Golden Rock Meditations, Kyaiktiyo Myanmar

Published in Temple

I took the first day at Camp Kinpun with ease while awaiting the pilgrimage up the mountain to the the Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock. I arrived at 4pm, check into a nearby hotel, and so I wander aimlessly through the town. They call it a camp because it's a small village made with straw huts, nat temples, small shops, etc; although, it isn't meant to be a permanent establishment but serve the purposes of pilgrims.  There are several people selling Myanmar "sandalwood" which is actually thanaka. The wood is beautiful smelling so I buy a mala and a few blocks of it. There are also vendors selling foods, bamboo toy guns with a clever crank handle. The "candy stores" were incredible, selling dried fruits, many of which were candied;  durian paste, dates, marion berries, and coconut candies. There is a nice amount of commercialization for local crafts and clothes near the rock. I decide to buy some candles and incense to offer to the golden rock, which costs me about 0.50c.

The next morning, I woke up at sunrise and the Burmese foods in my stomach sat heavily. The cooking here uses a lot of oil, and even salads are covered with oil; pennywort salad, fermented tea leaf salad, and vegetable fried rice. I noticed it immediately, but  I didn't want it to hold me back from the early morning rise I was anticipating. The bus station is full of ready pilgrims at 5:30am. It seems that I'm rather late, as the platforms have all completely filled up of people wanting to get to the rock early. Apparently, there already was a run of shuttles around 4:30am. When the trucks do arrive to the platforms they instantly fill up with people. I get invited a seat in the front of one of the trucks by a nice lady; although, sitting in the back would have been cheaper and allowed a better view of the area and the sunrise.  After I arrived to Golden Rock I climbed the steps towards the top, and looked out over the view of the countryside which is vast hills covered with golden pagodas. With a large horde of people I walk to get to the main area of the Golden Rock. There are other options such as a hand raised palanquin where two men will carry you up the stairs. Once there the colorful Burmese music including gongs, drums, and xylophones, is blaring from the sound system. The music creates a carnival atmosphere where I'd expect everyone to be dancing.  Families wearing traditional clothes elatedly wander the grounds. 


The moment I approach the Golden rock, there are informational signs about the story of the rock, and I feel so alienated as a foreigner here. I had huge self doubt and insecurity about coming here, and what I was doing there at "their" spiritual place. Would I feel some connection to this place? I try to think of how the rock (a representation of an ascetics head hanging on the edge of the cliff by a thread of Buddha's hair) is significant to me, but no thinking would help me rationalize the trip. The second thing I think is, why are only men allowed to put gold leaf on the rock. I become annoyed and go and sit where the women are praying, and think of how I can be more connected here despite the obvious hierarchy that men are somehow able to be closer to God because they are men. I find it strange that in most respects Myanmmar women enjoy equality where they own property and can hold any job they choose. Even female babies are as celebrated and equally as educated as the sons. Although for some reason men have a special potential to become a Buddha, whereas women do not have this ability. I find a few places to simply observe and watch the other pilgrims make their offerings so I can find out what kind of offerings the Golden Rock prefers.


I have been doing meditation at home staring  at candles. I take the candles and incense over to the rock and begin the offerings. A gust of wind picked up all the small pieces of paper felt over from the gold leaf and blew them into a little tornado.  At first, I thought to do prostrations, bowing to the rock, but I simply wind up in a yoga baby pose. I came here to make the offerings at 11 or 12 when the sun was hottest in the sky. The Golden rock is brightly glowing. After having some water I light the candles.  Having woken up at 5am to catch the shuttle, the weight of my body and head sank down into the earth. It cleansed so much energy to rest there doing meditation. My process started to clarify my purpose for arrival. In my meditation, a golden light filled my mind, and I was dwarfed by the potency of the Golden rock. At times, I felt like a spirit was trapped inside or that it needed cosmic craniosacral therapy to release it's position, lol. The face of the rock revealed itself, a shifting face within the rock morphing and playing with me. I think of the ascetic whose head is on the mountain keeping Lord Buddha's hair teetering on the edge. What is the hair? The balance? The void between falling and not falling? Suffering and happiness? The earth based Buddhist culture at the Golden rock is interesting. It's not a Buddha statue, or a temple; it's a huge rock covered in gold that represents an ascetics head.   


I decide to have lunch and head back to camp. I enjoy three different types of salad; medicine salad, fermented tea leaf salad, regular salad, along with an avocado smoothie. I traveled down a trail thinking it was the way to Kinpun camp where my hotel was, or maybe to a cave nearby. Then, it went downhill to more pagodas, which were mostly nat temples, I.e. Temples for worship of a set of 37 animistic Gods that are worshipped in Myanmar.  The medicine stands were selling their home made medicine oil, which I used to massage my legs wth. Unfortunately, several of these stands had illegal wildlife parts, tigers, elephants, woods, hornbills, eagles. On accident, by not knowing where I was going I ended up continuing down the mountain to the valley. It was dark jungle, silent. The perfect contrast and balance to the golden morning I had. Then, not knowing how far off I had gone I realized my mistake and soaked in the dark energy of the solitude of the valley only to climb the mountain back up again. I climbed as quickly as possible to get back in time to catch the shuttle to camp. 




Zhangye Buddhist Temple: The Birth of Kublai Khan

Published in China

Zhangye, at first glance is an average Chinese city in Gansu province filled with clothing shops, and few restaurants, or cafes. After walking around here I was curious if there was anything other than consumer culture going on here.  I came here to work with a team of natural resources professionals in China for a snow leopard conservation meeting.  When two of the ladies on the research team I work with told me about a monastery, in my mind I thought of a Buddhist nunnery, and was expecting some old fashioned, boring place. My imagination is very vivid, but when they said monastery I thought of an actual dusty, old, and boring Buddhist complex filled with elderly monks and nuns. 

Apparently they had not been inside yet. Inevitably, what I had come to find was even older temple, the Zhangye Buddha temple, exists there, which was initiated in 1098 and originally called the Kasyapa Tathagata Temple. It holds the largest indoor clay sculpted sleeping Buddha with a wood core in Asia.  Within the main part of the city is the birthplace of Kublia Khan (1215-1294), founder of the Yuan dynasty. This Buddha statue is Sakyamui Buddha, There are over 10,000 cultural relics within several museums on site, and most protected site of the Hsi Hsia Imperial family.

Kublai’s mother Sorghaghtani Beki, who birthed Kublai Khan at the Sleeping Buddha temple, was also a prominent figure in the 13th century, and was a renowned woman of the Mongols. She herself was a Nestorian Christian, but she taught and patronized a variety of foreign religions.  Kublai Khan also was known to assist the Christians and support Muslims, as well as give philosophical discourse on the variety of religions. 

In The Travels of Marco Polo, there is an extensive section on Kublai Khan, who Marco Polo met in 1298, when Kublai Khan was 85 years old, and had served as the emperor of China there for 42 years.   At that time, he was the first non-Chinese Emperor to conquer all of China. He glorifies Kublai as “great Khan of Tartars”, “lord of lords,” and fully describes a civil war with his uncle Nayan Khan, who was a Nestorian Christian. Nayan lost this battle, and Marco Polo describes Kublai Khan’s appreciation of the Christian faith, by ordering Christians to attend him with the four gospels, perfuming it with incense, and ordering the nobels present to do the same. He practiced this during Christmas and Easter. He honored four great prophets, the Christ, Mohammed, Moses, and Sogomombar Khan.  Marco Polo describes his behavior towards the Christians “that he believed their faith to be the best and truest” Although not proclaiming himself to be a Christian he wrote a letter to the Pope in which he contrasts the idolaters and Christians, giving his interpretation of if he was converted to be a Christian or an idolater what would people say. The Tartars at this time were Mongol and Turkic elements, worshipping tablets and various earth gods. 




Muslim Shrines in Linxia, Gansu

Published in Temple

I read somewhere that some of the best trips happen by accident. Linxia was like that for me, and I had discovered it while on a trip with my university professor, Dr. Kun Shi, who is a wild cat researcher here in China. He wanted me to see more of China, and Gansu, China was definitely not on my list of vacation destinations, at least, not for January.  Linxia simply happened to be on the way to another destination I was visiting after I had finished travelling and working with him. Southern Gansu became very interesting to me because of Linxia. It's in between the capital of Gansu and the currently largest Tibetan Buddhist Monestary in China.  I had known that towards the border of Qinghai there was one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monestaries in China, but I didn’t know that 2 hours away from that monestary was one of the more historical religious places to the Hui Chinese, who are traditionally Muslim, and is particularly Sufi Muslim. 

I went to the provincial museum for Gansu the previous week, and although they talk about the silk road, Buddhist culture, dinosaurs, and Neolithic culture there weren't any artifacts or exhibits dedicated to Muslims in Gansu. There are over 10 distinct ethnic Muslim groups in this part of China.  The Hui Chinese are an ethnic minority in China, and they have a population of nearly 10 million people dispersed throughout China. They have been recognized as being Hui because they are descendants of foreign Muslims from the Middle east, although they speak Chinese and not Turkic languages ( like the Uyghurs). Linxia has many Hui Chinese, but they perhaps aren't as recognized because the adacent region Ningxia Hui Autonomous region broke away from Gansu province and became it's own region dedicated to the Hui Chinese, which are one of 56 nationally recognized nationalities. 

Linxia city is the center for the Qadiriyyah and Kufiyya Sufi orders, and within the city there are over 100 mosques, which in the past were educational centers for saints bringing doctrines from the Middle East. On the bus towards Linxia, I saw many more mosques that are part of the district, which numbers over 1000 mosques. This area is an object for pilgrimage by foreign Muslims, as well as urban Hui in China who wish to explore a historic Sufi area, which holds institutions from the late 17th century, as well as several sacred tombs. These places pivitol to the Sufi reform movement of the 16th century are dedicated to Sufi masters, called menhuan which can be translated as “saintly lineages” or Chinese Sufi sects. This wave of Sufi culture revitalized an already growing Muslim population in China, which began in the Tang dynasty near 619 AD.

I got off the bus at around 11am after a relatively smooth ride from Lanzhou, with no wait time because a bus leaves every 30 minutes. At the bus station, I feel slightly awkward simply walking away from the bus, as if there’s more to be said or done there. Nonetheless, I depart, surrounded by strangers carrying their knap sacks and holding babies. At the entrance of the station and above the city on the mountain I can see a large Taoist temple with some kind of vertical pagoda. I’m tempted to go there immediately to see the view of the city, but instead start walking down the street. I reach a Muslim restaurant, which like most of these restaurants, serve beef noodles for lunch. Muslim noodle restaurants are characteristic in most cities in Gansu, with mostly young men wearing their traditional white muslim hats working inside.

I hop in a taxi and the driver asks me where I’m going. 

“qingzhen si (清真词) I reply, which is Chinese for Islamic temple. The direct meaning on qingzhen is pure and true Islam. They use the words qingzhen on their restaurants and stores as well. Its kind of like the Chinese version of Halal for the Hui, and they use this word as a reinforcement of their religious habits, diet, and customs. Whether qing zhen si should be regarded as a potent symbol, a handy catch prase, evidence of Hui identity, or a manifestation of a power that really exists, I cannot say. 

In Chinese, the driver asks which one, and I tell him I want to see the oldest and most favorite qingzhen si. I also ask him to show me a reasonable hotel for the night. I get driven around on a short tour in front of the yu baba shrine, and then dropped off in a neighborhood with a few hotels. He smokes in the cab, which is typical of most drivers, although he’s so friendly that it doesn’t bother me. 

Unfortunately, I’m in the wrong place because only certain hotels in China are permitted to cater to foreigners, and the one he's dropped me off at doesn't cater to foreigners. A woman with her baby notices me looking lost and perplexed in front of the hotel and begins to ask me where I’m going etc. I tell her I’m looking for a hotel. Many Chinese muslim women have a way of dressing with sparkling accessories, and are usually adorned with rhinestones, sequence, flowers, or necklaces worn on their heads over their traditional headdress. I noticed on her she has tight black pants with a silver metal tiger embedded. Her hat is dull peach color adorned with red flowers and sequence. She takes me over to her mother who has recently killed some chickens and has set them out on a table and is picking off the rest of the remaining few feathers. Then she gets ahold of her brother on the phone who speaks fluent English.  Across the street there’s a fur vendor who has animal fur vests hanging on the wall. Nearby there are several carpet makers.  I can’t find a hotel yet, but this lady is being so nice she even offered me a place to stay at her house after another hotel turned me down for being a foreigner. Although I'm intrigued by her and her family, I decide to find my own place to stay and wind up staying at Hehai Mansion, which does cater to foreigners and is slightly upscale with rooms for 200 yuan a night. I don't expect to find a cheaper room, and in hindsight, staying with that funny lady would have been more enjoyable. Next time, I would probably take the offer. 

I finally get to exploring the nearby mosques and shrines. At the Yu Baba Shrine one of the caretakers is sweeping the stone walkway. The gongbei complexes are shrines for the Sufi master. They include a grave topped with a dome. I found an interesting article online “Muslim Tombs and Ethnic Folklore: Charters for Hui Identity” which was interesting and gave an in depth perspective on the Muslim culture, especially on the tomb culture,  which visiting this place alone could not provide for me. There are many significant tombs in Linxia which the Hui people worship, and make pilgrimage to. They worship tombs, and also pray in graveyards, which is not typical of Muslim mosque culture, nor Chinese. The Qadariyya in China was established in China by a twenty-ninth generation descendant of Muhammad, Khoja Abd Alla, and he would come to Linxia periodically to preach.   This path became firmly rooted in China by one of his disciples, Qi Jingyi, who is buried at Da gongbei. The most influential Kufiyya menhua, the Huasi branch is surrounding the tomb of Ma Laichi, who studied extensively in Yemen at Naqshbandi hostels.  No where in the shrines do I see old framed photographs as rememberance of these saints, but what I did find was several stone carved dioramas with tiny people etched into the stone. They are perched in classical Chinese style on mountains, or fishing in lakes, often reclining and relaxed like a Tao or Zen art. 

These Chinese Muslim places are adorned with wood and stone carvings, large pieces of rock, and other tao elements as decoration. They create tablets like the Taoist, and add Islamic writing on the top. The building are decorated and painted like a traditional Chinese temple or park, with teapots, lotuses, grapes, and animals create ornamentation.  Arabic script and symbols are found on doorways in place of Chinese characters. There are large prayer halls with chinese rugs with chinese scripts, and large stones on their prayer altars. They make their own incense which is sometimes thicker than my fingers. I look inside of their prayer books and they are Arabic and Chinese. At some of the mosques they are reciting and chanting together, and there is hardly a Chinese accent. The Hui Chinese also incorporate confucism, Daoism, and Buddhist folk rituals into their practices and lifestyles. I go from taxi to taxi asking to see their most favorite and oldest qingzhen si's. I'm taken down backroads and through alleys to see various gongbei.   

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