Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Buddha eyes gaze out

Buddha eyes gaze out
in all directions above
the cosmic stupa

With the Maoist strike continuing, we move from Thamel to Boudha. Instantly I feel safe and happy again, under the protection of the Chorten Chempo, Great Stupa. Bouddhanath is the largest stupa in Nepal and many Tibetans in exile live in the vicinity of the holiest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet. Their cheerful calm immediately puts me at ease.
          We enter from a busy street through a tall open gateway, the sides painted with the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols and the top decorated with two dragons on either side of a small stupa. Although I have been here some years ago, I'm still blown away by the impact of the massive white and gold stupa with Buddha eyes gazing down at us. We pass through the dark flagstone walkway flanked by three-story brick buildings with tall wooden doors. The dark buildings seem to lean inward, as if trying to get a better view of the radiant stupa.
          The stupa looks like a round-bellied Buddha wearing an elaborate hat gazing benignly down on us. I'm familiar with the purpose of the colorful flags attached to the stupa, which carry prayers to heaven, but I'm curious about the symbolism of the architecture. Later, when we meet our friend Anna, an American who became a Buddhist nun, she gives us a cosmic tour of the stupa.
          The entire stupa forms a massive mandala that represents the cosmos. Four Dyani Buddhas mark the cardinal directions and a fifth, Vairocana, resides in the central white hemisphere. These Buddhas personify the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and either, which are represented in the architecture. The three concentric platforms at the base symbolize earth, the hemisphere symbolizes water, the stair-step pyramid above the eyes symbolizes fire, the gold canopy at the top of the tower symbolizes air, and the golden spire at the peak symbolizes ether. The 13 steps of the pyramid represent the ladder to enlightenment, and the entire structure has 13 rings from base to pinnacle, representing the path to enlightenment, Bodhi. The nine levels of the stupa represent Mt. Meru, the center of the cosmos.
          The eyes on the four sides of the square tower are the omnipresent eyes of Buddha. Below each pair of eyes is the Sanskrit character for the number 1, symbolizing unity, and above is the third eye, symbolizing wisdom. Around the base of the stupa are many prayer wheels embossed with Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. The 108 forms of Avalokiteshvara are represented in sculptures around the base.
          We walk around the base, mingling with Tibetans turning the prayer wheels and praying, breathing in the air saturated with deep peace.

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