Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thai Efforts for Heaven

Religion can be fun, it appears, when Buddha followers get funky. 

Offering the rooster
Rooster shopping
Chicken Spirit House
Roosters to Rent
Chiang Rai, Thailand, is a fantasy trip of extremes and expenditures. Everyday folk who happen upon good fortune turn their faith into exotic and humorous displays of gratitude, not only to the four Buddhas (depending on which path is followed), but also to the Royal Family who generously runs this country.  I’ve already told you about the Black House buy a national Thai artist putting a new bent on spirituality. But also in Chiang Rai are two more “temples” that blew my mind.  The simpler of the two is the chicken spirit house (remember Thailand is a web of spirit houses ranging from doll house size to complete complexes in order to appease the bad spirits and keep them out of the house.) by someone who seems to reverence roosters. It certainly made me laugh - and I hope my deceased father and brother are also laughing - because my family had been in the chicken business for many years. 

Along the roads of Thailand are various “shops” where a believer (or non-believer) can purchase empty spirit houses and giant animals - be it elephant, zebra, donkey, tortoise, or preening roosters taller than me. There are all sizes of these beast from tiny statues to huge ones, and they are identical images - a tiny chicken statue is the same image of the giant ones but maybe colored differently.

 Well, when we arrived at the Chicken Spirit House, I was awed by the amount of these animal statues (not just roosters but elephants, and all sorts) - I estimate at least 500 - grouped in patches on the lawn, at the entrance, up the stairs, and a few in the temple itself. I had to get on this bandwagon, with my family chicken experience - I won’t even eat the bird anymore. In front of such a display is someone with a table and a couple of shelves (outside under a tent) overloaded with possible purchases. These red, black, green and gold roosters on a base, actually had petitions written in Thai on that base - like happiness, successful business, gain lots of money, and other such rather greedy petitions.

I purchased a $5 rooster about a foot tall with whatever the Thai word is for Have a Good Time on its base.  I figured this was appropriate in the name of my father and brother who have already passed into the heavens. One lights 3 strands of incense, and 3 candles (Love the trinity) and takes the statuette up the stairs crowded with these animals  to the altar - or you could put it among the herds grouped on the grass. At the altar is a statue of the guy who had this fetish (sitting in the yoga pose)  and someone had put a pair of glasses on him. Strange things can be seen in these spirit houses. Many of the Hill tribes believe in animism and shamans. But it’s hard to discern for what they are praying. I know roosters are early rises and regular - I hear them every morn.

Another stop was a little road-side entertainment at the point of the Golden Triangle further north. I mentioned this area once home of the opium trade yesterday and will again. But sort of squeezed in between road and river is another enormous altar to a shiny golden sitting Buddha high above reason and accompanied by a pair of enormous plaster elephants for which children can climb up a few steps to enter into a royal saddle box for a photo shoot of “being on an elephant.”  Another pair of giant gray elephants at the entrance one walks under the belly for good luck. There is also a giant Alice in Wonderland style tea pot - symbol of the restoration project to divert farmers from opium fields to tea fields. All this crammed on a slim sliver of a park between road and river has the ambiance of being on a giant long boat made mosaic-style of stained glass. The whole shebang is a tribute to the Royal Family, and especially the King’s mother.

However, the creme de resistance is a overwhelming project called the White Temple or Wat Rong Khan in Chiang Rai. This is a true WOW! It’s inconceivable that a respected national artist decided 16 years ago to begin a project that would take 90 years to complete, knowing he’d miss out on the celebration, (he is about 63 now). This is kitsch at its most glamorous. Artist Chalermchai Kositpipat has built exotic white temples trimmed in glass and ornament like I’ve never seen, and it goes on and on and on. Everything has a reason. 

This spiritual journey of the artist doesn’t give answers but poses questions. There is one way to enter and it’s one way - like the road to heaven should be. The visitor walks through “waters of hell” where pools of white hands (500) are reaching for a last breath (one has a single painted red nail on the middle finger that’s the universal sign) called Beauty of Anguish. Freaky white skulls, monster heads, nightmare faces hang from frangipani trees and even the Virgin Mary, Spiderman and George H Bush riding a missal are included somewhere in this massive spirit house. Silver and glass mosaic trim glitter in the sunlight. You walk the walk looking at all the curlique details and the enormous amount of work which is really done by a team of students who are making the needs of the artist as he slowly works on this project. The workshop is open for a behind the scenes look at the intense repetitive labor.  So much is not finished. There are new buildings and a monastery still in the concrete stages and a massive field to eventually be a parking lot (maybe the size of St. Peter’s Square) and room for more temples to honor God. 

There is a gold building where the bathrooms are located (?). Apparently gold is good but the toilet style is still hole in the ground. And the major temple is filled with the artist’s murals of monsters and paradise which have heavenly intent, sort of like the Sistine Chapel but in gold and pastels. He seems to want us to know it’s a rocky road to avoid the temptations of the devil, hell is always a torturous choice, but there is a kingdom of glory beyond the imagination, although Mr.  Kositpipat is trying to give you an idea. 

What catches your attention, if all this imagining doesn’t, is that the artist is creating this as his life project with his own money. He doesn’t accept large donations but you can buy books of his very spiritual Buddhist-style paintings modernized. He has a large art gallery on the property which also houses a collection of Ninja type knives he has made (as did the Black House artist) and other objects. Apparently he continues to paint (has had to reduce his personal output from 300 works a year to about 6) and when he does, his palate and easel await in one of the buildings in progress.

The best participation one can do is buy one of the metal “prayer” forms from the umbrella tree. It’s awesome. There is a table with sharpies and you can write your prayer and hang the ornaments (like something you’d put on your Christmas tree) on the prayer tree. At the very moment (unknowingly) the Grizzlies were fighting for victory over the Thunder, I hung one of these with “Go Grizz” on the tree. And they won! Wow.
My hats are off to this man for this vision and his spirit. It’s something once seen, the brain doesn’t toss away. Here you don’t have to leave an offering. It’s all his creation.

Tiger spirit house

Animals to worship

Monday, June 2, 2014

Japan has Soul

On our final day in glorious Japan, we felt its soul. 
Golden Pavilion
Early in the morning I found a quaint Anglican church and was able to worship with about 25 communicants in a relaxed service where the sermon is a discussion of the readings with congregation chipping in. The welcome was kindly as it has been everywhere I’ve been in this country.

Already sun was bright, the air sweating as we joined masses of young people at the Zen Buddhist Temple of the Golden Pavilion set in an enormous Japanese garden winding around a mirror pond called Kyokochi and representing the pure land of Buddha in this world. People swarm here in April for the cherry blossoms and in the fall for the changing of the colors of leaves. The pavilion, referred to as the retirement home of the Shogun of Asihikaga, was built in 14th century and is at the bottom of a mountain side on which a huge Chinese character for “Big” is carved. To keep the form, each year there is a massive bonfire on August 16th that honors the spirits of the deceased.  After locals entertain their ancestors (like day of the dead) with meals and dancing, the bonfire is lit to light the way for the deceased ancestors return to the heavens. 

This Shogun didn’t like wars and fighting but was an aristocrat and into the arts, founding the first of the Noh Dramas which were exchanges between the living world and the spiritual world with many actors in masks of ghosts. He abdicated his Shogun role at age 39 to live in this
Kimono studio
peaceful setting as an aristocrat rather than a warrior. He designed the Pavilion with three levels: The bottom layer is in the shindin style,plain and simple out of the dark brown wood, to honor the Emperor and aristocracy; the second level in the buke style of the warrior, and third floor is in the Zenshu-butsusen style temple. On top of the shingle roof is a golden phoenix. This temple is also popular for the tragic story of a young boy who felt lost in the world and loved the Golden Pavilion as a friend, and wanted to die with “him” so set fire to the Pavilion, although the boy was convinced by the Pavilion not to commit suicide. 

We had the special privilege of visiting a hand-woven textile shop, Orinasu-Kan, where the most elegant kimonos are created. We saw the weaving process on the very old looms, but still using computer cards to guide their designs. It takes about a month to complete the weaving of fabric for one Kimono. The owner graciously showed us the basics and invited us to her elegant home in the Northern part of the city in the mountains where we had the honor of learning how to prepare the special tea ceremony.  
tea house entrance

It is special to have a tea house and we walked there in the wooden sandals (not easy) being careful to only step on the stones (surrounded by bright green moss) that took us through her magnificent garden to the entrance. First we washed our hands by pouring water from  the holy fountain with a cup with a long stem as we had done at various temples. Then we were asked to enter through a very small square door on our knees, leaving the shoes outside, and going through a certain ritual. This tiny entrance was made because Samurai warriors wore so much gear and swords that they needed to leave that outside to enter into the tea house. 

Green tea was brought to Japan from China and the ceremony is an example of the simplest form of minimalism, balance and composure. Each piece of the tea has a place and a meaning. Nothing is left to chance. Each piece is cleansed  in front of our eyes before the ceremony starts. Before the tea is served, we were presented with a single moist sweet (pounded from rice and bean paste) and tiny dry sweets in the shape of a maple leaf (the garden) and a bowl of water.  This stops the bitterness of the green tea.  The tea has been grounded into powder in mortal and pestle and is the Miche tea. Then the hostess, having prepared for the ceremony while we ate the sweets, having checked the water was the right temperature in the double pottery pot, and with a tiny scoop (about a quarter of an inch wide) places two helpings of
Tea ceremony
green tea powder into the bowl (like a miso soup bowl). Then with a wooden scoop with a long handle she takes a half cup of hot water and pours onto the powder. With a tiny bamboo whisk, strategically placed, she began to beat the tea, moving forward and backward quickly until a green foam appears. Then the tea is ready. There is no sugar (you had the sweets already) and the bowl is the tea cup. Then placing the cup in the left hand, and balancing with the right, you place the bowl in front of your guest with the front of the bowl (with the most design) facing the guest. You bow. The guest then accepts the bowl and turns it clockwise two times so she will not put her mouth on the splendid design. Using both hands, the bowl of tea is consumed. I was amazed at how tasty the green tea was, not at all bitter. Both Caroline and I had a chance to do the tea making process, which is quite an honor. 

first layer
Caroline's bow
From the back
After tea, we had a “dress up” time to learn about the kimono. The hostess had laid out a number of options for Caroline, for James and for me. Extraordinary! Getting dressed (you cannot do it yourself ) is extremely complicated. The process starts with an under garment -  a skirt and top. Then the beautiful silk robe that you have chosen, is wrapped around you, the long sleeves appropriately hanging. There are strings and bungy-like cords to keep things secure. THen the various layers of the obi are started. The obi is the most expensive part of the Kimono. (Today kimonos are worn mostly for a 19th birthday coming out party because the real thing is extraordinarily expensive. Mothers pass on the how-to of kimonos to their daughters and there are even kimono schools.)
Flower designers
Ikebana class
Kimonos in tact

The wrapping of the obi is the most complicated and takes a couple of helpers to get it tight and correct. But the end result can turn a urchin into a princess. Men’s kimonos are less complicated but just as meaningful. When we were all put together, it was down to the garden to be photographed. I loved the feel of the tight obi which supports the back. I will never know, however, how these super women can bend and kneel and move 
so quickly while wearing these complicated but spectacular ceremonial robes. It was an honor for all three of us. 
After the “dress up”, the hostess took us into a special room where there were buckets of flowers and enormous Ikebana vases. We were to learn the principles of Ikebana. It’s been a few years since I have done flower designs, although it was my passion for so long in Uruguay and in the garden clubs. I was reluctant, thinking I had lost the touch. But it didn’t take long, seeing the giant hydrangeas, the peonies, and the green baby chrysanthemums, and Easter lilies, before we were all securing stems into oasis or holders. A rewarding moment to be artistic. (James watched.)
with the Zen monk
sad to leave
This afternoon was probably the most special moment of our trip. And then to top it off, we were escorted by our super guide Akiko to Tenryii-ji Temple to meet a Zen Buddhist monk/priest. This is the temple of the Heavenly Dragon and it is a site meditators seek for here the priests do labor by day and meditate from 5 p.m. til 11 p.m. in the silence of the sky, stars and moon. This 9th century temple was the first in Japan. It has been ravaged by fire eight times, and been restored. But the gardens are from the original. The priest, Osho-sama, was a friendly man dressed in a sheer black robe with a gold bib. He immediately made us feel at home, taking us to a place where we could sit in chairs and not have to sit on the floor (thank you, God), for a wonderful conversation. He emphasized how important it is to appreciate your parents and never put them aside. He explained the gardens were stimulants for meditation, which is a slow-down in daily life. “If you run seven times, you have to stop,” he said (Akiko translated). Stopping is also important.”  When you are in the dark, you need to pay attention to what is around you - sounds, smells, sensations. Take time to feel the world. We are so busy running around, it is important to stop and focus on what is around you in this world. Go out and breath the air. Don’t be afraid to stop what you are doing. It’s easy to quit, he said. Continue to take time every day, regularly. Practice makes perfect.  There is no short cut for life. When the monks eat together, he explained, they concentrate on the sounds and don’t speak. It’s a training process and each training has meaning.  Some do it quickly. Some take time. He explained there are two types of meditation: Sotozen, which is trying to completely empty self from thought; and  ring-i-san, when the master gives them a quantrum, something to think about for the day so they can discuss in the morning. There are many ways, he said. So if one does not work, go another way. When you find a good way to do things, make this your way and continue doing it.  There is no correct or incorrect answer to life. It is one time for all. Find the answers for you.  If you blame yourself for suffering, that’s ok because there is growth.
We were awed by what we had just heard because it related to all of us. As we left the temple, the summer heat began to wane. This had been an incredible day. Tomorrow is back on the train to Tokyo and to the airport to return to our homes. God has blessed us and I hope he has blessed you as well.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Folding Hiroshima into my Heart

Atomic Dome
Bomb hit here
August 6, 1945 - 8:15 a.m. Peace and war from the beginning of time changed.
The first atom bomb was dropped by American planes on the selected community of Hiroshima, Japan. There was little strategic about this town on the delta by the Ota River flowing out to the Seto Inland Sea. In this time, forced labor from Korea and China and children working in ammunition factories had contributed to making it one of the larger cities in Japan, then enemy of the United States. Hiroshima had been spared American earlyt bombing campaigns. But it was being considered a candidate for the first experiment with this a-bomb whose power no one could even calculate or suspect.  Leaders in Washington had pinpointed Kokura, Kyoto, Nagasaki and Niigata along with Hiroshima as targets to see what the bomb could do. Hiroshima is surrounded on three sides by mountains and this was wrongly thought would contain the residue of the bomb. Nothing could or would. On this day the B-29 bomber Enola Gay flew low over the city and unleashed a horror way beyond anyone’s imagination in Washington or anywhere else in the world. President Truman hoped this would end the war and save the spending of million in defense money and thousands of lives. Well, it did. But the world, since the creation, would never be the same. Immediately 70,000  human beings were slaughtered, (animals and plants became ashes but are never counted) and a thriving city was reduced to such rubble no one had ever seen, worse than a thousand tornados, a dozen tsunamis. Worst than the end of the world might resemble to most. Think of the entire Shelby County area wiped out.
Peace flame

Memorial Centograph

All Americans should visit this place of memory and restoration. We need to know that we have escaped so much on our continent, and what we did to an island nation of people, from peasants to royalty, who at that moment in time, were our enemy because they had attacked our ships in a world war in Pearl Harbor (Hawaii) can not happen again. On this day in history, mankind awoke (if at all) to realize there was something more powerful than mankind - and it was not just God. And God allowed this devastation for a reason, we trust.  Did we learn that we are fragile and wars are evil, greedy and no good? No. Did we imagine that a bomb the size of a buoy dropped on a bustling city could eliminate life for 140,000 in a second ,including those who died in the days following, the unborn fetuses distorted for whatever life they might have, those burned to scraps of humanity, those who were lucky not to have to live in the new society? Are we so insistent that we are right and everyone else wrong so that what we do and have done to others in war is arguable, even excusable, but when someone treads on our soil, i.e. 9/11, it is unconscionable no matter what the reasons? 
Peace bell with Crane 

If what we did had good intention, it didn’t come out that way. The decision makers forgot that people count. That all people don’t mean or want to be a part of war. That the masses - every child and grandparent, every soldier and golfer, ever artist and teacher, whether agreeing  with our way or not, have a right to live their way and not fear unknown terrorists are going to destroy the innocent of us, and the young men and women who sign up to protect us? I weep for our heroes in this modern world where war is only limited by the destructive power of the weapons in storage. The person in power has too much power and someone is always going to suffer, to hurt, to lose, if we don’t put peace in the forefront. Peace is living without fear. Peace is trusting someone is taking care of us while considering others’ lives as well. Peace is discussing the issue and trying not to be God. Sadly, even seventy years after that crucial event, peace does not reign. 
Origami peace cranes

The hibakusha or survivors became the builders, the restorers, the hope for Japan, but they also suffered terrible discrimination by other Japanese, probably more out of fear of  health issues, but important is that these survivors and their heirs are now the leaders in eliminating nuclear weapons from all nations and bringing peace to the whole world.

What does impress is how the Japanese restored their souls and skills and hopes and have created an amazing country that excels in business, art, fashion and friendliness so dressed in respect and humility, that we need to study how they survived and revived. They came together just as we Americans have come together for moments of tragedy. The Japanese seem to make it a continuum of their lives. We seem to fall back to our blindness to each other’s needs and prejudices and respecting each other once the tragedies pass and the negatives, fostered by the press, are more prevalent than the positives. 

A visit to the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima is worth the trip. It is a sad, rejoiceful,prayerful, spiritual moment. In an enormous well landscaped park is the Atomic Peace Dome - the bomb exploded directly above this huge building that was an Exhibition Hall, so the walls remained intact even as the dome shattered and other people inside were killed by the first blast. It was never rebuilt and became the symbol it is today. We stood right on the spot where the bomb hit - quite a bit off center from where it was aimed - the target had been the “T” bridge about a quarter of a kilometer away.  After walking around the Peace Dome, we rang one of the three peace bells, the one near the Children’s Peace Monument which is covered with an outline of the world and the sweet spot is an atomic symbol. The inscriptions on the bell in various languages means “Know yourself.” The Peace Flame is the center of the park and is best viewed  from the Memorial Centotaph which holds all the names of those killed by the bomb and an inscriptions: “Please rest in peace for we shall not repeat this error.” Some Japanese rightists are insulted by this comment as an admission of guilt  and condemning the Empire of old. The Flame has burned continuously since installed in 1964 with the aim of burning until all nuclear bombs on the planet are destroyed and the planet is free from the threat of nuclear annihilation. Amen to that. Caroline was shocked to learn that the United States has more nuclear weapons than any other country, with Russia a close second. 

Cranes rule

Devastation of A Bomb
The Peace Memorial Museum  was difficult to push through. I worried about Caroline seeing the disasters and what man can do to man. There is no restraint on what the museum shows, but the emotional experience for me was seeing the remnants of children’s burned clothing, and in one case an embroidery piece that someone was finishing at the time of the bomb.  We were given hope when we stopped by the Children’s Peace memorial where there are 10 million, maybe billions, of colorful origami cranes for piece. It is also called the “Tower of a Thousand Cranes”.  Ironically, as Caroline and I rang the bell there, a live crane was standing on top of the dome. The origami paper cranes were started by a little girl who died of leukemia ten years after the bomb. She was two years old when exposed to radiation of the bomb and after a fairly healthy childhood, fought leukemia by folding paper cranes for peace, which she felt could help her survive. She did not live, but children all over the world have taken up the cause.

Bullet train
Okonomiyaki Bar
It was a tough visit to Hiroshima, but once again we were able to enjoy my favorite discovery, the okonomiyaki  pancake like meal at a packed, fast moving, fast food sort of bar in the train station. This pancake, now turned into a huge meal, was created by mothers after the bomb explosion when they could not grow rice (or anything) any longer, my guide said. So the mothers created this recipe from wheat flour provided by GHQ (Government Headquarters), water and bean sprouts (which grew fast in pots). They were mixed together and fried on the grill for children to have nourishment. It grew from there but the original, the best, is  found in Hiroshima and the special sauce is called Otofuku. Today’s dish was made of so many things from cabbage and soba noodles to eggs and cheese and green onions, pork, shrimp, squid,  and whatever was the trademark of this particular chef. It could take over pizza, folks. 
My favorite meal

Rock of Love
On return to Kyoto on the bullet train (it takes one and a half hour for what would be a 5 hour car ride but cost about 200 dollars round trip), I set off to visit Kiyomizu-dera shrine and temple. Not only does it entail a hike up a mountain, but you are elbow to elbow all the way with millions of young people, students and those hoping to get a boost in their looking for a mate. The stairs are bordered by popular shops and tourist traps, some offering green tea cakes, green tea ice cream cones, souvenirs, kitchey items from kimonos to talismans for love to omikuji (paper fortunes).  To jump off the stage at Kiyomizu, as the Japanese say, is to take the plunge into a relationship. It was roasting hot and so my guide shared an umbrella with me, which I had to maneuver without stabbing someone while huffing it up the slopes in my flipflops. Most of the
Love Climb
shrines were in reform and we couldn’t enter but the two stones at the top between which one seeking confirmation about a relationship or searching for a lover must walk between while blindfolded and without help. No, I didn’t try that. I was pooped and ready to get back down to James and Caroline for an adventure in pizza at a pizza bar run by an Italian on a canal. Best pizza base I’ve had.