Monday, 26 July 2010

IF: Double

   It is said that if you should happen to meet your double when you are out walking, you will not be long for this world.
   One morning, back when I was in university, I was sitting in a Literature and Psychoanalysis class listening to a lecture which had something to do with doppelgängers.  Our professor asked us to really consider the frightfulness of the idea, to turn and look at the person sitting next to us and imagine them as our mirror image.  Strangely, on this day there was not much imagining necessary for me... the person sitting next to me happened to be a boy with the exact same shade of reddish hair, who in every way rather looked like I would have looked had I been born male.  Since I had never noticed him before, and in Toronto there are people from everywhere, the odds of this weird likeness seemed small.  We both looked away quickly.  A creepy, uneasy feeling hovered around me for the rest of the day.
   For this week's Illustration Friday topic, nothing stuck out in my mind more than the old idea of meeting one's double in a lonely place... my imagination just runs a way with this.  Before I started this post, I thought I'd read a little about doubles, and the wiki for doppelgänger proved rather interesting, with an account of a scientific experiment that has induced people to report seeing their doubles, as well as stories of important historical figures and their doppelgängers.  Goethe seems to have been the only one to find this idea to be a comforting one.

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   Other than that, I've just noticed that Zoe of Zoe in Wonderland has been so kind as to write a little about Yew Tree Nights, over on her blog.  I've been following her postings since before I started writing here, and am always impressed by her thoughts on the art she writes about, and also by the art she creates herself.  She has such an interesting way of seeing things, and is truly an inspiration. Have a look!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

And there were candles and flowers on the river

For today's post, the last post in the series of seven posts on places that are full of meaning for me, I thought I would send you floating silently down the Ganges river in Varanasi in a little boat at dawn.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Moss and Mist

   This little week of sharing far away places I have loved is nearing its end, and I realize that, so far, I have only written about places that feature a lot of man-made elements.  Of course, the places that make a person feel most truly alive, most deeply inspired, and most full of absolute awe are often places with no buildings, or decorations at all.  Today I would like to bring you to such a place. 

   The island of Yakushima is like a cloud-veiled emerald in the seas south of the southernmost tip of mainland Japan.  It is the wettest place in the country, and a place where snow rests in the mountains part of the year (they are almost 2,000 metres high) though the surrounding oceans are never cold.  Sea turtles nest on the island, there are hot springs to bathe in, and coral reefs to swim through, but what most people come to see are the giant, old-growth forests of cryptomeria trees.  Not long ago I mentioned in another post the fascination that Japan has with nature, and so maybe you'll understand how one tree, Jomonsugi, could become famous there.
   It is believed by many to be the oldest tree on earth.  Estimates for its age range between 2,000 and 7,000 years.  These days, in southern Japan you will find its image on billboards and splashed across the sides of buses.  Though the tree lives a 4 to 5 hour hike (each way) from the nearest road, people, even those of considerable age, make the mostly up-hill trek just to lay eyes on it. 

   But before you get to the island of Yakushima, you must take a long ferry ride, which brings you through clouds and fog, past the smoldering, active volcano that sits at the tip of Japan, Sakurajima.

(Smoke rising from Sakurajima)

   Our trip down to this island was rather spontaneous.  Back when we lived in Japan, we went during the May holiday week, known as "Golden Week".  The night before, having no plans as to how to spend our time off, we happened to learn that the potentially oldest tree in the world was sitting in a mossy mountain forest not too far south of us to be impossible to reach.  We were up and packed in a few hours time, leaving a message for a friend saying that we were heading off to this island we knew almost nothing about, and to let someone know if we hadn't made it back in a week.  We may have slept a little in the train.
   The morning after that, we were up early again.  We were staying in a sort of Japanese-style bed and breakfast (a Minshuku), and the man that ran the place came into our room to wake us and tell us we had to leave then if we wanted to see the tree.  He came out to stand at the bus stop in the dark with us and tell our bus driver where to let us off (the whole bus laughed at us, getting put on the bus like children with an overprotective grandfather).  Still, we really liked our sweet lodgings-man, who despite his tough retired-gangster appearance, went out searching for us frantically when we were late to dinner one evening, and supplied us with endless cups of tea.

Unlike other times we have wandered on forested mountains, we did not get lost even once this time, for everything had been marked, and little paths had been left for us to follow.  The beginning of the pathway to Jomonsugi was along an old train track.

After a few hours of walking, we came to the huge, hollow stump of what must have been an enormous tree. 

Inside was a small Shinto shrine.

(View up from inside the tree stump)

   In Japan, you will often come across a rope with paper lightening bolts attached to it, or tall doorways called 'Tori', even in extremely remote places, which denote the sacredness of a tree, stone, area, etc.  During our time in Japan, many of our best moments were passed at Shinto shrines.  I remember a night we spent at a festival in a shrine up in the mountains of our town, where there was masked dancing and cauldrons of shoju (Japanese barley whiskey) being heated over a fire in the middle of the floor.  The place was filled with our neighbours, and the Shinto priests in their gowns and hats, all celebrating together.  Shintoism still remains a mystery to me -- despite the fact that it was all around me for the year I spent in Japan, sometimes even ringing bells and clapping my hands, wishing things and throwing coins between the slots in front of shrines -- but it is a lovely mystery.

A Tori by the path

When we first started walking there were other people in front of us and behind us.  But as the day wore on and everyone found their own pace, we were mostly alone in the woods.

Thought, sometimes less alone than we thought.

The island has a special species of deer, the Yakushika.  They are found nowhere else in the world, and are the size of an average dog.  Without any natural predators, they are not shy, and we saw quite a few of them in our travels.

There is also a type of monkey, Yakuzaru, which exists only on the island.

Moss flourishes here as well.  There doesn't seem to be a way to capture the greenness of the island.  As mossy and green as these photos seem to me now, I remember our disappointment with them at the time.  Yakushima is a wonderland of intense, mossy greens.

And it is not only the trees who are giants, there are also sections of massive boulders.

(I am in this photo, in the centre at the top of the boulders)

A good thing to do at lunchtime, after having walked since dawn, is to cool your feet in the icy mountain waters of an emerald green river. 

And look up up up.

Or all around really.

And then, finally, near the top of the very highest mountain on the island, is the object of our little pilgrimage, Jomonsugi.  Every moment of this trip was a gorgeous wonder and a moss covered blessing. 

(For scale: Jomonsugi is about 25m tall and has a circumference of approx. 16m)

   Even as our ferry left the harbour a few days later, clouds seemed to be descending on the island from every direction, wrapping in close around it and hiding it, so that only a few moments from shore, the island already had the feeling of a thing dreamed, more than visited.  But an island of giant trees, tiny deer, rocks the size of houses, mist, and moss, surrounded by that gorgeous sea -- what could that be but a thing from a fairytale?

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Days with the Bodhi Tree

   One day, in India, I found that I had stumbled into an immense prayer ceremony, by accident.  I had been travelling east, on my way to Kolkata (Calcutta), to meet a yogic nun who ran a girls school and orphanage (which I later found out was more than a day's journey from the city), where I had said I would volunteer and teach English for a month.  Before I got to Kolkata though, I thought I might stop into Bodh Gaya, and visit the Bodhi Tree, under which Buddha was said to have attained enlightenment after three days and three nights of meditation.  The photo above is that very tree, decked out in prayer flags and finery for the ceremonies that were taking place.

   Doorway to the Bodhi Tree

   When I arrived in the town there seemed to be a flurry of preparations underway.

   I didn't know much at all about Buddhism when I arrived in town, but everywhere I went people kept stopping and talking to me, and soon I had learnt a few things.  I made friends with a monk who was visiting from Nepal for the ceremonies, and met up with him every afternoon for a cup of chai and a chat in the shade.  It was the Kagyu Monlam Chemno, a traditional prayer ceremony which is led by the Karmapa Lama in Bodh Gaya every year, drawing nuns and monks from all over the world.  Next I met two Englishmen who had been devout Buddhists for over twenty years, who invited me to dinner every evening and answered all my questions about Buddhism.  I also met a very nice man who was a Tibetan refugee, living in New Delhi at the time and working in a call centre who brought me to eat Tibetan food with him in a tent, dazzling me with his talk all the while.  And then there was a man called Siddharta who used to work with Mother Teresa and had been inspired by her to start an orphanage and school in his hometown.  I spent a day visiting and playing games with the boys there.
   There was also a couple from Singapore and another couple from Russia, both of which I chanced to run into separately later on,  in other parts of India.  And there were many others, too.


  As the ceremonies began there was so much to wonder at.

The Mahabodhi temple (being renovated here) is the main temple in Bodh Gaya

I followed tradition and walked clockwise around the Mahabodhi temple before entering.  As I walked I tried to reflect on all I was experiencing.  As I mentioned earlier, there were people from everywhere visiting for this ceremony, and with them they brought so many traditions and cultures.  I passed people in the gardens prostrating themselves over and over again before the temple.  Local children reached their arms in through the gates of the temple with bags of goldfish for sale.

One the right you can just make out monks who were chanting

I ended up staying in Bodh Gaya for longer than I had intended.  There was always one more thing I had told someone I'd do with them the next day, it seemed.

   One of my favourite memories happened in the temple in the above photograph.  My monk friend brought me in here with all of the older monks that had travelled with him from Nepal while they chanted together lines of prayers from their books. I cannot describe the intense, incredible feeling there.

   During most of each day there were mass prayers.  My friend also brought me in to sit with him and the other monks for a day of this.  I was a little island in a sea of saffron robes, watching the young monks (some looked to be no more than five years old) try to amuse themselves with quiet little games that helped them pass the long hours of listening and praying.  I felt a little conspicuous sitting there at first, but it wore off.

 Temporary art, made of what looked like icing. 

 Though I am not a Buddhist, I felt blessed to have been a small part of this.  How lovely never to know what tomorrow will bring.