Sunday, May 07, 2006
Hey Buddha! You know, I want to be enlightened.... I want to be free from all suffering, including that pain in my frozen shoulder!... but does enlightenment have to come at the very top of a mountain!
While staying in the port city of Krabi, a small quaint village situated on an inlet leading to the Andaman Sea, I'd heard stories of this rather mystical Buddhist Temple and Monastery located at Tiger Cave. One afternoon I'd even seen the Temple, aglow
with the late afternoon sunlight, sitting high on a steep, rugged jungle covered limestone mountain. The highest peak of all the limestone mountains which make this such an unusual part of Thailand.
Yup there it sat, high on the mountain, and I'm thinking to myself. Hey, that would be cool to visit this mysterious and mystical Buddhist site. Trick here being... I'm afraid of heights! Never really liked getting my feet too far off the land. So how do I fly? Well.... simple. I never sit at the window, if at all possible,
preferring to have an aisle seat. I remember being at a meeting in San Francisco one time, while working for Food For All, when I had an opportunity to stand next to a floor to ceiling window on the 15th story of a downtown office building. With my toes pressed against the window, I looked out at the beautiful bay.... and then I looked down! Bile rose up in my throat as I immediately felt dizzy, cracked my head against the perfectly clean window as I fell forward, and had it not been for that sheet of glass, I'd have fallen forward and become about as flat as a California road kill gopher after a day's worth of traffic! So why it was that I felt the "need" to make my journey, my pilgramage to this mountain top site, I'm not exactly sure.
Yes I do know.... I had heard there was a footprint of the Buddha at this site and I wanted to see it. That and along with the fact that I felt this could be an excellent experience for me, on my path to enlightenment. Now this whole thing with the actual footprint of the Buddha rather intrigues me. As far as I knew, the Buddha never made it out of India during his life time. So a footprint in Thailand? My mind sort of conjured up this image of several thousand years ago, this large ceremony here in Thailand where, like on the streets of Hollywood where the celebrities have their hand prints, a group of dignitaries and devotees got together for the Buddha to put his foot in wet cement. I could see the masons leveling out the cement as the Buddha slowly made his way through the throngs of people, to arrive at a spot where, very carefully, he put his foot into the wet cement, a huge cheer goes out from the crowd, and then he gently pulls his foot out and someone wipes the wet cement from off his shoe. Ceremony over, as the gate to the fenced in area is closed to protect the footprint for eternity.
Actually, the footprint (from what I've heard) is actually in stone. So I guess the whole idea of the Buddha's footprint being in stone, could be considered something of a mirrical...similar to those found in all major religions, like that of the corpse of Saint John, which after having been beheaded in the early 1st century,
was carried by angels to the western coast of Spain, only to be identified several centuries later by the King, who then had a huge church built over the tomb which became a pilgrammage site during the Middle Ages. Yup... the Buddha's footprint in stone... I needed to see this...
A slight rain was still falling when I caught the mini-van from Krabi Town to Sai Thai Temple. Short ride, through the mountainous cliffs, and there I was at the base of one of the limestone cliffs.... a huge statue of a Buddha, laying on his side greeted me as I descended the vehicle. Off to the left side of the Buddha
statue, a huge, new, modern Buddhist crematorium. These crematoria are built in the achetectural style of a Buddhist Temple, the only differences being that they are smaller and then there is this huge, tall chimney that reaches to the sky.
Finding what seemed like a trail that would lead me to the steps that would take me to the top of the mountain, off I went. The path, a legal nightmare had it been in the States with broken steps, wet and slippery from the night's rain, was not what I had been expecting. I'd no more than begun my pilgramage journey to experience "enlightenment" at the top of the mountain, when, the fruit that I'd been eating a lot of over the last few days, kicked in. Being on what I considered to be rather holy ground, I did not just want to duck behind a tree or slip into a little cave, I searched and was lucky enough to find a decrepit, run down squat type bathroom. whipping away the spiderwebs which covered the door entrance, I was not sure I wanted to close the door behind me as I cautiously ducked my head into the dark, dank little wooden room. Nothing seemed to be moving around in the
dark recesses as I got down to busness. Searching through my fanny pack, I realized I had not brought any TP along with me! What to do? What to do? As with all Thai bathrooms, there was a bucket of water and a small bowl floating in it. This was not a time to stand on protocol, so when in Thailand.... do as the Thai!
I was ready for my mountain climb. Off I headed, up the slippery, slimy, broken down steps. I'd climbed some 50 or more steps when it seemed to me that I was on the wrong path. All I came upon were some Buddhist tombs holding the bones of monks.
The path deadended. Down the mountain I headed and find out where the 1000 plus steps were that would lead me to the top.
Fortunately there was an old monk at the shrine below. In Thai, I asked him if he spoke any English. "A little" came the reply. I asked him where the path was. He pointed in the direction I'd just been! Then he added "Carefully.... wet." Yup.... I knew that much already! Since I must have had a very sceptial look on my face, the old yellow robed monk asked a young man to show me where the path was. Up the mountain side we headed again. Got to the area of the tombs and the young man pointed me in the direction of the path that headed off into the grass, then a mud path that went straight up at about a 70 degree angle! What? That's that path? Sure didn't look like steps to me!
I wanted to see that footprint and experience the mystical atmosphere of the mountain top, so off I went again. The path was impossible! The night's rain made the path almost impossible to move forward the only thing I could do was to
grab hold of the bamboo pole which served as a rail along the left side of the path. Now a slight problem here.... left hand side... also the side where I'd been having so much trouble with my shoulder. With each pull of my left arm as I grabbed hold
of the bamboo rail, pain shot up my left arm! This could not be good for my recovery! I'd just seen MorGit, the massage guy who's been working on my shoulder for the last week, the night before. Much of the pain had gone away, following my four
visits to this old man's house. But now.... I had barely started up the mountain muddy, slippery path and my shoulder was sending me some warnings loud and clear.... keep this up buddy and I'll cause you incredible grief tonight when you try to sleep!
Up, up, up I struggled. I was sweating, even though the temperature was relatively cool. It was only about 8 in the morning, and the sun had not had a chance yet to really warm things up. I'd been crawling (literally!) slowing up the mountain,
swatting mosquitos that swarmed around my head, when I saw a small landing head. Now it truly was neigh onto impossible to follow the path... it was more like I had to whack my way through the jungle. So the little landing ahead was a welcome site. Climbing up to the site.... there was... a golden Buddha! Not that big, only about 5 feet high. But the Buddha was looking out over the valley below. Beautiful view as I looked out at the limestone mountains jutting out of the endless green rows of palm trees below. My view seemed to go forever... only blocked slightly
by the billowy cumulus clouds far off in the distance. There I sat, huffing and puffing, sweating, swatting....
The path went no further. All I could do was go back down the same way I'd struggled to get to this point. Actually, I was rather happy, since it had been such a struggle to get as far as I did, I knew my shoulder would not allow me to go the additional
1000 or more steps that were needed to get to the top. So, with a slight amount of dismay at not having reached the mountain top and seen the Buddha's footprint, I slipped and slid back down the dirty, muddy, slick path. I was wringing wet when I got back down.... Happy actually to be in one piece, since on the way down I thought I might loose my grip and just slide down on my butt!
At the bottom of the mountain, I ran into a family that was visiting the Temple. The man, European (Swiss actually) with his Thai wife and two children. Even though I felt a little buised and beaten from my initial climb up the mountain (plus something
had puncture the skin on my right little finger next to the nail and I was bleeding like a stuck pig!), I still wanted to get to the top of the mountain, so asked the man if he knew where the steps were? He looked at me.... "You are at the wrong temple!" Really!!!!! "You want Tiger Cave Temple... Watt Tham Sua... this is Wat Sai Thai." The Tiger Cave Temple was in the opposite direction.....
okay.... back to square one.
Back to the main road to wait for the white mini van to Krabi Town. It was still early in the morning, so I waited for more than a half a hour before a van came my...... by then... the day was beginning to heat up....
I arrived back in Krabi Town, stopped by my hotel, washed out my bleeding finger wound (actually very, very small!) and got back on a different colored mini-van.. red one... which was to take me to Tiger Cave! This vehicle wandered around Krabi Town, picking up people, dropping off people, picking up people, dropping off people... I thought I would never get to the temple! Eventually I was the only one left on the van, and as the vehicle seemed to be heading back into town, I thought to myself, did the driver forget where I wanted to go? But no... he'd remembered... for I looked off into the distance and could see what I thought was the Tiger Cave Temple sitting high on the mountain peak. It was nearly 11 a.m. when the van came to a stop at the base of the mountain.... I had arrived.... at the base of the mountain! I walked along the paved road, past the various food vendors, souvenier shops, and
temples under construction until I came to the starting up for the mountain climb.
The steps up the mountain side were VERY well identified. There was a sign.... 1237 steps to the top and the Buddha footprint. The heat of the day was there, the sun burned down into the valley... and I was about to begin my climb to the mystical top of the mountain... What's that old saying about "Only mad dogs and Irishmen" being out in the heat of the day? Well.... that was me.
As I walked up the cement sidewalk, leading to the steps, I intentionally decided I would not count each step as I made my way to the top. Instead I thought, this would be a good time for me to focus on the moment. Think just about each step,
what I was seeing, how my body felt, everything around me. A good Buddhist walking, or in this case climbing, meditation. Being in the moment.... on my journey to enlightenment...
The first set up steps were a piece of cake. I nearly ran up the 20 or so steps that lead to the first landing. I was no wimp! I could do this! I could stay focused, I could be mindful, I could....
It seemed the steps were like the switch back roads that wind back and forth to the top of mountains in the states. Climb one series of steps, reach a landing, the next series of steps would make a sharp turn and take one further up the mountain side. Now the beginning stairs shot up at about a 70 degree angle. Sharp climb to say the least. Long about the second landing, I came to a turn in the stairs that stopped me cold in my tracks... not just me, but also the Thai people who were coming down the stairs. Here the stairs dramatically shot up at about a 90 degree
angle! Unbelievable! Everyone coming down this part of the stairs where either coming down backwards, or were holding on to the metal railing with both hands to keep from falling! I let the group that was coming down pass before I headed up that cruel part of the stairs! It was so steep I was darn near crawling up on my hands and knees! Of course the thought came to me that was it possible the whole rest of the climb would be like this? Thankfully not... well, not quite as steep as this.... still very steep.
My being mindful had begun to slip too. It was getting hot. Each landing I hit seemed to place me closer and closer to the sun... and it got hotter and hotter the higher I climbed... or so it seemed. I began looking for any shade that might be available. Hey I would accept shade the size of a banana leaf if possible. Instead, I had to accept shade the size of a rose leave and be ecstatic about it!
I'd been climbing for what seemed forever.... pulled myself up to the landing. Dropped to my knees, then plumbed myself on the cement step.... breathing heavy! The sun baked down on me... my clothes, wet. It was if if I'd pulled my clothes out of the washing machine before the spin cycle! I dripped water.... I stared out at the valley view below... the rugged mountains on the horizon, the endless groves of palm trees, and then my focus came back to my general area.... there on the metal post holding the railing was written, 868. Immediately I knew what that meant...... I'd come up 868 steps.... 1237 needed to see the Buddha footprint, visit the mystical temple on the top and.... perhaps gain enlightenment?
Now... I'd not been counting the steps, did not want to know.... but now I did! Thought to myself... the monk who had painted this number on the post had either been very kind (wanting to let people know where they were in their journey to the top) or mischievious (letting one know, in general, how much further they had to do!)
On and on I climbed. By now mindfulness was out the window as my mind began to speculate how much money one could make by installing an elevator! I even began searching for potential sites where the elevator could be installed and the doors might open..... Up and up and up I climbed as the muscles in my legs began to scream out at me with each upward thrust ..... Now I knew there was no turning back, but I also noticed that I was now stopping to rest, not just at each landing, but rather after every two or three steps. At this rate, I grumbled to myself, I'll get to the top sometime tomorrow!
The last 200 steps were sheer torture! My whole body ached, I felt dizzy whenever I would look back down the stairs from where I'd come; my stomach felt queezy, it churned and turned; I felt dehydrated but did not want to drink from the water bottle
I was carrying..... with each step, that water bottle seemed to get heavier and heavier; and general heat exhausion set in. No one around. Just me.... I could pass out on the steep climb, fall backwards down the cement stairs, and no one would find me for hours.... my baked, sun burned body a heap on some landing......
Turning on a cement landing, I looked up and there I saw at the very top of the next series of steps, I saw the top step had been painted white with blue Thai writing on it. Above... I could see part of a building. I felt as though I'd died and was opening my eyes .... only to look upon Paradise! I could not believe it! I
was almost at the top of the mountain where I'd at last see the legendary Buddha footprint, experience the spiritual mysticism of this Buddhist site,..... and as for Enlightenment.... well... I just wanted some water and a little shade... if possible!
When I reached that top step... I collapsed onto the floor! All my muscles felt strained to their limits. The sweat poured off my forehead .... my breathing labored. Overhead, the massive 50 foot high brightly painted seated Buddha statue gazed out toward the sea. Eventually..... eventually my breathing slowed, my brain seemed to clear and I was able to remove my shoes and move up to the tiled mountain top where the Buddha sat.
The view was spectacular! I could see for .... I'd like to say hundreds of miles, but that might be a bit of an exaggeraton! I could see the sea, far off in the distance, the islands which are so plentiful in this part of Thailand... and there was a breeze! Even though the sun was baking the top of my head as it beat down
on me.... the breeze was cool and refreshing!
The top of the mountain was divided into three different levels..... all with cement slab flooring with an enormous seated Buddha that dominated the main area of this site.
Where's the footprint? Okay... got this gigantic Buddha sitting here..... where's his footprint? I searched every part of that mountain top, but to no avail. I could not find any footprint. I'd been told that there was a separate area one could walk to, an area most visitors to the mountain top never see, and that if I had time, I should try and visit. I'd been given general directions on how to get there, and thought to myself, perhaps in it in this other area that the Buddha's footprint is....
I wandered around and did find the path leading to the area where the monks lived in caves and where there was a mini rain forest. However.... the monks had placed green plastic in front of the area leading to this path, and when I looked beyond the green plastic, I could see I was staring into monk's living quarters. With the rains, perhaps the monks had moved in directly below the huge Buddha statue.... I could see beyond the hard beds in this small, cramped area, a short stair leading
upward.... but did not dare to enter the monk's living quarters.
So I wandered back to the area around the big Buddha.... by now some Thai had also made the incredible climb to the top and they too where taking pictures and walking around the various shrines built into the mountain top. At first I'd been by myself at the top of the mountain, feeling the power of the moment.... but this passed
rather quickly as the new comers began trying to communicate.... no, they were shouting.... to their friends who had remained at the base of the mountain. Pretty hard to feel much mystic energy when someone is shouting something to the equivalent of "Hey
Joe... you're a wimp... the view is great."
No footprint, no real mystical experience, .... Enlightened? Time to head back down the mountain.....
Now it is true that it is easier to fall down a mountain than it is to fall up one.... but the climb down was just about as hard as the climb up. By now my legs had turned to rubber. Each step, the muscles in my legs seemed to spasm! Rubber legs! I found myself stopping frequently... catching my breath.... letting my leg muscles relax...
About midway down, I met a group of 5 or so young Thai who were head up the mountain. It was interesting to note they too were sweating profusely! After they'd passed, and as they'd turned a corner which gave them a view of the stairs which seemed to go on forever... I heard one of them shout out...."Oh my god." Yup... that had been my feeling too when I'd turned that corner and seen the long steep stairs before me...
Nearing the bottom of the downward climb, again I met two young Thai who were headed up the mountain. Feeling a lot better, and perhaps a little bit devilish seeing how they were huffing and puffing with each step, I pointed out to them the red numbers painted on the post.... 313. They'd just gotten to step 313... they still had a very long way to go!
I could hardly walk by the time I got down to the bottom of the mountain and stepped down my very last step. My legs truly ached. The muscles by now had begun to tighten a little too, so that with each step I probably looked a little bit like the Tin
Man in the Wizard of Oz!
While at the top, I had searched for the Tiger Cave as well, but had found nothing that even looked anything like a cave which might have housed a tiger at some point in time. I guess that at one time, tigers did live in this area and a tiger had taken up living in a cave... until the monks took over the area and began mediating in the caves. Well..... once I got to the bottom, I did take a little time to wander around the various buildings at the base of the mountain. Most everything was in Thai, so little hard to figure out what was what... BUT... kind of by accident, I stolled into a huge cave... filled with Buddhas. Low and behold.... there was
a sign "Tiger Cave." Off behind one of the golden Buddhas was indeed, a marble stair (short one thank goodness!) leading to a large cave with a smaller cave off it where I guess the tiger lived and slept. The smaller cave had a wire mess door covering it, so one could not actually go inside the cave itself. Mystery solved....
I'd seen the Tiger Cave! I'd been to the mountain top! I'd climbed the 1237 steps to the top.... but as for the Buddha's footprint....
Later that afternoon, I headed off to the home of the teacher I'd worked with at the Ban Klog Hang School. I explained to her my adventure. We had a little discussion about how many steps it actually was to the top, she said one number and I another.
So I showed her the picture I'd taken at the base of the mountain, stating that it was 1237 steps to the top. Digital cameras are fantastic! I then went on to express my disappointment that I'd not seen the Buddha footprint at the top of the mountain.... "At the top of the mountain?" She exclaimed.... "It's not at the top of the mountain! It is right next to the sign you took a picture of showing it is 1237 steps to the top."
I don't know why the expression "Wherever you go.... there you are" came to my mind at this point.... but it did.
The thought that had started my adventure....So Buddha.... I want to gain Enlightenment, but must I climb to the top of a mountain....
I'd thought I needed to make the strenuous climb to the top of the mountain..., and although very beautiful (and I'm glad I made the climb) the mystic experience I thought might be there was about as long lasting as the breeze which dried my persperation!
I looked for the Buddha's footprint on the top of the mountain.... only to find that in reality, the footprint had been right where I was.