Unless an elder or physically disabled, one must park below and walk up a gravel-laced steep road that is currently scattered with yellow, orange, and brown crunchy leaves. Along either side of the road is the forest and at the edges of the road, here and there, are stone cairns built by visitors, knocked down by creation, and built up again by human hands: manifestation of both gratitude and impermanence that touches me deeply every time I walk that path.
As I intend to do on every visit to the Peace Pagoda, I circumambulated the stupa. The stupa is the big white dome of a building, what my kids used to call “The Big Egg” when they were little. In the Buddhist tradition, a stupa is built as a sacred place, often containing sacred relics.
Today, I did it only once-round, but usually I try to do three circles in the clockwise direction, which is what I understand to be the Buddhist tradition.
Circumambulation as a spiritual practice does not belong solely to Buddhists. Versions of this spiritual practice pop up in Christianity (think labyrinth), Judaism (think Sukkot), and Hinduism (different deities require different amounts – my favorite Hindu deity, Ganesh, requires only one pradakshina whereas Vishnu requires three – go figure.)
In fact, right now is the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to Mecca/Makkah – where there is a whole bunch of circumambulation happening, generating holy circular energy in the universe. In Islam, this is called tawaf, where the Muslim version of circumambulation is making seven circles in a counter-clockwise direction around the Kaaba, the most holy site in Islam. Here is a gorgeous description from the web site Islam from Inside:
I stood and watched the tawaf for a long time. The tawaf consists of walking around the Kaaba seven times. Each circuit begins with raising the right hand in a salute of acknowledgment towards the black stone (called the hajar-al-aswad) embedded in one corner of the Kaaba. The raising of the hand is a substitute for kissing this stone since it is almost impossible to get close enough to accomplish that – there is forever a tight knot of people around the stone, all pressing inward in an attempt to touch or kiss it. If you approach too close to this endlessly forming and reforming knot you are squeezed so forcefully that your feet leave the ground and you have no control over where you are carried.
Personally, I have never come close to hovering when I have circumambulated, but today, when I walked around the stupa, I calmed nearly immediately. It is a meditative act that requires my walking to slow. I make sure each step is a step of intention. I put one step on one cement tile and the next step on another cement tile. Some tiles are plain and other have a simple lotus design. All the tiles are weathered, some tiles are intact, and a few are cracked and eroding. The grass between the tiles has turned dry and dust-colored.
As I moved one foot forward, followed by the other foot, I encountered at least a dozen wasps. Each one alone. Each one barely moving – not a single one flying. Such a little creature and yet their slowed motion lent them an aura of heaviest weight. I had noticed the dry grass, the crisp leaves, the branches baring themselves where once they were lush with green, and yet these wasps were my clarion call of the impending slow and sleep of nature – a dormancy that is for some, in fact, death.
There are four statues along the stupa, each one depicting a different aspect of the Buddha’s life, one at each of the four cardinal directions. One is of him on his deathbed. At the foot of where he lays are his followers, who are full of such grief that their faces are contorted. Yet his face, he who was about to leave this world, is calm and peaceful. It is at this juncture that the Buddha said his last words:
“It may be that after I am gone that some of you will think, ‘now we have no teacher.’ But that is not how you should see it. Let the Dharma and the discipline that I have taught you be your teacher. All individual things pass away. Strive on, untiringly.”
Many years ago, I learned Buddha’s last words from the poet, Mary Oliver, whose interpretation is simple and sparse, as poetry is meant to be:
I want to think that it is I who is supposed to strive on, untiringly. It is I that is supposed to make of my life a light. Yes, and yes.
But may I not forget that I, too, will pass away. That I am not just the light, but I am also the wasp: the dying wasp sharing its last hours at the foot of a magnificent tribute to human engagement with our Source.
I can’t imagine a better place to be when my time comes.