Tag Archives: Buddhism

Bollywood, Buddha, and the Stupas of Sanchi

I bus through golden fields and climb a pilgrim’s hill, I trace out carvings of Buddha’s life and fly through Delhi at the flicks.

Centuries before the great Hindu epics were written (see my Ramayana post here), the Buddha lived in northern India (see my introduction to his life here).  In 262 BC the emperor Asoka, horrified at the carnage of his latest conquest, renounced violence and became a follower.  He sent missionaries as far as Sri Lanka to spread the message and for 1000 years Buddhism was practised across India, before Hinduism re-absorbed it.

Not unlike the emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity six centuries later, Asoka introduced some compassionate reforms, carving edicts commanding kindness to women and animals and beggars, yet was unable to fully relinquish his imperial ways and maintained tight control through his military and secret police.

sanchi-buddhist-great-stupaThroughout his empire Asoka erected polished columns topped by four outward-facing lions, which are now a state symbol of India and printed on banknotes.  He also built a brick dome or stupa for Buddhist relics at Sanchi, near the birthplace of his wife.  It’s the oldest stone structure in India, now a UNESCO World Heritage site (see whc.unesco.org), and only 46 km north-east of Bhopal.

The bus station was a few blocks from my hotel.  The bus looked rather dilapidated – the door said “EL OME” – but had comfortable new fabric seats.  I grabbed one at the front left, i.e. west, i.e. shade.  As we waited to depart, sellers of water, bananas, peanuts got on and off.  Then a veiled Muslim woman, and a Hindu holy man with a tray of incense, both soliciting alms.  Chains of plastic flowers dangled over the driver; Lord Shiva with his trident and holy bull stood on the dashboard.  One and a half hours later we reached Sanchi, a town of about 7000.

sanchi-columnThe stupas are on a small hill along with small Greek-like temples and the ruins of Buddhist monasteries.  Only knee-high walls demark the individual cells and some structures are still being excavated.  I stood on a stone wall to survey the view and took a deep breath of clean air that refreshed my spirit.  Golden wheat fields striped with parallel lines – straight or gracefully curved.  Patches of emerald green rice.  A tractor puffing smoke.  Distant hills.  I hired an audio guide with atmospheric Buddhist chanting, climbed past a modern temple for Sri Lankan pilgrims, met a laughing group of Vietnamese monks and nuns, and approached the Great Stupa.

Asoka’s original dome was later surrounded by a stone wall, balustrade and gateways, and crowned with a triple stone parasol.  It subsequently lay abandoned for around 600 years.  The gates fell over and foliage grew over the rest, until it was rediscovered in 1818 by a general in the Bengal cavalry.  A few decades later, stone boxes were found with bone fragments from two of Buddha’s first followers.  One historian compared it to finding the graves of St Peter and Paul.  Exactly 100 years ago, the jungle was cleared and the main structures rebuilt.

sanchi-column-buddha-feetThe Great Stupa now stands 16 m high, 37 m in diameter.  Stone elephants, lions and potbellied dwarves hold up triple architraves on the four gateways.  Every surface is covered in carvings.  There are scenes of bravery and compassion from the Buddha’s birth after his mother dreamt of a white elephant entering her womb.  There’s his life of renunciation, and his other lives.  When incarnated as an elephant, Buddha helped an ivory hunter saw off his own six tusks.  As a monkey king, he gave his life to save his companions.

In this early art Buddha wasn’t shown in human form but represented by a lotus flower, bodhi tree, empty throne, footprint or umbrella.  Statues of the Buddha came centuries later.  There’s a whole menagerie here: herds of elephants, lions (some winged), bulls, horses, camels, cobras, peacocks.  Busty wood nymphs lean down to welcome visitors, and there’s all the human comedy from armies to artisans.

In 2007 I bought wooden souvenirs of Asoka’s lion column to give to friends, so I sought out the original third-century BC capital in the museum before returning to Bhopal.  Loved the ride back: by an open window with a cool breeze, people waving to me as we passed, and the fields totally gorgeous in the setting sun.

buddha-agent-vinodTo balance out Buddha’s nonviolent serenity, today I played my best heat-avoidance card: a midday movie.  Two and a half hours of air-conditioning in a padded seat!  “Agent Vinod” was a recent Bollywood thriller that my hotel clerk said had flopped.  Indeed the cinema was near empty.  From front to back were bronze, silver, gold or platinum tickets. I went for the gold: at Rs.100, twice the cost of live theatre a few days ago.  They still have an intermission here, when I bought a pastry veg-puff.  It tasted like it had been sitting out all night, and I started to imagine stomach-rumblings in the second half.

I understood disappointingly little of the dialogue and the plot seemed overblown, but I enjoyed the chase scenes in Indian auto-rickshaws.  Best was the helicopter view of central Delhi where I was two weeks ago, as Vinod desperately flew a ticking nuclear bomb out of the city, fare-welling the heroine on his phone as she expired from gunshot wounds, whispering with her last breath the password to deactivate the detonator with only seconds to spare.  No melodramatic cliché was spared.

agent-vinod-filmI’d entered the cinema through a spacious foyer, but was shunted out through a narrow passage and brusquely deposited in a dirty parking lot behind the building.  It was a rude transition from chilled-out illusion to hot smelly reality that would test the detachment of the Buddha himself, but nicely encapsulated this country’s contrasts.

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Royal Birthdays and Sporty Buddhas: Serenity in Bangkok

Clogged lungs and quiet streets, 7-Elevens and temples, saffron monks and lemon kings, sweet and salty feet.

I had a smooth flight from Bangalore to Bangkok on Sunday night, but with little sleep.  Beside me a large Indian gentleman forced me into the aisle and a small girl behind whacked my seat should I dare to doze.  On arrival I took a taxi to my guest house. With variously-shaped glass buildings soaring all around, it seemed like the 21st century after Indian cities, where I saw few skyscrapers.  A hazy red sun was rising at the end of the street: the beautiful side of smog.  (See my Bangkok photos here)

I was impressed by the wide, smooth highways.  Mini-bus utes chugged along with two rows of passenger benches on the back.  Motorbikes carried multiple passengers without helmets, but the streets were free of litter and potholes.  I hardly heard car horns and many drivers indicated before changing lanes.   First-timers in Asia come to Bangkok from the West and complain of the chaos.  Returning from the other direction, I was surprised to find how quiet and peaceful, clean and tidy, an Asian city of 10 million can be.

My parting souvenir from India was a smoker’s wheeze – I wondered how many cigarette-equivalents of pollution I consumed per day.  An article in the New Indian Express, “It’s Getting Harder to Breathe” said 20% of Chennai adolescents suffer from wheezing, so I’m not alone, and perhaps 1/8 of premature deaths in India are due to air pollution (Luce 2006 348).  In Bangkok I was never conscious of fumes.

On the street kids played badminton (instead of cricket in India), while their elders relaxed in shady cafés over chess.  Guys lovingly polished their bright new cars, often pink.  India’s mangy street curs all looked much the same to me, but here there is a range of dog breeds, often with collars, as well as many cats.  There are no bars on windows against human or monkey intrusion.

The Thai people seem so laid-back.  A few blind beggars in town shuffle along with speakers playing music on their back, donation-box on their chest, but they never approached or harassed me as in India.   I saw the high-tech IT-Square mall and browsed the narrow lanes of the amulet market: round medallions, figurines of copper, brass, silver or gold, shining plastic or faded terracotta statues of Buddha or Hindu gods to hang around one’s neck.  Nowhere did proprietors pounce; in fact they hardly noticed me.  Rather than fighting off every passing auto-rickshaw’s offers of “help”, I had to wave down taxis and their drivers always switched the meter on.

Everywhere you look is the red-orange-green logo of 7-Eleven superettes, and Thai Buddhist temples or wats.  Soaring red, gold, blue roofs with shining glass tiles.  Black Buddha statues were slim and athletic, unlike the East Asian laughing Buddha with his belly like Jabba the Hutt’s.  They were covered in fluttering square-inch leaves of gold foil, scented with buckets of burning joss sticks.  I was overwhelmed by the vast Temple of the Emerald Buddha.  It’s a riot of dazzling statues and glittering glass, soaring gables and gold stupas.  Respectful dress is required: pre-warned, I’d worn socks in my sandals to cover my feet, while bare-legged women are lent wrap-around sarongs at the gate.

Saffron-orange robed monks are also everywhere, from venerable sages to lads blowing soap bubbles: an apt symbol of a faith that teaches the fleeting of all things.  Another monk was up a ladder, wiring fluorescent tubes around a huge royal portrait.

The Thai are very religious and they love their king.  December 5 was His Highness the King of Thailand’s 80th birthday and I read all about him in my Thai Airways magazine.  He is the world’s longest-reigning monarch (61 years) and a gifted polymath: saxophonist and jazz composer, regatta-winning yachtsman, agricultural experimentalist, eradicator of diseases.  He is deeply loved by his people who display his portraits in schools, shops, houses, billboards.  Many people wore T-shirts of lemon yellow, his birth day’s colour.

His Highness seems the picture of a true king, as if from a legend.  His list of accomplishments sounded like the biblical King David and King Solomon rolled into one: victorious general, harpist and songwriter, student of nature and sage.  I will use him to introduce my sermon next Sunday on the Magi from the East visiting the baby king Jesus.  But I occasionally found the adulation disturbing.  In a black and white newsreel, for example, an old Thai lady placed her head beneath the king’s foot.

The following day I caught the Chao Phraya River taxi boat into town, past many more temples and corrugated iron huts.  I wouldn’t swim in the brown, weedy river, but it was less aromatic than Indian equivalents.  I tested the four Thai condiments of salty fish oil, sweet chilli sauce, sour chillies and spicy-hot chillies on chicken fried rice as I overlooked the river, watching water lapping through the wooden floor planks.

Thai culture is heavily shaped by pre-Buddhist belief and practice.  There are many little spirit houses with fruit and incense offerings.  Temples had murals of the Hindu Ramayana epic and I’ve seen many Indian elements, like greeting with hands together as if in prayer, and not touching or pointing with the soles of your feet.  An Indian story tells of a holy man sleeping in a temple.  The priest reprimanded him for lying with his feet pointing towards the idol and he replied, “God is everywhere.  Where is he not?”  He was a courteous man so he changed position anyway.  Such was his holiness that he woke to find the idol had moved to again stand before his soles.

Neither Palace nor Poverty: the Middle Way of Buddhism

A six-tusked prophecy and an arrow-pierced swan, chariot shocks and bodhi trees; helping oneself in moderation to pillows and nirvana.

Continuing the series of introductions to India’s religions (see past posts about our classes on Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism), today we visited a Buddhist temple.  Although the Buddha lived in North India around 563-483 BC and his faith spread across the country, by AD 1000 it was reabsorbed by Hinduism – Buddha joined its collection of gods– and is now only followed by about 0.8% of India.  We were told this was the only Buddhist temple in South India (which I found hard to believe).

In the dimly lit hall we sat on a marble floor that reflected shining statues.  A spiky-headed Buddha meditated in the lotus position between respectfully standing lower Buddhas and huge blue vases.

A young bikkhu or monk told us the story of Buddha’s life.  His mother dreamed that a six-tusked elephant entered her womb.  That can’t been comfortable, and then it was prophesied that her son would either be the greatest of kings, or a world-denying sage.  Determined to avoid the latter, his father raised him in pampered opulence, but there were early hints of Buddha’s compassionate nature.  At the age of eight, his cousin shot down a swan.  Buddha pulled out the arrow, stuck it in his own hand to experience the pain, and nursed the bird back to health.  He then quarrelled with his cousin over who owned the swan, arguing that life belongs to him who saves life, not destroys it.

At 16 years old, Buddha’s education was complete.  He was married to a gorgeous cousin who bore him a son.  He had three palaces.  Anything he wanted was his.

At the age of 29, however, he rode his chariot through the streets and was upset by four sights.  He saw an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse, shocking him with the shortness and suffering of life.  On a fourth ride he saw an ascetic saint, serene in the face of the triple horror Buddha had just witnessed.

Leaving wife and child, palaces and pleasures – things that had brought him no peace – Buddha fled to the forest.  For six years he practised extreme asceticism, fasting himself almost to death.  He found no peace or freedom in this way either.  Finally he abandoned both extremes for the “middle way”.  Sitting under the bodhi tree in meditation, one day he attained nirvana: “ignorance was destroyed, darkness dispelled, knowledge had arisen, light had arisen.”  Free from chasing pleasure or destructive self-denial, he was able to love all living things, expecting nothing in return.

Buddhism may be the original self-help faith.  The monk explained that Buddha can’t give us this nirvana.  If you are hungry, someone else can’t eat for you; if you are sick, another can’t take your medicine.  He gave us all copies of the Dhammapada – as I shot golden Buddhas reflected in the floor – which says:

No one saves us but ourselves, no one can and no one may;
We ourselves must tread the path, Buddhas only show the way.

As the monk spoke to us, it seemed an attractive moderation.  Avoiding both silky Armani suits and nakedness in ashes, Buddhist monks wear simple saffron robes – he said these came from cemetery shrouds, the cheapest garb, so there was no fear of theft.  But I was disenchanted to observe several monks enter and take two or even three cushions to sit on.  Surely the middle way between numb-bummed denial and somnolent softness would be just one?  To put it bluntly, how come they sat serenely on stacks of pillows, showing precious little compassion as I squirmed on a single one?