Tag Archives: Schwedagon

To the Wonder (again)

9 Jul

DSCN4355.JPG

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.

DSCN9551.JPG

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.

MumbaiPagoda.jpg

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.

interiorCeiling.jpg

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.

Relics.jpg

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?

DSCN8617 2.JPG

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.

DSCN8841.JPG

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.

 

Advertisements

Laos Calling

8 Sep
Young Laotian Monks looking over the Mekong - Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Young Monks looking over the Mekong – Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Vietnam on one side, and Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia on the other. The center of the country is mountainous with huge karst stone formations shooting out of the earth. There are various rivers intersecting the country from the north to the south and east to the west — the most important of which is the Mekong. In addition to its role in moving people and goods around the country and beyond, the Mekong holds an important position in the Lao national identity because it separates the Laotian capital of Vientiane (or Vieng Chang – translated as the “City of Sandalwood”) from the north-central border of Thailand. So, this river is like a moat and has insulated and defined the borders of those city-state kingdoms which have vied for power in the region throughout the centuries. The Lanna Kingdom was the largest of these regional powers and it dominated a good chunk of north-central Southeast Asia for over 200 years. At its zenith, this kingdom stretched from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (which are part of Thailand today) north up to Luang Prabang (the oldest and first capital of Laos). Luang Prabang is today one of the best preserved and temple rich cities in all of Asia. During its time as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Buddhism flourished and a unique Laotian style of artwork employing stencil and mosaic designs was created. But, the same geographic features of Luang Prabang which allowed it to be insulated and free from destruction at the hands of foreign invaders were ultimately the reasons that led to its unseating as capital. The city is like an island that is cut off by the confluence of both the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers from the rest of mountainous terrain around it. Thus, any foreign army that wanted to imprison the Lanna King simply had to surround the city by stationing troops on the 2 main sides of the rivers’ embankments and then block the one overland escape route out of the city. It was because of this vulnerability that King Chaiyasetthathirat (or King Setthatirath) decided in the 1560s to move his capital from Luang Prabang to the southern city of Vientiane.

Ha Phreow - Front facade

Ha Phreow – Front facade

One of King Setthatirath’s first acts at his new capital was to build a temple specifically for the purpose of enshrining the Emerald Buddha. This temple was called Ha Phreow and the Emerald Buddha resided there for the next 215 years until 1778 when a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri (who would become King Rama I of Thailand) stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken to where it is now housed in a temple in Bangkok [See previous post for history of the Emerald Buddha: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ%5D. Ha Phreow was later burned down by another Thai ransacking of Vientiane in the 1820s and was then rebuilt by the French in the 1920s. Today, the inside of Ha Phreow rings a bit hollow because the Emerald Buddha is not there, however, there are a some finely detailed Buddha bronze and stone images located in the front of the temple entrance and other images are placed along the temple’s sides.

Stone Buddha image in double abhaya mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “double abhaya” mudra – Ha Phreow

Most of these Buddha images are about 3/4 the average human size and I found three of them particularly interesting because of their unique mudras. All three images showed the Buddha standing with a cape-like robe and were dark in appearance. The first depicted the Buddha with his hands pointed outward with palms out.  This mudra is known as the “No Fear” or “Don’t Fight” mudra (or the double abhaya mudra). One story credits this gesture to a pose the Buddha used when an elephant charged at him. When the elephant saw the Buddha’s hands push out towards it, the elephant stopped in its tracks and sat down before the Buddha. Other traditions maintain that the Buddha used this gesture in interceding between a conflict between two warring tribes. This mudra has a vaunted position in Laotian Buddhism and one specific image depicting a small standing gold Buddha in the double abhaya mudra is revered above all others in Laos. This image is called the “Pra (or Pha) Bang” Buddha and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD. It was given as a wedding gift by a Cambodian king to the Lanna king who married his daughter in the 14th century. The Pra Bang Buddha can still be seen in a special temple in the Laotian city that was named after it — Luang Prabang.

Buddha "Calling Rain" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Calling Rain” mudra – Ha Phreow

The other statue that caught my eye was one where the Buddha had his two arms stretched at his sides with his hands flexed downwards. This mudra is known as the “Calling Rain” posture, and, as its name suggests, its origin is tied to a story where the Buddha summoned the skies to rain during a time of draught. The third image I gravitated towards was of the Buddha with his hands crossed — not at his chest — but at his abdomen. When I saw this statue, I immediately thought back to the standing Buddha image I had seen a few years before at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. [See post “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR%5D.

Buddha "Sorrow of Others" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Sorrow of Others” mudra – Ha Phreow

In that particular Gal Vihara image, the Buddha is standing with his hands crossed at his chest, and the prevailing explanation for this mudra is that it is meant to capture the “Sorrow of Others”. But, at Ha Phreow, the statue I saw had the hands crossed at the Buddha’s stomach area. This had a peculiar effect because upon first glance it looks like the Buddha’s hands are cuffed or in chains. But, there are no chains or bindings of any type on this image. Instead, the image gives a feeling of “resignation” — meaning there is an acknowledgment that suffering in the world exists. Because of that feeling, there is thought by many scholars that this gesture of the Buddha’s hands crossed at his lower body is still a type of “contemplative mudra” similar to that of the statue at Gal Vihara. Both images reflect “sympathizing” with the suffering that is in the world and the plight of those afflicted by such suffering.

Aside from building Ha Phreow, King Setthathirath oversaw the construction of many other important temples in Vientiane — one of which was Wat Si Muang (1563). Wat Si Muang has 2 very intriguing aspects to it. First, unlike any other Buddhist temple that I have ever seen, there is a foundation pillar that sits in the main altar of the temple in an elevated position that is usually reserved for a central Buddha image or other Buddhist iconography.

Foundation Pillar - Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

Foundation Pillar – Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

The main altar room of Wat Si Muang is in the rear hall of the temple. A replica of the Emerald Buddha stands before the wall that separates the rear hall from a larger meeting area which is the front room of Wat Si Muang. As I passed  through the front room and my eyes locked on the Emerald Buddha in front of me, the importance of this image to the Laotian faithful became apparent. Although close to 250 years have passed since the Thai forcibly took the image out of Vientiane, the Lao people have not forgotten its importance. I saw photos and other renderings of the Emerald Buddha tacked in other temples and in stores around Vientiane — as if anticipating the return of the Emerald Buddha one day. I walked by the replica and passed through a doorway that led me to the rear hall of Wat Si Muang. This hall was much smaller and jam-packed with images. In front of the main altar was a black wooden stela image of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. This Buddha image was splattered with pieces of gold foil that had been pressed on it by pilgrims and those seeking blessings. Directly above this image on an elevated platform were other Buddha statues and in the middle of these statues was a gold-painted stone pillar which was draped in ceremonial cloth. This pillar is thought to date back to the initial founding of Vientiane itself and legend has it that at the time this pillar was lowered into the ground a pregnant Lao woman by the name of “Nang Si” was compelled to throw herself into the pit where she died.  After the temple was finished, a tradition began where pregnant Lao women came to the temple to ask for special blessings.

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

The second interesting aspect of Wat Si Muang is that it sits on a site that was formerly part of a Khmer temple or complex. Directly outside of Wat Si Muang’s rear hall are the remnants of crumbling black bricks which at one time may have been shaped in the form of a temple platform. This area has now been turned into a shrine and has various Buddha statues placed around it and the central portion of the ruins has a white cloth wrapped around it. Since the Khmer Empire at its height did stretch into Laos, it is not surprising that the Khmer likely did build temples around Vientiane. (In the lower half of Laos, there is “Wat Pho” which is a large Khmer ruin consisting of scattered buildings and other structures designed in a very similar style as those of the Khmer capital of Angkor.) So, Wat Si Muang may ultimately sit on the site of what was originally a 12th or 13th century Khmer temple and outpost. I am not sure how much archaeological study has taken place at the grounds of Wat Si Muang, but given the “monolith” like foundation pillar and the Khmer brick mound sitting in plain sight, it likely has lots of secrets under the surface which will probably never be unearthed.

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Another temple of interest in Vientiane is the Ong Teu Mahawihan (Temple of the Heavy Buddha). This temple has the distinction of containing the largest Buddha image in all of Vientiane. This image is made of bronze and some other lesser metals and is called the “Phra Ong Teu” Buddha. King Setthathirath built the temple housing the Phra Ong Teu image, and although the temple was destroyed by the Thai in the 1820s, the Buddha image itself survived. Phra Ong Teu sits on top of a high platform and is flanked by 2 standing Buddha images. I was lucky enough to see this Buddha image soon after the temple had been restored. The inside of the temple is incredibly colorful and the lighting used has a magical effect. I wish the same could be said of That Luang which at one time may have been the most impressive Stupa in all the Lanna Kingdom. That Luang was built by King Setthathirath in 1566 for the purpose of enshrining a bone relic of the Buddha. It has a round base that is very reminiscent of other Stupas in the Buddhist world– such as Sanchi in India, Bodhnath in Kathmandu, and certain Dagobas in Sri Lanka. But, its core rises up into a tight spire similar to Burmese-style Pagodas. Unfortunately, That Luang was completely demolished by the Thai. The French began their first attempt to rebuild it starting in the early 20th century, but this reconstruction stalled and limped along until it was finally finished some time in the 1950s. The French for some reason relied on sketches of That Luang made by a Frenchman in the 1860s– which was after That Luang had already been destroyed by the Thai. I have no idea why they would do that. I can only assume that in their colonial haste, the French just wanted to erect something in order to show their good intentions and didn’t want to fuss with the notion that a “Stupa” could be anything more than a physical monument.

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

When I first approached That Luang from its southern entrance, it appeared dazzling. It had a similar beacon-like quality as the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. However, as I got closer the stupa quickly lost its mystery. I could only see large chunks of cement coated in cheap yellow paint. It looked like an armory or missile depository. The outer walls of the stupa had more character than the Stupa itself.  I walked around the Stupa a few times — and absorbed its being from every angle and vantage point. It just did not create the feeling of reverence like other Stupas I had experienced. There was a feeling of stillborn glory and it seemed “forced”.  There were no streams of pilgrims or people circumambulating, praying, or leaving offerings within the shrine areas of the Stupa.

That Luang

That Luang

While perhaps the lack of religious practice at That Luang may be attributable to the Marxist leanings of Lao politics over the last few decades, I also think that it is difficult to breathe the mystical into modern concrete. Sadly, That Luang, Wat Si Muang, and virtually all other temples in Vientiane that King Setthathirath had constructed during his reign (the “golden age” of Laotian history) were destroyed by the Thai in the early 19th century.

Wat Si Saket (1818)

Wat Si Saket (1818)

The oldest surviving temple in Vientiane today is Wat Si Saket which was built in 1818 — over 250 years after King Setthathirath. It is not clear why the Thai spared this temple when they attacked Vientiane in the 1820s. Some historians think that because Wat Si Saket has elements of Thai design, it may have reminded the Thai of their own Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) in Bangkok [See post “Remains of the Wat-age” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6%5D. The Thai actually used the grounds of Wat Si Saket as their military compound and their soldiers slept and ate there while waging their siege on Vientiane.

Restored area of wall - Wat Si Saket

Restored area of wall – Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket is surrounded by a large square wall with a covered walkway. All along the inside of the wall are triangular alcoves which are filled with thousands of small seated Buddhas. This wall originally was painted with pastel colors of blue and pink and some small sections of the wall have been recently restored showing this vibrant coloring. The inside of Wat Si Saket is actually much smaller than what may think from viewing the exterior of the temple. No photographs are allowed inside the temple because of its delicate state. There are faded murals on its walls and a small altar sits at the back with an old wooden seated Buddha image. I was able to snap a photo of a small portion of one of the temple’s murals through a window while standing outside of the temple, but could not manage a photo of the old Buddha image which was shrouded in darkness from my standing point outside the temple.

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

The roof of Wat Si Saket has 5-tiers — each staggered broadly above the other.  Based on what I would see after traveling north to Luang Prabang, I was later able to understand the difference of the roof and overall design of Wat Si Saket as compared to the style of temples that King Setthathirath constructed in the 1500s. In those other temples, the roof is pancaked tight and soars nearly vertically into the sky. The middle sections of the roofs of those temples also have what look like large candelabras on them. These roof elements serve as symbolic representations of sacred Mt. Meru and contain 7 distinct spires — each symbolizing different stages towards enlightenment. The center section of the highest roof of Wat Si Saket only has a reliquary (or small vessel to carry a Buddhist relic or scripture) with 2 phoenix-like birds standing on either side. The reliquary design is very similar to classical Thai design and is almost basic when compared to the elaborate roof elements found on the temples of Luang Prabang.

Roof element - Wat Si Saket

Roof element – Wat Si Saket

My next stop was then Luang Prabang.  I was not planning on flying there from Vientiane. I wanted to take a bus, so that I could see the Laotian landscape. I had heard the drive to Luang Prabang would be slow and consist of grueling mountain stretches, but I was game. It couldn’t be worse than my “massage road” experience in Cambodia… I remember that exact thought as I took a swig from my bottle of Beerlao during my last night in Vientiane. I was watching the sun lower itself behind a bend of the Mekong River. A couple of fishermen were out on their long wooden boats and casting their nets. There was a live band in the restaurant that was singing John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me”.  Tears trickled down the bridge of my nose — not because of the sights or the song — but because I had ordered some insanely spicy Laotian beef dish. As I felt my lips blister, I took some strange enjoyment out of it. Little did I know how apt that feeling would be in describing my trip the next day.

 

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

DSCN2073

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.

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)

DSCN1931

The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha

DSCN1940

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

DSCN1943

The Ngahtatgyi Buddha

DSCN1949

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.

%d bloggers like this: