The Big Buddha, Light, and Shadow
I’m not sure I’d fully been in Phuket until today, seen really what the stunningness and world-wide love is about. Now, definitely, I get it. The road there, of course, never straightforward.
My journeys started heading to Wat Chalong, the largest temple in Phuket. It was everything I imagined, resplendent, golden, filled with incense and, on a Sunday, packed with tourists. Still, the space held was sacred, for the most part people were really respectful, and it still felt like a spiritual experience.
From Wat Chalong, you can see the Big Buddha, a 45 meter-high statue on top of a peak. I looked at my map, and there were two routes to get there, one theoretically starting just across the street.
I had some real trouble finding the entrance street though. When I finally did, a little one-lane alley next to a 7-11, I thought it a bit odd. I mean, lots of people must go to the Big Buddha, right? I was alone on a tiny little road, winding up through rainforest. But hey, the maps clearly showed it connecting up to the Buddha road, so it must be ok. A truck passed me at one point. Gonna be fine.
Then the road ended. It turned to dirt, then loose dirt and mud, then loose dirt, mud, big rain-carved gullies and huge rocks in the middle. I’m certain when I rented my bike, they didn’t intend for it to be ridden here. But years and years of mountain-biking meant that as long as my little scooter could handle the hills, I could work out the rest with the land, and we’d all have a safe path through.
There were a couple wrong turns, highly amused locals, and some very, very steep hills. When I started seeing ATVs with roll cages, I suspected maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the main road.
And then I turned a corner, and the most spectacular vista of Southern Phuket opened up. I could see for miles - crystal blue water, those massive green-covered limestone rocks that sprung up all over the sea. The rolling hills, blanketed in plants, layer on layer. It was jaw-dropping. And then the elephants showed up.
As I stood there, three elephants walked around the corner. They were laden with two tourists and a driver each. They were also curious - one reached his trunk over to me - huge, and in all, a bit sad. They headed on down the path.
Lifting my jaw up off the ground, I climbed back on the bike and finally made it to the connecting road. Which was a big road. Full of tour buses and vans and bustle. And oddly, as I pulled onto the tarmac, for the first time in the entire journey I felt unsafe. Getting stuck in a gully in the forest with a broken leg and being eaten by tigers? Not worried. Being run over by a tour bus? Worried.
But I made it up the mountain unscathed, and came to the Buddha. It’s massive, white, and beautiful. It’s also in the Bhumisparsha Mudrā - and that has special meaning to me. For folks unfamiliar with Buddhist imagery and terms, Mudrās are a way of arranging the body, often to assist a particular form of contemplation. The Bhumisparsha Mudrā is sitting in full lotus position, with the left hand in the lap, palm up, and the right hand reaching down, touching the earth. It comes from this part of Buddha’s Enlightenment:
Just before the historical Buddha, a man named Siddhartha Gautama, reached enlightenment, the demon Mara attacked him, as he sat under under the Bohdi tree. Mara tempted him with all possible things, and those failing, and had his armies of monsters threaten Siddhartha. None of it worked. Siddhartha sat, focused on attaining enlightenment.
Mara then tried to claim enlightenment for himself, saying his spiritual accomplishments were greater. His army shouted that they bore witness to Mara’s greatness. “Who bears witness to you, Siddhartha?”, Mara mocked.
At that question, Siddhartha reached out his right hand, and touched the ground, and every living thing turned and looked at Mara. Mara, defeated, slunk away. Then, as the sun broke the horizon and rose into the sky, Siddhartha realized enlightenment, and became the Buddha.
This scene, the connection between the Buddha and all living things has long been the most resonant part of Buddhism for me. To be able to sit with a giant marble statue of the Buddha, in this pose, was profound.
I spent a long time there, at the top, tropical sun beating down on both of us, tourists whizzing by. Eventually, intuition called, and it was time to leave.
I wound down the paved road, less steep, but more dangerous, full of bird shows and baby elephants chained to poles and monkeys in cages. Live seafood, you eat, free show of monkey. Good for kids.
This is the dichotomy, the effervescent mystery of Thailand. Light. Dark.