For the last couple of days I have been wondering the streets of an amazing city to the west of Thailand. Between meetings and stops to admire the sheer beauty of the local people and pagodas, I sauntered into local tea shops and sip on sweet tea while engaging one of my most favorite past times, people watching. Following my tea breaks I would wonder in and out of local book shops and jam packed alleyways. In one of these book shops I purchased 3 books. One is by George Orwell. One is an ancient weathered book by Cheiro about the 12 signs of the zodiac and the meaning of the number of each day and their influence on humanity. The third is about the teachings of Buddha.
Each book spoke to me for its own specific reason. I will skip the first because it is obvious and will try to explain the others. My senses were seduced by Cheiro’s book for many reasons. The first was tied to an olfactory memory of old books. Amazing this torn up old book across the globe smelled exactly like the old books I inherited from my grandfather, Paul Skelley. I was half way around the world but it appears old cherished books smell the same anywhere on the planet and I was taken aback by this memory trigger. For that reason alone I was going to buy it. I hadn’t fully processed what the book was about but as I lingered over the pages I realized the second reason I had to have it: it captured a part of my experience at a famous pagoda I had visited a few hours earlier.
According to legend Shwedagon is 2500 years old. The story begins with two merchant brothers who were blessed with the opportunity to meet the lord Gautama Buddha. He gave them eight of his hairs to be enshrined in a land of changed names. The two brothers made their way to the land they were directed to and found a hill where relics of other Buddhas had been enshrined. When the hairs were taken from their golden casket to be enshrined some incredible things happened:
There was a tumult among men and spirits ... rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell ... the blind beheld objects ... the deaf heard sounds ... the dumb spoke distinctly ... the earth quaked ... the winds of the ocean blew ... lightning flashed ... gems rained down until they were knee deep ... all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.
Pretty amazing no? But I digress because this is not a history lesson, this my friends is a present lesson.
Today there are four entrances that lead up a flight of steps to the main platform of this famous pagoda. The eastern and southern approaches have vendors selling books, good luck charms, candles, gold leaf, incense sticks, prayer flags, streamers, miniature umbrellas and flowers. A pair of giant chinthe (leogryphs, mythical lions) guard the entrances and the base of the stupa is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and men can access so when I stopped to pause and admire the gold plated pagoda, I saw only monks and men ascending into the glistening gold tower (allow me to take a moment to bite my pink feminist tongue). The crown or umbrella of the pagoda is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies and the very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond.
Although all of this was undeniably impressive what enchanted me the most about this place were the fantastic rituals.
Visitors must remove their shoes before the first step at any of the entrances and once you reach the main platform you are encouraged to walk around the stupa clockwise. The day of the week you are born on will determine the planetary post you are to stop at. There are eight in all as Wednesday is split in two, a.m. and p.m and they are marked by animals that represent the day: galon for Sunday, tiger for Monday, lion for Tuesday, tusked elephant for Wednesday a.m., tuskless elephant for Wednesday p.m., mouse for Thursday, guinea pig for Friday and naga (mythical dragon/serpent) for Saturday. Each planetary post has a Buddha image and devotees are encouraged to offer flowers and pour water on the image with a prayer and a wish. At the base of the post behind the image is a guardian angel, underneath the image lies a statue of the animal representing the day. By asking a young novice monk if I could look up my birthday in his book I discovered I was born on a Thursday and therefore I made a wish and poured 3 small silver cups of water, first on the buddah and then on the mouse of my planetary post.
I was surprised by all the astrology but I later discovered that astrology is at the heart of Hindu Brahmanism which was embraced by the awakened one before he was in a good faith of Buddhism. It is therefore no wonder the Buddhists where still adopt some parts of these old beliefs. For those who know me best know that I was thrilled to discover that people here recognize the day of their birth, such as Sunday, Monday, Tuesday etc. as very important as I would have to agree days of the week are noteworthy.
I also discovered that most people in this country approach an astrologer for something or another. Themes of consultation seem to be most frequently tied to whether or not one should go ahead with a move to a new house or get married or pass exams or engage in new business. The consulted astrologer does some calculations according to the magic formulas he alone knows and then he arrives at a certain conclusion. With this conclusion he informs the curious one if he or she is under the bad influence of a certain planet. To counter this information the client goes to his or her birthday planetary post and pours a certain number of cups of water on their planetary animal to symbolically counter the bad influences.
The rituals I did after praising my planetary post were fantastically strange. The following is a list of things I did in this beautiful house of gold with 12th century Buddha’s enshrined in colorful electronic halos worthy of a rave.
After visiting my day of the week shrine (and stopping by Tuesday’s to send her some motherly love from abroad) I walked to a small stage that housed a massive bell. According to legend this bell was to be taken back to England by British troupes but during a fluke accident while trying to move the bell to a ship, the gigantic bell feel from the British soldiers’ grasp and lodged itself deep into the sand of the shore. The British tried and tried but could not bring it up and were forced to leave sans the beautiful stolen bell. A few weeks later a team of natives quickly and easily moved the bell ashore and put it back in its rightful place. Now the bell is used to grant wishes to devotees. All you have to do is pound it gently three times with a rather large pole. I did as much and made a wish.
Following the wishing bell I sauntered over to the next platform that had a small piece of black jade sitting in front of another Buddha enshrined with a rock star hallo of electronic colors and flashing lights. The legend of this stone is that you are to knell in front of it and make your wish. After you complete your wish you are supposed to try and pick up the stone. If it is light and easy to lift your wish will be granted. If it is heavy and unmovable, it will not. Apparently Richard Nixon had knelt before this stone at the tail end of his vice presidency. Hum? I knelt down, furrowed my brows in wishful concentration and easily picked up the rock. Whew.
Next I made a brief stop at a massive Buddha that had a silk fan hanging above his head. According to tradition you are to take the belled rope and pull it three times to cool off the Buddha. While fanning the Buddha you are to make a wish. If you do a good job your wish will be granted.
Following my visit to the hot Buddha, I went to a cove to visit a large female statue. Legend has it that if you make an offering to her she will help solve an irritating problem. As I looked up there were plenty of offerings and she was remarkably ugly. Her face was shimmery plates of gold that were all wrinkly and folded. In front of her was a woman praying intensely with another woman quietly whispering in her ear. I was informed the whispering woman could channel sprits and she was helping with woman with her nagging problem.
So there you have it – a brief summary of the delightful little rituals and activities I did while visiting the beautiful Buddhist pagoda. The only thing I didn’t tell you was what I wished for during my 4 interesting stops. If any of them come true, I will let you know. It was an action packed and ever so slightly bizarre experience and yet with each strange ritual I felt more and more like these enlighten Buddha’s understood that life is, in reality, just a series of strange occurrences happening over and over again. After all was said and done I was a little bit converted to a faith that no longer felt like a faith but felt like a wonderfully ritualed but intentionally unstructured philosophy of living.