Sunday, September 19, 2021

Mongolia | Gobi Desert

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Monday, September 13, 2021

Tibet | Great Stupa of Jonang | Dölpopa

I recently added The Buddha from Dölpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen to the Scriptorium and have just finished reading it. The book was of special interest to me because Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen was one of the most famous residents of Jonang Monastery in Tibet, which I had the pleasure of visiting when I was doing research on Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. Taranatha (1575–1634), the Previous Incarnation of Zanabazar, founded the monastery of Takten Damchö Ling not from Dölpopa’s Jonang Monastery and Zanabazar almost certainly visited both sites during his Visits to Tibet

Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (དོལ་པོ་པ་ཤེས་རབ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་; Döl-po-pa Shes-rab Rgyal-mtshan) was born in 1292 in the Dölpo region of what is now Nepal. He is more commonly known simply as Dölpopa, the “Man from Dölpo”. He was the founder of the Jonang Sect, later suppressed by the more politically powerful Gelug Sect to which the Dalai Lamas have belonged. He was also the first major proponent of the so-called Shentong View, an important stream of Tibetan philosophical thought which continues to have staunch adherents down to the Present Day:
"Zhentong," (gzhan stong, "shentong") "extrinsic emptiness" or "other-emptiness" is a view of how the ultimate nature of reality is free from or empty of everything "other" than its absolute nature. In other words, a zhentong view understands how one's own enlightened essence is empty of everything false in superficial relative reality. Zhentong as a view for meditation practice regards relative reality as empty of its own intrinsic existence. This emptiness of inherent substance or "rangtong" is considered to be solely the nature of relative reality while ultimate reality is understood to be empty of everything other than itself. Accordingly, transient tangible experiences remain devoid of inherent substance as the boundless luminous nucleus of Buddhahood within all beings remains intangible and invariant.
The meditation caves in the cliffs above Jonang Monastery were reportedly used by Padmasambhava, the 8th century Nyingma master who introduced tantric Buddhism from India into Tibet. A monastery was flourishing on the site by the time Dölpopa arrived there for the first time in 1321. In 1326 he was officially installed as the head of the monastery, taking the place of Yönton Gyatso, who had also been Dölpopa’s teacher. A year later Yönton Gyatso transmigrated. In his honor Dölpopa decided to built an enormous stupa. The first attempt in 1329 failed when the entire structure collapsed during construction. Undaunted, he began construction of an even bigger stupa on a different site. As word of the project spread artisans and laborers from all parts of Tibet flocked to the site and soon donations of gold, silver, copper, tea, silk, and much else poured in from all over the Tibetan Buddhist world. More on the Great Stupa

The design of the stupa was based on descriptions of the Glorious Stupa of the Planets given in the Stainless Light, a commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra, which according to legend had first been expounded by the Buddha himself. (As you may know the current Dalai Lama is giving a Kalachakra Initiation in Washington, DC, July 6–16, 2011.) According to tradition, the Stainless Light had been written by Pundarika, the Second Kalkin King of Shambhala. Dölpopa apparently believed that he was a reincarnation of Pundarika and claimed to have visited Shambhala by visionary means.
The Jonang Stupa today
The fourth floor of the stupa reportedly once held statues of the 25 Kalkin Kings of Shambhala. I could find no trace of them when I was there. 
Another view of the Jonang Stupa
On the hillside above the stupa can be seen Dölpopa’s personal residence, known as Dewachen. Above Dewachen can be seen meditation huts and openings to caves, perhaps the meditation caves used by Padmasambhava.
Dewachen, red building, lower center
When Tsarchen Losel Gyatso, one of the great Sakya sect tantric masters of the sixteenth century and also a follower of various Jonang tenets, visited Jonang in 1539, he noted:
The next morning we visited the great Stupa That Liberates on Sight, the temple of the lineage of the Six-branch Yoga, and so forth. When I gazed from afar at the hermitages, my mind went out to them and I was enthralled. A distinctly vivid pure vision dawned in the center of my heart and I thought, “The early excellent masters established a continuous meditation center on a site such as this. Placing many people on the path of liberation, their way of life was so amazing and incredible. When will we also practice for enlightenment in an isolated site such as this?” 
Also see a transcript of a talk, The Legacy of the Jonangpa by Michael Sheehy at the Great Stupa of Jonang in Tibet on July 17, 2009.

Greece | Old Corinth

Wandered over to Corinth, forty-five miles east of Athens but slightly longer by train. Corinth is located on the west side of the 3.5 mile wide isthmus that separates the Peloponnese Peninsula from the Attica region around Athens and the rest of Greece.
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My main interest is visiting the site of the old Temple of Aphrodite, located on the top of 1876-foot peak of Acrocorinth, just east of the town of Old Corinth. There is a metro to the Larissa Train Station, which serves trains running to the north, and from here you have to take a train another fifteen minutes or so to another station that handles trains running south to the Peloponnese.  The trip to Corinth takes about an hour.

From the Corinth train station I took a taxi to Old Corinth, the village located near the archeological park that hosts the ruins of ancient Corinth. The modern city of Corinth, to the west of the station, is a relatively modern reiteration of an older city destroyed by earthquakes in 1858 and 1928 and is apparently of little interest to tourists or flâneurs. The cab driver, a man in his fifties, asks me where I am from. I say the U.S.A hesitantly, since nowadays you never know what kind of reaction you are going to get. Americans have not been the most popular people in the world for the last decade or so, and now your interlocutor may have relatives who just got thrown out of the country. “Oh, what state?” he asks. I did not want to get into a long explanation of where I have been for the last twenty years, so I say Alaska, the last state I lived in when I was in the States. “Alaska!” he shouted. “That is one of my favorite places. Never been there, of course, but I have watched many shows on travel channels and many youtube videos about Alaska. My dream is to visit Alaska some day. Have you been to Kodiak Island?” I told him that I actually lived on Kodiak Island for a couple of years. “Really? Did you ever see any Kodiak bears.” I said that I had seen many of them and had even been false-charged by Kodiak bears twice. “The other place I want to visit is Denali National Park. Have you been there?” This was getting weird. Actually I had written a book about Denali National Park. I did not tell him this but I said, yes, I have been to Denali. Then, to get him off the subject of Alaska, I asked if many people visit Corinth in the wintertime. “No so many, most come in the summer time,” he said and then added, “Are you here because of the Apostle Paul? Most people come here because of Paul, you know, following Paul’s footsteps.”

After visiting Paphos, on Cyprus Island, where according to legend he got whipped for proselytizing Christianity, and Athens, where he pontificated on Areopagus Hill, Paul had wandered on to Corinth: "After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth."– Acts 18.1. Paul ended up staying eighteen months in Corinth during his first trip to Greece and may have returned here on a later trip to Greece. He established a church here, and eventually wrote two letters to the Corinthians advising them on how to practice their faith: Corinthians I and Corinthians II, now found in the New Testament. 

I tell the driver that actually I have come to Corinth to see the Temple of Aphrodite and the ancient fortress on the top of Acrocorinth. “Ah,” Aphrodite, do you know she was born on Cyprus Island?” I was going to tell him that I had been to the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus Island just before coming to Greece, but I was afraid he would not believe me. 
Main street of sleepy Old Corinth
Old Corinth is a small village with one main street lined with cafes, gift shops, art galleries, and a few stores for the locals. In the middle of the tiny town square a huge yellow dog is taking a nap.  When the cab driver blows his horn to make him move he just he raises his head, states balefully at us, then lowers his head and goes back to sleep. We have to drive around the dog. My guest house is right on the main street. When we pull up out front a woman from a herb shop across the streets comes out and yells, “Are you here for the hotel? I will call the manager.” The manager is apparently at his restaurant a bit further up the street. The guesthouse turns out to have four rooms and I am the only guest. In the courtyard is an orange tree festooned with oranges. The manager tells me to help myself to the oranges whenever I want any. I stash my portmanteau and even though the skies have darkened and there is already a slight drizzle I head for the ruins of the ancient city of Corinth at the edge of the current village, just below the slopes of Acrocorinth.

Ancient Corinth became an important city because of its strategic location on the very narrow isthmus that connects the Peloponnese and the Greek mainland. By portaging across the 3.5 miles wide isthmus the long and dangerous sea voyage around the southern end of the Peloponnese could be avoided. As early as the 6th century B.C. a stone-paved highway had been build to accommodate travel between the Saronic Gulf on the east and the Gulf of Corinth on the west. The Greek geographer Strabo (56 B.C.–56 A.D,) elaborates on this:
Corinth is called "wealthy" because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of merchandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other . . . it was a welcome alternative, for the merchants both from Italy and from Asia, to avoid the voyage to Maleae, land their cargoes here. And also the duties on what by land was exported from the Peloponnesus and what was imported to it fell to those who held the keys. And to later times this remained ever so.
The main ruin from ancient Corinth is the Temple of Apollo, dating to around 550 B.C.  It originally had fifteen columns on each of the long sides and six on the two facades, for a total of forty-two. Only seven are standing today. The columns are unusual in that each are carved from a single piece of stone, instead of being made up of stacked column drums. 
 Temple of Apollo, with the peak of Acrocorinth in the background
 Temple of Apollo
 Temple of Apollo
Temple of Apollo
The original ancient Corinth was sacked in 146 B.C. by Roman commander Lucius Mummius and most of the buildings were destroyed. In 44 A.D. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city and populated it with Roman colonists. Most of the remaining ruins in the archeological park date from this Roman period.
 Roman-era ruins of ancient Corinth
Probably the most visited ruin is that of the Bema, or rostrum, where Paul  publicly defended himself from allegations made by the city’s Hebrews that his teachings about Jesus of Nazareth were contrary to Mosiac Law. The Roman pro-consul Lucius Julius Gallio ruled that Paul had not in fact broken any Roman Law and so was allowed to go on proselytizing. This was the real beginning of Christianity in Corinth. Of course the historicity of this whole episode, along with many other events in Paul’s life, has been questioned. See Corinth—Where the Apostle Paul Never Trod.
 The Bema. speaking platform, where the Paul the Pontificator is said to have defended himself,
 The top of the Bema
On the top of the Bema is a monument inscribed with a quotation from 2 Corinthians: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparision.”
By now the drizzle had turned to rain, so I retired to the small but well appointed museum adjacent to the ruins. The museum was established in 1932 by the American School of Classical Studiers and funded by American philanthropist Ada Small Moore of Chicago. The place is jammed with a Chinese tour group of at least fifty people on a day-trip from Athens. Their big bus is parked outside. 
 Museum courtyard
Statues in the museum courtyard
This museum was once victimized by a daring act of thievery. On the night of April 12, 1990, robbers broke into the museum, bound and gagged the guard, and then proceeded to cart off 285 statues, vases, glass vessels, jewelry and other ancient works of art of inestimable value. They also stole 1,000,000 drachmas in cash on hand to pay the salaries of museum employees. Nine years later, in September of 1999, the F.B.I., working in cooperation with Greek police, founded most of the artwork in plastic boxes in a fish warehouse in Miami, Florida. The items were returned to the museum and can be seen there today. None of the published accounts say who was responsible for this caper, or how the stolen items got from Corinth to Miami. 

I had planned to climb Acrocorinth in the afternoon but by the time I left the museum the mountain was completely fogged in, and rain was falling even harder, so I retired to my hotel room where I was soon engrossed in Anthony Everest’s scintillating and at times even titillating The Rise of Athens.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Uzbekistan | Khwarezm | Gyaur Qala

Sixteen miles southeast of The Zoroastrian Tower Of Silence are the ruins of Gyaur Qala, or fortress, located right on the banks of the Amu Darya River not far from the edge of the Sultan Uvays Dag Mountains.
Driving through the Sultan Uvays Dag Mountains. These hills (they would not be dignified with the name mountains in Mongolia) are somewhat of an anomaly out here in the generally flat valley of the Amu Darya (click on photos for enlargements)
The founding of Gyaur Qala probably dates to about 400 BC, or roughly 2400 years ago. It was thought to be strategic stronghold guarding the important Amu Darya trade routes to and from Khwarezm, the ancient realm on the lower part of the river and its delta where it flows into the Aral Sea. Given its locale the fortress could have controlled both the land routes on the banks of the Amu Darya and the boat traffic on the river. At its prime of the two north-south trending walls of the fort measuring almost 1500 in length. The northern wall was about 650 feet long. Today only the northern wall and portions of the northwest corner remain. The nearby Janpiq Qala was supposedly sacked by Chingis Khan’s sons Chagatai and Ögedei in the winter of 1220-1221, but there is no record of them attacking Gyaur Qala. It is not at all clear when and why the fort finally was abandoned.
 The Amu Darya from Gyaur Qala
 Northern Wall
  Northern Wall
  Northern Wall
   Northern Wall
   Northern Wall
  
Northern Wall
Northern Wall
Northern Wall
 Northern Wall
 Northern Wall
 Northwest corner
 Northwest corner and northern wall
 Northern Wall
  Northwest corner and northern wall
  Northern Wall
Exterior of northwest corner