 panels of each foot are echoed in the form of 108 bronze prayer bowls placed in a row where coins may be donated by visitors.

The central prang of Wat Arun

The central prang of Wat Arun

Across the Chao Phraya River from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace complex is one of Bangkok’s best known sites — Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). This temple is lit up each night and sits on a site that dates back to the 17th century. When the Emerald Buddha was carried away from Laos and brought to Thailand, it was first placed by King Rama I at Wat Arun until Wat Phra Keo was constructed. Wat Arun has a steeply terraced middle tower (called a “prang”) that is influenced by Khmer design. The ashes of King Rama II are enshrined within the grounds of Wat Arun since he is credited with restoring the temple during his reign. Traces of the origin story of the Emerald Buddha (see previous post: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ) are found in the history of another important religious piece in Bangkok — the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit.

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The temple of Wat Traimit contains what is to believed to be the world’s largest solid gold statue: a 5.5 ton/5500kg Golden Buddha in the “vanquishing of Mara” pose. This Buddha is about 3m tall and gold to its core — unlike other “gold” Buddhas which are actually brick or stucco-based with gold-foiled exteriors. But, for over 200 years this statue sat in Wat Traimit in obscurity. It was believed to be one of the remaining intact stone Buddha images that were transported to Bangkok from the ruins of Ayutthaya and nothing more. No one suspected anything about the statue’s true nature until the 1950s when the statue fell during an attempt to move it. At first the workers assigned to moving the statue thought they had broken the statue because of the big crack that appeared. But, as they took a closer look at the cracked statue, they saw something flickering back at them. They chipped away the plaster coating and the gold Buddha emerged. It was thought that the monks at Ayutthaya had purposely tried to hide this priceless image from the invading Burmese by disguising it under a coating that would make it look like the other stone Buddha images of the old capital. When I visited Wat Traimit, the temple was in a state of disrepair and the Golden Buddha sat on a simple platform under a flat roof with little else. In 2010, the Thai government in conjunction with the Thai Sangha finished construction of a large new temple where the Golden Buddha was then placed. This new temple also has a museum section devoted to the history of the Golden Buddha.

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

Tucked off a small avenue near the busy King Rama VIII Rd in the northern district of Bangkok is another temple of note — Wat Intharawihan. At this Wat, there is a tall Standing Buddha (32m high and 10m wide) which dates back to the Ayutthaya period (17th century). This Standing Buddha has a particularly striking face with a large triangular nose. This face made such a lasting imprint in my mind that 2 years later when I was in Singapore I saw its doppleganger at the Temple of 1,000 Lights. This temple in Singapore was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m height/300 tonnes) seated Buddha known as the “Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya”.

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights - Singapore (2008)

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore (2008)

When I learned that the person who had commissioned the construction of this temple and Buddha was Thai, I was convinced that this person had to have been influenced by the face of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built many 3 centuries apart.

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount – Bangkok

Phu Khao Thong or the Golden Mount is a man-made hill that is found in the center of Bangkok. On top is Wat Saket — a chedi with gold foil applied to its exterior. Inside this chedi is a relic of the Buddha that was brought from Sri Lanka. The hill itself is actually the remains of an enormous brick chedi that was in the process of being constructed, but due to poor design and engineering this structure collapsed. During the passing centuries, the bricks eroded and the onslaught of rain and mud resulted in the formation of a big lump. King Rama V then oversaw the conversion of this lump into a hill with trees,vegetation, and a series of steps and pathways were built in order to lead people to the top where Wat Saket pierced the sky.

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

In the late 19th century, King Rama V finished building another temple in Bangkok — Wat Benchamabophit (or the Marble Temple). This tranquil and impeccably designed temple has an air of modernism about it — although it is now over a 100 years old. Inside the main temple hall is an exquisite Buddha image that was cast in 1920.  I happened to visit the Marble Temple after the tail-end of a heavy, but short rainstorm. From the moment I entered the temple grounds, all the chaos and blight of the Bangkok summer felt wiped away as if hit by a flash flood.

The Lotus Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The Seated Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The masonry and the lines of this temple are immaculate. The Buddha within its core sits serenely before a canvas of sea-blue. I felt cleansed — and it wasn’t because of the rain. It was because I had been quickly absorbed into the quiet bosom of this sacred space. I can remember singing along to “One Night In Bangkok” when it first came out in the 80s. I never really paid attention to the lyrics until the time of my first trip to the city. There’s a line in the chorus of the song that says “you’ll find a god in every golden cloister.”  No doubt this line may have various interpretations. But, it takes on a literal meaning when you do actually explore the side-streets (or “soi”) of this city because there is usually some golden image there to greet you. Some like the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit are on celebratory display. Others may be hidden beneath plaster coatings, but maybe — if one goes beyond the cacophony of Khao San Road, the sleek din of Sukhumvit, and the carny pleasure of Patpong — these still await discovery.

The Python Who Was Once A Monk

10 Sep

I woke up to more of the same monsoon conditions the next morning. There was little else to do but put my soaked clothes back on, grab a bite at the hotel, and check out. I had to walk back down the switchback path to the Yatetaung Bus terminal. The tenacity of the rain lessened with each step of my descent. At the terminal shed, I found a truck waiting to be filled with passengers. I hopped on and took a seat in the truckbed. I had told my driver to expect me back by 11am that morning, but there was no telling when the truck would actually depart from the terminal since the schedule was not fixed. When the truck finally started up after being about 3 quarters filled, I put my head down, shut my eyes, and braced my body for the jostling that it would endure on the drive down to Kinpun. Surprisingly, the trip was more mellow and faster than I expected. I got out after the truck parked and began walking towards where my driver had dropped me off the day before. Within a few minutes, my driver appeared out of a vendor stall and greeted me. I couldn’t believe his timing and thanked him for being ready to pick me up.

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

As we started the drive back to Yangon, I told him to stop off in Bago because there were a few important Buddhist sites I wanted to see there. We headed first for the Shwemawdaw Paya (or Golden God Pagoda). This Pagoda is the tallest structure in Bago which was known as Pegu during the time it served as the capital of the Mon dynasty in the 14th century. The Shwemawdaw Paya was built in the 10th century and contains a golden spire that is the trademark of most Burmese Mon-era pagodas and rises up to 114m (375ft) in height. My driver dropped me off at the entrance and I had to pay the usual entrance fee and take off my shoes. The Shwemawdaw resembles the Schwedagon in it its overall design, but sits in a much more stripped and austere atmosphere. I raised my camera to snap a few pictures, but there was nothing. A water bubble was inside the lens. My camera had been waterlogged by the experience at the Golden Rock. I tried shaking the camera, wiping it, and blowing on it– thinking that at some point the bubble would dry out and disappear. I gave up after a while and walked around the Shwemawdaw and headed back to the car a bit depressed. Our next site was the Mahazedi Paya which was unlike any other pagoda I had seen before. On first blush, it had a somewhat Mayan feel to it — like Kukulkan – the grand pyramid at Chichen Itza. The top of Mahazedi had the familiar golden spire, but its base was layered with escalating flat, white stones. In my desperation to be able to capture at least one image of this Pagoda, I tried shaking my camera back to life and clicked photo after photo until the images became less watery — maybe one of these would be clear enough.

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Near the Mahazedi was the Shewethalyaung Buddha. This was a huge, reclining Buddha that had been built in 994AD and had a length of 55 meters. Its look and feel was very different from the only century old Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Yangon.

Scene memorializing the building of the Shwethalyauang Buddha

Scene depicting dedication of the Shewethalyaung Buddha

On the backside of the Shewethalyaung, was a mosaic memorializing its construction. Just around the corner from the Shewethalyaung was a large statue of 4 different Buddha images seated back-to-back in 4 different directions. This statue is called Kyaik Pun Paya and is believed to have been first built in the 7th century. The 4 images show (Siddhartha) Buddha along with 3 other Buddhas that are part of Burmese Theravada tradition — each is 27m (90ft) tall. The eye-popping details of the glasswork and tile work in these seated Buddhas’ crowns, sashes, and fingernails are incredible; especially since they sit under no roof and are exposed to the full force of lower Burma’s sun and rain.

Kyaik Pun Paya

Kyaik Pun Paya – the 4 Seated Buddhas

Fingernail of one of the seated Buddhas of Kyaik Pun Paya

Fingernail of one of the Kyaik Pun Paya Buddhas

My camera seemed to regain some basic functioning after all my hysterical jostling and blowing. That gave me a little relief because I had not yet seen the primary purpose for my stop in Bago. I was fixated on seeing something — and this was not a temple, pagoda, monastery, or statue. It was something of deep veneration, but of the flesh. A reincarnation of a Burmese monk who had lived in the Hsipaw monastery in north Burma over 100 years ago. This monk had a special respect and admiration for animals and had been involved with the development of farming in lower Burma. When he died, a baby Burmese python found its way into a small monastery that bordered a farm in Bago. The farmers and monks noticed the docile and contemplative nature of the snake, and they had no doubt it was the monk from Hsipaw who come back to them in the form of the snake. This form then was the result of the monk’s karma. For nearly 120 years after the snake’s arrival, the farmers and monks in the area have cared for the snake — they have built the snake its own temple room, feed the snake a diet of freshly prepared whole chickens every few weeks, and bathe the snake. The snake is now over 18 feet long, 3 palms-wide in girth, and its legend is known throughout Burma. I told the driver about the snake, and he did not understand me at first. But, I had printed out the name of the snake’s monastery and pointed it out on the map I had. He let out a quick chuckle when he understood where I wanted to go. The road to the monastery was not paved, so he stopped the car about a half kilometer away and I had to walk from there. I told him I would come back quickly because I knew he had to get be back to Yangon by a certain time.

Outside of the Python's temple room

Outside of the Python’s temple room

I saw a few kids playing in the fields around the monastery. Just inside the monastery grounds, there was a statue of the Buddha seated underneath a hooded cobra which is based on a legend of how the Buddha was protected from a vicious storm inflicted by Mara after the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Off to my left was a flat and rectangular one floor building with a roof trim gilded with serpentine motifs. I entered. It was hot and stuffy inside with one fan hanging over head.

Man and Python laying together

Man and Python together

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Put your money on the Python

On one side of the room was a white tub of water which the python could use when it wanted. Posters showing monks who were responsible for the care of the pythons through the years hung around the metal-mesh windows of the room. Some of these pictures were from decades ago because the python was small enough then to be draped over a monk’s shoulders. In the right-hand corner of the room, a green satin garb hung from the ceiling. I could only interpret this to be either the reincarnated monk’s original clothing, or some kind of offering that had been left for the python. The python itself happened to be laying beneath the garb on a raised platform that was filled with cushions and ran alongside the back wall and right corner of the room. There was a man sleeping on the platform just to the left of the snake. By the man’s feet was a small table that displayed a couple of books in Burmese about the snake. The snake was huge and curled up in a flat position. My eyes followed the coils of its body until I finally found its head and saw its eyes — which were open. The python was so subdued that I saw it flicker its tongue only one time. The positioning of the sleeping man’s body and his quiet, nearly non-existent breathing was identical to that of the python. The only difference was that the snake’s eyes were open and the man’s eyes were shut!

Paying respects to the Python

Paying Respect

I went right up to the snake and there was a silver offering tray in front of it where people had left money. A woman then appeared out of nowhere and she motioned me to follow her lead. I pulled out a few Kyat and gave it to her. She brushed the money on one of the massive coils of the python while reciting a prayer. She then left the bills on top of one of the coils that was closest to her. The python was nonplussed and didn’t react at all. I tried to take a few pics of the snake and my camera again malfunctioned. My heart sank. I moved away to let some other devotees have an audience with the python as I fiddled with my camera. I was determined to capture some image of this amazing creature. As I tried in vain to get my camera to work, I felt someone standing behind me and I turned around. It was my driver. There he was barefoot and smiling sheepishly at me. He had never seen the snake before. I stood back to let him pass, and then I watched as he went to the lady by the snake and handed her some Kyat. He bowed his head and brought his hands together in supplication during the woman’s prayer. When he finished, he walked back to me and nodded which I understood as: “I’ve done my duty.” Despite his initial chuckling when I told him that I wanted to see the snake, his faith was too strong. He had been compelled to come before the python and pay respect. I wasn’t ready to peel myself away from the snake. I have read that crocodiles can live up to 90 years old and tortoises can live over 200 years, so it is not beyond reason that a Burmese python (which is one of the largest and most adaptable snakes on the planet) may live over 100 years — especially given the daily care and attention this python received from the monks and local community. Seeing the photos in the room of the growth of this snake with different monks through the decades further evidenced the unbroken chain of custody of the python. I pondered the incredible age and history of the being in front of me.  Snakes are tainted by Biblical lore and generally feared. In the Everglades region of the United States, the same Burmese pythons are alien invaders and are hunted with impunity each year.  All that was turned inside out before me.  My eyes made a final fix on the snake’s eyes. Was there any consciousness present — any manifestation of the monk’s spirit? What I felt I saw in that last moment with the snake was a watchfulness.  It was not the sleeping man who was watching over and protecting the snake, but rather it was the snake who was standing sentry. Over a century ago, this python had slithered its way into this community — perhaps to find shelter and shield itself from the scorching heat of the surrounding fields, or perhaps it was karma.  Whatever the reason, it was this community who now took refuge in the snake.

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.

The Colossi of Gal Vihara

21 Jan
The Hatadage - Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

The Hatadage – Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka (2010)

From Kandy, I hopped on a squat, 10-seat mini-bus that dropped me off somewhere in the direct center of the “cultural triangle” of Sri Lanka. I was off to explore the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, the lion rock fortress of Sigiriya, and the painted rock caves of Dambullah. This region of Sri Lanka was arid, stifling, and Serengeti-like — in dramatic contrast to the lush green hills of Kandy and the monsoon-saddled hill country where I had scaled Adam’s Peak. On these plains, the city of Polonnaruwa rose to become the seat of Sinhalese power and Buddhist culture after the fall of the Anuradhapura. I spent the day bicycling through the ruins of this once great city and was not surprised to learn that the Sacred Tooth had resided for decades in a specially constructed, circular structure here called the Hatadage. This structure had been built in the 12th century and originally had a large wooden roof and was ornately covered with stone statues, intricate moonstones, and reliefs that ran all along its sides. The roof was now long gone along with most of the statues, but the moonstones (these are like stone welcome mats each in the shape of a crescent and are patterned with elephants and other emblematic figures) which serve as the entry marker for each of the Hatadage’s 4 staircases survived the temple’s destruction. Aside from the Hatadage, Polonnaruwa is home to a remarkable set of statues carved out of a single block of granite. I have no idea how this granite found itself in the middle of the flat scrub land on which Polonnaruwa sits, but during the reign of Parakramabahu I this chunk of stone was transformed into 4 images of the Buddha– 3 of which ranked amongst the largest stone statues in all of South Asia for a time. These statues are collectively referred to as Gal Vihara and represent the consensus zenith of Sinhalese rock sculpture. Each captures the serenity and evocative power of 3 Buddhist mudras (gestures).

Largest of the 2 seated images at Gal Vihara

Buddha in samadhi mudra – Gal Vihara

The first is a seated image of the Buddha in dhyana or samadhi mudra which depicts the Buddha in deep meditation with one hand upon the other, both palms up and resting on his crossed legs. This representation of the Buddha’s hands is cradle-like and perfectly conveys the concentration and discipline necessary in navigating the path towards Enlightenment. This same image is duplicated in the form of a small stone statue of the Buddha that is found inside an artificial cave set apart from the main 3 Colossi images. The 3rd image at Gal Vihara is one that is unique in all of Buddhist sculpture. This image shows a standing Buddha with eyes closed and arms crossed on his chest with hands flat just above his elbows.

Standing image of Gal Vihara

Standing Buddha image – Gal Vihara

This posture was not one I had ever seen before and because of its proximity to the 4th and largest image — which is of the reclining Buddha in the lion pose he assumed at Kushinigar before he passed — I thought the standing image showed one of Buddha’s disciples (like Ananda) mourning the Buddha’s passing.  However, based on when archaeologists believe each of these statues were carved, some believe that the standing image was built well before the reclining image was constructed. While that doesn’t disprove the view that the sculptors still intended to create a joint scene of the standing disciple and the reclining Buddha given the large amount of stone to draw from, it would be unprecedented to have such an image dedicated to anyone other than Buddha at that time. In any case, if the standing image is of the Buddha, then many people do believe this posture does represent a mudra that has precedent in some ancient Indian traditions: the mudra of the acknowledgement of the sorrow of others. Whatever the case, this image conveys an emotional rather than spiritual or contemplative message. That’s what is radical about this statue.

Reclining Buddha - Gal Vihara

Reclining Buddha – Gal Vihara

The last image is giant and beautifully crafted. The cylindrical pillow on which the Buddha’s head rests seems so real that one can clearly grasp the depth of belief that must have moved the sculptors’ hands. In most parts of Asia where Buddhism spread there are monumental depictions of the reclining posture the Buddha assumed during the last moments of his earthly life before passing into parnirvana. As one stands before these images of the reclining Buddha and stills the distractions around oneself, there is a silent communication between the image and the observer that takes place. One that to me is about removing the fear of death, and instead, invoking the universality of the knowledge that can be attained in order to transcend mortality. I walked the length of the reclining Buddha image of Gal Vihara and then stepped back. I noticed a mound of granite slabs rising before me which faced down towards the statues. I walked up to the top of these slabs and was able to observe the whole Gal Vihara menagerie at one time and then I could see what it was — a short story.

A tale of Buddha - Gal Vihara

A tale of the Buddha – Gal Vihara

The start to the story begins with the first small seated image which has to be experienced by peering into a small rock cave. Then, when the observer comes out of the cave he is hit with the next image — which is that of the large seated statue of the Buddha captured in the throes of the deepest meditation. Next, is the image of the standing Buddha who after coming out of his meditation is now wrestling with the knowledge he has attained. Is this the knowledge of suffering in the world that most people do not see which chains them into repeating the same mistakes and reaping the same unhappiness over and over again? The Buddha integrates this knowledge as part of his teaching, and when the final moment of his life comes he is ready and accepting. The face of the Buddha in his reclining pose is depicted similarly across all Buddhist cultures.  His eyes are closed, his lips are shut, and his head is propped up by his right hand as it rests on a cushion. At Gal Vihara, the reclining Buddha’s mouth is curved upwards in a slight smile. There is a definite feeling of optimism which bursts out of the granite along with something else — effervescence.

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