2015
05.24

 

About the three big ones: Pagodas in Yangon. A few words about Buddhism in theory and in practice.  About prayers riding ships and ET riding the public bus.  

If you ever had to walk barefoot on wet marble you would know that it is one of the most slippery surfaces you can imagine. Well, all three+ pagodas I have visited so far had marbled floors and it is the rainy season… It certainly does one thing for you: it increases your awareness. And since the cirumambulation of pagodas is all about focus and mindfulness I guess that is a good thing. But I do not appreciate that I have to put my neck and camera in jeopardy each time I visit a pagoda. No matter how much mind you put to it, slippage was unavoidable and it’s just a matter of time before that will become a fall…

The pagoda of pagodas is the Shwedagon. I started with the big one the first day. Pagodas or Paya as they are known around here, are a quintessential Buddhist type of architecture. Unlike Buddhist temples which have interior spaces for meditation, images, and worship, pagodas are walled-in solid structures with a superstructure which differs in shape from country to country. They have four entrances aligned with the cardinal points.  Around the central large pagoda one often can find some smaller pagodas, substructures, and shrines clustered around them. Pagodas developed from simple tomb mounds in India, where they are referred to as stupas.

When the Buddha died he was entombed, and as expected, people started to go on pilgrimages to his tomb. Over time his bodily remains were divided first into 8 parts in reference to the 8-fold path and later, so the story goes, under emperor Ashoka, who popularized Buddhism into the far corners of Asia, the 8 parts were divided into the legendary 32,000 parts. And this is where relic worship in Buddhism takes off.  Any stupa/pagoda/paya which can claim one of the original parts of the Buddha’s body is considered far superior and more powerful than a pagoda that would merely contain symbolic relics or relics of disciples.

Buddhism developed into two main branches, Hinayana (small vehicle typically requiring monastic life) and more respectfully referred to as Therevada (the way of the elders) and Mahayana (large vehicle when enlightenment moves within reach for laity as well). Especially in Therevada Buddhism, which is practiced in Myanmar, the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, his ways, and his remains are central to the religion. In Mahayana Buddhism the pantheon increases and the historical Buddha is joined and sidelined by other Buddhas such as the Medicine Buddha, directional Buddhas, and a multitude of enlightened beings referred to as Bodhisattvas.

Yangon, among many smaller pagodas, can boast three of the most important ones in Myanmar: the Shwedagon, the largest of them claiming to contain 8 sacred hairs of the Buddha, Sule paya, the oldest one containing another hair of the Buddha, and the most unusual Botataung paya which enshrines yet another hair of the Buddha! All these hairs are as real to the believers as any shards of the true cross of Christ, any Holy Grail or the head of St. John the Baptist would be to Christians.

Situated on a hill, the Shwedagon peaks over the densely built up downtown area. Its surroundings are filled with shops, workshops, and stalls selling or producing anything remotely related to or useful for religious pilgrims, from artifacts to monks’ robes, from incense to gift baskets donated to the monastery, from street food to tourist items. No surprise there is no shortage of guides and kids harassing the approaching visitor. But I have to say, except for the pesky children who literally stole my shoes at one point insisting that they would carry them for me for a fee, the adults would politely retreat when I declined their services.

In my Buddhist education I was taught that you always enter a stupa from the East and then circumambulate clockwise with the monument to your right. You circle it as often as you want in meditation with the purpose of working through whatever issues you might have to ultimately purify yourself and advance towards enlightenment. That is the school-book version.

The reality in Myanmar is that all four gates are open and entered by people. Particularly the Sule paya, which stands at the center of town in the middle of a huge traffic roundabout, is entered from all sides. People stroll casually around the pagodas, all of which are surrounded by smaller shrines, image halls, altars, mini-pagodas, pillars, dedication stones, bells, and a few other curiosities including shrines dedicated to the local Nat. A few visitors even go in the wrong direction but nobody seems to care.  Visitors, worshippers, and monks, take pictures, sit and chat, sleep, and check their cell phones — a lot! In fact, I wish I could have captured this on camera, but at one point I was surrounded by young and old, monks and laity all of whom were busy with their phones. What has become of us?!

Another feature at Sule paya can not be found in any textbook on Buddhist architecture: a little golden ship is connected to a shrine that has been affixed at the outside of the pagoda about halfway up.  You buy little laminated prayer squares, say your prayer, put them into the ship and  then crank a handle to make the ship travel up to the shrine.  I guess the idea is that whoever hears your prayer will hear you better up there than down here.  But who should that be?  There is no god in Theravada Buddhism.  Again, there are no words to describe what people do to satisfy their superstitions.  But guess what?  I bought some prayer squares and yanked them up there myself.  Just for the sport of it.

Technicalities aside, these pagodas are breathtaking! The Shwedagon alone is reported as containing more gold than the bank of England. After seeing it, I am inclined to believe it. If it is true it is even more astonishing when taking into consideration that England is among the wealthiest nations in the world, whereas Myanmar is considered among the poorest in Asia.

Buddhism is about letting go. I have to learn a lot about “being Buddhist” on this trip. First I realized that one of my cameras has a permanent scratch on its lens… The humidity makes the lens fog up creating additional hazy spots across many of my images no matter how hard I try, and finally, there are the clouds and the rain. If I will get a single sunny shot is anyone’s guess. There certainly is no shortage of fantastic images of all and everything famous in Myanmar online, so why even bother, you might say? I will obviously have to focus on more personal images on this trip rather than going for a photo contest. And I have to appreciate that I am here, rather than worry about which photos to take home to share and I will. Still, this is a biggie for me to have to let go. I will work on it…

Botataung paya is a surprise for the mere fact that it is the only pagoda I know that has an interior space. A star-shaped zig-zag corridor fully gilded from top to bottom winds its way through the interior of the stupa, starting and finishing at a shrine that opens up to the ceiling of the center of the structure where supposedly the hair is entombed. It is here that I ran into one of the most interesting people yet. I will call him San. But I will talk about him and other people I met some other day.

With San’s help I managed to find the right city bus to take me back to my guesthouse, and so I experienced a hair-raising local bus ride of the sort I might not rush into repeating. The bus merely slows down to load people and hardly ever comes to a full stop. That means you have to run alongside the bus and jump when it slows down (mainly for traffic, rather than for you). And once you are squeezed into the narrow aisles you have to start worrying about how to get off again. But I managed with extra special attention by the bus attendant and happily arrived at the save haven of the guesthouse. A wonderful meal and a good big Myanmar beer rounded out the evening. What this beer lacks in alcoholic content, it makes up for in size. For a hot climate that is ideal.

As always, interesting people gathered around the table sharing stories of the day. That seems to be one of the hallmarks of the guesthouse. Tonight the guests of honor were a newly-wed mixed couple from the Philippines and Myanmar.

I am still a little jet-lagged which means that in the middle of the night I feel rather awake, but I will call it a day anyhow.

Good night.