Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Austria | Graz | Terminator Terminated #2

Hometown Snubs Schwarzenegger Over Death Penalty. They finally went and did it: the Town Fathers of Graz, Austria, have taken Arnold Schwarzenegger's name off the stadium there (see post below). Now Graz will be best known as the birthplace of psychopath Roman "The Bloody Baron" Ungern von Sternberg. One of the Bloody Baron's boots, by the way, can be seen on the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulaan Baatar

Monday, December 26, 2005

Mongolia | Lama Gombo | Kalachakra Tantra

A little while back Lama Gombo called and said he had something he wanted to talk about. When I went to see him at Lamrim Khiid in Ulaan Baatar he presented me with a CD-full of photographs of a Tibetan-language Buddhist scripture that had recently surfaced in Bulgan Aimag.
Lama Gombo
As best I can make out, given the sometimes non-linear mode of Lama Gombo's mind (he is ninety-two years old), prior to 1937 the book had been the Kalachakra Temple, which at that time was located in Zuun Khuree, an appendage, as it were, of Ikh Khüree, which at the time was located in the general area of Sükhebaatar Square in what is now Ulaan Baatar. Around 1937 the Kalachakra Temple was destroyed by the communists, but a monk at the temple rescued the book and gave it to a man in Nailakh, the coal-mining town just east of Ulaan Baatar, for safe keeping. Apparently the man in Nailakh died and the book passed to a relative. In 1998 the relative gave the book to a lama at Gandan Monastery. A lama at Erdene Khamba Monastery in Bulgan Aimag then asked for the book because his monastery did not have a copy. Apparently this was viewed by some parties as a loan, but the first lama at Gandan died, and now the lama at Erdene Khamba says that the book was actually given to him, and by extension to his monastery, and he refused to return it to Gandan. So the physical book remains in Bulgan.
First page of the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra
At any rate, Lama Gombo wanted to know if it was possible to make a facsimile edition of the book from the photos. Given the low resolution and poor quality of the digital photos I had to tell him I did not think this was possible. Still, the book seemed quite interesting. At first Lama Gombo gave the impression that it had been written by the 4th Bogd Gegen, a successor to Zanabazar (see Incarnations of Javzandamba). This proved to be incorrect, however, the book had been commissioned, not written, by the 4th Bogd Gegen. Upon further questioning of Lama Gombo, it then became apparent that the book was actually a copy of the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra, written according to tradition by Manjushri Yashas, one of the Kings of Shambhala.

I sent some pages to translator and Tibetogolist Glenn Mullin, and he also said that it almost certainly a copy of the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra, and added that one of the last pages of the book stated that the print had been created from a critical comparison of the two different Tibetan texts, one published by Sakya Monastery in Tibet and the other presumably a critical edition created by either Desi Sangye Gyatso or else Ngawang Chokden, the Seventh Dalai Lama's Inner Mongolia guru.

Glenn Mullin then sent an email with photos of the relevant pages to Gene Smith at the Rubin Museum of Tibetan Art in New York City. Smith headed the Library of Congress program for publishing Tibetan texts back in the '70s and '80s and is now the Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, located at the Rubin Museum in New York. This organization has already scanned several million page of Tibetan texts and makes them available in digital form.

Gene Smith promptly replied to me, saying that he would very much like to see the photos of the book. He already has a scanned version of a Condensed Kalachakra Tantra produced in Beijing during the Yuan Dynasty, probably between 1291 and 1309, as a memorial to Khubilai Khan, Chingis Khan’s grandson, who founded the Yuan Dynasty, and he opined that it would be very interesting to compare the two editions.

The book now in Bulgan contains many illustrations. According to Lama Gombo the illustrations first consisted of black and white line drawings and were later colored in by the 4th Bogd Gegeen himself. If this is true it would certainly add to the bibliographical interest of the book.
Buddha on the first page, alleged colored by the 4th Bogd Gegeen
Kalachakra Diety, allegedly colored by the 4th Bogd Gegeen
It was the Fourth Bogd Gegeen who first introduced the Duinkhor, or Kalachakra Doctrine, into Mongolia in 1801. In 1803 he made a trip to Lhasa and brought back with him a large collection statues and books. According to ethnologist A. M. Pozdneev, “he esteemed as the upmost of his acquisitions a Kanjur written in gold on black parchment . . . in the following year [1805] the Gegen brought to completion some enterprises that were new for Urga and were adopted by him from Tibet . . in 1806 he set up a special datsang for the school of Duinkor [Kalachakra]” and services were performed here in 1807. "In the same year 1807, the Gegen ordered a yum written in gold from Tibet . . . Moreover, being devoted to the task of developing Duinkhor, the Gegen decorated the temple of Dachin-kalbain-Sume, gilding its roof, and in its courtyard he established his personal residence.”

My point here is that the 4th was deeply involved in the Kalachakra and had ample opportunities to get copies of the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra from Tibet with which to make a new edition here in Mongolia. This may be how he acquired the two editions which were mentioned in the publishing information given in the text and noted by Glenn Mullin.

The 4th Bogd's “Dachin-kalbain-Sume” was the Kalachakra Temple in Ikh Khüree where the book was kept before its destruction around 1937. A new version of this temple, the Dechengalpa Datsan, also known as the Kalachakra Temple, was constructed in Gandan in 1992. Kalachakra rituals are now held here on a regular basis. The temple also contains thangkas of the 722 Kalachakra Dieties and the Kingdom of Shambhala.
The Kalachakra Temple (right) at Gandan

Thursday, December 22, 2005

China | Beijing | Maliandao Tea Street

I mentioned below that several new tea stores have recently opened in Ulaan Baatar. This Is certainly an improvement in the tea situation here, but the stores are still lacking in certain kinds of tea, namely Pu-Erh and the more unusual varieties of green tea. So I winged down to Beijing to stock up on what was not available here. From the second the plane left the ground in Ulaan Baatar to the second the door slammed behind me in my room in the Yong An Hotel in the Sanlitun Embassy District exactly two hours and forty-eight minutes had elapsed, a new record for me on the Beijing commute. This was aided by no line whatsoever at immigration and a bus leaving for Sanlitun the moment I stepped out of the arrival terminal.
I immediately called my friends Ms. R. and Rezwan and we all headed for our favorite Uighur restaurant not far from the Forbidden City.
Ms. R. modeling her new camel wool hat-scarf combo
The next day with Ms. R. in tow I headed for the Maliandao Tea Street in the Western Xuanwu District of Beijing. This is the Mecca of tea drinkers, the Axis Mundi of the Tea Universe. In addition to the main four-story market which has dozens if not hundreds of stores selling nothing but tea and tea drinking accessories—cups, glasses, pots and whatnot of every imaginable variety–the street itself is lined with hundreds more tea shops.

The Main Tea Market on Maliandao Tea Street - four floors of tea shops
The moment you walk in the main market you are accosted by people practically begging you to come in and sample their teas.
One corridor of many on the first floor, all lined with tea shops
Each shop has a fully equipped tea sampling table and you are encouraged, nay, expected to sample any tea before you buy it. Could there possibly be a more enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon?
A sight to make any tea lover swoon
Ms. R. is a hard-core bargainer and she was able to get most of the tea I wanted for one-fourth of the asking price. I won’t say there were not some heated exchanges between Ms. R. and the otherwise charming young ladies who served the tea and quoted the prices, but for Ms. R. all this was just water off a duck’s back.
Tea sampling

More tea sampling
I just sat back and sipped tea, not wishing to concern myself with the mundane details of unseemly haggling. Anyway, you have to speak Chinese, a language which seems specifically designed for yelling at people, to get the really good prices.
Ms. R. quite pleased with herself after a hard session of bargaining.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Austria | Graz | Terminator Terminated

Downtown Graz, with the famous clock tower above
Schwarzenegger Tells Hometown to Take His Name Off Stadium. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his offical hometown of Graz, Austria (actually he was born in Thal, about a ten minute drive from Graz) are having a spat:
“Politicians in the city of Graz had begun a petition drive to rename the stadium following Schwarzenegger's decision to allow the execution last week of Stanley Tookie Williams. The governor's refusal to grant clemency to the convicted murderer of four sparked outrage across Europe and revived an on-again, off-again effort in Graz to drop his name from the stadium.”
Shopping thoroughfare in ever-stylish Graz
Graz was the site of the Dalai Lama's 2002 Kalachakra Initiation. Besides the Terminator, other luminaries born in Graz include Arch-Duke Franz-Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 touched off World War 1; the “Bloody Baron” Ungern von Sternberg, a psychopath who raised havoc in Ulaan Baatar back in the early 1920s, and Heinrich " Seven Years in Tibet” Harrer.
Entrance to the townhouse of Arch-Duke Franz-Ferdinand. If only he had stayed home and not gone to Sarajevo that fateful day of June 28, 1914 when both he and his wife Sophia were assassinated on their 14th wedding anniversary. His last words were: "Sophie dear, Sophie dear, don't die! Stay alive for our children."
Palatial home of the Eggenbergs, to whom the Bloody Baron Ungern von Sternberg was related on this mother's side.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Mongolia | Khentii Aimag | Source of the Amur

Russia, China, Mongolia to Launch Amur River Environmental Project.
The Amur is one of the ten longest rivers in the world. The ultimate source of the Amur is the Onon River in Mongolia. The source of the Onon is in the Khentii Mountains. Here is the very beginning of the Onon, and thus the source of the Amur.
The Source of the Amur
Read more about the Onon River and the Source of the Amur:

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

India | Nalanda University

After a stop in the old town of Rajgir for lunch at the famous Green Hotel, where I sit at a table with a Taiwanese lady I had met earlier that day at Vulture’s Peak—she chatters with me as if we are old friends catching up on the news after a lengthy parting—we drive through the narrow gap between Vaibhara Hill and Vipula Hill and back out onto the plain. Seven or eight miles past the new city of Rajgir a narrow road cuts off to Nalanda. In front of the entrance is a hubbub of tea stalls, souvenir stands, and particularly voracious beggars, but once past the front gate and into the large walled compound (unlike Vulture’s Peak, a ticket is required here)—the expansive grounds are immaculately maintained, with mowed lawns, paved paths lined with flower beds, neat and informative signposts, convenient placed benches for the weary, and not so much as a gum wrapper of trash visible anywhere.
Spotless grounds of Nalanda
Present are well-dressed, affluent-looking Indian families on outings (it’s a Sunday), a smattering of Tibetan pilgrims, and bunches of monks and nuns in burgundy, orange, and ochre scattered about the landscape like bouquets of tulips.
Tibetan Pilgrims
Nalanda and its environs have a hallowed place in the history of religion and learning in India. Even before the establishment of the monastery and university the area was famous for its pleasure parks and rest houses. According to one legend the Buddha in a previous life had lived here as a king and due to his kindness to his subjects both he the capital of his kingdom became known as “Kindness without Remission,” the rough meaning of the nalanda according to one interpretation of the word. . The Buddha himself gave teachings here, including the Brahmajala Sutra, the first discourse of the Tripitaka, and the Ambalatthika Rahulovasda Sutra, and his two main disciples, Sariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana, were born nearby. In addition to the Buddhist associations, Mahavira (the honorary title of a teacher by the name of Vardhamana), a contemporary of the Buddha who is regarded by followers of Jainism as the greatest of all their teachers, spend as many as fourteen rainy seasons in the area. (Ironically, Mahamaudgalyayana was later beaten to death by assassins said to be in the pay of local Jains.)

Although the area was famous, the origins of what became the Nalanda monastery and university are uncertain. Taranatha (who as you know was a Previous Incarnation of Zanabazar), in his monumental History of Buddhism in India claims that in the 3rd B. C. century King Ashoka came here on a pilgrimage to visit a stupa dedicated to Sariputra and that he subsequently built another stupa nearby in honor of the Buddha.

Taranatha further intimates that the construction of this stupa marks the very beginning of Nalanda’s development into a monastery. The very existence of this stupa has been questioned, and there are no other indications that any kind of monastic establishment had been founded this early. Some sources state that Nalanda as we know it was in fact founded in the second century A.D. by King Sakraditya of Magadha. The earliest archeological findings at the site, however, date from the early Gupta Dynasty ((350 a.d – 650 a.d.) Also, our pilgrim friend Fa Hien, who visited the area early in the fifth century, took note of a stupa marking the spot where Sariputra’s body was cremated but refers only in passing to a nearby monastery, leading some to conclude that no significant monastic establishment or university existed at the time of his visits. We do know that by the late fifth century and early sixth century, under the Guptas, the monastic university was firmly established. Some of the archeological remains at the site today date from this period. From then on Nalanda continued to grow.

One of its greatest patrons was Harsha (606-647), one of the last Gupta kings. The peripatetic pilgrim Xuanzang visited here during Harsa’s reign and spoke of his munificence: “The king of the country respects and honours the priests, and has remitted the revenues of about 100 villages for the endowment of this convent. Two hundred householders in these villages, day-by-day, contribute several hundred piculs [one picul equals 133.3 lbs.] of ordinary rice, and several hundred catties [one catty equals 160 lbs.] in weight of butter and milk. Hence the students here, being so abundantly supplied, do not require to ask for the four requisites [clothes, food, bedding and medicine]. This is the source of their perfection of their studies . . .”

The Gupta Dynasty fell in 650, eventually to be replaced by the Pala Dynasty, famous for its patronage of Buddhism. Although the Pala emperors established numerous other monasteries, including Vikramasila, Somapura, and Odantapuri, they continued to support Nalanda. There was one burst of building activity during the Pala period in the ninth century, perhaps following a devastating fire, and much of the statuary from Nalanda which has survived dates from this period. The end of the Pala Dynasty, brought about by the incursions of Islam, would also spell the end of Nalanda.

A whole galaxy of notable Buddhist gurus and scholars studied or taught at Nalanda. As one commentator noted, “to study the history of Nalanda is to study the history of Mahayana Buddhism.” As we have seen Nagarjuna, who according to legend retrieved various Mahayana texts, including the Prajnaparamita, from the Nagas, is said by Taranatha and others to have taught at Nalanda. See two Prajnaparamita texts:
Admittedly the historical ground is a bit shaky here, since other sources place Nagarjuna in south India for much of his life, and there are questions of just how much of a monastic establishment existed at Nalanda in the second century A.D. when Najarjuna is said to have lived. Nevertheless, Najarjuna is inextricably connected, either by fact or legend, with Nalanda. “The legend goes,” we are told by the renowned modern-day Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, “that Nagarjuna was approached by nagas (dragons) in human form after one of his lectures at the monastery of Nalanda. They invited him to their undersea kingdom to see some texts they thought would be of great interest to him. He went with them magically under the sea and discovered a vast treasure trove of the Mahayana Sutras, not only the Prajnaparamita, but also the Jewel Heap, the Lotus, and the Pure Land Sutras.” Having studied this sutras with the Nagas, Nagarjuna, according to legend, then returned to Nalanda and introduced them into human society. Whatever their origination, there is no doubt that Nalanda became a leading center for the dissemination of Mahayana doctrines. (Bardi-dzoboo, credited with being an earlier incarnation of Zanabazar, is said to have lived at Nalanda during the time of Nagarjuna.)

Taranatha further asserts that Aryadeva, the main disciple of Nagarjuna, a Madhyamaka master and author of the Catuhsataka, among numerous other works; Asanga, fourth century A.D. founder of the Yogacara school of Mahayana; and Vasubhandu, Asanga’s half-brother, who at Asanga’s urging—according to some accounts—converted to Mahayana and became an proponent of the Yogacara school, all spend considerable time at Nalanda and that the latter two served as abbots here. Again there are questions about the chronology here, and whether a significant monastic university actually existed at Nalanda during the lifetimes of these individuals.

On firmer historical ground, Dignaga (480-540 A.D.), a later student of Vasubhandu who wrote extensively on the Adhidharma, is known to have taught at Nalanda. This would have been about the time the monastic university began to flourish under the Guptas. Later luminaries include Dharmapala, a leading light of the Yogacara school and an influential teacher of Silabhadra (529-645 A.D.), who as we shall shortly see taught the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang; Dharmakirti (seventh century A.D.), an outstanding teacher of logic known as the Kant of India; and the immortal Shantideva, author of The Way of the Bodhisattva, which is still in print today in numerous additions (I have met people who have memorized large chunks of it).

Numerous figures connected with the spread of Buddhism to Tibet also studied at Nalanda. This in part explains why Nalanda remains to this day an important pilgrimage site for Tibetans. Among these notables must be included Thonpi Sambhota, inventor of the Tibetan script, although little more is known of his activities either at or after Nalanda. Most famous among the other Tibet-connected personages are Padmasambhava, also known as “the Lotus-Born,” Santarakshita, who received his monastic vows at Nalanda from the monk Jnanagarbha, and Kamalasila, a student of Santarakshita’s. All three of whom lived in the 8th century A.D. Padmasambhava and Santarakshita traveled to Tibet at the invitation of King Trisong Detsen, who visited to introduce Buddhism into his kingdom. Padmasambhava’s efforts at disseminating Buddhism in Tibet were so successful that is often referred to by Tibetans as “the Second Buddha.” In the 770s Padmasambhava and Santarakshita oversaw the construction of Samye Monastery, the very first monastic establishment in Tibet.

Padmasambhava and Santarakshita modeled Samye on the monastic complex at Odantapuri, which as mentioned had been patronized by the Pala Dynasty. Odantapuri was completely obliterated during the Moslems incursion of the 12th century and until just recently even its location was unknown. Now it is believed to have located at Bihar Sharif, just seven miles north-east of Nalanda. It is not surprising then that Padmasambhava and Santarakshita knew of Odanaturi and were able to model Samye after it. The design which they used is supposed to represent the Buddhist model of the universe. The three-story main temple represents Mount Sumeru, the mythical mountain at the center of the Universe. The four so-called Ling Temples at the corners of the main temple represent the four continents which according to traditional Buddhist cosmology surround Mount Sumeru. It was here at Samye that the first seven Tibetans were ordained by Shantarakshita, after the Indian teacher had closely examined them to see if they were fit to be monks. They are still known today as the Seven Examined Men.

Kamalasila, Santarakshita’s student at Nalanda, traveled to Tibet in his teacher’s footsteps and gained fame as a debater. At that time Ch’an Buddhism as practiced in China, which emphasized the concept of sudden enlightenment, was also being taught in Tibet, most famously by the Chinese Ch’an master Hvashang Mahayana. During the years 792-794, a debate was held between the Ch’an Buddhists and the Buddhists from Nalanda who represented the so-called “gradual enlightenment” school. The “gradual enlightenment” school led by Kamalasila won the debate, and the Nalanda-taught form of Buddhism gained ascendancy in Tibet, but he may have paid for it with his life. In 795 he was murdered, according to some accounts by a Chinese assassin dispatched by his debate opponent.

None of these worthies, regardless of how extensive their other writings may have been, left any detailed record of Nalanda itself. The best account we have comes from the Indefatigably Peripatetic Pilgrim Xuanzang, who made a dramatic entrance here in 636 A.D. At time of his arrival his fame had already proceeded him to such an extant that four distinguished members of the university came out to met him and led him to a house where it was said Maudgalyayana had been born. The party stopped here for refreshment. “Then,” his biographer tells us, “with two hundred priests and some thousand lay patrons, who surrounded him as he went, recounting his praises, and carrying standards, umbrellas, flowers, and perfumes, he entered Nalanda.” Xuanzang:
The sanghadaramas [monastic complexes] of India are counted by myriads, but this is the most remarkable for grandeur and height . . . The whole establishment is surrounded by a brick wall, which encloses the entire convent from without. One gate opens into the great college, from which are separated eight other halls, standing in the middle . . .
The entrance to the complex in now through a narrow gate and passageway on the eastern side of the walled complex. In Xuanzang’s there was a famous Northern Gate which served as the main entrance to the monastery. Those who sought to study at Nalanda were confronted here by a gate keeper who acted as a kind of Dean of Admissions. “If men of other quarters,” Xuanzang tells us, ”desire to enter and take part in the discussions, the keeper of the gate proposes some hard questions; many are unable to answer, and retire. One must have studied deeply both old and new books before gaining admission. Those students, therefore, who come here as strangers, have to show their ability by hard discussion; those who fail compared to those who succeed are as seven or eight to ten.” This Northern Gate no longer exists nor is its exact location known, although its ruins are thought to be somewhere under the villages to the north of the current walled compound.

Inside the gate the entire population of the monastery turned out to greet Xuanzang. After taking a seat right by the side of the residing priest, a proclamation was made: “‘Whist the Master of the Law [Xuanzang] dwells at the convent, all the commodities used by the priests and all the appliances of religion are for his convenience, in common with the rest.’”

Then he was led into the presence of the redoubtable Silabhadra, the leading master of the Yogacara school and the greatest scholar of the many at Nalanda. “The priests, belonging to the convent, or strangers residing therein,” according to Xuanzang, ”always reach the number of 10,000, who all study the Great Vehicle, and also the works belonging to the eighteen sects . . . There are 1000 men who can explain twenty collections of Sutras and Sastras; 500 who can explain thirty collections, and perhaps ten men . . . who can explain fifty collections. Silabhadra alone has studied and understood the whole number. His eminent virtue and advanced age have caused him to be regarded as the chief member of the community.” His renown was so great that no one at Nalanda called him but name but instead referred to him as “Treasure of the Good Law.”

Xuanzang approached this worthy on his knees, kissed his foot, and showered him with compliments. Asking Xuanzang to take a seat, Silabhadra then asked Xuanzang where he was from. “‘I am come from the country of China, desiring to learn from your instruction the principles of the Yoga-Sastra [Yogacara].’” Since Xuanzang’s fame had proceeded him to Nalanda, we must wonder why Silabhadra had to ask where he was from. Perhaps the great scholar was too absorbed in this studies to have heard in advance about the famous pilgrim-traveler.

Anyhow, upon hearing that Xuanzang was from China Silabhadra’s eyes filled with tears. He called to his nephew Buddhabhadra and asked him to recount to Xuanzang an event which had happened three years before. Silabhadra, it seems, had long been suffering from colic, but at that time the attacks had become so severe that he wished to end his life and had thus resolved to starve himself to death. In the middle of the night three devas, or spiritual beings, appeared to him in a dream. They asked, “‘Are you anxious to get free of this body of yours? The scriptures speak, saying, the body is born to suffering; they do not say we should hate it and cast away the body.’” The devas further explained to Silabhadra that in a previous life he had been the king who had mistreated his subjects and that his present illness was karmic retribution for these past misdeeds. Then revealing that they were the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya, and Manjushri, they advised Silabhadra that if he faithfully continued to teach the Yogacara doctrine for the benefit of those who had not yet heard it he would be cured of his illness. They added, “Do not overlook that there is a priest of the country of China who delights in examining the great Law and is desirous to study with you: you ought to instruct him most carefully.”

Obviously Xuanzang was the Chinese priest prophesied in the dream, now come to receive the teachings from Silabhadra. “The company present hearing this history were all filled with wonder at the miraculous event,” we are told. “The Master of the Law [Xuanzang] having heard for himself this narrative was unable to control his feelings of sympathy and joy.” He was, in fact, so unable to control himself that when he was asked how long he had been traveling he blurted out, “three years,” even though by that time he had been on the road at least seven. Apparently in his eagerness to please he wanted the length of his travels to coincide with the prophecy.

Xuanzang ended up staying at Nalanda for a total of five years, studying with Silabhadra and other learned men, collecting sutras to take back to China, and perfecting his Sanskrit, knowledge of which he would need to translate these works into Chinese. During his stay he was royally treated, receiving considerable rations each day, including a peck of Mahasali rice. “This rice,” we are told, “is as large as a black bean and when cooked is aromatic and shining, like no other rice at all. It grows only In Magadha and nowhere else. It is offered only to the king or religious persons of great distinction . . .” He was also given an elephant to ride, a privilege usually reserved for royalty.

Xuanzang was effusive about the various temples and buildings of Nalanda “The richly adorned towers, and the fairy-like turrets, like pointed hill-tops, are congregated together,” he mentions. “The observatories seem to be lost in the vapors of the morning, and the upper rooms are above the clouds. From the windows one may see how the winds and clouds produce new forms, and above the soaring eves the conjunction of the sun and the moon may be observed.” One of the observatories was at least nine-stories high, and there were three libraries, Ratnasagara, Ratnadadhi, and Ratnaranjaka, containing thousands of book in numerous languages.

He also mentions a Tara Temple: “. . . in a vihara [temple] constructed of brick is a figure of Tara Bodhisattva (To-p’u-sa). This figure is of great height, and its spiritual appearance is very striking. Every fast-day large offerings are made to it. The kings and ministers and great people of the neighboring countries offer exquisite perfumes and flowers, holding gem covered flags and canopies, whilst instruments of metal and stone resound in turns, mingled with the harmony of flutes and harps. These religious assemblies last for seven days.” This is perhaps one of the clearest indications of just how strong the Cult of Tara was as far back as the seventh century A.D.

Xuanzang was also impressed by his follow monks at Nalanda [there is no mention of any nuns]:
The priests, to the number of several thousands, area men of the highest ability and rank. Their distinction is very great at the present time, and there are many hundreds whose fame has rapidly spread through distant regions. Their conduct is pure and unblamable. They follow in sincerity the precepts of the moral law. The rules of this convent are severe, and all the priests are bound to observe them. The countries of India respect and follow them. The day is not sufficient for asking and answering profound questions. From morning to night they engage in discussion; the old and young mutually help one another. Those who cannot discuss questions out of the Tripitaka are little esteemed, and are obliged to hide themselves for shame. Learned men from different cities, on this account, who desire to acquire quickly a renown in discussion, come here in their multitudes to settle their doubts, and then the streams of their wisdom spread far and wide. For this reason some persons usurp the name of Nalanda students, and in going to and fro receive honor in consequence.
As with all organic entities, however, no sooner had Nalanda ripening and flowered than decline decay and set in. The university became immensely wealthy from royal patronage, especially during the Pala era, and students soon forsook Buddhist studies and the religious life for careers in court and government. Also, Brahmanism made inroads in the curriculum, diluting Buddhist teachings until began to resemble Hinduism.

Thus Nalanda was already in steep decline, at least from a religious and intellectual point of view, when Islamic armies invaded India at the beginning of the 1190s. After the second battle of Tarain in 1192 when the forces of Islam were victorious there was nothing to keep them from invading the so-called Middle Land where Nalanda was located. In 1193 Mohammad Bakhtyar and his armies swept across the Gangetic Plain destroying all Buddhist temples and institutions he found and killing Buddhist monks who fell into his hands. Nalanda was almost completely plundered, but a few monks who had managed to survive the onslaught returned and attempted to revive the institution. A second attack by the Moslems followed and this time Nalanda was destroyed for good. The abandoned ruins of the once great monastery slowly sank into the plains of Bihar.

The now restored ruins cover an area perhaps half a mile long and a little less than a quarter of a mile wide, and even this is thought to be only one-tenth of the original size of Nalanda.
Restored structures at Nalanda
Along one side of a walkway running lengthwise through the site are the brick remains of eight different monastic compounds. The compounds, arranged in a perfectly straight row, are all similar. Each is about one hundred and fifty feet square and consists of small monastic cells, ten or twelve on each of the four sides, opening onto a central courtyard.
Monks' Quarters
In the courtyard of some of them is a platform where a teacher lectured to the assembled monks and other students. Some of the cells contain beds and bookcases built into the brick walls.
On the other side of the central are the remains of four brick temples in various states of restoration. The most dramatic of these is the massive pyramidal structure at southern end of the museum complex.
Main Temple at Nalanda
One of the oldest remaining buildings at Nalanda, it was built in at least seven stages, one on top of another. The staircases leading to the top built during the fifth, sixth, and seventh phases of the construction can still be seen. Around the structure are dozens of stupas in varying states of repair, the best preserved containing original Pala statuary. I overhead a tour guide here saying that this temple was built on the site of the stupa originally built in the Nalanda area by Ashoka, although neither a nearby sign post describing the structure or any guidebooks I have say anything about this.

I spend two or three hours wandering around the monastic compounds and temples. Most of the Indian families have retreated to the shade of the snack shop just outside the entryway, but a few Tibetan pilgrims still dutifully plod among the ruins. Some of them pick up pebbles and pinches of dust and put them in small ziploc plastic bags, souvenirs of the hallowed ground where Padmasambhava, Santarakshita, and Kamalasila once trod. I stop briefly to listen to a group of Tibetan monks reading in unison a sutra in front of one of the temple ruins. They are from a monastery in south India, established by Tibetan refugees who fled after the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Thus by the vicissitudes of twentieth-century ideologies and politics has Tibetan Buddhism returned to India, from whence it originally had sprung.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

India | Rajgir | Vulture's Peak | Kalachakra

Sometime after his Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree  at Bodhgaya the Buddhas traveled to Vulture’s Peak, near the town of Rajgir, also in current-day Bihar State, and began expounding his new teachings.
Vulture's Peak
Among the discourses taught here, according to tradition, were the Prajnaparamita, or Perfection of Wisdom, sutras. Although considered to be based on the Buddha’s teachings, most modern scholars maintain that the Prajnaparamita and many of the other Mayahana sutras were actually composed between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D., several hundreds of years after the Buddha’s death. The traditionalist viewpoint asserts, however, that the Buddha did in fact teach them but that they were only written down at a later date. A mythological explanation of this traditional viewpoint avers when the Buddha taught the Prajnaparamita it was so far beyond the ken of most of the audience that it was understood and remembered only by so-called Nagas who happened to be present. According to Buddhist and Hindu mythology, Nagas are benevolent serpent-like beings who inhabit a watery level of the underworld. The nagas who heard the Buddha’s teachings then became the guardians of the Prajnaparamita and various other Mahayana sutras, including the well-known Lotus Sutra and Pure Land Sutra. “This temporary hiding of the teaching,” scholar of Tibetan Buddhism Robert Thurman writes, “is believed to have been prophesied by the Buddha himself. Before the Prajnaparamita could be revealed, the Buddha “considered that the developing societies of his time in India needed four hundred years of preparation and purification by the monastic education and renunciative ethic he taught more openly . . .” According to this traditional viewpoint, when the time was finally ripe the these teachings were presented by the Nagas to Nagarjuna, an historical figure who traditionally is thought to have taught at Nalanda University in the second century A.D. Najarjuna then propagated them in the human realm. Whatever their origin, the Prajnaparamita sutras now make up the core of the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, tradition.
Another view of Vulture's Peak
According to tradition, while the Buddha was in his physical body here at Vulture’s Peak delivering the Prajnaparamita an emanation of the Buddha appeared at the same time in south India, at a place called the Dhanyakataka Stupa, and taught the Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, doctrine to Suchandra, the King of Shambhala, who had traveling to India from his kingdom somewhere in the north specifically to receive these teachings.
A rendering of the Dhanyakataka Stupa in Samye Monastery, Tibet. The Kalachakra Diety can be seen in the white part of the stupa.
Detail of Kalachakra Diety and his consort Vishvamati
The Dalai Lama had been in Bodhgaya in January of 2002 to perform a public initiation into these Kalachakra teachings. As with the Prajnaparamita, however, mainstream Western scholars have averred that the main texts of the Kalachakra doctrine were not actually taught by the Buddha but were probably composed in the ninth or tenth centuries A.D., perhaps in eastern Afghanistan, although numerous other sites have been posited.

What has been called the “traditional, sacred history,” of the Kalachakra relates, however, that the Buddha did in fact teach this doctrine, but the King of Shambhala, serving much the same function as the Nagas in the Prajnaparamita saga, took it back to his kingdom where it was safeguarded until the time was right for its Propagation in the Purely Human Realm, in this case in 966 or 967 A.D. when a wandering pandit by the name of Tilopa is supposed to have brought the teachings from Shambhala to Nalanda University. Among the adherents of this version is the 14th Dalai Lama himself. He alludes to this when he says that the Kalachakra teachings “were given by mystical manifestations of the Buddha to those in a state of purified karma and perception,” referring here to the King of Shambhala and his entourage. For the sake of more literal minded scholars who have suggested that the Kalachakra doctrine developed much later and was only posthumously attributed to the Buddha, the current Dalai Lama adds, “it does not matter much whether or not any specific tantra in question was expounded during the life of the historical Buddha. Yet, in fact the Root Tantra (Mulatantra) of Kalachakra was set forth by the Buddha during his life.”

Since according to the “traditional, sacred history” of the Kalachakra the Buddha was here at Vulture’s Peak in his physical body when his emanation taught the Kalachakra doctrine to the King of Shambhala in south India, it was not surprising that the Dalai Lama, while in Bodhgaya in January of 2002 to give the Kalachakra initiation, decided to make a pilgrimage to this hallowed site. By complete coincidence I happened to be here at Vulture’s Peak the day before he arrived.
Monks at Vulture's Peak
Western Supplicant at Vulture's Peak
Although later press reports maintained that the Dalai Lama’s trip from Bodhgaya to Rajgir was unannounced and done in great secrecy for security reasons, in fact every souvenir salesmen on the pathway to Vulture’s Peak knew that he was to arrive the next day and were eagerly looking forward to windfall sales. There was even excitement among the beggars, who were usually in a state of near catatonic detachment.
Beggars on the road to Vulture's Peak before the announcement of the Dalai Lama's arrival.
The next morning I took a rickshaw from my hotel in the old town of Rajgir and arrived at the entrance to the parking lot just as the sun was rising at six o’clock. There were perhaps a hundred Indian army troops and other security guards already present and the entire area, including the parking lot itself and the path to Vulture’s Peak was closed to the public. One Indian army officer ordered my rickshaw man in no uncertain terms to turn around and leave immediately. Presumably I could have went out to the main road and waited for a glimpse of the Dalai Lama as he sped by in a car, but since I had already seen him pass by in the street in Bodhgaya a few days earlier this didn’t seem necessary. Instead I went back to the old town of Rajgir and spent the morning visiting some pilgrimage sites in the nearby hills, and later soaking in the famous hot springs so highly touted by the first century A.D. poet Asvaghosha.

About three o’clock in the afternoon I returned to Vulture’s Peak. At first glance everything was back to normal. The tea shops in the parking lot were open and the souvenir salesmen and beggars were back at their posts on the walkway to the peak. I asked one trinket salesman if he had seen the Dalai Lama. He snorted in disgust. “Nobody saw him. The army made everyone leave. Me, the other people selling things, the beggars, everyone. I sold nothing all morning. There were army everywhere, up on the hillside in the rocks, up at Vulture’s Peak, up at the stupa on the top of the mountain, everywhere. Now look. Everyone who came with him left. There’s no one here.”

I continued on up to Vulture’s Peak and indeed the pathway was deserted. I was the only visitor in sight. Arriving at the platform on the top of Vulture’s Peak I discovered the policeman and the souvenir salesman who are usually stationed here on their knees, with their backs to me, busily stuffing white katas (prayer scarves) into two huge plastic garbage bags. As I approached the police jumped up and shouted, “Go, this area is closed for the day.” His companion hastily closed the now-stuffed garbage bags and went to hide them behind some nearby rocks. Obviously they had gathering up all the katas left by the Dalai Lama’s party and were planning on selling them the next day. “I just want to take some photos,” I explained. “OK, Ok, take some photos, and then you must leave,” muttered the policeman, who seemed nonplussed by being caught taking the katas. I asked him if he was here was when the Dalai Lama visited. “Of course, I am a policeman,” he said, instantly regaining his pride and puffing up his chest. How did the Dalai Lama get up here, I wondered? “He walked, of course,” said the policeman. I was surprised. True, it was only a little over a half mile from the parking lot and only 369 feet in elevation gain, but I assumed that he would have been carried up, like the Chinese monk Fa Hien in the 5th century and the Thai monks I had seen on my current trip. From what I had seen of the Dalai Lama in Bodhgaya he didn’t look hale and hearty enough to be making a walk like this, especially in the enervating heat. “Yes, he came and left those,” continued the policeman, pointing to two bouquets of flowers and some katas on the altar in the center of the platform. Apparently these two guys didn’t have the nerve to take the katas left the Dalai Lama himself. Or maybe they gathered them up after I left.
Prayer scarves and bouquets left by the Dalai Lama on Vulture's Peak
It was not quite clear how the Dalai Lama had traveled from Bodhgaya to Rajgir. I later heard that he had been flown here in an Indian Army helicopter, but this may have just been a rumor. He was to have returned to Bodhgaya from Rajgir by the road I had taken to get here but this plan was changed at the last moment as a security precaution and instead he was driven to Patna, the capital of Bihar, about sixty miles to the northeast. A story in the Times of India (January 14) explained:
The aides of the Dalai Lama stated that his visit to Rajgir, once a citadel of Buddhism, was a pilgrimage. The Dalai Lama did not speak to journalists in Patna and retired early to bed. Police sources indicated that they changed the route of the Dalai Lama due to threat perception. They said the Bodh Gaya-Rajgir road passes through the pockets under the influence of the Maoist Communist Centre. The condition of the road is bad, and it is vulnerable to planting of landmines. The Rajgir-Patna-Bodh Gaya route is much more safe.
What remained unclear was why he wasn’t taken back by helicopter, if that was in fact the way he arrived, or if he had been taken by car from Bodhgaya to Rajgir, as some sources averred, why it suddenly became unsafe to return that way. In any case, the Dalai Lama eventually returned to Bodhgaya from Patna and soon began the lengthy rituals leading up to the Kalachakra initiation.
Another view of Vulture's Peak; the walk up did in the Dalai Lama
I had gone, along with 50,000 or more other people, to the huge fenced-in field where the Kalachakra initiation was held to witness most of these opening ceremonies. I was also there on the day when the Dalai Lama made the startling announcement that the Kalachakra initiation would have to be canceled. It seemed his trip to Vulture’s Peak was to blame. Addressing the huge audience he said:
The reason why I briefly wanted to meet you today is not connected with spiritual or religious matters. I wanted to brief you on the events and developments and what we should do in the future. When I came from South India to Bodhgaya I was in excellent health. A week back I made a pilgrimage to Nalanda and Vulture’s Peak. Normally in Tibetan tradition we believe that if we face difficulties and obstacles during our pilgrimage we will gain more spiritual merit. So I walked up to the Vulture’s Peak with a help of a walking stick. For a year I have had some minor problems with my knee. Remembering the many kindnesses of the Buddha I made this pilgrimage. I perspired a lot. I prayed a great deal at the Vulture’s Peak. I think I became ill because I was exposed to extreme temperatures. In the afternoon I had lunch and made a pilgrimage to Nalanda. After that I went by car to Patna. The journey by car was two hours but after about an hour in the car I developed extreme pain in my stomach. The pain in my stomach increased when I arrived at the hotel in Patna. Also I perspired a lot. I took both Tibetan and Western medicines and my basic illness has been cured but I think it will take some time for me to recover completely . . . Because of the prolonged prayers and the many hours of preparation for the conduct of the Kalachakra Teachings I thought in my present health it would be foolish on my part to persist in giving what is basically a very exhausting set of teachings and empowerments . . . So I have decided to hold the Kalachakra Teachings again in Bodhgaya between the eleventh and twelfth months of the Tibetan calendar next year . . . I would like to state that you should not be disappointed by the postponement of the Kalachakra Teachings. This is because the reason why you are here is because of your great motivation to spiritually benefit from being in such a sacred place and because of this you will have accumulated great merit for every step you take.
In addition to the additional Kalachakra initiation in Bodhgaya the following year which the Dalai Lama promised in his statement, he was also to give one in Graz, Austria, in November of 2002. With the cancellation of the January 2002 initiation I immediately made plans to attend the one in Graz.
Line of Dharma Wear unveiled at Graz during the Kalachakra Initiation there.
This January the Dalai Lama is giving a Kalachakra Initiation at Amaravati, India, site of the Dhanyakataka Stupa. Although he has given 29 initiations all over the world, this is the first at the site where according to tradition the Buddha taught the Kalachakra to Suchandra, First King of Shambhala. The internet is Roiling with Rumors that this will be the last Kalachakra Initiation given by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama, to my knowledge, has made no public pronouncements on this.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Mongolia | Khovd Aimag | Borders

China, Mongolia Finalize 4,677-KM Border (that's 2906 miles to non-decimal-heads). Ever on the cutting edge of the news I winged out to Khovd City, took a jeep to the sum center of Bulgan, and from nearby Shar Mod rode camels 65 miles down to the border to make sure all was well. It is.
Mongolian Stalwarts keeping viligant watch on the border at Seven Dogs Oasis, southern Khovd Aimag.
Border Marker #173 at Baitag Bogd Uul, southern Khovd Aimag
Two border guards at Border Marker #173. China (Xinjiang) is right behind them.
Border Guards riding along the Border Fence at Baitag Bogd Uul. Through rain, sleet, snow, and hail the Border is constantly patrolled.
Camel men from Shar Mod, with the white fence marking the Mongolian-Chinese border in the distance. There's not a Chinese restaurant in sight, although at that point I would have been glad to see even a 7-11. The camel guys, Dorj and Ankha, had never been in this area before and could not find the promised well. We overnighted with two liters (that's 2.1133764 quarts to non-decimal-heads) of water among the four of us, and did not reach the next water at Baitag Bogd Mountain until the next afternoon.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

India | Bodhgaya | The Bodhi Tree

From Gangtok I scampered down to Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha's Enlightenment, and immediately headed for the Bodhi Tree. Even today many people seem to be under the impression that the Bodhi Tree (a specimen of the pipal tree, Ficus religiosa) found today behind the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya is the very same Bodhi Tree under which Buddha achieved Enlightenment.
Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya
Whether it is possible or not for the same tree to have existed for some 2500 years is not considered. But it may be that the current Bodhi Tree is a distant relative of the original Bodhi Tree, if indeed trees can be thought of as having relatives. The Venerable S. Dhammika, after examining the subject, has opined in his definitive pilgrim’s guide Middle Land, Middle Way, that the current Bodhi Tree “is probably a descendant of the original Bodhi Tree.”
Let's take a closer look at this famous exemplar of Ficus religiosa. If we are to believe a document called the Kalingabodhi Jataka, the Bodhi Tree was well-known as a local landmark even before the Buddha’s time Probably already in his lifetime and certainly immediately therefore the tree became an important pilgrimage site. There are two versions of how the original Bodhi Tree perished. One legends relates that in the 360s B.C., a hundred and sixty years or so after the Buddha’s Enlightenment, Ashoka, king of the Mauryan Empire (321-104 b.c.), not yet been converted to Buddhism and apparently piqued at the attention the tree was attracting, had it cut down. The Asokavadana, a chronicle detailing his reign, relates, however, that after Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism he became so enamored of the tree that his wife the Queen became jealous (if indeed one can be jealous of a tree), and that it was she who ordered that it be it cut down. According to this version the heart-broken Ashoka poured milk on the roots of the tree and soon it re-sprouted. This new tree flourished under Ashoka’s protection and eventually grew to a high of 120 feet. To further safeguard this tree Ashoka had built around it a stone wall some ten feet high.
The Bodhi Tree today at the back of the Mahabodhi Temple
On somewhat firmer historical ground, the Mahavamsa (“Great Chronicle of Ceylon”, a fairly reliable historical source), relates that Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitta, who had became a nun, took a cutting from the Bodhi Tree to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, where his son Mahinda, who had become a monk, had established a monastery. It is not quite clear whether this cutting came from the first Bodhi Tree or from the one which re-sprouted from the first one’s roots. Anyhow, the tree that grew from this cutting still exists today and is said to be the oldest—according to some accounts, the second oldest—tree in the world whose age can be historically documented.
The second generation Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya survived until about 600 a. d., when a Hindu King from Bengal named Sananka had it chopped down in a fit of anti-Buddhist iconoclasm. Sananka soon died a ghastly death, his very flesh rotting away from his bones, whether or not in karmic retribution for cutting down the Bodhi Tree we are not told.
In 637 the Peripatetic Chinese Pilgrim Xuanzang on a sixteen year sojourn from his native China arrived in Bodhgaya and recounts the then current story:
Recently King Sananka of the kingdom of Karnasuvara cut the tree, dug it up to the water springs but still he could not destroy the bottom of the roots. He then burnt and sprinkled the juice of sugar cane on it wishing to destroy the bottom of the root completely. A few months afterwards King Pu-la-na-fa-mo [Purnavarma] who was said to be a descendant of King Ashoka, on hearing that the tree had been cut, cast his body on the ground, invited the monks and for seven days make offerings to the tree and poured milk of several thousand cows in the large pit. When he had done it for six day and nights the tree grew a little more than 10 feet. Fearing that it might be cut again afterwards, he surrounded it with a stone wall 24 feet high.
The current Bodhi Tree
Historian Charles Allen, however, has dismissed this account as a “pious fiction.” The Mahavamsa, he points out, unequivocally states that a cutting from the tree at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka was brought to Bodhgaya after Sananka’s desecration and that the next Bodhi tree grew from this. As mentioned above, the tree at Anuradhapura had grown from a cutting from the original Bodhi Tree taken there by Ashoka’s daughter a few centuries earlier.
In any case, Xuanzang relates that thousands of pilgrims each year came to the Bodhi Tree and made offerings of milk, scented water, and flowers. He himself paid his respects: “The moment he had been waiting for came,” wrote Huili, Xuanzang’s biographer, and who had also worked with him as a translator.
Finally Xuanzang kneels down before the sacred tree. He thinks of the time the Buddha, in the first watch of the night, meditated on all worlds, the rising and falling of things, the ascending and descending rhythm of existence; how in the second watch, from 10 to 2 a.m., the Buddha reviewed his own life, and the third watch, for 2 to 6 a.m., he meditated on human suffering and arrived at the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Salvation. What an awakening! His mind was liberated, ignorance vanished, knowledge was acquired, darkness melted away, light sprang out.With the most sincere devotion, Xuanzang casts himself face down on the ground. Filled with grief, he sighs and says, “At the time when the Buddha perfected himself in wisdom, I know not in what condition I was in the troublous whirl of life and death.” To him it is inescapably clear his evil deeds mean that is condemned to live in this lesser age, when Buddhism is in decline, instead of the golden age of the Buddha’s life on earth. His eyes overflow with tears.

Worshippers at the current Bodhi Tree
One wonders, however, if the Bodhi Tree was cut down around 600 a.d. just how big its replacement—either a re-sprouted version or one grown from a cutting of the Anuradhapura tree—could have been in 637, when Xuanzang paid his respects to it. Xuanzang makes no mention of the tree’s size, but as we shall we it is possible that a young adult tree existed by that time.

Here we lose track of the Bodhi Tree for several centuries, so we don’t know if the tree described some 600 years later by the Tibetan pilgrim Dharmasvamin in the 1230s was the same one seen by Xuanzang. Given the longevity demonstrated by the Anuradhapura tree it is certainly possible that the same tree existed this long. The Bodhi Tree next pops up the account of Dr. Francis Buchanan, an employee of the East India Company who visited Bodhgaya in 1811 while on a five-year mission to catalogue the resources and antiquities of what is now the state of Bihar: “It is a fine tree in full vigour and in all probability cannot exceed 100 in age, and has probably sprung from the ruins [of the Mahabodhi Temple] after they had been deserted. A similar tree must have existed here when the temple was entire . . . ” If Buchanan was correct in his estimation of the tree’s age this then cannot be the tree seen by Dharmasvamin almost six centuries earlier, and it would thus constitute yet another generation. But what then are we to make of the description by Alexander Cunningham, head of the Archeological Survey of India, who visited here just fifty-one years later:
In December 1862 I found this tree very much decayed; one large stem to the westward, with three branches, was still green, but the other branches were barkless and rotten. I next saw the tree in 1871, and again in 1875, when it had become completely decayed, and shortly afterwards in 1876, the only remaining portion of the tree fell over the west wall during a storm, and the Old Pipal Tree was gone. Many seeds, however, had been collected, and young scions of the present tree were already in existence to take its place.
Either the tree seen earlier by Buchanan had aged very rapidly, or it had succumb to disease or an injury. In any case, one of these scions of this tree soon shouldered the others aside and was apparently a sizable tree just twenty-three years later in 1899, which would seem to vindicate Xuanzang’s assertion that he had worshipped an adult Bodhi Tree some thirty-seven years after it had been destroyed by the malevolent King Sasanka. It was on January 20, 1899 that the Japanese monk, scholar, pilgrim, and reluctant adventurer Ekai Kawaguchi arrived here while on his way to make an incognito journey to Tibet. Kawaguchi:
The night of that day I spent meditating on the ‘Diamond Seat’ under the Bodhi-tree—the very tree under which, and the very stone on which, about two thousand five hundred years ago, the holy Buddha sat and preached Buddhahood. The feeling that I then experienced is indescribable: all I can say is that I sat the night out in the most serene and peaceful ecstasy. I saw the tell-tale moon lodged, as it were, among the branches of the Bodhi-tree, shedding its pale light on the ‘Diamond Seat’, and the scene was superbly picturesque, and also hallowing, when I thought of the days and nights the Buddha spent in holy meditation on that very spot.
Of course, the tree Kawaguchi saw is not “the very tree” under which the Buddha sat (nor, for that matter, was the Outer Vajrasana he describes “the very stone” on which the Buddha sat; that’s probably the Inner Vajrasana within the temple itself), but for him, as for pilgrims right down to the present day, it didn’t really matter. The Bodhi Tree exists as a symbol, a reminder of what happened here in 528 b.c., when Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment and Buddhism was born, and quibbles about the family tree of a tree are really beside the point, except of course to a few incorrigible antiquarians like myself.

More worshippers at the Bodhi Tree
It is the adult “scion” described by Cunningham that thousands of pilgrims file past and worship in front of each year, and with the temple’s recent recognition as a World Heritage site and easier access to Bodhgaya via international flights the amount of visitors paying homage can only increase. The malevolent King Sananka’s fleshless bones must be turning in their grave.
The Outer Vajrasana at the Bodhi Tree

Flower offerings along the wall in front of the Bodhi Tree

Friday, December 02, 2005

Sikkim | Gangtok | Flowers

From Darjeeling I could not resist skipping up to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, to see the orchids and other flowers for which this former Himalayan kingdom, now part of India, is so justly famous:
Flowers of Sikkim
Flowers of Sikkim
Flowers of Sikkim
Flowers of Sikkim
Flowers of Sikkim
Flowers of Sikkim
Flowers of Sikkim