You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Buddhism’ tag.

wildgoosetowering2

In ancient times, the most important district of China was the landlocked region which is today the province of Shaanxi.  Xi’an, the oldest of China’s historical capital cities was/is located in Shaanxi at the eastern terminus of the silk road.  Xi’an was the capital of the Western Zhou, Qin, Western Han, Sui and Tang dynasties (or “kingdom” if you are a stickler about the Western Zhou).  Today Xi’an only barely makes the top ten list of Chinese cities by population (it is tenth, with a mere 12 million inhabitants), yet its ancient cultural history is unrivaled.  The Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum (aka the the tomb of the Terra Cotta soldiers) is located in Xi’an as is the great Ming-era Drum Tower of Xi’an, yet the real symbol of the city is one of the most distinctive buildings of the ancient world, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda of Xi’an.

xian-location-map

Built in 652 AD during the reign of the third Tang emperor (Gaozong of Tang, the son of the astonishing Emperor Taizong), the pagoda was literally a monument to the great 7th century flowering of Buddhism in China.  Originally the temple was 5 stories tall (but five big stories for an original height of 60 meters).  Although Gaozong built the edifice to honor his mother, it was also designed to house the holy sutras and Buddhist figurines which were brought to China by the traveling Buddhist monk Xuanzang, the real life Golden Cicada monk of “Journey to the West” (although I am still pretty sure that most of that book was fictional/allegorical).  The pagoda was constructed of rammed earth with a stone exterior.

big-wild-goose-pagoda_523

Fifty years after it was built, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (an alternate translation might be the Large Swan Goose Pagoda) partially collapsed.  It was rebuilt in 704 AD by Empress Wu Zetian, one of China’s most remarkable and divisive rulers (which is really, really saying something).  Wu Zetian ordered an extra 5 stories added to the pagoda, and her version stood until a massive earthquake in 1556 reduced the pagoda to near ruins.  The civil engineers of the Ming Dynasty rebuilt the pagoda (this time as a 7 story 64 meter building). It is this Ming dynasty version which stands today,  although it now has a pronounced list of several degrees to the west (even after the Communists repaired it in 1964.

The Large Wild Goose Pagoda’s history mirrors that of China (and intersects several of the biggest names and stories of Chinese history) however it also has a notable “ship of Theseus” quality since it was redesigned and rebuilt so many times.  There is no definitive story about the name (the swan goose is a magnificent migratory bird of central China), however there is an evocative myth.  A group of fasting monks saw a flock of swan geese flying across the autumn sky.  One of the younger brothers said “I wish I could taste one of those geese!”, whereupon the lead goose broke a wing and fell from the sky.  The monks were horrified and saw the accident as a chastisement from Buddha for their weakness.  They rushed to the spot where the bird fell and swore a vow of eternal vegetarianism.  That spot was where this tower was built and has stood for 1300 years as a reminder to be gentle to nature and to be careful what you wish for.

ca-times.brightspotcdn.com

16_chos rje de bzhin gshegs paThe Karmapa is a very important Lama/guru of Tibetan Buddhism and acts as the head of the Karma Kagyu (the black hat school), the largest sub-school of Himalayan Buddhism.  According to tradition, the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa (1110–1193 AD) was such a gifted and sedulous scholar (and so very, very holy) that he attained enlightenment at the age of fifty while practicing dream yoga. To his adherents, the Karmapa is seen as a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas (not to me though, I prefer to think of Avalokiteśvara as the luminous Kwan Yin, not as some sad middle-aged Chinese puppet).

16_karmapa_portrait_02.jpg

Ahem, anyway, due to religious and political controversy so convoluted and schismatic that it would make an antipope blush, the identity of the 17th (current) Karmapa is disputed.  This matters little to us though, for our purposes today, which, as you maybe guessed from the title, involve the Karmapa’s remarkable headress, the black crown.  As implied by its heavy metal name, the black crown’s roots are said to lie beyond this world. According to folklore, the black crown was woven by the dahinis (sacred female spirits of Vajrayana Buddhism) from their own gorgeous black hair. They gave this gift to the Karmapa in recognition of his spiritual attainment.  The 5th Karmapa was a tutor to the Yongle Emperor (arguably China’s greatest emperor) and the wily emperor claimed that he could see the immaterial black crown above the Karmapa’s head.  The Yongle Emperor was sad that lesser mortals could not perceive this ineffable headdress and so he had a worldly facsimile made for the Karmapa, not out of the hair of dahinis, but instead from coarser materials such as rubies, gold, and precious stones. That’s it, up there at the top of this paragraph (adorning the head of the 16th Karmapa).

I wish I could show you a better picture of the jeweled hat which the Yongle Emperor commissioned for all Karmapas, past, present, and future (fake and real?), but unfortunately, some of the political strife of Tibet, China, and India is reflected in the provenance of the sacred item.   The 16th Karmapa brought the black crown to a monastery in (Indian) Sikkim during the tumult of the 1960s when China’s relationship with ancient cultural traditions grew rather fraught.  When the 16th Karmapa transcended this mortal world in 1993, the crown went missing. It has not been seen since, but one hopes it might reappear at some point when the true 17th Karmapa is revealed (or when all contenders are gone and we move on to the 18th Karmapa).  Alternately, perhaps a careful inventory of Rumtek monastery will cause it to turn up.

blackcrown_1.jpg

IMG_23218.jpg

Ghosts do not seem to care about cultural appropriation.  That is one of the many eye-popping crazy lessons of An Bang Cemetery, an up-to-the minute ultra-necropolis in Phu Vang district of Thua Thien Hue province, Vietnam.  The graves in the cemetery are a mixture of Vietnamese, Chinese, French, Indian, Thai, and American styles.  The monuments reflect religious traditions of Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Đạo Mẫu, Cao Đài, and probably other more esoteric faiths and sects.

IMG_23219.jpg

The fishing village of An Bang is on a beautiful white shore in Hue.    In 1975, the reunification of Vietnam caused a diaspora which swept away many of the “boat people” who lived in An Bang.  In the 80s and 90s cash began to flow back into the community from all around the world.

city-of-ghosts-an-bang

An Bang Village is not very far from the vaunted imperial tombs of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty which lie along the Perfume River (the ancient imperial tombs are a UNESCO heritage site).  The contemporary villagers took some of their inspiration from the majesty, size, and beauty of the classical imperial graves, but they took the rest of their inspiration from…everywhere.  At first blush the American influence may seem to be lacking…but look at the ostentation, the gaudiness, the competitive one-upmanship among the dead (plus where do you think that International money came from?)

26iFrGt.jpg

There is a riot of styles and color and meanings, but yet I am not sure I have ever seen anything more distinctly Vietnamese.  I don’t think there are many sculptural installations anywhere that could compare with the utter Baroque riot of An Bang…and that is to say nothing of the corpses, mourners, phantasms, spirits, and what not!  Most of the intelligent people whom I know believe that there is nothing after death, and cemeteries are pointless.  My rejoinder would be that cemeteries are not for the dead, they are for the living.  Plus just look at this color, art, and form!  Of course Vietnam is a developing country, and it could be argued that this money could be spent better elsewhere, but in America we spent 6.5 billion dollars on the 2016 election (to say nothing of the corporate money that went into buying influence) and look what we wound up with.  Maybe the dead are better off with the money after all. They sure know how to live it up in style at least!

The-colorful-An-Bang-cemetery-just-outside-Hue

 

Siddhārtha Gautama beneath the Bodhi Tree

Siddhārtha Gautama beneath the Bodhi Tree

Sometime in the 5th century BC (probably), Siddhārtha Gautama was born as prince-heir of the Shakya warrior clan, whose capital was Kapilavastu (in what is today Nepal).  After 29 years of unbridled sensual excess and aristocratic high-life, the prince had a spiritual crisis and renounced his throne, his lovely wife, and his infant child. He spent six years undergoing the most extreme ascetic self-mortification in order to find an escape from ignorance,  misery, and mortality.   However, abstinence from worldly pleasure did not provide any solution to his questions either—there was no escape from the universal human scourges of sickness, old age, and death to be found in austerity.   At a loss, Siddhārtha (aka Buddha, Shakyamuni , Tathagata, etc…) sat down beneath a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) and vowed not to leave until he found truth.  Beneath the tree, he entered a deep meditative state– jhāna—and there he set for 49 days and nights.   At the end of this period, Buddha had an epiphany of absolute truth where he became aware of the nature of suffering and how to eliminate it from life by simply….

“Yes, yes, but what about the tree?” you ask (I assume you are at this blog because you like trees, not because you wish to awaken to universal truth and transcend the infinite cycle of dharma).  The pipal tree is a species of fig tree native to South Asia, East Asia, and Indochina.  Its scientific name means “sacred fig” because of Siddhārtha’s story. Figs are members of the family Moraceae (which includes figs and mulberries).    The pipal tree can become a giant:  some specimens grow to 30 meters (100 feet) tall and the trunk can reach up to to 3 metres (10 feet) in diameter.   Pipal trees are semi-evergreen trees which shed their leaves during dry seasons.  Their leaves are shaped like hearts—as is well represented in Buddhist art.

buddha[1]

The actual individual pipal tree which Buddha was sitting under when he attained enlightenment also has a complex biography.   After obtaining the knowledge of how to reach nirvana, Buddha remained beneath the tree for another week contemplating the nature of the tree and admiring its beauty.   When he subsequently came to prominence as a spiritual leader, a community of devotees gathered around the tree which was called the Bodhi tree (“Bodhi” means enlightenment).   The original tree was located in what is today Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, India (like the tree—the community was renamed in honor of Buddha’s enlightenment).  It became the nexus of a great monastery and saplings and cuttings were reverently taken to other parts of Asia as Buddhism spread.

The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (photo by Nezzen, 2012)

The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (photo by Nezzen, 2012)

Ashoka the Great, emperor of the Maurya dynasty who nearly united all India in the third century BC was a devotee of the great tree and he paid it such reverence that his wife became jealous and poisoned the original Bodhi tree with mandu thorns.   A new tree regrew, but it was in turn killed by King Pusyamitra Sunga in the second century BC and later by King Shashanka in 600 AD.  Each time the Bodhi tree was killed, however it was replaced with a direct descendent of the first Bodhi tree.  A particularly famous offspring of the original tree in Bihar was taken by Ashoka’s daughter to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka where it grew into a famous specimen known as the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi adorned with prayer flags

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi adorned with prayer flags

Today Bodhi trees—pipal trees which are the direct biological descendants of the original Bodhi tree—can be found around Asia and around the world.  They are a symbol of Buddhism and enlightenment and the planting of such trees can be traced to the time of Buddha himself.

Buddha oversees the planting of a Bodhi Tree Sapling

Buddha oversees the planting of a Bodhi Tree Sapling

Bhutan

Bhutan

Until recently Bhutan was an anomaly among world nations.  The tiny landlocked monarchy at the eastern end of the Himalayas was famous for being untouched by time.  Under the absolute authority of the king, the Bhutanese pursued a medieval agrarian lifestyle with few trappings of the modernized world.  However in 2006 the king, Jigme Singye, used his absolute authority to proclaim that the kingdom was transitioning to a constitutional monarchy and would hold elections.  He then abdicated in favor of his Western-educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel, who was crowned on November 6, 2008, and is now the figurehead ruler of the world’s youngest democracy.  The young king is the fifth monarch of the Wangchuck dynasty which consolidated control of Bhutan’s warring fiefdoms in 1907.

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926

Ugyen Wangchuk, the first King of Bhutan from 1907 to 1926, wearing the Raven Crown

The crown of Bhutan is known as the raven crown.  It is based on the battle helmet worn by Jigme Namgyel (1825–81), aka “the black regent” who was the father of the first king (and whose warlike life consolidated central authority over feuding nobles and kept Bhutan independent of Great Britain).  The raven is the national bird of Bhutan and represents Mahākāla, a protective deity/ dharmapāla particularly esteemed in the Buddhism of Tibet & Bhutan.

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the current King of Bhutan, wearing the Raven Crown

The raven crown is a warrior’s hat surmounted by a raven and embroidered with the skulls, which are emblematic of Mahākāla.  The aesthetic effect is striking, but–to anyone unfamiliar with the Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas—the skulls and ravens make it look like the young king is a dark wizard or a death knight.  Fortunately, judging by the esteem in which he is held, this seems to be far from the case!

image047

Today features a short but vivid post.  I found the following image of a magnificent Asian crown on the internet but I do not know who crafted it or where it is.  Look at how splendid it is!

Although I don’t know where this crown is from, I do understand what it represents.  This is the crown of Mahākāla, a syncretic deity who is so different throughout Asia, he could almost be different gods.  In India, he is a form of Siva.  In Japan, Mahākāla is an exalted household deity associated with the kitchen and with wealth and luck.  However the most dramatic and fearsome form of Mahākāla is the black multi-armed version which is universally worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism.  The angry Tibetan version of Mahākāla is a dharmapāla–a deity of wrathful justice.  Even though Mahākāla is terrifying, he is still a bodhisattva (like the gentle Kuan Yin) and his righteous anger serves a higher purpose.  His savagery is actually a form of compassion for other enlightened and thinking beings.

 

Mahākāla (Nicholas Roerich)

In his form as a dharmapāla, Mahākāla is depicted with a crown of five skulls to represent the transmutation of the five afflictions into five wisdoms. Each of the five jeweled skulls (thod skam gyi dbu rgyan) symbolizes one of the five Buddhas.  Although Mahākāla somewhat resembles Kali, his mission, form, and purpose are obscure and different in accordance with the various esoteric sects of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

A Painted Pottery Figure of a Camel (Chinese, Tang Dynasty, from a Christies’ Auction)

Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain.  Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties.  At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia.  Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).

Camel of Earthenware with sancai glaze (Late 7th-early 8th century, The Avery Brundage Collection at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time.  During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace.  The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.

Tang Camel with Turkic Groom/Rider

During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins).  The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.

Gray terracotta camel in a walking stance (from Little River Asian Arts)

Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art.  Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism.  Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on.  A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand.  Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats).   Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.

Another Tang Camel with Triple glaze (and human figure)

The Cherry Tree in the Backyard

It is spring again and the huge ornamental cherry tree which lives in my back yard is blooming (weeks earlier than it bloomed last year).  Frequent readers know my fondness for both trees and flower gardens; and the Japanese cherry tree magnificently combines both things. It is a stately and elegant mid-sized tree of great vigor, which for one week (or less) is covered in clouds of gorgeous pale pink flowers.  When it is fully in bloom, the tree is unrivaled in its beauty.  Even the most lovely orchids and roses do not put on a display so simultaneously delicate and ostentatious.

Last year I wrote about the Hanami festival, which has steadily grown more important in Japanese society since its beginnings a thousand years ago during the Nara period.  The flower appreciation festival now grips Japan as a national fervor which dominates the spring season and monopolizes the news.  Hanami however is merely an outward expression of a much larger cultural concept, “Mono no aware” (物の哀れ) which translates approximately as “”the pathos of things” or “sensitivity to ephemera.”

A scops owl flying past a flowering cherry tree; the full moon behind (Koson aka "Naga Oban", 1910, woodblock print)

Mono no aware involves a gentle wistful sadness for the impermanence of all things.  The cherry blossoms come back year after year, yet childhood fades away before one even knows.  Lovers with whom we dallied under the pink branches move out and drift away.  The mayflies die.  Our pets die. We die. Life runs by so quickly that we might as well be cherry blossoms ourselves, here for a beautiful fleeting moment before being shaken away into oblivion by some gust of wind or random happenstance.  The idea of life’s beautiful brevity grows out of the flinty Buddhism for which Japan is famous and it gives rise to many famous tropes of Japanese culture (like the stoic samurai prepared to throw away his life in a lightning quick duel, or the suicidal lover, or the moth in the flame).  There is an undercurrent of cupio dissolvi running through humankind and it seems particularly pronounced in the Japanese psyche.

However I like to imagine Mono no aware (and the cherry tree, and all trees, and all living things) less in terms of Japan’s Buddhism and more in terms of the animistic nature-based religions of East Asia like Shinto or Daoism. Look at the cherry blossoms more closely over many generations and you will see that they themselves change.  Today’s blossoms are big showy gaudy things engineered by untold generations of nurserymen to appeal most directly to human taste.  If you look long enough you will see that blossoms themselves are an innovation—a design leap by which plants appeal to animals to help out with the critical work of reproduction (and it works tremendously well! There is a cherry tree from Japan in my back yard in Brooklyn).  The seasons themselves change, as demonstrated by this year’s unseasonable warmth (to say nothing of the warmth of the Eocene).  The oceans rise and fall.  Animals burgeon and fall into extinction.  The world is made of clouds and storms and water rather than unchanging stone. In fact that metaphor doesn’t even hold up– geologists look at mountain faces and see the eons of erosion and shift with uncanny clarity.   The stones themselves dance and shift and change as much as the fickle water (albeit so slowly that we can not clearly see them do so).

Year after year the blossoms come and go.  It is beautiful and sad.  But it would be sadder if they never opened up, or even sadder yet if, having bloomed, the pink petals never fell but hung forever as though in some fairy land.  Change is a critical part of living things.  Children grow up for a reason.  Lovers quarrel and part because they did not belong together.  The samurais and warriors and noblemen of yesteryear have been replaced by kinder smarter better people, and it is to be hoped that we will likewise be replaced.  As you sit drinking beneath the flowers and the stars, don’t be overwhelmed by the fact that spring flashes by so fast. Be appreciative of the beauty and meaning you have today and start dreaming of how to make the next spring even better.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020
M T W T F S S
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31