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

e3f4c832453cc5d0324911942eaee398.jpegBecause of last week’s post about the Thai coronation I got sucked into spooling through pictures of the astonishingly beautiful and crazy sights of Thailand.  We really need to all visit that exquisitely beautiful land! What a place!

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At any rate, as long-term Ferrebeekeeper readers will recall, I once made a (sadly unpublished) book on how to build toy vehicles out of household refuse.  The industrious Buddhist monks of Thailand however did not stop at making toys.  Thus, the temple which most caught my eye was Wat Pa Maha Chedio Kaew also named “Temple of Million Bottles.”  As you can tell by the name, this temple (and all of its outbuildings like the crematorium and the restrooms) are built of empty bottles which have been carefully mortared together to form an exquisite .  Actually though, the name is a bit of a misnomer–thus far the complex is constructed not of a million bottles but of around a million and a half bottles.

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The project started back in 1984, when some monks decided to clean up the refuse around their temple.  Perceiving the inner beauty of the discarded beer bottles, the monastics chose not to throw them away, but instead to clean them and use the brown and green glass vessels for constructing temple accessories.  The project took on a life of its own as visitors brought ever more bottles–mostly Heineken bottles (green) and Chang Beer bottles (brown).

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Anyone who has ever tried to piece together recalcitrant materials into desired order will start to fathom the scope of the monks’ accomplishment.  Beyond the novelty of the material and the satisfying moral component of seeing something so complete made of something everyone throws away, the temple is simply beautiful though.   Buildings in America are made of heavily regulated prefabricated materials expressly created for crafting buildings…and yet so many new buildings here are appallingly heart-wrenchingly ugly.  Perhaps we could take some lessons from the monks not just in upcycling but also in imagination, patience, and craft.

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Yet even if that isn’t going to happen, you can still contemplate the shadow side of Maha Chedio Kaew: in order for it to exist people drank one and a half million beers.  That is a moral lesson which the Frauenkirche simply does not offer.

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Happy Losar!  No—I didn’t hurl a confusing insult at you–today is the Tibetan New Year Festival “Losar.” Although it is putatively a Buddhist version of the Chinese New Year, Losar predated the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet and it is on a somewhat different place in the calendar than Chinese New Year. According to scholars, the festival traces its origin back to a late winter/early Spring incense festival of the ancient Bon religion (which has so indelibly colored the Buddhism of Tibet).

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Losar is also known as Shambhala day to adherents of Tibetan practices who believe it should feature mindfulness exercises and meditation (as well as other spiritual rituals and self-care practices).  As with Chinese New Year, there are elemental animals which represent every year: and they are more-or-less the same as in the Chinese calendar, but with a different flavor. For example, instead of calling this year, “the year of the fire rooster.’ Tibetans call it “the Year of the firebird” which is the same…and yet oddly different.

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Losar began on Monday February 27th and ends March 1st, so enjoy it while it lasts and enjoy the year of the Fire rooster/Fire Bird.

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There are four great masterpieces of classical Chinese literature (or possibly five, if you count erotic fiction…but that is a story for another day). The most fantastical and supernatural of these four masterpieces is The Journey to the West…and the indelible hero of The Journey to the West is a monkey, Sun Wukong AKA the Great Sage equal to Heaven AKA Pilgrim Sun AKA the Monkey King (classical Chinese literature has a lot of sobriquets).

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At the beginning of the story a vast round stone boulder sits atop the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit (a paradisiacal mountain island off the coast of China). Warmed by the sun and caressed by the wind since the beginning of time, the granite egg cracks open and Sun Wukong emerges, a fierce clever monkey made of obdurate stone. Immediately after emerging from this egg, golden beams shoot from his eyes which are visible throughout the firmament (a harbinger of the monkey’s future).

Sun devotes himself to mastering Taoist magic (eating sacred fruits, drinking elixers, collecting magical items and learning spells). He becomes king of the monkeys and starts to participate in the wider affairs of the world…but as a demonic monster who eats people and kills for fun. When he learns of the splendors of heaven and the power of the Jade Emperor (the Celestial monarch at the center of a vast spiritual bureaucracy) he decides to make himself into a deity and hilarious, horrifying chaos ensues.

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But all of that is backstory. In the story proper, Sun has grown up. His attempt to overthrow the cosmic order is behind him…mostly…and he has devoted himself to self-mastery. With a bit of (coercive) help from Kuan Yin he has transformed his personality. The chaotic animal demon who killed innumerable people with dark magic has become an ascetic Buddhist monk and he has a difficult assignment: take care of a pathetic weakling (human) monk in a seemingly endless journey across monster-haunted wilds of mythical Asia. Along the way the monk (the spirit) and the monkey (the mind) are joined by a pig god (the appetites) and Sandy, a river monster (???). It’s like a twisted cross between Kung Fu, Pixa, and Homer.

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That is a sort of book-report blurb about an epic which is really an allegory of Buddhist virtues. The monkey king’s Taoist powers mirror the intellect: he has godlike powers of transformation, apprehension, and trickery, but these are of no use without more subtle virtues. The search for these elusive strengths is the real Journey to the West. The story has shaped Chinese cosmology and mythology ever since the book came out in the Ming Dynasty. Since then Monkey has been kind of an actual religious figure…but one who has moments where he is more like Bugs Bunny or Charlie Chaplin than like Jesus or Kuan Yin.

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This all sounds ridiculous—and it is. The juxtaposition of high-minded religious philosophy and low comic hijinks has made the Monkey King universally known in China. There is a deeper reason for this popularity: reality itself is a ridiculous mix of cerebral, noble, and profane elements. The monkey king is a fine mirror for our own madcap primate attempts to reconcile these incompatible impulses.

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Here is a gorgeous warm earth color for Thanksgiving week.  Gamboge is a deep yellow/pale orange color of tremendous antiquity.  By ancient tradition, Theravada monks dye their robes this distinctive color to show their devotion to the middle path.  The color is named after the Latin word for Cambodia, “Gambogia”, which was (and is) a center of Theravada spirituality as well as a major source of milky sap from Gamboge trees (genus Garcinia). Such sap is dried into a brown gum resin which is the main constituent of gamboge dye.

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Because the color plays such a large role in the religious life of South Asia, it is well known throughout the world. Gamboge is a lovely and vibrant color in its own right—a perfect medium between orange and yellow.  All sorts of animals, fruit, and flowers can be described as gamboge.  Although Thanksgiving has no color scheme per say, the fallen autumn leaves usually inspire decorations in some combination of gamboge, sienna, and russet.

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Today, October 27th, 2012, the top news story here on the East Coast is the possible trajectory of Hurricane Sandy, a large tropical cyclone which is projected to make landfall somewhere between southern New Jersey and New England next week.  However the storm itself is not the point of this post.  Instead I am fascinated by the name “Sandy” because–thanks to a coincidence of timing and translation, that name has been much in front of me lately—but not as the name of a human female.  Instead “Sandy” is the name an inhuman water monster from Chinese mythology.  The monster is a horrifying cannibal, true, but also a strangely put-upon functionary, and then later a devout Buddhist.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let me explain.

Shā Wùjìng carrying the luggage

Sandy is one of the main characters of The Journey to the West, which is the most fantastical of China’s four great classical novels  (four epic works of pre-modern fiction, which scholars regard as the most influential works of literature from that great and ancient nation).  The Journey to the West tells the supernatural deeds of four pilgrims traveling from the court of Emperor Taizong in China  to India in order to obtain the  Lotus Sutra (actually there are five pilgrims, but one is a young dragon who has shapeshifted into a horse, and he seldom leaves horse-form).     The main thrust of the story concerns Golden Cicada (a devout Buddhist priest) trying to control Monkey (a primeval trickster god) and Pig (a monstrous animal spirit whose appetite and bumbling antics provide comic relief).  Monkey is nearly omnipotent and exceedingly clever.  The fourth pilgrim, Sandy (or Shā Wùjìng) is a sort of river ogre who acts as the stolid straight man for the antics of monkey and pig.

The Pilgrim Protagonists of Journey to the West

Together these characters face a host of scheming antagonists while trying to work within the baffling framework of the sprawling bureaucracy of China’s pantheon (this list of the book’s characters will give you a sense of the scope of this plot).   The party is aided by Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of compassion who swoops in to extricate them when they really screw up.

One of the first monsters the monk, the monkey, and the pig encounter is Shā Wùjìng, who has a backstory which illustrate the dangers of the celestial court.  Shā Wùjìng was once a general in heaven, where his task was to occasionally lift a special curtain for the Jade Emperor (the ruler of heaven).  Unfortunately, in a fit of clumsiness, the hapless general accidentally broke one of the Jade Emperor’s favorite vases and incurred divine disfavor.  He was flogged with eight hundred lashes and his form was corrupted into that of a hideous monster with indigo skin, a blood red beard and razor teeth.  Then he was exiled to the desert.

Understandably, Shā Wùjìng was upset at this fall from grace.  He began to haunt the Kaidu River which flows through the arid wastes of Xinjiang.  Every day the Jade Emperor would send seven flying swords to flay open the hapless monster’s chest (the chief god was apparently really fond of that broken vase).  To avoid these swords Shā Wùjìng would hide in the sandy river bottom to the extent that he came to identify himself as “Sandy”.  Because the desert was empty of resources, Sandy began to prey on the silk caravans heading west to Central Asia and India.  In the medieval Chinese worldview, merchants are terrible people of no consequence so there were no repercussions for killing and eating them, but one day Shā Wùjìng unwisely ate a party of holy Buddhist monks who were going to India to visit the sacred lands of Shakyamuni.   The skulls of the holy men float on the river, so Sandy fashions them into a necklace which, along with his monk’s spade (a combination of polearm /bludgeon) are his trademark items.

Shā Wùjìng (Sandy) fights Pig (Zhu Bajie)

In the same manner he ate the earlier party of pilgrims, Sandy attempted to eat Golden Cicada, however monkey and pig easily prevented him from doing so (pig even bestirring himself for an epic battle beneath the river).  Thereafter Shā Wùjìng himself took up the burden of pilgrimage and he is one of the most loyal and dependable character in the book (although he is less strong than monkey and pig).  Of the three monster spirits he is by far the most tractable.

Statue of an Apsara Dancing(Unknown artist, Uttar Pradesh, India, Early 12th century)

In both Hindu and Buddhist mythology a group of beautiful & ethereal female spirits inhabit the skies.  These elegant beings are known as apsaras.  They are lesser goddesses of water and clouds.  In classical Indian literature apsaras are often portrayed dancing seductively in the courts of the gods or married to ganharvas—nature spirits who play celestial music for the gods. Both groups of entities are particularly connected with the court of Indra, the god of the skies and storm, and also king of the gods (although that title is less absolute in Hinduism than in other cosmologies).

Rambha Apsara (Kishan Soni, 2012, oil on canvas)

In many myths, apsaras are cast as supporting characters.  They are roughly analogous to nymphs and naiads in Greek mythology or angels in Abrahamic myths.  Indra constantly felt threatened by great ascetics who amassed titanic spiritual and magical power through physical austerity.  One of his favorite ways of dealing with these powerful yogis was to send apsaras to seduce them—which is why many heroes of Indian myth have a sexy apsara as a mother and a crazed hermit as a father!  In addition to being masterful dancers apsaras could alter their form at will (although I can’t think of any story where they were anything other than beautiful).  They also ruled over the vicissitudes of gaming and gambling.

The apsara Menaka seduces the sage Viswamitra

Apsaras can be recognized because of their tiny waists and their pronounced feminine attributes.  Usually they are pictured dancing gracefully, clad (or partially clad) in lovely silk skirts and bedecked with gold jewelry and precious gems.  Often they are gamboling in the skies or playing in the water.  Additionally apsaras tend to be crowned with gorgeous ornate headdresses.

Apsara (stone relief carving at Angkor Wat)

Sculptures of apsaras are frequently a principle component of classical Indian temples and the gorgeous undulating female forms remain a mainstay of Indian art.  These celestial dancers were also particularly esteemed in Southeast Asia. Classical art and architecture from Indonesia, Cambodia, and Laos frequently features the lovely spirits.  Recently a controversy has broken out in the Cambodian community involving contemporary paintings of apsaras which some critics deem too racy for refined tastes.  Ascetics beware!

 

Dear Reader, this is Ferrebeekeeper’s 500th post!  We have gone to some crazy places on this blog and I wanted to thank you so much for joining me.  Together we braved the Scythian steppes and walked among ruthless mounted warriors. We went back in time to the Ordovician, when the oceans were ruled by giant tentacle monsters.  Fearlessly you have gone with me down to the black mansion—the ghastly hell of Chinese mythology where brutal torture spans across lifetimes.  We have even stared into the ever-hungry black hole which lies at the center of the spinning galaxy.

Contemporary Chinese Portrayal of Guanyin

For our 100th post we celebrated with Oshun, the beautiful Afro-Caribbean love goddess. For the 500th post, however, I wanted to write about a goddess even more transcendent and inspiring–Guanyin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.  East Asian deities can be a stern and pitiless group, but Guanyin is the counterbalance to that.  As the bodhisattva associated with kindness, she is uniquely venerated in China, Japan, and the other Buddhist nations of East Asia.  Guanyin protects the unfortunate, the sick, the disabled, the poor, and those in trouble. She has vowed never to rest until all sentient beings are free from samsara—the endless painful cycle of birth, death, and reincarnation. Long ago Guanyin obtained Buddhahood—she apotheosized beyond this world to Nirvana—but then she turned back from absolute tranquility and bliss in order to help all other knowing entities transcend suffering.

Avalokiteshvara statue (8th century, Sri Vijayan period, Thailand)

As a principle goddess of the most populated region of Earth, Guanyin has many names and attributes. In South Asia, where Buddhism originates, Guanyin was Avalokiteśvara a male bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of Buddha.  As a fundamental force of existence Avalokiteśvara could actually be male, or female, human or animal, or none of the above.  In the Tang and Song dynasties, as Buddhism became the dominant religion of China, Guanyin gradually became associated with the motherly goddess of kindness and her form changed into what we know today.  In Chinese Guanyin was originally called “Guanshiyin”, which means, “Attending to the cries of the world” however her name was shortened during the Tang dynasty (because it violated the naming taboo of Emperor Taizong–who was born Lǐ Shìmín).  Taoists worship Guanyin as well, but they believe she was a Chinese woman from the Shang dynasty who found a path to immortality and now looks after the weak.

In Vietnam she is revered as “Quán Âm”

Guanyin is almost always portrayed standing or sitting on a water lotus as an allusion to the Lotus Sutra texts (additionally, adherents to Pure Land Buddhism believe that she sequesters the souls of fallen believers in a lotus and wafts the flowers to Western Paradise).  She is usually portrayed in a flowing white dress holding an object in both hands.  In some traditions she bears a vase of perfectly pure water and a willow branch, while in other iconography she holds rice, tea, or a pearl.  Guanyin is traditionally portrayed with a Chinese crown and an Indian royal necklace. Sometimes she is accompanied by two warriors or by two children.  Occasionally she is shown with a dragon or a parrot (the little parrot’s story is touchingly sad and merits its own post).

Guanyin

In some statues and paintings of Guanyin she is pictured with 11 heads and a multitude of arms.   The story behind this highlights the overwhelmingly merciful nature of Guanyin.  Despite her utmost divine efforts, Guanyin realized that there were countless unhappy beings still in need of her aid. Her struggles to comprehend the problems and suffering of so many caused her head to burst into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha (who rules the paradise of the Pure Land) caused each of these fragments to reform into a complete head, with which Guanyin was able to hear the cries of the innumerable suffering souls. She tried to reach out and help the beings who needed her aid, but her two arms also shattered into fragments. Once more, Buddha came to her aid and magically granted her a thousand arms with which to relieve suffering.

Giant Guanlin statue at Wat Plai Laem in Thailand

Divinities reflect the deepest aspirations and emotions of their believers.  The fact that Guanyin, goddess of love and compassion, is one of the most popular divinities in China, reflects a happy truth concerning human nature.

Liaodi Pagoda

Built in the 11th century, the Liaodi pagoda in Dingzhou, Hebei is the tallest pagoda still remaining from China’s dynastic past (and the tallest building in China from before the twentieth century).  The stone and brick Pagoda was completed in 1055 AD during the reign of Emperor Renzong of Song.  Although the pagoda was ostensibly designed to store Buddhist religious texts for the (now-destroyed) Kaiyuan Monastery, the name Liaodi means “watching for the enemy” or “forseeing the Liao enemy’s intentions”. The tall structure was built in a strategic location and Song military commanders used it to keep an eye on enemy movements of the nearby Liao Dynasty (a northern empire of Mongolic Khitans).

Including the elaborate bronze and iron spire at its apex, the Liaodi Pagoda is 84m high (276 feet).  It is a pavilion-style pagoda made up of thirteen octagonal tiers. Uniquely, one section of the pagoda’s thick walls is split open to reveal a large pillar in the shape of another pagoda.  I wish I could tell you more about this bizarre pagoda within a pagoda–but internet sources are strangely blasé about the fact that one of the most important historical buildings in China has a section cut away like it was a pilfered cake from the office fridge.  Inside the pagoda are numerous painted murals and carved calligraphic plaques crafted during the Song dynasty (arguably the artistic zenith of classical China).

Liaodi Pagoda's "pagoda within a pagoda"

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