Tag Archive | "religion"

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Leap of faith

Posted on 31 May 2010 by Joel Quenby

Why should Westerners be generally more cynical about religion? It is arguably a cultural signifier. Foremost academics and philosophers have long held that modern consumer culture gradually erodes spirituality (even before Karl Marx called religion “the opium of the people” back in 1843).

Perhaps this is why many Western travelers—including myself—are nonbelievers. However, many of us skeptics confess to enjoying Eastern holy heritages. Devout naysayers are regularly enchanted at the timeless vision of monks placidly padding their alms rounds. We marvel at bejeweled temples and ornate pagodas; linger at incense-laden shrines.

Such gilded novelties enrich our travel experiences, rather than demonstrate abject hypocrisy. I could never be “converted”—but I once flirted with something akin to a spiritual revelation—on my maiden voyage to Rangoon, Burma, in 2007.

antwerpenR

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar (by antwerpenR via Flickr Creative Commons License)

From its hilltop vantage point, Shwedagon Pagoda is Burma’s spiritual talisman. It has drawn superlatives from literary greats. Rudyard Kipling called it a “beautiful winking wonder.” Playwright Somerset Maugham compared the shrine “glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul.” Aldous Huxley noted the “merry-go-round style of architecture,” extending his metaphor to the pagoda being “a sort of sacred fun fair” for pilgrims.

A long-term resident had suggested a visit “will change your life.” He couldn’t say how—but I was already sold. I went on my last morning in Rangoon. Historically, the pagoda has hosted celebrated rallying calls. The morning of my visit, all was peaceful. Dawn’s rays were starting to fizz off the mounted golden spire. From the shade of a temple bow, I watched the faithful circumnavigating the dome on their morning pilgrimages; people of all ages sharing a reverential, soft-stepping communion. The mesmerizing ambiance of guttural chanting, punctuated now and again by the soft clang of prayer bells, created a spine-tingling atmosphere; it felt like time had paused for a rejuvenating breath.

Presently, I noticed a lone, twentysomething monk mount the base of the glittering spire. With special permission from trustees, men may meditate on the plinth terrace, 6.4 meters  above the base. This fellow was aiming higher, gradually winding round the circular bands forming sloped transitions to the bell-curved centerpiece.

He continued, purposefully without hurrying, miraculously finding foot and handholds where I could see none. He ascended confidently, never pausing to take stock (or survey what must be a thrilling view over the city). His steadfast intent suggested he knew exactly where he was going.

Just before he reached the sheer-vertical, intricately adorned spire, he vanished. Suddenly and soundlessly disappeared as if melting into the ether. Had he ascended to Nirvana? Was this divine intervention? If there’s a discreet antechamber or vertiginous hidey-hole up there, I’ve never found any reference to it…]

To my side, a couple of the climber’s brethren stared after him visibly spellbound—judging from their rapt expressions of wonder. It was strangely reassuring that monks also seemed compelled by the mysterious vanishing act.

Myanmar's mystical talisman (by SpecialKRB via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Myanmar's mystical talisman (by SpecialKRB via Flickr Creative Commons License)

Was it a transformative moment? Had I—like John Belushi at the altar of James Brown in The Blue Brothers—seen the light? Did I now believe?

Well, in a word: No. But it was truly unforgettable; a pleasantly perplexing episode leaving me with a cherished memory.

In a literary flight of fancy, Kipling daydreamed that the pagoda spoke, confiding that he had arrived somewhere “quite unlike any land you know about.”

He was certainly right.

The Shwedagon is situated in Rangoon to the west of the Kandawgyi Lake, on the Singuttara hill. It is open every day from 4. A.M. to 9 P.M.

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Walking through Culture in Kyoto

Posted on 01 February 2010 by Nellie Huang

I throw out my fortune-telling sticks in Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple; my Japanese friends translates, ‘You will have good fortune in 2010.’ I’ve never been a believer of such old-fashioned predicaments, but it’s hard not to fall for this. I am after all, in Kyoto, a gorgeous prefecture in Japan, littered with vermillion temples, emerald green gardens and towering mountains.  I thank my blessings and continue to explore the cultural capital of Japan. I’ll let my photos do the talking, bringing you through a fusion of culture, street life and faith.

The bright vermillion pavillion in the holy grounds of Kiyomizu Temple, one of the most popular temples in Kyoto.

The bright vermillion pavillion in the holy grounds of Kiyomizu Temple, one of the most popular temples in Kyoto.

Kiyomizu Temple stands above the city, offering impressive panoramas of the area.

Kiyomizu Temple stands above the city, offering impressive panoramas of the area.

Ladies dressed in traditional kimono make their way to offer their prayers at Kiyomizu Temple.

Ladies dressed in traditional kimono make their way to offer their prayers at Kiyomizu Temple.

Tatami restaurants alfresco-style along the streets of Kyoto.

Tatami restaurants alfresco-style along the streets of Kyoto.

A young geisha draws in the crowd with her beautiful traditional costume.

A young geisha draws in the crowd with her beautiful traditional costume.

A Japanese rickshaw driver on the road.

A Japanese rickshaw driver on the road.

Sun sets over the golden rooftop of the Bydo-Inn Temple.

Sun sets over the golden rooftop of the Bydo-Inn Temple.

Bydo-Inn, an ancient temple rising above a lake, gives an interesting peek into Japanese religious history.

Bydo-Inn, an ancient temple rising above a lake, gives an interesting peek into Japanese religious history.

Red Gates are ubiquitious in the streets of Kyoto as a symbol of their beliefs. This red gate stands across the gate of Byodo-Inn.

The Red Gate Across the Entrance of Byodo-Inn

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Amy Ma

Food & Drink + Hong Kong

Amy is a regular contributor to the South China Morning Post and Wall Street Journal amongst other publications. [...]

Pua Mench

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Pua is a writing and traveling enthusiast based in Hong Kong, with a weakness for all things related to the culinary arts and healing modalities, and a passion for sustainable living. [...]

Kim Inglis

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Kim has been an editor and journalist for over 20 years, more than half of which has been spent in Asia. [...]

Nellie Huang

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Nellie has been published in Food & Travel magazine and Lifestyle, and is a contributing author of V!VA's Guatemala Guidebook. She writes to travel, and travels to write. [...]

Sarah Jane Evans

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Carrie Kellenberger

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Mark Lean

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From writing about music, Mark expanded his focus to design, fashion, food and travel. In recent years, he has explored the highs and lows of Asia. [...]

Joel Quenby

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Joel is a British writer and journalist who's lived, worked and traveled in Southeast Asia since 2002. He's filed yarns for numerous publications...[...]

Alex Gunn

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After several diverse careers as a circus performer, school teacher, psychotherapist, stunt pilot and university lecturer he can now be found poking about far flung markets, museums, restaurants and odd places in and around Chiang Mai.. [...]