Heritage, Rangoon

from The Economist. Downtown Yangon's heritage, a unique architectural legacy & identity downtown in need of preservation after years of isolation, now threatened by rapid economic boom

from The Economist. Downtown Yangon’s architectural legacy & identity downtown need preservation after years of isolation, & threat now from boom times

I’d like to go to Burma. Soon. Thant Myint-U, Burmese hero-in-the-making, grandson of the former UN Secretary General, a handsome youngish Oxford-trained historian-turned-preservationist, spoke in NY a while back. He described the ongoing battle in Rangoon (Yangon) to save the city’s beautiful heart: uniquely Burmese colonial architecture. He founded the NGO Yangon Heritage Trust.

In the 1700s, Yangon was the king’s port. The earliest known map, from before the  British annexation in the 1800s, shows Rangoon highly cosmopolitan: home to a globe’s worth of houses of worship: Armenian churches, Roman Catholic Cathedrals, Baptist and Methodist churches, over a dozen Sunni and Shia mosques, Hindu, Parsi and Sikh temples, Jewish synagogues, and of course Buddhist shrines. Jews made up  1/20 of the population. Solomon’s Mineral Water Depot appeared in his slide show.

Colonial conquest: the British extending / defending the occupation of India. I’m not clear on how much of this was voluntary and how much was forcible relocation/slavery but Rangoon soon became Indian-majority. BP annexed Burma Oil. There’s much history to Yangon…Pablo Neruda lived there. Home of Tiger Balm. From 1948-1962, a short-lived democracy; Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, assassinated in 1947, was central to that period in history, before the military coup. Fast forward to the junta’s last days…the city was overtaken, Thant said, by a cheap-building boom in the 1990s that began destroying the 4,000 buildings with historical value. In the city center, dozens of wooden mansions and stone banks, often crumbling or full of  poor families – or owned, all these years, by the Army. None had been renovated in 70 years, leading to dangerous conditions for the many families crammed into them. A chintzy glass-mirrored tower now sits beside a block-long favorite turn-of-the-century department store. The city-center architecture that matters are in some cases European buildings, Chinese, and some uniquely Burmese.

Today, with market liberalized, a car boom is underway, and road expansion is helping drive the destruction, to accommodate cars. narrowing sidewalks are destroying a vibrant street life. These are Jane Jacobs-type issues, Beijing issues where the battle was mostly lost decades ago.

Japan bears a bit of blame, as it’s helped update infrastructure (sewage, transport) and as its multinationals & banks have stepped in, preservation was on no one’s agenda.

Today YHT is involve din advocacy at the highest levels with the president & top ministers, surveying and inventorying, leading tours, actual building restoration, and city planning, including training Burmese in preservation and planning, overseas. They have managed by force of will and lobbying to stop further demolition, saving a few dozen buildings. They’re trying to save the view of the great ancient pagodas, green space, and the waterfront. Standing in their way: developers who bribe. Small homeowners who are poor, who could sell for $50 million to developers…and why shouldn’t they, really? One lynchpin will be arranging land swaps elsewhere, if a preservation zone is established, or letting them move back in after restoration. That’s the so-called ‘human fabric’ that’s slowly gone missing, displaced as Beijing’s surviving hutong became uber-gentrified.

Rangoon also has fragmented & contested building ownership. Lack of development guidelines. The government’s own multi-billion dollar real estate portfolio of crumbling, empty structures is a lot to dispose of. There’s even a lack of craftspeople in the old building trades for repairs.

pagoda view rangoon

YHT is tackling all this with a total budget of $200,000 a year. To learn more, visit the website of the Trust: From them: “Yangon boasts one of the most spectacular and diverse urban landscapes… The city retains one of the most complete ensembles of colonial architecture in the world and is endowed with splendid parks and lakes. Long the centre of Myanmar’s political, economic and cultural life, Yangon has played a critical role in the country’s history.  It was in Yangon that the Myanmar people first become ‘modern’ and interacted with the world and it was through this process of exchange that Yangon’s history became internationally linked to the history. Visitors from Mahatma Gandhi to Graham Greene travelled to Yangon alongside an array of historical figures, from the last emperor of India, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to the Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda. These layers of history are still evident in the architectural legacies of the city.

Today, Yangon’s built heritage is at risk from decades of neglect and, more pressingly, a new wave of intense pressure for rapid urban development. An immediate need exists for a comprehensive urban plan that integrates Yangon’s existing urban fabric with the needs of a rapidly developing city. Century-old buildings in the downtown area are being demolished with alarming speed. As new structures rise without a regulatory vision, intact architectural blocks and iconic views of the Shwedagon Pagoda are being lost. It was to address this growing concern that Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded in March 2012 by Dr Thant Myint-U and a group of like-minded architects, business people, historians, and others dedicated to preserving the city’s unique architectural legacy.”

 

 

Buddhist Business Advice

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

Lingyin Si Buddha grottoes

A powerful Buddhist abbot runs Lingyin Si (monastery) near Hangzhou (in wealthy Zhejiang province, southeastern China, one of the places where capitalist “reform & opening” first took hold). It’s the top Buddhist temple, of the Chan (Zen) tradition, in southeast China. This July (2013), with China’s booming economy teetering, alarming the world — the abbot gave, according to the Temple‘s website — a dharma talk & interview to the journalists & editors of CEO Magazine.

Said Venerable Guangquan:

Buddhism should [not stay in the past, but should] advance … into the market economy…to [uphold] the level of morals and ethics, enlightening the people and purifying the mind and heart.

Buddha cliff carvings

Buddha cliff carvings , Lingyin Si

buddhism business grottotryptich closeup

Karma doctrine is useful in business management.

Entrepreneurs should treat employees as they were brothers and sisters, just like all creatures are equal.

In return, they gain employees’ loyalty and gratitude, thus creating a more meaningful and successful organization.

“The moon waxes only to wane, water brims only to overflow” [an old saying goes]: The natural cycle is decline after flourishing. [So]… As wealth is accumulated, contribute actively to benefit society. This balances the self and gives wealth a purpose.

buddhism business grottowith boy

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

Lingyin Temple, near Hangzhou, Zhejiang

One of Earth’s Holiest Spots

Why do we go out questing for certain hard-to-reach places? And when it seems worth it afterwards, as this time did, even then it’s hard to say why we did it.  Maybe the power came because we were close to leaving China. Maybe the spirituality was infectious knowing this is to be a more-than-usually religious year for us, ahead of Kenny’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it was just the density of chanting we came upon, unexpectedly, in this magical place.


It was unforgettable witnessing thousands of Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetans monk and nuns chanting outdoors at one of the main temples of Wutaishan, the Buddhist holy mountain in north-central China (English: Mount Wutai). In China, where so few monasteries seem to be active, where holy mountains are thronged by tourists not pilgrims, this was a moving exception. The spirituality was contagious.

The architecture spans the centuries. The wild, empty heights are inspiring. We even said a few (Hebrew) prayers ourselves. It was unlike anything we saw in China.

At its heart is the valley made by 5 (wu) mountains. Scattered around are 100+ Tibetan Buddhist temples, built by China’s rulers over centuries–Mongolian (Yuan), Han (Ming), Manchurian (Qing), each of which which served, in its opulence, for each dynasty, to legitimize their rule. And to knit the disparate, diverse, tension-riddled, far-flung empire made of so many different groups, all together by the magnetic pull of the bodhisattva who once lived here.

For nearly a millennium, the powerful staked their claim, got a foothold in paradise, sought virtue and enlightenment, and made alliances with enemies, by building exquisite temples, pagodas and stupas here.

Why here? Because here once lived a real, historic bodhisattva, ‘wisdom being,’ an enlightened one who compassionately doesn’t enter nirvana, to save others. His name was Manjusri. In China, they call him Wenshu.

This sacred place, for Zen, for Chinese, for Lamaist Buddhists, kind of in the middle of nowhere, highest peaks reaching 9,000′, the  was once off limits to all but the emperor. Now Wutaishan, Manjusri’s earthly abode, is a powerful, inspiring, uncrowded place of Buddhist pilgrimage, its monasteries home to perhaps thousands of monks and nuns.

You’ll see, in towering Manjusri statues, he rides a lion or tiger–symbolizing the taming of the ferocious mind. He also holds a sword, to cuts through ignorance and illusion. Manjusri is the deity of wisdom, worshipped from Indonesia to Nepal to Japan. He is featured in many sutras (scripture) and is one of the oldest, most important deities. He’s especially important to the Gelug Tibetan line (the Dalai Lama’s school), who descend from his teachings.

The presence of so much Tibetan Buddhism here made us feel like somehow Tibet had broken off and landed in north-central China, in Shanxi province, one of the poorer areas (coal, over-farmed steep terraces) where 30,000 people still live in caves.

There were almost no tourists in these small alleys and steep stairways, just one bus of Chinese during our late-June stay (I’ve read it does fill up, but we didn’t see that). Decent tourism facilities are almost zero (people sleep in the temples), train and bus connections are terrible, and high altitude makes the roads impassable in winter; they call it “the roof of north China.” I totally didn’t want to go. But Kenny insisted it was the most important place, moreso than Wu Dang Shan (the Taoist holy mountain where Jackie Chan takes Jaden Smith in the “Karate Kid” remake).

Visiting looked unlikely when I discovered the train into the nearest town an hour away (Shahe) arrived at 2 am and there were no hotels there.* But when I discovered the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NY had held an exhibition on Wutaishan, devoted a conference to it, and published a book, which we read aloud together, I decided (once again) he was right.

You can feel the history, the cultural richness, the power of devotion here.

The Rubin exhibition (now online) features a 6-foot wide “map” of the site, a fanciful, amazing painting done by a Mongolian monk. His vision doesn’t look anything like Wutaishan really looks, but those kind of hard- to-find places that mysteriously ignite the imagination–they rarely do.

NOTE ONLY FOR TRAVELERS TO WUTAISHAN:

*There’s no good Wutaishan travel info online in English. I really hope this blog helps. I reluctantly recommend what we did: book a Chinese tour–ours was 1- or 2-star, terrible food & lodging, disorganized, they even left us behind once at an outlying monastery (someone did come back for us after an hour, during which time I cried). To be fair, we were warned it wouldn’t be international standards. In fact it was below bad youth hostel. But so what. We got there. My student helped us book, through an agency in Chaoyang. It was hard locating the tour representative at the crowded Beijing West train station, but when seats were sold out, they managed to get tickets. They’d put us on the slow Beijing-Taiyuan train (a good thing: being slow, it arrived in the normal morning, not 2 am, so you could sleep). We didn’t find the Wutaishan tour we’d paid for waiting to meet us..a long dull story. Suffice to say, we caught a different tour bus ride to Wutaishan, 4ish hours, for no additional money, and once we were there, we were there! We figured it out on our own, with the Rubin catalog, and an excellent UNESCO guide online. Actually that link is Wikitravel, quite useful, but here is the even-more-useful UNESCO World Heritage Site guide. UNESCO wisely included it in 2009. We also got the stupid, disorganized, obnoxious, confusing bus back to Taiyuan on the third day.

The other option would be a private car/driver, out of Taiyuan (wrap it in with a trip to Pingyao and/or Datong, which is amazing) — but that was beyond our budget.

Grasslands of Chinese (Inner) Mongolia

Wish my lawn looked like this.

Mongolia — one of the great places on earth. You almost have to use superlatives: largest-ever historic conquest. Greatest unexploited mining wealth. Most pristine wilderness.

Mongolia is Inner (a giant province in, + totally dominated by, China) and Outer (a nation , former Soviet satellite). Below these important historical overlays, Russian vs. Chinese, is Mongolian culture and the incredible land.

Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province (pink on the map) is so dominated, its capital city (Hohhot) isn’t even Mongolian majority. Why? As in Tibet, influx of Chinese people consolidates political control, a struggle thru the dynasties — sometimes Mongolian (the Yuan), sometimes Han Chinese. China may hope to spread its overpopulated people from the heartland. But mainly, it’s the extraordinary mining wealth: coal + those coveted ‘rare-earth’ elements that high-tech mfg requires.

KFC, Inner Mongolia (Xilinghot)

The mines meet the grassland in the least-touristed area, it’s not even online or in books–by Xilinghot, county seat, northeast, where we spent 4 days early last month. It is, per a great Economist story, “no pastoral idyll” — especially not in June, 2011 when violence blew up between put-upon local herders and big, honking mining trucks (and “Mongolia” joined “jasmine revolution” as a banned Chinese search term).

Coal makes Inner Mongolia China’s fastest-growing province. A recent article (also in The Economist) calls the mines “devastation” and a “scar”. Yes. We saw those scars, still small vs. the vastness. But in a pristine ecosystem, their impact bleeds widely outward — in polluted air, water table, land. And in another powerful way, it bleeds the people, creating Mongolian powerlessness and anger, quiet and seething, mostly, as Mongolians’ dispossession grows, as land ownership is gradually transferred.

Already Mongolians are only 1/5 of the population, and if your parents choose Chinese school ingfor you (the only route to a non-herding job) you lost your ancestral language: most have.

The too-familiar plight of indigenous people.

Around Xilinghot city — where soldiers amassed last year — and its mines and trucks and railroads, spreads the Xilingole grasslands, the hugest lawn imaginable.

Our young Mongolian guide’s older sister went to Mongolian schools & couldn’t find a job; he took a degree in translation. Angel of a guy, with an endless supply of friends-of-relatives-of-friends, who put us up in their homes (guest yurts — they say “ger,” like girl without the l, ‘Yurt’ is  Turkish) over 3 days.

It’s majority Mongolian here; tradition survives, meaning hardship: no refrigeration, a diet of meat and the animals’ milk, horse-back herders, old Tibetan temples on the range.

Now 28, he herded as a child, for his grandparents. At 13, alone, fending off wolves by setting clothing fires and banging pots, he learned English from listening to the BBC. Then drastic legal limits on herd sizes (sheep, cows, goats) -per-land-owned were imposed, so the family’s herd was lost, their income plummeted, and finally they lost their land.

“The Chinese plant–they’re agriculture. We’re herders,” he said. “Then they dig mines, and at last buy your grassland. This is the steps. Because the Mongolian people aren’t easy to unite,” he said. “Now Mongols are weak.”

Guest yurt, with sink.

There are ribbons of fantastic, new, smooth Chinese roads here, making our trip possible so efficiently, so quickly (Outer Mongolia, you’d need 3 days to drive the horrid roads the distance you cover in a few hours on this side). We zoomed through sweeping horizons of incredible Chinese windmill farms (which our guide, BTW, loves).

We had hot pot in a beautiful, clean provincial capital city, Xilinhot, with a giant well-preserved Beize Tibetan Buddhist temple complex (Mongolians follow the Tibetan brand of Buddhism).

The Chinese give, and the Chinese take away.

Our young guide: “I am Mongol and my culture is lost, but in my heart, it’s strong. Over 60 years we had great changes here. There were 50 Mongol families in my hometown and only 5 families kept the traditions. The world is eating up ethnic people–the world is like this. It’s hard to keep traditional, to keep the old life.”

He said this as he checked his cell (signal always available, middle of nowhere) to see whether Spain was beating Portugal in the Euro Football semifinals.

“We lost our grassland. Every blade is we love.” He said this stroking a blade. “In Mongolia, you have words you must hide in your heart. There are no people to tell,” he said. “Every 800 years, a hero brings together the Mongolian people,” he said (referring to Genghis Khan).

“You’ll see. A hero is coming soon.”

Xilingole: Industry vs. Grassland

JewBus or JuBus (Jewish Buddhists)

Ancient Hebrew scroll found in Mogao Buddhist Caves

What is a JewBu?
Jews and Buddhists have been hanging together for a long time. Take this scroll. he My rabbi (in email) tells me this scroll, it’s actually only a photo from a display, (the original was spirited away by tomb raiders in the ’20s, I think to the British Museum) is familiar (though the handwriting isn’t). It relates to Tashlich, the ceremony between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we throw breadcrumbs or pocket lint into moving water to symbolize being rid of our past sins. The priceless scroll is one of thousands discovered in a cache, later taken by European explorers. It’s from Mogao, or Cave of a Thousand Buddhas, a complex of almost 500 often-magnificent Buddhist caves used since 400 AD for meditation and worship, full of sky-high Buddha carvings, in the Gobi desert along the Silk Road near Dunhuang (map below). Holland Carter won a Pulitzer for this story in the Times on Mogao. There were Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic scrolls…and our very own Hebrew.
Wherever you go, there you are.

Dunhuang, the nearest town (25 miles) from the Mogao Caves, is closer to Kirgyzstan than Korea–central Asia, not far from Pakistan and Eastern Mongolia. Around Dunhuang, the huge empty desert and Mingsha Dunes, it’s not that hard to imagine the caravans carrying the silk, the foods, the scrolls of many faiths and philosophies.

Buddhist nuns, Wutaishan, Shanxi province

China looks different through Jewish eyes. Our antennae pick up these ancient wavelengths and we feel our two people’s world-spanning presence and interaction. And we spend so much time in temples and Buddhist sights, because they’re most often China’s most richly interesting cultural treasures.

Buddhist caves at Yunggan, an early Buddhist cave

The JuBu experience is a path fairly well-trod, by practicing Jewish Buddhist thinkers such as Sylvia Boorstein. Who my rabbi emailed me about yesterday, as did my friend, the great Brooklyn author, journalist, “Sisterhood” blogger, guide to all things modern-Jewish-woman, Debra Nussbaum Cohen. The term JewBu was coined (or, popularized) by the poet Roger Kamanetz in his bestselling 1994 The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, a book I’ve always loved. It narrates the visit of Jewish leaders to Dharamasala, summoned by the Dalai Lama, so they might teach him how the Tibetans can survive culturally and religiously in their diaspora and exile. I had a meditation teacher when I was in high school, who’d just finished a decade at Tasajara, the Zen Buddhist farm retreat in California.

Ethan finds the character ‘Buddha’

(She was Jewish.) I haven’t thought about that 30-year-old time until I just wrote it but maybe that makes me a JewBu. The ‘American Buddhist’ classics she gave me Miracle of Mindfulness and of course the great Japanese monk Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mindwere imprinted into my brain quite young. Perhaps this helps explain our frequent visits to Buddhist hallowed ground in China.

At Wutaishan…more on that another time

Yesterday I started reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew by Rabbi Akiva Tatz. I hope Kenny might read it as part of his bar mitzvah preparation. It begins with a story, not the rabbi’s own but a young man he knows:

“[The Dalai Lama] greeted me with his warm, loving smile and asked if I was Israeli.
‘Yes,’ I immediately answered.
‘Are you Jewish?’ he continued.
‘Indeed,’ I replied.
He was silent for a couple of minutes and then said: ‘You come from the most ancient wisdom…the source…You do not need to travel all the way here to seek the truth…You should return to your country and learn your religion well. Return here if you feel the need, but only after you have done so….’
At the time I was deeply disappointed and kept thinking: ‘Have I ventured all the way to Bihar to discover that I should learn Torah?’ ”

North peak, Wutaishan (Five-Peak Mountain), Shanxi

Of course, we should (learn Torah)–there’s never been any doubt, only a lack of time and commitment. We didn’t need to come to China to realize that. But here, we find ourselves slowly immersed in Buddhism and experience it becoming a filter for our Judaism, as in the other direction we see and feel Buddhism here (Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian) through the lens of our own ancient people. The JewBu (JuBew?) experience is an ad infinitumechoing hall of mirrors.

Temple cat, unafraid of temple lion

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Devotion (Lambie Discovers Buddhism)

Lambie visited the Yung gang (“Cloud Ridge”) caves, and saw that devotion moved mountains.

Lambie was happy and astonished to see how Buddhism flourished here.


She learned that the ancient Silk Road passed by, carrying goods and gods. While trading foods and fabric, the road carried culture from India, flowing robes of Greek sculptures from Rome, artistry from Iran. Turkestani rulers, who unified northern China, embraced India’s Buddhism, and melded it all together. Here is a great world religion at its height.

Lambie is pumped to see what happens when great civilizations meld.

The giant Buddha caves of Bamyan, Afghanistan were destroyed. These remain, surviving 2,000 years of erosion, corrosive pollution, vandals, political attacks, and millions of visitors.

Lambie was sorry to see holes and some broken caves.

Lambie knows about Pharoahs. The giant Buddhas were Pharoanic in a way, offering worship to Buddha and glorifying the ruler.

Indian monks, Turkic kings, Hellenic motifs...yet distinctly Chinese Buddhism.

Lambie hopes to become more like Buddha by following his example: Meditation, morality, insight, generosity, patience, and kindness.

Lambie is happy.

Hangin’ at a Hanging Monastery

By Ethan Coplan

Seen from below.

I really enjoyed the hanging monasteries because it looked really scary from the very top.

Whaaaaaa!

I really liked the view from different spots.

Filing through the cliff dwelling.

Since it was so freezing, people were wearing big green Chairman Mao army coats. It was really cold there because of the high altitude. We paid 20 kuai (about $3) to rent them. It was the best 20 kuai my mom ever spent.

The Xuankong Si hanging off Mount Hengshan was built in 491. We heard Taoist monks lived here until a few hundred years ago. Fall has arrived.