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Saturday, November 7, 2020

Paris, at Le Marais


I and a few colleagues used our free day after a business meeting in Paris to go Le Marais district. Coming out from the Hotel de Ville metro station, we were struck by the huge Hotel de Ville directly in front of the metro station.  I was wondering how expensive it would be to stay in such a grand Hotel. But actually, it is not a hotel, it is a Municipal Building. After some googling I found that in French ‘hotel’ could mean home, building, residence, so it does not always mean hotel as the place to rent rooms to stay for tourists.  Nowadays, in addition to its city administrative function, Hotel de Ville is also a place of art and culture. There are many interesting exhibitions inside the building and the at the square in front of the building. 

Hotel de Ville, the largest Municipal Building in Europe, is located on the banks of the Seine river and the edge of Le Marais district. The streets lead us to the fashionable district, full of lovely shops, cafes and art galleries. Today, Le Marais is one of the best districts in Paris, a mix of medieval architecture, trendy shops, cultural sights and lifestyle that is unique. A district of narrow streets on the right bank of the Seine river, where you can enjoy this historic place, the aesthetic buildings and  the French culinary. 

Eight hundred years ago, Le Marais was a swamp. The French word ‘marais’ literally translates to ‘swamp’ in English, thus this place was called Le Marais because of the swampy quality of the land on the banks of the Seine. To provide new agricultural space, the swampy areas were turned into commercial gardening. For a long time, this area fell in and out of style due to changes in the fertility of the land and the difficulty of building on the swampy area. 

In the 16th century, king Henry IV dried Le Marais and the place became the favourite area to build prestigious mansions, where most of the greatest aristocratic French families lived. The golden age of Le Marais continued till the 17th century, making it a center of artistic and cultural life. The nobles built their mansions (in French: ‘hotel particulier’) such as Hotel de Sens, Hotel de Sully, Hotel de Beauvais, Hotel Carnavalet, Hotel de Guénégaud and Hotel de Soubise. The mansions were decorated magnificently, with refined furniture and some luxury items from this golden period. 

Following the up and down of the Bourbon monarchy, the economic depression, the French revolution, the restoration of Paris, Le Marais also went up and down. It was raised in the 16th century, destroyed during revolution and wars, reserved by André Malraux in 1962, then renewed by the municipal council in 1969. 

Strolling through Le Marais today we can appreciate the aesthetics of the area as it became a popular commercial area, and hosting one of Paris’ main Jewish communities. It also became a fashionable district, most of the mansions turned to museum, libraries and schools, surrounded by the best clothes and food shops, and modern art galleries. 



Saturday, October 17, 2020

Bangkok, at Night


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Bangkok is one of those places where at the moment the day slowly progresses to the night you still have enough to see as long as you are not tired. The scenic spots, the palaces and temples, are best visited during the day, but at night, Bangkok takes on a whole different face. Parties, night markets, nightclubs, street food and unique shows come to life luring the visitors to experience the night in the city.

Street shopping by day is exciting despite the heat of the sun in this city, but as the day cools down in the evening, the night markets opened up like blooming night flowers offering so much more than the day markets, clothes, shoes, handicrafts, fake designer goods, accessories, beachwear, souvenirs and of course snack and drink. In the narrow alleyway brightly lighted with portable neon, you can see row upon row of stalls lining the street markets. Colorful goods are displayed on the stalls as attractive as possible, and energic vendors raise their voices to promote their goods. When buying, don’t forget to bargain, generally you can get a merchandise somewhere between 25% and 50% cheaper than the first price offered by the vendor. So don’t hesitate to bargain and bring home some memorable souvenirs from here.

Many of busiest night markets are located alongside the popular red-light district, such as the Silom Night market. It is in the middle of the Patpong district, a famous red light featured in the movie The Deer Hunter and in James Bond Goldfinger movie. Patpong is two parallel side streets, between Silom and Surawongse Roads, occupied with shady strip bars offering adult shows and pole dancing. As the evening turns into night those bars come alive with the start of loud dancing music. You can see through the open doors the girls started gyrating at the poles and dancing, under violet neon lights. The loud voices of the street vendors are replaced with the whispering touts offering everything from “ping pong show” to “massage”.

Undoubtedly the face of this Patpong contributes to the name of Bangkok as the Sin City. Prostitution may take place in many places in Bangkok, massage parlours, restaurants, saunas, karaoke, go-go bars or beer bars. The names to the bars are so bold, such as Pussy Collection, Super Pussy, Pink Pussy… hard to miss. The original “discreet” or “underground” nightlife in Patpong doesn’t seem to exists anymore. The go-go bars at the backdrop of the night market even became a tourist attraction.

So what happened to the face of Bangkok which name means City of Angels, where orange robed monks wander the streets in the early mornings with a bowl in their hands, where mothers since more than 2,500 years ago have been cooking meals to give to the monks, where there are thousands of temples inside the city, and there are altars in every crowded corner of the city to placate the spirits….?

Does Thai Buddhism tolerate such widely spread prostitution by not correcting the attitudes toward women whom are regarded as inferior and even dangerous to men, or does the religion contribute to the view that women are viewed as inherently impure and therefore not eligible for enlightenment, and are thus locked into degraded positions ranging from sex trade laborers to nuns as a means to generate merit for themselves and their family?

Although Buddhism has played a significant role in shaping law, cultural frameworks and social life in the kingdom of Thailand, I think many factors contribute to the wide spread prostitution, let’s say the World War 2, the Vietnam War, the poverty in the country where prostitutes can get 10 times more than the minimum wage, and not to mention the corruptions, the lack of law enforcement, and the Mafia  that is also involved in the political parties.

Despite the wide spread prostitution here, it is actually prohibited under Thai law. But karaoke bars, go-go bars and massage parlours can be registered as normal, legal businesses. Police usually treat the prostitution at such premises as an exchange between the prostitute and the client, an exchange to which the owner of the business was not a party.  So in practice it is tolerated, sometimes because local officials have financial interests in the prostitution. Some corrupt Thai authorities may turn a blind eye on this USD 6 billion industry, involving some 2 million women in Thailand.




Saturday, September 26, 2020

Bangkok, at the Grand Palace

What more to say about the Grand Palace of Bangkok, there are so many things to see and photograph, statues of animal-like humans, sparkling golden tiled walls and roofs, gardens, paintings, soaring spires, golden stupas, the endless row of gold Garudas, and not to mention the highly venerated Emerald Buddha. No wonder that the Grand Palace has been the center of Thai art and culture for centuries and regarded as the model of every branch of Thai art. The palace is considered the reflection of the Thai identity.

When King Rama I ordered the move of the capital to the Phra Nakhon District in 1782, he established the Grand Palace as the new center of the kingdom. He drew inspiration from the palace in Ayutthaya , the former capital of Siam, destroyed by the Burmese in the 1767. The Grand Palace was strategically placed next to the Chao Phraya River to emulate the palace of Ayutthaya. The layout of the Grand Palace, which covers 213,677 square metre space, also emulates the old palace in Ayutthaya with separate courts, walls, gates and forts. These different zones within the palace complex include the Outer Court, the Central Court, the Inner Court and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In order to find the necessary material for the construction of the Grand Palace, King Rama I instructed his people to go to the destroyed Ayutthaya, to dismantle and remove of bricks and stones which were painstakingly towed downriver to form the new palace.

Part of the Grand Palace complex, Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is the holiest Buddhist temple in Thailand and home to the Emerald Buddha. Chaophraya Chakri, who became King Rama I, brought the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane when he captured the city in 1778. He built the temple and enshrined the Emerald Buddha there as a symbol of Siam's regained nationhood.

The mythical and historical past of the statue created an important belief surrounding the Emerald Buddha. It is believed that it protected a monarch, their city or capital. If a king was dethroned or defeated in battle, the Emerald Buddha was taken as a hostage and kept in the capital of the victor. It is thought to have spiritual power and is an extremely important icon to the Thai people.

But I was surprised to see the legendary Emerald Buddha looked so tiny, 66 centimetres in height, perched high on a nine-metre pedestal that reaches almost to the ceiling of the temple. The Emerald Buddha, carved from a single piece of grey-green jade, is elevated above the heads of visitors as a sign of respect. You also must sit with your feet pointing away from the Emerald Buddha as a sign of respect.

I found the most breathtaking aspect of the Emerald Buddha Temple is its decorated outer walls. The walls are covered with 178 colorful mural panels painted during the reign of Rama I showing scenes from the Ramakien, which is Thailand’s version of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. In the Ramakien, names, dress, customs, weapons and even the topography all relate to the Thai kingdom. Rama being incarnated from the Hindu god Vishnu, in Ramakien he is a reincarnation of the Buddha. His kingdom Ayodhya in the Ramayana epic is changed to Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand.



Friday, September 4, 2020

Bangkok, at the Siam Paragon

Along the roads of Bangkok, we can see that this city is a heaven for consumerism. Billboards are everywhere, huge and bright, advertising big companies from Samsung to Toyota.  Even high-rise buildings are also stuck with huge billboards. In a way it looks awesome.

Also at the sky metro train stations, you cannot be bored waiting for the trains as there are many colorful billboard screens with happy pretty artists offering cosmetics, fruit juices, and, of course, all kind of clothes.  It seems that these ’influencers’ are following us everywhere like street vendors offering their goods, and chasing you if you don’t pay attention to them, starting from the time you wait for the sky trains till you reach your destination.  And yes, even inside the trains there are many tv screens showing advertisements. They are the virtual street vendors, but with broad smiles and white teeth, dancing and jumping dynamically that follow you everywhere, in contrast with the real street vendors with rugged clothing, sunburnt face, sadly offering their goods as if begging.

As the sky-train arrived at the Siam station interchange station, let’s forget about the street vendors, as we are arriving to the Siam Paragon shopping mall, the paragon of shopping malls. Occupying one of the busiest transit intersections in the city, the shopping mall takes advantage of its prominent location by serving as a critical link to the surrounding district. According to Arcadis, the architect company of this shopping mall, the design reflects the level of luxury envisioned by the Arcadis team with a dramatic glass atrium that serves as the mall’s grand entrance. Perhaps the designer’s greatest accomplishment - and challenge-is the way it addresses issues of circulation and layout of this shopping mall.

Inside, it is a wonderland of high-end boutiques lining up at the lobby from Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel, followed by Fendi, Bottega Venetta. The shop windows are nicely decorated with the boutique’s latest fashion, clothes, bags, shoes, etc. displayed to suit the season, this time the theme is ‘The year of the Dog’.  Dogs are displayed playing with bags, shoes, wallets inside the windows. We can say that the shop windows are quite a creative work by itself, they are really enticing our consumeristic instinct. We can see some Chinese tourists lining up obediently in front of the Louis Vuitton’s door.

Luxurious is an understatement for this shopping mall, as it not only has high-end boutiques, but also show rooms for very expensive and exclusive cars, Rolls Royce, Aston Martin, Bentley, Lamborghini, Maserati, Ducati and Porsche. The cars look so impeccable, but inside the glass cased show-rooms they look like toys in large scale inside glass box. And the shop attendants seemed bored by themselves as nobody came inside the show-rooms.

But that is not all…., there is an Ocean Aquarium in the basement, multiplex cinemas with 15 large screens, Thai Art Gallery, the KidZania for kids to learn and play, the Japanese chain Kinokuniya bookstore, the Paragon department store, a super market and not to mention the high-end restaurants. And it even has an Opera Theatre on the 5th floor!

On the way down the escalators I could hear a background music by REM in ‘Shiny Happy People’:
‘Whoa, here we go…
Everyone around, love them, love them.
Put it in your hands, take it, take it.
There's no time to cry, happy, happy…’


Saturday, August 8, 2020

An Interview with Haruki

Recently I followed the Japanese TV drama “Aibou” (Partners), a detective drama series on internet. The drama is quite interesting, like many Japanese detective movies this drama series has a very complicated plot, so complicated that it is hard to swallow. It seems that the story writer made it complicated in an attempt to enhance mystery, to make it harder to guess ‘who done it’. Other than that, the stories sometimes reflect the unique Japanese culture and tradition, like the sense of perfection, honesty, pride in profession, honour and sacrifice for the community, which intertwined with the criminal deed in the drama.

However, as I reached episode 9 and 10 of Season 11 my jaw dropped watching it, as the underlying tradition of the story was so peculiar and appalling. I could not imagine how somebody could this mysterious practice in real life. But knowing that this drama series often include Japanese tradition in the story, the practice must be a reality, not a fiction.

The crime took place in a remote mountain area covered with dense forest, a place so serene and peaceful such that it is hard to imagine a crime could take place here. The crime was compelled by an 11th century ancient practice called Sokushinbutsu, an act of self-mummification of a Buddhist monk to be “a Buddha in this very body”. In Sokushinbutsu practice the monk intentionally died to preserve his own body to become a mummy, in the quest for nirvana.

I was curious to find-out what drove this religious tradition, how could it happen this way? So I contacted Haruki, a Buddhist monk I know, living in the Churenji Temple in Dewa Sanzan, Yamagata prefecture. I took a 4 hours ride on Shinkansen and express train from Tokyo to the closest station in Tsuruoka. The travel passed through one of the most serene places in the country, viewing the country side of Japan, mountains, marked with temples and shrines hidden in dense forest. After arriving at the Tsuroka I took a bus to Churenji Temple to meet Haruki, but as the temple is not open for public that day, we went to a small tea house near there to chat.

I started the chat:
“This serene place in Yamagata prefecture is said to be one of the most beautiful places to travel in the country.  I am fortunate to see the beauty of this place surrounded by mountains covered with tall cedar trees forming a dense forest, which made us feel like the trees reaching over us to give us a shelter and protection from the storms. The towering mountains are regarded as hostile, dangerous places for human beings to venture, while the forest gives us an overwhelming peaceful feeling.

So I think, we can understand that in the remote past the old Shinto (Koshinto) worshipped the nature, known as animism in the Western world. The beauty and serenity of this place is so overwhelming that they consider every element of nature as divine. Mountains, seas and rivers are all divine spirits or god (kami in Japanese), as are the sun, the moon, and the North Star. The wind and thunder are also kami. In short, Koshinto holds that nothing in this world or this cosmos is devoid of divine energy; the kami are present everywhere.

This mount Yudono where the Churenji Temple is located, is also considered as one of the sacred mountain of the 3 mountains Dewa Sanzan. Can you elaborate about this please.”

 “Mountains have played a prominent role in Japanese religion since ancient times. Tall mountains were regarded as hostile and dangerous, but they were worshiped as the source of the life-giving rivers that nourished the farms and villages below. Soaring into the heavens and often hidden in clouds, such mountains were viewed as heaven and treated with awe and respect. Without being a Shinto, all human being could have the same image of the mountains like these.

Mount Yudono is one of the centers of mountain worship in Dewa Sanzan ("three mountains of Dewa") in Yamagata Prefecture. The 3 mountains are Haguro-san, Gas-san and Yudono-san; Haguro-san represents birth, Gas-san represents death and Yudono-san represents rebirth, the mountains are usually visited in that order.

Dewa Sanzan is a center of Shugendo, a religion based on mountain worship, blending Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Shugendo practitioners, perform deeds of sacrifice as a way of transcending the physical world. Training includes such tasks as long pilgrimages and severe meditations.”

I said:
“So how is this mountain and the worship became the center of Sokushinbutsu, a practice of self-mummification of a monk?”

“Sokushinbutsu is a severe ascetic practice of Shugendo, monks tried preserve their own bodies as mummies through extreme diet and meditation. The monks believed that enlightenment could be reached in the current world, and they believed that leaving behind a trace of Buddha in this realm in the form of a Sokushinbutsu, they could provide salvation to the townspeople even after their death.”

I said:
“How did they do self-mummification?”

“The ritual of self-mummification is very long and very painful. It is not a simple sacrifice and the monk put an end to his life following a long process of mortification with a last stage lasted about 1.000 days. The monk’s diet was limited to only to those that can be found on the mountain, such as nuts, buds, berries, tree bark and pine needles.  This diet was called mokujikigyo, which literally means “tree-eating training”. When the monk was not searching for food he spent his time in meditation on the mountain. This diet was intended to toughen the spirit and from a biological point of view, the severe diet intended to remove fat, muscle and moisture. The expected effect was to avoid decomposition of the body after death. The monk also drank a toxic tea made from tree bark (toxicodendron verniculum) which was expected to hastened death and made the body even less hospitable to the bacteria and parasites that would decompose his body after death.  The tree bark contains the same toxic compound that makes poison ivy so poisonous.

After this, the monk would cut out all food, drink a limited amount of salinized water for a hundred days. At the completion this cycle, the monk was considered spiritually ready to enter ‘nyujo’ or meditative stillness. When the monk felt death approaching, his disciples would lower him into a pine box at the bottom of a pit 3 meters deep with its walls lined with stone, a tomb just big enough him to sit in the lotus position. Empty space would be filled with charcoal to remove humidity.

Once the pit was secured shut, two bamboo tubes would be inserted to funnel down drinking water and act as air vents. Bells would be attached on both ends of one of the tubes, a device used by the monk to signal that he was still alive. Once the ringing stopped for good, the bamboo tubes would be pulled out to seal the pit.

For the next three years and three months, the corpse would be left in the underground cell. On the final day, the body would be unearthed. If no decay was found, the body was determined to be a true Sokushinbutsu and enshrined.”

I said:
“Wasn’t the process considered as a suicide?”

“Although it resembled as suicide on the surface, the Buddhist considered it as "abandonment of the body". Having already extinguished in himself any desire, the monk could in all clearness pass into nirvana by the process of death. The death was the sacrifice of himself out of compassion for the benefit all living being, for instance during an era of serious epidemic. But anyway this practice was outlawed by the Meiji Restoration, when Shinto was separated from Buddhism and declared the official religion of Japan”.

I said:
“How did this Sokushinbutsu practice started?”
“It appeared in China during the 4th century and in Japan in the beginning of the 9th century.  According to Japanese legend, the monk Kukai, also known as Kobo Daishi after his death, entered in deep meditation, or ‘Samadhi’, at the end of his life till he died, at mount Koya in the south of Osaka. Monk Kukai was the founder of Shingon, the exoteric school of Buddhism.  Some 70 years after his death, another high level monk went up on imperial order to the top of mount Koya to open the burial and found the body was intact. Legend has it that Kukai had not died but entered into an eternal meditation and is still alive on Mount Koya, awaiting the appearance of Maitreya, the future Buddha.”

I said:
“So where is Kobo Daishi’s body kept? Is it displayed to the public?”

“The mausoleum of Kobo Daishi is located in Mt. Koya and is the most sacred place in the mountain. The door of the mausoleum was not reopened except every fifty years by the Archbishop of mount Koya to cut the nails and the hair and to change his clothes for him which will then be used to manufacture amulets for the faithful. Kobo Daishi is known to be in meditation in his mausoleum but his body is absolutely not displayed or visible. The body must be considered closer to the relics which represent the pure "Essence of the Buddhas” who are in reliquaries like the stupa.“

I said:
“But in Churenji temple visitors can see the body of Tetsumonkai, although taking photograph is not allowed.”

“Yes, the famous body of Tetsumonkai is displayed in this temple where it sits in its own altar. With his cupped palms facing upward, he is set up for perpetual meditation, just as he intended as he was dying nearly two centuries ago. His dead body with a grinning like skull is clothed in orange robe, purple and saffron scarf and a golden hood, like a high-ranking monk cloth. It offers a proof of someone who succeeded in his effort to become a respected mummy.”

I said:
“Who was Tetsumonkai?”

“Tetsumonkai, is the most famous of all Sokushinbutsu. Born Sunada Tetsu in 1759, he was a river worker who dug wells and floated lumber, and was known for his stormy temperament. One day, according to one story, he pierced the leg of an official in charge of river construction as he was angered by his arrogance. Another story describes him killing a samurai during a fight over a favorite prostitute. In any case, Tetsu fled to escape his pursuers and joined the seminary at Churenji in his 20s to a life of austerity and named as Tetsumonkai.

During his live as a monk, records indicate that Tetsumonkai was a widely traveled and respected holy man with numerous legends to his name. Once when he was visiting Edo, he witnessed the outbreak of an eye disease that caused great suffering. He proceeded to gorge his left eye out and offered it to the Sumida River in prayer for a cure. Later research found that his left eye in the mummy is indeed missing, which in a way confirmed the story.

Tetsumonkai’s missionary work centered on the Shonai region, but the monuments show it extended from the Kanto region up through Hokkaido. He is remembered for gathering 10,000 volunteer workers to build a new road through a mountain connecting Kamo Port to Tsuruoka, to facilitate trade. He left an enduring impact on many people of that time. Till now, there are festivals based on Tetsumonkai’s teachings.

However, the most compelling of his legends may be another one involving self-mutilation. At one point, Tetsumonkai is said to have been visited by a prostitute, possibly the same one he fought with the samurai for. The woman tried to convince Tetsumonkai to come back to the city with her, but he refused. To prove his resolution and dedication to a life of austerity, he disappeared and shortly returned with a small package for her. Inside were his bloody testicles. He had sliced them off.

The object is said to have made its way around prostitutes of the local pleasure quarters as a good luck charm, and was eventually sent to Nangakuji Temple in Tsuruoka, where it was preserved as a relic. Adding weight to the legend, the genitals are missing from Tetsumonkai’s mummified body.

I said:
“ Was the temple really in possession of Tetsumonkai’s testicles? “

“Yes, but they’re not for public viewing. Tetsumonkai’s blood group is B, which was also the blood group of the testicles found in Nangakuji, according to past scientific research. Academics at the time concluded that it was highly likely that the dried testicles belonged to a man who endured extreme physical abuse in the name of meditation training before being entombed at the age of 71.”

I said:
“Are the Sokushinbutsu mummies the same as the Egyptian mummies?”

“The body of the Pharaohs was embalmed in ancient Egypt. The internal organs were entirely withdrawn and replaced by medicinal herbs. The body was thus reduced to nothing an envelope of dried flesh and bone.
Contrary to the Egyptian mummies, those of the Sokushinbutsu mummies preserved their internal organs because the process of mummification began while they were alive and the internal organs were regarded as centres of vital energy. The bodies of certain mummies of the Yudono mount, in order to preserve them perfectly, are sometimes also coated with dried lacquer. So the vitality of the worship implied that the Buddhist mummies are not simply perceived as "remains", or "empty shells", they are animated, full with vitality; they exist simultaneously in this world and in the plenitude of Nirvana.

I said:
“It’s easy to dismiss the Sokushinbutsu phenomenon as an obscure ritual that died out as the nation marched toward modernization in the late 19th century. But can you elaborate the meaning of death in Buddhism?”

“The Sokushinbutsu mummies provide a fascinating window into the culture of pre-modern Japan through their practice of passion, hardships, sacrifice and intense religious fervor culminating in the attainment of Buddha-hood in the flesh. The Western concept of death is an immediate and severe termination of life, while for Eastern concept death is of a gradual process.

The Sokushinbutsu worship keeps the saint alive and offers a unique perspective of humankind struggle in the quest for Nirvana, before and after the death. “


This is an imaginary interview about Sokushinbutsu



Sunday, July 26, 2020

Bangkok, at Wat Arun

Many of Bangkok’s most famous temples and historical monuments lie on the banks of the Chao Phraya River which flows through the city and the best way to visit them is by a motor boat.  These boats offer a refreshing alternative to the Bangkok notoriously congested traffic.

Wat Arun, or Temple of Dawn, is a Buddhist temple (or ‘wat’) is the most famous temple on the banks of the Chao Phraya river.  At first I confused it with ‘Temple of Doom’ of Indiana Jone’s movie. Actually it is called Temple of Dawn as the first light of the morning reflects off the surface of the temple on the Chao Phraya river creates a wonderful cinematic vision. Also, the Temple of Dawn derives its name from the Hindu god Aruna, the charioteer of Surya, the sun. ‘Arun’ in Sanskrit means the rays of the rising sun, thus Aruna is often personified as the radiations of the rising sun and became a symbol of Dawn.

During the war with Burmese and Chinese armies in the 1760’s the Ayutthaya Kingdom was essentially in ruins. One of the Siamese general fighting the war, Phya Taksin, viewed the Wat Makok temple ruins at dawn from the Chao Phraya River and swore to rebuild it once the war was over.

General Phya Taksin led the liberation of Siam from Burmese occupation in 1767, and the subsequently unified Siam after it fell under various warlords. As the King of Siam, he then established the city of Thonburi as the new capital near the Wat Makok temple, as the city of Ayutthaya had been almost completely destroyed by the invaders. He rebuilt Wat Makok and renamed it Wat Jaeng, Temple of Dawn. The temple was highly revered, and for a time even held one of Thailand's greatest Buddhist relics, the Emerald Buddha.

Phya Taksin was overthrown and executed in a rebellion by his long-time friend Maha Ksatriyaseuk who then assumed the throne as Rama I, founding the Rattanakosin Kingdom and the Chakri dynasty, which has since ruled Thailand.

Rama II restored the Wat Jaeng temple abandoned after Phya Taksin was overthrown. He embarked on an ambitious building project that raised the central pagoda higher and redesigned the aesthetic of the temple. He also renamed it Wat Arun, keeping the theme of dawn but connecting it with India, homeland of Buddhism. Construction began under Rama II was completed by Rama III around 1847. This is the temple we see today, towering over the Bangkok skyline as one of the most iconic structures in Thailand.

Keeping with Thai architectural styles of the time, Wat Arun is full of ornament. Its massive pagoda in the center, called the prang, a stupa-like pagoda, was inspired by Khmer architectural traditions. The central prang is about 80 meters tall, inlaid with seashells and colored porcelain. It is considered the tallest prang in Thailand and is surrounded by four smaller prangs. Each of the four corners of the temple contain images of guardian gods of the four directions. The grouping of five pagodas represents Mount Meru, the central mountain of Buddhist cosmology, based on Hindu cosmology as the home of the gods and the center of the physical and spiritual universe.



Sunday, June 28, 2020

Bangkok, at Wat Pho

I have been a few times to Bangkok, and this was my second time to visit Wat Pho temple. Although it was my second visit, it refreshed my memories from long ago about this impressive temple. The hot humid summer did not deter me and the tourists coming to this temple that morning.

After passing the Chinese Giant Guardians, the Tha Tian entrance gate, I went straight into the Temple of Reclining Buddha. Like any other temple, you need to take your shoes off to enter, and all visitors must wear appropriate clothing, that means no exposed shoulders or skin above the knee. Then, straight from the entrance the first thing I found was the side of Buddha’s head sitting nicely on his right arm. The size of his head is amazing, and the elongated reclining body made the statue even more impressive. It stands 15 meters tall and 46 meters long, covered in gold leaves shining majestically in the rather dark room, making its presence dominating the whole room. Not sure about the weight of this gigantic Buddha statue, but the entire statue had a brick core, which was molded with plaster before finally being gilded.

His fish-shaped eyes made of white mother of pearl looked like lost in a thought. The crown on his head, or Ushnisha , symbolizes his Enlightenment, and the small dot between his eyebrows, or Urna, symbolizes a third eye, which in turn symbolizes vision into the divine world. His long earlobes symbolize a conscious rejection of the material world in favor of spiritual enlightenment.

After walking together with so many vistors along the 46 meters long reclining body we reached his feet, which are also gigantic in scale, 3 meters high and 4.5 meters long! The base of these feet are also inlaid with mother-of-pearl, engraved with carvings to display the symbols of Buddha. On the soles of his feet, there are 108 auspicious signs such as flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers, and altar accessories by which Buddha can be identified. At the center of each foot there is a circle representing a chakra or 'energy point'. Many visitors were immersed in the beauty of this golden Buddha and the symbolism it represented.

Although the reclining Buddha looks like someone relaxing on a sofa, it is actually a representation of Buddha’s last moments on earth during his illness. It represents the moment he was about to enter parinirvana, the nirvana after death. He is lying on his right side with his blissful face resting on a cushion as he supports his head with his hand.

As a way of commemorating his passage to the afterlife, his disciples built a statue of him in this pose. This is now the grand, golden statue that lies inside Wat Pho. Decades later, more versions of reclining Buddhas were created all over South East Asia.


Source: Wikimedia

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Bangkok, in the Morning

Bangkok in the Morning perhaps is a better representation of the real Bangkok, rather than the touristic image it has during day time and during night time. No wonder, most tourists searched for those attractive places during day time and the entertainments at night time. Not many tourists want to wake-up early in the morning to see the people of Bangkok getting ready and rush to work, to beat the traffic jams.

Even less tourists wake-up earlier than 6AM to see the monks go on a daily alms round to collect their food of the day. I happened to woke up early in the morning one day and went with my camera to the see the early morning roads and to visit Wat That Thong temple located in the heart of Bangkok, Ekkamai area, that is not on most tourists itinerary.

On the streets and at the Wat That Thong temple, I saw many monks in orange robe wandering with a bowl in their hands. Traditionally in Theravada Buddhism, monks would get up as early as 4 am, do some prayers to the Buddha and meditate, and then have a light morning meal. After that, they might go for alms round in the community, return to monastery and have the meal together before 12 noon.

Mothers have been cooking food for monks and giving alms since the dawn of Buddhism over 2,500 years ago. Specifically, almsgiving is a tradition of Theravada Buddhists, who are an overwhelming majority in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Laos. By bringing monks food each day, the faithful are investing in the faith, and in doing so they too make merit to nourish their own souls.

So, on that day I felt like giving alms to the monks, but we must remember that most of the monks are vegetarian. The food should be simple as the monks generally must eat whatever foods are given to them. But it is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters. It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual realm and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of the secular society. Indeed, it was always the best food from our kitchen, as it was intended not just to give food to the monks but also to demonstrate the giver’s selflessness and commitment to the faith. It is the worldly duty of the layman, as a way to maintain a direct connection with the Lord Buddha.


Saturday, May 9, 2020

Hi Seoul Festival, Pop Music

The Korean popular music or K-pop has become a global phenomenon featuring distinctive blend of catchy melodies, slick choreography and stage effects. The success of K-pop is also attributed to the attractive performers spending years in grueling studio learning and practicing to sing and dance in synchronized perfection. The songs typically consist of one or a mixture of pop, rock, hip hop, R&B, and electronic music.

In October, the ‘Hi Seoul Festival’ was going on at Gwanghwamun Square. It was a large annual performing arts festival to promote international unity by enabling people to communicate with one another through music and non-verbal performances, going beyond the barriers of language, race and age. Hundreds of performances by teams from around the world are presented during the week-long festival.

One of the performances in the festival is of course the Pop band. Korean pop music has been around in Korea for some time, but it’s only in the past decade or so that it’s made significant inroads into the mainstream music world. The Korean youngsters love their Korean pop music bands and are proud of them gaining recognition on an international level as well.


Saturday, April 18, 2020

An Interview with Sulli

Photo: Wikimedia
I came straight from the Incheon airport to SM Entertainment brand new head quarter in Cheongdam-dong area of Seoul to meet the highly popular actress and singer, Sulli. Actually I was surprised to get the assignment to interview this star, as our publication normally does not cover tabloid articles like this. But, hey, the times change and we must adapt to the times.

Anyway, it would be exciting to meet celebrities in the epicenter of the K-Pop industry, the driver of “Hallyu“ or “Korean Wave”. If lucky, I may also got see BoA, TVXQ, Super Junior, SNSD, Shinee, f(x), EXO, Girls’ Generation, etc. Just follow the screaming voice of the fans and I could find them.

Sulli appeared to be a modest behaviour girl, too modest for her stage persona. Dressed like other Korean girl, yellow with flower embroidery pinned to the skirt, like she was going to a wedding party. Her smile was sweet, which she covered it with her hand when she laughed, like a shy teen girl meeting a cute boy. So much different than the way she dressed and danced on stage, or on video clip or as a drug addict on her latest movie.

Her skin was as white as milk, like other Korean girls, her hair bleached to pinkish blond, like many other Korean celebrities. Her eyes looked puffy like what we can see on many of her photos and instagrams, the puffy lower eyelids looked dark, probably because of cosmetic, not sure.

Anyway, it was very pleasant to meet her, she was very friendly and casual, no ‘diva’ air in her behaviour. Neither did she looked like Sulli the controversial girl that rocked the social media with her appearance and statements, rather she was soft spoken and occasionally smiled and laughed.

So, after greeting her, I went straight to my check list that I prepared, not to waste time:

“Sulli, you began your career as a trainee at the very young age of 11 in 2004, and then played the young Princess Seonhwa of Silla in the drama movie Ballad of Seodong. Further, as a young actress you played in drama movie like the ‘Vacation’, ‘Punch Lady’, ‘Babo’.  Then you debuted as a member of the girl singing group f(x) in 2009, while in the mean time you continued your acting career and peaked in the television drama series ‘To the Beautiful You’. In this drama series you received the New Star Award in 2012 for your role as a girl disguised as a boy to meet an athlete idol, played by Choi Minho of Shinee.  All I can say, what an impressive career Sulli, you must have been under huge pressure to achieve all that at young age.”

“I think because I've been active since I was young, there haven't been many people who thought of me as young. There were a lot of scary moments. If they told me to do something, I would, and I didn't even know the reason why I had to. At a certain point, I started to wonder, 'Why do I have to do this?' I don't think it was a good fit for me.  I was under so much pressure. I often felt scared. “

I said:
“You left the girls singing group f(x) in 2014, reportedly due to mental and physical exhaustion and to focus on your acting career. What happened….?”

“I had been struggling with online abuse, and struggling with a panic disorder, social phobia my whole life …. I’ve had panic disorder ever since I was young. There were times when close people… Some of my closest friends have left me. People hurt me, so everything fell apart. I didn’t feel like I had anyone on my side or anyone who could understand me. So that’s why I completely fell apart. I was scared and unsure of my future, so I think I tried to protect myself as much as possible. I was trying to protect myself, so there was a sense of urgency. There wasn't anybody to listen to me when I was going through a hard time. It felt like I was just left alone in the world”.

I said:
“It was also rumored that you took a break from the entertainment industry due to the stress of rumors revolving around your relationship with Dynamic Duo's Choiza. The two of you later confirmed your relationship. The 14-year age gap with the then 20-year old you as well as Choiza’s rough and thuggish image shattered your cutesy pop idol facade – fueling fans’ outrage at the relationship. Is Choiza your ideal type really?”

“My ideal type is someone that is dependable, that doesn’t act cute a lot and listens to everything I say. It would be nice if he is always in the same place. And that he should be a man with straight hair, tidy clothing, sexy, and a dignified and open mind.”

I said:
“And Choiza said in an interview that his ideal type has never been a pretty woman or a young woman. He has never felt attraction towards someone who is both, but he really got along well with you, Sulli. You two have a lot in common. He also said that he takes inspiration from his relationship with you. He said, that it’s especially true that these memories are engraved in his songs. One of the songs that he wrote while dating you is ‘Eat, Do It, Sleep’, received criticism from Korean listeners due to its sexual and suggestive lyrics, and many presumed that the song was about you.”

“Back then I used to upload pictures of our dates. But when I posted one of our kisses, haters flocked to my Instagram, saying ‘Did you have to post this?’, ‘Please get married. Looks like you’ll have to.’
But I could care less what they say. I was in love and I was proud to show it. Why am I not allowed to post a photo of our kiss?”

I said:
“You have also come under fire for your posts on Instagram, which have been perceived by many as too revealing. In some of your photos, you were wearing thin, see-through lingerie, no bra, showing your nipples. What comments did you receive from the netizens about these photos?”.

“Something like, ‘Is Sulli's beauty real?’, ‘So beautiful in fall’, ‘I can't stop looking even though I try not too’, ‘She's a public figure. Can't she hold back a little bit?’, ‘You want to get naked so bad, huh?’,
‘Who does this? Who takes pictures like this and posts them?’, and more…..”

I said:
“In the Reality TV show Night of Hate Comments, where Korean celebrities gathered to tackle cyberbullying by reading and discussing harsh comments, you talked with a light laughter that you were sitting there in the show without wearing a bra. Why did you choose no bra clothing?”

“It is the freedom of the individual. Bras aren’t good for your health, they have a wire, they are not good for your digestive organs, and I have issues with my digestion. Since it’s more comfortable not to, I don’t wear them. I think that it’s free and beautiful. I also think of bras as accessories. They suit some clothing and if there is a clothing that doesn’t look good with bra, then I don’t wear one. When I first posted a ‘no bra photo’ there was a lot of talk about it. I was scared and could have hidden, but the reason I didn’t is that I want to change people’s prejudices about that. Part of me also wanted to say ‘This isn’t that big of a deal’. I have heard that lately there are more people who go out without bras on.”

I said:
“Did you file a criminal complaint against those people who wrote malicious comment about you?”

“I had filed a criminal complaint against someone. However, I found out that the person was going to a famous university and was the same age as me. If I wasn’t lenient with a student who goes to such good university, that person would become an ex-convict. The person would have issue when trying to find a job later on. I received a long letter from the malicious commenter. The person said sorry and hadn’t known it would become such a big issue, and had taken out their stress on me. I felt bad about turning someone my own age into an ex convict and decided to be lenient. However, if I file a complaint again I won’t be lenient ……(laughing, covering it with her hand).”

I said:
“Another controversy was about your comment in regards to South Korea's lift on the abortion ban. On 11th April 2019 the government ruled the 66-year-old anti-abortion law as unconstitutional. The anti-abortion law made having an abortion a crime and punishable up to 2 years in prison.”

“On that day, I shared a photo of flowers via Instagram and stated, ‘abortion crime abolished. It's an honorable day! Give choice to all women."

I said:
“Given that the subject of abortion has always been a controversial one, it would have been best for celebrities to perhaps been discreet about how overjoyed you were. While these acts aren’t surprising for the Western world, Korea’s conservative beliefs and culture lead to your condemnation in the public eye.”

“ Sorry, I do not wish to make any further comment about my stance on this matter.”

I said:
“There are people who suspected that you were using drug by looking at some of your Instagram posts, your pupils look dilated. Is it true?”

“There are people who have uploaded comparison photos of my pupils next to the photos of people who really do drugs. I did a film called ‘Real’ and there was a scene that portrayed drug use. I did a lot of research then and watched 5 films a day about drugs. So, my friend said: ‘Are you Heath Ledger or something?’,  I told them ‘Can’t I do methodical acting too? I do this because I want to do a good job.’
I could take a strand of my hair now to test whether I have been using drug.”

I said:
“I see, a hair follicle drug test is the only drug test that can detect repeated drug use up to 90 days prior to the test. But you had dyed her hair and eyebrows….”

“Then I do it with my leg hair….. (laughing, covering it with her hand). I don’t do anything illegal, I act freely within the limit of the law.”

I said:
“You mentioned the movie ‘Real’, which you starred with top-tier actor Kim Soo Hyun in 2017, but actually flopped in the box office. Why do you think so?”

“Its convoluted plot and twists are hard to understand and failed any effort to make the audiences’ mind blown. In Kim Soo Hyun words, the film isn’t exactly the kind of movie that people will naturally like at first so it will take some time for it to sink in. But the reviews were so harsh it brought Kim Soo Hyun to tears when giving speech during the promotional events for the movie. The tears didn’t last long, though, and he was quickly able to get ahold of himself and finish up with his speech.”

I said:
“Actually, your overdosed death scene in the bathtub hugged by Kim Soo Hyun was quite touching and memorable.  Your scenes were not that many but receive good comments from your fans. And the negative reviews that ‘Real’ has been getting, you were able to portray an unconventional and risky role, which has opened more doors for your acting career.
But somehow the scene that went viral is your explicit sex scene with Kim Soo Hyun, your naked breasts visible in the scene, was this scene really necessary to the story?”

“Yes, I feel the explicit sex scenes are necessary to the story. I don’t think it was easy. It was a huge challenge for me, acting-wise and in other areas. It was hard and I had a lot of concerns but it was fun.
I think I have a lot of ambition when it comes to acting. It grew when I was shooting this film. I felt something like a sense of achievement while acting.”

I said:
“After you left the girl singing group f(x) in 2014 to take a break, as you became mentally and physically exhausted from the continuous malicious comments and false rumors, then in 2017 you renewed your contract with SM Entertainment for movies and other programs.  Then in 2019 you returned to the K-Pop idol scene, debuting as a soloist in the Music Video single album ‘Goblin’. You helped to write the lyrics of the three songs.

The song ‘Goblin’ tells an internal monologue where a lady, which you portrayed, converses with three personalities, one good, one bad, and the other being her normal self. They want to be accepted by the lady since she has a dissociative order. With all of the controversies you have had in the past, people may easily assume that the song is indeed talking about you and your experience.”

“The three personalities are not monsters or goblins and the lady even comforted them saying ‘don’t be afraid, I just wanna tell you hi.’ (she mumbled the song)….. Don’t be so hard on me, I’m not a bad person (trying to smile through her sorrows). Please don’t misunderstand me.

 You know, my name Sulli, Sul means snow, and Li means the flower of Callery pear tree, originated from China and Vietnam, with small 5 petals white flowers,  so I will probably reincarnate into a flower that, though small, will be full of vitality.”

I said:
“Thank you Sulli for this interesting interview, but I have a last request, may I …ehm…..hug you…?”

Sulli said “Sure” with a sweet smile and reached for the hug. She smelled like the rose of the ‘Romance’ fragrance by Ralph Lauren ……

This is an imaginary interview in memory of Sulli.


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