Monday, 29 August 2011

Preview: Kremlin and Red Square

Like everyone, I've had the misfortune of knowing a few idiots in my time. Work especially seems to drag them out. For me, one particular idiot that springs to mind is a man with the slightly comical name of Mickey Mallett, whom I worked with for a month in 2007, while offshore in Equatorial Guinea. The stakes were high on an expensive exploration rig searching for gas in the Gulf of Guinea, and Mickey Mallett was the man supposed to be in charge of the test on the gas well. Never has a man been less in charge. In his sixties and surely with decades of experience, he spent his month in a perpetual state of confusion and panic. At one point, so clueless was he to operations, during a crucial part of the test he hid inside my lab unit stating expressly that he "had no idea what was going on" and that he was "scared the rig was going to have a blow-out" (i.e. a rig-destroying explosion). His behaviour onshore was no better than off, and his regular indiscretions involving prostitutes and other locals caused so much trouble, not to mention real danger to himself, that the oil company in charge, instead of just sacking him, eventually banned all personnel from being out after 11pm. His manner was like a congenial uncle crossed with a sex offender crossed with a gigantic human "wobbly-man" toy that rights itself when pushed over. He wasn't even entertaining company, and spent his conversation in malicious, petty and truly inane gossip about his own colleagues - when not talking about his latest African "girlfriend" and, with a wink, his poor unwitting wife at home, that is.

So imagine my surprise when I heard that this idiot not only had been given a sainthood by the Catholic Church, but also had a world famous cathedral built in his honour. No, it's ok, that of course didn't happen, but for anyone around in 16th Century Russia who happened to know a man called Basil that is exactly what did occur. Basil was a cobbler by profession but a true holy idiot by vocation. Not, in fairness, an idiot in the infuriatingly annoying Mickey Mallett way, but in the running around naked, knocking over stuff, making a general nuisance sense. And while Mickey was idiotic for prostitutes and gossip, Basil claimed for his own glory that he was "idiotic for Christ's sake." And the Russians loved this. Because, astonishingly, back in early Tsarist Russia, idiocy was seen as a common form of religious fervency, and the most sincere and dedicated of idiots were treated with reverence. They loved a good idiot. Oh yes, 16th Century Russia was a good time to behave like an absolute bloody imbecile.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Preview: The Thousand Buddha Caves

In 1900, an old worker took a break from his scripture-copying duties in a remote cave network in the Taklamakan desert in north-west China. He fancied a little smoke, so grabbing a bunch of long hay and setting fire to it, he lit his pipe and then extinguished the clump of burnt hay. Casually, he stuffed it into a gap in the wall behind him. To his surprise, all the hay swiftly disappeared into the gap. Curious, he tapped the wall with his pipe, and it sounded hollow. He reported this to the self-appointed guardian of the caves, a monk called Wang Yuanlu, who made a closer inspection and discovered a fake wall hiding a recess in the cave. In that recess, tens of thousands of ancient scrolls and manuscripts lay, hidden for a thousand years.

Although archaeologically untrained and uneducated, Wang immediately knew that this was quite an important find. With a little savvy, he realised that he could sell some of these to the government, who would be interested in such historical finds, and use the money to fund his ongoing project and passion to restore the Buddhist cave network he lived in. He contacted local officials - they weren't interested. Then came the controversy.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Preview: Taipei 101

How big do you think the world's biggest sundial is? Ten metres? Fifty? How about 509.2 metres? Because that's the height of Taiwan's Taipei 101, built between 1999 and 2004, once the world's tallest building, and a sundial of really quite unnecessary proportions.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Preview: The Ushiku Daibutsu

"Beetlejuice Beetlejuice Beetlejuice."

That was the command that summoned up the titular Beetlejuice in the 1988 film starring Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, a simple three-time repetition of the eponymous main character's name. I defy anyone who watched it not to have tried it at least once, and then been secretly disappointed when a cantankerous Michael Keaton in make-up didn't suddenly appear.

The same trick can be used in Buddhism, or more specifically the branch of it called Mahayana Buddhism which is prevalent in China and east Asia, when relating to a particular Buddha called Amitabha Buddha. Without getting too technical, Amitabha is a buddha originally derived from an incredibly ancient and otherworldly monk who by the power of his virtue created a perfect world removed from our usual world of time and space, into which the virtuous can aspire to be reborn. Or, in fact, you don't need to be all that virtuous at all - you just need to be able to repeat his name at least ten times to be guaranteed rebirth in his celestial world. A shortcut to heaven if you will: Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha Amitabha. However, before you get too keen on this easy doctrine, there then follows more complicated sets of commands, including pretty specific visualisations of Amitabha at the point of death, and bear in mind that the more dedicated practitioners might repeat Amitabha's name 50,000 times or more each day, which given that there are only 86,400 seconds in a day is a pretty demanding task. You can forget about a morning lie-in or going for a pint in the evening.

Amitabha's world was called the "Pure Land" and has lent itself to the widespread Pure Land sect of Mahayana Buddhism, popular especially in Japan. In the way of most religions, this sect has further branched off, into a school called Shin Buddhism, named after its 13th Century founder, Shinran. He was a simplifier and cut out a lot of the rituals that had been amassed, and created a new chant - Namu Amida Butsu, or "I take refuge in Amitabha Buddha". However, saying this over and over again doesn't, like the earlier repetition, get you a rebirth in a heavenly world, it's just a way of expressing gratitude to Amitabha. An ongoing thank-you.

The simplified Shin Buddhism quickly became popular among the masses in Japan who were busy just trying to grow enough food and stay alive, and didn't have time for the confusing array of rituals and lengthy education otherwise required from the other more complex schools of Buddhism. It is now the most widely practised branch in Japan. And in tribute to Shinran's efforts, and Amitabha himself, we have the Ushiku Daibutsu.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Preview: Himeji Castle

Anyone who has spent time in the backwaters of satellite television, when asked about Japanese castles will likely think of the same one: Takeshi's Castle. For the uninitiated, Takeshi's Castle was a Japanese gameshow in the late 80s, featuring a hundred volunteers undergoing a variety of challenges, with the select few survivors having the opportunity to defeat Count Takeshi and his guards and take his castle. In true modern Japanese style, the challenges were improbably ludicrous and vaguely humiliating, usually involving wearing large restrictive costumes, falling into pools of mud or water, getting manhandled by Takeshi's guards, and often taking what appeared to be very painful knocks upon dramatic failure of awkward and arbitrary challenges.

The central conceit of having to undergo a series of challenges to have the opportunity to storm a castle was not a notion plucked from the ether, and ties in with many of Japan's real castles of the past. Granted, warriors in the 15th Century didn't have to dress up as a whale and cycle round a twisty path while getting pelted with balls, but they did have to negotiate a deliberately confusing maze of pathways in the castle grounds, and each of the numerous gateways were intentionally built small so that attackers had to file in virtually one-by-one, therefore were easier to pick off. Some of the walls they passed were hollow and had samurai or ninjas hidden inside ready to pick them off - always a nasty surprise. Attacking a Japanese castle was like running a gauntlet of deadly obstacle courses - rather than the brute power of big stone buildings on top of a hill, as per the European style, the Japanese liked to get tricky with their castles when thinking of defensive strategies.

Still, for one reason or another, it wasn't enough for most Japanese castles over the centuries. Wars, heavy bombing during World War 2, politics, disrepair and a shift in priorities created various offensives that traditional defences couldn't repel, and of a total of around ten thousand castles that once stood, a paltry hundred or so remain now, and just twelve remain in their original condition. The largest and most famous of these is Himeji Castle.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Preview: The Temple Of The Golden Pavilion

For over a thousand years, Kyoto was the capital of Japan. Seat of the emperor, it was the centre of politics, economy and culture of Japan. While the power has now been shifted to the neon metropolis of Japan's modern capital, Tokyo, Kyoto has remained the historic heart of the nation, a city of ancient shrines, temples, gardens and traditions. Tokyo is chrome and glass, Kyoto is wood and grass. It is famed worldwide for its distinctive wooden architecture and meticulous, perfect gardens, often heavily influenced by the Japanese take on Buddhism.

One of the best representations of this is the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, or Kinkaku-ji, in northern Kyoto. As I write, if you type in "Kyoto" into Google Images, Kinkaku-ji is the first image displayed. It appears again frequently. Distilled down into one building, Kinkaku-ji is Kyoto; that is, if bulldozers entered the city with the remit of tearing down all these old wooden buildings to make way for, say, some convenient Tescos or shiny new apartments, then Kinkaku-ji would the last one standing.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Preview: Kiyomizu-dera

For the unfamiliar, Buddhism can seem quite confusing, and like Hinduism features lots of people with very long names. Therefore, to make it easier, I find it easier to think of it as a superhero cartoon, kind of like a spiritual version of Superman. Therefore you have Buddha himself, on his mission to free the world from suffering, with superhero powers such as super-hearing, mind-reading, and remembering his past lives. By his side is his trusty sidekick Avalokitesvara (the name may need to be made punchier for the adolescent audience of today: it actually means "Lord who looks down".) Avalokitesvara is an all round good guy, and is one of the most popular characters for the comic book cognoscenti, and helps fight world suffering when Buddha is busy meditating and plucking his hairs out. He is one of a special team, a team of boddhisattvas, who are sidekick superheroes motivated by pure love and compassion, devoted to helping others and striving towards helping all beings attain enlightenment. It's a different tone of comic from your average Marvel kick-fest, I admit. Avalokitesvara pops up quite a bit, no doubt with a spin-off series of his own, and appears in such monuments as Borobudur, the Bayon temple in Angkor (where he is merged with the god-king of the time), and the Potala Palace. And if you equate spin-off comic book series with the various denominations of a religion, then in one popular serial we have Avalokitesvara reincarnated in modern times as none other than the Dalai Lama. He's quite a guy. Oh yeah, and he has a thousand arms.

This latter development - very tricky for comic book artists to fully draw - is one that appears in the Chinese remake, now popular across that part of Asia. They also turn Avalokitesvara into a woman, and call her Guanyin, and add ten extra faces for good measure. The thousand arms are said to have been given to her to allow her to help more people, and the total of eleven faces to be able to watch even more TV... oops, no, it's to be able to hear the suffering of the people.

Always one for a good comic, the Japanese are in on this too, calling their thousand-armed Avalokitesvara the impressive superhero name of "Kannon". Kannon appears all across Japan in the form of statues (one of them, in the city of Kamaishi, is taller than the Statue of Liberty), and has inspired a number of temples too. One of them, notably, is Kiyomizu-dera.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Short Holiday In Barcelona

"Barcelona!" sang Freddie Mercury. And he was right: Barcelona!

I spent the last week on holiday in Barcelona with my girlfriend. As she had understandably expressed a degree of discontent with my plans to travel for years, we arranged some months ago for a lovely holiday. Arguably, my last couple of months have been somewhat of a holiday, enjoying days of tennis and afternoon drinking, but she's been immersed in a world of criminal defence which seems to occupy her days entirely, except for evening bursts of watching a program called "NCIS". NCIS is some kind of forensic/Navy/crime drama from America, in something like its ninth series, but as it appears on various channels for several episodes at a time at various stages during its numerous series, my girlfriend watches it in no coherent order and herself admits doesn't quite know what's going on. So for both of us it was a great relief to escape evenings of NCIS and go to Barcelona.

Preview: The Great Wall Of China

Walls. Huh? What are they good for? Absolutely nothing. So, approximately, sang Edwin Starr in 1970. And although he was probably making a more general point, he may well have applied his lyrics to one of the greatest follies of all time - the Great Wall of China.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Preview: The Forbidden City

Emperor or eunuch? Given the choice, I suppose most of us would opt for emperor and its world of power, prestige, wealth and more concubines than are strictly practical. However, the position of emperor has traditionally always been a fairly limited one, and unless you were feeling bold enough to try and oust the ruler of all under heaven, as the Chinese believed their leaders to be, if you weren't born into pole position in the imperial family then becoming ruler of the realm might not be a very realistic dream. Don't worry, in Chinese terms it usually wasn't very desirable anyway - in the 2133 years from the First Emperor in 221 BC to the very final one, who abdicated in 1912 and died a model citizen in Communist China in 1967, there were something in the region of 550 emperors who ruled. You do the maths, it doesn't equal a very long average reign. Only one emperor ever lived beyond 80 years, only four made it to over 70 years old, and less than 10% - and I think this is astonishing - made it to the age 50.

So eunuch it will be then. Despite the rather obvious drawback, it wasn't a bad career choice. Indeed for a boy born to a peasant family it was a way out from the grinding poverty, although it was generally preferred that eunuchs were prisoners-of-war or especially the prisoners' sons. And once the sickle-shaped knife's single stroke had removed - for Chinese eunuchs - both the testicles and penis, and the tears had eventually subsided, being sold to the imperial household wasn't too bad a fate at all and many eunuchs grew fat, rich and powerful. Plus, unless you were the emperor himself, for a male born any time from 1420 to the fall of the empire in 1912, being castrated and living as a gender-neutralised servant would have been the only way to have seen behind the scenes of the vast Chinese powerhouse - within the Inner Court of the Forbidden City.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Preview: The Spring Temple Buddha

In March 2001, the Taliban of Afghanistan were generally behaving very badly. No, the planes hadn't flown into the World Trade Centre yet and they weren't being hammered for harbouring a terrorist organisation, but after five years in power they were getting pretty heavy-handed with the whole extreme Islam thing. They had banned chess, TV, lobsters, music, dancing, just about any kind of freedom or worthwhile existence for women, as well as performing public executions in sports stadiums, and turned an already troubled nation into a weird, medieval, extremist backwater. And although they usually weren't in favour of any sort of recording equipment, they made an exception that month as they had a little stunt they wanted the decadent West to notice. Their ideology not permitting the representation of man, a decree had been passed to destroy all statues in Afghanistan. One particularly took their attention - twin 1500-year-old, 55 and 37-metre tall statues of Buddha in the Bamiyan valley in central Afghanistan. They were among the tallest standing Buddha statues on earth. The Taliban weren't having any of this and, despite there being no Buddhists in Afghanistan to idolise these giant Buddhas, they put a load of dynamite down and blew them to pieces.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Preview: The Three Gorges Dam

Dam it!

Because that's what they've done to the Yangtze river. And now that I've got a pun on dams out of my system, we can all breath a sigh of relief and readily proceed without fear on the subject of the most powerful hydroelectric dam in the world, China's Three Gorges Dam.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Preview: The Terracotta Army

Qin Shi Huangdi, China's first Emperor, ruler of the Qin dynasty from 221 to 210BC, was a bit of a dick. He burnt the nation's books and buried alive dissenting scholars, he tortured and murdered rivals and their families, he sent thousands or even millions to their deaths on his various building projects, and untold numbers died as a result of his endless wars to conquer and subjugate. Plus he was big and fat, and no doubt had a really annoying laugh.

But annoyingly for all his many victims and detractors, he was also brilliant, and his actions completely shaped the China we know and love. He unified it for a start, defeating all his rivals in a remarkably short space of time, standardised the written language as well as weights, measurements and currencies, built roads and infrastructure and even a good portion of the early Great Wall, oversaw a brutally efficient army with advanced and sophisticated weaponry, and set up an extensive legal system. And although obsessed with immortality, he spent decades and a quite astonishing amount of manpower building himself a vast underground mausoleum complex.

The main legacy of this tomb was found, entirely by accident, by some farmers in March 1974. Shaanxi province in China had been hit by drought, making life even more difficult for the villagers in Litong District within the midst of the Cultural Revolution after a couple of decades of insane Maoist Communism. Digging extra deep one day, around five metres, in the hope of finding some water to save their crops, the farmers instead found a lifesize pottery head. Dutifully they informed the authorities and further digging revealed the pottery head was attached to a pottery body, and the pottery body was not alone, not by a long shot. It was accompanied by thousands and thousands of other lifesize pottery soldiers. Soon monickered the Terracotta Army, it was probably the archaeological discovery of the 20th Century, and came about entirely due to a few thirsty farmers.