Friday, June 13, 2008

Following Faith: Part 2

Outside the capital city of Thimpu, on a Bhutan mountainside, a project is underway to build the tallest sitting Buddha in the world. It will be painted gold. And yet, Buddha doesn’t ask for all of this. He is not a demanding god, but one who points the road down which Buddhist travel in order to reach purity, which is called enlightenment. To them, it goes beyond the physical concept of heaven and requires the cleansing within of all earthy desires and passions. Buddha proclaims "Don’t look at me but to the enlightened state." Although his image is everywhere in various forms, the legend is the first anthromorphic representation of him was drawn on canvas from rays of golden light emanating from his own body. Although there are various manifestations, there has never been a historically identifiable person. Buddha has not been conceived as a punisher, nor a law maker, but Buddha offers blessings for whomever or whatever enters in his temple (remember, sin shoes.) If you give a gift to a Lama, for instance, he immediately gives it to the Buddha image in his holy room. Buddha owns nothing, and gives away everything, as do his servants. He is a guide to freedom from cravings and desires, to acceptance of a being just being. It’s a difficult humbling in faith which rarely appeals to the Western materialistic society. Being around it in its purest form invited me to clean out my own soul and re-think what we have made of the greatest man ever to walk the earth, Jesus. Do we allow him to be the Light of the World? Even Buddha said, "Be a light unto yourself."
The idea of incarnations - so n so is the incarnation of a certain manifestation of Buddha or a previous Dalai Lama or Karmapa - chains Asian religious history. These incarnations are inheritances of lamas who lead the faith much as the Archbishop of Canterbury does Anglicans of the world, and the Pope does for Roman Catholics. They are all representatives of the bigger One God. Hindus, on the other hand, believe what you got is what you got and you can’t get much better or worse no matter what you do, although you should spend your life trying to do better and give to the poor, worship cows and snakes, and please don’t forget to take off your shoes at the Shiva temples. The Hindus worship all sorts of versions of Vishnu and other scarey mixtures of man and animal. And if they really want something, they tie red and gold strings around the holy Boda tree, which, incidentally, is where Buddha was supposed to have been born and snudge red and yellow powders on strolling cattle and monkeys. Markets are packed with now artificial powders, gold and red handkerchiefs for carrying offerings of rice or food, to the temples of their heros and leis of flowers made fresh each morning when the markets open. Non Hindus are not allowed to cross the threshold of sacred temples. Animals wait outside the gates to be the sacrificial "lambs" and of course dead Hindus are cremated on wood piles for all to see at crematoriums edging the muddy Ganges River. Mourners wear white for two weeks.
In India, it’s in the north where Buddhism is strongest, being on the border with Tibet, because there sits the Dalai Lama and his exiled Tibetan government as well as the young Karmapa representing another of the three Tantric sects. The third incarnated holy figure is the Panchen Lama who, once he was identified, was immediately imprisoned in China even though he was a small child at the time and no one has seen him since. The outcast Tibetans struggle to have back their respect and their territory in Tibet, to be able to return in safety to their historical base from which the Dalai Lama fled for his life during the Mao revolution in 1957 that destroyed so much of China..India gave him refuge in Dharmsala.
In Ladakh and in Dharmsala the presence of Buddhist monks from the youngest to the oldest charms daily life. They appear better off than, for instance, the young monks in Bangkok who early in the morning carry their metal bowls around the markets to be filled with food for the day. In Bhutan, especially, Buddhism thrives and monks integrate into the community. There is no obligation for a family to offer a son to be a monk, but the education at monasteries is often superior to public schools. Choosing to follow a monk’s path at an early age does not mean that life is over. Many young men change their mind when they end their teen years and it’s okay, in Bhutan. Monks cannot vote nor get involved with the operations of the state, nor can they express political opinion. But the monk who is the religious leader of all Bhutan has equal the amount of power as the divine King. Both are adored by the people because citizens are taken care of with such charisma. The 28 year old fifth King was preparing for his coronation, since his father the fourth King (this is how they are referred to) stepped down so his son could inherit the throne as the country evolved into a democratic parliamentary system. Bhutanese had never voted in history. (They evolved from being a warrior nation to being an absolute monarchy in 1907. Bhutan was never colonialized.) The chance to have a say in the running of their country was mesmerizing for voters. Now they worry about how to make democracy succeed. Faith and government may be separated but when the Queen wanted to honor her husband for amazing accomplishments, she built 108 large chortens at the top of a high pass which is also draped in thousands of prayer flags. It’s quite a site.
There is a positive spirit in Bhutan, a feeling that less than 700,000 people are happy and content. The king promotes what he calls Gross National Happiness. No more than 20,000 foreigners are allowed across Bhutan’s borders in a year. No cigarettes allowed, the sale of tobacco strictly prohibited, even though the fourth king loved Cuban cigars. In certain months, no one can buy anything that must be killed - pork, beef, yak, mutton - so it’s vegetarian time, but every dish is flavored with hot chillis. No outsider can buy land nor even start a business, although if there is a Bhutan partner in the business, that is a possibility. Even foreign artists are not allowed to perform in Bhutan, although fifty per cent of the people are under 25 years of age. Everyone adheres to the national dress code - men wearing knee length skirts, women long ones. The King lives in a modest wooden home in the hills of Thimbu, and he works in an elaborate palace called a Dzong to which various elegant temples are attached.
In Bangkok, religious architecture is extreme. I’ve never seen so many different styles of roof tops, mostly pointed spirals and peaks. Gold, silver, colored stone and glass, mosaics and glitter adorn every religious and palatial structure. The King and his Wife are honored and adored throughout the city on giant banners and billboards, on buildings and streets, spelled out in lights on boats traveling on the busy rivers, and in giant gold frames on divans of principle streets. On Mondays, citizens wear yellow shirts (usually with an embroidered picture of the King where a polo player might be) to honor the fact the King was born on a Monday. On Tuesday, the color is pink and on Thursday, in honor of the Queen’s birthday, it’s blue.
Also in Bangkok, Chinese Buddhist temples so ornate you don’t know what photo to take next add another decorative element to religion. There are huge chortens covered in mosaics and dog and monkey men. There are ornate temples housing the reclining gold Buddha (as long as City Hall) or the only standing Buddha in East Asia. There are Buddhas sitting on nagas or snakes, and Buddhas sitting on pillows. There is the elaborate emerald Buddha (really jade) whose seasonal gold clothing the King changes with certain ceremony.
What impressed me most was the presence of Spirit Houses in just about everybody’s yard, in entrances to restaurants, and even in the enormous gardens of the villa in which I stayed. Because the day I was there was a special day, a huge tray of homemade sweets, fruits, incense, candles, and jasmine, orchid and rose flowers was placed to appease evil spirits who hopefully roost in these spirit houses and stay out of residences of the faithful. I asked who eats the food. There was sort of a non-answer - so I mentioned birds? Maybe. Or did the evil spirits really reach out their doors and feast. Hmmm.
Photos: site for future tallest standing Buddha in the world; a Thangka of a Budda manifestation; prayer wheels at a Dzong; Non-Hindus not allowed to see the golden bull; holy cow; a Hindu holy man; Bhutan monks at the market; the queen's 108 stupas to honor her husband; Bhutan friend Sonam with sewing students in national dress; marketeers in national Bhutanese dress; honoring the Thai King; a spirit house; the villa spirit house with offerings; close-up of offerings - all sweets.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Assessing the Faith - Part I

If there was a thread through two months of Asian pilgrimage, it was the foreign habit of religion. Did I want to pay tribute or to judge that my faith was better than the others? I discovered that we are all looking for the same things, worship one God, and that none of really know what is going to happen after death, but we have challenging theories. I was at the mercy of generous Buddhist most of my trip, and will ever be grateful. There were discouraging moments when I reached out for my faith, and usually found it in surprising places. Only in ex-British India did I even see a church, an Anglican church. At times I felt I was holding a candle in hurricane winds while being blistered by the sun. The Lord’s Prayer was surely my daily mantra. And I never doubted I was in the right place, in God’s place. So I took off my shoes, everywhere.

Unlike most Western faiths, displays of worship and prayer are not limited to a one day gathering on Sunday. It integrates every day, is common as boiling water for tea. It is like living beside Fatima or Lourdes full time. Everyone worships all the time in their gestures. Buddhist - and Hindus - rise in the morning with gifts in their hands - be it replenishing bowls of water, bowls of rice, fresh sculpted butter candles, wreaths and strings of marigolds, flowers, and offerings of every sort (including piles of candy bars, crackers, fresh made sweets and snacks). First thing to do is remember Buddha and his associates who can make or break a day. Truly, their highest power is God, but there is not the pandering, proselyting and preaching which can be so artificial or invasive in our lot trying to convince one to accept the Holy Spirit or to commit your life to Jesus - pass the offering plate - that goes on and on like a broken record player in America, especially across television screens. In Nepal, India, Bhutan, Old Tibet, you watch and admire how regular are actions of devotees of other faiths, whether it’s circling to the left the chortens and stupas or turning 108 metal prayer wheels installed in walls around important temples or putting red dot blessings on the foreheads of sacred cows, children and pilgrims wandering the streets of the cities. Hindus believe the most powerful offering before God is a flower in the hand.

In fact, Buddhism and Hinduism are mostly about giving and seeking peace, going through routines every day that express one’s faith whether anyone else is looking or not and without feeling one deserves credit for doing it. Each Buddhist home, for example, has a puja room or altar room where special visits by monks and lamas are made once a year to re-clean and re-bless and re-kindle the family spirit and home. In the early part of day before one goes off to work, streets are busy with those making wreathes and decorations from fresh flowers to place before altars whether of Vishnu or Buddha. Every town, burg, pueblo, or community is hung with prayer flags and provide a series of small to large chortens or stupas around which the faithful walk clockwise, often praying long strings of beads, whether on a steep trail or on a paved street. From the moment you leave the airport, there is no doubt you are in a Buddhist town because prayer flags drape bridges, flags flap on roof tops and in the trees are more prayer flags both horizontal and vertical looking like white and gray doves in flight. Temples stand out for their architecture and monasteries are identified by painted gold roofs.

There are monks everywhere, shaved heads, cranberry or mustard colored or orange robes, their feet in sandals, their possessions limited to the food given to them each day, ad maybe a cell phone. They hold their hands in prayer position and bow for a Namaste when they meet friends. Everyone copies that greeting. In Nepal and Tibet and India, Namaste is a given. In some parts of India the greeting is Jale. In Bhutan, the pose holds, but their greeting is in Bhutanese. In Thailand, everyone who serves bows in a Namaste position when they see you the first time or when you depart. It’s a thank you as well. But there is no particular word to say. Best is to smile, pose your hands in the prayer position, and bow joyously.

Lamas, who are approachable and are willing to preform ornate blessing ceremonies for a good trip or good luck, often have homes and families. Because they spend so much of their lives sitting in the Yoga position, they often have serious knee and leg problems and need help when walking to and from Temples. Yet, Buddhism, which is much cleaner and better organized to me than Hinduism, embraces all of East Asia, changing its ambience depending on which country you are in. In Bangkok was the first time Muslim mosques and covered women were noticed.
In Nepal, Buddhism is woven into community life, is communal in nature, and is comfortable for even the stranger. You are warmly welcomed or sent off with a neck full of silk kata scarves for good luck and good travel. Blessings abound no matter who you meet. Lamas and priest tie good luck strings around your neck as blessings and sometimes they make prayer packets for protection and those are tied around your neck as well. It’s all so simple and done with vigor and affection no matter who you are.

In the Khumbu where I trekked to the Everest base camp, there were endless chortens and stupas and giant boulders painted with the "Om" to be circle clockwise. In the middle of nowhere, there’d be an archway with a giant metal prayer wheel needing a turn. Even dinning areas were long wooden floors of red block tables painted with Buddhist symbols and protector gods and goddesses. Walls were lined with windows and benches padded with carpets. This is where exhausted trekkers fell for a rest, dumping their gear beside them as they sipped tea from giant thermoses. Walls were hung with copies of religious thangkas (like formula icons.). Sometimes mythological stories were painted directly onto the wall. There was so much simplicity and humility in the daily lives of the Nepal faithful, that the ornateness of the puja rooms and the temples give surprise: golden Buddhas, elaborate yak butter candles made to look like flowers, ancient texts stored in cubicles, all sorts of brocade and silk fabrics hanging from walls and ceilings. But the monks and lamas invite you in while they chant or eat, often revealing their senses of humor. Making offerings, hanging prayer flags, inhaling incense and drinking yak butter tea are as normal as a bow.

Of course in the big cities, like Bangkok, there is more wealth, more gauche display, more opportunity for pilgrims to chant their prayers before statues of their favorite Buddha forms. Worshipers can even buy sheets of gold to attach to already gold statues of Buddha. I was overwhelmed by the reclining Buddha, whose feet at one end were larger than a Mac truck. The entire long statue was in gold and on the passage way along his back side, 108 pots were lined against a wall. Pilgrims could purchase 108 coins and drop one coin in each pot. I tried, walking reverently, thanking my own God, slipping one little coin at a time from my fingers. But if I stopped to take a picture or notice something amazing about the huge statue, I lost count and somehow came out with about eight extras which I just dumped in the final pot. I noticed it had more coins than the others, so I wasn’t alone.

Photos: Sitting Buddha in Bangkok temple (photographs allowed here, but not in other countries.) A worshiper; a Hindu monster smudged; Thai monks; Lama Geshi blesses all of us with many katas; rocks and flags to acknowledge; a puja room; Reclining Buddha from his soles; a Buddha statue pasted with gold leaf offerings; dropping 108 coins in 108 pots.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Bangkok Smiles in the End

Bangkok is the city of smiles, as it claims, of spirit houses, hanging helaconia 10 feet long, canals and rivers for public transport jammed with floating water hyacinth (weeds), extreme moist heat, shocking pink taxis and electrical three wheel ones, magnificent shopping malls where one floor alone the size of Wolfgate is dedicated to world famous jewelers and watch makers (like Cartier Piaget, etc.), theatrical elephants you can feed sugar cane, admired royal family with their images on skyscrapers and, on Mondays, yellow polo shirts fans wear each Monday in honor of the King’s birthday,(He was born on a Monday) and of all things Starbucks. Yea. I had my first frapaccino in two months and beside that, they took my Starbucks card.(they wouldn’t do that in Chile.) Heaven had descended on Bangkok.
To go with this are massive traffic jams on super fine highways and byways, barges at least three stories high and dinner boats with colorful lights blaring Long Live the King passing in front of my very Thai styled villa - if you can see through the hanging plants, orchids, lotus blossoms and vines - and a public transit system that includes besides taxis and buses, a sky way train, a subway train and of course a boat of every size and description, including a taxi boat you catch depending on the color flag it carries: watch out jumping up onto the dock. It’s in a hurry.
With all the orchids, the ginger flowers, the palms and holy Bodi trees wrapped in sashes and string, (Buddha was born under the Bodi tree - also from a lotus blossom, I’m confused), you are embracing a tropical paradise that’s a center of international business. There are skyscrapers for miles as the city spreads out in fingers surrounded by water. It is a Buddhist land, but completely different from the practices in Bhutan, India and Nepal. Here temples, and many houses have pointed tips on their roofs, looking like curved lightening rods and diving dragons, but they keep evil spirits from resting there. Monks wear orange and ochre and carry metal bowls as they stroll through markets and street fairs where they will be fed by merchants.
Here also is great adoration for the King and Queen, who have as many if not more offering places than Buddha. The Grand Palace and Temples with its Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha (really made of jade; the King personally changes Buddha’s gold attire each season) and the pure gold ship of state in another temple on the grounds is something you have to see to believe. We missed the crystal Buddha - areas were roped off for the deceased Queen Mother who has been lying in state almost a year. There are so many abutting towers and cantilevered roofs, so much extraordinary ceramic and mosaic work and colored glass and gold, gold gold in the temples and rooms guarded by giant monster dogs who stand as people, that you forget about how hot and sweaty you are and that you need to sit down, which you do at a simple table and eat street food cooked on the spot.
Even Chinese pagodas (red paper lamps, dragons all over the place, fu manchu type concrete statues, compete with other Buddhist stupas, chortens and displays of faith throughout the city. We stopped at one so I could light incense for my girls in prison, and take pictures, which they allowed. But then, the stupas to end all stupas are here like tall cones seen from miles around, highly embellished on the outside with repetitive marble and concrete figures colored in ceramic and glass mosaics. I climbed up steep stairs of the Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) and took so many photos my battery died.
Temples of gold allure and red roofs are everywhere including your own back yard. Along the canals, almost every little poor man’s house has a spirit house, highly ornate, about the size of a doll house, with strings of flowers and other offerings placed on it everyday, and statues of Buddha and whoever one calls to keep the bad away. These little spirit houses are residences for evil spirits, so they are precious. Keep the evil spirits outside the house by giving them a house of their own. Hmmm. Not a bad idea.
Remember, Thailand is/was Siam. It is where the King of Siam or The King and I found roots. I keep looking for green faced monsters in gold attire with crowns with turrets, but nowadays, that is confined to cultural shows. Most Thai are hip as anyone in America, in fashion, in flipflops, and in sun glasses. The young people dance in hip hop competitions at malls, and dress in blue and white uniforms for school. No more costumes, so to speak. It’s a fashion and fabric free-for-all. Teak houses still grace the canals and inside, if you are able to go inside one, are usually rooms with rims you have to step over to get in and out, and incredible wooden wood carvings of heritage scenes from history, and on display swords and thangkas of a different style, and of course enormous tangled gardens of the best of the tropics. Thai thangkas are scenes of a Thai-type Buddha ( he wears the gold pointed hat rising from his skull cap) with more landscape and small figures than the large apparitions of his many manifestations and companions found in Bhutan and Nepal thangkas. You can still buy giant gold buddhas on the sidewalk, but the paintings depict other aspects of life than his companions and saints.
A stroll through the markets before the sun rises (the humidity turns you into a paper doll in a second) introduces me to strange fruits like mangostien (a purple fruit) and rambatan (red with green hairs all over it) and even stranger but yummy sweets which we buy from the hawkers. Some are sticky jello, others are sponge cakes in shocking colors, then little green blocks of marzipan, and a sweet gold colored pastry in syrup. This is only the tip of the iceberg, as we say. We stopped outside one temple for a typical Thai sweet served in a bowl: corn kernals, Thai black jelly pieces, huge tapioca, pink, green and yellow thin vermicelli condensed milk, coconut milk, then a pile of crushed ice, all mixed. (Gotta eat it fast or it melts.)
One of the most interesting outings was to a fish emporium, really a Las Vegas sized restaurant called "Sea Food: If it swims we have it." I’m surprised someone has not thought of this in America. You enter, are given a table with three or four servers, then you get a basket and stroll along a long long display of every kind of fish, fresh or frozen, and seafood known to man. Lobsters are bigger than my thighs. Fish are so fresh they are flipping in the air. There are also displays of Thai vegetables, fresh, and exotic fresh fruits like the Dragon fruit, guavas, you name it, it was on the rack.
Afterwards we took a dastardly taxi ride many miles to the other side of the city for the Siam Niramit, a stage production in an enormous entertainment center with a set claiming to be in the Guiness Book of World Records as the highest stage in the world. I don’t know about those details.It didn’t appear as high as Circus de Soliel stages. The production was elaborate and noisy and in the Thai language and it took viewers through Tai history with elaborate sets of boats floating on water, the Khmer stone castles, and Ayutthaya, once a capital city, There were war scenes, fiery hell scenes, mythological scenes in the Himapaan forest, and heavenly scenes with angels flying around on pulleys to reproduce Daow-wa-dueng, the second level of heaven where Indra, called the greatest diety of all, presides. It gave you a tip about the culture and heritage of the Thai people and their skill at theatrical production. But my favorite part was when the two elephant crossed in the aisle in front of me. Their trunks properly curled up in the air on cue. After the applause (it was not a full house), and we exited the enormous place, the elephants had been disrobed and I had the chance to feed one of them sugarcane chunks at 30 bhat for four sticks. The elephant was feeling my arm for more, more, but we had to give way to another. I have now bonded with elephants in Nepal, India and Thailand, where they are highly loved and respected. Sigh.

Photos: Temple of Dawn at night from villa; check the shocking pink taxis; various Stupa tops; a three wheeler; two monks admire motorcycles; lighting incense for the RA girls; Chinese pagoda entrance; a spirit house teak style; dog and monkey protectors on the Grand Palace walls; mangostien fruit; a plate of sweets; a lotus blossom; feeding a Bangkok elephant.