Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hamilton and I each had things we wanted to do and see in Thailand but we both had a deep desire to go to Cambodia and visit Angkor Wat. When we would talk about visiting Southeast Asia it was always traveling to both Thailand and Cambodia. When he was a boy living in Thailand it was not safe to visit Cambodia. Just say “largest temple complex in the world” to me and Angkor Wat goes straight to the top of my must-visit list.

Angkor Wat is in the northern part of Cambodia next to the city of Siem Reap, just a couple of hours south of the Thai border. The largest religious monument in the world, it covers over 400 acres with with dozens of individual temples. The most important and best preserved is the temple of Angkor Wat. The temples were built starting in the early 1100’s and were active until the 1700’s. During that time it changed between Hindu and Buddhist many times depending on what king was in power but is now Buddhist.

After our bus tour we had made arrangements to go to Cambodia. It seemed like a good idea at the time just to drive down to Siem Reap as we were relatively close to the border. Well, it was a bit more complicated and challenging than we expected and included dragging our suitcases through the long and congested border gray zone and surrendering our passports to a man on a motorcycle along with bribes for visas. There were moments I was pretty sure that I was going to be featured on next season’s Lock Up Abroad.  Eventually we made it to our beautiful hotel and finished the day with a sunset boat ride on a large lake with floating villages. We flew back to Thailand a few days later—a wise decision. I love a good adventure but that border crossing was almost a bit too much adventure.

The next morning started bright and early because I wanted my first glimpse of Angkor Wat to be at sunrise. Our guide picked us up in the dark and we went and purchased our tickets and walked through the night across ancient paths and bridges to a pond with a dark silhouette of the temple on the other side. The stars were bright and Venus was hanging low with the moon. We stood with quite a large crowd waiting to see this remarkable holy site be illuminated by the morning sun. Eventually the sun peaked over the tall towers and reflected on the pond in front of us. As the temple reflection mingled with the water lilies, it almost too much to bear, with the pink, blues, purples of the flowers and morning sun illuminating this glorious shrine to the gods.

 

We walked across the bridge, through doorways, up and down steps until we reached the center of that holy place. It was still early so there was a cool breeze and the larger crowds hadn’t yet arrived. It is as awe inspiring as the great cathedrals of Europe, the monumental temples of Luxor, the crystal city of Machu Picchu and the magnificent Grand Canyon. It is a humbling expression of man’s insignificance before the Divine.

On the bottom level are four pools with four more pools on the level above. Every bit of the walls inside and out were covered with fine, detailed carvings depicting the epic stories of the Hindu gods as well as celestial dancers celebrating life. We climbed the narrow and very steep steps to the upper level to see the second set of pools and look out at the deep green countryside. Along the walls were headless Buddhas in mediation. Some had gold sashes reminding visitors that this is still a very holy place. As with all of the great temples built by our ancestors, it is breathtaking in the current expression. I can’t imagine how amazing it was with ponds full of lilies, the walls painted and the Buddhas whole.

The shrine to Buddha is back on the main level. Although Angkor Wat was mostly lost in time, for 300 years the main temple was always tended by monks so the energy never left this special place. Two monks were sitting by the shrine giving blessings to those who were ready to receive. I lit incense before the golden Buddha and then knelt in front of the monk for my blessing. First he put a pink cord on my left wrist and the took a whisk dipped in holy water and shook the water on my head as he chanted prayers.

It was hard for me to leave, I had dreamed of that morning for a long time and I didn’t want my visit to be over but it was getting warmer and we hadn’t had breakfast. So I said my good-byes knowing that I would be back. Like so many of the most holy places on earth, it is so overwhelming that I can’t take it in on the first visit. As I write this I’m listening to the music that I chose for my pilgrimage and my powerful memories entwine with the notes. I will go back.

Vishnu

Ayutthaya, Thailand

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After a few lovely days wandering Bangkok, it was time to explore the countryside of Thailand. We boarded the bus and drove out of town and into the suburban sprawl of modern civilization. Eventually we were out in the jungle and our first stop at an elephant camp where I fed the baby elephant and some of my fellow travelers took a ride through the jungle. Next on the agenda was some shopping at a floating market. Small narrow boats devoid of most safety precautions and with very sputtery engines sped us up the narrow canals to lunch and treasures for sale. I happily parted with my money for silk scarves for friends and a Buddha for my altar. After that we came to the River Kwai, made famous by the novel Bridge On The River Kwai about the labor camps during WWII. The movie of the same name won an Oscar for best picture in 1958. The river runs peacefully under a modern railroad bridge and past a very tall statue of Quan Yin. Some little girls entertained us with renditions of American tunes on their toy guitars, not quite ready for Nashville but charming none-the-less. That night we stayed in individual huts surrounded by the exotic jungle accessible only by narrow boats.

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The next day Hamilton went off with the group to explore more WWII sites while I enjoyed the pool and jungle and watched the river go by. We left the next morning by boat along the river cliffs, the morning fog made our ride very beautiful and it really felt like a land far from home.

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The next major stop was Ayutthaya, the former capital of Thailand from 1350-1767. It was eventually raided by the Burmese and the Thai government fled to what is now Bangkok. For hundreds of years the temples fell into the hands of time and nature until it became a World Heritage Site. It is this combination of former glories and decay than make it so beautiful to me.

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That perfect day in Thailand we visited 3 temples. The first one, Wat Cahi Watthanaram, has a beautiful central prang or tower surrounded by 4 smaller towers. All along the walls were Buddhas, not the shinning gold ones of Bangkok, but Buddhas that had been ravished by time and vandals. Two beautiful Buddhas are on tall pedestals were whole and serene. I stood and breathed in the history and elegant architecture of this place that has stood for 400 years.

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After lunch the next stop is probably the most famous of the Ayutthaya temples, Wat Mahathat, where there is the Buddha in a banyan tree. As nature took over the abandoned land, one serene image was entwined in nature and became even more beautiful. Even in neglect the peacefulness shines. I wandered around the site listening to chants on my ipod and admiring each Buddha in its own experience of decay. Some of the Buddhas were just feet or maybe even legs and a hand and occasionally a whole Buddha. But no matter what the current condition, each is honored.

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The third temple on our visit was Wat Si Sanphet, considered the most important of the temples. Three restored stupas stand in the center and are the models for the later temples built in Bangkok. I walked around and admired each stupa individually and then as a group. The deep, blue sky was the perfect backdrop to these markers of sacred space. I was hot by the time we finished and I was happy to climb back on the cool bus to the hotel for the night. But each temple, and there were many more we missed, was a special experience, each with a distinct style and purpose but all the temples working in harmony to honor the enlightened path of Buddha.

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Golden Buddhas

Grand Palace

On our trip to Bangkok, Hamilton was in search of his past and I was in search of the Buddha. I live in a part of the country that is dominated by fundamentalist Christianity and there is little of Buddhism. The idea of being in a country where the Buddha is everywhere and in all things was so very thrilling to my heart. I was going to a land that honored the path of enlightenment, something most Americans haven’t even heard of.

There are over 400 temples in Bangkok and I knew better than to want to see them all but I had a list of some of the most important ones that were accessible from the central part of Bangkok. In the last post I talked about Wat Pho with the enormous reclining Buddha. The next stop on our tour was the Grand Palace, home to the Emerald Buddha.

The king of Thailand died last October after 70 year on the throne—history’s longest reigning monarch. Thailand is currently in a yearlong mourning and everywhere you go and on every street corner is a shrine to the king. The streets are lined with gray and black bunting. The Grand Palace is the ceremonial and administration center of Thailand but it is also holds the spiritual icon of the land, the Emerald Buddha. Everyday of this year of mourning up to 20,000 Thais, all dressed in formal black clothes, come to the Palace to pay their respects to the king. Many wear a rhinestone pin of the number 9 in Thai for Rama IX their deceased king.

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The palace grounds are extensive and there are many beautiful buildings and statues, some Thai but also some with the influence of western architecture. In the ubusot, the most holy building, built by Rama I in 1782, the Emerald Buddha sits high on a golden alter. It is 19 inch wide and 26 inches tall and made of jasper. Three times a year the king comes and changes the clothes on this Buddha depending on the season. This Buddha represents the heart and soul of the country. As in all Buddhist temples, I took off my shoes and quietly entered this holy place. Pictures are not allowed and there was a special place in front for the Thais to kneel; visitors had a different spot. It was crowded and the Buddha seemed distant and small on his golden throne. I just stood quietly and was grateful for the opportunity to be at this special place.

The last two days in Thailand were not with a tour group. Instead we had a driver to take us to see the places Hamilton lived and loved as a boy. We saw the hospital where his father worked and the compound where they lived, he was even able to find the old apartments and we were invited in to see one of them—it hadn’t changed in 50 years. We went to the snake farm to see the king cobras be milked for their venom. Needless to say these were angry snakes and it took four men to control them, but it was a place he loved to visit as a boy—definitely a boy thing

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It was my turn to choose our next stops and of course I was in search of golden Buddhas and I wasn’t disappointed for on the edge of Chinatown is Wat Traimit and the ultimate golden Buddha, 5.5 tons of solid gold serenity. We climbed up several flights of steps to the top of the temple where this most valuable sacred object in the world resides. It wasn’t until 1955 that a large plaster Buddha was dropped while moving and a crack revealed the true nature of this Buddha. It had been hidden from thieves for centuries.

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We also visited Wat Benchamabophit, the marble temple. In the court yard surrounding the ubusot are 52 Buddhas showing different positions and historic styles.

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The next day we went to the Golden Mount, the highest point in Bangkok and neighboring temple, Wat Saket. The Golden Mount was made from the dirt dug from the canals and had winding stairs to the top where a stupa is said to hold some of the ashes of the Buddha. A monk chanted blessings over a loud speaker and there were the usual lotus and incense for sale to use as offerings. I rang a series of temple bells as I made my way to the top. In Wat Saket there is a 30 foot tall golden walking Buddha. Around the edges of the temple were clips holding ribbons of money. I realized that they were for upcoming Chinese New Year so I stapled my 20 Bhat note to the ribbon under the sign of the dragon—my sign—I’m pretty sure this will bring me good luck –-figured it couldn’t hurt.

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On to my final golden temple, Wat Suthat, we were getting to the less touristy temples so were the only westerners wandering the grounds. Two temples with magnificently painted walls were an oasis in the busy city. The high walls and ceilings were covered with stories and scenes of the Buddha’s life; it was like the Sistine Chapel of Thailand. In the second temple the monks were setting up chairs for a ceremony. I was sorry to be leaving the next day but so grateful for my journey to the land of the golden Buddha. For my last temple I made a donation for a lotus. I wanted this to me my last act of this sacred journey. I placed the lotus on the alter outside the temple and thanked the Buddha for his serene and holy presence.

Wat Suthat

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Bangkok, Thailand

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When Hamilton was a little boy, his parents were missionaries in Bangkok, Thailand. His father helped set up a radiology department in a mission hospital. The family lived on a compound behind the hospital. The three or so years they lived in Thailand in the early 1960’s were some of their fondest family memories. Life was easy and simple on the compound with lots of friends and freedom to explore. They came home with many treasures and our house still has the influence of those halcyon days with the many artifacts of an exotic culture far from Tennessee. Hamilton was old enough to remember so much of life in Bangkok and always wanted to go back and see the country that made his family so happy and really informed the rest of their lives. This January, Hamilton and I had the opportunity to make that pilgrimage to remember that life-changing experience. His father has passed away and his mother can no longer remember but that family experience over 50 years ago still remains such an important part of their legacy. I was very happy to go to Thailand, I have never been to Asia and I wanted to relive those memories with Hamilton and make new memories for the two of us and I wanted to visit the great golden temples of this magical land.

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Thailand is a Buddhist country and less then 5% of the population practice other religions. Let me tell you the Buddha is everywhere and infuses every aspect of the culture. They practice Theravada Buddhism which is the dominate branch of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Thais are a happy, easy-going people who live their Buddhist ideals: gentleness, compassion and kindness.

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I have studied Buddhism for many years and have incorporated these principles and values in my life but the main Buddhism in the United States is Tibetan or Zen and so I was unfamiliar with Theravada. And as much as I love and venerate the Buddha, I will be the first to admit I don’t know the rituals or the traditional words but I do know my honor and respect for the Buddha is enough for it is in my heart that deep devotion lies.

We started our visit to Thailand with a traditional tour, I wanted to ease into Asia with lots of hand-holding from a guide and a bus. This was an easy and economical way to get started and then the last few days of our trip we had the confidence to be on our own to see extra things of interest to both of us.

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Our first stop was Wat (temple) Pho the oldest temple in Bangkok. This is one of the most visited of the nearly 400 temples in Bangkok and is the home to the 150 foot long and 45 foot high reclining Buddha. The large building is just big enough for this Buddha. The reclining Buddha represents the Buddha just before death and is connected with Tuesday. So if you are born on a Tuesday, this is your Buddha which makes it my Buddha. This first Buddha of the trip took my breath away and remains my favorite. The Buddha is laying on his side with his eyes half closed and is serene and ready for death and entry into Nirvana. I slowly walked along the long body to the feet. On the bottoms of his feet are pearl inlays depicting 108 auspicious symbols of the Buddha. Along his back is a place to buy small coins and along the wall are 108 bronze bowls. I quickly figured out that those coins went into the bowls as a blessing for good fortune and to help maintain the temple. I walked along dropping a coin in each bowl, grateful for this opportunity to come to the land where the Buddha is honored for his enlightenment.

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This large temple complex was an early university, teaching science and medicine and had a massage school. There is still a building with drawings used to teach this healing art that is such a part of Thai culture.

The holiest prayer room at the temple is call the ubosot and at Wat Pho a beautiful gold meditating Buddha sits high on an alter. Several monks came in and were taking selfies with their iphones. It made me feel less like a tourist that even the monks were taking pictures before settling down to meditate.

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It was a beautiful day and I was so happy and grateful for the opportunity to visit this enchanting country. That afternoon I took a long and deep nap, exhausted from our long flights but full of dreams of the land of the golden Buddhas.

Cairns

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Rocks are an integral part of spiritual life. They represent the solid, eternal part of our world as ancient bearers of knowledge and time and the very ground we walk on. Scientists use rocks to date and study earth’s history. Industry uses microscopic pieces of silicone-rock to run the technology of the modern world. Egyptians and Sumerians wrote in stone so we still have their wisdom. The Druids used stone circles as ceremonial sites and observatories. The Incas built magnificent stone cities that have withstood the ravishes of invasions and earthquakes. We worship in stone cathedrals and walk up stone mountains. The combination of rock and water give us magnificent waterfalls. We wear precious stones. We skip them for pleasure and throw them in anger. We use them to mark our path.

Through out history people have been using rocks to show the way, to mark the next turn and to memorialize our world. Cairn is a Gaelic word for pile of stones. These man-made piles of rock have been traditionally used as waymarkers. In the desert, a stack of rocks are used to mark a trail. Cairns have also have been used as memorials such as on graves. When I was walking the Camino, one of the highlights for the journey was the Cruz de Ferro, a giant cross surrounded by an enormous cairn made out of rocks brought by pilgrims to memorialize the burdens they carry and then release. I, too, brought rocks from home for this deeply personal moment.

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But let’s get even more personal. What can a cairn bring to your life? What can they mark or memorialize? We all need to take the time to see where we have been and where we want to go. During this traditionally reflective time of year take a moment to remember of the sad parts of your life so you can move on. A cairn can also be a beacon before you showing you the next step on your journey. This isn’t a big road map with everything set out but a small reminder that you are going in the right direction.

A friend of mine went to the woods on December 31 as a deeply personal experience to lay to rest a very sad year. During the walk she took time to build three cairns. Lovingly and carefully balancing rocks became a meditation and a physical manifestation of renewed balance in her life in the year to come. These personal cairns symbolize the precarious and ephemeral nature of life on earth because they are so easily knocked over but in this precarious balance is the strength and eternalness of stone.

As physical beings in a physical world, the act of building a cairn reflects the transient but yet eternal nature of our soul’s journey. Mountains, boulders, rocks, stones, pebbles, sand……

Rocks and water are words of God, and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love.—-John Muir

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All photos by D Beals  www.davidbealsphotography.com

Graduation

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A couple of years ago I wrote about my Caroline and her unique journey through life. Last week we had the big day, one we had both anticipated for a long time—graduation. You will have to forgive me as my parental ego goes a little out of control for a moment. It was a happy day for it meant a culmination of years of hard, challenging work. Caroline’s time in school is like an epic quest, the heroine’s journey.

My other daughter Alexandra, by contrast. had perfect college career. If her time in college was like a journey, it could be characterized as a gentle sail around the Caribbean. She had her trip planned perfectly and she sailed from island to island gaining experiences and friends. She had blissful summers in Europe, perfect internships in LA and NYC and gently sailed into harbor of graduation on time with her dream job awaiting her. She worked hard and made the most of every minute of her education—-ahh, bliss.

Caroline’s college career would be like an early circumnavigation of the globe. Nobody quite knew where she was going or if she would fall off the edge of the world. First she spent some years in the small seas getting her bearings as a wandering art student in a community college. She then decided she was ready for open ocean at the University of Tennessee. There, she was met with the greater challenges of a large university, rough waves and sea monsters around every corner; she had a lot to navigate. Then she got caught in a doozy of a storm (literally) and changed course choosing the hardest route possible, math and physics. She had the piece of paper saying she was smart enough but would she have the emotional stamina to conquer years of difficult classes? She hung in there through thick and thin, around and through classes with names us mere mortals can’t even pronounce, much less read the text books in an alien language. Each challenge made her more passionate about math and science and more determined to make it to home port with the golden sheepskin. Even the last few months, the sharp coral reefs of lost friends and beloved professor threatened to sink her ship but she stayed strong and made it into the harbor victorious. She arrived battered and beaten but had discovered new worlds and her life was forever changed.

So what is next for my brave explorer? Well, as usual she is charting her own course through life. She is combining her love of math, science and art into one unique and delightful path. Caroline is creating works of art out of math functions to display the beauty of the language of our Universe. Stay tuned for new discoveries of previously unknown universes. She shares a birthday with Galileo, how fitting.

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within.—-   Galileo Galilei

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PhysCon 2016

Questions

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It all started with a question. How will I feed my reading addiction when I’m walking the Camino? I could only carry about 17 pounds so a couple of books would make me way over the weight limit. Some people even suggested that there wouldn’t be time to read but they had no idea of the extent of my problem. I can get the shakes if I go more than few hours without reading. So, I bought a Kindle. Up until then I preferred books and fed my addiction at the used bookstore and with penny books on Amazon.

I took to my new electronic reader right away which is surprising because I’m actually what is termed a “slow adapter”, which mostly means I’m too frugal to buy new technology until the price comes down. Nothing wrong with old technology, in my world, the main source of entertainment here on the farm is sitting around a fire drinking coffee.

I looked around to find books to put on my new-fangled device that would be pilgrimage appropriate. I’m not much of a novel reader—can’t keep characters straight. I didn’t want anything densely philosophical or overly religious. I needed something to gently ground me after a long day’s walk, so Buddhism fit the requirements perfectly. I like the gentleness and simplicity of modern Zen writing and it was a good way to balance life on a Christian pilgrimage.

I decided to read Paradise in Plain Sight by Karen Maezen Miller. I had read Hand Wash Cold and liked her style of writing. Karen is a Zen Buddhist priest living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It looked like a good fit and someone I could relate too; mother, American, Buddhist, gardener. I downloaded the book and a couple of others on yoga two days before I flew to Spain hoping that would sustain me on my walk.

Everyday after our long walk and a hot shower Alexandra would take a nap and I would find some place to read because if I napped I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. Each day I would read the next chapter in Paradise in Plain Sight. I always like to savor books like this and just read one chapter a day. Every chapter is centered around a part of Karen’s Zen garden that she was lovingly restoring to its original beauty after many years of neglect. It was a big project to take on but Karen knew she was the next caretaker for this special little paradise.

Each day I enjoyed learning something new about the garden and Zen. It was the perfect way to unwind after our daily 12 mile walk. That was until chapter 16, Weeds. Then everything changed. There was one tiny sentence that changed the entire perspective of my pilgrimage:

In Zen, we don’t find the answers: we lose the questions.

What?!? The whole point of the walk was to work through any lingering problems, sort through old memories, make future goals and generally come out of the experience full of ambition, accomplishment and deep personal insight. It seems that Zen had just turned that upside down and inside out. I put aside my western mind and moved into a wonderfully Zen place. In that moment I lost the questions.

The next three weeks of the journey took on a new light. Each day was just a walk in the world in great joy. I was freed from trying to figure life out and instead I was left the with the incredible lightness of being. Don’t tell anyone but I wrote the saying on a rock in hope that another pilgrim would also lose the need to find answers.

I am deeply changed by my walk, not in a dramatic “change everything about my life” type of change but a quiet, gentle way of seeing the world. I don’t need to have things figured out or know why things happen or what the future will be. All these questions will figure themselves out in time. My work is to be in this world and breath in life. I can definitely do that.