Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World (2011) - BBC - Documentary
Buddhism is one of the most ancient belief systems in the world. Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy. Only your own understanding saves you from suffering.
It is practised by over 350 million people today. There are many people who feel attracted to a religion which empowers the human individual. I am going to travel to seven wonders of the Buddhist world. Seven wonders that give an insight to the long and rich history of Buddhism. At each location I'll meet Buddhists who will help me to understand the different concepts that form the core of Buddhist belief. I'm going to explore how it started, where it travelled and some of the most spectacular monuments built by Buddhists right across the globe.
And to try to get to the bottom of the attraction of this philosophy for mankind for close on 2,500 years. Buddhism's numbers grow year on year and I'll be uncovering why as I experience seven modern and ancient wonders of the Buddhist world. This is north-eastern India, where Buddhism began around 500 years before Christ.
Millions of pilgrims come to this country, and to the sacred city of Bodh Gaya, to visit the place where a young Indian Prince underwent a life-changing personal transformation and came to be known as the Buddha. I've studied the period in history when the Buddha lived for over 20 years and I just love it because this was such a radical age. This was a time when men like the Buddha, and Socrates in Ancient Greece, turned the world of belief upside down. Instead of focusing on tradition and convention and ritual, they dealt with ethics and the possibilities of the human mind. And I'm particularly fascinated to follow in the trail of Buddhism, because as the philosophy has travelled through 25 centuries, it's marked out a path that leads directly from ancient society to the modern world.
This is Mahabodhi, the "great awakening" temple in Bodh Gaya in north-eastern India, our first wonder of the Buddhist world. The reason Bodh Gaya is here at all is because two and a half millennia ago, one man had an internal, personal revelation while he sat underneath a peepul tree. It's a very quiet, simple beginning to end up with all of this. That man was called Siddhartha Gautama, and we're told he renounced his privileges and family to embark on a rigorous quest. A journey to understand the inherent challenges of the human condition, sparked by the suffering, sorrow and deprivation that he saw all around him.
It was a long and difficult journey. Siddhartha renounced the comforts of the material world. He meditated for weeks on end.
He broke with the status quo in a region that had been dominated by the old gods for the previous thousand years. Finally he achieved Nirvana, what we loosely translate as Enlightenment, and became known as the Buddha or "the enlightened one". The Buddha, according to Buddhist scriptures, made his way to this spot, and determined not to move until he found an answer to the world's suffering.
So, it was here, on one warm spring evening, 2,500 years ago, that the Buddha came to sit. We are told that all night he was tormented by demons but then, as the sun began to rise in the East, he found enlightenment. The Bodh Gaya temple is the Mecca of Buddhism. It is where the Buddha attained enlightenment according to their belief and the Bodhi tree, or a great- grandson of the Bodhi tree, still grows there.
So, Buddhists go there to remember the great breakthrough that was the Buddha's discovery of the true nature of the universe. And inspired by the Buddha's example, you'll find visitors here from every corner of the globe, from the 90 or so countries where Buddhism still flourishes today. Bodh Gaya is one of those key sites for all Buddhists worldwide.
It serves as a magnet, as a centre point, for Buddhists from around the world. You could say it's the place exactly where Buddhism started. I'm not a Buddhist, but if you ask anyone who's involved in Buddhism, they'll tell you that it's a very difficult philosophy to teach or to explain, and that the very best way to understand it is to experience it. And so, by experiencing Buddhism, I'm going to try to get to the heart of a philosophy that can sometimes seem complicated, out of reach. I'll start with the three key principles of Buddhism - what are known as its "Three Jewels". The first is the life and example of Buddha himself.
All Buddhists are encouraged to model their approach to life on his. The most important single point in the Buddha's teaching, and one that distinguishes it very sharply from other religions, is that the Buddha taught that each of us is entirely and solely responsible for our own lives and our own salvation. No-one else can be responsible. The Buddha didn't claim any divine status, nor did he profess to be a personal saviour. He called himself a guide and teacher. His message appealed to people of all social classes in ancient India, to merchants, to farmers, and to the Untouchable caste.
The Buddha, in the course of his spiritual awakening, rejected a good number of aspects of Hinduism. He rejected some philosophical components of Hindu beliefs, he was very critical of the position of the Brahmins or priests in society at that time, which was a very elitist position. He was similarly critical of the caste system. He positioned himself, as a result, outside of the caste system. The Buddha spent his remaining years travelling through deep forests, across mango groves, from village to village.
The curious would bring food and clothing for the philosopher and his band of followers. And, in turn, he encouraged them to reconsider the purpose and point of life, to recalibrate their moral compass. Although the Buddha didn't establish a church or temple system as such, over time, the significant locations in his life were gradually turned into shrines.
Originally Bodh Gaya was just a pastoral sanctuary, marked out with a stone balustrade, 200 years or so after his death, but by the 6th century AD, a full-blown temple, the Mahabodhi Temple, marked the spot. About 400 years after, the first temple, that was built here for the worshiping of the Bodhi tree, was replaced by this kind of a temple, built to enshrine the iconic image of Buddha, which had gained currency by that time. The temple, particularly the Mahabodhi Temple, is representative of how important Buddhist temples were, and how, you know, this idea of building a temple to enshrine statues started from here.
As Buddhism's travelled through the centuries, perhaps inevitably, it's taken on more the aspects of a religion, with temples and pilgrims and a religious hierarchy. You could be forgiven for mistaking Buddhism as one of the great, god-driven faiths of the world, but there is a key difference. By putting such an emphasis on a system of personal morality and breaking with the conventions and traditions and rituals of the past, in many ways, the Buddha was one of those men who gave us the modern world.
And although he never denied that there were gods, he simply said you don't have to rely on the gods to make everything OK. According to Buddhist sources, having seeded a radical new world view, the Buddha died at the age of 84. His body was cremated but his bones remained unburned.
They were distributed amongst the various tribes, rulers and kingdoms, who are now starting to follow the Buddhist way, and who honoured its founder by building monuments, or stupas, over his remains. In Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, stands The Bodanath Stupa, our second wonder of the Buddhist world. It was first built in the 5th or early 6th centuries AD, then rebuilt and restored a number of times, finally as this giant, enclosed tomb in the 14th century. It is the largest in the Indian subcontinent, a sacred place for thousands of Buddhists throughout the world.
Here at Bodanath, I am going to find out more about the three jewels of Buddhism. Buddhism consists, as far as Buddhists are concerned, in three things which they call the three jewels. Those three things are closely connected. The first is the Buddha, the founder of their religion. The second is called the Sangha, and that is the community of monks and nuns. The third is called the Dharma.
The Dharma refers to the preaching, the teaching of the Buddha. In other words, it's what the Buddha discovered and it's also the truth. As you walk around the Bodanath, here, you always have this sense that you are being watched and that's because the Buddha's all-seeing eyes are always staring down at you. That squiggle in the middle of his face, incidentally, is not his nose, it's actually the Sanskrit character for the number one, to represent a kind of unity in the Buddhist faith.
Something you won't find represented up there are the Buddha's ears, and there is a particular reason for that. We are told that the Buddha said he never wanted to hear that he was being worshipped. And of course, that is what is so unique about Buddhism - this is a religion without a central authority figure. Instead there's just this credo that man is his own lord and master, that mankind itself can control humanity's destiny. It's not atheistic, because they do believe in the existence of, sort of, Gods and angels and so on, but they simply don't believe that those beings have the universe under control and therefore they cannot save us from suffering. They themselves need saving from suffering from a future time when they cease being gods and they become beings that are vulnerable to pain and suffering.
At the Bodonath Stupa, one of the many people who come to circumambulate and to pay their respects to the Buddha is Ani Choying, a Buddhist nun famous throughout Nepal for her sweet singing voice. She is, in fact, known as the singing nun. This is a very highly spiritual place, we consider. It's a holy place, and we believe that all the great relics of the Buddha's are in the stupa and it holds a very special religious spot. And every people who come around here are always reciting mantras and really focusing on meditation, they do the circumambulation, prostration, to keep the physical healthy and the mind, to be energy clean, chanting mantras as well as doing prayers so trying to put yourself in a very good, positive discipline.
This is a very, very highly blessed place. Ani is originally from Tibet. Thousands of Tibetan Buddhists now live in Nepal as refugees. The brand of Buddhism is as much Tibetan as it is Nepalese. Flexibility and diversity has always been one of Buddhism's strengths. The Buddha himself said there should be no one official Buddhist language.
Instead, Buddhists are encouraged to focus on the universal relevance of the Buddha's wisdom. There are some people here who will tell you that buried deep in that stupa is a fragment of the Buddha's bone. Now, I'm not certain that we're going to be able to prove that but what is sure is that this is the biggest stupa in the whole of Nepal and one of the largest in the world, and it is immensely impressive, but do you know what's significant about it, actually is not how it looks but what it means because this was built to represent something very special.
For the men who created this, this was nothing less than incarnation of the Buddha's mind. The symbolism of the stupa is very interesting because it takes the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and space, different shapes that represent those, and they put them in an ideal aesthetic form, and so the idea is that the Buddha's mind is the awareness that the universe is the ideal environment for the human being to achieve freedom from suffering. Around the Buddha gathered men who shared with him a common vision and goal. Gradually, this group came to be a formalized community, a body that took its name from the old aristocratic councils of the day. The Sangha. The Buddhist Sangha became a monastic tradition, comprising ordained monks and nuns and it's one of the three jewels of Buddhism. My first experience of the Sangha came at what felt like an ungodly hour.
At Bodanath every morning, just after dawn, monks of all ages gather to perform the first of many rituals of the day. The Sangha is one of the oldest continuously active spiritual organizations in the world. LOW CHANTING What's being recited here is a Tara Puja, it's a chant that aims to ensure a kind of liberation from suffering. And it's really interesting because "Tara" is thought to be a female manifestation of Buddha's wisdom, something which is incredibly potent.
I mean, this isn't just an abstract idea of wisdom this is thought to be healing, to actually be stronger than medicine itself. DRUM BOOMS AND BELLS RING The Sangha includes women and was set up to allow those who wish to practise Buddha's teachings a disciplined environment and maximum time to focus on the philosopher's ideas, free from the responsibilities and distractions of a domestic or conventional lifestyle. A few miles outside Kathmandu, Ani, the singing nun, runs her own nunnery. It's a refuge for girls, many as young as ten, the age both sexes can embark on the life of a Buddhist novice.
SINGING I have here mostly girls from families who are facing some difficulties, obviously poverty, and the other thing is the fathers are often very ignorant. They get carried away with the alcoholic behaviour, as well. Very abusive behaviours, and they do not think that it is good to send their girls to school, so I try to collect them here, and give them a much as I can give them. Controversial for its time was the inclusion of women among the ranks of the Sangha.
The Buddha allowed women to become nuns, to lead a life devoted to spiritual development. Like Buddhist monks, nuns are expected to remain celibate, pure, since they are one of the three jewels of Buddhism, not just Buddha's foot-soldiers but an incarnation of the belief system itself. So, I've learnt about two of the three jewels of Buddhism. The Sangha and the life of the Buddha.
But what about the third jewel, the Dharma, or teachings? You can, perhaps, help me out a bit. How do you describe Dharma? What does Dharma mean to you? According to my understanding, what Dharma is to do whatever you do, very practically, skilfully, for the benefit of all beings, without causing any harm, and for their wellbeing, including oneself and all, is Dharma. SHE SINGS: Dharma means the purity of heart. Dharma means peace, and Dharma means wellbeing of all human society. Are there special ways that you can achieve Dharma? Are there rules and regulations that show you what to do? We are taught what causes suffering and what can cause suffering, and how to avoid causing suffering in life, one's own life.
And when you implement those teachings I think that is what really contributes towards one's own wellbeing and others' wellbeing, and I think that is considered Dharma. In the Buddhist context, the word Dharma refers, above all, to the teachings of the Buddha as he rediscovered them in the process of his progress towards enlightenment. The reality of the Dharma which holds you free from suffering, is what they take, the root of the word Dharma, which means to hold, and the Buddha said Dharma holds a being free from suffering. Coming here to Nepal, it has been relatively straightforward to identify two of the jewels of the triple jewels of Buddhism. The Buddha himself, both ideas about him and his image, are absolutely everywhere, as is the Sangha, and here in Kathmandu, there are monks and nuns at every street corner, but what has been harder to pin down is the Dharma itself, the belief system, the philosophy, the religion, whatever you want to call it, of Buddhism.
Maybe it's unrealistic of me to expect there to be one single definition for such a broad concept. The Buddha himself said the Dharma was like the salt of the oceans of the world, a universal taste. So, the Buddha implied the Dharma could be tasted anywhere, by anyone, but the question for me, as a historian, is how that "taste" of the Buddhist Dharma could become "universal", practically, how Buddhism established itself as a global belief-system.
Buddha's teachings were charismatic and radical for their time, but, as with all big new ideas, they needed a groundswell of popular support or a patron, or both, to gain a firm foothold and to really fly. While there was grassroots interest in what he had to say, it was about 200 years after the Buddha's death that Buddhism got a major boost. In 250BC, the ruthless, all-powerful emperor Ashoka, who controlled most of ancient India, proved Buddhism's greatest ally.
Ashoka was haunted by the memory of the blood that he'd acquired on his hands as a result of the cut and thrust of his rise to power and he decided to turn to "the good" and in order to realize that ambition he vigorously promoted Buddhist ideals right across the Indian subcontinent. According to Buddhist tradition, in the centuries following Ashoka's sponsorship of Buddha's ideas, the philosophy evolved into at least 18 different schools. One of these, the Theravada, still survives today and is mainly associated with south and southeast Asia. Another came to be called the Mahayana, the "Great Vehicle" or "Way", now most often found in north and east Asia. Ashoka, by embracing Buddhism, put a particular emphasis on the consequences of his actions, on what he thought and how he lived in the world. On his Karma.
Karma is a word well known in the west today. It has its roots in early Indian belief systems, but the value of Karma became a fundamentally important Buddhist concept, and one that I am going to explore at... ..our next wonder of the Buddhist world. Sri Lankan Buddhists believe that the tooth relic was brought to their country around 300 BC. Safeguarding the relic became the responsibility of kings and over the years, the custodianship of the relic came to symbolize the right to rule.
The Buddha is said to have given two legacies to future generations - the body of his teachings, the Dharma, and also relics of his physical body itself, which are now scattered in shrines right across the globe, and one of the most precious is kept in here, in the Temple of the Tooth. That relic makes the presence of the Buddha more graphic to people, so it gives them a power. Actually, many Buddhist temples around the world have relics, a piece of bone or something, just as in Europe, you have relics of saints, so it's a way of making the person's presence feel more immediate.
That gives the temple more power, as a magnet to draw the worshipper. The shrine stands right at the centre of a paved courtyard. The ceiling is decorated with moonstones and floral designs. There are ivory reliefs on the doorways. The inner chamber contains the tooth relic and other sacred objects and all around there is a brightly painted corridor. DRUMMING AND WIND INSTRUMENT Monks conduct daily worship in the inner chamber of the temple.
Rituals are performed at dawn, at noon and in the evening. The tooth is in this upper chamber in a casket of gold and is only revealed to a chosen few. The sacred relic is symbolically bathed with an herbal preparation made from scented water and fragrant flowers. This holy water is believed to contain healing properties and is distributed among those present.
Once a week, mothers gather at the temple with their babies. All these little babies are waiting to be taken in to be blessed by the priests so that they have Buddha's power with them for the rest of their lives. They're given a white piece of string to wrap around their wrist which shows that the Buddha is with them from now until they die.
It's thought incredibly important that they get the blessing at this early stage because everything that they do from now on, all their intentional actions, what they think, what they say and what they do, their karma, will affect how they are then reborn in the next life. Karma is one of the main concepts of Buddhism. It is the belief that any of our intentional actions, both thought and deed, will be mirrored by something similar happening to us in future. So, if you harm someone, someone will harm you.
This principle of cause and effect can bring consequences that are either good or bad depending on what it is you've done. Because Buddhists believe we have many lives, this good and bad karma can generate consequences both throughout this life and long into the next. Karma is what you do. The word literally means deed or action. But the Buddha said that all Karma that matters is what is morally good or morally bad, and you decide what to do.
Now, we must remember that for Buddhists, your life goes on beyond what we normally think of as this life. In fact, you are reborn an infinite number of times until you manage to bring that to an end. Buddhists use a metaphor to help explain what karma is. They say that if you sow thistle seed, then you can't expect apple trees to grow, and that is very clear. It's a basic principle of cause and effect and as a historian, I know that that principle has real validity.
We are all affected by our past and our past and our present together informs our future so when the Buddha said that we should be mindful of our intentional actions, of our karma and that our highest authority is our conscience, than he was making real sense and he was also clarifying something about what it is to be human. Of course, the issue is that karma can be both good and bad. And in Sri Lanka, the fallout of action and reaction, of cause and effect, has been brutally tested in recent years. For nearly three decades, the country has been locked in a violent civil war, in which close on 100,000 people have been killed. Sri Lanka is only now emerging from this debilitating conflict between the Hindu Tamil minority and a Buddhist Singhalese majority. The Temple of the Tooth was badly hit and partially destroyed during the war.
It has now been fully restored. Buddhists believe this cycle of death and destruction can be broken. They assert that by following a certain path, it is possible to break out of a continuous round of life and death and rebirth, which in Buddhism has a name. Samsara. And Samsara is the concept I am going to investigate now as I move to the next wonder of the Buddhist world. Once Buddhist ideas had flourished in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan monarchs sent emissaries to adjoining kingdoms in southeast Asia to carry the Buddhist message.
By the 11th century, Theravadin Buddhism was well established in Thailand and here in Bangkok, close on 90% of Thais are now Buddhist. The reason that Buddhism has thrived so vigorously and tenaciously here is because right from its very outset, it's had the support of the Thai kings. A king here can aspire to be a Buddha himself and there is one king who was actually a monk for 25 years before he came to the throne. Every time the royal family builds a new palace for itself, it will also constructs next door a monastery and a temple complex as a kind of outward sign of its righteousness and commitment to the Buddhist cause and here in Bangkok, the temple complex is certainly fit for a king.
This is Wat Pho, our next wonder of the Buddhist world. It's the largest and oldest temple complex in Bangkok. It's home to more than 1,000 Buddha images. The complex includes a temple, a working monastery and a large courtyard with a forest of stupas, thick with exquisite hand-made lotus motifs. And hidden within its own palatial hall... the golden reclining Buddha.
The gold Buddha is 141ft long and 49ft high. Started in 1788, it took over five years to build. This one of the most stunning, gobsmacking works of monumental art I have ever seen. I have to say I love its audacity, I love the fact that it says, "Look at me, look at what mankind can do "when he manipulates raw materials to create a thing of beauty," because here there are thousands of fragments of mother-of-pearl used and a 153 plates of gold, but what it doesn't seem to me to say is that this is an incarnation of the Middle Path, that essential Buddhist notion that extremes and excesses should be avoided at all costs because there is no doubt that this is a thing of opulence. It's enormous, it's gorgeous and it's very sensuous. In history of Thailand there are a lot of large-scale reclining Buddhas built all over central part of Thailand, because to build a reclining Buddha, it's not a very easy process because most of the reclining Buddha is not made from casting it's made from bricks, plaster, or cement.
It's considered very respectful image, so it must be decorated with very valuable materials and, of course, the most valuable materials for decorating the image of Lord Buddha should be gold. Gold in Buddhism symbolizes the sun, or fire. The most valuable of metals, it is accorded a sacred status through its association with Surya, the sun god of the Hindu pantheon. For Buddhists in Thailand, and other South Asian countries, gold is an element that signifies homage. A gift of gold is the ultimate demonstration of one's piety. The meritorious act of putting gold leaf on the surface of a Buddha's skin is to commemorate the living Buddha, who had a golden-like aura, a radiance, they believe.
But gold and its association with wealth and might is also the way Thai monarchs have used a showy form of piety to forge a strong relationship between Buddha's ideas and the power of the state. It was King Rama III who had the statue of the reclining Buddha opulently restored at the height of his reign in the mid-19th century. It's called the Lion Pose, so, as he lay there in the lion pose as he was preparing to die. It's described that he lay down on his right side and he rested his head on his right hand.
There is a reason that this Buddha has got such a serene smile - it's because he has achieved enlightenment, Nirvana. It means that he has escaped what Buddhists call Samsara, an endless cycle of life, of birth and death, of passion and desire and delusion, that can only lead to pain and suffering. Samsara effectively constitutes a cycle of birth and re-birth, and as long as we are in Samsara we are born innumerable times and moving from one existence to the next. We can be re-born as a human being, as a divinity, or you can be re-born as an animal, etc.
'Tell me what you think Samsara is?' For me it's not just a physical picture of, you know, the circle of being born and ageing and dying, for me it has something to do with the state of mind as well. That you have to deal with your bad emotions if you have problems, if you're suffering, you have... feel frustrated, you don't know how to deal with it, but this is just a small sample of bad things that happen to you, just keep go on and on and on, can find a real peace or happiness.
The wheel of life is a common visual depiction in Buddhism. At the time Buddha started to teach, many understood life as a relentless cycle, where all were born, grew old, died and were re-born in another life. It was an eternal morass, from which there was no release, but Buddha felt that an escape was possible. He taught that through one's actions, karma, and through a way of life that was characterized by wisdom, morality and compassion, via meditation and the triumph of the mind over craving, desire and excess, it was possible to achieve enlightenment, Nirvana.
He believed that this enlightenment would empower ordinary people to break free from Samsara. THEY CHANT This idea gives Buddhist funerals a distinctive character. Those present mourn their loss, but also hope that, thanks to their beloved's good karma, the dead are at least one step closer to enlightenment, that they have the chance of a re-birth as a better being who one day can escape Samsara. What goes around comes around, and that's what I believe, this body is just like a house that we rent for a while.
After we die we have to find a new place to live, it's impermanent, it's just temporary. So, good Buddhists believe that we should do our best in this life to guarantee a better place after we die. Buddhists say that there is only one certain way to break free from Samsara, to eliminate the desires, and the passions, and the distractions of everyday life. Now, of course, that is very easy to say and it's very hard to do, so over the centuries Buddhists have employed specific rigorous methods to break free from all of this, from the troubles and the temptations of the real world, and to set themselves on the path to enlightenment, to Nirvana, and that is the truly radical thing about the Buddha's example, his belief that each and every one of us has the capacity to achieve liberation, to achieve our own enlightenment.
It took the Buddha years to arrive at this radical belief. Ideas he developed through his own personal experience - in particular, an intense form of meditation. And it is Buddhist meditation that I'm now going to experience in our next wonder of the Buddhist world. Buddhism continued to spread throughout the Mediaeval period. Come the 13th century and Buddhism was flourishing in the Khmer Kingdom... modern-day Cambodia.
The temple complexes here at Angkor are our fifth wonder. Angkor Wat began life as the sacred palace complex of a Khmer Emperor who, in fact, favoured Hinduism over Buddhist ideas. These aren't just buildings, but have a grand ambition. The whole complex is said to be a symbolic representation of Hindu cosmology. The original temple honoured the Hindu god Vishnu and incarnates the centre of the physical and spiritual universe, a mythical mountain.
A series of five rectangular walls represent other mountains and the moats here evoke the cosmic ocean. This place reeks of a combination of earthly and divine power, and of the close-knit relationship between gods and kings. And, of course, it was a belief in that relationship that inspired the creation of this complex in the first place, but for some people it was just TOO exclusive, too strictly hierarchical... and Buddhism offered a solution. It was the Khmer Emperor Jayavarman VII who converted to Buddhism and his regime marked a clear dividing line with the old Hindu past. Before 1200, art in the temples mostly portrayed scenes from the Hindu pantheon.
After his conversion, Buddhist scenes began to appear as standard motifs. During his reign, there was a focus on building libraries, monastic dwellings, public works, and more "earthly" projects, accessible to the common people. So history in Cambodia takes a humanist turn and as Buddhism rises in popularity, you find images of the Buddha and his followers emerging everywhere in the architecture... in gates, in walls and in temples.
So now Angkor is showing the world a more human face. The Angkor complex is a prime example of the classical style of Khmer architecture. By the 12th century, Khmer architects had become skilled and confident in masonry, facing the monuments with intricate sandstone blocks. Angkor Wat is famous for the harmony of its world-class design.
Architecturally, towers shaped like lotus buds are characteristic. Half-galleries broaden the passageways, other galleries connect enclosures and terraces appear along the main pathways of the temple. The walls are decorated with bas-reliefs showing Hindu mythological figures and detailed narrative scenes. This one depicts the churning of the oceans. Other elements of the design have been destroyed by looting and the passage of time. They included gilded stucco, gold on some figures, and elaborate carved ceiling panels and doors.
This was the largest sacred building in the world. Although there is an eerie, crumbling beauty to this place now, you have to imagine it in its heyday. All this stonework would have been brightly painted and in this corridor there would have been many hundreds of statues of the Buddha, wrought out of precious gold. The light from the statues would have been reflected back from the walls, which would have been studded with emeralds and sapphires and rubies, and outside there would have been crowds of monks, their eyes closed in meditation, their faces lit by the glow of torches made out of jungle resin. Since Buddhism is primarily an educational system, meditation is a key component of that educational system. Meditation is the way you become viscerally and directly aware of all these deep connections and connectivenesses to the universe, and you have to become directly aware of it to become free of being controlled by unconscious processes.
And that freedom is liberation, that freedom is Nirvana. I'd been invited by a group of trainee Buddhist monks to experience meditation for myself. Members of the Sangha can spend hours each day meditating. The way they sit, the position of their hands, is copied from the practice of the Buddha himself. They are still and concentrate on their breathing...
not doing anything to alter the way they breathe, not worrying about whether they're doing it right or wrong, clearing their minds of thoughts, of feelings, of fear and anger... of the distractions of the outside world. Just following the breathing and becoming one with each breath. I can't say I've managed to completely block out the sound of the world going on and it feels hard to stay this still for so long, but if someone were to ask me if I had any anger in my head or my heart right now, I would have to say there is none. The Pali Canon advises that there are particularly good places to meditate - a mountain, a hillside, a rock cave, a cemetery, an open field, an open forest, the root of a tree, deep in the jungle.
And this place certainly fits some of those criteria, but I have to say, I'm probably going to carry on meditating in my own sweet way for a while. I am not quite ready yet to do the deep breathing and the lotus position. But still I have huge respect for the practice of meditation, not least because it is a firm vote of confidence in the power of the human mind. It suggests that in order to transcend the difficulties of this world, we don't just need to appeal to a higher, divine authority... but to look to our own consciousness. Well, certainly the people of Cambodia have had more cause than most to find internal resources to deal with the troubles that the world has thrown at them.
Cambodia has suffered some of the worst violence and genocide of the last century. Between 1968 and 1976, over 3 million Cambodians were killed in the war that engulfed Vietnam and other countries of southeast Asia. This was then followed by the terror and genocide unleashed by the Khmer Rouge, a communist movement that ruled Cambodia for four years.
The Khmer Rouge dealt particularly viciously with Buddhism. Thousands of monks were slaughtered and monasteries were destroyed and if people tried to hold on to their beliefs, they were often tortured and killed. But gradually, as the nightmare is beginning to fade, Buddhism is finding its feet here again and when you come to Angkor, you'll find little active shrines like this tucked away into corners. In Cambodia, Buddhism is slowly reasserting itself. This country, which had experienced such horrors, is now peaceful and Angkor, which had been brutalized by the Khmer Rouge regime, is now a world tourist site once again.
It's been very moving coming here to Cambodia because this place has been the home to the most dramatic twists and turns in the fortunes of Buddhism. For centuries, Buddhism was the philosophy of choice, for both the kings and the people, and then thanks to the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, there was a chance that it was going to be eradicated virtually overnight. But gradually, gently, it is now making a comeback and there's even a possibility that this place, which was once the biggest and most active Buddhist complex in the world, could be that again, some time in the future. While in Cambodia Buddhism is emerging out of the darkness of the Khmer Rouge regime, Buddhism in mainland China, and here in Hong Kong, is also reasserting itself, an ancient tradition reappearing in modern society.
Buddhism is on the rise once again, partly perhaps because its positive attitude feels well-suited to an emerging superpower. Particularly popular is the Zen form of Buddhism. Little surprise given that Zen, although now typically associated with Japan, started off life in China.
And I'm going to explore Zen in one of the places in the world where it is most vigorous... Hong Kong. Our sixth wonder is the giant Buddha that overlooks this great Asian city. This mammoth bronze statue was completed in 1993. It symbolises the relationship between man and nature, people and religion.
The building of the giant Buddha in Hong Kong was a reassertion of an old Buddhist tradition of constructing massive Buddhist images. And the monks who initiated the project in Hong Kong had visited Japan, and they'd visited various sites in mainland China and seen medieval massive images of Buddhas, and this was something they were trying to re-create in Lantan. It's the only statue of Buddha to face north towards Beijing, and is named Tian Tan after the Temple of Heaven in that city. When Buddhism first starts out, it seems that people actively choose not to represent the Buddha figuratively. But then as the philosophy passes through regions like Afghanistan, which had a really strong Greek influence thanks to the invasion of Alexander the Great, it becomes the done thing to represent the Buddha in human form.
Now, once the belief system enters China, a new tradition gains popularity. Not just to represent the Buddha in human form, but to do so on a monumental scale. And that's an art form that's now being revived here in Hong Kong. Everything about this statue means something. The Buddha is sitting in a lotus position, which shows that he was like the beauty of a lotus flower emerging from the muddy waters of a pond.
His face is that beautiful round shape, which is supposed to be a reflection of the perfection of the moon. And his head is domed, which tells us just how wise he is. His hands are interesting because the right hand is raised in a gesture of blessing. This is the Buddha's vow that he will release the entire world from its suffering.
And on his chest he's got that so-called Swastika symbol. Of course the Swastika was unfortunately appropriated by the Nazis, even though they got it the wrong way round. But what it actually means is the power of the universe, so this tells us that the Buddha's compassion and wisdom is available to all. The Buddha statue sits on a lotus throne on top of an altar. It's surrounded by six smaller bronze statues.
They're shown offering gifts like fruit and incense, gifts that symbolise different aspects of Buddhist philosophy, all virtues which are necessary to achieve enlightenment. The giant Buddha is part of the Po Lin monastery and temple complex set up nearly 100 years ago by three Zen masters. Zen has developed as a part of Mahayana Buddhism, the school of Buddhism practised in China and other northern Asian countries. Zen Buddhists believe that all people have the qualities that the Buddha had, and emphasise that these can be developed and were not unique to the Buddha only.
The aim of Zen is to discover this quality within each person, through meditation and practice of the Buddha's teachings. The ultimate goal is to become a completely enlightened Buddha. Meditation has always been central to Buddhism, but here in China a new brand of meditation was born, and it took its name from a Sanskrit word Dhyana which is actually very hard to translate, but it means a kind of alert, productive state of mind. In China it was called Chan and when it travels to Japan it becomes Zen. It's a school of Buddhism which lays enormous emphasis on certain kinds of meditative practice. What you try to do is purely to empty your mind.
It has an ideology that rational thought is not going to get you to enlightenment or Nirvana. It's practised here in a small secluded monastery, minutes away from the giant Buddha. Formal silent meditation is central to Zen and is practised by both the laity and the ordained together. Some people find the concept of Zen quite difficult to grasp. How would you define it? So Zen means we never separate our life and our practice. Zen is like 24 hours when you are standing, sitting, walking, lying down, so never separate.
You know, our everyday life and our practice cannot separate, it's not two things. Zen also means inside, inside, you know, our mind, and outside objects, inside and outside both become one, that's Zen. So if you're not making that separation between Zen practice and everyday life, does that mean that when you do everything, when you sweep the floor or prepare food or clean something, that is an act of Zen itself? Zen means what are you doing now, you know.
So somebody might get enlightenment while they are eating meal, washing bowl, all these were designed to help people be in the moment and maybe at that moment your mind becomes clear and your life becomes clear. THUNDER RUMBLES This is called water bowl meditation and the purpose is to carry the water without spilling a drop. The idea is that you can do this through the application of Zen, because if you think you're carrying a bowl of water, you're bound to shake and lose some but if you clear your mind completely, you will complete the task successfully. In the West a lot of people have heard of Zen. It's something that is quite popular. Do you think that's partly because people's lives are so demanding and Zen offers a way out from that? Not only the West are very busy, now Asia is more busy! It's true! It's very money-oriented, everybody worry about the living, so it's very important our mind know how to relax and to be living at this moment and to keep clear.
If you can live in this present, even if some problem appear, it's OK. You have this clear mind and you are not agitated. I think these are very important practice for everybody.
Zen practitioners today don't like to use specific words to limit what Zen is, but if you want to find a definition for the practice, probably as close as you'll get is that this is something that really believes in the power of intuition and in a productive simplicity. I can see that cherishing intuition, living for the moment, living day by day, with a clear mind, is a very productive way to spend your time. Perhaps it explains why of all brands of Buddhism, Zen has become particularly attractive to those who live in our demanding 21st century.
Zen, and its ancestor Chan, is a very practical form of Buddhist wisdom. It encourages a process of rediscovery by living simply. The Zen tradition emphasises that enlightenment is possible here and now.
Is it then very different from other forms of Buddhism? Zen means pointing directly to our mind, it means right now wake up, and be clear, what are you doing now. Actually, our mind is not complicated. It is our thinking with our life that is very complicated.
So Zen is a tool to help us to bring back our mind to our everyday life and be simple. Zen, like all Buddhist practice, turns philosophy into a tool to help in day-to-day life. Meditation is also used to bring about a tangible outcome, either in the understanding of the world or in our ability to deal with it, and with the suffering we see all around and feel within us. One thing that struck me was that whatever the regional variations of Buddhism, issues of suffering are right at the core of the philosophy. Now that is really interesting because in general over the last 2,500 years the cultures of the East have been very unabashed about suffering, they don't mind putting it centre stage.
Whereas in the West, these are issues that we can sometimes try to brush under the carpet. In the modern age, for instance, we've been accused of trying to cheat death itself. But just look at that statue, there's the Buddha promising to deal with all the suffering in the world.
So it does make you wonder what future Buddhism has as a global belief system. What's going to happen when ideas of the East, which put suffering to the fore, start to take root in the West? Buddhist ideas and philosophy have become increasingly popular in the fast-paced and highly competitive world of California. New Age concepts mixed with the counterculture of the hippies in the 1970s have made words like Karma and Nirvana commonplace. Buddhism offered a spiritual life and an emphasis on morality without being too authoritarian. Buddhism initially spread into the West and especially the West Coast of the United States in the 19th century, thanks to Japanese and Chinese labourers brought in to work on the railways.
In Los Angeles, the first Buddhist temples were set up at the turn of the century. Today, the city is home to one of the largest Buddhist temples in the West. Hsi Lai Temple at Hacienda Heights, our seventh wonder of the Buddhist world. Here I am going to try to understand what has to be the most important Buddhist concept, the ultimate goal for Buddhists, Nirvana. The planning and construction of the temple in the 1980s was met with suspicion and resistance from local communities.
The building of the temple at its current location survived six public hearings and 165 explanatory sessions. Finally, in 1985, the temple was granted a building permit. It was completed in 1988.
I tell you what there is definitely a wealth of here, and that is Buddhas. I have never seen so many. There must be 10,000 or something. Yeah, there are over 10,000 Buddhas here, big and small. And if you look at all the Buddhas, you may find some names there.
It's a Chinese practice that people make an offering and then to have the name of the family. It's their Buddha. And it's also a form of supporting the temple, they come in and say "I have a Buddha in there". It's like the connection between the Buddha outside and the Buddha inside.
One of the many American Buddhists who come to the temple is Mario Cee. He became a Buddhist six years ago. There are some who'd say that the attraction of Buddhism for many Americans is that it's pleasingly mystical, it comes from the East but at the same time it ties in with an "anything goes" materialist lifestyle. How do you speak to that? I don't mean any disrespect by this, but I have some friends who use Buddhism and Eastern religion, Eastern philosophy, and they mix it up with New Age, and that's OK, if it works for them, but my concern is that it is that sort of anything goes, you know, it's a free market in spirituality. Whatever I'm saying and thinking today is fine. Because we have these core teachings in Buddhism, it keeps us in check, so we don't go into anything, "If it feels good, it's OK."
We're really trying to avoid that. Buddhism gave me a discipline without a necessity of a God to reward me or punish me. There has been a tenfold increase in the number of Buddhists in Europe and America over the last 40 years. Most observers put the figure at between two to three million practising Buddhists in America, with the number of Buddhist "sympathisers" estimated at over 10 million. The His Lai temple is one example of the modern expansionism of Buddhism. BUDDHIST CHANTING Many Buddhists come to the His Lai temple for worship...
..others come to practise meditation. In the West, there's recently been great interest in yoga, simply as a way to keep fit and as a form of meditation. Yoga has its roots in Indian traditions that predate both Hinduism and Buddhism and it's sometimes used by Hindus to assert mind over matter. For Buddhists, yoga's key purpose is to achieve personal enlightenment. It is a very ancient philosophy, Buddhism, but in some ways do you think it is very suited to American life, because it does have this kind of can-do attitude. It's very suited to America.
One reason is that we've been materialistic, we're known for it, and I've found in my experience, it doesn't get you where you want to be. I can't believe that I'm alone in that, I can't believe that. It offers reasons why that is.
I'm sure other people, like me, who can't understand why all this stuff didn't make them happy would be looking for something else. I'm not surprised that it is popular. It's not against any other religion and it's not against science. It's very in line with everything.
The temple then offers American Buddhists lots of reasons to visit. But if you're a devotee of Buddhism, then one of your main motivations for coming here is to seek enlightenment... ..Nirvana. I'd love to be able to tell you that I've got a textbook definition for what Nirvana is, but considering the Buddha himself said it was beyond words, beyond logic, I suspect it is going to be quite a tricky concept to pin down. Nirvana certainly is a state of mind, and it's a state of mind in which you have abolished strong emotions of very much wanting things or very much hating things or being confused.
It's a state of mind which you attain, and, at that moment, and thereafter, you will enjoy a kind of blissful calm. And that path, is the end of that path, Nirvana, is that your goal? Yes, Nirvana, enlightenment, full understanding, awakening. Those are all terms that are very similar and, to me, it's understanding the truth, understanding what this is, what it really is.
How confident are you that Nirvana is a goal you are going to attain? I am cautiously optimistic - how about that? There are people that say that it's very possible, and these are people that are very smart people and I'm following their advice and I think it can be done. I think it can be done. Like so much in Buddhism, Nirvana clearly has to be experienced, not explained. But for Buddhists, the journey to get there, the path you take, seems to be as important as the arriving. Buddhists will tell you that Nirvana has no fixed point in time or space. That's actually a little ironic because one of the few accepted fixtures of the Buddhist story is where the Buddha himself found enlightenment.
We're told that that took place in Northern India under the spreading branches of a peepul tree. Which is where my quest had started, at Bodhgaya, at this spot where it's said Buddhist philosophy really began 2,500 years ago. In this journey I have explored key facets of Buddhist belief and got a little closer to understanding something vital about the core of Buddhist philosophy, the Dharma. The Dharma is simply the way the world is. We can all best live our lives if we follow a path that allows us to deal with the world as passionately, as compassionately, as positively and as wisely as possible.
Now, whatever the permutations and interpretations of Buddhism, that seems to me to be pretty simple and pretty enlightened. I've learnt about Karma, how mindful actions impact on our lives, about Samsara, the cycle of life, birth and death, about meditation, about Zen, and the final goal for all Buddhists, Nirvana. I have seen some of the most beautiful architecture inspired by Buddhist ideas and how, after 25 centuries, Buddhism still attracts millions across the globe. A philosophy that is rooted in its ancient past and yet gives character to the modern world. How Buddhism places the responsibility to realise the truth on all of us.
As Buddhism travelled, it transformed the cultures it came into contact with, just as it too was transformed. You wonder if Buddha could ever possibly have imagined the impact that his ideas would have on human history, particularly given the one thing he was certain about, was that impermanence and change were the only things that were definite in this world. Just listen to this - it's one of his most poetic epithets. "So shall you think of all this fleeting world. "A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, "a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, "a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream."
Well, the Buddha's dreams of 2,500 years ago are still with us and they've been made incarnate in one of the most tenacious belief systems of all time and in some of the most iconic and beautiful monuments in the world. Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org