The great legend that permeates Kyaiktiyo, Burma, begins when the Buddha gave a lock of his hair to a local hermit monk named Taik Tha. The monk, in turn, gave the lock to his king, with the wish that it be imbedded in a boulder that resembled the monk's head.
At this point, the legend expands into a complex explanation of how the king came to possess supernatural powers from his parents. This allows him to raise an enormous boulder from the sea floor and place it precariously on a local cliff where, since before recorded time, it has sat balanced in a way that defies the laws of gravity, physics, and logic. The story goes that the strand of the Buddha's hair, encased in a golden pagoda on its summit, is all that holds the boulder in place. Today, it is known as the Golden Rock, thanks to a centuries-old custom of pilgrims adding sheets of gold leaf, enough so that over time, it has become impossible to know the rock's original size. It is one of the premier holy sites of Burma.
I have always sought such places in my travels, not because I believe enlightenment will strike if I visit; although that is always a vain hope; but for the sheer energy the faithful masses generate at such places. It is a palpable feeling that Buddhists will tell you comes from the mantra," Om Mani Padme Ohm," the sound that connects pilgrims to the mystical vibrations of the universe. Sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don't.
I rose early to wander the mountain top before the tourist stalls opened, and while all hard edges were rounded by the pre-dawn fog. Porters, bent double from loads held in place by head straps, exited flatbed trucks that had hauled supplies up the 3,000-foot mountain, while palanquin bearers replaced them to ride down to the village where they will hire out to carry rich clients up the hill in so-called pilgrimage. Already the rock is surrounded by prostate believers, most of whom have spent the frigid night in silent meditation.
I was raised in a strong Christian belief that sustained me for decades, but I never experienced the intensity of religious fervor that seems to permeate all of Southeast Asia. What is it that imbues so many eastern cultures with unshakable faith? The countless statues of Buddha, for sale everywhere, bring to mind staggering tales of this devotion, such as the Chinese master Liuquan, who was discovered encased inside a 1,000-year-old statue; buried alive as it were, so that his meditation would not be interrupted. There was also the great Tibetan saint, Milarepa, of whom numerous texts survive attributing him with the ability to fly. Upon his death, he supposedly appeared to several dozen friends, in different places, simultaneously. Such stories are everywhere and deserve to be pursued.
At first light, the monasteries discharge single-file lines of colorful robed and barefoot monks to collect their daily bread from the faithful. They are followed closely by pink- and orange-clad nuns, many no older than eight or nine. My camera was collecting all of this when I saw the hermit.
Most of today's Buddhist monks are rather worldly: Some smoke and even drink, while many have smart phones and use computers, but the hermits are a different breed. For them, time ceased when their kind such as Milarepa and Liuquan still drew breath. They are a throwback to a time when the search for knowledge was an internal one, unaided by Google. I am told that spotting one is as rare as a snow leopard.
He emerged from the fog like a mountain spirit, plodding slowly behind the lines of younger monks. His face was like dried leather and his skeletal arms trembled as, with every fourth step, he struck a tiny tin bell suspended from his shoulder pole with a mallet. The bell was his call for alms, because as a hermit monk, he lived under a vow of silence.
It was his towering leather hat that set him apart from the other monks: It announced him as one who has withdrawn from society. He seemed to be in another place as he glided down the street, oblivious to his surroundings, even of the reverential people placing food and water into his basket. He had sent his body out, but his soul was elsewhere. Like most monks of Southeast Asia, those in Burma adhere to the Theravada school of Buddhism. Theravada means, "Teaching of the Elders," and it is one of three branches of Buddhism that migrated from India and Nepal in the sixth century B.C. It spread rapidly throughout Southeast Asia in the 13th century via monks from Sri Lanka.
It is a personal belief system that worships no deity, but teaches self -control in order to release one's self from the material world and achieve personal enlightenment. It seemed to me that a hermit monk has certainly distanced himself from the material world, but even they need to eat, and so I happened to catch him on a rare day when at least his physical shell had ventured into civilization in search of provisions.
I followed this man, unable not to, fascinated by the wonders he must know that would allow such a complete retreat from the secular world. At the end of the street I stopped as he entered the forest, vanishing among the trees as lightly as he appeared, a wraith in the material world. Much as I wanted to know where he was going, I did not have the right to impose my world on one who had left his own behind.
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