Tag Archives: Stupa

The Cosmic Mandala

29 Jul
Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) - Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

Kota (old Dutch colonial area of Batavia) – Jakarta, Indonesia (2008)

From KL, I took a MH flight to Jakarta. Upon arriving, I first found an ATM, withdrew some rupiah (Indonesian currency), and bought a snack in order to get some small denominations. I then walked out of Soekarno–Hatta International Airport to a bus stop located close to the main terminal. When the first bus pulled up, I hopped on and luckily had the right amount of small rupiah notes to pay the fare without causing a scene. But, I did not know if I was on the correct bus or not. Since it was a local bus, its destination sign was written in Bahasa and I had no idea what it said. I just had a hunch that this bus had to go somewhere near the city center because I saw others with their luggage also get on and they looked like they lived in the city. With my face pressed on the window, I could see the shadows of tall buildings emerge in the smoggy distance, so I let out a sigh of relief knowing that the bus was headed in the right direction. As we entered the city limits, it took at least 45 minutes for the bus to navigate the tangle of traffic and multiple lane changes in order to get near to Merdeka Square (which is easy to identify from afar because of the tall pillar that shoots out of it).

National Monument at Merdeka Square - Jakarta

National Monument at Merdeka Square – Jakarta

I got off at the Square which was within walking distance of Jalan Jaksa road — a hub of cheap budget hotels and eateries. JJ is nowhere near as raucous or fun as Bangkok’s Khaosan Rd, but it has that same kind of feel about it. I hadn’t booked a room, so my plan was to stroll along Jalan Jaksa and see what was available. I was only staying in Jakarta for 2 days and was not too concerned about the quality of my accommodations. The heat and dense air during my walk to JJ with my backpack soon had me encased in a net of my own sweat. I took a wrong turn or 2 and didn’t find Jalan Jaksa until I wasted nearly an hour. When I saw the first hotel, I made a beeline for it and asked for a room. The hotel had no occupancy. Not a problem. I saw 3 or 4 other hostels/guest houses in the area, so I went on to the next one — and the next one — and so on — ALL were completely booked.  I was exhausted and sat down on a bench in a leafy area that blocked the sun. For a moment I thought about heading back to the main road, hailing a taxi, and going toward the new area of Jakarta where the big luxe hotels were found. But, my stubbornness got the better of me and I was determined to find a place in Jalan Jaksa. Then — in a first for me — I actually closed my eyes and nodded off for a bit. When I woke up, I remember the sun was setting and with a renewed vigor I covered nearly every inch of the JJ area until I found the best of all possible flophouses. It was like a cement hole with a bed and no hot water — that pretty much sums it up — but I greedily took it. Jakarta is a fast-paced city of industry and is in the process of reinventing itself from regional to global economic powerhouse. One area that I had a chance to explore and which thankfully has avoided the relentlessness of modernity is the northern area of the city known as Kota (formerly called Batavia). Kota contains the remnants of a time when Java was the jewel of the Dutch East Indies. The old city plan for Batavia is still evidenced in the form of cobblestone and canals that the Dutch engineered — unfortunately, these canals also ultimately led to the abandonment of this area of the city because the stagnant water in the canals was like manna from heaven for mosquito breeding and this led to an epidemic of malaria that killed thousands of people.

Fishing Boats of Sunlap Harbor - Jakara

Schooners of Sunda Kelapa port – Jakarta

As I walked around the canals and learned about the malaria that wreaked so much havoc, my mind connected that calamity with the December 2004 tsunami which had taken place 4 1/2 years before my trip to Indonesia. The 2004 tsunami was triggered by a 9.2 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that destroyed Banda Aceh on Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island. In addition to that devastation, Indonesia had faced countless other earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in the ensuing years — the most serious of which had occurred in 2006 when Mt. Merapi blew its top and spread fire and ash all near Yogykarta which was where I was headed next. My main reason in coming to Indonesia was to visit the magnificent Buddhist structure of Borobudur and the Hindu temple complex of Prambanan. Both of these sites were clustered in Central Java and only a day trip away from Yogykarta.

Sultan's

Sultan’s “Water Castle” (18th Century) – Yogyakarta

I left Jakarta via train from Gambir station and 8 hours later, I reached Yogykarta’s Tugu station. The 8 hours was long and the coach I was in was ice-cold (with songs from the American band, Chicago, playing on some kind of constant loop), but the journey was otherwise quiet and without any of the surprises, delays, or other unforeseen episodes that I have experienced with trains elsewhere in Asia. Immediately upon my exit from the train station, I felt at ease in Yogya. There was none of the worry of taking wrong turns or passing out on a bench like in Jakarta. Yogya was designed as a walled city within which there was a main palace area  — called the kraton — where the sultan lived. This palace complex is the heart of Yogya and is where the current sultan still resides. While it is Indonesia’s second largest city, Yogya has a laid back vibe — most men wear traditional batik button-up shirts, there is a large bird market, many arts & crafts stores, and lots of quiet neighborhoods. To the south of the kraton is an old square where 2 massive Banyan trees are located. There is a tradition that has been passed down through generations where a person is blindfolded, spun around, and then attempts to walk to the center of the 2 trees. If the person is able to do the walk, stops and takes the blindfold off, and finds herself standing in the middle of 2 trees, the person will receive a blessing of good fortune and health. I was able to sit off to the side of the square and watch people actually trying to do the blindfold walk — they all ended up way off course and when they took off the blindfold, they could only laugh at how far off base they were!  That scene captured the soul of Yogya for me.

Approach to Borobudur - Central Java, Indonesia

Approach to Borobudur – Central Java, Indonesia

On my second day in Yogya, I bought a ticket with a tour outfit that did a combined day trip to Borobudur and Prambanam. Borobudur is located about 40km northwest of Yogykarta, and from Borobudur to Prambanam is about 53km which goes back towards and east of Yogya. So, the day was going to be packed in tight, but I was glad that I would begin at Borobudur where most of our time would be spent before doubling back to Prambanam (along with a stop at a Mt. Merapi overlook). These 2 incredible monuments were built within 80 years of one another starting with Borobudur’s construction taking place in the 8th century AD. It is almost unheard of in the history of mankind to have 2 different religious kingdoms grow peaceably alongside one another for about 5 centuries, but that’s what took place with the Buddhist (Sailendra) and Hindu (Sanjaya) dynasties who founded them. The religious kingdoms of these sites and the power of their respective kingdoms ultimately declined when Islam took hold as the dominant religion in Java in the 13th century and spread throughout Indonesia (although Bali still maintains its own unique Hindu-Balinese blended religious practice). Today, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world.

The world's largest Mandala

Borobudur – the world’s largest Mandala

An electrical charge coursed through me as the blackish stone pyramid of Borobudur began to peek through the lush green trees surrounding it. Unlike other ancient Buddhist sites such as Anuradhapura, Bagan, and Angkor, which were all either large centers for Buddhist learning consisting of several temples, shrines, and monasteries, or in the case of Angkor — a capital of a large Hindu-Buddhist empire — Borobudur is a standalone structure. It is solitary — yet undoubtedly interactive because one must enter it in order to experience its planes of escalating consciousness. While there is not much by way of historical record of the intent and precise meaning of Borobudur, it is generally agreed that it was built as a kind of “walk-through” Mandala in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition that depicts the Buddhist cosmos — peaking at a summit representing enlightenment.

Escalating planes of consciousness

Planes of escalating consciousness

The name “Borobudur” is possibly derived from an old Sanskrit phrase for “monastery on a hill”. Its first stone was likely laid down around 750 AD and its last was set 100 years later. It was abandoned by the 14th century and then disappeared under a layer of volcanic ash until 1815 when it was rediscovered. Borobudur is massive and densely packed with stone reliefs, carvings, statues of the Buddha in various mudras, and latticed stupas (within which are Buddhas).  From a ground view it is difficult to comprehend its perfectly designed geometry and form because of all the visually dizzying elements that pop up in front of you. But, from the sky, its Mandala design is clear. This design is virtually the same as those I’ve seen in Tibetan frescoes, but just happens to be 3-dimensional. There are 6 square terraces that lay on top of one another — the largest begins at the floor level and from there each terrace diminishes proportionally in its dimension as it ascends to the top. After the 6th square terrace, there are 3 circular terraces which mirrors the traditional Mandala design practice of fixing a circular design within a square perimeter (“Mandala” itself is the Sanskrit word for circle).

Gateway of southern staircase

Gateway of southern staircase with central stupa on the top of Borobudur

The entire structure is accessible through 4 main stairways that lead up from the base platform to the top. But, the purpose is not just to walk up one of these stairways all the way to the top. One has to complete the circuit of each terrace and then walk up on the stairs to the next terrace until one reaches the top. So, this takes some physical exertion, however, the purpose of this exercise is to allow for ample time to contemplate the life of the Buddha with the aid of the intricate storyboards carved into the sides each terrace. These carvings depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, as well as, vivid epic snapshots from the history of the people who built Borobudur. As I walked through the narrow corridors of each terrace and eyed all these visuals — it felt like being inside one of those old penny arcade-type machines where thousands of images flip by so fast that the images appear to move (and initially these carvings and images of Borobudur were painted and contained color).

Detail of terrace carving

Detail of terrace carving

When I finally I walked up the last set of stairs to the top terrace, the corridors fell away, and instead, I was surrounded by several bell-shaped stupas with diamond-shaped openings. Within these stupas, there are seated Buddhas and some tourists were sticking their hands inside the openings in the attempt to the touch them. In the middle of the platform was 1 central stupa that had no openings and stood above all the rest. This stupa is “empty” in that unlike other true stupas that were erected in the ancient Buddhist world, there is no relic of the Buddha enshrined within in it. At one time, this stupa had a pillar on top of it, but that pillar was most likely destroyed in an earthquake long ago. Other stupas that dot the top terrace had either been damaged or crumbled so that the Buddhas inside them popped up like gophers from a hole. From the top terrace, I could see the surrounding jungle, and like many riddles of the ancient world, the idea of how all the rock for this monument was quarried from the distant mountains and brought to this location baffled me. But, as I’ve understood from visits to other sacred places in Asia — one should not let the arrogance of the modern age cast generations from a millennia ago as primitives with only simple minds and crude tools. These people had hearts (and hands) driven by an almost otherworldly faith that literally could move mountains.

Stupas & Buddha scattered on top of Borobudur

Stupas & Buddhas scattered atop Borobudur

The other interesting aspect of Borobudur is that it represents the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in a region that has been (and still is) deeply rooted in Theravada.  It was the Sinhalese merchants from Sri Lanka who brought their Theravada Buddhist practice with them as they made contact with the people of Southeast Asia. The Mahayana school made its way out of the landlocked mountain passes of India, Nepal, and what is today northeast Pakistan, and from there continued to spread overland into Central Asia, China, and Tibet. But, somehow in the middle of Java, Borobudur had sprouted as a Mahayana-based Mandala (with some possible Tantric overtones as some scholars believe).IMG_0490.JPG There are still questions as to what group of people injected Mahayana Buddhism into Java. These people may have originally come from the Malay peninsula or were seafaring merchants from elsewhere who brought the Mahayana tradition with them. The only other structure that I have ever seen that can also be considered a 3-dimensional, walk-through Mandala is Gyantse Khumbum in Tibet [see post: “Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa” at https://wordpress.com/post/38471034/800/]. But, while Gyantse Khumbum is itself an incredible structure — brightly painted with 100s of individual shrine rooms with statues and frescoes located on all its terraces — it was built as a component of a large monastery complex. Furthermore, the founding and construction of Gyantse Khumbum is chronicled and supported by the historical records of Tibetan monks. Borobudur sits all by itself — there are 2 smaller Buddhist structures located nearby — but there is no physical evidence of a larger complex within which Borobudur may have sat.  On the other hand, the Hindu complex of Prambanam which was built soon after Borobudur has many distinct temples and areas where people may have lived and worshipped — most of which can still be seen today. There is also evidence of interaction between the Sanjaya Hindu dynasty of Prambanam and the Sailendra Buddhist dynasty of Borobudur, yet nothing else of the Sailendra dynasty physically remains other than Borobudur.

The end of the Buddhist road?

The end of the Buddhist road?

As I finished my survey from the top of Borobudur and began to walk down, I realized that I had reached the southernmost point of the ancient Buddhist world. Beyond Indonesia — the South Pacific & Micronesia. Below — Australia. For a moment I thought – where now?  If only I could put on a blindfold and walk out of Borobudur towards the jungle without worrying about where I would end up. But, I didn’t like the idea of fumbling off course. There was a method to these wanderings of mine, and I had to get back to where I had first found that wonder.

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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.

 

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

15 Aug

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

3 Brave Pilgrims

3 Pilgrims braving the elements

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

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Viewing platform – Golden Rock (Mt. Kyaiktiyo)

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The Golden Rock – monsoon season

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

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

Hanging off the precipice

Hanging off the precipice

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Prayer Room with monks at the Golden Rock

Prayer Room with monks at the Golden Rock

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

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Close-up of Golden Rock at point of rest

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

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.

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.

Gyantse Khumbum – The Last Grand Tibetan Stupa

30 Sep

View of Gyantse from Old Fort

I left Xigatse filled with conflict. In a way, I had contributed to the puppetry orchestrated at Tashilumpo by not saying a word about the abduction of the 11th Panchen Lama. I snapped some pics and smiled at the monks I saw there and shelled out some Yuans for the monastery’s coffers and it all rang hollow. I squirreled away my thoughts and jotted down notes about the experience as we got back onto the “Friendship Highway” and continued to our next destination, Gyantse. Earlier in the trip I had seen the 4 Tibetan drivers of our tour group excitedly pile into one of the Landcruisers and they were watching something. I became curious, so I went to the car and stuck my head inside.  There was a DVD player hung from the passenger-side sunshade and it was showing the Dalai Lama speaking in Tibetan. My tour guide was standing outside the car and he proudly said he had smuggled the DVD into Tibet from Kathmandu in order to share it with the drivers and others he would see when we reached Lhasa. The thrill on the drivers’ faces was infectious.  They hung on each of the words they were hearing and were scrutinizing all the gestures and facial ticks of the Dalai Lama. They joked and laughed loud. There was a childlike wonderment in their playfulness. It was like they were tasting forbidden fruit, but rather than feel any shame or fear about the experience, they were passing it around and each taking a huge bite. How that scene contrasted with what I felt as we drove out of Xigatse in carefully sustained silence.

Gyantse Khumbum

The town of Gyantse is known for its astonishing chorten (Tibetan for stupa) or “Khumbum” (hall of 100,000 images) as it is locally called. This chorten is part of Palcho Monastery and was built in the early 1400s. Like the Bodhnath and Swayambhunath stupas in Kathmandu, the Gyantse Khumbum has Eyes. But, unlike those other 2 stupas, the Khumbum is an interactive, multi-terraced pyramid of chapel rooms teeming with statues and wall paintings of the Buddha, wrathful Tibetan deities, and other important figures from Tibetan folklore.  Although there are a couple of other chortens that still stand elsewhere in Tibet, there is none that compares to the exquisite artistry and “in situ” magnificence of the Gyantse Khumbun. The structure itself sits within the center of a walled old town. The wall runs along the rim of the small mountain above the town. The Khumbum contains 7 floors and one can walk up to the sixth floor and stare right at the Eyes of the Khumbum that stare out over Gyantse. The interesting difference between the Khumbum and other stupas built elsewhere in Asia is that the Khumbum allows you inside it — you can enter each room that burrows inside the structure.  Most other stupas are not inwardly accessible, and indeed were built for the specific purpose of encasing some relic of the Buddha, so they were never meant to be entered. But, the Khumbum sucks you inside room after room, each with a different motif and message. It is a 3-dimensional rendering of a Mandala. It spirals upwards — each floor a square within circle — and one ascends in perfect cadence.  The path takes you into the center which is aloft and beats with consciousness.

Eyes of the Khumbum

There are 77 separate chapel rooms you can go inside as you walk up clockwise around each floor and escalate to the top. I had to go inside each of these rooms and it took me about 2-hours to complete the entire 6-floor circuit to the top floor. Each room was dark with no lights. I brought my flashlight and when I turned it on inside the room I either saw a mural painting, statue, or both.  All of these paintings and statues were created with extreme patience, skill, and brilliance. I was sad to learn that many of the statues were clay replicas because the originals had been destroyed during the liberation.  But, the murals — although some faded and worn — still evidenced the original brushstrokes by the monks who had made them.  What smacks you in the face about the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is its pronounced use of the visual arts to convey the Dharma. Somewhere in the Tibetan tradition an emphasis was placed on learning how to transform the Dharma from something that was orally passed on, discussed, and contemplated into a visual (as well as musical) form of expression that was designed for a shared experience.

Mural of the Buddha and statue of Maitreya – Gyantse Khumbum

There is no doubt in my mind that some Tibetan monks had to be great artists as well. The frescoes, murals, and statues I saw in the Khumbum (and elsewhere in Tibet) were not works that were commissioned by the monastery for the laity to paint. Wealthy Tibetan patrons did provide money to the monasteries and all monasteries were ultimately supported by the Sangha, but it was the monks themselves that created such a vivid, beautiful artistic legacy. I can only  theorize that perhaps because the focus of the Mahayana school is on the “anyone can become a bodhisattva” message that this teleological thrust caused generation after generation of Tibetan monks to seek different ways to communicate the Dharma — beyond just the verbal.  The medium of choice of 700 years ago was painting and sculpting. While other Buddhist traditions have definitely created masterworks in their designs of Stupas, ironwork, paintings, and sculptures, the intricate mandala frescoes, thangkas (silk embroidered paintings), and statues of deities created in Tibet are so interwoven with Tibetan Buddhist practice that the efficacy of the Dharma would dramatically deflate if it was separated from the art that has long been used to sustain it.

Fresco of Mandala – main temple at Palcho Monastery

The Palcho Monastery has different buildings built around the Khumbum with one temple built on an outcrop of the small mountain above it. I climbed to this temple and inside were frescoes of Mandalas that almost appeared to be a bird’s-eye view of the Khumbum. Each Mandala is like a fingerprint and is unique — no 2 Mandalas are ever alike. Each reflects the most serious mind and commitment to detail. They are rooted in geometric precision and serve as a roadmap for the viewer to follow as he contemplates the Dharma. These Mandalas are reference guides that one has to interpret in order to actively engage and ponder the specific teaching held within the painting.  When I stood at the terrace of this temple I could see the Khumbum below me and the old fort across from me on the opposite end of the town. The fort stood on top of a very tall hill. As I began to psyche myself for the long walk over to the fort, I looked down again at the Khumbum and experienced a funny thing. Its Eyes appeared to be looking up at me. I had already come face to face with these Eyes when I reached the top of the Khumbum itself and the Eyes had stared out straight ahead. But, from the vantage point of the temple located above the Khumbum, the Eyes now seemed to be lifted up and searching me for an answer to a question. I just remember that the words which popped into my head at that exact moment were, “I’m trying.”  Nothing more, but I felt the Eyes lower. It was a sensation that I can only describe as a gut-check. Lhasa was next. I had to get the mindset.

Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face

27 Aug

Bodhnath Stupa – Kathmandu (2007)

Bodhnath Stupa rises like a giant white bubble over the flat rooftops that dominate the Kathmandu skyline. I was told Bodhnath was about 6km away from Thamel and I set out to walk there. That walk turned out to be an odyssey through slope after slope, trash heaps, crossing streams, dodging traffic, and side-stepping little Nepali dogs. When I got to the temple complex, it was surrounded by a village and curio shops run by Tibetans. There were several Tibetan monasteries spread around the area and I saw many Tibetan monks with their maroon-colored robes going about their daily activities. I followed a few of them into their monastery. It sat on a hill above Bodhnath. I could hear trumpets, the low bass tones of other horns, the tinny chimes of cymbals, and the blasts of a gong. I walked up ladder to the second floor of the monastery towards where the music was coming from and I peered through the doorway. I saw the monks playing all these instruments themselves. The music was interspersed with chanting and prayer. The pageantry, musicianship, and vocalization were heavenly and were in such contrast to the austerity of other Buddhist monasteries. When the monks stopped their service, I went back outside and looked out over the railing. Bodhnath was below me.  What struck me was the precise geometry of Bodhnath’s design. The central bubbled-shaped Stupa is so dominant that one could easily overlook the plinth it sits upon. This is a terraced platform which is in the form of a “Mandala” featuring concentric blasts of whitewashed stones jutting at precise mirroring angles. There are 4 stairways leading up each level of the rising platforms to the Stupa. This was the first Mandala that I had ever seen and to appreciate its design you had to observe it from above — either from the monastery I was standing at or from one of the rooftop restaurants of the buildings encircling the Stupa. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, but the circle is formed through a geometric diagram using a square with 4 gated entrances as the base. There is a circle contained in the center of this square and the square itself is contained with an outer circle.  Many different explanations exist for how the Mandala is invoked as part of the ritual and spiritual layering of Buddhist practice — especially in the Tibetan tradition which creates Mandalas in many different media, forms, and structures. In fact, one of the primary differences I have noticed between the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the Theraveda Buddhist school is the Tibetan Mahayana’s emphasis on color, art, and geometric splendor to convey the Buddhist path. All of these things are captured within the Mandala which can take the form of a fresco, a 3-dimensional structure, or sandpainting.  The Stupa of Bodhnath stands in the center of the Mandala. It is not certain whether this Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha which was the original purpose behind the erection of these shrines. Some believe that a piece of bone of the Buddha may be contained within Bodhnath which was built around 600 AD. The  primary base of the Stupa consists of hundreds of prayer wheels that are spun by the faithful as they complete the “kora” or circuit around Bodhnath. Each of the wheels contain the following mantra written in Sanskrit on the outside: “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Instead of having to orally chant these words, one can invoke them through spinning the wheels which releases the mantra into the universe. This mantra contains 6 syllables and each word has a duality of meaning – a yin and yang.  The current (14th) Dalai Lama has explained this mantra like this: “…the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.”  When I read the mantra and the Dalai Lama’s explanation, it becomes apparent to me that the mantra acts like a “greatest hits of the Dharma”. This mantra sums up the essence of the Buddha’s journey – renunciation, the middle path, spiritual practice, and attainment of enlightenment – but personalizes it to the individual who chants it.  This idea that anyone can become a Buddha is central to the Mahayana tradition and the mantra encapsulates this concept within a mere 6 syllables.

The Eyes of Bodhnath

The most striking aspect of Bodhnath are the eyes. There are a pair of eyes painted on each of the 4 sides of the main Stupa. The depiction of eyes are unique to Tibetan Buddhist temples. None of the Pagodas, Dagobas, or Stupas that I have seen anywhere else in the world have had any human characteristics depicted on their exteriors. The core reason for the depiction of eyes comes from its connection to Mahayana Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Mahayana tradition is to not focus on the attainment of enlightenment only for the self, but to devote oneself to the enlightenment of all. Any person who is moved by such great compassion and who lives his life in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood for others is a bodhisattva. So, the depiction of the eyes on Bodhnath (or Swayambhunath – see below) is to broadcast the omnipresence of the Buddha’s teachings so that anyone can receive them. These all-seeing, never blinking eyes symbolize the universality of the Dharma which is to be shared with all people. There are no ears depicted because the Buddha did not want to hear the praise and chants of his followers, and instead of  a nose, there is a squiggle placed below and in the middle of the eyes. This is the Sanskrit representation of the number one, and, as its placement suggests, signifies the middle path.  Above each pair of eyes are 2 thick black eyebrows and in between them sits a third eye. This conveys the meditative practice Buddhism encourages in order to help purify the mind, body, and speech within oneself.

Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath sits atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. The eastern stairway that leads up to the temple is steep and is said to contain exactly 365 steps. There are so many macaques (monkeys) hopping around the wall and the steps as you get close to the temple that Swayambhunath is actually referred to as the Monkey Temple. There is a legend that a bodhisattva who lived on the hill grew his hair so long that he had a lice infestation. When he cast out the lice, they became the monkeys which now inhabit the temple complex. The sun was close to setting when I made it to the top of the stairs, and from there I noticed that I had the Stupa to myself.  Most of the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who come to Swayambhunath do so in the morning. There is a monastery on the hilltop, but I was sure the monks must have been inside having a sunset service. So, it was just me and the monkeys. Although curious, the monkeys were not the brazen kind which try to pry things from your hands or stick their hands in your pockets scrounging for food.  I did the kora around the Stupa and saw that it was flanked by 2 tall Sikhara-style temples which had been built by a Hindu King many years after the Stupa had been constructed.  These 2 flanking temples gave “Swayam-bo” (another nickname) a much different look and feel than Bodhnath.  Instead of a Mandala design, which corral visitors into 4 escalating gateways in order to circumambulate each level and gravitate towards the center, Swayam-bo is just an open circle with 2 Sikhara temples off to its left and right. The 2 temples are separate and disconnected from the Stupa. Yet, despite this separation, Swayam-bo’s design physically links the 2 great religions that came out of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is for this reason that Swayam-bo occupies an especially revered status in the minds of its pilgrims.

The Eyes of Swayambhunath

Swayam-bo’s eyes are also different.  While the eyes of Bodhnath are wide-eyed, blue, and somewhat ambivalent in their gaze, the eyes of Swayam-bo are narrowed, pale, and seem a bit cynical.  It is as if Bodhnath serves as the bigger beacon and broadly sends an “all are welcome” signal, whereas, Swayam-bo is more reserved and reticent. Swayam-bo may have a more scenic entrance than Bodhnath, but this entrance also requires the more arduous journey. It appears that one has to earn her keep in Swayam-bo’s gaze and this gaze also includes a third eye that is much more pronounced than the slight representation on Bodhnath.  The spiritual discipline and inward contemplation Swayam-bo radiates upon onlookers and pilgrims is more intense than the relaxed feel of Bodhnath. The prayer wheels around the base of Swayambhunath are more numerous, but smaller than those of Bodhnath. Each wheel carries with it the same 6-syllable mantra. I remember that when my eyes first met the eyes of Swayam-bo, I thought there was something familiar about the shape and feeling of those eyes. They penetrated through me and I could almost visualize the face that may have been behind those eyes. It was not one of the many depictions of the face of the Buddha that I had seen before. It was something or someone else. I was frustrated that despite my intense efforts at peeling through the layers of my memory, I could not place those eyes with a face from my past. I then realized it was a riddle.  The eyes, nose, and other elements of Swayam-bo may have individual symbolic meanings, but taken as a whole, there is a coordinated, veiled message there. That was what triggered the feeling of familiarity in me — there was a latent meaning that was literally staring me in the face. Bodhnath and Swayam-bo each convey the riddle differently due to their visual variations, but the understanding one can achieve after figuring out the riddle will be the same.  That is the power of these 2 Stupas and why they still stir such devotion. Their eyes beguile and beckon — they are at once fixed stares and reflective mirrors just as we are at once capable of great compassion and abject impurity.  They encourage and mind the faithful and that begets practice, method, and wisdom. Om Mani Padme Hum.

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