Walkabouts and wonders

"A life not examined is a life not lived" – Socrates

Tag Archives: religion

Network living and why I think my Buddhist friends are (probably) mistaken

This blog has reached its fifth draft, partly because I have hesitated over putting too much profundity into what is, essentially, a travelogue. But without wishing to follow Socrates all the way, I really ought to worry a little less about losing my audience.

A few years back, the in-word in business was “networking”. Of course, they borrowed the term from internet circles, who probably got it from somewhere else, like the telephone. But as I blog about this walkabout, I am starting to see that networks are really everywhere – indeed, it seems to me that life and existence are much more to do with networks and cooperation than to do with individuals. This is where my Buddhist friends will probably be saying, “At last, he gets it”, but I’ll get to them in a minute.

A while back, when I was in West Bengal a biologist I was talking to (who is also a Buddhist, as it happens) remarked on how Darwin was only very narrowly right. Yes, she said, competition may determine which particular plant survives in a particular circumstance, but it is cooperation that shapes ecology and therefore evolution. From the complex interactions of predators and prey in the Serengeti, to the way in which our whole metabolism depends on bacteria with which we have no conscious connection, the evidence for the interdependency of life is overwhelming.  My brains work – indeed live – by the formation of ever developing networks, whole cascades of which have to cooperate in order to get a fork-full of food into my mouth. And so we can see that it is the whole environment and the networks within it that evolve, not just the individual species.

Itinerant painter and philosopher Horatio

Itinerant painter and philosopher Horatio

And these networks, of course, stretch into our more immediate realities. Families, clubs and nations, professions, religious congregations and high wire trapeze acts all form networks which, in their interactions, form larger and more intricate relationships across time and space. Take, for example, my meeting with Horatio, the painter. A less likely pairing, you would work hard to find – me, the semi-retired business man, with his camera and laptop – him, the itinerant who travels and lives on the strength of abstract pictures that he draws with acrylic pens. My questions about his art and his about my accent, lead to a conversation that stretches from Paris to Wellington and from Martin Luther King to Henry David Thoreau, while we sit in the shade of a café awning in Fremantle. As we talk, we explore our common and different networks and it is thus that most relationships are formed and strengthened. Do we not say of someone we find of no interest, “We have nothing in common”?

But here’s another question; what is it that sustains the network? Well, clearly there is huge variance, but it seems to me that the most fundamental features are energy and incompleteness, after which come value and then inertia. Energy only flows and therefore, associations and networks only form when things are incomplete or hungry (be it for energy, social interaction, influence, recognition). When a person declares that they ”love” Paris, or they “hate” New York in winter, are they not conveying to us their values and therefore their networks; inviting us to join with both?[1]

But, if our lives are really about the ebb and flow of networked values and energies, what then is the value of our sense of individual self? My Buddhist friends might have us believe that our sense of self is effectively an illusion; existing only by associations that will die as soon as our brains do or as we free ourselves from demeaning attachments. But surely, for any network to exist, it must have nodes by which it is bound and forms by which it is channeled.  Yes, they may evolve, develop or diminish, but we all have that experience in life, of changing yet, in some fundamental sense, continuing. And if networks are really the whole, why should we seek to detach from them? Surely the passions of the great “yes” or the great “no”; the great love or the great defiance, the great comprehension; those great moments of spiritual incandescence  – these both announce and make a powerful something, a permanence of value and belief, distilled from our very being and the networks that we are part of, that can extend beyond death, making us permanent carriers of those very values that we cherish and the networks of which we are part. And so, in some sense, is part of the meaning of this life, to forge the values, the beliefs and the networks that we will carry into the next?


[1] Curiously, I think this suggests that in some profound sense, we humans are the most incomplete of all. Do we not form the widest and most varied networks, not just between our kind, but with animals, plants, localities, that we add to, incessantly, as we travel from place to place?

The Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda from the West

Schwe Dagon_2The Shwedagon Pagoda is a Buddhist temple complex that lies a little way apart from the centre of Yangon, in its own parkland. Local legends suggest that the first temple on the site was built more than 2,000 years ago. The present structure is more recent  – the gold plating originating with a Queen Shinsawbu, who ruled Burma in the 15th Century. In the decades following it has been added to, repeatedly to include hundreds of shrines and meditation halls.

Once I’d arrived at the west gate, a huge structure in itself,  I found that I was still 200 yards and 200 feet below the summit of the hill on which the temple stands. A long climb, but this is what I saw when I got to the top

In fact, this picture is a bit of a happy accident –  the place was actually teeming with visitors – quite a few European types, but mainly Burmese, for this is a country in which religion still plays a large part in peoples’ lives. In many part so the world, people circle the stupas clockwise, chanting as they go, but here people wander everywhere alone or in groups – families or friends; walking, talking, pausing to offer a prayer, or sitting to meditate.As part of their devotion, a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions - a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

One of the only group devotions – a line of people sweep around the stupa, in unison.

A solitary monk meditates in one of several shrines

A solitary monk meditates from one of many shrines that face towards the stupa

Shortly after I arrived, I started to hear a group of people chanting – intrigued, I went in search of the source, expecting to find, perhaps a group of novice monks at prayer. Instead I found this group of teenage girls, many in uniform, chanting but also preparing some kind of meal, and occasionally, it seemed catching a moment to swap some gossip.

Schwe Dagon_9

I spent about an hour circling the central stupa myself, engaged in my own self-alignment exercises, before I thought it was time to go, struck by the ease with which I had been able to formulate and enact the exercise. Returning downhill I paused briefly at the side of the steps, only to catch the eye of an older local man who was limping towards me. “You are just in time”, he said but the next few words were obscured as he walked past me, pointing as he went; “…… bats ……., wait …… picture…” was all I caught. So, naturally, I stopped and waited…. and waited…… and  waited….. And then they were there, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small bats flying in a thick stream out from under the temple roofs and off into the gathering sunset. Despite it going on for nearly half an hour, I got few good pictures, but these may give you a sense of it.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The first swarm of bats flying low above the covered walkway in.

The bats heading westward

The bats heading westward

Well pleased, I eventually walked off to find a taxi back town.

Pictures of dedication

My visit to the Nepalese city of Bhaktapur coincided with the country’s New Year celebrations (it is now 2070 in their calendar) and the nine day festival of Bisket Jatra. As a Northern European, used to private and quiet religious celebrations conducted oncwe a week, this was a bit of an eye-opener, on all three fronts.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

The chariot of Bhairab at rest in the main square.

We arrived in the city on New Years’ Eve (13 April’ this year) which is also day 4 of the Bisket Jatra celebrations. Initially, it seemed like nothing more than the usual might be going on – we strolled around, took a couple of pictures, exchanged pleasantries with the flute peddlers and generally relaxed. But then the crowds started growing and moving and we with them. I have no pictures of that evening, so I shall just have to do my best with words.

Bisket Jatra is a nine-day celebration around a romantic story involving a couple of gods, a king’s cursed princess, several dead suitors and a hero. Intertwined with this story is one another, mystery tale, of the principle God and Goddess of the city being the wrathful aspects of Shiva (the destroyer) and his consort. Okay, so far? During the festival, the Gods are placed in great big wooden chariots that are dragged through the streets by groups of young men, who win the privilege in a giant tug of war that is held at the start of the festival. Moving these things on the cobbled streets is no easy task, either to do or control. Our hotel manager told us that the day before we arrived, two people were crushed to death under the wheels of Bhairab on his way to the upper square. He seemed quite excited about it.

The erect "pole" - the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could bite the hero, before he could rescue the princess. Um.

The erect “pole” – the crosspiece is supposed to represent an evil snake that has been speared before it could prevent him rescuing the princess. Um.

That evening, we went to see the fourth day of ceremonies in the lower square. Here, literally hundreds of young men, surrounded by a crowd of thousands, worked to erect a 20m (60′) tree trunk on a plinth in the main square. I am afraid my picture from the morning after gives only a slight impression of the size, but imagine, if you can – around 200 men, dragging on eight ropes that are tied to the cross-piece. Their efforts are timed to the beat of a separate tree trunk being lifted and then dropped on the plinth (it takes three men to do just that) amplified by the shouts of the crowd. “Urah! Urah! Urah!” X frames built from the branches of the same tree (and held together by hand-made rope) are pushed into place to provide support, between bouts of effort. But with no guide ropes the pole frequently swings sideways, threatening the mass of onlookers who run away, screaming and laughing, returning in a few minutes when the panic has passed. True; there are armed police attempting some crowd control but any health and safety officers have quietly crawled away to be sick in a corner.

All I can say is that the excitement generated by this event made it clear that our English Maypoles and Morris Dancers have a thing or two to learn about Spring fertility rites! Especially, given that none of these things seemed to be organised in any systematic way. This is a festival of and by the people – while Hindus have their priestly caste, the Brahmins, their Sadhus and temple attendants, the life of their religion is carried in the blood and the dedication of the people. As demonstrated by these other scenes from the day after.

The throng aroun the base of the pillar, doing puja.

The throng around the base of the pillar, doing puja.

A plate of oferings to the gods.

A plate of offerings to the gods.

Morning offerings - take on New Years' Day, but something you might see at any time.

Morning offerings – take on New Years’ Day, but something you might see at any time.

Boys doing their thing - what else.

Boys, meantime, do what they do.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

A shrine in the middle of the main square.

And if you need a nap, well, take it - and where better, but in the lap of the God.

And if you need a nap, well, take it – and where better, but in the lap of the God.

In closing, this one 24 hours probably taught me more about the true nature of India (and Nepal) than I could ever have expected. What unites these places is not their national boundaries or their politics, or even the religion. There are two main features I keep returning to. There is this irrepressible quality of eagerness and an appetite for living that is quite capable of sweeping all and everything before it; it runs throughout their society – vibrant, wilful, open; unmoderated and therefore dangerous, but exciting and captivating. But there is also this deeper seam of quiet, insistent and persistent dedication which expresses itself in the daily rites of puja that I witnessed everywhere I went – a core of value that seems to speak of something truly ancient and universal in humanity.

A Sacred Space in the City of Birds

There is a place near the centre of New Delhi which defies the noise and heat of the modern city. It is known as the tomb of Humayun, but as well as a burial site, it is an inspired assay in sacred architecture and design.

Hamayun_23

And let me begin by telling you how I eventually went to this place, rather than the Taj Mahal.

Chandra Chawk_1You see, originally, I had set aside my first day in Delhi for some local sightseeing, before heading south to the Taj Mahal, as you do. It was only after an hour’s walk into the centre of Old Delhi and the market district, that I discovered all of the monuments and museums were closed, this being a Monday. Yes, I know that now.  So, Monday left me with sore feet and this one picture of rickshaw cyclists on the Chandi Chowk, and a curio – why does this city have so many birds?  Look around you in Delhi, and you will see the birds everywhere – true; many are the usual scavengers you find in any city, but not this many – no.

Anyway, come the Tuesday, my last full day in Delhi, I no longer felt like taking the two hour journey south to see the Taj Mahal. Following advice I got on the plane, I braved the Delhi traffic on an auto rickshaw and headed out to Humayun’s tomb.

The tomb is actually a complex of buildings that include some of the earliest surviving monuments of the Moghul period in India. The building at its centre, Humayun’s tomb is actually the resting place of around 140 of his family and descendants. It stands in the centre of a 15 acre formal garden, divided by narrow channels of water that feed a series of fountains.

Hamayun_17

Hamayun_16

As you might suspect from these pictures, the tomb is an early precursor to the Taj Mahal which lies 80 miles south at Agra. Like its more famous neighbour, it is a monument to love, but this time built by the wife, to honour her husband. All of this, of course, you may read in any decent guide-book or online. But what the guidebooks only vaguely refer to, if at all, is the basis of the building in ancient beliefs about life and its purposes.

Hamayun_22

The clues lie partly in the shape – the perfect surrounding squares and partly in the colours of the main building and its domes. And, of course, the numbers – 17 and 4; 72 and 5; 16, 4 and 1, amongst others.

Hamayun_20

But it wasn’t until I was trying to photograph this fountain that I put together the first of two things –

The surrounding wall, the central platform and the gardens are all set out in regular squares, north/south. But the crowning domes are set at an angle, thus

Hamuyun shape

This pattern represents a simple and ancient perception about life. Roughly translated, it says that body and soul are held together, not by food, but by the grace of the spirit of humanity that resides in our innermost being.

And then, I understood about the birds and how there had come to be so many in the city. The surrounding walls of the sanctuary are pierced by small openings – they were put there on purpose, as nesting sites for pigeons and green parrots so that they would always be in attendance. They are a constant reminder of another ancient idea that Islam holds very dear; unlike our bodies and histories, beautiful and arresting as they may be (and here represented by the gardens and the water courses), our minds are free to leave the earth and fly up into the realms of heaven and inspiration.

Hamayun_15

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