Tag Archives: Yangon

The Python Who Was Once A Monk

10 Sep

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

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

Mahazedi Paya, Bago (2011)

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

Shewethalyaung Buddha

Shewethalyaung Buddha

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

Scene memorializing the building of the Shwethalyauang Buddha

Scene depicting dedication of the Shewethalyaung Buddha

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

Kyaik Pun Paya

Kyaik Pun Paya – the 4 Seated Buddhas

Fingernail of one of the seated Buddhas of Kyaik Pun Paya

Fingernail of one of the Kyaik Pun Paya Buddhas

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

Outside of the Python's temple room

Outside of the Python’s temple room

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

Man and Python laying together

Man and Python together

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Put your money on the Python

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

Paying respects to the Python

Paying Respect

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

To Be A Rock and Not to Roll [The Route Up Mt. Kyaiktiyo]

7 Aug

I was soaked to the bone, tired, dehydrated, and bogged by doubt. I had come to a fork somewhere in the middle of a road that was cloaked in a monsoon cloud. I flashed back to my climb up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka which had occurred almost exactly a year to the day I now found myself [see previous post regarding the encounter with Adam’s Peak: https://startupkoan.com/2012/11/02/sri-pada-adams-peak-prologue/].  That had turned out to be an incredible experience — but this time I may have taken things too lightly. I was glib — not prepared, had no map, no food or water. There were 2 paths before me. I could see no more than 3m in any direction. The rain pounded down in a manner that I still cannot properly describe. This was invasive and insidious rain. I was carrying a pathetic excuse for an umbrella and wearing a thin poncho, windbreaker, t-shirt, shorts, and sandals. I had my camera and a small daypack tucked between my shirt and bare skin. Everything inside — the pristine U.S. dollars, my passport, hotel voucher, etc. — was in jeopardy of being ruined.  If I chose the wrong path, I probably would not have realized it for a long period of time, and then I would probably be too exhausted to walk back.  I stood there mutely, licking the rainwater pooling on the corners of my mouth — at an utter loss.  I was on a journey to get to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo in eastern Burma. The elevation is only about 1100m (3400ft), but this is no ordinary mountaintop. It is where the holy Golden Rock sits. The Golden Rock consists of a large round boulder — perched at a ridiculously precarious angle atop a small cliff-face. The boulder is covered with layers and layers of flattened golden foil placed by the faithful over the centuries. A 7m (24ft) golden pagoda spire has been placed on the top of it. Inside this spire is a single strand of hair which belonged to the Buddha.  It is this hair which keeps the boulder from rolling over the precipice on which it rests — oblivious to the winds, rains, earthquakes, and other natural and manmade disasters that smack against it.  From the second I had seen an image of the Golden Rock, I knew I had to make the journey.  I had come during the monsoon season which was the “off” pilgrimage season, and so the route would be more arduous and the conditions unpredictable.

Betel Nut seller - Bago market

Betel Nut seller – Bago market

My trip had begun that morning from Rangoon where I had booked a driver to take me about 150km east through the old town of Bago, across the mouth of the Gulf of Mottama, and then up to the small village of Kinpun. Kinpun is more or less a mountain base camp where travelers and pilgrims can pick up supplies before venturing to Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The most common way to get to the top of mountain and see the Golden Rock is to hop on one of the specially outfitted trucks which come and go during the morning until the late afternoon. These trucks have flatbeds with rows of wooden slats/benches that people can sit on. The trucks zoom up the winding road until they reach the Yatetaung bus terminal. No vehicles are allowed to go any further than this terminal. From there, one has to walk up to the top of the mountain which should take about 45 minutes to an hour.  I had reserved a room at one of the 2 hotels on the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo which was close to the Golden Rock, so my plan had been to get to the hotel and check-in by 2pm and then spend the rest of day until sunset at the Golden Rock. I would come down the mountain the next day and my driver would meet me in Kinpun and take me back to Rangoon.  When I arrived at Kinpun on the day of my trip up the mountain, I found one of the trucks waiting for passengers.  I paid the truck driver around 1200 Kyat and climbed onto the truckbed and found an open slat to sit on.

A bit of a squeeze - but headed in right direction

A bit of a squeeze in the truckbed – but at least no rain

Sitting in the back of a truck - headed toward Mt. Kyaikhtiko

Securing bags while driving up

Within a few minutes afterwards, all the slats were occupied by other people — who seemed to be locals. There were no backs to the slats, but despite the cram and having elbows, knees, and arses in one’s face, it seemed cozy.  It was not raining at Kinpun and while the sky was cloudy there was the occasional glimmer of sun. The truck began driving up the mountain which transformed into a lusher landscape with each twist that took us higher. People were chatting and laughing along the way. One of the men who I assumed was an assistant of the driver was securing bags and luggage that had been stored in the front compartment of the truckbed while the truck was doing hairpin turns. I was cautiously optimistic that perhaps the monsoon would skirt around the mountain, but then — like we crossed some boundary — the heavens opened and the rain fell — HARD. Everyone in the truck put their heads between their knees and tried to shield themselves.  All voices abruptly quieted and only the swishy sounds of switching gears and the truck sliding along the wet road remained.  I remember clutching my camera and daypack tightly against my stomach and silently counting off the minutes — thinking that the 10 miles up to the bus terminal would not take more than 30 minutes.  But, as the rain kept hitting me, I dropped the counting and just steeled myself to stay warm and focused on the walk up to the top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo that was waiting for me.

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

Truck at Yatetaung bus terminal

When the truck pulled into the bus terminal — which was nothing more that an iron shed help up by a few posts — I disentangled my legs and arms from the person next to me, shook off the rainwater, and walked down the step-ladder that was affixed to the truck dock. I looked out of the shed and hoped to find a storefront with a roof to run under before figuring things out. As I scanned the scene, I met the eyes of a very young female Buddhist monk in pink who was barefoot and standing with other female monks collecting alms from a few people in the area. She didn’t have an umbrella with her and her robes were drenched. She struck me as completely ambivalent.  When the alms collection finished, she trudged off in the mud and disappeared in the mist like an apparition.  I darted out of the shed to a small building across the way. The mist was getting heavier now and visibility was starting to get reduced.  It was around 1pm and I had to get moving.  I found a sign in Burmese with an arrow pointing up and to the left. I interpreted this to mean: “Golden Rock – This Way”.  After a few strides up, I was confident I was headed the right way. Then, something made me turn around and look behind me. I did not see a single person around — anywhere. What happened to all the people who had come up with me on the truck?  There was no trace of them. The mountain and the rain seemed to be waiting just for me.

Enter The Pagoda

21 Jun
2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

2 Chinthes at West Entrance of Schwedagon Pagoda

Its name can be broken down as follows: “Schwe” (or Shwe) meaning “Golden”; and “Dagon” meaning something like “hilltop” and also refers to the name of the northern district of Yangon where it sits atop Singutarra Hill. This hill is about 58m (100ft) tall, but it is wide and spans a large area. The pagoda itself rises to a height of 111m (328 ft) and tapers into a gem-laced spire that is capped with a 78-carat diamond. Recent news stories have shown barefoot dignitaries walking around the base platform of the Schwedagon. But, the first thing one must consider before making the climb towards the top is which entrance to use. There are 4 entrances – from the North, South, East, and West. Each of these entrances has its own ambience and distinct features. So, your ascension to the Pagoda platform will provide you with a different sensory (and likely spiritual) experience depending on which entrance you choose. I arrived near the West entrance of the Schwedagon in the late afternoon out of breath and off-kilter due to my experience with William at Ngahtatgyi Paya. I was about to purchase my ticket and take off my shoes before entering when I noticed that this particular entrance had a series of escalators that moved upwards under a covered corridor. Something about having my first visit to the Schwedagon occur via an electric peoplemover rubbed me the wrong the way, so I didn’t enter from the West Entrance.  Instead, I weaved my way around traffic and potholes in the sidewalk for another 45 minutes or so in order to get to the South entrance. When I arrived at the South Entrance and faced the 2 Chinthes standing sentry (half lion/half dragon statues), I could tell this was the proper entrance to use for one’s first visit.

Southern Entrance - Schwedagon Pagoda

South Entrance – Schwedagon Pagoda

I paid a $5 entry fee and camera fee, took off my shoes, and handed them to a clerk who tucked them away in shoe locker area. I entered a cavernous covered corridor of rising steps. These steps were not crumbling old stone steps. They were sleek marbled steps and cool to the feet. I saw vendor stalls on both sides of me where various trinkets, souvenirs, photographs, offerings, books, paper umbrellas, and depictions of the Schwedagon, the Buddha, and other famous Buddhist sites around Myanmar were being sold.

Interior - Southern Entrance

Interior – South Entrance

As I walked up, I noticed that every once in while there was a gap in the covered entryway where one could go outside. So, I darted through these openings and went outside to look around. I was able to see people ducking in and out of small buildings that were in the middle-area of the hillside, and then saw a tall modern-looking tower on the eastern side of the hill, which I realized was a huge free-standing elevator shaft that was used by those pilgrims and individuals who  were not able to walk up to the Pagoda. When I turned back towards the outside of the entryway itself, I was able to pick out some details that I would have never seen had I not gone outside. In one particular section there were 2 large wooden balustrades carved into giant crocodiles. The roof itself was a cascade of green corrugated iron with beautiful and intricately gilded trim. I could have spent an hour or more just wandering around the middle areas around the hillside absorbing all the incredible nuances of the design of the South Entrance and the life that had sprouted around it. But, I hadn’t yet been to the Pagoda itself and I knew that it would take me a few hours to complete one circuit around the base platform. I went back into the entranceway and continued to walk to the top without stopping.

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim - Southern Entrance

Crocodile and Gilded Roof Trim – South Entrance

The anticipation in me swelled as I got closer and closer. The Schwedagon is believed by the Burmese to be over 2600 years old and the hill on which sits was originally used as an internment spot for previous incarnations of religious and spiritual significance conducted by the people who lived in the area at that time. Inside the core of the Pagoda, 8-hairs of the Buddha are encased. Unlike other body relics of the Buddha which are contained in the Stupas, Dagobas, and Pagodas around the Buddhist world, these hairs were not taken after the Buddha’s death. Instead, the story is that the Buddha himself during his life plucked these 8 hairs from his head and gave them as a gift to 2 brothers who were from Burma but who had been in north India trading at the time they met the Buddha. The Buddha had just become awakened — enlightened — after spending 49 days meditating in what is today Bodh Gaya. [See previous post “Mahabodhi”: https://startupkoan.com/2012/07/24/mahabodhi%5D. The 2 Burmese brothers came across the Buddha and upon seeing him and being overcome by his presence and enlightened state, they gave him a gift of some honey cake. The Buddha had been fasting during his meditation so he gratefully accepted the food. In exchange, the Buddha gave the brothers the 8 hairs and the brothers — understanding the significance of their fateful meeting with the Buddha — were determined to take back the hairs to King Okkalapa in Burma. On their travel back to Burma from India, the brothers were robbed and 4 of the hairs were lost. However, when they opened the box containing the hairs in front of the king, they were amazed to see that there were 8 hairs again! The king seeing this as a sign made the proclamation to inter these hairs in a pagoda he would build atop Singuttara Hill. An unbroken chain of monks have guarded the hairs and the Pagoda ever since. Though the Pagoda has been attacked, burned, stricken by earthquakes, and rebuilt in parts through the centuries, it still is the single most important Buddhist shrine in Burma and perhaps the oldest Stupa in the world.

the Golden Hilltop

the Golden Hilltop

When I took my first step out from the covered walkway and onto the marbled platform of the Pagoda, I was hit by something which I can only describe as an oxymoronic — there was a harmonious cacophony of dueling and glittering colors, theme-park like festiveness juxtaposed against disciplined spiritual practice, and frenetic yet controlled circuitry. People from all walks of life were strewn around the base platform — the plinth. Some on the ground, others sitting under roofed pavilions, and others performing blessings, prayers, and prostrations in front of select posts and pillars. There were all kinds of statues — like nats (spirits from Burmese, pre-Buddhist tradition), 3-headed elephants, and all sorts of Buddhas holding every pose and mudra imaginable. There were 2 large iron bells, Bodhi tree offshoots, hundreds of mini-chedis (small Stupas), separate prayer rooms, and a menagerie of other stone, wooden, marble, and painted depictions of Buddhist iconography. I twisted my head and neck around as I tried to focus on these sights, but as I did so the slick and wet marble platform underneath my bare feet betrayed me and I nearly fell horribly on my back. I could have been seriously hurt from the fall which would have been a disaster. But, somehow I caught myself. I took a deep breath and steadied my balance. My heart was beating fast as if in syncopation with the swirling sky above. Sun and clouds kept playing hide and seek. I was game.

William of Yangon

10 May

On the day I was to visit the Schwedagon Pagoda, I squeezed in a side trip to see 2 other sights. I first walked north of the hill where the Schwedagon sits and then sloped down into a “people’s park” area that was closed off to the public. Past this park was an army monument of some sort and then I found myself strolling along on a busy road. I had only a snapshot map of this part of the city and the street signs were written only in Burmese. So, I was mostly going off instinct as I roamed about and after about an hour of aimlessness, I admitted to myself that I had to be going in the wrong direction. Since I was looking for 2 huge statues, I knew that these had to be housed under very large roofs and the road I was walking on showed no signs of leading to any big buildings. So, I turned around and scanned the horizon in the opposite direction. There in the distance above the palm trees, I saw a reddish-rust colored roof. It was enormous — like the size of an airplane hangar. I turned and started walking towards it.

View of Chaukhtatgyi Paya from Ngahtatgyi Paya

Roof of Chaukhtatgyi Paya (on right) from window in Ngahtatgyi Paya, Yangon (2011)

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The Chaukhtatgyi Buddha

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From Feet to Head – 65m

I was looking for the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha — a 65m (213ft) long statue of the Buddha in the lion pose he held at Kushinagar prior to his death. Although just over a century old, this image was known for capturing the Buddha in a particularly beautiful way. When I got to the grounds of the Chaukhtatgyi complex, I first entered an area where there was a labyrinth of alleyways with corrugated iron roofs. I followed one of these alleyways and it took me through a monastery which was in bad shape. There were fragments of smashed windows and charred cement rooms with nothing in them. I saw a few monks milling about silently, but it was clear that most of the monks were gone. I read later that a lot of the monks in this monastery had been arrested or fled during the 2007 uprisings in Yangon. I hooked a right into one of the corridors I could see rising upwards and followed it until I reached the main building which contained the roof I had seen from afar. I took off my shoes and entered a huge hall. The space had the feel of a warehouse. There were large iron bars, pillars, posts, and other exposed framework propping up the large roof. Near the center and occupying most of the interior space of the hall was the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. I was jarred by what I saw. This was a Buddha depicted in shiny porcelain white with bright red lips, thick protruding black eyelashes, fingernails and toenails painted in pink, and eyes encircled in light blue. On his head was a golden tiara-like crown of gold and jewels and his body was wrapped in a flowing golden robe detailed with diamonds and silver trim. The bottom of his feet contained various symbols of Buddhist iconography organized in neat columns and rows. A small raised platform was erected a few meters away from the head of Chaukhtatgyi which allowed people to view the statue from close to eye-level with the statue’s head. DSCN1934From this vantage point, I grasped the enormity of the statue. It didn’t fit within the viewfinder of my camera or my own sight line. The image could only be seen in one take when viewing it at a slight angle. I stepped down from the platform and I looked up at the Buddha’s right arm which was propping up his head. There was clearly a “come hither” attitude that emanated from the statue. This was a sensuous and seductive Buddha — something much different from what I had ever seen. His eyes were wide open and he wore an enticing smile. This depiction was incongruent to the story of the Buddha who because of his debilitating pain and sickness was not able to make the journey back to his birthplace in Lumbini. Instead, when his physical body could no longer carry him, he had no choice but to lay down and talk to his disciples and followers from a position on the ground. In other reclining Buddha images — including that of Gal Vihara [see previous post: “Colossi of Gal Vihara” at www.startupkoan.com/2013/01/21/the-colossi-of-gal-vihara] — the Buddha’s eyes are closed, his head is lowered, and there may be just a trace of a smile on his face as he passes into Nirvana.DSCN1932 The blissed out images of the reclining Buddha I had previously seen were much different from the glammed up Buddha before me. But, as I walked around the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha and saw how its beauty was set off against the stark nuts and bolts interior of the huge hall, I understood the contrast. The industrial interior made sense. It provided an austere frame in which to effectively illuminate the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. It conveyed a vivid illustration of how even in the face of death, there was transcendent beauty.

Entrance to Ngahtatgyi Paya

Entrance to Ngahtatgyi Paya

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The Ngahtatgyi Buddha

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Side view of teak throne

After I exited the Chaukhtatgyi Paya, I looked over the landscape in front of me and I could see brass spires of the next sight rise up from another hill across the street. This was the Ngahtatgyi Paya. I had to walk up a long stairway to get to this pagoda. There was also a $2 entry fee, which I paid with my crisp dollars that were accepted without question. I took off my shoes again and went inside. The room was dark and a completely different experience enveloped me than what I had just felt at Chaukhtatgyi. Right in front of me was a large seated Buddha wearing a pointed crown encrusted with precious gems and diamonds and a robe that appeared to have an armored sash or vest over it. This statue was framed by a mammoth teak throne which was carved in intricate detail and patterns. Again, I had never seen a Buddha like this. It had the same white face and painted features as the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha, but that was where the similarities ended. This seemed to be a warrior Buddha. I walked around the statue ogling the teak throne– the wood used to build it must have been insanely heavy to raise and affix to the statue let alone carve with such flourish. As I came back out from behind the Buddha, a man was looking at me. He was wearing a longyi, a simple dark collared shirt, and eyeglasses. He was not Burmese. He said “Hello” to me in English and I was startled at first since I had not met a foreigner so far during my time in the country. He told me his name was “William” and that he had been living at the monastery on the grounds of the Ngahtatgyi Paya for the last 2 years. He was an American and was probably in his 60s. He told me he was studying Buddhism and living alongside the monks at the monastery. Many questions flooded my brain as I took in William. He did not seem to be a burn-out or hippy, but something about him struck me as…disingenenous. He certainly was attempting to blend into Burmese society with his garb, but he gave me the feeling of perhaps not being so truthful about how or why he was in Yangon. I wasn’t in the mood to ask him a barrage of questions in order to debunk or flesh out his story further. I decided instead to ask him about the Ngahtatgyi Buddha and what he knew of it. He told me the word “Nga Htat” meant 5-tiered or 5-story which applied to the layering of the roof that contained the Buddha. The Buddha itself was over 14m (45ft) tall. He also said that the gems, diamonds, and gold in the Buddha’s crown were worth more than $2 million US dollars.DSCN1953DSCN1952 I tried asking him a bit about how the government was treating the monks in the country and he said things had settled down and things were OK now. His answers were short and he was soft-spoken. I couldn’t make out whether he was there to serve as an unofficial guide to foreigners who came to the pagoda, or whether he was there to pray. I told him a little about some of my other travels and interest in how Buddhism evolved as it spread through Asia. After chatting for some time, I felt the day was slipping away from me and I had to go to the Schwedagon. So, I thanked William for the conversation and told him I had to go. He entreated me to stay and to go inside the monastery with him to eat and meet with the monks. I told him that I had plans to spend the rest of the day at the Schwedagon and I wanted to be there as the sun went down. I said that perhaps I would come back to Ngahtatgyi at the end of next week when I returned to Yangon after exploring other parts of the country. He seemed let down and then I sensed that he wanted money. He never asked for it openly, but I saw it in his shuffling demeanor and lowered eyes. As I went to get my shoes, I pulled open the small daypack I had with me and searched for some cash. The first thing I found was a $1 bill and I grabbed it. I knew that I had some other small bills, but I had to keep these for the Schwedagon. I gave William the buck and said goodbye. He looked at me with a smile and nodded as he took the single bill. I didn’t look him in the eyes as I took my leave. I could have given him more if I took the time to dig through the billfold case I had with me. But, I just didn’t want to bother. I took off in a hurry hoping to shake off any bad karma I may have picked up by rejecting William’s offer for dinner at the monastery. I tried to pick up my pace as I walked towards the Schwedagon, but with each step I felt the weight of my cheapness and guilt. How could I have so cavalierly dismissed William and his offer? What bugged me even more was that despite all the incredible experiences I had been fortunate to have over the last few years because I had been open-minded and put myself out there — here I was at this moment — just another cynic. An emptiness hit me.

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.

Rangoon Night

12 Mar

City centre neighborhood – Yangon, Myanmar (2011)

I arrived in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar (Burma) on a thick and misty summer night in June 2011. Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest and the military junta had not yet begun to relax its grip. On the day before my arrival, a plane carrying the actress, Michelle Yeoh, who was filming a movie (“The Lady”) in which she was starring as Suu Kyi had landed in Yangon. But, Yeoh was not allowed to enter the country and was forced to fly back to Bangkok. Yeoh had wanted to discuss the role and film with Suu Kyi, but the government decided to nix the visit.  It was extremely difficult for any foreign dignitaries or visitors to see Suu Kyi at her house which sat on Inya Lake.  In 2009, a wacked out American who had created makeshift paperboard fins swum the length of that lake to “rescue” Suu Kyi.  His “heroics” instead only succeeded in having Suu Kyi’s house arrest extended by the government. Before coming to Burma, I had screened a documentary called “Burma VJ” about the September 2007 uprisings led by the Buddhist monks and others which had been crushed by the government.  Most of these monks had either been arrested, beaten, and sent to Insein Prison where they were never seen again. Others managed to flee the country to Thailand and elsewhere.  I had heard that solo travelers who came to Burma could expect to get followed by government agents. Even more troubling was that due to all the economic sanctions on the country, one had to travel only with cash — pristine, unmarked U.S. bills to be exact. There was no way to wire money into the country or to use credit cards.  There were two currency exchange conversion rates — one was set by the Myanmar government and arbitrarily computed — and the other was set by the black market — which could only be found in the back alleys of street markets, or in the back rooms of hotels where foreigners stayed.  I read a few horror stories about travelers who came to Burma with U.S. bills which were not accepted because of small creases or the absence of a preferred circulation letter or number. These travelers ended up having their trips cut short since they could not fund things.  I had gone to my bank a week before I set off for Burma and asked for the newest printed U.S. bills they had and was able to receive newish bills in different denominations.  I then took extreme care to protect and keep these bills in the flattest state possible until I got to Burma. I knew that when I found a place in Yangon where I could change the U.S. bills into the local Kyat currency, I could expect to receive so many Kyat that they piled up like a literal brick.  So, I had visions of walking around with this brick of money in my backpack as I did my circuit through the country. In 2011, there were also rumors swirling that the military junta was planning to raze much of Yangon — including the magnificent Schwedagon Pagoda. The government had already moved the capital from Yangon to an obscure outpost in the middle of the country called Nay Pyi Daw and they were building duplicates of Burma’s iconic sights there.  Suffice it to say that this was a trip that would require strong presence of mind, thoughtful planning, and a little luck…

Monks in the rain - Yangon

Monks in the rain – Yangon

It was trade which had brought Theravada Buddhism to Burma over a millennia ago. When Sinhalese merchant sailors had left Sri Lanka and crossed the Bay of Bengal, they hit land in the mouth of the Irrawaddy River basin. This great river shoots up and curves through the heart of Burma — and that’s how the Dharma first spread. Within a few centuries, the teachings of Buddha had spread from Burma through all of Southeast Asia.  I had mapped out an intense itinerary through the core Buddhist sights of Burma and this meant that I would have to fly to some of the places on Burmese airlines — some of which had dubious safety records. I was to meet a travel agent in Yangon on my second day in order to pay for my plane tickets in cash since there was no other way to purchase tickets in advance. So, I was a bit anxious about getting this taken care of in addition to remaining within my tight daily budget. On that night of my arrival in Rangoon, I hopped into the first cab I found outside the airport. As we drove to my hotel, I saw and smelled the dilapidated state of everything around me — the unpaved roads, lack of street lights, muddy markets spilling out their wares in the street, and crumbling storefronts. The cab I was in had no windshield wipers. My driver had to stick his right hand out of his window and use a closed umbrella to wipe away the rain as he drove with his left hand! I was sitting in the back seat and the open window had me sucking in rain drop after rain drop. I could only laugh nervously to myself — and for a flash — I wondered if this trip would end up as a disaster.

Schwedagon Pagoda - perched above Yangon

Schwedagon Pagoda – perched above Yangon

This was a pariah nation and if things went bad for me, I would have little recourse and limited money to buy my way out. But, these doubts quickly vanished when something astonishing came into focus on the hill to my left. It was almost extraterrestrial in design and luminescence. I knew then that I was in for the epic. It burst.

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