Burma: Buddhism in a Cave
Taking Selfies with Buddha
By James Michael Dorsey
Amidst the solemn rituals of Buddhism, still time for a few selfies in the cave
There are places that reach inside a traveler so deep that you take a piece of them with you when you leave. A part of Burma came home with me from a cave high in the mountains. Pindaya is a fly speck on a map of predominately Buddhist Myanmar/Burma.
It sits halfway between Mandalay and Inle Lake on a steep incline that terminates in a vertical granite rock face and can only be reached through a series of steep switchbacks. I had not planned on going there but had overheard a dinner conversation that described an enormous cave system in the mountains that is home to one of the holiest sites in local Theravada Buddhism. Perhaps my newly awakened karma had called me.
Theravada means, “Teaching of the Elders.” It is one of three main branches of Buddhism that originated in northern India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Southeast Asia until it was introduced to Cambodia in the 13th century via monks from Sri Lanka. Eventually it spilled over the vague borders into Myanmar where it dug in deep.
It is a personal religion that worships no deity but rather teaches self-control in order to release all attachment to the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. The intensity of its adherents has drawn me back to Southeast Asia many times.
Climbing a Mountain in a Bus
The bus coughs and wheezes as it struggles to climb the steep mountain roads. The driver downshifts often, talking to it, willing it upward, and when we reach the summit, it shudders and dies in a puff of smoke. The driver sits back and lights a cheroot; he is used to this. The road has ended in a large parking lot lined with coffin-sized vendor stalls all hawking cheap tourist trinkets and cold drinks.
“Hey Mistah, One dollar!” a man yells as he shoves a plastic Buddha in my face that I politely decline. The vendors are incredibly aggressive towards me which I attribute to my being a rare westerner and thus wealthy in their eyes.
At the end of the parking lot a ten-foot warrior is firing his bow at a twenty foot tall spider. The warrior wears a gold crown to signify his royalty. The spider has crawled down the mountain, from its lair inside the cave. Its eyes bulge and blood drips from its elongated fangs.
The statues represent an old Burmese folk tale associated with the cave but their gaudiness combined with the vendor stalls gives the place an amusement park feel. People are climbing onto the spider to have their photos taken and I am second guessing my reasons for coming.
At the base of the rock face I enter a glass and steel elevator as out of place with the locals as the spider and am shot 600 feet into the air where I step out into a different reality. There is a long walkway filled with hundreds of pairs of shoes and nuns in pink and orange robes selling spirit money for the faithful to use as offerings inside the cave. Just beyond this there is a rush of stale air coming from the enormous yawning entrance to the cave.
Pilgrims are prostrated everywhere in front of towering Buddhas, more than 8,000 statues of all sizes and shapes. Many of the faithful have forsaken the elevator to climb the dizzying stairs on hands and knees. From the entrance on I must step carefully over and around hundreds of devotees, kneeling in prayer and meditation,slowly moving from one statue to the next in a mendicant assembly line.
Dating to 1750
The oldest statues date to 1750 and many bear inscriptions from the Konbaung period, (1782-1885) the last ruling dynasty of Burma. No other religious site offers such a range of Buddhist iconography or diversity of style and ornamentation. The cave gives physical form to esoteric beliefs,but, like Buddhism itself, it is internal, hidden from the world until you enter its mysteries.
As one raised within a dogmatic faith, I have long been fascinated by Buddhism because to me “religion” has always implied a deity and Buddhism has none. Yet, the passionate fervor that I have personally come to associate with Buddhists seems based on “right action” a cornerstone of Christian belief. Nowhere is it more evident than in the masses all around me, foreheads pressed to the floor, crawling like inchworms, lost in concentrated faith to the essence these images represent. There are hundreds if not thousands of people inside the cave and yet there is no talking; only the low hum of countless mantras that sounds like an enormous swarm of bees.
The statues are staggered like seats in anarena, disappearing upward into the black vastness of the cave ceiling. The lighting is dim and dramatic, designed to accentuate the immensity of the cavern and to give an aura of mystery to the statues. A meandering maze of paths wanders for miles, leading pilgrims in all directions past one diorama after another. Some trails dead end at ancient meditation cells while one enters a massive cathedral like room where stalactites and stalagmites grope for each other like fingers entwining to pray. There is enough gold leaf inside this cavern to sink a battleship.
The Buddhas seem to turn and follow me as I pass, and in the dim light they begin to press inward, towering over me. Under the unyielding gaze of hundreds of enlightened onesI feel a great sense of self-awareness and my own insignificance in the great cosmic puzzle. I can sense such belief in the cavern that should a statue begin to walk, I would not be shocked. The low vibrating OOHMMM, essence of the universe, uttered from thousands of lips, is a palpable presence I can feel in my stomach.
My heart begins to race and I am mildly euphoric. I surrender totally to this feeling,wondering if I am succumbing to the sheer epic of the cavern, or unconsciously tapping into the religious fervor of thousands of faithful; what several spiritual writers have called the collective consciousness of mankind. My walk itself becomes a meditation, a flowing prayer, synched to the cadence of my steps. I have a sense of belonging, of being part of something larger, and a tranquility that has mostly eluded me in the past.[/caption]
A Dead End
I wander into an area with no people and turn a corner to find myself at a dead end. There, in isolated shadow, I almost stumble over a monk, the first one I have seen in the cave. He is a hermit, identified by his cone shaped leather hat, and probably lives in the cave.
He sits silently on his haunches, head bowed, prayer beads passing through his fingers. His unwashed body odor mingles with the moldiness of the cavern. He is stick thin, an empty rice bowl on the floor in front of him. He prostrates himself before a sitting Buddha, a black hole of a silhouette before a glittering gold statue, each posture mimicking the other ina perfect ying and yang.The image is stunning.
The monk occupies a separate reality, oblivious to my presence, and I am too startled to move for several seconds. This tiny space is the only spot in the cave with no other people and I feel something has drawn me to him in a way words cannot define.
I step behind him, pressed flat to the wall, making myself one more statue while taking in the moment. His low chanting physically captures me and for a few seconds I sense a metaphysical to this holy man. My consciousness seems expanded and normal simultaneously, as though I am able to observe events around me from multiple viewpoints at once.
The sensation is unnerving as I was not prepared for it and I wonder what power this monk possesses that his mere proximity has caused such a paradox within me. These are the moments I travel for, moments to which words can never pay proper homage; moments when time stops and experience imprints an image on your soul. I know I should leave but can’t make my feet move and I don’t want to disturb him. I step over the hem of his robe, trying to back away un-noticed but it is like trying to leave the determined embrace of a loved one. In my rush to flee I knock over a bowl of money and fruit offerings. The hold is broken.
The sound is muffled by the close proximity of dozens of large Buddhas but in my mind I have just upset the cosmos and probably thrown the earth off its axis to boot. I turn to see the monk, still unmoving, hearing none my irreverent clatter, when a hand touches my shoulder.
Selfies in the Cave
It’s a young monk, smiling from ear to ear. He helps me pick up the money and fruit as I wait for a cosmic lightning bolt from Nirvana to strike me for my clumsiness, but none comes. He holds up his iPhone and I realize he wants a selfie with me but I must bend in half to reach his level. The young monk races off and returns seconds later with what I assume is his family. Each produces a cell phone and all six of them take up stations around me, each handing off their phone to a stranger to take a photo while I tower over the entire group.
I feel like an extended middle finger of an enclosed hand and begin to laugh at the situation. Buddha really does have a sense of humor. This triggers a domino effect. A line of tiny people is gathering, all wanting their picture taken with this sweating western giant. Only then do I realize what an oddity I am here as cameras flash away and it does not feel right. I have unwittingly become the center of attention and must end this.
I begin to walk, shaking outstretched hands as I go, a celebrity by default. People are pointing at me and I feel far larger than my true size until I reach an upper cavern and gain my anonymity among the crowd once again. Reaching the exit I am stopped in my tracks by the stunning view of the valley below. Hundreds of mushroom-like pagodas dot the landscape, golden or white domed,that from so far away resemble Hershey’s’ Kisses. A Blue Heron flies past a billowing cumulous cloud in an image so stunningly different from the interior of the cave it brings to mind the concept of Maya, in which all the physical world is an illusion. I guess it is harder to leave the monk than I thought.
My mind is racing as I board the down elevator and I am packed hips to shoulders with a dozen Chinese tourists, all of them two feet shorter than I am and all of them craning their necks to look up at me with a wide eyed stare I have so often encountered in Asia. A single tiny hand rises from the crowd and snaps a photo of me. When the elevator door opens they push each other, pinning me to the wall, in their rush to exit. Outside,the giant warrior is still shooting an arrow at the giant spider. Several crimson robed monks, most of them not yet teenagers, strike histrionic poses and hold their upraised hands like claws while they growl and mug for the cameras.
My celebrity has been replaced by a giant plastic bug so my karma levels must be normalizing. I walk by the tourist vendors and the same man shoves a tiny Buddha into my face. This time I buy it as the perfect reminder of both the tackiness and religious fervor of this cave. It is Ying and Yang incarnate. Climbing onto the bus I sink into an empty seat and reach into my bag for a bottle of warm water, aware that I have the word “Burma” on my lips.
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James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, award winning author, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world.He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and a frequent contributor to United Airlines’ inflight magazine.