Friday, June 20, 2008

The Malaysia Diaries: Following Buddha

Even my mother was asking when I was going to post another Malaysia Diary, so I know I've been slacking for too long. Hopefully, you guys are still interested in this stuff. ("What? When did you go to Malaysia? That was weeks ago.") This isn't the entry I originally planned to post, but I'm in kind of a contemplative mood today. On our second day in Malaysia, my uncle Alex took us sight-seeing, and kept mentioning "Sleeping Buddha, Sitting Buddha, and Standing Buddha." I figured we'd just be going to one altar with three statues lined up next to one another. As usual, I had it wrong.

Each temple was its own separate spectacle located around Kota Bharu. Besides the extravagant statues and altars, each complex still had a residence for monks and a proper place for worship. I was worried we might be interfering with something, but as you can see, these temples are set up for visitation and tourism. This is one of the largest sleeping (or reclining) Buddha statues in southeast Asia. When I heard that, my first thought was "one of... ?" I mean, there can't be a bigger one, right?

Compared to the other Buddha statues and temples we visited afterwards, Sleeping Buddha seemed more like a tourist attraction, with wide corridors and concourses created for onlookers and photo opportunities. Yet because of all the open space, and because the five of us were the only ones on site at the time (besides the monks, I'm assuming, and the stray dogs that were dragging around), it was probably the most peaceful and serene of the settings despite the showy surroundings.

It didn't occur to me when I took this picture, but it kind of looks like the smaller Buddha is tickling those giant feet. Cootchie, cootchie, coo! If those feet were within reach, I probably would've tried for a tickle myself. And I probably would've felt like a desecrating jerkface afterwards. There were far more statues than I'm showing here (and I hope to put everything up on Flickr this weekend), and to throw a little bit of geek on it, the setting reminded me of the cave with the seven statues from the Shazam! comic books.

The Sitting Buddha was probably the most elegant and beautiful of the temples we visited. Where the Sleeping Buddha appeared sort of molded and plastic, his sitting counterpart looked as if some serious work with hammer and chisel had been done. The craftsmanship - not just on the statue itself, but the entire complex - was amazing. One big difference is that there wasn't much shelter from the sun, however, and like every other day in Malaysia, it was hot. But I suppose that added to the surreality of the setting. Looking up into the sun at Buddha, with heat bouncing off the concrete and sweat pouring down the face, frequently felt like an invitation to enlightenment.

I can't believe one of these monkey wasn't wiping the sweat off their brow. Of course, they were probably used to the heat. Everyone seemed to be, except the fat gringo from the States. Oh, did those bandanas come in handy. (And that will most certainly be a future diary entry. The heat, that is, not the bandanas.) I also think the monkeys move and go for the papayas growing nearby, either when no one's looking or when it's dark.

Maybe I was more conscious of it as we hopped from Buddha to Buddha, but driving around Malaysia, you get an idea of how diverse the religious beliefs are among the people there. It's largely a Muslim country, so many women are dressed in robes, veils, and head scarves. Enormous mosques dominate the streetscape every few miles or so. Buddhist temples and monasteries can also be seen, though they tend to be overshadowed (with the exception of the elaborate shrines we visited) by the hulking mosques and surrounding traffic. And if you look hard enough, you can also find some Christian churches.

My mother's family is an interesting reflection of that complexity. Most of her relatives are Buddhist, and some converted to Islam in marriage, but she went to Catholic school as a teenager, and ended up influencing her siblings upon her return. They're most certainly a religious minority in their country (9.1% of the population, according to the 2000 census), and even within their own households. I'm sure there's a story behind that, which I'll have to hear someday.

Standing Buddha was the final leg of our tour, and it seems appropriate that he was at the top of a long stairway. If you want enlightenment, shouldn't you have to work a little bit for it? And to add to the experience, shed your sandals at the top of the stairs and let the marble that's been baking under the sun all day scald your soles. (Or should that be "souls"?) Of course, there always has to be some joker who sees those stairs and has to imitate Rocky Balboa.

Some of you might think I'm raising my arms in triumph after scaling those stairs. Actually, I'm screaming in my pain from the soft, supple flesh of my feet burning against white-hot marble. Or maybe I stepped in some of the doggie-doo that was lurking around. ("Where's a hose??") Actually, I managed to step around it without even looking, which might be an indication that I'm on the right path.