Sunday, 15 January 2017

Extending Your Burmese Meditation Visa in Myanmar


As recently as a couple of decades ago, dedicated foreign Dhamma practitioners could not stay in Myanmar longer than a single week! Now, as the government wishes to allow and encourage foreign meditators and and Buddhists to have extended periods in the Golden Land to grow in Dhamma, one can get a "Religious Visa" (commonly called a "meditation visa") for a period of 70 days, which is then renewable indefinitely, and all without having to leave the country. A German yogi recently went through this process and shares his experience with others wishing to do the same:

Introduction
- at first note that you should get the extension process started LATEST 3 weeks before your visa expires. because the process includes several institutions and only the last one is the immigration office which gives you a new visa in your passport. however you are unlikely to get an extension if your present visa is already expired and the result will be an unfortunate overstay stamp!
If you are sure you want to extend your visa I would recommend to start the extension process soon after your arrival to myanmar, as the process has been reported to sometimes have taken as long as 10 weeks!

- next thing it depends on is at which monastery or meditation center you are staying. many monasteries will get the extension process done for you! however some monasteries which have never done it before, may not be able to do so, which means some effort and adventure for you! but it is good to know that with the following guide it is still possible to do it on your own, even without a burmese translator! 

The Extension Process- you must find a monastery or meditation center which is officially registered and recognized by the government and which will be your warrantor/sponsor for the extension. Request them to write a request/sponsorship letter (in burmese) to the "Department of the promotion and propagation of the sasana" (let's call it "religious office") and to the Immigration office.
- this letter should contain your personal data such as full name, country of origin, passport number, date of birth, and the dates for the requested extension, as well as the contact data of the monastery.
- get two letters, one addressed to the religious office and one to the immigration office.
- with the respective letter you go to the religious office near Kabar Aye Pagoda (it is a building near the inner circle road around the Chatta Sanghayana Cave next to Kabar Aye Pagoda) and apply for the visa extension. you will need: passport (just for showing), sponsorship letter, copy of your passport and visa, 1 passport size picture, any other supportive papers (such as a "meditation letter" from your meditation center back home, which explains you are coming to burma for dhamma reasons. this can also be helpful for motivating your burmese monastery to sponsor your extension) (also note that you can easily get passport size photographs within 15 minutes from one of the photo shops at the main entrance gate opposite to the main road's bus stop at Kabar Aye pagoda)
- then they will send your application to Naypyidaw for processing, which takes at least 2 weeks.
- then they are supposed to call you once they got it back and you can pick up the approval letter from the religious office. in my case it took 3 weeks and they didn't call me, I had to call them a few times to check the status.
- then you have to go to the Immigration office in Yangon Downtown, Pansoedan Road. here you'll have to pay fees in US Dollar. and the cash counter is open only from 10am-2pm. to be sure you get it all done in 1 day, better arrive before 11am!
- here it is where the whole procedure becomes a little more complicated and you need to plan almost half a day from ~10am to ~3:30pm! but it is doable and definitely worth the experience and waiting time! :-) Be patient and always remember the motto of this day will be: "please wait!"
- you need to bring: passport, letter from the religious office, sponsorship letter from your monastery, 1 passport&visa copy, 7 passport size photographs. and money: small money for making copies of documents and: seperately 9 USD for the FRC (Foreign Registration Card) and 36 USD for extending 3 months or 90$ for extending more than 3 months. please note again: you can pay only in USD! for this you can change money at one of the nearby banks (bank opening hours are usually from 9am-3pm) (if you are short in passport photographs, you can see if you can make some in one of the copy shops next door, otherwise there are plenty of photo shops at sule pagoda which is just around the corner)
- first you need to go to the Immigration office. coming in you'll see many people sitting and waiting in a room and behind some glass walls, you see many officers. There is no reception anywhere so don't be confused, just be courageous, approach an officer and make her understand what you want by telling you want a "visa extension" and showing your visa and the letter from the religious office. they will search through a heap of papers to find another letter from the religious office in their archive and then give you a big bunch of papers which contains your letter and ask you to take several copies of both these letters in a nearby copy shop. you find copy shops down the road in both directions. once you have your copies, bring back the bunch of papers and then go to the upper office for the FRC. for this you step out from the Immigration office and take a left and just enter the next door again where you find signs with arrows leading you to "FRC".
you will step up the stairs to the first floor and end up in another chaotic place with lots of people and lots of officers without any understandable order. therefore be courageous and take your privilege as a foreigner to directly approach an officer with your issue. she will take some of the copies of the 2 letters from the religious office, and 5 passport size pictures. also give her your letter from the monastery as she can retrieve your personal data from that. also she may ask you to write down more details such as your present adress at which you should be registered for the FRC, (here you may use the address of your sponsoring monastery) or other details such as name of your father and your marital status. Wait for some time and they will give you an invoice of 9 dollars with which you have to go back down to the cash counter in the Immigration office. give them the 9 dollars and the invoice, then sit down and wait until they call you. you'll get back your stamped invoice which you bring up to the FRC office. give it to them and wait. finally you'll get your FRC letter, which is a long piece of paper. go out to make 1 copy of it and then with all the remaining documents (several letters from religious office; letter from your monastery; passport copy; 2 passport size photographs; copy of the FRC and your passport) go to the Immigration office in the basement. Again, here just go directly and approach on of the officers with your issue. she'll go through all your papers and give you an invoice of 36 dollars with which you go to the cash counter. after paying and waiting again, you'll get back your stamped invoice and bring it to the officer. she'll again go through all the papers and ask you to come back at 3pm. Come back at 3 and make yourself visible to your respective officer. she'll probably ask you one last time: "please wait." so sit down in the waiting area and wait until the smiling officer approaches you - hopefully with a new visa extension in your passport! :-)
(make sure to check all the dates of the visa, to avoid any mistakes or misunderstandings).

Result
Practice diligently and attain nibbana for the benefit of all beings. 

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Sending Metta to President Donald J. Trump


Since the U.S. election results, meditators everywhere have struggled with how to orient themselves, their values, and their practice with the incoming Trump administration. From civil disobedience to protecting the powerless, this has been a soul-searching time in trying to align Dhamma practice with the naked vulgarity of hate speech.

One American yogi shared the following story, which gives more food for thought to the vipassana practitioner. During an intensive mettā retreat, she was following the Buddha's guidelines of sending metta first to oneself, then to a role model, a loved one, a neutral one, and finally a disliked person or enemy. After several days she reported her experiences to the nun teacher, who is also American, noting that she didn't have any blocks in her mettā practice and it was flowing freely to all persons. The following is the paraphrased conversation that follows:

Nun: "There is, however, one person left..."

Yogi: "Who...?"

"Our next President."

"Oh... no!!! No, no, no. I can't even say his name, literally it disgusts me so much. I tried to fly all this way to Burma, and then schedule this retreat to coincide with inauguration day. I cancelled my subscription from the New York Times, as I can only read the Book Review these days. I have to leave the room when he is on a TV. No!"

"Let me tell you. I carried a hatred for that man as well. I fervently wished that he would die in an airplane crash. And look at me! Look at the robes I am wearing! How can I hold such a thing in my heart? Let me tell you, that since the election, my sole meditation practice has been sending mettā to Donald Trump. And I can send mettā to him at times, but I haven't yet been successful at wishing him mudita, or sympathetic joy."

"I just look at what he represents and what he will do to our country, and sometimes I can't even stand I get so weak and sick."

"Well, first remember that he's not the president yet. We now have an ethical man leading our country. And with this practice, we always stay in the present moment, accepting the reality at the moment. Secondly, Trump's policies will impact millions of people around the world. The more negativity that is shared with him, and the greater defilements that arise in him as a result, the greater possibility that his reach will harm more and more people. The only part I can play in this is wishing him to become free of suffering. As much freedom of suffering as he may achieve, that will translate into how his policies and decisions affect millions."

The yogi determined she was not in fact strong enough to send direct mettā to the President-Elect, and so instead radiated mettā to all beings, accepting that Trump was one of those beings. But even this proved challenging in the extreme, and the toxic nature of her thinking became so manifested that it dampened her overall mettā. Never before had her civic opinions and feelings so contradicted her Dhamma practice, and it is something she continues to process how they may be brought together, contemplating the nun's advice.

At a time when many yogis are considering various forms of social activism (at times informed from Buddhist principles), the nun's honest talk shows an alternative for action, or perhaps a complementary action.

How does one affect change in the world? On this point, one may recall the words of a Webu Sayadaw student and biographer. It was pointed out to him that Webu had no legacy of which to speak: unlike other contemporary teachers such as S.N. Goenka or Mahasi Sayadaw, he had no meditation centers, no appointed teachers, no administration managing logistics, no promotion of his meditation technique on a large scale, etc. Replied the biographer, "Being active in the world and reaching out to hundreds, thousands is of course beneficial. But so is sitting alone in a cave for the benefit of all humanity."

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Wisdom of Mindfulness Meditation Retreat in Yangon



Mahasi Monastery in Yangon has announced a special event on January 15, 2017, open to a limited number of yogis and requiring registration beforehand. The event organizers have issues the following schedule:


As a special offering for English speaking participants living and working in Myanmar and travellers/tourists. You are warmly invited to participate in this rare offering

A Day Long Wisdom of Mindfulness Meditation Retreat At the Mahasi Meditation Centre, Yangon, Myanmar

The day long retreat will begin at 8 am and end at 6 pm. The retreat will open with a short guided tour of the Mahasi Centre by Alan Clements, an American and former Buddhist monk at the Centre.

This will be followed by taking the 8 Buddhist precepts for the day along with receiving the mindfulness meditation instructions that have been presented by the late Mahasi Sayadaw for seventy years.

The retreat itself will consist of both sitting and walking meditation. A senior meditation teacher at MSY will give a dhamma talk followed questions and answers sometime in the afternoon.

A traditional Burmese meal will be offered to everyone at the Centre at 10:30 am. The retreat itself is freely offered by the Buddha Sasana Nuggaha Organization. At the end of the retreat if one would like to offer dana – a contribution – they can and it would be appreciated. This can be offered in the office as one is leaving.

The retreat will be limited to approximately 20 participants. 


For more information, see this page on World Dharma and this PDF file.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Ledi Mu Monastery

This monastery is one of twenty nationwide aligned with the Ledi Mu organization, established in accordance with Ledi Sayadaw’s pariyatti and paṭipatti teachings. There are both single rooms and kutis for accommodations, and foreign yogis with proper documentation may request to stay. The compound is quite large and there is a spacious Dhamma Hall. Life-sized wax figures depict Ledi writing at his desk, as well as outside his forest cave while instructing his pupil Ledi Pandita (Ledi Pandita was also known by his lay name U Maung Gyi, and sometimes by both names together, “Ledi Pandita U Maung Gyi”.) Interestingly, this display includes the actual kerosene lamp that Ledi Sayadaw used when writing, and depicts Ledi Pandita, ever the dedicated disciple, preparing to light its wick—a task he no doubt did countless times throughout his life for the prodigious scholar. Regular English classes are here as well for monastics and lay supporters, and meditators are welcome to volunteer as a teacher here. Occasional workshops are also held on Buddhist topics, and foreigners may register for them.

Bonus: A Much More Serious Wrong Turn
Ledi Sayadaw looked to impart his Dhamma wisdom even in ordinary situations. Once, when he and his student Ledi Pandita were on an alms walks together, he took the wrong turn, and Ledi Pandita pointed this out. Replied the Sayadaw, “If you take the wrong way on alms round it means you will miss a meal. But if you take a wrong turn in life, it means you will miss nibbāna and keep on in samsara.”



Friday, 21 October 2016

Meditation at Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Hotel

“Something of both the relative and absolute scale of it all can be grasped by noting that Myanmar is a country with 53 million people and a whopping monastic population of over 500,000. Those 500,000 live off donations alone. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world, and yet the society somehow manages, through extraordinary generosity, to unfailingly support its bulging monastic population. Much of this generosity comes in the form of a single spoonful of rice given daily. Indeed this generosity, and the faith and understanding that inspires it, is legendary. This spirit of giving has created a softening effect on the country, such that despite the poverty, and despite the political oppression there is an air of friendliness and safety. The people possess an unusual uprightness both physically and psychologically, and they have a remarkable brightness and warmth.” Miles Bukiet, American meditator

Since the Buddha's day, the Dhamma has always been dispensed freely, and without expecting anything in return. This tradition has continued into the 21st century throughout Myanmar, where one may at any time wander into a monastery and be given food, shelter, and other basic offerings; and where no compensation is ever requested or expected. Similarly, a donor may give a daily spoonful of rice or build a multi-million dollar monastery, all while never expecting preferential treatment from the monks or teachers here. As Steve Armstrong (U Buddharakkhita) wrote in A Living Tradition, “The gratitude one feels to those who preserve, practice and preach the Dhamma is expressed in the joyful, heartfelt humility of a daily, simple offering of support so that it may continue. This reciprocal offering in this way has been preserved and practiced since the time of the Buddha more than 2500 years ago.” Or as Jake Davis put in Strong Roots, “[T]he joy in life and generosity of heart that the Burmese people display - despite extreme physical hardships and a political climate of widespread fear - is testimony to the power that the Buddha’s teachings can exert on societies that support and preserve them.”

The importance of the act of dāna to Burmese Buddhists is also expressed in the Burmese proverb, Thila hnin dana ma pa they ka hma thi, or “Without sila or dāna, at death’s approach one repents.” And the Burmese attitude towards dāna—and perhaps life in general— is illustrated by the simple proverb Wun ye wa hma, sun ye hla, meaning that one is/should be happy with what they have so long as there is enough for dāna.

Despite this long, important history of freely dispensing the Buddha's teachings for all to benefit from spiritually, Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Hotel has made the questionable decision to offer guided meditation to its guests-- for a very, very hefty fee. As the flyer shows below, a one hour session goes for $70 and two hours for $120. As Myanmar continues to open up, the potential to make money off of the Golden Land's noble Buddhist tradition is certainly tempting for a country that is one of the poorest in the world, and yet doing so will also jeopardize the very instructions and guidelines as laid down by the Buddha so long ago. Change and modernization may come, and the Buddha's teachings may be shared in increasingly innovative and accessible ways, but to do so "with a fee attached" goes against the very core of the Enlightened One's fundamental message and purpose, and brings crass commercialism to the faith and practice.

These concerns were brought to the hotel management, and their responses were unsatisfactory. They first noted that the meditation takes place onsite, however as these rooms are not residences and not in other use, there is no additional cost required for them. It was then noted that the monk teacher needs to travel from his monastery, but even a top car and driver would be no more than a few dollars, and most monasteries have their own vehicles. It was then pointed out that the meditator needed proper clothing, however these usually only cost a few dollars as well and few monks would require Westerners to wear these prior to teaching the Dhamma. It was finally suggested that the "fee" was actually "dana", which is entirely untrue as a forced payment is in fact diametrically opposite from a volitional donation, and it is only the latter that helps one in detaching from the ego and one's possessions. Finally, the management promised to bring these concerns to the hotel's owners.

To meditators who are worried about this trend continuing as Myanmar opens up, consider writing the hotel directly to express this concern. It is quite laudable that this hotel, located in the very place where Theravada Buddhism became established in the Golden Land in the 11th century, is wishing to give tourists a taste of their spiritual treasures. And there are many, many ways they can achieve this noble intention without seeking their own financial profit in doing so. If they decide to offer meditation freely and not as a money-making scheme, we will be sure to update this post. 


The hotel's web page is http://www.thiripyitsaya-resort.com and its email is thiribgn@myanmar.com.mm and thiri@myanmar.com.mm

In closing, one may consider Sayadaw U Sunanda's thoughts. He offered a real life example, of a Burmese man who lived a heedless life, and at one point stole a monastery carpet worth 76 kyat (less than one dollar). He later became quite wealthy, and also became a serious devotee of the Buddha’s teachings, and so went back to this monastery to donate 76 lakh (about $75,000). U Sunanda said that for lay donors, “One mustn’t give while also evaluating what one will get back in return, or judge the worth of what one is getting against what one is giving.” But a duty is also there for the Saṅgha, for monks must inspire by living highly virtuous lives. “Buddhism can’t be attacked from an outside source, but only when the inner circle is not behaving as they should be.”




Sunday, 25 September 2016

Burma Pilgrimage in Winter




Ultimate Reality Tours and Grahame White are offering a pilgrimage to Myanmar in February 2017. This 17-day trip will visit a number of key sites connected to the great monks and meditation teachers of the Golden Land. More information about this pilgrimage can be found here

In their own words, "Our 2017 pilgrimage will take us back to the golden land of Myanmar (Burma). On this pilgrimage we will be exploring a number of the most important sites connected with the development of meditation in Burma. We will be going to monasteries, meeting teachers and immersing ourselves in the culture of the Burmese people."

The dates will be from February 8-24, and pilgrims will visit a large number of important Dhamma sites and meet with Sayadaws and other monastics in Lower Burma, Upper Burma, and Shan State.

For more information, see the flyer here or register by sending an email to gralyn@ozemail.com.au.




Thursday, 11 August 2016

Ledi Sayadaw at Shwezigon Pagoda in Monywa



According to pagoda trustees, Shwezigon’s origination story goes back to the fourth century B.C., when King Widadapua attacked the Sakyan tribes (Siddhartha Gautama’s clan). Some Sakyans were said to flee all the 
way to Hpo Win Daung, on the west bank of the Chindwin River. From there, a great beam of light was seen arising from the east, which was taken as a good omen. 

Even given this august past, it is the events of about 150 years ago that give Shwezigon its current renown. It was on these grounds where the future Ledi Sayadaw first stayed after his Mandalay library burned in 1883, when he withdrew back to the solitude of rural Monywa. Here at this pagoda he continued his scholarly work and writing, residing at the invitation of Sayadaw U Nyanawuntha. About a dozen monks followed him, joining the other dozen or so monks who were already studying here. U Nyanadhaja, as he was known before heading out into Ledi Forest, resumed his teaching duties. According to U Candida, it was also here that U Nyanadhaja came to believe he could fulfill his two “latent wishes”; “to respect and pray to the Buddha regularly [and]] to fulfill Sangha needs.”

Ledi’s days here quickly fell into a routine. Sitagu Sayadaw describes what a day in the life may have looked like. “Sayadaw swept the shrine halls, terraces, open spaces, and stairways of Su Taung Paya and Shwezigone Pagodas. He swept the whole campus of the monastery, cleaned all the toilets (usually at night), filled all the water pots with fresh water, [and] attended and nursed sick monks.” In those days, sticks were used to clean oneself after a bowel movement, and U Nyanadhaja would take care even to clean these sticks after use. In addition, as the monastery complex had hollows up to ten feet deep, U Nyanadhaja personally carried earth from other areas to make the ground more level. Finally, he helped the Sayadaw complete the construction of a new Dhamma Hall.

His pupils became discomfited by the many menial tasks that their great teacher undertook, most on their behalf, and some felt unworthy to even drink the water he poured for them (yet another task U Nyanadhaja undertook, sometimes at three a.m., so as not to wake anyone). But he eased their concerns, declaring that in his past incarnations, his wives and children had benefited from the use of his body and limbs, and now finally as a monk he had the opportunity to fully serve the Buddha’s teachings. He added that one’s body is like a hired cart, and that one can make use of it while we are in possession of its functions, but eventually it, too, will be taken away.

An important event occurred while staying here that would affect U Nyanadhaja’s future plan, and which would have major implications in the worldwide spread of the Dhamma. One day, while engaged in his cleaning duties, he met the renowned Sayadaw U Thila, a forest monk whom many at the time believed to be fully enlightened. U Thila’s commitment and spiritual attainments, both of which were borne from his solitary practice, inspired U Nyanadhaja’s eventual decision to venture forth into Ledi Forest in the coming years.

In terms of the pagoda’s physical layout, the entryway is approached off of one of Monywa’s busiest streets. The pilgrim leaves the hectic worldly activity in turn for a quiet, colonnaded concrete hall, whose most prominent feature is the central stupa. Fashioned in the “diamond bud” style in pure gold, the top reaches upwards of 135 feet, a pair of ogres perching near the top. No less than 35 smaller stupas are scattered across the expansive compound, including many Buddha images, some of which go back to the 18th century. Several statues depict Ledi Sayadaw, honoring the historic role that the pagoda played in his development. The earliest Buddha image is listed from 785, and the donor list includes many of the great Bamar kings.

Also on the grounds is a Bodhi tree, a large Dhamma Hall, and an artificial cave structure, inside which are various statues of well-known nats and hermits. Perhaps most suitable for meditation is the smaller room to the right of the shrine area, featuring two pristine Buddha images… and also where there are explicit signs requesting visitors not to make any noise that may disturb a yogi’s meditation. And unusual to the Burmese pagoda landscape are a diverse host of tropical trees and professionally manicured bushes and hedges. A dusty monastery is connected via a blue gate, although it is uncertain if these are the original monastic grounds dating back to Ledi’s time. Today its courtyard doubles as the Royal Shwe Myint Badminton Club.