About “my own” Golden Rock and the Biggest Buddha in the world.  Two excursions from Mawlamyine with Masa-San.  Is more better?  Does size matter?

The practice of Buddhism has gone haywire!  I no longer have doubts about it.  My first shattering of the practices of the high ideals of the Buddhism that I had grown up with in school came last year in Japan at Koyasan at Kobo Daishi’s birthday parade when the huge floats rolled through town and the birthday of an ancient Buddhist saint turned into a commercialized food-fest circus.

But today was no better.

Masa-San from Japan and I teamed up for a day trip exploring sites north and south of Mawlamyine.  He was part of the island group yesterday and is traveling by himself as well.  First we headed North to Nwa la bo, Mawlamyine’s own Golden Rock.  Yes, I got to “do” a golden rock after all!  This one, geologically speaking hardly lacks anything behind the big one at Mt. Kyaiktyo , the one everyone talks about.  It may be smaller, but not only two but three rocks are piled up into a precarious looking formation.  So who beats whom?  Size or number?

Our timing was bad.  We arrived at the foothill of the rock 5 minutes after one of those open-bed bench-filled trucks had left.  The next one would not leave until at least 25 people were assembled.  At the rate of two tourists at a time, that could take… Numbers were all that mattered here.  But luck had it that about 10 minutes into the wait an entire bus load of Myanmar girls arrived.  An employee outing organized by a bank, as we soon found out.  Exactly one man was part of the crew.  The ride up was every bit as steep and challenging as the one at Mt. Kyaiktyo.  But there was no rain!  Instead of hovering miserably under thin raincoats, head bent down — this crowd went up giggling and screaming as we were thrown from left to right, up and down in the hair-raising 30 minute ascent.

Half way up there was a lot of honking and howling as a jeep (how on earth had that been allowed on this piste, which was restricted to these heavy-duty trucks?) had gotten stuck and instead of moving up, was slowly rolling down backwards!  Stones had been secured beneath its back wheels and several people were pushing it on its way.  A stray dog, which the attendants of our truck had rescued off the path and put into our empty luggage compartment near the bottom of the hill, took the opportunity to escape.  The dog had been shaking and scared the whole time.  As I was sitting in the last row, I had been talking to him, trying to calm him down but to no avail.

The scenery was breathtaking — mountains ahead of us, glistening wet rice fields below, and the ocean in the far distance.  The actual temple mount is relatively small.  Hiking trails go off into various directions.  Smaller shrines and a few pagodas dot the area.  But within 1/2 hour most everything can be explored.  The main activity is to buy a piece or two of gold leaf and to affix it at the rock; the men at the top, the women at the bottom.  Now that beats being barred from affixing gold at all at the big one if you are a woman!  I got to say a prayer and leave my mark of gold on this rock.  Yeah!

People spend their time posing for pictures and saying a few prayers at the various shrines.  But most rewarding is it to just take in the stunning views of the area.  Before long the call for boarding the truck sounds and down it goes in an even crazier and jumpier ride than going up.  Insanity!  But after Mt. Kyaiktyo I felt thoroughly vindicated.

This excursion could be a full-day trip if one would climb the mountain.  But the cheat with the truck allows for another 1/2 day activity.

One of the notorious sites South of Mawlamyine is the world’s largest reclining Buddha.  The term “reclining” is somewhat misleading.  The “reclining” Buddha is the iconography of the dying or dead Buddha who, since he had reached enlightenment, passed on to Parinirvana, leaving the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara) for good.  It is one of the standard depictions of the historical Buddha featured everywhere.  To mark the four cardinal points of a pagoda, its depiction is often is combined with the Buddha reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, recognizable by the bhumisparsa mudra, a hand gesture in which the Buddha is touching the earth and calling her to witness, with the Buddha preaching (dharmachakra mudra) and the Buddha meditating (dhyana mudra).  

Alone and in combination, these Buddha figures are found everywhere: at pagodas and shrines, of course, but also at street corners, on mountain tops, at intersections and in caves.  Win Sein Taw Ya  is the place where for some reason a monk vowed to build this Buddha. Each year, a festival is still held in his honor.

If a 180 meters or 560 feet image would not be enough to make anyone’s jaw drop, it looks like a second, equally large figure is currently under construction right across from it!  Visitors can enter the Buddha via a staircase in front of it or a bridge crossing the hill featuring a public pool with a water slide right beneath.

Now images you might see online or in photos will do justice to this giant hugging the mountain top as it always will look pretty.  But it isn’t pretty.

For me it was not so much the exterior of this Buddha that left me speechless, but the inside of it.  It felt like a combination of war-bunker, warehouse, Disneyland, maze and horror movie.  It is creepy!

Depending on where you were inside the Buddha there were 3-5 levels of corridors, niches, and rooms filled with groups of life-sized plaster figures depicting historical scenes, stories from the life of the Buddha, or illustrations of Buddhist scriptures.  A favorite topic seemed to be to illustrate the various sufferings and demons one would encounter in hell.  From dragons to mean kings, from voluptuous temptresses to heavenly musicians, from farm idyll to torture scenes, these concrete halls were filled with hundreds of statues in varying degrees of dustiness and completion.  Some were fully painted, others merely outlined in rough white clay.  Some were already vandalized before completion.

Some of the concrete walls were covered with crude murals to provide backdrops of the dioramas, others were barren.  Some halls benefited from openings in the gigantic sculpture that allowed in some natural lighting; others had make do with the dusty neon tubes that provided limited but harsh illumination.

And if you ventured far, deep and high enough you would find yourself at the back of the Buddha giant near his feet on an unfinished outdoor platform covered with bent and rusty steel beams that seem to have meant to provide reinforcement for further concrete walls.  And at about that point you could see the half poured concrete face of the next giant in the making again and you cannot help but wonder why the second giant is under way when the first was still in need of so much TLC.

From the inside of the Buddha’s face you could scan the surroundings, taking in all the souvenir stalls, pagodas, various huge figures and most astonishing — the 500 over-life sized monks with begging bowls which single file lead up to this monument.

What is the point of this all this?!  I can’t figure it out.  But I have the distinct feeling it has very little to do with the teachings of the historical Buddha.

7 comments so far

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  1. I’m in awe of the Nwa la bo Golden Rock, it has my vote. As for the discussion on sexism, I’m less inclined to be critical of the customs of other cultures and more critical of myself for trying to fit their ways into mine. It seems that custom, poverty and family responsibilities dictate a woman’s place in the greater scheme of things. And I’m not qualified to judge that.

  2. And all this is in the 21st Century????? Well, at least the Buddhists are normally not aggressive like the Moslems. On occasion, they may immolate themselves, but I have not heard of them immolating anyone else.

    As for religion and sexism, I have heard that Sikhism advocates gender equality.

    • Carl, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar have occurred and aggressive acts, burning and persecutions as well. We may not hear the full story of these events in our news reports, or what is causing them, but to say that they do not occur is wrong. But then you said, you had not heard of them and that certainly is possible. But they were big news for a while. Even Time magazine covered it.

    • Apparently there is a major gap in the Sikh religion between their “faith” and their culture vis a vis gender equality…two very different realities.
      Here is an interesting link in which some Sikh women explore this disparity.

  3. I doubt it.

  4. Is there any religion out there today that is without sexism?

  5. Women affix their gold leaf at the bottom, men at top. Hmmmm! Speaking of sexism in Buddhism, here is a link to some interesting thoughts on the subject: