Archive for February, 2011


Incredible India: The Jain Legacy In Karnataka

 Sravanbelagola (Gomateshwara Temple) is one of the most popular Jain pilgrimage center in South India, an is known for its collossal monolithic statue of Gomateswara, on top of a hill. The word “Sravanbelagola” means the Monk of the White Pond (Sravana means Monk and belagola means a White Pond). Chanragiri and Indragiri are two peaks of the mighty Vindhyagiri mountain-range. Of this two, Indragiri is famous for containing the 57 feet high statue of Gomateshwara-believed to be the world’s tallest monolithic statue. The history of Sravanabelagola goes back to a long time, when Emporer Chandragupta Maurya arrived here with his guru, Bhagwan Bhadrabahu Swami and embraced Jainism after renouncing his kingdom of Magadha in the 3rd centuary AD patroned Jainism and were responsible for its extensive spread in the south.

The statue of Gomateshwara was erected during the reign of the Ganga King, Rachamalla, under the patronage of his minister Chamundrayar and by sculptor Aristenemi (981 AD). The temple to Gomateswara is built on top of a hill, in between two hills – at a height of 3000 feet above sea level.The statue, atop the hill, is reached by 614 rock-cut steps. There are many smaller images of Jain tirthankaras (revered Jain teachers) around the image.

Jains form less than one percent of the Indian population. For centuries, Jains are famous as community of traders and merchants. The states of Gujarat and Rajasthan have the highest concentration of Jain population in India. The Jain religion is traced to Vardhamana Mahavira (The Great Hero 599-527 B.C.). Mahavira was the twenty-fourth and last of the Jain Tirthankars. Mahavira was born in a ruling family of Vaishali, located in the modern state of Bihar, India. At the age of thirty, Mahavira renounced royal life and devoted himself to the task of discovering the meaning of existence. At the age of 42 he attained enlightenment and spent the rest of his life meditating and preaching Jainism.

 Jainism rests on a real understanding of the working of karma, its effects on the living soul and the conditions for extinguishing action and the soul’s release. Jainism considers the soul as a living substance that combines with various kinds of non-living matters. The Jain religion rests on complete inactivity and absolute nonviolence (ahimsa) against all living beings. All practicing Jains try to remain vegetarians.

The Jains celebrate the five major events in the life of Mahavira- conception, birth, renunciation, enlightenment, and final release after death.  Major Jain pilgrimage destinations in India are Palitana, Ranakpur, Shravanbelagola, Dilwara Temple, Khandagiri Caves and Udayagiri Caves.


Buddhist religion: Tibetan Praying Wheels

A Praying Wheel is an exclusively Tibetan Buddhist praying instrument which always bears the mystical word ‘OM MANI PADME HUM’ [Jewel in the Lotus of the Heart] numbering six syllables in the mantra of Avalokitesvara. The syllables are carved outside the wheel as well as kept inside the wheel printed in the paper in numerous numbers. It is generally made of a cylindrical body of metal, penetrated along its axis by a wooden or metal handle. The cylinder can turn around the handle, with a slight rotation of the wrist, thanks to a cord or ballasted chain, which keeps it in movement. Inside this cylinder, written on paper or skin, are esoteric texts, usually invocations (mantra), the most common being that of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of compassion (Avalokitesvara).


These prayer wheels may be small and carried by pilgrims, or larger and fixed to the gates of monasteries or around stupas and chortens. Each turn of the cylinder generates as much merit as the reading of the sutra or the formula enclosed therein. All these objects are also called chockor in Tibetan, ‘Wheel of the Law’. Some are very large and, enclosed in small structures, turn under the action of a ‘mill’ driven by waterpower and electric motors.


Tibetans use prayer wheels to spread spiritual blessings to all sentient beings and invoke good karma in their next life. They believe that every rotation of a prayer wheel equals one utterance of the mantra, thus the religious practice will in return help them accumulate merits, replace negative effects with positive ones, and hence bring them good karma. The religious exercise is part of Tibetan life. People turn the wheel day and night while walking or resting, whenever their right hands are free while murmuring the same mantra. Buddhists turn the wheel clockwise. Bon followers turn the wheel counter clockwise.


Buddhist ceremonies: Offering butter lamps

In Buddhism offering light signifies the stability and clarity of patience, the beauty which dispels all ignorance.
According to many Rinpoches: “It is also excellent to offer the butter lamps, candles or light because this act of offering  symbolizes burning away our mental afflictions of desire, aggression, greed, jealousy, pride and so forth. The other part of the symbolism is that it is a way to burn away our illness.”

“Offering butter lamps is the most powerful offering because their light symbolizes wisdom. Just as a lamp dispels darkness, offering light from a butter lamp represents removing the darkness of ignorance in order to attain Buddha’s luminous clear wisdom. The lamp offering is a sense offering to the Buddha’s eyes. Because Buddha’s eyes are wisdom eyes, they do not have the extremes of clarity or non-clarity. Our ordinary eyes, however, are obscured by the darkness of the two defilements, gross afflictive emotional defilements and subtle habitual defilements. While the Buddha does not have desire for offerings, we make offerings for the purpose of our own accumulation of merit & wisdom. Through the power of this accumulation, we can remove the cataracts of our ignorance eyes in order to gain Buddha’s supreme luminous wisdom eyes. When we offer light, the results are the realization of Clear Light wisdom phenomena in this life; the clarification of dualistic mind and the dispersal of confusion and realization of Clear Light in the bardo; and the increase of wisdom in each lifetime until one has reached enlightenment.

Traditionally, butter lamps are also offered as a dedication to the dead in order to guide them through the bardo by wisdom light. We can pray as well that this light guide all beings of the six realms, removing their obscurations so that they may awaken to their true wisdom nature.
With genuine faith & devotion, visualize that with your offerings, countless offering goddesses offer immeasurable light to all enlightened beings.


Briddhashram: Elderly Home at Kathmandu, Nepal

No matter what’s happening in the world, it doesn’t seem to get inside the walls that bound the Social Welfare Center’s Home for the Elderly at Pashupatinath. This old home for the elderly was built as the Panchdeval Pakshala during the reign of King Surendra Bir Bikram Shah during the mid- to late 19th century. Situated amidst the temples of the famous Hindu temple complex, this place seems to manipulate time. Once you enter the premises of the Briddhasram at Pashupathinath you can’t help but feel like you are transcended time back at least half a century or more, to a place where the world moves very slowly.

You see as many as a sixty grey haired elderly citizens doing nothing but spending blissful moments basking in the sun for hours in the courtyard and on the shrine platform. Some curious eyes follow you as you walk pass the welfare gate. One of them is busy reading a book and the other is trying hard to bend and dust off his trousers. All you hear is the steady sound of the wheeled metallic support of an elderly with crippled feet and a faint sound of a TV somewhere in the background playing a Nepali song. The residents of the home don’t talk much to each other, which gives you an aura of wilderness where no word is spoken; but they really live for each other. For some it is a depressing scene to see people at the end of life, away from family, living in the Briddhasram. But for many, this is a place where they seek refuge from an ever speeding life and feel satisfied enough simply helping and sharing talk with the older citizens.

Also known as Siddhi Shaligram Briddhashram (Home for the Elderly), the only government sponsored home for seniors lies 4.8 kilometers northeast of the heart of Kathmandu city, surrounded by the Pashupatinath Hindu temple grounds. The temple to Pashupati is a famous pilgrimage for Hindus from around the world, and also an abode for Holy monkeys and of Holy sadhus with tangled hair who come from all across the Indian subcontinent.

With the advancement in medicine people are living longer. This means more old people. In addition, modernization and urbanization are inducing people to adopt luxurious lifestyles. Young people are encouraged to switch from traditional and conventional extended family life, to living in nuclear families. So, the elderly are having hard time, as they are dependent on the breadwinners of the family. Under the nuclear family system, more elderly are on the verge of homelessness. This implies that the shelter for seniors could face a ‘more people/less money’ crisis; but with donations and support from many organizations and well wishers, this barely seems to be a point of concern.
Briddhashram residents consider themselves some of the most fortunate elders in all of Nepal. The center is currently managed by The Woman, Children and Social Welfare Ministry and sustained mostly by donations. In truth, they are fortunate. Persons admitted here receive good food and shelter, and are given clothing twice annually.

This home for the elderly fills one with hope. What gives hope is that although they have lost families and possessions, the residents still care, they care for each other and they retain a deep sense of humanity.


Kyaikhtiyo, Myanmar – a Golden Buddhist Rock

Widely publicized as Golden Rock among the tourist crowd, the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda is one of the most magical destinations in Myanmar. For the Buddhists, it is a must visit place after Shwedagon of Yangon. The Golden Rock or Kyaikhtiyo is located some 160km southeast of Yangon, on one peak of eastern mountain range of 1200-meters, deep inside the dense rainforest of Mon State. It is far enough to avoid, or take a break from the hectic city life to enjoy from the expanse rice-growing region that stretch your eyes endlessly, the scenic rivers bustling with passengers boats and fishermen, and changing of socio-economic landscapes as you entered into the land of the Mons.

There’s no solid historic record on Golden Rock pagoda except the legendary stories. However, Buddhists in Myanmar generally believe that the rock boulder and the original stupa were built last 2400-years ago, during the lifetime of Buddha. The credit goes to the hermit who kept the hairs of Buddha for several hundred years until he urged the king of Mons, Tissa to find a stone that would resemble his hermit head and enshrine the hairs in it. With the help of the King of the Nat spirits, the king, who was also a son of miracle making alchemist father and dragon mother, could manage to find one from the ocean bed and then transported to the edge of the ridge by a ship, which then transformed into a stone a few meters away from the present-day Golden Rock boulder. And there are some more fascinating stories to be heard! While Golden Rock is the main focus to visit, there are several other monasteries and pagodas in this area.

For the devote and capable Buddhists, it is more appropriate to hike up from the near-sea-level base camp to the 1200-meter top along the 19-km forest trail passing through a couple of rest houses, waterfalls, food stalls and scenic spots.


Kathmandu, Nepal – Walking around the Swayambhunath stupa

Swayambhunath is an ancient Buddhists stupa, three km west of downtown Kathmandu, said to be 2,000 years old. On this Stupa, which is surrounded by over 200 praying wheels, are the famous all seeing eyes of Buddha, which are easily recognizable. What looks like a nose is the Nepali number one, which represents the unity of all things.


Swayambhunath is on top of a 77m (240 feet) hill. It takes about 20 minutes to walk up the 365 stairs. There is an excellent view of the Kathmandu valley and the surrounding mountains from here. Swayambhunath is also known as the Monkey Temple as there are holy monkeys living in parts of the temple in the north-west. They are holy because Manjushree, the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning was raising the hill which the Swayambhunath temple stands on. He was supposed to leave his hair short but he made it grow long and head lice grew. It is said that the head lice had transformed into these monkeys.

The Kathmandu Valley is believed by geologists to have been a huge lake and the Swayambhunath was an island in the lake. It is said that Emperor Ashok visited this place 2000 years ago. King Manadeva instructed that some work by done here in 460 AD. It has an important Buddhist site by the 13th century. Muslims invaders broke open the stupa in 1346. In the 17t century the stairway up to the stupa was constructed by King Pratap Malla.

You can reach the stupa by taking the western entrance, the more interesting and more difficult way to reach the stupa is climbing the eastern stairways. At the base of the hill is a brightly painted gateway. Within the gatehouse there is a large prayer wheel, almost 4m (12 ft) tall, which strikes a bell when it goes around. It is believed that if you spin a prayer wheel that all the prayers written inside are recited and send upward to heaven. Near the beginning of the stair there is a stone footprint, which is said to be either that of the Buddha or of Manjushri.

On top of the high central stupa on a golden colored square of the all watchful eyes of the Buddha looking in all four directions. The noise is actually the Nepali number one, and it symbolizes unity. Between the two normal eyes is a third eye above that symbolizes the clairvoyant powers of the Buddha. The base represents the four elements — earth, water, fire and air. The 13 levels of the spire represent the 13 steps to realization that leads to nirvana, which the umbrella symbolizes.
Around the base of the stupa are prayer wheels that pilgrims spin while walking around the stupa. There are prayer flags on the lines connected to the spire which has mantras on them which in the winds take the words away. Although the site is considered Buddhist, the place is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus. Numerous king Hindu followers are known to have paid their homage to the temple. The stupa was completely renovated in May of 2010, its first major renovation in 90 years and its 15th in the nearly 1,500 years since it was built. The dome was re-gilded using 20 kg of gold.  Each morning before dawn, hundreds of Buddhist (Vajrayana) and Hindu pilgrims ascend the 365 steps that lead up the hill, passing the gilded Vajra and two lions guarding the entrance, and begin a series of clockwise circumambulations of the stupa.


Buddhism: The Tibetan Wheel of Life

The Tibetan Wheel of Life symbolizes the Buddhist perspective on life and contains within it numerous symbols of Buddhist themes and teachings.  The creature who turns the wheel of life and holds it in his clutches is Yama, a wrathful deity and the Lord of Death. Yama symbolizes the inevitability of death, samsara and the impermanence of all things. This does not lead to hopelessness, though, because outside of the wheel stands the Buddha, who points the way to liberation (symbolized by the moon).

The inner circle of the wheel contains symbols of the three root delusions: hatred (snake), ignorance (rooster), and greed (pig).

The ring around the center represents karma, with the figures on the left ascending to higher realms of existence because of virtuous actions, and the figures on the right descending to lower realms of existence because of evil or ignorant actions.

The middle ring of the wheel (the areas between the spokes) symbolizes the six realms of existence. The top half, from left to right, portrays the three higher realms of existence: humans, gods, and demi-gods. The lower half shows the three lower realms of existence: animals, hell-beings, and hungry ghosts.

The outer ring represents the 12 links of dependent origination, as follows:

  1. Just to the right of the top is a blind man with a cane, representing ignorance of the true nature of the world.
  2.  Moving clockwise, a potter molding a pot symbolizes that we shape our own destiny with our actions through the workings of karma.
  3. The monkey climbing a tree represents consciousness or the mind, which wanders aimlessly and out of control.
  4. Consciousness gives rise to name and form, which is symbolized by people traveling in a boat on the river of life.
  5. The next link is an empty house, the doors and windows of which symbolize the developing sense organs. Buddha noted six senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch and thought.
  6. The six senses allow us to have contact with the world, which is symbolized by lovers embracing.
  7. From contact arises feelings, which we categorize as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Feelings are represented on the wheel as an arrow piercing the eye.
  8. From feelings arises desire or attachment to pleasant feelings and experiences, symbolized by a couple falling in love or a man drinking alcohol.
  9. Desire or attachment leads to grasping for an object of desire, symbolized by a monkey picking fruit.
  10. From grasping arises existence, represented by a man and a woman making love.
  11. Existence culminates in birth (entry into the human realm), which is symbolized by a woman in childbirth.
  12. Birth naturally leads to aging and death, which is symbolized by an old man carrying a burden.

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February 2011
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