There exists a great arc dotted with Buddhist cave temples that stretches from the State of Maharashtra in India reaching all the way across the Taklamakan Desert-- deep into the heart of China.
It is miraculous really. From influences derived from the West, Buddhist art was born.
And within 5 centuries, dozens of cave temples covered in murals of impossible beauty were to be created across thousands and thousands of miles along the Silk Road-- all the way to Japan.
I told him: We really should start a railway company and put down tracks to connect all the temples so that pilgrims can ride with us on our glorious mural express.
Being a practical sort of guy, he was dubious about the diplomatic and political hurdles, and so I sought to persuade him.
It would be a wonderous beginning, that's for sure. I mean, starting in India, the Murals of Ajanta would set the mood, right?
He said he was listening. So, I continued:
It must be a riny narrow gauge train with blue cars and a carmine red engine and red caboose. "Just like the one we rode to Shimla," I say. And it won't be for everyone either-- for like Mecca, our train will be a place reserved only for true believers-- for believers of love and beauty.
He smiled and answered that, It wouldn't be easy since the mountains kind of get in the way.
That's when I tell him my plan to dynamite our way through the mountains:
What do you think about blasting a huge tunnel that goes for miles and miles under the Himalaya—and then we can use laser lights to recreate all the murals that were lost on the tunnel’s dark walls for our dear passangers? Wouldn’t it be romantic? They can dine on Cantonese cuisine by candlelight as they watch the evening laser light mural show? After all, so much has been lost.
Are you in or not, my darling?
I'm in, he says at last. And asks, Where to from Ajanta?
Well, first it's up to Ladakh.
Ladakh? Isn't that a little off the beaten track?
No, not really. For in that remote region, downtown Leh might as well be downtown Manhattan. And everyone loves Manhattan.
Just a few kilometers outside of the town of Leh is-- of course-- the Monastary of Alchi, which has paintings that have almost stained my mind with their dazzlingly rich colors. As I have written in these pages before, sometimes when I close my eyes before sleeping at night--even now all these years later-- I see those colors. And, it was Alchi that first inspired me to dream this dream journey dream from Ajanta to Dunhuang and then all the way across to Horyuji-- traveling on the glorious mural express.
I spent some time last year translating two documents for the Oriental Library about two other cave temple sites along the Silk Road: Bezeklik and Kizil. As I looked at photos from the sites, I become dazed like a pilgrim-- nearly blinded by the beauty of the Flaming Mountains and and the seering noonday sun of the desert, I imagine stepping into a darkened cave temple, and there I find myself in another dimension-- a place of pilgramage.
This from my translation:
The architecture follows an iconographic programme, functioning as the stage for the carrying out of a Buddhist pilgrimage. device for this procedure. Entering the cave, the pilgrim first contemplates the past lives of the Buddha as he or she passes along murals depicting scenes from these past lives. The pilgrim would next circumambulate the corridor moving in a clockwise fashion. Along the back walls, the pilgrim would view scenes Sakyamuni’s nirvana scene and in order to contemplate his or her own existence...
Like falling in love; like mountains of the mind; indeed, like all pilgramages-- this is an imaginary possession achieved via the colloboration between physical form and human imagination; a dream journey that occurs at precisely that disjuncture between the real and the imagined. Pilgramage. I wonder if this is not yet another essential human practice on the decline (an endangered species?) Pilgramage being of particular significance since it is both practiced collectively together with others and serves to connect inner and outer understanding.
Recently, I listened to an old TED Talk lecture with Matthieu Ricard, on his book the Habits of Happiness. In the lecture, Ricard talks about the Buddhist idea of a pebble being tossed about on the waves on the ocean. Most of us exist in such a state that like a pebble being tossed about in the water, our state of mind is so dependent on outside forces that we are happy when things are going well and then crash when bad things happens. The Buddhists tell us to combat this doomed way of being, we need to cultivate our inner serenity, inner freedom, and confidence through what Ricard calls mind training (ie meditation). For it is mind that "translates" all our outer experiences into inner meaning, he says. As a translator myself, this image of mind "translating" experiences into meaning speaks to me very strongly. Ricard urges us to think about how illusory our control inevitably is over outer circumstances. And indeed we meet people all the time who have everything in the world and yet remain unhappy. And vice versa, those suffering great adversity who seem strangely quite happy.
In the end, I think just as Ricard says, it all comes down to working to cultivate practices and habits which will enrich us by forming and strengthening what is an underlying ethical-aesthetic sensibility-- for it is that which will help us to flourish and feel serenity. Ricard talks of meditation while the Dalai Lama speaks above about the "shaping power" of pilgramage. The Dalai Lama's words above recall the project of the Confucian Rites as proper comportment through the cultivation of ethico-aesthetic sensibility, don't you think? I know I am not the only one who wonders what is at stake for the human race when collective and shared practices which have long served to connect inner and outer understanding via the human heart are lost forever (Are we really destined to become McPeople like I fear?).
I like to imagine that the Mural Express will have a special line that travels West to Bamyan, which stands as the ultimate symbol of that which is lost forever and then East all the way to Japan. For what better place than Japan to end up? Beautiful Japan-- land of the Great Antiquinarians, the Japanese have been obsessed with the Silk Road since the 1980s and scholars continue to work to re-create what was lost--in reproductions or in digitalization--in what in itself is an act of pilgrammage.