Buddha

Buddha’s back…Alright! (dunh dunh na na na*)

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* read to the tune of Everybody (Backstreet’s back)

We travelled only 26 hours plus to see him. You’d think to garner this much attention he’d have done something. But Buddha did the opposite: he literally achieved nothing.

An accomplishment that from a particular point of view might stir the heart of lazy bastards, but, from the point of view of the early Thai empire, stirred visions of a massive statue to commemorate his amazingness for sticking a big middle finger at the material world.

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Ok, the Thai engineers decided to keep his middle finger down. But, look at those fingers. Oversized Toblerone bars don’t stand a chance.

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11 metres wide and 15 meters high, Wat si Chum (aka. Big Buddha) is the biggest statue on display here at Sukhothai Historical Park, but it’s only one of over 193 ruins scattered around the place.

After our tuk tuk, train, bus odyssey the day before, Rose and I changed things up with a new addition to the transportation roster:

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Also a UNESCO site, Sukothai Historical Park is accessible on bike, which made our tour easy, but also helped us slow down a bit from our normal hurtling caravan of activity that operates at speeds a lot higher than 5km/h.

I thought the setting was really tranquil – (For Buddhist ruins, a handy compliment) with few tourists around, and Rose and I took advantage, meandering along, and finding shade wherever we could.

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Since we no longer had the help of a big body of water to cool things, we’d returned to the sweat gushing days we’d experienced in Laos and Cambodia (as you can tell from my photo with Buddha above).

However, one highlight that was worth the sweat was this stupa – Wat Sorasak.

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Elephants figure heavily in Thai culture, once used in parades to project power and majesty during royal ceremonies and also in more practical terms, as construction equipment to clear land. From a Buddhist angle too, elephants were seen as protectors.

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A worthy ally I would think: but sadly not one for us on this day, as the big beasts were no match against the sun that by this point had crisped Rose’s skin into a deep mahogany, and mine into the skin of a Yukon gold potato.

We pushed on to a Hindu site – Wat si Sawai one of the oldest in the park.

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Interestingly, similar to the blending of Buddhism and Hindu which we saw in Angkor Wat, next door in Cambodia, this one had similar style, which was moving away from Khmer architecture to a more Thai style – reflecting Buddhist themes.

Of course, Buddha was in abundance everywhere else:

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We spent a couple of days touring the park, and met another Canadian couple, who had been visiting for five days. While 800 year old statues are their own draw, I’m not sure we would have spent another three days exploring them at length.

However, we learned, neither was this couple. After touring the ruins for a couple of days, they they’d supplemented their days by going birding. As we roamed through ruins taking photos of everything around us, they also walked through the ruins, but were only interested in them if a bird was using one as a pit stop.

After one of them declared: “There’s a bird over there on that fallen pedestal” – I scrunched my eyes but didn’t spot anything. Seeing my wrinkled face getting nowhere, the same birder offered me his binoculars, and I had a peek.

As he sat over my shoulder, holding his breath in anticipation of my seeing this bird, which had now from all the preparation taken on mythic status, I expected I’d be looking towards some ornithological marvel: a toucan, a condor, maybe a vulture?

When I said: “Um. I’m not sure I see it”.

“Yes it’s that blue coloured bird. It’s small”, he repeated

Sure enough, it was a little bird perched in a way that I had completely overlooked it.

“Oh right. Yeah I see it”, I replied, doing my best to sound excited.

“It’s got a nice colour”

“Yeah, blue”, I said, maybe a bit too atonally.

I handed him back his binoculars. While I appreciated their enthusiasm, it was clear that I have a way to go before I get the same thrill.

Rose and I toured around a bit longer, once again tipping our hat to the master of the big nothing, who just to underline his empty contribution also seems to be forming the number zero with this fingers in the image below:

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We eventually made it back for our third shower of the day, had a really good dinner at the guesthouse where we stayed, and plotted our next move. A visit to Chiang Mai and more elephants – but this time the real thing.

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Back to Buddha

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The last time we crossed paths, he was for sale in a shop window in Ubud. Now, we’re in the largest Muslim country in the world standing on the largest monument to his memory ever conceived. Wherever we’ve traveled in Asia, it seems Buddha is close at hand, which also seemed to be the main point these architects wanted to get across when they shaped this massive ode to Monsieur perma-grin.

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Called Borobudur, this stupa was chiseled in the 9th Century by Javanese Buddhists who crafted something so detailed and meticulous, in later years they might have been reincarnated as brain surgeons.

With over 500 Buddha statues (like the one above), 2500+ relief panels comme ca:

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And 9 distinct levels, it’s already impressive as an engineering feat. But, after we learned more of how it was designed, I thought it really revealed how amazing it was.

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Buddhism often comes off as one big paradox (ex. You can be everywhere and nowhere or You can only achieve enlightenment by not wanting to achieve enlightenment.) In print these sayings sound hokey, frustrating and cringe-worthy, largely because they’re simple and self-evident.

I find reading about Buddhism is like staring at this photo:

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One second I see the vase, the next second the people. When I translate this to reading, I think, yeah okay, I get it. Now what? And, of course, that’s it – there is no other point.

Borobudur, I found, works along similar lines. The architects created a showpiece to Buddha which interweaves two strands of Buddhist mythology into a single structure.

First, the more obvious one, that we could witness from the ground is that the whole structure is one big storyline of the Buddha’s life, and his path to enlightenment. As a visitor you walk up the entire structure, one level at a time, and as you rise you pass through a stage of Enlightenment that the Buddha experienced, represented by the sculptures around you.

Starting at the ground level, you begin with the world of Desire which Buddha went through – represented in reliefs that in one way or another are various enticements for him to get laid, drunk or high:

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However, good Mr. Siddhartha decided against a career as a rock star, and so passed into the World of Forms, which starts on level three of the structure. Rose and I weren’t exactly clear how the sculptures we looked at represented a form since it seems fairly self-evident (any old sculpture could be seen as a form), but the general concept is that at this stage, Buddha had meditated his way into seeing the world as having only shapes, “Oh wow that thing is shaped like a tube (a tree)”, which I can’t help think, if he’d tweeted his discovery today ex.: “My keyboard is only rectangles”, he’d be tranquilized and force-fed anti-psychotics.

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After his geometry phase, he then passed into the Formless World, where – as Lauryn Hill would much later make us aware – everything is everything.

This is also where we took the majority of our photos – next to these huge bells, which each contain a sculpted Buddha:

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And, offer amazing views:

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Especially at sunset:

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That covers the first bit of the architecture – the physical pilgrimage a visitor experiences walking up the structure. However, those wily builders thought, why not go for extra credit and knock out two concepts in one. And so, they also built the entire structure as a material representation of the Buddhist concept of the universe when looked at from above:

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This two dimensional image, called a mandala in Buddhism, represents the universe – where the outer walls are squares, symbolizing humans’ attachment to linear concepts of time, followed by inner circles where time is seen as cyclical.

But a mandala, like the architects who built Borobudur, is overachieving. It also serves as a practical map or guide, which a Buddhist can bring to mind during their meditation to help them, as a reference point to focus on moving towards the center where all is one.

In short, Borobudur is the Swiss Army knife of monuments that offers:

1. A representation of Buddha’s life
2. A physical pilgrimage through his life
3. A representation of the Buddhist universe
4. A mental map to follow during Buddhist meditation
5. Underground parking garage

Le joke. Borobudur is a UNESCO world heritage site (yeah, that’s back too), and they seem to be making decent enough money as it’s consistently referred to as Indonesia’s biggest tourist attraction, so haven’t felt the need to raise cash from any modern enhancements.

However, they did offer some help a few years back. There were three shots at restoring the structure. First, in the early 1800s when it was “re-discovered” by a British colonial administrator. Secondly, by the Dutch 100 years later; and finally, in 1973 when UNESCO got involved.

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There’s a museum on the same grounds which illustrates how they did the last restoration – from the photos and explanations it was basically one massive jigsaw puzzle. The builders took out almost every single block, labelled it, cleaned it up – then reinforced the entire structure with concrete and an updated water runoff system, and put the whole thing back together again.

We were staying at a hotel that was within the grounds of the structure, and were lucky enough to have a two minute walk to it from our room. So, we returned three times to walk up and down it – it was really cool to see.

Next to Angkor Wat, it was definitely a major standout of our entire trip so far.

But we weren’t done with massive, old monuments. Indonesia is not only home to big Buddha, but also big Hindu, all within the structure of the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Next – el Grande, Prambanan.

Talk soon