Travels with the Buddha

by Michael Gebicki, The Sun-Herald, June 15, 2005

This ancient Asian religion leads to many amazing locations, writes Michael Gebicki.

Sydney, Australia -- Peace-loving and calming, mellow and trendy, Buddhism has taken firm root in the West, especially among the glitterati. Richard Gere is the most prominent of the star Buddhists. But so are Uma Thurman and Jewish-born rapper Adam Yauch, frontman for the Beastie Boys, while Travellers & Magicians, the latest film from Bhutanese lama-auteur, Khyentse Norbu will probably do for the Land of the Thunder Dragon Bhutan what Lord Of The Rings did for New Zealand. It's also a creed full of subtlety and charm.

<< Shwedagon Paya in early morning sun, Burma.

You needn't be a follower to appreciate the morning parade of saffron-robed monks, the tinkly temple bells and the fluttering prayer flags that decorate the Himalayas. For the traveller, here are some of the highlights from the Buddhist world.

The cities

Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
In the gently rounded hills of Sri Lanka's Cultural Triangle, this is the largest and oldest of the island's ancient capitals. These days it's a sprawling complex of large tanks or reservoirs and astonishingly vast dagobas, the huge mounds of masonry that rival the pyramids in scale. Anuradhapura's remains date back to when Buddhism arrived in Sri Lanka from India in the 3rd century BC, including an ancient bo tree said to have been a gift from the Emperor Ashoka, which makes this possibly the world's oldest tree.

Angkor, Cambodia
Between the ninth and 15th centuries, the rich and sophisticated Khmer civilisation embarked on a temple-building binge. Within the moats and walls of Angkor, the city, a holy estate arose to satisfy the devotional urges of a metropolis that might have numbered a million inhabitants. During that time, the spiritual compass of the Khmer people swung from Hinduism to Buddhism, and the result is one of the two great Buddhist temple-cities of Asia. Most of these temples are in tottering states of decay, but Angkor still has plenty to stretch the legs as well as the imagination.

Bagan, Burma
On the dusty plains alongside the Irrawaddy River, this is one of the most delectable and arresting sights you'll ever see a ghost city of Buddhist temples twinkling in the sunlight, stretching their frilly spires into the heavens and gently crumbling into the brown earth. Fewer than 2200 temples and pagodas remain of the 13,000 temples and pagodas that were built between the 11th and 13th centuries, and poking about the ruins is to cast yourself into a real life version of Tomb Raider.

The art

Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma
Rising 100 metres above the outskirts of Burma's capital, the tapering spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda looks like an upside-down ice-cream cone, gilded with 8688 solid gold plates and sparkling with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Covered walkways lead to the marble-tiled platform at the top, where there are usually ceremonies being performed in little cameos to rival the shrines, sacred umbrellas, bells and statues at the top. Underpinning its importance is one of the holiest relics of Buddhism inside the stupa eight hairs of the Buddha.

Tiger's Nest Monastery, Bhutan
Clinging to a sheer cliff wall in Bhutan's remote Paro Valley, it's only natural that the Tigers Nest Monastery has become the icon for Bhutanese tourism. Destroyed by fire in 1998, the monastery was rebuilt based on photographs and other documentary sources, but it was not possible to re-create the ancient frescoes and other artworks inside. However the post-card view is all you'll get. Access is forbidden to non-Bhutanese, but the view from the guard post will leave you star-struck.

The Dunhuang Cave Temples, China
Fifteen centuries ago, at the Mingsha Shan or Dunes of the Singing Sands on the edge of the Gobi Desert, a Buddhist monk carved a meditation cell from a cliff face and decorated it with paintings. Over the next 1000 years, many more followed his example, embellishing their cells with similar paintings and other artworks. Today 492 of these decorated caves remain, filled with a superb collection of Buddhist paintings and sculptures in one of the supreme wonders of the Buddhist world.

The path

Tushita Meditation Centre, Dharamsala, India
Overshadowed by deodar forests and the soaring peaks of the Dhaula Dhar range, Tushita is about as close as you can come to the study of Mahayana Buddhism in an authentic Tibetan context. The town of Dharamsala is the centre of a large Tibetan community that includes the Dalai Lama, leader of the exiled Tibetan Government, who sometimes gives talks at the centre. Tushita has 10-day residential and shorter non-residential introduction to Buddhism courses, as well as retreats and advanced philosophy courses for experienced practitioners.
Most of the teachers are Westerners, including ex-Melburnian Thubten Lungtok, formerly David Marks.

The Root Institute, Bodhgaya, India
At one of Buddhism's holiest places, close to the spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment, the Root Institute has a long tradition of instructing Westerners. Courses are taught by Tibetan lamas or Western teachers and are suitable for beginners as well as more advanced practitioners. The core of the institute's teaching is Discovering Buddhism, a series of courses designed to give participants a solid footing in the practice of Mahayana Buddhism. The institute also teaches yoga and meditation at various times throughout the year. See

The colour

Hemis Festival, Ladakh, India, June 17-18, 2005
The green valley of the Indus River and the looming peaks of the Indian Himalayas make a spectacular backdrop for this festival at Ladakh's largest monastery, which celebrates the birthday of Guru Padmasambhava, who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Over several days, local Ladakhi villagers congregate to trade, socialise and drink fermented millet, while Buddhist lamas choreograph the stylised masked dances that form one of the dazzling highlights of the Buddhist calendar.

Buddhist New Year, April 13-15, 2006
In the Theravada Buddhist countries of Thailand, Burma and Laos, Buddhist New Year is the signal for the three-day Water Festival the world's ultimate wet T-shirt event. Anything that moves during daylight hours is asking for a drenching, and the foreigner is a favourite target. There is also a devotional side to the water festival that makes this one of the most serene and photogenic of all the annual celebrations of South-East Asia. In every temple, statues of the Buddha are reverently dribbled with water, and sacred statues are paraded around the streets by processions of monks. For the most part, temples are off-limits to the nastier aspects of the water festival, but even on hallowed ground, some of the water play is less than totally worshipful.

The walking prayer

Mount Kailash, Tibet
Erupting from the arid plateau of south-western Tibet, the blunt thumb of Mount Kailash is the Snow Jewel, a sacred pilgrimage site, home of the Tantric deity Demchog.
The object of the pilgrimage is to walk the 50-kilometre circumference of the mountain, thereby washing away all negative karma. Devout Buddhists will prostrate themselves full length around the base of the mountain, which takes two weeks to complete, and guarantees another level of absolution.
Although remote, the route to the mountain is well travelled since Kailash is also as sacred to Hindus as Mount Meru, throne of Shiva.

Adams Peak, Sri Lanka
Cloaked in a green mantle of forest and often obscured by mist, this 2243-metre peak in Sri Lanka's central massif is also known as Sri Pada, the mountain of the sacred footprint. Although Buddhists claim that the humungous footprint in the rock at the top was made by Lord Buddha, so spectacular is this thrusting rock pinnacle that it is revered by several faiths. From the town of Dalhousie, it takes four hours to climb the 3306 steps to the summit, and some 300,000 pilgrims make the climb every year. Purists aim to arrive for the sunrise.

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