The Mahamuni Story

The Mahamuni Story

Mahamuni or “Great Sage” image is described as being one of the 5 Buddha images in existence to be cast in Gotama Buddha’s time, stated by legend to be his exact likeness down to his size. It was and still is a very important Buddha image, in fact one of the triumverate Buddha images in Myanmar including Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and The Golden Rock perched on a cliff above Yangon.

The Mahamuni Temple in Amarapura, Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)The story surrounding how he got there is full of supernatural and adventurous surprises. King Candrasuria (or Chantra-Suriya) had a wish to hear the teachings of the great teacher. On the 26th anniversity of the king’s reign in 554 BCE, Buddha Gotama, living at the time in Sravasti, India, learned of the king’s wishes. Knowing the king could not make the journey to Sravasti, the Buddha along with his disciple and cousin, Ananda, and 500 arahants flew through the air and landed on the hill opposite Kyauktaw. After the king received his teachings, a sacred image of the Buddha, in his absolute likeness, was constructed by Sakra (Indra), the King of the Gods and Visrakarman, the celestial architect and placed on Sirigutta Hill, northeast of the palace. The earth shook. Festivals took place. Seven days later, the Buddha and his disciples flew back to Savrasti (or Sandoway). I think festivals continued to take place after they all left (see “The Sappadanakaranam” below).

From this story is where the flashing lights around Buddha images in Burma comes about. This is seen throughout Burma now. During the seven days of festivities, the Mahamuni Buddha image flashed 6 rays of light as the faithful approached and they dimmed otherwise. One account I read says the birds stayed away from the emanating lightning bolts, another says the birds created a protective circle above Buddha’s little brother. I vote for the birds getting the heck away. Today the Mahamuni is covered by a very deep layer of gold leaf applied daily by devotees of the Buddha. However, only men can apply the gold leaf, women need to ask a male to apply it for them.

The Sappadanakaranam

Most modern histories of the Mahamuni are based on an English translation of a palm leaf manuscript called the Sappadanakaranam, perhaps dating to the 16th century but reflecting earlier material. Emil Forchhammer was a Swiss Pali scholar hired by the  Government of India where he surveyed the sites of the old cities and the major monuments of Arakan in 1885. In 1890, he wrote his Report on the Antiquities of Arakan, which was published after his death in 1892.  (Gutman, Pamela – 2001, Burma’s Lost Kingdoms: Splendours of Arakan, Orchid Press, Bangkok, p.4)

One can read the “Sarvasthanaprakarana” in full in his report right at the beginning of it. Forchhammer’s account of the Sappandanakaranam is purported to be about the same as it is in San Tha Aung’s The Buddhist Art of Ancient Arakan (Rangoon, 1979). In other words, they are both based on the palm leaf mentioned above (Schober, Juliane (ed.) 1997, Sacred Biography in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia, “In the Presence of the Buddha: Ritual Veneration of the Burmese Mahamuni Image, 259-288). An interesting twist is that King Candrasuriya would be the inheritor of kharma created by Gotama Buddha in a previous life as a king where he lived on the island of Cheduba. His actions were breaking the bone of a gardener and cutting the skin off a prince.

Mahamuni’s Unfortunate Voyage

In 1784 it was carried off to Amarapura near Mandalay after Arakan’s conquest. The conquest was completely about capturing the Mahamuni image. King Bodawpaya professed the intention of restoring Buddhism in his new kingdom, desiring the Mahamuni image with all his being. The Pagans tried to capture it centuries earlier unsuccessfully, among others. King Bodawpaya, however, was successful in 1784. It arrived in 3 pieces due to its enormous size. More on this later.

During the next hundred years (in 1879 and 1884) it was damaged by fire and repaired. In 1896, the temple currently in Amarapura on the city limits of Mandalay, was built around the original shrine built by King Bodawpaya in 1791 when he moved the capital there.

Many stories have prevailed over the centuries since the Mahamuni image was moved from Arakan to Amarapura. Some say that the original sank in the river when King Bodawpaya’s army of 10,000 men couldn’t move it. Another legend or tradition says that King Bodawpaya sent wizards to Rakhine (Rakhaing, Arakan) to extract its potency. Sentiments of disrespect placed on the Burmese army for cutting the image into three pieces for transport (now cast in three horizontal sections). And others exist, all calling out the enduring and still unresolved ethnic and regional conflicts in the area.

And so, after this six and a half ton bronze image was floated first by boat down the Kaladan River to the coast, then up the mountains and finally floated upriver on two barges on the Irrawaddy River, reached Amarapura after 30 days. Hence the Mahamuni image was installed in Amarapura on 7 May 1785, and has not been moved since.

The Mahamuni Pagoda Gets Rebuilt

After the fire on 8 April 1884, the wooden temple was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. Gold plastered to the Mahamuni was melted and was reborn as a large mantle (resempling a monk’s robe) to place over the Buddha image. King Thibaw offered funds to help the restoration. Some wanted the old plan to be built in timber or brick and to employ iron and glass. Brick masonry understandably won out over timber. Hoyne Fox, the Executive Engineer from Yangon won the design which was a hybrid plan, traditional on the top, more European in design at floor level, finished sometime after 1895 when the design was chosen. (Sacred Sites of Burma: Myth and Folklore in an Evolving Spiritual Realm)

Mahamuni  and the Generals

The Mahamuni image was believed by the Arakanese, Mon and Burmans to contain a precious stone in its naval that would give anyone who possessed it supernatural powers. In 1996, after Mandalay authorities insisted upon a renovation of the image, a hole appeared mysteriously in the belly of the Buddha. Senior monks investigated and found rumors of two monks with keys being forced by military police to open the building at night.

During a day long meeting to try and get to the bottom of what was going on with the Mahamuni image, a man came into the room and announced that a Buddhist girl had just been raped by a Muslim man. The meeting dispursed, Buddhists ran out to attack the Muslim man at his home. Days of rioting and ransacking of mosques followed in Mandalay and other cities. It was widely believed at the time that military men were posing as monks with their newly shaved shiny heads and their walkie talkies under their robes.

In the meantime, during all of the terrible distraction created by the announcement, the Mahamuni image was patched up and, from what I know, no one became the wiser. As for the rape of the Buddhist girl? It never happened (Christina Fink, Living Silence, p.219).

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Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandhu, Nepal

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandhu, Nepal

This ancient Great Boudhnath Stupa is a major pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists and Nepalis, and continues to be one of the most important places in Nepal. In 1979, Boudha became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are at least 29 Tibetan Gompas (Monasteries & Nunneries) around Boudhanath, some of the larger ones are mentioned later down in the post. It’s bright and lively with pilgrims circumambulating clockwise around the stupa. At night butter lamps are lit. All along are colorful prayer wheels and devotional stops with prayer flags flying high overhead everywhere you look.

Legends – Origination of the Great Stupa

Vajrayogini

Drought plagued the land so King Vrishadev consulted his astrologers. Must find man with 32 auspicious marks and sacrific him to appease the rain gods. He orders his son, Manadev, to wake early and sever the head of the person he’d find where he told him to go.  Manadev is horrified to learn that he killed his father and prayed to the goddess Vajrayogini. His prayer was answered as she released a bird, commanding him to build a stupa where it landed.

Widow’s Endowment

A devout widow, said to be an incarnation of one of Indra’s daughters, and named Jadzimo (Nepali) or Kangma (Tibetan) was promised as much land as a buffalo hide by the king. She cleverly cut it in such a long strip that it formed a very large round plot, indeed. She is also called the poultry woman because she used profits from her poultry business to benefit all sentient beings. Once she owned the large plot of land, the construction of the Great Stupa was begun as a receptacle to hold the nature of all the buddhas.

For four years, her four sons with only an elephant and a donkey to help them, worked on the construction of the stupa. At the time of her death, she beseeched her sons to promise her they would finish building the stupa. It took them three more years to complete, according to this legend.

Nepalese historians put the date of construction in the 5th c. CE

The Religious Picture in Kathmandu

As described by Keith Dowman in Power Places of Kathmandu, “The tableau of Valley religion is woven from five principle strands. The first, is animistic worship of the spirits. The second, the most basic and most abiding, is worship of the Mother Goddesses and Devi. The third is worship of the Great God Shiva. The fourth is worship of Vishnu. The fifth, and finest, is Buddhism.”

Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche on the occasion of Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s cremation in 1996, stated, “As the numerous stupas throughout the country of Nepal attest, in the past many great masters have come here over the millennia. Although in the last couple of centuries not very many masters have lived here, and so, the ‘string of the Dharma’ has become very thin, still, Buddhism in Nepal has remained without vanishing. I feel one of the reasons for the unbroken continuity of Buddhism is that, thanks to the three main stupas – – those in Boudhanath, Swayambhu and Namo Buddha, people regard the teachings of the Buddha as something special:  they have continued to circumambulate these stupas respectfully, and maintain the notion that the Three Jewels are special objects of veneration which you can supplicate.”

We were in Nepal in 2008, during the US presidential elections when Obama was running for the first time. The feeling was high there that the US was finally getting its act together for the rest of the world. Mostly visiting Hindu places, including Bhaktapur, Patan and Changu Narayan, we could see some overlap between Hindu and Buddhist at the Buddhist stupas we visited, including Boudhanath and Swayambunath. At both places, devout and lay practitioners were present.

Additionally there are numerous nunneries and monasteries in the general vacinity of the Great Stupa. Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery is currently the largest Tibetan nunnery in Nepal with 400 nuns. Dilyak Monastery is the oldest original monastery founded by Very Venerable 7th Dabzang Rinpoche in 1963. Kopan Monastery with about 350 monks and Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery are both under the spiritual gudance of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, as well as under the care of the same abbott.  It is also described as a spiritual oasis for hundreds of visitors yearly from around the world. I may have to return.

Other monasteries include K-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery, Pullahari Monastery and Retreat Centre, and Thrangu, Shechen and Khawalung Monasteries, some built since Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche’s pronouncement of 1996, who himself founded Thrangu Monastery (Thrangu Tashi Choling) in 1979. The current monastery is visible in the photo at the top, in front of the Stupa. At the time there were only a few monasteries in Boudhanath and, hard to believe now, the area surrounding the Stupa were mostly rice fields. All in all there are about 30 gompas in the Bouda area.

 

Padmasambhava Prophecies

Finally, no discussion of Boudhanath would be complete without Padmasamabhava’s Kaliyuga, the age of chaos and destruction, where everything is turned upside down. I picked out some juicy bits that feel all too prophetic these days, I’m afraid.

“Corrupt and selfish men become leaders.”

“The celestial order, disrupted, loosens plague, famine and war to terrorize terrestrial life. The planets run wild, and the stars fall out of their constellations; great burning stars appear bringing unprecedented disaster. Rain no longer falls in season, but out of season the valleys are flooded. Famine, frost and hail govern many unproductive years.”

“The king’s law is broken and the strength of communal unity lost; the people’s traditions are rejected and the sea of contentment dries up; personal morality is forgotten and the cloak of modesty thrown away. Virtue is impotent and humiliated and led by coarse, immodest and fearful rulers.”

Angkor Wat Photos from 2001 Trip

Angkor Wat Photos from 2001 Trip

Recently I re-scanned all of the 35mm photos I took during our trip to Angkor Wat to pretty good image quality tifs. From these, I was able to do good-enough post processing on them to make them look better than they’ve ever looked.

Here they are. I orignally posted many of these photos and more on my travel site – Angkor Wat page. I added commentary and information about the temples visited there, but I’ll be adding content here on separate posts. We followed Angkor (Odyssey Guides) during our 6 days there.

Angkor Wat Painting – Monks

Angkor Wat Painting – Monks

My partner and I visited Angkor Wat in November of 2001. We followed Dawn Rooney’s book for six days, visiting numerous wats. We’d go out with a driver early in the morning and come back for lunch, relax for a couple of hours and then head back out later in the afternoon and stay out until just before it got dark.

At the time I had a small 35mm film camera that I bought in the Singapore airport of all places, on the way in. I didn’t want to have to carry around my “large” Pentax K1000. In retrospect, I wish I had brought that lovely little camera along with me. It’s just a beautiful, tiny camera compared to today’s DSLRs. A couple of years ago I bought my first micro 4/3 camera, the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and it’s about the same size as my Pentax and I absolutely love it. Of course, now the EM-1 is out and I have to decide when it’s time to upgrade. I don’t think I’m quite ready yet.

But I digress! This is the first post I’ve added here since 2009. I can’t believe that it’s been 5 years. To begin this and future posts, I am beginning an Angkor Wat series of digital paintings from select photos taken on that trip in 2001. The painting I just completed is of a couple of young monks sitting together on the 2nd floor of the main Angkor Wat complex. I took the picture when we came back a second time in the early morning before the crowds came. I understand that’s hardly possible anymore. It felt so magical to be there and witness the early morning activities of the monks and nuns who seemed to be living there.

Angkor Wat is the mausoleum and temple for King Suryavarmin II built in the early 10th century. It is considered to be the largest religious complex in the world and was originally built as a temple to Vishnu.

Swoyambunath Stupa, Nepal

Swoyambunath Stupa, Nepal

In October, 2008, my partner and I spent a week in the Kathmandu Valley. We stayed at the Hyatt overlooking the Boudnath Temple, more correctly spelled Boudhanath stupa, although you’ll find it both ways. I’ll do another post on Boudhanath, this post is to write about our visit to Swayambunath stupa.

Both Boudhnath and Swayambunath have similarities. Devotees circumambulating (big word for walking around) the temples. Both of these temples attract a large Tibetan following. While I was sweating in my short sleeves and light pants, many of these folks were wearing heavy parkas. Ok, not all, but it’s always interesting to see what the weather does to people. Interesting, too, because it was fairly warm in Nepal, where I understand it’s pretty damn cold in Tibet.
I bought a little book after I returned because I wanted to learn more about Swayambunath and I’d taken so many pictures as usual. The book was written by an Englishman named Richard Josephson who lived there for three years and learned about “Swoyambu” from the locals and the pilgrims who continually come to visit in great numbers.
“The origin of the Swoyambhu Valley and its human habitation, with its first town, Manjupattan, is based on the prehistoric legends of the Swoyambhu Maha-chaitya.
Among all the established chaityas and stupas in the Asian continent, the Swoyambhu Maha-chaitya is one of the most ancietn ones, and it is distinguished by its uniquely significant and artistic structures. It is a central symbol of the Buddhist heritage of Nepal.”
-Swoyambu “The Origin of the ‘Swoyambhu Mahachaitya’
A Buddhist stupa is (usually) a dome shaped architectural monument protecting some aspect of the Buddha’s personhood, such as ashes, hair or tooth. In Nepal, where Tibetan Buddhism is widely practiced, the stupas are worshipped by circumambulation, as mentioned above.

A Buddhist stupa is (usually) a dome shaped architectural monument protecting some aspect of the Buddha’s personhood, such as ashes, hair or tooth. In Nepal, where Tibetan Buddhism is widely practiced, the stupas are worshipped by circumambulation, as mentioned above.

When we arrived there a monk was chanting while flipping the pages of a small Buddhist canon. I appreciated his graciousness to allow me to take a video of him. I watch this over and over and never get tired of it.

Swoyambunath Stupa

Swoyambunath Stupa, Nepal

Prayer Flags (Everywhere, they’re so wonderfully colorful and alive)

Prayer Flags, Swoyambunath, Nepal

Shakyamuni Buddha

Shakyamuni Buddha, Swoyambunath, Nepal

Mani Wheels (Prayer Wheels)

As Tibetan Buddhists walk around the stupa, they twirl each mani wheel while reciting mantras, such as ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ stimulating compassion.

Mani Prayer Wheels at Swoyambunath Stupa