I just made my second trip to Myanmar. Or Burma, as the country was once known. My sister Pam and I spent a grand weekend exploring just a few of the thousands of temples at Bagan. [1, 2] Most date back to the 11th – 13th Century.
Along with the temples that seem to grow out of the ground everywhere you look, Bagan is a major center for traditional art forms including lacquerware, sand paintings and wood carving.
On previous trips Pam has purchased hand carved figures from a local artist. We went in search of his shop, and a figure known as a spirit guide accompanied me back to Germany.
Khim Maung Zaw creates and sells from a small shop. He graciously signed the sandalwood figure I wanted, and allowed me to photograph his art.
I am delighted to recommend Mr. Zaw and his beautiful carvings.  His shop’s address is:
I hand-carried lacquer ware and my spirit guide for the long 24 hour journey back home. When I removed all the bubble wrapping he seemed surprisingly alive. I gently unwound the cloth strips, feeling anxious.
I was delighted that he’d survived the trip intact. A spirit guide now stands in my home, pointing the way towards the path to enlightenment. 
I’m a little slow sometimes. I recently realized that my new-and-improved wordpress website jadicampbell.com had a birthday in January and is now a year old. (Yes, I’m aware it’s already March!) So, what did I do with a year of blogging?
Last summer I lost my mother-in-law, an old friend, and my dad Bobbo, all within a shocking three-month period. Those were by far the hardest posts to write. But I discovered something: the most personal blog essays are the ones my readers (i.e., all of you) respond to most.
What you can look forward to in the Year of the Rooster: a huge blog thread for my father Bobbo that I’m calling The Animal Kingdom. Occasional notes about my volunteer work with refugees. Lots more quirky posts about places Uwe and I visit. And on-going musings about life, the Universe and everything in-between as I deepen the process of saying goodbye to those who have left.
May you find something here that makes you laugh, creates a spark of connection, and moves you enough so that you reenter your own life with a sense of touching upon mine. That would make the new year of blogging – and all the years to come – worthwhile. As Mae West says, “Come on up, I’ll tell your fortune.” 
I spent a few weeks north of Hong Kong in the New Territories. The transportation system is easy and each day I went exploring. I’d read up, select yet another fascinating place to discover, and off I’d go.
As a massage therapist I went to pay my respects to Sun Si-miao Zhen Ren, Perfected Master and god of Chinese Medicine.
He was a doctor and herbalist who lived from 581 – 682. (Yes. 101 years.) Perfected Master Sun authored some of the most important Traditional Chinese Medicine treatises. Along with medical recipes and information on everything from acupuncture and massage to herbs and diet, he wrote the following: “A Great Physician should not pay attention to status, wealth or age. Neither should he question whether the particular person is attractive or unattractive, whether he is an enemy or a friend, whether he is a Chinese or a foreigner, and finally, whether he is uneducated or educated. He should meet everyone on equal grounds. He should always act as if he were thinking of his close relatives.” 
He tried to heal whoever needed his help, regardless of whether his patients were rich or poor. He turned down offers for jobs as physician at the Sui and Tang courts, working instead with ordinary people.
His books are still required reading for all TCM practitioners. Taoists honor him as a god of healing. Even today, the ill and infirm (or people wishing to stay healthy) visit his temple to make offerings.
So I headed to Wong Tai Sin Temple.
I was delighted to discover that at the temple you can worship gods. Goddesses. Protectors and saints. Local deities. Buddha.
The entrance is protected.
I was met by wonderful bronze statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.
I managed to photograph all but the ox and dog.
Then I ascended the stairs and entered the compound.
The temple is just outside a metro stop, smack dab in an urban area. The serenity of the shrines and their religious activity is set against a backdrop of tall buildings.
Wong Tai Sin Temple includes a meditative garden, and I wandered around to take photographs.
As I walked I thought about the gods of medicine. When Uwe and I were in Egypt in 2013 we visited the ruins at Edfu. They contain a room known as the Laboratory. The high walls are covered in hieroglyphics that are some of the world’s oldest formulas for incense and unguents. Our local guide Khairy spoke German and was finishing a degree in Egyptology. Khairy believes that the Egyptian gods were real men and women. He thought they’d once lived and had made discoveries or created things so extraordinary that over time they came to be considered gods. He said, surely whoever wrote the recipes inscribed on these walls must have seemed like a god.
I recalled Khairy’s words as I explored the temple.
When I left Wong Tai Sin I don’t know if I came away a better massage therapist, but I love the idea of a temple to a person who dedicated his life to healing others.
NOTES:  On the Absolute Sincerity of Great Physicians (大醫精誠 Dayi Jingcheng). This has been called the Chinese Hippocratic Oath.
My sister Pam is a teacher for international schools. For the last three years she’s been located in the Hong Kong area. It’s a great place to visit: the languages are Cantonese and English, the transportation system is so simple that anyone can feel clever using it, and contrasts between modernity and tradition are everywhere you look.
Pam and her family live in the New Territories. This part of China is on the mainland north of Hong Kong. While Hong Kong is the most densely and vertically populated city on the planet, the New Territories are still relatively quiet. The landscape consists of steep, lush jungle peaks that end in bays and inlets.
The region is growing, and changing fast. On the bus from the apartment we pass villages on hillsides or tucked into hamlets and harbors. Several floating villages of traditional houseboats are minutes away. And then the high rises suddenly appear, row after row after row.
It’s not far to Man Fat Tsz, the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin. It was founded by the devout layman Venerable Yuexi (the Chinese月溪法師; pinyin: yuè xī). Building began in 1949 as Yuexi and his disciples carried everything up from the foot of the mountain. For eighteen years they constructed the buildings – and 12,800 Buddha statues.
You head up through a bamboo forest and statues line both sides of the path to the monastery. There are roughly 500 Arhan  statues in plastic, painted gold. Each one is unique.
Their expressions represent the experience of enlightenment. Other statues await once you reach the summit. (Click on any of the thumbnail photos for a closer look.)
I felt like I was in a tacky Buddhist Disneyland until I got to the top and entered the main temple. Before the altar is a glass case, and it contains Venerable Yuexi’s preserved body! His body (still perfectly intact) was exhumed eight months after his April 24, 1965 death. Yuexi was next embalmed with Chinese lacquer, his head and face covered in gold leaf. The Diamond Indestructible Body of Yuexi’s robed corpse sits in the lotus position. I was oddly moved by his preserved body: with the sight, I had a glimpse of religious truth. 
That feeling became surreal as we headed back to the bus stop.
We climbed down a different set of steps past my least favorite creatures: wild monkeys.
And from the meditative hillside of Ten Thousand Buddhas, we neared and then entered the shopping mall complex at Sha Tin.
As I say, the New Territories has both the traditional and the modern. They all line the same path.
NOTES:  To quote Wikipedia, “…in TheravadaBuddhism, an Arhat (Sanskrit: अर्हत् arhat; Pali: arahant; “one who is worthy”) is a “perfected person” who has attained nirvana. In other Buddhist traditions the term has also been used for people far advanced along the path of Enlightenment.”
 Taking pictures inside the temple is not allowed.
Uwe and I put an exclamation point at the end whenever we talk about Khajuraho! We visited last January, and we’re still talking about it.
In the interests of proper grammar I’m leaving out the exclamation point from now on. You may add it in for yourselves if you like.…
When we visited, Khajuraho could only be reached via a long trek on bad roads. Since we’re talking about India, this means the roads are bad indeed.
The driver we’d hired was there to meet us at our hotel in Agra, and off we went. Five bone-jolting hours later we reached our destination.
Along with its inaccessibility, Khajuraho is notorious for 1,000 year old, perfectly preserved, UNESCO World Heritage erotic carvings.
Somehow this site survived a millennia (millennia, people!), in a spot that had no fortresses or fortifications to speak of. The temple complex existed simply for the purpose of worship.
And what worship. Every single inch of the temple buildings are carved in high relief, depicting gods, tender lovers, voluptuous attendants, monkeys, elephants, assistants for the sexual act….
Hundreds of skilled stonemasons were hired to build the site. The Khajuraho region has excellent sandstone, and the sandstone temples were built with granite foundations. All were constructed without mortar! Instead, gravity holds the stones together with mortise and tenon joints. Some of these stones are megaliths weighing up to 20 tons.
The glory of sandstone is that it loans itself to delicate carving. Even viewing the temple walls from the ground we could see the wrinkles in Ganesh’s trunk; the fingernails of the apsaras and the beads in their strands of jewelry; the sheer layers of veils over their thighs and buttocks.
Uwe vanished almost immediately with his camera, leaving me alone with the young male guide. I could feel my face go red, and it wasn’t a hot flash or sunburn. I was terribly afraid of how embarrassed I was going to be. But the guide pointed out the various depictions of the act of love and spoke in a clear calm voice, explaining the significance (pull your minds of out the gutter, dear readers) in terms of energy, religion, and esoteric philosophy.
It was mid-January, past the usual Christmas tourist season. It was also a two-week period when northern and central India get swathed in fogs – something smarter tourists than we knew. As a result we had the pleasure of being two of the few Westerners at the site.
Most of the others were Indians on holiday, and I was touched to see that at Khajuraho, this meant young married couples. They walked around the compound, standing in front of particularly erotic carved panels, heads together in discussion.
While only 10% of the carvings depict sexual acts, you can guess which panels elicited the most commentary. These were the love-making couples known as maithunas. Other carvings depict everyday activities: playing musicians, potters, farmers, soldiers on horseback, etc.
The temples were probably built in the one hundred year period between 950 and 1050 AD, during the Rajput Chandella dynasty. According to historical records, by 1100 Khajuraho contained 85 temples covering 20 square kilometers. Roughly 20 temples still stand. They were located 60 kilometers from Mahoba, the medieval capital of the Chandela kingdom.
When Muslim rulers took control, heathen places of worship were systematically destroyed. Ironically, even centuries ago the remoteness of these temples helped secure their survival. Nature did the rest as vegetation and forest reclaimed the site. For years the temples were covered by dense date palm trees which gave the city its name: in Hindi, Khajur = date. (The more ancient name was Vatsa.)
The scenes explain Hinduism’s four goals for life: dharma (right way of living), kama (aesthetic enjoyment), artha (prosperity) and moksha (liberation). The complexity of the geometric layout and the grid pattern of the temples with their circles, squares and triangles, the importance of geographic orientation and bodies of water and the carvings’ iconography is beyond my very weak grasp. Instead, here is an excerpt from the UNESCO website:
Greatly influenced by the Tantric school of thought, the Chandela kings promoted various Tantric doctrines through royal monuments, including temples. Sculptors of Khajuraho depicted all aspects of life. The society of the time believed in dealing frankly and openly with all aspects of life, including sex. Sex is important because Tantric cosmos is divided into the male and female principle. Male principle has the form and potential, female has the energy. According to Hindu and Tantric philosophy, one cannot achieve anything without the other, as they manifest themselves in all aspects of the universe. Nothing can exist without their cooperation and coexistence. In accordance with ancient treaties on architecture, erotic depictions were reserved for specific parts of the temples only. The rest of the temple was profusely covered with other aspects of life, secular and spiritual. Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC
Khajuraho remained forgotten by the outside world until 1838 when a British army engineer, Captain T.S. Burt, was carried in via palanquin. I laughed so hard when I read that the Victorian officer was shocked by what he found….
We’ve come to Paris for a quick getaway, and Stuttgart is less than 4 hours by direct fast train. As we think about what we want to do and see, we realize neither of us have ever visited Chartres.
Uwe and I go out of our way to see sacred places around the globe. (See my posts The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ or The Music of the Heavenly Spheres for some photos and tales from other sacred spots.) Energies gather in some unlikely places. Sometimes I stand in famous spots and am disappointed, while a place less known for religion makes me feel the presence of the divine.
Chartres. I’ve been trying for days – weeks, actually – to summarize the “facts” about this site. It was built 1140-1260 and the labyrinth was laid in the first decade of the 13th century. I wonder what to mention about Chartres’ 1,000 years as a pilgrimage destination, or the female energies of the cathedral and their tenderness. Mary’s tunic, the Sancta Camisia worn at the birth of Jesus Christ, was brought here by Charlemagne. The king in turn had been given the relic as a gift during a trip to Jerusalem.
When the earlier church building burned on June 10, 1194, the Sancta Camisia miraculously survived. Chartres remains an important Marian pilgrimage center, and the faithful still come from around the world over to honor it.
Chartres is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals on Earth. Back in my college days at the University of Oregon, Professor James Boren in his Chaucer and Medieval Literature classes explained Chartres as literally turning the architectural form inside out. For the first time the ribs holding up the entire structure had been placed outside, allowing the inside heart of the structure to soar up into the Heavens, seemingly without limits. The support of flying buttresses was necessary because of the unprecedented size and heights of the stained glass windows and the nave. Professor Boren’s face glowed; this stern and learned man radiated as he lectured about a place that he said changed him when he saw it. That lecture and the look on his face stayed with me. Chartres: someday I would see it.
Chartres Cathedral contains one of the few remaining medieval labyrinths. It’s large with a circumference of 131 feet, almost exactly the same size as the West Rose window.
In the Middle Ages, French church labyrinths were the sites of Easter dances involving clergy and the tossing of a leather ball. Sadly, the labyrinths were destroyed, covered over, or hidden by Church authorities suspicious of their powers and pagan beginnings. (Labyrinths, including Chartres’, traditionally had an disk or placque of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur at their centers. In fact, another name for a cathedral that contained a labyrinth was the “Domus Daedali” [House of Daedalus], a nod to antiquity’s Daedalus, designer of the labyrinth that held the Minotaur in Knossos.) *
But, Chartres’ labyrinth survived. I learn that while it’s covered by chairs most of the time, the labyrinth is made free for visitors to enter on Fridays. My one request to Uwe for our trip becomes, “Please let’s go to Chartres on Friday!”
So here we are, entering one of the holy pilgrimage destinations in Christianity.
Chartres. Once inside, the cathedral’s beauty immediately takes my breath away. I am so deeply moved that in the next moment I’m close to tears. Whatever I expected, this sacred soaring space is beyond all imagination. Light streams in through the windows and illuminates the visitors, pilgrims, and the simply curious. All of us are suffused in colors.
For a while I just walk around. Uwe’s already moved off with his camera, ready as always to use his art with photography to capture in images what my brain grapples with in words.
As the minutes pass I grow more and more stunned. And I remain dangerously, or is that gorgeously, close to breaking into tears. There is an energy to this place, a sense of the holy and the really, really blessed, that I have seldom felt anywhere.
The Schwedagon Pagoda in Burma comes to mind. It is the most important pagoda in the country, and I felt the top of my head buzz like it was going to blow off from the concentration of religious energies. Or a back pond in the Adirondacks with only my family as fellow witnesses: loons with a pair of chicks calling in low cries to one another as they eyed us but didn’t swim away. Or a tiny Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloniki, supposedly built on the site where Apostle Paul preached. I attended on Sunday with my friend Cynthia and our Greek host Fotis, who led us up to an altar surrounded by burning, hand-dipped wax tapers. Fotis insisted we take bread from the common basket. Tears streamed on both our faces; I finally felt the deeper meaning of breaking bread in fellowship.
All of these places’ sacred energies are present in Chartres. It is so much more than I deserve or had awaited. I take a deep breath to center myself, and move forward to stand poised at the entry to the labyrinth.
“A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. …
“A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. … It is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to “That Which Is Within.” At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. …
“A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved. It has twists, turns, and blind alleys. It is a left brain task that requires logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path into the maze and out. A labyrinth has only one path. It is unicursal. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.
“A labyrinth is a right brain task. It involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. With a maze many choices must be made and an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not. A more passive, receptive mindset is needed. The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.” – Dan Johnston, Ph.D. at www.lessons4living.com
While I walk the labyrinth and contemplate the mystery of the sacred**, Uwe photographs me. When I see his photos later I’m surprised, and glad.
NOTES: * Another name for the eleven-circuit labyrinth is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres or other places could be made instead of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
** I haven’t even tried to talk about the lunations of the labyrinth. Their meaning is still debated. A celestial calendar? Esoteric design of the deeper mysteries?
Walking a Sacred Path. Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Dr. Lauren Artress, Riverhead Books, 1995.
Pieter was right: the temple massages at Wat Pho really were awesome. Lisa wasn’t surprised by how crowded the site was, because it was dazzlingly, exotically beautiful. All of the palace buildings had golden roofs that gracefully swooped down and curled back up towards the heavens. Guardian demons held up columns or stood with watchful eyes. All of the surfaces were covered with encrusted diamond shapes of colored glass, or tiny mirrors. Throngs of tourists wandered with cameras and guidebooks, admiring the buildings that glittered in the bright Thai sun. “It’s almost as if this entire site is winking at us!” Lisa exclaimed.
Lisa and Babs wandered with their own cameras until they found the traditional massage school. An attendant asked them what kind of session they wanted (how long? what style massage? rather from a male or female therapist, or no preference?) and assigned them numbers. Babs’s number was called first and she looked nervous as she vanished out of sight with a therapist. A few minutes later Lisa heard 32 announced. She stood up and a young Thai woman led her to a different building.
The slats of the rattan walls in the low open structure let in both light and air. Lisa was led to the back of the long room, filled with low mats to the left and right. All around her fully clothed people lay on backs or stomachs as Thai therapists pulled at their limbs. Her therapist pointed for Lisa to lie down, and Lisa watched intently as the Thai girl put her palms together in front of her chest and whispered a prayer. She took one of Lisa’s legs in her hands, and Lisa forgot everything around her as the therapist smoothed away the knots of travel.
In the tropical climate Babs’s own long blond hair had gone completely limp. Babs was miserable. She was pretending she wasn’t shocked and frightened of the foreign megalopolis. Thailand’s capitol city might be a short plane ride away from Singapore. In reality, Bangkok was light years distant from any sanitized, orderly place. Babs knew Lisa admired her for what she perceived to be Babs’s sophistication and worldliness, her previous international travel experience. But just a few days in Bangkok quickly forced Babs to admit how terribly narrow the contours of her worldly knowledge were.
She was terrified of the jostling throngs and afraid of the foreign faces hurrying down the streets. The Bay Area consisted of lots of ethnic groups, of Americans. The jumble of nationalities here was far too authentic. If one more sticky brown body brushed against hers, she would have to scream.
At the temple Babs had been unable to relax despite the massage therapist’s coaxing, dexterous fingers. She had lain fearful and stiff, horribly awkward as a stranger touched her. Babs left the temple with an uncomfortable awareness of how uptight she was and no idea of how to release it.
Her sinuses were clogged with humidity and the aromas of overripe fruits and other odors she couldn’t identify. The stench from open food grills just made her want to gag, while the sly, half closed eyes of the Buddhas in their strange rich temples frightened her. They watched Babs, and on all accounts they found her wanting. The glittering Thai world was simultaneously far too blinding, and contained far too much clarity.
Lisa noticed nothing of how scared Babs was. Instead, Lisa charged head first into the contradictory experience of the crowded streets and serene, glittering temples. Babs was dismayed first by her friend Lisa’s surprising lack of fear, and next by her startling physical transformation. For the first time in their friendship she was discerning a little stab of jealousy against plain Lisa.
– from my short story “Banged Cock” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com,amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.
(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)
More pictures from our trips to Thailand, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.