Sacred Fig

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A recent re-reading of Richard Mabey on the ancient and revered Fortingall Yew in Scotland put me in mind of other trees with a well-documented spiritual connection. Such a tree is the sacred fig (Ficus religiosa) or bodhi tree in whose ample shade Gautama Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment whilst meditating. The site of this sacred tree is in present-day Bodh Gaya in Bihar state in India. The original tree is said to have been destroyed but a branch of it was taken by Emperor Ashoka to Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka in 288BC. A cutting from this descendant tree was later returned to Bodh Gaya thus ensuring that the tree that stands at the Mahabodhi temple complex is, in theory, a clone of the original – a tree historically if not genetically predisposed to spiritual enlightenment.

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I visited Bodh Gaya in early 2008, breaking my journey from Varanasi to Kolkata by way of a detour via Patna and Gaya to spend a couple of nights in the pilgrimage town. Venerated as the most holy place in Buddhism, Bodh Gaya is less a town, more an extended religious complex with temples and monasteries belonging to all manner of Buddhist traditions. Bodh Gaya lies close to the poor, crowded city of Gaya, a scooter-taxi ride through dusty farmland in one of India’s most poverty stricken and politically corrupt provinces. The weather was dank and drizzly, although this being India it was still unremittingly hot and humid; the sky was grey-white without feature, drained of colour, which is something that can rarely be said about India in general. Spoiled for choice for accommodation, I lodged in a friendly Tibetan establishment where I was served hearty dumplings and beer with the meals – as befits a people living on a high arid plateau, Tibetan Buddhists have a tolerant and pragmatic outlook on life.

Buddhists from all over the subcontinent thronged the streets and thoroughfares that linked the town’s numerous temples, and I encountered Burmese, Tibetan and Nepalese pilgrims as well as Ladakhis and mountain folk from all over the Himalayan region. The pervading atmosphere was undoubtedly one of gleeful joy, with excitement and piety shown in equal measure. For many of the visitors, poor farmers from isolated mountain villages, this pilgrimage would probably the only journey in their lives that would take them so far away from home. It must have felt much the same in medieval Europe when adventurous folk made long arduous journeys to Rome, Santiago or Canterbury.

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I am no Buddhist but nevertheless I paid my respects to a wide variety of the town’s temples, driven more by curiosity and cultural interest than any sort of spiritual craving. I was particularly interested in the ancient sacred fig that grew at the Mahabodhi temple and so joined the cheerful crowd that repeatedly circumambulated the temple. The route followed a walkway that passed beneath the boughs of the sacred sprawling tree on each circuit. The sacred fig tree, many branched and mature, was protected behind a stone wall along which many saffron shawls had been draped to signal the tree’s sanctity. Such physical confinement seems a characteristic of venerated ancient trees – Mabey had complained in his piece of the Fortingall Yew being disappointingly inaccessible, and even at home here in Norfolk the 900-year-old Hethel Old Thorn, the subject of an earlier blog post, is surrounded by a solid wooden fence fence.

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After a few clockwise revolutions around the temple I noticed a small group of Himachali pilgrims on their hands and knees on the paving beneath the tree. I saw that they were gathering some of the tiny figs that had fallen from the tree. No larger than blackcurrants, I wondered what they would do with the fruits – eat them or make some sort of spiritually charged cordial? – but apparently they would be used to create prayer beads. I gathered a small handful myself and over the next few days dried them out on tissue on the window ledge of wherever I was staying.

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Back home a couple of months later I tried my hand at germinating the fig seed I had gathered in India. I planted dozens of the miniscule seeds in potting compost and within a few weeks had half a dozen or so plants. Four of these survived the re-potting process and of these I kept three and gave one to my friend Karin who had expressed an interest in what I had done. One of my plants, clearly the runt of the litter, did not last long but the other two have grown slowly over the years to become decent-sized pot plants.

Nine years later the figs still grace the windowsill of my kitchen – the diffused light and the humidity seems to suit them reasonably well although scale insect is a perennial problem and I have to swab them with diluted washing-up liquid to keep the sap-sucking insects under control. Karin keeps her plant in her living room and it is now larger than either of mine, with larger, if fewer, leaves. Undaunted, I like to think that my little fig trees still have a touch more wildness about them, a little more ecological integrity. A stone temple in a warm sub-tropical climate is, of course, better suited to their natural requirements – they naturally desire to clamber over stone, to bake in stultifying heat, be seasonally soaked in monsoon rain. But they are, after all, strangler figs by nature – forest dwellers that germinate on the wood of other trees before eventually taking over their host — and even a Buddhist temple in India is not the species’ ideal habitat let alone a windowsill in northwest Europe. Whether either of these direct descendants of Buddha’s sacred tree will ever grow large enough for me to be able to sit and meditate beneath is unlikely but I like to think that their presence adds a little oriental wisdom to whatever I get up to in the kitchen.

In the event of my ever moving home – not something that is even vaguely on the horizon right now – I will be looking for a place with some sort of conservatory. It will probably be the plants that dictate such a move, rather than any motive of down-sizing or considerations whether or not I can still negotiate stairs in my dotage. In the meantime I will keep on re-potting and squishing scale insects. Enlightenment is mine for the taking but I must be patient.

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Kumano Kodō, Japan

downloadMy feature on walking part of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail in Japan will be published in a few days time in Elsewhere journal. Elsewhere is a Berlin-based print journal, published twice a year, dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination.

I was delighted to have a short piece on Tamchy, Kyrgyzstan published in the second issue and am now even more pleased to have a longer essay on the Kumano Kodō route in Honshū, Japan in the third.

The third edition also has features on Yangon, Myanmar by Alex Cochrane; Swedish Lapland by Saskia Vogel; Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada by Knut Tjensvoll Kirching; Belfast, Ireland by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh; Faversham Creek, England by Caroline Millar, and Berlin and Trieste, Italy by editor Paul Scraton.  The features and articles are accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Julia Stone, who also did the cover that shows the cedar forest through which much of the Kumano Kodō route passes.

Here is a very brief taster of my feature (the photos here on the blog below are not included in Elsewhere) :

“The temple here is considered to be the sacred centre of all the Kumano Kodō routes. The large fluttering banners that flank its entrance bear the temple’s distinctive emblem, the yatagarasu, a supernatural figure in the form of a three-footed crow with raised wings.”

To read the article you can buy the issue or even better a subscription to the journal.

You can follow Elsewhere Journal on its website, blog and Twitter.

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Pink

I  will let the pictures do most of the talking in this post.

Buddhist nuns in Myanmar always dress in a fetching pink colour. A nun’s life is tough but they seem cheerful enough, collecting alms in the market, studying Pali sutras or sorting out clothes at the nunnery. The commitment is actually finite, as most Burmese girls only join the nunnery for a period of a few weeks at a time.

As with Burmese boys, time spent in monasteries is viewed as a right of passage and it is considered an honour for the family to have their child wear robes for even a short period. Naturally, it brings good karma too.

Young nuns at Mingun nunnery and at Amarapura market, Myanmar

The character below is actually a boy, despite the makeup and pink get-up. He is on his way to a monastery to become a monk for a few weeks. The boy is accompanied by villagers who sing stirring valedictory songs to him as he rides along on his pony. Most of the village seems to go along for the ride – it is a party atmosphere and drink (palm toddy perhaps) has certainly been taken by some of the happy entourage. Remarkable as it may seem, this is the sort of chance event that you stumble upon every day of the week in Myanmar.

Young novice processing to Buddhist monastery near Hpa-an, Myanmar

Mekong musings

This post comes from somewhere firmly east of Elveden – from Southeast Asia or, more precisely, the deep south of Laos.

Last week was spent travelling along the Mekong River from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam north into Cambodia. Then, courtesy of Lao Air, a quick crossborder turboprop hop from Siem Reap to Pakse in southern Laos.

Angkor Wat near Siem Reap was, of course, astounding but the vast crowds and grey-skied humidity were debilitating and within a few hours I found myself to be in that state universally known as ‘templed-out’. Angkor Wat, Angkor Tom and the other religious sites around Siem Reap are by far the country’s biggest draw but elsewhere Cambodia is a poor and savagely scarred place. Quite understandably, almost everyone over the age of 40 seems to have a haunted look, although these survivors of the Khymer Rouge period will tell you that contemporary Cambodian youth simply doesn’t want to know about the horrors of the past. The dreaded Killing Fields just outside Phnom Penh and the city’s infamous S-21 prison are just as bad as you might imagine – even worse perhaps. The continuing tragedy is the fact that several erstwhile senior Khymer Rouge officials still hold high-ranking government posts. These are the ones that parade around Phnom Penh in black-windowed Lexus, eating at fancy air-conditioned restaurants while the vast majority of the population barely scrapes a living farming rice in the hinterland.

Laos – or rather the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos – feels different. Poor certainly, but seemingly a happier place despite its unenviable reputation as being, in per capita terms, the world’s most heavily bombed country of all time – this, during The Vietnam War (or, as they call it in Vietnam, ‘The American War’).

Stopping for a coffee this morning at a place that serves as an outlet for local organic coffee production there was no coffee to be had as the machine had just broken. So I drank tea instead and listened as a table of saffron-clad Buddhist monks start chanting as soon as they had finished their noodle soup. No-one reacted in the slightest: monks are everywhere here; an almost quotidian part of Laotian daily life. In Laos, the future may be orange, but so was the past.

Another ubiquitous sight here is advertising for Beerlao, the nation’s favourite beer.  The beer – pretty tasty by the way – is sold everywhere in no-nonsense 640ml bottles. Everywhere, too, are the yellow signs that advertise the brew, as well as beer mats, table cloths, menu covers, waitresses’ aprons and café clocks. Its cheerful yellow and green logo is so widespread here in Laos that Beerlao appears to fill a semiotic niche even more comprehensively than Coca-Cola manages throughout much of the rest of the developing world. Unusually, signs advertising the familiar fizzy sweet are nowhere to be seen.

As the Hermetic philosophers might say:

As above, so Beerlao.