25 May 2013

Walking into a mandala, Trannie meditation, and other stories



It is Visakha Puja, one of the holiest days in the Buddhist calendar. The time of year when thousands celebrate Buddha Shakyamuni's birth, enlightenment, and death all at the same time.

About a week ago, I saw a National Geographic special on the discovery of the Buddhas remains at Piphrawa, a site in Northern India where perhaps the Buddha's own family, the Sakya royalty, buried their portion of his remains. (The relics were distributed to 8 kingdoms after his death.) The original discovery was made by British amature archeologist, William Peppé. But until this year, the nature of Peppé's find was disputed.
Photos courtesy of http://piprahwajewels.co.uk/


(To see the National Geo feature on-line, visit http://youtu.be/Zfxn9lNfiL8)
(More info here:http://piprahwajewels.co.uk/)

According to historical records, the British governing at the time gave the relics to the King of Thailand, Rama V, in a diplomatic move to ingratiate the king. According to Bhikku Gavessako, an English monk I met in Bangkok, those remains may be at the top of Wat Saket, also known as the Golden Mount.  I decided to go see the relics myself. 

Photo courtesy of http://davidkeithindia.blogspot.com/

So I hoped on the bus for the temple. Before I made it to Wat Saket, also known as the Golden Mount, I decided to take the opportunity to see Loha Prasat, a remarkable and beautiful structure right across from it. It was a project initiated by King Rama III  in 1846, over a hundred years ago, and was renovated by the current King in 2002. The building is like no other I've ever encountered. It's layout is based on ancient sacred architecture in the mode of a geometric mandala. It is perfectly symmetrical, and it fascinating.



According to the well-laid signs, only two other such buildings are known to have existed. One during the Buddha's time in Sravasti, northern India. Nothing remains of this building. The second was built in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka around 156 BC. Of this, only stone pillars remain.

Care of http://www.bangkokinsights.com/

King Rama III sought out these ancient structural designs, and embellished their traditional metal roofing with Thai motifs. Walking through the structure, originally meant to enhance the meditation of practitioners, I got a sense of how  ancient people understood the importance of environment and the influence of architecture on the mind.

Furthermore, it is remarkable that in their love and zeal for Buddhism, and in their incredible pride in their cultural heritage, that the Thai people have been able to replicate and thus preserve ancient Buddhist art and architecture that has been lost in India, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere in the Buddhist world. In studying these replicas, I have come to appreciate that what people made during and in the centuries just after time of the Buddha, was more sophisticated and refined than I ever imagined.




Walking through each floor of the Loha Prasat is like being in a maze of mirrors. Its a bit surreal and disorienting. Because it is symmetrical, the view is the same in each direction.

A single spiral staircase leads visitors up to each floor. The bottom floor is an exhibit, the 2nd is a library, the 3rd is a place for walking meditation, the 4th is a place for sitting meditation, and the 5th holds a beautiful little stupa with relics of the Buddha. 



 From the top, one has a 360-degree vantage point for the surrounding city.





The 1st floor exhibit uses augmented reality and other interactive technology to explain and engage about the history and design of the building.




The exhibit breaks down the forms and significance of each element in the architecture. 


Seats for meditation.



At the end of the day, I joined the Full Moon Meditation Night, organized by the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives at a park in the central shopping district of Bangkok. It is literally, behind two of the most visited high-end malls--Siam Paragon and Central World. 


As I arrived, a row of famous people were talking about their experiences with meditation. My friend, Pi Noi, explained that they included a cancer survivor, a male model, a DJ, a make-up artist/ fashion critic transvestite and other personalities. Only in Thailand could I imagine a meditation pep-talk by a tranny make-up artist being follow-up by a dharma Q&A from a prominent monk in the middle of the fashion district.


And of course, as the monk took his seat, it promptly rained.
 Here is BIA Director Dr. Banchar giving everyone directions as we huddled under a few shelters.


Ah Bangkok, everyday an adventure.