Speaking about memory, the real reason we were unable to see the sunset had nothing to do with weather and had only to do with catching a plane to Bangkok. Our tour in Cambodia was three days and 2 nights. After viewing the Mountain Top Temple we drove straight to the airport. We flew out of Siem Riep just as the sun was setting. There we experienced our incredible good-bye sunset - high above the broken rain clouds - the rays of the dying day painting the sky with an incredible array of hues and shades of color - all reflected upon the puffs of water vapor - seemingly so substantial - and yet not really there.
At least that is what my memory tells me. And we know how reliable memory is. But what a pleasant memory, it is. Truth or fiction? We will never know. The shore of the past disappearing quickly below the horizon. And so with this tale of Time. This ancient empire, this trip, this writing experience, this reading experience - over so quickly - leaving just minuscule traces in the neural networks of our brain - constantly degenerating and then dead - maybe refreshed by an alternative memory and fused with another similar event - maybe a dream enters in - seeming to be reality - maybe our reality is but a dream. And Now is all there is. A tapestry of images from the past - mixed with expectations for the future - and the sensory input from the world that surrounds you. An exquisite blend of an multi-arrayed rush of mental input - which somehow seems to fit together - at least for the moment anyway - if we don’t look too closely.
Arrived late in Bangkok. Straight to a nondescript hotel for a nondescript dinner. Then awakening early Wednesday morning to tour Bangkok on our last day.
Me: “My Mind is packed full of memories. I don’t know if I can fit anymore in.”
Miranda: “Not me. I could keep on going forever.”
Serena: “I’m enjoying myself, but I’m ready to go home to Berkeley. I’m starting to think about the summer school classes that I’m missing to be here. I’ll be starting late as it is.”
Laurie: “Me too. I’ve had the time of my life. But I’m starting to miss Leo. Seeing those dogs at the Floating Village reminded me of my Jack Russell. I can’t wait to see his beaming face - his two little black eyes looking at me with love and affection.”
Me: “Gag. Your terrier is like a headache that has passed. I don’t think about him at all. I’m just grateful the aggravation is gone.”
Laurie: “Oooo. That’s mean.”
Miranda: “Haven’t you realized yet that he just says that to torture you.”
Serena: “Yeah Mom. If you just ignore him he will stop. He’s just trying to get a reaction.”
Me: “And she gives me one every time.”
As always we started the day at 9AM. Ms Lek from Chang Mai had arranged for a guide and driver to pick us up in the Hotel Lobby. Our guide was a tall man, who didn’t look quite Thai. In fact it turned out that his mother was Chinese, while his father was Thai.
Guide: “We are going to start with a boat ride on the Chao Phraya River. That’s a good way to experience our beautiful city.”
We drove through Bangkok to reach the river. It was like any other big city - freeways - overpasses - gas stations - fast food - and unclean air, dirty from smog. We boarded a long covered boat that could have easily accommodated 20 passengers, but we were the only ones aboard. We cruised out onto the broad river, which would soon empty into the Gulf of Thailand. The Chao Phraya River is the largest river in Thailand. It is fed by five large tributaries all originating in the south east corner of the Himalayas. The westernmost of these tributaries flows through Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand - tying the two capitals together. Ayutthaya the ancient capital also falls along the same network of water, The delta of the Chao Phraya is the western half of the Southeast Asian water basin, while the delta of the Mekong River is the eastern basin. While the Chao Phraya empties into the Gulf of Thailand the Mekong empties into the South China Sea.
The Khorat Plateau, the ancient center of Southeast Asian culture is northeast Thailand. Its eastern border is a northern stretch of the Mekong River. North and east of the Mekong is the country of Laos, located in the foothills of the Southeast mountainous fingers of Himalayas. South of the Khorat Plateau is the country of Cambodia, which we had just left - which is the water basin of Tonle Sap, which flows into the Mekong delta, which is South Vietnam.
Anyway the Chao Phraya delta consists of a network of inlets, rather than a single outlet, just like any other major river delta. Due to the volume of water, the flow fractalizes as it reaches it destination. Anyway our river tour proceeded down one of these inlets. Merchants approached us on boats to sell us fruit, nuts, or souvenirs.
Guide: “This is the famous Floating Market of Bangkok. You can get everything without leaving your boat. They sell to those who live in the houses or boats on the river front, as well as the tourists who pass by.”
Tingling up my spine as I see an old friend in an unexpected circumstance.
Me: “Hey, who’s that over there on the left?”
Guide: “That’s a statue of Kuan Yin, Goddess of the waterfront.”
Me: “Kuan Yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion. I know her well. I’ve actually spent lots of time with her.”
Laurie: “In your imagination.”
Me: “But she’s Chinese.”
Guide: “There are many Chinese living here. I’m half Chinese, myself. She’s very popular here in Bangkok, with all our waterways.”
Serena: “Look at that temple over there on the left. It’s gorgeous.”
Guide: “We’re going there right now. It’s called Wat Arum or the Temple of the Dawn.”
Laurie: “Amazing. It looks like its covered in ceramics.”
Guide: “It is. Chinese ceramics.
Miranda: “It seems totally different from all the other Thai temples that we’ve seen - which were decorated with mirrors, tiles, and gold leaf.”
Guide: “You’re right. It was built in the early 1800s, when the Chinese influence was at its peak. Many Chinese traders and craftsman had been encouraged to come to rebuild Thailand, which had been sacked by the Burmese in the late 1700s.”
Me: “Theravada Buddhist Burma invaded Theravada Buddhist Thailand? I thought Buddhism was based in non-violence.”
Guide: “It is. But politics and religion are different.”
Serena: “Don’t be naive Dad. Catholic countries attack Catholic countries. Protestant countries attack Protestant countries. Muslims fight Muslims. What’s new.”
Me: “But I thought that Buddhism was somehow different - based as it is in non-violence.”
Miranda: “People are people everywhere. Jesus was also a pacifist. We could hardly call Christian nations pacifist.”
Laurie: “As far as I’m concerned those God people are the most warlike around. Always fighting over beliefs, rather focusing upon beautification and harmony.”
Guide: “Well here we are. Watch your step. I’ll let you explore by yourself. I’m not that religious myself, but I would prefer that you respect tradition and walk around the temple, clockwise. That is the proper way. All the guides know this but many don’t tell the tourists.”
To say that we were totally blown away by the beauty of the temple complex would be understating our reaction. It was covered with Chinese ceramics and guarded by Chinese statues. It was built in Thailand when it had already converted to Theravada Buddhism, supposedly the narrow path. But here was a temple in the style of the Hindu shrines which were devoted to Shiva. And yet it incorporated many of the stylistic themes of Angkor in Cambodia. An incredible multi-cultural blend. As such, it was classic Thai.
The picture on the left is one of the corner spires. Note that it has its own corner spire represented on the bottom right. Part of the complex also includes the pointed spire of the Buddhist temples shown in the middle right. This is great example of how the Thai are able to blend many diverse artistic worlds into an integral whole. Note also that the interior space is only meant to house a small representation of a god or a member of the royal family. It is not meant to house an entire city, as at Angkor.
Note the rounded spires. They are unlike the lotus bulb spires of Angkor or the pointed spires of the Buddhist temples. In fact they are intended to resemble the lingam or phallus, which is the symbol of Shiva. In most Southeast Asian shrines devoted to Shiva, he is not shown as a man. He is almost always represented by the lingam. Thus externally the Temple of the Dawn immediately symbolizes Shiva for those who know.
However Shiva represents the male potency derived from asceticism, not that derived from sexual eroticism. That is reserved for Tantric manifestations of spirituality. As such Shiva is also the God of Yoga. Lest there be confusion let it be stressed that in the East Yoga is not merely a form of exercise and concentration as it tends to be in the West. Instead Yoga is any means of denial which enables one to transcend the Verbal Duality to experience Reality directly. Any form of exercise, breath control, or concentration that stops short of this goal is not a real Yoga in the Indian sense. In the West Shiva is known as the God of Destruction. This has to do with his function of destroying the verbal world of polarities that we tend to cling desperately to, just as a baby clings to his rattle and screams frantically when someone attempts to take it away from him.
So our temple is devoted to Shiva and his symbol, the phallus. Note the quincunx arrangement of the spires - one in the center with four more in the corners. This design was initiated and developed by the Khmer in the temples at Angkor. Each of the sides face one of the cardinal directions. As such the sun rises between the external spires to cast a reflection on the Chao Phraya River as in our picture. Note also how this Cambodian design is repeated at the top of the temple, with four small spires surrounding the main phallus, which is fully erect and pointed to the heavens.
So we have a shrine devoted to an Indian god, which employs the Cambodian style of temple. Note the red roofed subsidiary temples in the foreground. These have the classic line of the Chinese roof. Note the smaller spire on the right of the picture. This has the classic pointed spire of the Buddhist temples, the chedi. Despite the multiplicity of styles, the entire complex blends organically into a magnificent work of art - unlike the Hearst castle in California with its hodge podge of styles thrown together almost randomly.
These were our impressions as we approached the temple from the river. As we entered the complex on foot we discovered that it had the same type of terracing characteristic of Angkor - and many other Asian temples as well, as we were to discover. While Angkor had much interior space, the main temple of Wat Arum had virtually none. This was more characteristic of the Hindu shrines in India.
Above is a picture of us at the base of the temple. Note the gorgeous Chinese tiles which decorate the alternating square sides of the foundation. This zig zag on the corners is reminiscent of the yantra, a sacred Hindu design. It is duplicated in Angkor as well as Borobudur, a famous Buddhist monument in Java.
We climbed the steps to the first terrace. And who was there to greet us but a Chinese statue - seen below in his own picture.
This figure and others like it emphasized the uniquely Chinese aspect of the temple.
Remember that in the temples at Angkor there were almost always some type of sculpted pictures in relief - telling some type of story - as in the Ramayana, or representing scenes from mythology - as in the churning the milk to create the world, or perhaps some type of historical scene - as in the battle scene commemorating the Khmer victory over the Cham. Even in the Buddhist temples there were frequently some type of figure having some allegorical significance - as the Naga which guarded the Buddha who had some type of position which represented some message.
Alternately the Temple of the Dawn has no allegories, stories, morals, or histories etched into its walls. As mentioned, the main symbolism is the lingam spires themselves, which recalls the potency of Shiva in destroying the artificial world of polarities.
This is fitting. To recall some type of story draws the viewer into the world of good and evil, better and worse. These are the worlds that Shiva destroys. However the world of art transcends the polarity. There is no good or evil - right or wrong. Indeed to truly experience any art the Viewer needs to suspend judgment to enter into the Spirit of the Artist. Thus this temple with no morals most clearly embodies the quest to move beyond polarities which dominate our human world.
The inherent harmony and beauty integral to the temple stun the verbal world of the Viewer - paralyzing the intellectual Judge - allowing one to merge with the Art - losing one’s artificial conception of the self, which has been generated by a life time of verbal conditioning.
The nature of this artistic message is clearly exhibited by the above photograph of demons who seemingly hold up the entire structure. They are dressed in a typical Thai costume exhibiting a classic pose of the Thai dancers. Hence we have dancers holding up the firmament - artists of physical movement - not warriors.
Moreover these dancers are just part of a greater pattern. Return to the painted picture of the Temple of the Dawn (discovered on a TShirt) and note that these demon dancers blend seamlessly into the whole. There are at least three levels of these stylized figures which support Shiva’s lingam. If the Viewer did not know that they were there, looking from afar one would think that they were just part of the abstract pattern.
One last thing. A classic Chinese message, as well as Khmer, Hindu and Martial, is the Circling of the Square. In many Asian temples the base is square and the top is round. One interpretation is that we must attempt to fit the continuous divine circle of Heaven into the discontinuous square of human reality. Overwhelmed by the square the human is fragmented and disjoint. Unconnected to the square the Initiate is lost in ethereal concepts without any root in reality. Fitting the circle in the square is not easy, but mandatory for spiritual advancement. This is one interpretation of the symbolism.
This idea, fundamental to deeper levels of thought, is embodied exquisitely in this temple. While the base is square, as delimited by the quincunx pattern of the spires, the phallic top is pure round. Not only that but, as exhibited in the picture below, the transition from square to round occurs continuously - seamlessly - without a break - uniformly from bottom to top. The zig zag pattern of the corners is duplicated on smaller and smaller levels the higher the rise until the zig zags appear to become rounded. No edges. A truly spectacular representation of this complex concept.