Monday, December 11, 2006

What Are We Looking at Here?

What are we looking at here? For starters, that's me. For seconds this is Alkhanai National Park in the Aga Buriat Autonomous Area, in Siberia, Russia.

But what are we looking at? A scene of "nature," to be enjoyed as "beautiful"? Or a scene of a not-so pristine "environment" that needs "protecting"?

Or a "Buddha field" in which we can make merit by circumambulating the Buddha thereof?

Or all three at once?

Alkhanai has all the appurtenances of a national park: a big campgrounds near the entrance packed with campers and trailers, with electric sockets and faucets, concessions stands, even a disco running at night. Like many national parks the world over, Alkhanai has too many visitors. The camping center when I visited this summer was supposed to accomodate 200 campers; it had more like 2,000. The visitors (and the concessions stands owners) are mostly Russian, but the site is in some sense "owned" by the Buriats, for whom it is a sacred site. People come to do two things: first bathe for their health in the pure, frigid waters coming down from the mountain. These are called arshaan, a word that incidentally comes from Sanskrit rashayana "holy water." Second they come to follow one or more of the rather arduous hiking paths up through the mountains to various sites of striking scenery.

As we went further and further up the mountain, I enjoyed the scenery immensely, and found the Russian daytrippers to be rather less annoying than my Buriat hosts did (probably since I couldn't pick up the incessant curse-words that apparently many of the younger ones were flinging). But as we went through the stone arches decorated with blue khadags (scarves; example here), it suddenly occurred to me that this wasn't just some generic "sacred mountain", a concept about which I had gotten a bit blase, since virtually every mountain is sacred in the Mongolian plateau. I knew where I'd heard of specifically this type of site before -- it was the kind of Buddhist pilgrimage site that Toni Huber wrote about here and which is described in this very illuminating autobiography by this nineteenth century Tibetan monk Tsogdug Rangdul, (also known as Shabgar). Perhaps I was a bit slow, but I had not yet come across such sites in Mongolia (you have to remember, when I began in Mongolian studies it was the 1980s, just as the Mongols of Mongolia, Russia, and China were thawing out of Communism).

The climax sites, near the peak, were circumambulating the stupa (reliquary) blessed by the Dalai Lama, crawling through the nügelei nükhe "hole of sin," a narrow crevasse in the rock, which when you do it is both a test of your moral state and a purging, and near the peak a pit or umai "womb," in which the fortunate can dig with their hands and find stones, that will be their blessing. (There was also a shrine of the famous Buriat lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov.) Along the way, I took to picking up the trash which was pretty common in the area, but had to be careful, because coins and bottles of vodka were often not trash but votive offerings along with the khadags.

I crawled through the hole of sin, but gave the "womb" and circumambulating the stupa a pass. It was a sight of unforgettable strangeness to watch as the Russian campers, many wearing showy crosses, processing around the stupa with their palms together as the Buriat guide preached to them, "Think about the Buddha here, feel your sins dropping away, all your anger and impatience." The mountain was beautiful, and the pilgrimage trail was satisfyingly arduous, although my aging knees took a while to recover. Of course, as a pilgrimage trail, the arduous hike was part of the point: working hard to show your devotion builds merit.

But the relationship of the mountain to the pilgrimage is deeper than just making it difficult of access. When we went into the freezing waters, it occurred to me that the meaning of the term arshaan nowadays meaning "natural mineral waters" really was not so far from the old Sanskrit "holy water." I'd come to think of turning "holy water" into "mineral water" as some comic modernization, but that was too shallow a viewpoint.

In Hinayana Buddhism, the concept had been that this world is suffering and you have to get out of it through training yourself to really feel that fact and extinguish desire for it. I am "here," and nirvana is "over there." In Mahayana Buddhism, with the concept of everything in the world being empty of inherent existence (which is not saying it doesn't exist), you don't have to go anywhere, you just have to realize that suffering exists precisely because your mind has recreated the world as desire and suffering. Don't change the world around, change the way you think about it. Nirvana isn't "over there"; it's right where you are -- you only have to train your mind to realize it and know it. But in Vajrayana Buddhism, a further inversion takes place: if we perceive the material world around us as painful, turmoil-filled, and fleeting solely because we are subject to delusion and desire, then the more we transform (mentally/magically) the material world around us into that which is delightful, peaceful, and abiding then the more we have eliminated suffering, desire, and delusion in our minds; since the bad world and the bad mind are linked by a necessary and sufficient causal connection, which one is the cause and which one is the effect is irrelevant. So transforming springs into holy waters, mountains into residences of the Buddhas -- all of this makes the pilgrimage not just a way of building merit, but a way of grasping that the mountain already is a Buddha field, a perfect world, and hence, by living in that Buddha field, to eliminate delusion and desire.

While I appreciated hiking this beautiful scenery and delightfully soothed my aching knees in the icy waters in one way, Buddhist pilgrims appreciate it in a whole different way. Arshaan was mineral water/holy water together for them, in a way that it couldn't be for me. Maurice Freedman, an anthropologist in Hong Kong's "New Territories," must have had this happen to him too, suddenly realizing the person next to you is not seeing what you see at all. He describes yet another way of seeing the scenic, neither as a beautiful and sublime creation of God, nor as a Buddha field but as a set of hidden forces ready to bless or blight those connected to the bones buried therein:

One may stand by the side of a Chinese friend and admire the view -- and in the New Territories, as elsewhere in coastal southeastern China, the combination of hills and sea produces splendid vistas. One's own pleasure is aesthetic and in a sense 'objective': the landscape is out there and one enjoys it. One's friend is reacting differently. His appreciation is cosmological. For him the viewer and the viewed are interacting, both being part of some greater system. The cosmos is Heaven, Earth, and Man. Man is in it and of it. So that while my characteristic reaction to a landscape may be to say that I find it beautiful, my friend's may well be to remark that he feels content or comfortable
[ -- reminds me of the discussion in Abolition of Man]. . . . The landscape affects him directly, in the ideal case making him feel relaxed and confident. (It is for this reason that English-speaking Chinese in Hong Kong often use the word 'psychological' to refer to the effect of feng-shui. They do not mean, as one might at first suppose, that geomancy is an illusion. They are asserting a human response to forces working in the cosmos.) And just as a landscape affects a man, man may affect it. In a landscape there are mystical [I would prefer to simply say 'concealed'] entities (an Azure Dragon, a White Tiger and so on): as men we may harm them or improve them, weaken them or strengthen them: if we do, the landscape will no longer be the same, and in turn it will differently affect us. The landscape I see and the one seen by my Chinese friend are not, therefore, exactly the same thing . . . (from Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung, pp. 121-122).*

*Don't get the idea this is all "man in harmony with nature and his fellow man" stuff. There are only a limited number of geomantically favorable burial sites, and competition for them is fierce and usually decided by the checkbook, but sometimes by clever subterfuges. Burying, or reburying, your parents or grandparents in a good site (preferably all six, each in a different good site) is a strategy for success.

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