Meditating Master Monk

This is one of my favourite images and means a lot to me due to the amount of belief, trust and time that went into capturing it.

I often travelled to places with very little expectation and research, allowing myself to stay open and experience a new place at face value. Im not sure if this was a good or bad idea but Myanmar was certainly no different. (As my photography journey progresses I realise some prior planning  increases your chance of getting that sweet shot and certainly saves you a lot of time on the ground.) I knew that the plains of Bagan were a sandy landscape with Buddhist temples, but in my ignorance that was about it. I was pretty much going in blind but started to get excited on the overnight bus there when one of my friends said that he had seen Bagan’s temples in National Geographic about 15 years prior, and since then it had always been somewhere he dreamed of going.

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We arrived off an overnight bus just after sunrise and once we had found a reasonable guest house, hired some electric bikes and started a circumnavigation of the temple sites on the main loop road. It was only then that I started to get an idea of just how vast this land was and how many areas of worship there were to take in – there were temples and pagoda’s quite literally as far as the eye could see. I was eager to explore the diverse collection of buildings and see what treasures could be found.

The next day at one of the more famous temples entrance, I met a man selling photographs of the surrounding areas. One particular photo jumped out at me and caught my eye. It showed a couple of girls sitting in front of a mirror in what looked like an amazing underground chamber with light shafts entering in. The photographer had captured the light very well in a tough situation, but to me it seemed an odd concept and composition to have 2 young girls sitting in front of a vanity cabinet doing their make up, in such a sacred looking space.

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From that moment I knew I had to find this place and capture the essence of this site in a more authentic way. I immediately envisioned a monk meditating in this wonderful chamber. ‘Wow, where is this?’ I asked the salesman, but in his hesitation I could see he wasn’t prepared to give up his secret spot for nothing. After some friendly questioning for clues he said “ for $150 u.s dollars, I’ll take you there”.

Now I know that many professional photographers would be happy to pay that for a shooting session, but I normally travel on a pretty tight budget and I certainly wasn’t about to throw half my weekly budget away on visiting one of the 2200 sacred sites around. I said “thanks anyway” and thought to myself “I”ll just hire a bike and spend the next few days adventuring to find it. It can’t be that hard, right?

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The plains of Bagan cover over 40 square miles and have over 2200 pagoda’s, temples and monasteries.

I soon learnt through exploring that a lot of temples and pagoda’s were very similar in structure and content and would consist of 2 main types: the stupa-style solid brick temple and the gu-style hollow temple. The gu temples came in two basic varieties, either a “one-face” or “four-face” design — essentially one main entrance with the Buddha facing you or four main entrances with the Buddha facing you at each entrance. These standard type structures seemed to offer little opportunity for hidden passages, so I opted to search the more complex looking architecture.

Searching through this treasure trove of sacred ruins was amazing, with a clear goal pushing me ever on-ward into usually uncharted territory. I would enter a temple, then look for hidden doorways and stairwells. I climbed, squeezed and crawled through so many super narrow passages, excited with the prospect of finding my gold at the end of the tunnel. Using my head torch to illuminate my way through the pitch black spaces I would more often than not be greeted by decrepit, window-less, empty chambers. Still there was no time to get bored on my search, as I was always discovering something new about this unique archaeological phenomenon of Bagan.

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Inside the larger sites amazingly intricate murals adorn the entire walls. Known as frescoes, these outstandingly detailed masterpieces were painted on fresh, wet plastered walls, so that the colours could sink into the plaster, allowing these art works to survive for many centuries.

Well, after a long few days “Indiana Jones-ing” through literally hundreds of deserted ruins, I seemed no closer to finding this elusive chamber. Each day I would leave my hotel before sunrise, return around midday for a bite to eat and a sleep, then go back out for the afternoon light. I seemed to be running out of days, and having still not found what I was looking for, I remained surprisingly positive about discovering this place I sought.

I had been reading about how to make your visions a reality the days before and as a journeyed solo around kept repeating in my head the mantra “ask and you shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened for you ” and genuinely believed in it as I pushed down unused sandy tracks and further from the comfort zone of familiarity.

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Earlier that day I had met a friendly monk in a temple that had invited me in for some tea, but besides him I had hardly seen another person all day – let alone another tourist, which added to my excitement of being alone in the unknown. At one point in the day I found myself on an elevated piece of track and stopped for some water and to take in the scenery that could only be observed in this part of the world. In the distance I saw another stupa’s peak which encouraged me to ride on further still.

Constantly monitoring the battery life of my bike, I arrived at the distant temples main entrance only to find it was padlocked closed. To prevent looting and vandalism of ancient artifacts, many of the sacred sites are locked with local people making there residences close to the buildings, acting as a security guard/ key master/ gate keeper. Whilst I found most to be very friendly, when I rocked up with a smile and genuine interest in their knowledge of the site, the guy at this particular gate didn’t appear to be too happy being disturbed. It was the first place where I was asked for money to open the gate and at the time I remember the price of $5 Australian seeming a lot to unlock the door. Anyway, having come this far I paid the man and he swung the gate open and gestured me in.

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One of the friendly key masters I met on my adventures to find the hidden chamber. He was happy for a chat and told me he had been living in his humble bamboo hut for 18 years.

Climbing down some steps and through yet another arched door way I entered the space and instantly  had one of those “arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” moments, like the heavens opening up. I had found the place I was looking for and could hardly believe it. After all the hundreds of temples, days of searching and countless hours on my bike, I had found it. It was an incredible space unlike any where else I had stumbled across in my search. Very dark and extremely hot, but so atmospheric and peaceful at the same time. The energy that must have been built up in here over the last thousand or so years was wonderful. My persistence had paid off and I felt a wave of emotion come over me. I had found what I was looking for, but I still had work to do towards achieving my desired shot.

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My thoughts moved quickly to how I could create my vision and get a monk sitting in the chamber. The guard barely spoke a word, instead opting for some nods and grunts. I asked if there was a monastery nearby, but he didn’t seem to understand, so I acted out that I would be back later as I hurried off on my electric bike down some more unused sandy tracks. By this time I was a long way from where I hired my bike and I’m not sure if you’ve ever ridden one of these little Chinese bad boys, but the battery life is pretty lame and once these beasts run out of juice, you’re pretty much pushing a super heavy push bike with tiny wheels through soft sand until you find help. I didn’t know whether to turn back or keep going. For some reason I decided to defy my logic and believe in something more. I was on a roll and wanted it to keep going. There had been so many forks and T junctions in the road and I was navigating on intuition. I would arrive at a junction, then listen to the which one felt best- left, right or straight or turn back.

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About 5 minutes of riding later I stumbled upon another big locked gate to property. I poked my head through and called out ‘Mingalaba’ which was the usual greeting call of the Burmese. ‘MINGALABA’ I repeated in a louder tone.

Much to my surprise I heard a ‘Hello’ call back as a well dressed middle aged man appeared in the custom checkered shirt and sarong. “Is this a temple” I asked. “No, it’s a monastery” replied the man with unexpectedly good English, shining a big smile at me through his red beetle-nut stained teeth.

Well, that was the beginning of what was to be an amazing conversation that would continue on for a few hours. Back then Myanmar had only just opened its borders to tourists and it was strongly advised that you not ask about politics and government, due to the trouble its people can get in talking about the strict dictatorship that was running the country. Without so much as a hint in that direction this guy just opened up to me and went on to tell me of his story, of how he had spent 7 years in prison getting tortured and all the gory details that that entails. It was like something out of a horror movie and I could barely image the inhumanity he had to suffer through. He showed me all his scars from where they continually broke his bones and it was full on!

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One of the less friendly locals I stumbled upon on my mission into the dark ruins.

Working with so many people and cultures from all around the world on a regular basis, I consider myself a very good judge of character. Not for one second did I entertain the fact that this guy was telling me anything but the truth, although I did question why he chose to share this information with me. I asked him later ‘why do you tell me all this’ and felt much joy and appreciation when he pointed to his chest and  then my chest, gesturing a “big heart”.

His body language was soft and yet he spoke with passion of a better future for all. He explained to me that, whilst trying to escape capture, many of his friends were shot dead and you could almost feel his pain. It was such an amazing insight not only into his life, but the history and culture of their people that you could not receive from the standard tourist publications. The kind man went on to tell me how he had recently come into some money through real estate and was donating a new shelter to this particular monastery because of its significance with migrating monks. After only a short relationship, I had a lot of time and respect for this wonderful man who had integrity in his eyes, clearly a giant heart and the courage to stand up against his oppressors for what he believed in.

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I got invited in for lunch, where we were to sit with the relatively young master monk and his 2 disciples. Although I felt massively welcomed in by the plain clothed man, I could see that the monks with no English speaking ability were a little more apprehensive to my motive for being there. After a while with our generous benefactor translating they slowly warmed up to me and showed me around the monastery and to this super cool cave, where their previous master had lived for 30 years. The only entry into the cliff face was crawling in on your hands and knees, where in complete darkness and basically void of any external reference, he stayed in a rabbit’s warren like hole meditating. I was told that he would only come out once a day for a bowl of rice at 11am and then he’d go back in and continue his practice. I felt emotionally very grateful to be given a tour around these sites I bet only a few locals had been privileged to experience, let alone a Westerner.

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These are the kind of adventures you dream of and money couldn’t buy. The kind gentleman seemed intrigued as to how I had actually ended up sitting there with them all and I told him of the chamber I had been looking for all week. I asked if there was another monastery near where I might be able donate to get a monk to mediate in there for a picture to match my vision. He had not heard of the chamber, but straight away suggested ‘we could take the master monk there’. I couldn’t believe my luck. I suggested that I would possibly come back the next day, when I have got some candles to light the area inside and to get some incense to add a smoky feel. “Here’s some candles” he said reaching over to a shelf, “Here’s some incense’ moving to another, ‘would you like to go now?”. My jaw basically dropped. Already spellbound by the amazing day, inside I was thinking “are you effing kidding me”, but politely replied “only if it is o.k with everyone”. As if it had all been pre-arranged, off we went.

So here I was, as if in a dream, with all the ingredients necessary to produce the scene I had been visualizing all week. “What would you like him to do?” the gentleman asked. ‘Just sit and meditate would be amazing’ I replied. I was so happy, but also nervous and in a way still overwhelmed with the excitement that knew I was capturing something very unique and special. We stayed in there and snapped away for about 20 minutes moving around, trying to get different angles, nervously hoping that I was getting a good exposure and that the particular lens I had on wasn’t doing its usual ‘blurry focus thing’. It was so hot in there and I don’t know if it was just the pressure and excitement of the moment, but my shirt was literally soaked through by the time we exited.

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We leisurely walked back to the monastery chatting away and I don’t think he understood what he had done for me. I was invited back the next day for more lunch and had another great day with them all. I printed a copy of the photo up for the monk and I think only then did he realize my intentions were pure. He stared at the photo for ages, then back at me, then back at the photo. Without physically showing it or being able to say it, I knew he was smiling on the inside.

Getting this photo taught me many things and re-confirmed to me that we can achieve anything if we can conceive it. It taught me to believe and trust in my visions and what you wish for in life, to have faith in your goals and to continually move towards them and take action even when you don’t know how they are to manifest. This is why to me photography is more than just an image, more than just a moment, but a lifestyle and an important message. So many beautiful things fell in place on those special days in Bagan that allow me to feel truly blessed to have co-created one of my life’s magical moments in one of the worlds greatest sacred sites.

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Photo Blurb
Canon 7d,
Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8,
13mm 2.5 sec @ f/2.8 ,
ISO 100

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By | April 10th, 2016|0 Comments

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