Tag Archives: Tantra

Fear & (Ego) Dissolving in Haa

29 Mar

Legend, mysticism, and historical facts sometimes appear to be one and the same in Bhutan. There are so many stories and accompanying evidence about the existence of incredible spiritual practitioners, the taming of demons, and hiding of relics that it is difficult to separate the purely fantastical from actual events. In my previous post, I shared the story about the phantom cell phone ring and strange photos/videos that appeared on my friend’s phone while we were inside the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten (KYNC) outside of Punakha. So, I had personally experienced inexplicable phenomena in the country and had a grasp for how stories passed on orally from ancestral generations of Bhutanese could possibly strain credulity. The day after our visit to the KYNC, we left Punakha and stopped first at Chime Lhakhang which was a monastery built in 1499 A.D. and dedicated to Lam Drukpa Kuenley (known as the “Divine Madman”) who was a Buddhist master and poet, as well as, fun-loving drunk and vagabond.

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Image of Drukpa Kuenley (the Divine Madman) and his “flaming thunderbolts”

Similar to the Senge Dradog manifestation of Guru Rinpoche, Drukpa Kuenley embodied the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of “Crazy Wisdom” and wielded his own version of a flaming thunderbolt — a large wooden phallus. Depictions of phalluses and their ejaculatory flames are found painted on the sides of houses, or dangling like wind chimes from the rooftops of the village buildings surrounding Chime Lhakhang. Because Drukpa Kuenley employed an irreverent approach to his Buddhist teaching, he used the phallus as a way to force people to look at those darker aspects and truths of reality that society did not want to acknowledge. He was known to shake up unenlightened persons through his drunken sermons where he wielded the phallus for emphasis of his teachings. Apparently, his unique method of sermonizing also resulted in Drukpa Kuenley’s seduction of thousands of women who would seek his blessing. One of Drukpa Kuenley’s most well-known feats was his subjugation of a fearsome demoness who lived in Dochu La. After he had captured this demoness, he buried her in a mound upon which Chime Lhakhang was later built.

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Pilgrims in the courtyard of Chime Lhakhang

When I walked towards Chime Lhakhang, I saw a sign in English that provided a short history of Drukpa Kuenley and the monastery. The sign stated that Kuenley was born in 1455 and died in 1570, so he would have lived to 115 years old. I don’t know if this was his actual age or an exaggeration, but he was a Tibetan Buddhist mystic with an unassailable joie de vivre and the force of his personality could have extended his life well beyond the average lifespan of the time.

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Entrance to main temple of Chime Lhakhang

Chime Lhakhang consists of one primary building which is the temple room and it is surrounded by an outer wall of prayer wheels. I remember 2 immediate sensations overtaking me when I walked inside the temple: first, the charred smell of juniper and butter lamps; and second, the crisp, creaking sounds of the dark planks of wood on the floor. We were able to see the actual wooden phallus that Kuenley used over 500 years ago in his teachings. This same phallus is still sought after for blessings by pilgrims and others who come to Chime Lhakhang praying for health, well-being, and fertility. Based on the large number of worshippers at Chime Lhakhang and our guide’s own veneration of Drukpa Kuenley, it was evident to me that the Divine Madman’s legacy is very much alive in the hearts and minds of the Bhutanese today.

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In the land of smiles – outside wall of Chime Lhakhang

Our next destination was in the far western reaches of Bhutan — the Haa Valley.  As had been promised by our guide when we had first arrived in Punakha, when we returned through the Dochu La pass and came to a designated prayer flag area, we got out of the car, took a few minutes to seek a blessing for safe passage, and then fastened our own prayer flags (which we had blessed at KYNC) on top of a hillock.

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Fastening prayer flags

We then continued west for several hours until we reached the highest vehicle road in Bhutan at Chele La which is at a height of 3,988m/12,700+ft. We stepped out for some air at Chele La and walked through corridors of tall white mandihar spirit flags erected in memory of deceased relatives. The combination of the thick cottony fog and the fluttering of the flags produced an eerie, ghostly sensation which foreshadowed our upcoming stay in Haa.

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Mandihar spirit flags – Chele La

Haa is a rural outpost that primarily serves as a military base and training site for both the Indian Army and Royal Bhutanese Army. Since Haa is close to the Chinese-occupied Tibetan border, Bhutan has enlisted the support of its neighbor, India, in order to maintain a large army presence in the event that the Chinese invade Bhutan. Haa recently opened to tourists in the early 2000s, and at the time of my visit in 2016, there were only 2 hotels in the town. My friend and I stayed in a historical, 2-story farmhouse on the outskirts of Haa and we were dropped off there in the late afternoon. Our guide and driver stayed in one of the hotels. We walked through the surrounding area of our farmhouse and saw meadows, rocky creeks, empty shrines with glowing butter lamps, a strangely-shaped cow skull, other scattered bones, and no signs of people except for the distant, chilling sounds of a buzzsaw. When night fell and we returned to the farmhouse, none of the lights inside worked. I fumbled through the dark on the first floor of the farmhouse and somehow managed to find a fusebox. I instinctively flipped all the switches and –voila– we had lights which was a godsend since we only had a small flashlight and both the bedrooms and bathrooms were on the second floor. When we walked up the staircase to the second floor and found the bedrooms, a large cockroach or beetle scurried through the sheets of my friend’s bed. He ended up sleeping on top of the sheets as a result. During the night, the farmhouse seemed to come alive with various squeaks and thuds, and at one point, we both heard footsteps that appeared to come from the wooden staircase. I was too sleepy to investigate, and instead, held my breath in a mix of fear and anticipation of something or someone entering my room. However, nothing happened and I assumed that perhaps the caretaker of the farmhouse had walked up the stairs late that night in order to check on things. But, we never saw anyone at the farmhouse during our stay.

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Serene but spooky scenes at Haa

When our guide returned the next morning to pick us up, we mentioned the strange sounds and the issue with the lights at the farmhouse. He let out a chuckle and apologized, but then casually remarked that on the same day of our arrival, 2 Japanese tourists had also been scheduled to stay at the farmhouse. However, they arrived there earlier, took one look at the farmhouse, and then had demanded to stay at one of the hotels in town instead! They ended up staying at the same hotel as our guide who learned about the story through his chatting with the guide of the 2 Japanese tourists.

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Haa Dratshang/Lhakhang Nagpo (White Chapel) from 7th Century

Perhaps because of its remote location and possible poltergeist vibe, Haa contains some very interesting Buddhist sights. We first visited Haa Dratshang (also known as Lhakhang Nagpo or the “White Chapel”) which houses the monastic order of the Haa Valley. The grounds of the White Chapel were being renovated and the buildings had been scrubbed clean and were gleaming. It was hard to believe that the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo had constructed both the White Chapel and Lhakhang Karpo (the “Black Temple”) on the same day so long ago in the mid-7th Century A.D.

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Lhakhang Karpo (the Black Chapel)

When King Songsten Gampo descended from the mountains of Tibet and entered the Haa Valley, he wanted to initially construct 108 monasteries. He released one white pigeon and one black pigeon in order to scout locations for the first 2 monasteries. Where the white pigeon landed is where he ordered that the White Chapel be built, and where the black pigeon landed is where he had the Black Chapel built. We walked about a quarter of a mile to the Black Chapel which was not connected to the same complex as the White Chapel. The Black Chapel is actually gray in color and consists of one squat building which was unlocked for us by a monk. The Black Chapel was built on the remains of a lake and inside it there is a trapdoor that leads to where a lake spirit resides.

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Shek Drak hugging the cliffside above Haa Dratshang

From the Black Chapel, we drove slightly up one of the nearby hillsides and then did a short hike up to the cliffside shrine of Shek Drak. When we arrived at the shrine, we waited for a monk to open the locked door and allow us inside the shrine which contained an altar and prayer area used for meditative retreats.

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Cliff-face view of Shek Drak

While Shek Drak provided for outstanding views of the Haa Valley below, it was not the cliffside shrine I had come to see. My primary reason for coming to Haa was to see the Juneydrag (or Juneydrak) Hermitage which was a shrine shrouded in spiritual power and the home of a relic belonging to a dakini (Sanskrit word for “sky dancer” or a powerful female spiritual priest). This dakini was Machig Labdron who lived from 1055 to 1149 A.D. She was born in Tibet and traveled throughout the region and into what is today Bhutan. Machig Labdron not only mastered Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhist traditions, but also spawned her own Buddhist spiritual lineage which took hold amongst her followers and was passed on through today.

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Image of Machig Labdron on rocks outside of Juneydrag Hermitage

The key aspect of spiritual practice that Machig Labdron mastered and taught is called “chod“. This intense meditative practice refers to the complete cutting off or separating of one’s ego from all attachments. The goal of this practice (as I understand it) is to disassociate oneself from the shackles and obstructions of the physical world by visualizing the dissolution of these mental chains, and then connecting to the emptiness of consciousness that actually binds everything. An interesting aspect of chod practice is the use of fear to heighten the intensity of the ritual. As a result, practitioners will seek out places like graveyards and other fear-inducing places in order to optimize their chod practice.

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Juneydrag Hermitage – 8th Century

One look at the precarious perch of Juneydrag Hermitage on the cliff overhead made it clear to me why Machig Labdron had sought this location for her meditative practice. This small shrine is built over a cave in the cliffside where Guru Rinpoche himself had meditated in the 8th Century. Two centuries later, Machig Labdron had climbed up to the same cave for her own solitary retreat. She had left behind a relic from her stay — her right footprint was imprinted on the sidewall of the cave. I was intrigued by the possibility of seeing this footprint and it brought to mind my previous pursuits of the Buddha’s footprint on the summit of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, as well as, the 2 giant footprints I saw in Luang Prabang, Laos (see posts: “Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak) – Prologue” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-hZ and “Summit (or Fellowship Found)” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-ja; and post: “Leaving Nothing But Footprints” at https://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Lq). The veneration of these footprints in stone (petrosomatoglyphs) has a long tradition in Buddhist Asia. But, here at Juneydrag, was the chance to see a footprint that was not tied by legend to the Buddha himself, but to someone else. Yet, I couldn’t help think about how much of Machig Labdron’s story was fact versus fiction. Some stories about Machig Labdron say she was originally born as a male and then transformed into a female after studying and mastering the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Despite my possible doubts, I was on a mission to find out what was inside Juneydrag and so I headed up the trail to the shrine with my guide in tow.

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The hermit of Juneydrag emerges from below

After about an hour of zig-zagging on and off the trail, hoisting ourselves up rope pulleys, and climbing wooden ladders, we came to an entrance door that was locked. This door was not not connected to the shrine itself, but instead was part of an outer barrier built on a narrow part of the trail where it was difficult to climb around or over it. I knocked on the door and waited for someone to come. My guide rather quickly gave up and said sometimes the hermit who is the keeper of the shrine leaves to get supplies, or will not respond because he is in deep meditation. I decided to knock one more time and then yelled out “kuzu zangpo la” which means “hello” in Bhutanese. Miraculously, a figure clad in red flowing robes emerged out of small dwelling below us. It was the hermit. He wore a wizened face and seemed to be from another world. He didn’t say much as he unlocked the door and then whisked my guide and I towards the entrance of the shrine.

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Stepping down into the cave temple at Juneydrag

As we stepped down into the mouth of the cave, we passed by demon-like figures and Tibetan Buddhist symbols painted on the rock walls. The interior of the cave was very small, and aside from a few flickering candles, there was not much light. The hermit motioned me to go to the lefthand side of the cave and there it was: the delicate imprint of Machig Labdron’s right foot. It was undeniably a human-made foot imprint. I knelt and touched Machig Labdron’s stony toes 3 times as the hermit chanted. I then placed an offering of a few Bhutanese ngultrum (Bhutanese currency) at the base of the small altar inside the cave. My guide had never seen the footprint either, so he also made an offering and received a blessing from the hermit. There was a near telepathic energy exchanged between the hermit, my guide, and myself as we stood in this 1,300 year old space and our eyes bounced off the footprint to the gnarled rocky interior of the cave and to one another. I definitely felt a communicative bond and a sense of shared warmth between the three of us although we didn’t say one word.

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With the hermit of Juneydrag (2016)

When we felt it was time to exit, we walked out into the sunlight and I sheepishly asked if I could have a photo taken with the hermit. He agreed, but asked that I not share the photo. Since 4 years have now passed after my visit to Juneydrag and I have read that many of the hermits in Bhutan rotate between caring for shrines and temples all around the country, I’ve decided to post my photo with the hermit for the first time here. I do so only with the utmost respect and profound gratitude for this man and the disciplined watch he kept over Juneydrag. While I may never be able to have the spiritual discipline or capacity to practice chod, I have tried to be mindful of adopting the following lesson attributed to Machig Labdron:

Approach what you find repulsive, help the ones you think you cannot help, and go places that scare you.”

Though our visit to Haa had real moments of suspense and spookiness, it all made sense. There can be harmony between the power of fear and the quest for understanding.

Mystery and Man at Bagan

22 Oct
Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Burma (2011)

Bagan, Bagan, Bagan.

Dhammaget Temple (left)

Dhammayangyi Temple (left) – Built in 12th Century

DSCN2366Like a mantra those words cycled in my brain during my 2-hour flight on Air Bagan from Yangon.  When the small plane took off and went above the monsoon blanket above the city and into crystal blue sky, excitement slapped me in the face. Despite the awesomeness of the Schwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock, Bagan was going to be the highlight of my trip to Burma. There are places you remember — so massive in impact and experience — that they elude the grasp of words. I spent 3 days pedaling around on a bicycle and basically had the whole archaeological park to myself. That’s not an exaggeration. At the risk of minimizing this spellbinding and enchanting place, let me first provide a few facts about the old Kingdom of Bagan (formerly, Pagan). It was the first true “capital” city of Burma and is located smack in the center of the country. Its central geography and layout alongside the Irrawaddy River allowed for easy access and trade within the country as well as with foreign peoples. From the Gulf of Mottama in the south, Sinhalese sailors were able to steer their boats up the Irrawaddy to Bagan where they stopped  for trade, supplies, and rest. They also brought with them their Theravada faith which spread like wildfire amongst Bagan’s Mon inhabitants. From the west and north, Indian and Chinese merchants came to Bagan and brought with them the Mahayana and Tantric Buddhist schools along with Hindu and Vedic traditions.

Bagan Skyline

Bagan rooftops

Between the 9th and 13th centuries,  Bagan ultimately became the center of Buddhism in the world. Its plains swelled to over 10000 temples and pagodas at its zenith. There were over 3000 monasteries and all Buddhist traditions were represented and studied there alongside traditional Mon religious and folk teachings. No question though that Theravada Buddhism left the most enduring legacy here. Each King who came to rule Bagan during its 500 year reign sponsored the construction of his own set of temples and pagodas.  These temples all rose into the sky with pinprick accuracy in dimension and purpose and featured elaborately designed corridors, stairways, altars, and chambers.  During my drive from the airport, I was whisked through “new” Bagan which was a blur of grey cement buildings and dusty roads where Burmese citizens today live. I then passed through a tree-lined road that led to “old” Bagan — the archaeological park. I was lucky enough to be staying in a bungalow in old Bagan so I would have access to the park as soon as I left the hotel compound. It was 3 days of exploration absorbed through flared nostrils, chapped lips, and bleary eyes. It felt like a safari.  I would get up early, do a bike ride to a different area of the park, walk and climb into and atop temple after temple, and then head back to my hotel at sundown. There were large black scorpions squashed on pathways and huge colonies of bats in some temples. Some gates to temples were locked and others had dark tunnels and passageways that could only be passed through with a flashlight. But, these gave way to secretive frescoes, mosaics, and the most amazing statues of the Buddha “in situ”. That was the best part.

DSCN2241 DSCN2393Within most of the temples in Bagan are multiple statues of the Buddha — each unique in their image and effect and some powerfully set off with electric lights within the dark chambers where they stand or sit. Each face conveys a specific feeling. Somehow these statues had not been stolen away by imperialist or marauding powers and ended up in a faraway museum. They were still here — sitting or standing in the exact spots where they had first been placed. Some may have been falling apart — alabaster coverings gone, paint chipped away, pieces lopped off by earthquake or pillage — but most were largely intact.

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Standing Buddha inside Ananda Temple

Elephant fresco - Sulamani Temple

Elephant fresco – Sulamani Temple (12th century)

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Fresco of nat (Burmese deity) inside Sulamani Temple

Only an incredibly devout people could have so carefully chiseled, molded, and gilded these Buddha statues through each passing century of Bagan’s heyday. But, then in the late 13th century, the Mongols swept down into Burma from China and the inhabitants of Bagan had to desert the city and no further temples or pagodas were built there afterwards. Over 2000 temples and pagodas have survived to the present day.

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The Golden Sikhara of Ananda Temple in background

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Bupaya (originally built in 9th century) on the banks of the Irrawaddy River

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Shwezigon Pagoda (11th century)

The lust to see every major temple and pagoda in the park drove me to push myself beyond exhaustion and common sense. I ran out of water at one point and was way out in the north-west reaches of the park where there was absolutely nothing but parched brush-land and remnants of brick structures.  There was no shade in order to ward off the pounding of the sun. There was no trail or path for my bike to take and I had no choice but to walk and carry my bike on my shoulders in some places.  To make matters worse, my bike’s rear tire was flat.  In the distance I saw what appeared to be a modern building — like some kind of watchtower. I thought it was a mirage because there was nothing else around it and it seemed ridiculously out-of-place. As I walked up to it, I looked up in bewilderment. It was indeed a watchtower — complete with an elevator that took you to the top in order to survey the plains of Bagan stretching out below.  I went inside and found a restaurant on the first floor, but there was not a soul there. I paced back and forth and made some noise until one person finally came out to greet me. I bought 3 bottles of water and hydrated myself. This person did not speak English, but I could tell he was amused by the sight of me chugging down the water in breathless gulps. I made it back to my hotel that night with my legs and back annihilated. Yet, I got up the next day and repeated the experience — this time to the far southern area of the park.  I dug deep into every corner of Bagan that I possibly could — spelunking through temple caves, inhaling the musty odors of untouched corridors, and sitting in chamber rooms in quiet contemplation. But, it was not enough.  You cannot condense a 500 year epoch into 3 days on a bike.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Dhammayangyi Temple

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The Buddha and the Maitreya inside Dhammayangyi

The highlights of my wanderings through the temples and pagodas of Bagan were: Bupaya (the oldest /and smallest pagoda first built in the 9th century – it sits right above the Irrawaddy River and was likely the first consecrated Buddhist site in Bagan);  the Shwezigon Pagoda (which is thought to have served as the template for the design of most other pagodas in Burma);  Dhammayangyi Temple (the largest temple in Bagan — almost Mayan in design and aura); Dhammayazika Pagoda (a compact, faded golden pagoda); Ananda Temple (likely the most glorious temple in Bagan with 4 incredible standing Buddhas inside 4 separate chamber rooms); Thatbyinnyu Temple (tallest structure in Bagan); Sulamani Temple (magical frescoes); and Shwesandaw Pagoda (thought to contain a hair relic of the Buddha).

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple (12th century)

On the afternoon of the second day, as I was pedaling around and a bit lost, I saw a familiar pyramid-like spire in the distance. When I arrived at the structure, I was surprised to see a very accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple found in Bodh Gaya, India. The Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya was built in the 5th or 6th centuries and was constructed at the site of the Bodhi Tree where the Buddha had attained Enlightenment. It is perhaps the most important temple in Buddhism. (See “Pilgrimage – Part I” http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-4f). King Htilominlo of Bagan had commissioned the construction of a temple based on the designs and specifications of the Mahabodhi Temple. It was finished in 1218 AD. It was a revelation for me to see that here in Bagan which is many thousands of miles away from Bodh Gaya, the King and his people were able to construct such an accurate replica of the Mahabodhi Temple — about 700 years after the Mahabodhi Temple itself had been built! They did not have the benefit of photographs or the ability to share information and images like we do today with such ease. The King had to have received handwritten sketches and designs of the Mahabodhi Temple which were most likely carried overland from India to Bagan. And then — one hard to actually build the temple based on those sketches and designs.

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Mahabodhi Temple (13th century)

Although the Mahabodhi Temple of Bagan is smaller in size and doesn’t dominate the skyline like the original Mahabodhi, it contains the same intricate square patterns of Buddha engravings that run up the length of each side of the main temple structure in the same way as in the Mahabodhi. I was blown away by the way these people had exchanged ideas in such a progressive manner.

Thatbinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple (12th century)

On my last day, I climbed to the top rung of the Shwesandaw Pagoda with wobbly legs, found a flat stone, and sat down waiting for the sunset.  A light wind whistled through the plains and swirled around the pagoda. I looked out toward the north of Bagan and tried to envision how each of the temples that dotted the landscape before me had been built. For 500 years, this place had been the center of the center — a bustling crossroads between India and the Far East. Teeming with monks, buzzing with scholarly debate, and filled with streams of students from all the great Buddhist traditions of the time. Ruled over by Kings and served by a unified populace who must have reached deep with themselves and found the belief that caused them to literally move mountains in order to create temple after temple on these plains.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwesandaw Pagoda (11th century)

Then, it all stopped. The monks and people vanished. The Kings moved south to rule. All that was left were the temples. I slowly scanned the scene before me starting from my far left and moving to my right. I noticed an almost supernatural symmetry in how the temples and pagodas before me were spaced between one another and within the framework of the mountains that bordered these plains.  We often look back at our ancestors of long ago with wonder — but it is sometimes the wonder of disbelief tinged with the presumption of our own superiority.  When we dismiss the accomplishments of our ancestors with questions or statements of “how could they do that” with their “primitive tools” and “lack of technical knowledge or science”, we ultimately shortchange ourselves.  Mankind has always wanted to fundamentally understand the following: Why Are We Here?  What Came Before? and What Comes After?  The quest for answers to these 3 questions has driven us to continue to strive further into the physical and metaphysical — into ourselves, the environment, and space. Yet, despite the modern age and its global connectivity which allows for the passing of knowledge across thousands of miles with a double-click, we are perhaps ultimately no closer today to answering these 3 questions than those Buddhists who had meditated on them through 5 centuries at Bagan. These were centuries similar to mankind’s more recent achievements in the industrial age, and likewise, witnessed the incredible exchange of ideas and concepts between different cultures and culminated in the construction of skyscraping monuments. I gripped the stone beneath me hard.  I wanted the mineral deposits from the stones seeped into my skin and underneath my fingernails. Human hands had built this place. Hands that belonged to a powerful and determined people — moved by something profound.  I wanted to be moved by that as well.

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