Tag Archives: sapling

Ecce Dens (Behold The Tooth)

11 Dec
Temple of the Sacred Tooth - Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

Temple of the Sacred Tooth – Kandy, Sri Lanka (2010)

After the Buddha’s death at Kushinagar, his disciples agreed to distribute the remnants of his cremated body between them. These relics — pieces of bone, clothing, hair, and teeth — were divided into eight parts and each ultimately became preserved within the walls of specialized shrines.  These shrines are called Stupas, Dagobas, or Pagodas depending on the country in which they were constructed. The stories passed on from generation to generation about the perilous and epic journeys some of these relics undertook play an extremely important role in the national pride and history in the countries where the relics are found today.  Most — if not all of these relics — were never moved or relocated after they were enshrined (except due to bombings, wars, or natural disasters).  However, one relic — arguably the most visible and celebrated of all the Buddha’s relics — had no true fixed abode until the late 16th century. This relic was a Tooth — a large upper canine tooth of the Buddha to be exact. This Tooth had also been first smuggled into Sri Lanka around 370 A.D.  Just like the journey of the sapling taken from the Bodhi Tree, the Tooth was also hidden in the hair of a woman who evaded the clutches of various groups as she ventured out of India.  After the Tooth arrived in Sri Lanka, it was not simply viewed as a sacred vestige of the Buddha, but it was also infused with power — for he who possessed the Tooth had divine sanction to rule the country. Sinhalese king after king jockeyed for control of the Tooth and it passed from Anuradhapura to Polonnaruwa to Kotte and other Sinhalese kingdoms.  Every time a special shrine was built for the Tooth, the shrine was either destroyed or ransacked and yet the Tooth escaped — hidden by monks who lobbied their weight behind the king best suited to serve as protector and regent of the Tooth. Then, the Portuguese took control over the important coastal zones of Sri Lanka and slowly began to work their way inland as they tightened their grip. Although the Portuguese viewed the Sri Lankan people’s veneration of the Tooth as heathenism, they understood the power of the Tooth. They knew that they would never wield any penetrating influence over the Sri Lankan people if they did not possess it. So, the Portuguese set their sights on attacking the kingdom of Kotte where the Tooth was held at the time. Once the Portuguese sacked Kotte, the guardians of the Tooth had no choice but to hand it over. The Portuguese then shipped the Tooth out of the country to the Portuguese Bishop of Goa who unceremoniously smashed it. But, it was a fake!  The monks at Kotte had given the Portuguese a ringer and the Portuguese did not know the difference. During a volatile period in Sri Lanka’s history when the 16th century Sinhalese king, Wimaladharmasuriya I, began to challenge Portuguese colonial rule only to have another colonial power, the Dutch arrive at the same time so as to complicate the control of the island even further, the Tooth resurfaced in Kandy.

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

View of the Temple from Kandy Lake

Kandy lays in the geographic and cultural heart of Sri Lanka, and so it was here that a permanent home for the Tooth was finally built — the Sri Dalada Maligawa (The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic). There are lush hills that surround Kandy and in front of Sri Dalada Maligawa is a lake that was created in 1807 under the supervision of the last Sinhalese king, Sri Vikrama Rajasinha.  The Tooth was placed within a golden casket that has since been lavished and studded with diamonds, emeralds, and other precious stones by pilgrims and rulers of other Buddhist nations who have come to pay homage to the Tooth. Kandy has also has served as the host of the most spectacular Buddhist procession in the world — the Esala Perahera — which lasts for 10 days each year starting on the first full moon day in August.  A replica of the Tooth is carried on the back of the most magnificent elephant (the Maligawa Tusker) through the streets of Kandy. This tusker is lit up with bright lights and is accompanied by other elephants, male and female dancing troupes, drummers, reed-players, monks, dignitaries, and lastly, a statue of a standing Buddha. The taxidermied body of the most famous and longest-serving Maligawa Tusker, Raja, is even housed on the grounds of the Temple. The poya in Sri Lanka is a day when a full moon appears and it is a public holiday that allows most Sri Lankans to go to temples to pray and perform rituals.  Only on poya days does the Temple of the Sacred Tooth open its upper chamber where the Tooth’s reliquary sits.  I was lucky enough to be in Kandy on the July 2010 poya and the anticipation of the chamber doors being open on that day was thick in the air.  I knew thousands of pilgrims were in town because I was not able to find a room anywhere. I finally found a flophouse on the other side of Kandy Lake where I had no choice but to bed down that night. After I changed in my room and donned the requisite long pants, I made the walk around the lake towards the Temple. The immediate area surrounding the Temple is heavily fortified and security is tight (the LTTE attempted to bomb the Temple at one point during the civil war). But, once I was inside the Temple its bunker-like exterior was quickly forgotten and I was swallowed by the elegant and intricate harmony of tilework, masonry, and paintings around me.

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The tunnel leading into the lower chamber of the Temple

The lower floor of the main chamber building is called the pallemaluwa (pavillion of the low ground).  As I entered this room, there were 2 drummers stationed on the main pillars about 3 meters away from the inner chamber door which was closed. This door appeared to be made of iron or copper and bore ornate designs. There were 3 pairs of large elephant tusks framing it from each side.  I came to learn aftewards that this area is called hevisi mandapaya (drummers’ courtyard) and this is where the call to prayer booms on poya days through the drumming and playing of reed instruments by devotees.

Drummers' Courtyard - lower chamber

Drummers’ Courtyard – lower chamber

A broad teak staircase leads to the upper chamber of the Temple complex. When I began to walk up the stairs, I hit a sea of white. There were hundreds of people in a queue and they were nearly all clad head to toe in white linen clothes. These people were waiting anxiously for the doors of the vadahitina maligawa (Tooth Relic Shrine) to open.  I took my place in the line.  It was hot, sticky, and stuffy. People appeared to wilt around me, but no one was complaining.

In the Queue - upper floor

In the Queue – upper floor

As the drumming below continued, we stood in the line and patiently waited for the monks to open the chamber door.  It happened at 6:15pm. For at least 30 minutes or so, a steady stream of bodies whisked ahead towards the chamber. I felt like I was in a line waiting to ride a rollercoaster. The line had right angle turns that doubled-back on itself and then twisted ahead. The last part of the line veered around and in front of a wooden-barred, squared area that faced the chamber. In this area, there were monks and VIP individuals sitting on the ground.  These people chanted and prayed as they basked in a beaming glow that I could see emanate from the open doors. As I got closer to the chamber, the frenzy reached a fever pitch.  Bodies were draped on bodies, bare feet atop bare feet as we drew ever close. The combination of drumbeats, sweat, frangipani perfume, and chanting had me blitzed. My body moved ahead, but my mind was somewhere else — on another plane of consciousness. I tried to focus because I did not want to pass by the Tooth without having any ability to remember the experience.

Last turn toward the Tooth

Last turn towards the Tooth

I could see an orange-robed monk standing behind the chamber door. He would allow each person to stand for about 5 seconds and look at the golden casket that encased the Tooth and then would motion the person aside.

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

The Golden Casket encasing the Tooth

When my turn came, I strained with all my being to absorb the sight. The golden casket was set back about 2 meters from the open door and there were guards near it. It was bigger than I had expected and bejeweled beyond belief. Emeralds, pearls, diamonds, and other gems jumped out at me. What I was seeing was the outer golden casket for the reliquary that holds the Tooth. The reliquary itself is like a Russian matroyshka doll. There are actually 7 golden caskets — each of decreasing size and each placed inside the other. It is the smallest one which contains the Tooth. Pilgrims and the public only see the largest outer casket and it is electrifying. I tried to hold my gaze on its gleaming presence for as long as possible, but the swarm behind me pushed me away and I was thrown back into the line which moved away from the chamber and out towards the exit staircase.  I turned back though and was able to weave my way behind the VIP floor area where I could see the golden casket from afar, but then the chamber doors closed. A hush fell on those pilgrims who were still in the queue.  These people had travelled from afar and some held babies in their hands and others carried lotus blossoms. Each was here to lay eyes on this golden casket and seek a blessing from the Tooth.

Golden Casket - detail

Golden Casket – detail

As I waited again for the doors to open, I thought about the dramatic contrast I was experiencing. Just a few days earlier, I had walked up Adam’s Peak with nothing around me but the resolute fierceness of the monsoon winds and rain. Now, here I was completely enveloped by the flesh and pull of humanity. It was a dichotomy of extremes — one reflecting an ascetic rawness and the other smacked of the bacchanalian. Yet, the visceral spirituality of each was the same.  When the chamber doors opened again, I caught another glimpse of the casket and was then gripped by something. My legs wobbled and my face flushed.  Things had finally caught up with me and the adrenaline which had buoyed me through the heights of the last few days succumbed to exhaustion. I steadied myself, but I knew at some point I would have to wheel around and summon my last bit of energy to walk all the way back to the flophouse. For a moment, I had no idea where that was. For a moment, I had forgotten my self.

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Pilgrimage – Part I

4 Aug

Mahabodhi Temple – Bodh Gaya, India (2009)

Like the Buddha, I was 35 when I first entered the forest at Magadha. But, that was a coincidence of course and most of the forest had long been cleared. The kingdom of Magadha itself was nothing more than a historical footnote. I had been pent-up for 15 hours in a rolling tin can called the “Marudhar Express” with no A/C because I had foolishly gone cheap and had settled for a 3rd class ticket. Big mistake – especially when the train stopped with no explanation in some field in the middle of nowhere for 3 hours and the temperature was about 90 degrees or more and I ran of water. But, I loved it in some masochistic way. I had the feeling of “earning it”. When I finally arrived, I was rabid in anticipation of what I would see and soon it appeared before me. A slender pyramid pierced above the forest canopy. It was unlike any other structure I had seen before – yet it was oddly familiar. It brought to mind some kind of Mayan-Egyptian hybrid and unlike much of the rest of the north Indian plains that I had recently traveled through, there was no trace of any Mughal design. There was a reason for that since the original design for this pyramid-shaped temple dated back to the 5th or 6th century, and the first Mughals did not appear on the scene until nearly 1000 years after. The area was now called Bodh Gaya and even the air had a different smell and thickness to it. This had little to do with humidity. It was late June and the monsoon had not yet arrived to the subcontinent. The land was parched to a dusty crisp after being beaten into submission by a cloudless sky and scorching sun for the last 3 months. But,the trees were still green and the grass around the temple complex was damp. Big spiny lizards scurried about. Something about the air was heavy. I tried to slow my approach so that I could take in my first looks with reverence. I stood at the top of a small hill that looked down into the temple complex. The Mahabodhi Temple was the focal center of the complex which contained hundreds of smaller shrines and other mini-temples erected in strategic corners. There was a lot to absorb because of the Mahabodhi Temple’s tiered and complicated design. The exterior of the temple had different levels and had intricate carvings of the Buddha and stories from his life cascading up and down and wrapping around the structure. The central spire was replicated in the form of quarter-sized spires that were built around it and yet connected to the same base platform. There was so much geometric detail and patterning that it was dizzying. I walked down the stairs and made my way to the temple’s opening. Inside the main chamber of the temple was a beautiful statue of the Buddha in a sitting pose with a saffron robe tied tightly around his body. There was one nun in a coffee-colored robe sitting on the floor — off to the right hand side of the statue. She was in deep prayer and I dared not disturb her. This Buddha image was thought to have a very close likeness to the Buddha himself and was very old. It also sat behind glass which was rare to see. The true “seat” of the Buddha though — the vajrasana or “diamond throne” — was directly behind the temple. This was the truly epic sight and as I went back outside and continued to walk clockwise around the temple, I stopped. There in front of me was the Tree. I will get into the story of this Tree later on, but when I first saw it, I thought it looked like a huge lung. The way its branches spread wide and low rather than grow straight up made it appear to breathe. The area around the trunk and base of the tree had been gated, but it was easy to look in between the railings. A grey slab of sandstone had been placed by the great Emperor Ashoka on the spot where the Buddha had sat over 2 millenia ago. The slab was now covered by a shiny orange-gold fabric and above it was a golden roof with lotus-like designs peering down. This was the diamond throne. The Great Awakening had flowered from that very spot.

Vajrasana (“Diamond Throne”) – Bodh Gaya

The Buddha himself had told his followers and the other people who had come to see him as he reclined in Kushinagar before his death that it would be of great benefit to them and anyone else who was interested in his teachings to visit those places associated with key events in the Buddha’s life. It was no surprise then that the site of his Enlightenment was very quickly turned into an important pilgrimage destination. After many centuries of thousands of monks, lay people, and other pilgrims streaming in and out of the forest to pray and bear witness at the Mahabodhi Temple, the diamond throne, and the Tree, the surrounding town itself was transformed into something resembling a Buddhist college town. It was dotted with many Buddhist learning centers, schools, and temples. Bodh Gaya became a microcosm of all the Buddhist cultures around the world. I could tell the difference between the Sri Lankan, Thai, and Tibetan monks who were living in the town based on the colors of their robes. As I ducked in and out of these different temples, I could see how each bore the unique and idiosyncratic hallmarks of the country it represented, but I also saw how each was still connected to the wheel the Buddha had spun. There was no doubt – even after the other travels I would make – the location of the Buddha’s Enlightenment now served as the spiritual heart of the world religion he had spawned. It was a tangible nerve center that pulsated out to all the other sects and traditions of Buddhism. Around the grounds of the Mahabodhi Temple were signs that marked each of the areas where the Buddha had meditated during those 7 weeks after he attained Enlightenment. Each sign made reference to some remarkable insight or interaction the Buddha had experienced at the applicable location. I tried to view the Tree from each of these 7 different vantage points. I envisioned the Buddha doing the same thing — looking back to where his old self had last been before becoming Awakened. I sat down in one of those spots and was able to relax and enjoy the peace and quiet of the moment. My swollen bare feet had been through a lot over the last week and I thought it best to give them some quality time off, so I brought out a book and did some reading. I learned about Princess Sanghamitta and it was because of her prescient act many centuries ago that I was able to have this experience.

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