Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Dhamma Video

This site was recently shared by a European monk who has been in Myanmar since 2011. It features inspiring videos and biographies from some of the country's great Burmese Sayadaws and meditation masters.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Jenny Phillips discusses the Dhamma Brothers on Oprah Winfrey Part 2

On Oprah Winfrey's Soul Series, she interviews Jenny Phillips in a two-part episode. Ms. Phillips made a critically acclaimed documentary called the Dhamma Brothers about a prison in the Deep South that embraces vipassana meditation through the Sayagyi U Goenka organization. She also published a book describing the project. In this interview, Ms. Phillips discusses the making of the film as well as how the meditative prisoners are doing today. The first part of the interview can be found here.

Ms. Phillips can also be heard on Secular Buddhism and written interviews were published in New England Film and Spirituality & Practice.

"Being the Only Meditator in the Monastery"

The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the seventh entry, and the beginning post can be found here.

"I had a lot of misunderstandings with Burmese people because of culture differences. One example is how affection is expressed. In Mexico it is seen as wholesome to show our affection to people that we love by hugging and kissing. But in Burmese culture this is very strange behaviour. In Kalaw I had a Burmese language teacher that came to the monastery to support the yogis with food. Every time I was sick she would come and see me, and so I felt a lot of appreciation towards her. My way to express gratitude was to hug and kiss her. However, later on I was told that she felt very strange when I did that, and she did not know what was happening because she had never hugged anyone before. So it was a new experience for her and for me as well. Something that is so common for me, for her is an uncomfortable moment.

Eventually, the rest of the yogis left and I was the only yogi at the monastery in Kalaw. The lay people around were mainly workers and there was just one monk in the monastery. I continued to have interviews every day with him. However, I had some difficulties with one new worker who came to the monastery. He was a boy around 16 that was very curious about foreigners. Nothing extraordinary happened but I needed to ask the main monk to move this kid away from the dorm where I was staying. It was mainly childish games but they did make me feel very uncomfortable because I was the only yogi and single women living in the dorm.

After the monk moved the child from the dorm I needed to establish my practice again cause I was experiencing a lot of Dosa. For other women who come to Myanmar to meditate, I think it is important that they know that generally speaking, Burmese women are never alone. This was also new for me to have to learn, because most of the time I am used to be by myself. I want to share that there is not much to fear because the general population is very kind and mellow, but is important to keep in mind the customs of the country.

Also Myanmar people are in general very curious to meet foreigners because they see them so seldom. Most of the time this is done in a very gentle and naive way, however, is important to have some distance with men because they are not use to see women by themselves. Generally speaking, Myanmar is a very safe place compared to India or Latin America. But is important not to be alone with a Myanmar men because they are not use this interaction.

In my case, they actually put this Burmese boy in the dorm with me because they thought I will be more comfortable with someone in the dorm. This was not true: I was so happy to have free space at that time. I just needed to lock the doors before going to bed and I was fine. Most Burmese women believe that they cannot be by themselves because they are told that they should not so from a young age, so they never experience total solitude. Also, I find that many are afraid of ghosts and darkness. The situation I faced is not so uncommon, that is, where a Burmese man volunteers to stay close to the lady so she can feel protected. If the foreigner lady does not know very well this person, it is better not accept the offer.

After they took the boy out of the dorm the Western monk came again and he helped me to re-establish awareness and Samadhi because I was a little bit agitated. Then I could see that it was mainly a childish game because the boy did not bother me anymore. Thanks to this monk little by little I could understood the Shwe Oo Min method better.

Some others yogis came to the monastery and we were now three yogis with the Western monk there as well. The main Sayadaw of the monastery needed to leave so the the Western monk came to be appointed the head during this time. This monastery and especially this particular time with the other yogis was very significant for the practice for me. I felt comfortable and with good company and guidance. So I could experience how the practice was progressing little by little.

Because the monastery was very free, we could also play with the practice and figure out which was the most skillful way to develop the practice. This freedom was significant for the practice. It gave me confidence that it was working. Confidence in that the practice by itself will give results. The practice does work and is important to gave a good guidance but ultimately the one that is making the job is the yogi. So it is confidence in that the yogi have already all the necessary prerequisites to progress. The practice by itself will allow the yogi to grow. 

The others yogis did not spend the Waso (Rains Retreat) in the monastery. They needed to go for different reasons. So I was the only yogi one more time. Because this time was more than one month been the only yogi, sometimes I struggled a little. At some point I needed some other yogi company. However, this did not stop me from meditating. I tried as much as I could but sometimes the progress was a little bit slow because of the conditions at that moment. I believe I was not fully prepared for the experience. The interviews with the Western monk were useful to balance the practice. And the freedom that the monastery gave to the yogis help me also to don't push to hard when the mind was not completely stable.

After a couple of months one of the yogis that left came back and I could have some company. By that time it was Kathina time. So the main monk of the monastery came back with a lot of yogis from Vietnam. At that point the monastery was full of people. Before Kathina started, the monastery needed to get ready but the workers were doing very little work. Close to the date of Kathina everyone in the monastery was running to finish all the work. It was my first time to be in a Kathina ceremony and I was invited to visit others Kathina events in town. I found it very interesting. The Kathina in our monastery was very small comparing to the Kathina in the big monasteries.

By that time Kalaw was very cold in the mornings and at night. At noontime it was ok, but generally speaking was much cooler than Yangon. Because of that reason I got a cold and I needed to stay there to recover."

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Sayadaw U Tejaniya in Kalaw 5

In this fifth of eight parts, Sayadaw U Tejaniya continues his Dhamma discussion in Kalaw. He is answering questions at the Shwe Oo Min Monastery in Kalaw, from a group of foreign meditators and monks. This is precious footage that can now be shared with those all over the world who endeavor to follow the Buddha's teachings of peace.

To begin at the first part, go here.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Tracing Accusations of Burmese Buddhist "Fatalism"

A recent post questioned why the New York Times' lead reporter in Myanmar would use a derogatory and uninformed term when describing the attitude of a Burmese Buddhist man whom he seems to be praising in the overall article; as well as why the author is inserting what is clearly a subjective view into an objective news story. Again, the original article can be found here, and the quote in question is here: 

"The third of five children from a rice-farming family in a remote village three miles from the Bay of Bengal, [Khin Myint Maung] shows no resentment toward the wealth that flashes past, only Buddhist fatalism.

'Everyone has their own destiny,' he said during a break from directing traffic at the corner of Dhammazedi and Link Roads, his usual spot not far from Shwedagon Pagoda. 'The rich are rich because they did many good things in their past life. Everyone has their own place.'"


Of course, the term in question is Mr. Fuller's assumption that Khin Myint Maung shows an example of "only Buddhist fatalism." There is a history of 19th century Western authors using this term to incorrectly paint a bleak picture of the Buddha's teachings (often those that did it were Christian missionaries or British colonialists). The other incorrect term used at the time was to refer to the Buddha as "nihilist." Both of these terms were employed because writers grossly misunderstood the teachings and how they were followed-- accusations of Buddhist "fatalism" arose from a misunderstanding of the concept of kamma (karma), and accusations of Buddhist "nihilism" came from misunderstanding the concept of nibbana (nirvana). Today, it is considered offensive to use these terms when describing Theravada Buddhists, for it represents an antiquated perspective when the Buddha was depicted as a pessimistic figure (and this was often done so in order to promote either British colonial governance or the Christian religion). Additionally, as pointed out in the previous post, there is not a trace of truth to either of these terms ("nihilist" or "fatalist") that can be found when combing through the pantheon of the Buddha's teachings. If anything, his teachings are radically opposed to these concepts, and speak against them in almost every sutta.

Mr. Fuller has not yet explained why he chose to use this offensive word in an objective news story on the cover of the Sunday New York Times. Those that are also interested in his reasoning are encouraged to write him here. One also has to add that it is extremely concerning that an author holding these discriminatory views would be assigned to cover Myanmar for the Times, and one can only wonder how holding these views affects his reporting on the many other "news" stories he files on Myanmar for the paper.

The post has also been receiving its share of comments. Wtin Tut noted:

Thank you for your reply to the usual simplistic or should I say simple-minded comment about Buddhism. It seems to be the norm for Myanmar or anything related to the country. Many views are still no deeper than a bottle cap.

Ma Thanegi, a noted author and former political prisoner, also quipped that Thomas Fuller "did not know that greed and anger are the 2 first defilements and the last, ignorance is what he has. I don't think people like him could ever understand that we don't go arounding hating and being angry with rich people.  You know the Burmese proverb 'one can bear the sufferings of poverty but not of wealth.  ဆင္းရဲ တဲ့ ဒါဏ္ ကိုခံနိုင္တယ္ ခ်မ္းသာ တဲ့ ဒါဏ္ ကို မခံနိုင္ဘူး"

In reading Ma Thanegi's words, one recalls another local author described something of Burmese country life in his Collected Works: “These simple people, they do not want to go ride in a motorcar like the town folks. They do not want to have Bachelor of Arts or Master of Arts degrees like their counterparts in towns. They do not desire to become teachers or barristers. No inclination to spend time at cinemas or adorn themselves in gold and jewels. To become a wife of a government official? No, that would not even cross their minds. They are content to ride a bumpy ox-cart along a dusty trail. That, for them, is a highway in heaven! The screeches from the wheels constantly grinding against the axles are the sounds of angels’ harps to them.” Of course, reporters like Mr. Fuller may accuse this writer as yet another example of "Burmese Buddhist fatalism" for their lack of worldly desires.

Now let us take a moment to examine this accusation of "Burmese Buddhist fatalism" in more detail and in some historical context. We can first turn to a work by William Charles Bertrand in 1911, called "Christian Missions in Burma". He writes:

"They gather in groups to recite the law or listen to a hpongyi [Buddhist monk] reading it, they build little sand pagodas in front of their houses or offer candles and flowers to the image of the Buddha; occasionally the whole city, at a given time at night, has been lit up with bonfires in every compound, and has broken out into a great din made by the beating of gongs and tin pots and similar kinds of music. Crowds from the Chinese or Hindu quarters have passed along in weird torchlight processions, in order by these means to scare away the plague devil. At the same time—so does careless fatalism alternate with panic—they fail to take the simplest sanitary precautions; and I had an instance the other day of a man finding a dead rat in his house, and bringing it out in his hands, though expressly warned of the folly of so doing. Within two days he and his wife were dead of plague."

Here, Bertrand applies a loose definition of Burmese Buddhist fatalism-- to him, it is in some strange and undefined mixture of poor hygiene, listening to a Dhamma Discourse by a monk, honoring shrines of the Buddha, and some (non-Burmese, non-Buddhist) "Chinese or Hindu" rituals happening in the same quarter. Hardly a scholarly examination of the Abhidhamma treatises governing kamma! Then, in 1901 John Nisbet wrote this in "Burma under British Rule and Before":

When attacked by cholera, the Burman resigns himself to fate, whereas the native of India vows to dedicate some offering to his gods if they aid him in recovering. Shortly after my first arrival in Burma one of my Indian servants was attacked with cholera. Throughout the whole time I was dosing him with brandy and chloro-dyne he kept vowing that if his life were spared he would offer up a kid as a sacrifice to one of his gods. A day or two after he had recovered he duly came and asked for an advance of pay, in order to buy a kid for the purpose of fulfilling the vow he had made whilst stricken with the black disease. He got the money ; he bought the kid ; and he faithfully performed his vow. But as he afterwards prepared a savoury stew with the sacrifice, and ate it with the assistance of a few friends, the transaction was after all no dead loss or pure waste of money. With the Burman it is different, because he is a fatalist in such matters.

Here, Nisbet seems to actually praise the Indian Hindu for his propitiation of his many gods, and ridicule the Burmese Buddhist for doing nothing (however, we don't know the entire circumstance of the story, and the "doing nothing" that Nisbet observed may be a similar subjective misunderstanding that Thomas Fuller exhibited just a couple weeks ago in regards to Khin Myint Maung). Also, while Hindus may attribute the happenings on earth to the whims and desires of the gods, Burmese remember the Buddha's discourses that we alone are responsible for our life, and we are constantly planting the seeds of greater happiness or suffering. The Burmese Buddhist would not run around trying to appease a dozens gods, but rather accept the given reality without greed, anger, nor delusion, striving for non-attachment, and attempting to see things clearly and use any event as a lesson for further spiritual growth. Here is another excerpt from Nisbet:

Being fatalists to a very great extent, the Burmese duly recognize the destructive currents of life, which bear away human creatures. These fatal influences (Awga), fourfold in number, are caused by the currents of libidinous desire, of life's vicissitudes, of personal contact, and of ignorance and folly. In addition to the many other dangers with which the Burman's pilgrimage through the present state of existence is beset, he is exposed to the malignant influences of the three great evil periods {Kat), in which famine, pestilence, and slaughter are rife. Five kinds of enemies {Yan) have also to be contended against, viz., rulers of all sorts (including the sun and the moon, ruling the day and the night), water, fire, thieves, and ill-wishers. If a cultivator's rice fields have been parched by drought or destroyed by inundation, he will usually describe his misfortunes as caused by " the five enemies." There are four different kinds of fire {Tezaw) in the body, only one of which is beneficent, the fire [Dat) that prevents corruption even as salt prevents flesh from becoming tainted. The remaining three are malignant, including the fire (Than-dabbana) arising from sorrow and causing the body to waste as if it were burned, the fire (Daka) producing infirmity and decay, and the stomachic fire [Pdsaga), that consumes the food partaken of. Finally, human beings have five great masters or tyrants [Man) in their animal constitution (Kaitda Man), in their subjection to the operations of the four causes (actions, mind, season, and food : Abithingdya Man), in passion [Kilethd Man), in death [Missic Man), and in the chief of the evil spirits {Dewaputta, the Man Nat).

In this excerpt, we cannot even attempt to show the misunderstandings of Nisbet, so convoluted is his attempt to bend Buddhist scriptures towards his intention of proving a Buddhist fatalism. We can only shrug our heads and hope that current Western writers show more sense.

Finally, we have "The Story of Burma" by E.G. Harmer, who wrote:

For the first year or two after the annexation, as this brief sketch of the era of dacoity has already shown, the settlement of the country was hindered by the circumstance that gang-robbery enjoyed a recognized status. Again and again, when the deputy commissioners were touring their districts, they discovered that the villagers continued to pay blackmail as listlessly as ever. It was a weary task to put a backbone into these fatalists. But the English officers were stubborn men. They appointed the best of the local men as Burmese magistrates, and gave them the power to order a whipping, or to sentence up to six months' imprisonment. And year by year they pegged away, until at length the peace-loving Burman came to understand that the English raj* meant justice for the strong, protection for the weak, and one law for all.

In other words, the Burmese owe a great debt to the white man for annexing their country and bringing civilization and the rule of law to a land that, due to its Buddhist fatalist attitude, obviously knew none before (tongue firmly in cheek here).

Thankfully, not all Westerners fell into this trap. Notably, British chemist Allan Bennett, who spent many years in Ceylon and Burma, responded to this characterization in "Religion of Burma". He wrote:

Teaching as it does that the character and destiny of any being are, with one exception, absolutely determined for any given moment, and are the necessary resultants of the long line of mental doings which constitute his whole past, Buddhism appears at first sight to teach fatalism, determinism, pure and simple. But it is an equally prominent part of Buddhist doctrine that, however determinate, for the present moment, is the Kamma, the character and destiny of a given being, yet that being may, if he has but wisdom and knows how to utilise it, alter his whole future in whatever direction pleases him. In other words an intelligent being, such as man, is, for the immediate moment, ruled by his destiny; he is bound by all the forces of his past to react in a definite fashion to any given set of circumstances that may arise. But over the future he is himself ruler—within very wide limits indeed; he can, if he have knowledge, so profoundly alter, by dint of culture, his own character, as to produce results obviously manifest even in the short span of this life. This circumstance is, of course, at the root of all education; and the life of a George Stephenson is a living example of the profound effect on character and destiny which a man can bring about by dint of mental culture. Thus we may put the Buddhist position as to the free will or predestination discussion by saying that a man is determined for the immediate present, but that he has choice as to his way in life as regards the future.
Can we mould the life we have so as to make tomorrow's vision nobler, greater, and truer than the life we lead to-day? It is in the answer to this question that the complement to the half-truth of which I have spoken appears—the understanding so lacking in this Buddhist land, which changes this fatality of Kamma into a power whereby each man may change, not his own destiny alone, but even, in less degree, that of all the world, For that answer is in the affirmative. We may, the Dhamma tells us, so far modify the cause of this our life, the power of Kamma itself, that even in this existence our destiny, our environment may all be changed. "It is," The Master tells us in the Pitaka, "it is through not-knowing and not-understanding that we have lived so long in this great ocean of existence, both you and I." And if "not knowing and not understanding" be indeed the source of all this suffering life, then, by Right Knowledge and Eight Understanding we may in all things change the life we live. The change is, not only substituting a brighter, nobler, grander life for the petty path we tread, but even passing beyond the veil which hides from us the Light Eternal, and entering into the Truth which reigns beyond all life. Only by knowing and by understanding! In all our life we see how true it is, this Teaching of The Master; by knowing and by understanding, if but rightly we apply our knowledge, we may command whatever power we in ignorance obeyed; we may turn every force of Nature to our service; and we may find in each universal law the means to escape from its domination.

And with these beautiful words, we say, "enough said."

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Role of Burmese Food in the Dhamma

In the Food chapter in the upcoming Shwe Lan Ga Lay book, we take a look at the role of food and drink within Burmese Buddhist society. Cuisine in other cultures can take on a variety of roles: it may be prepared with the aesthetic touch of the artist, commented on by the refined critique of the gourmand, used as a means of rich socializing—and in modern industrialized countries, sometimes abused with excessive craving which leads to its own health risks—yet in Myanmar, food tends to play a somewhat different function. In this devout country, some of the most important duties of lay supporters revolve around food preparation, for much of the monks’ code of discipline is related to when they may eat and how they may accept nourishment. And even for the yogi intent on secluded meditation in some forest hut, the daily meal becomes the height of sensual pleasure in a day—for this reason, much has been written by Myanmar’s great monks and meditation teachers on how to find the Middle Way when it comes to food. Additionally, there are regularly stories of meditators having to leave the Golden Land earlier than expected primarily due to problems with diet. For this reason, we take the time to explore the issue of food in Myanmar, and prepare the foreign yogi for a productive stay that will allow them sufficient health to delve into the Dhamma up until their heart’s content.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

"They do not sleep or eat or walk as do other men.”

“The reverence in which a monk—ay, even the monk to-day who was but an ordinary man yesterday—is held by the people is very great. All those who address him do so kneeling. Even the king himself was lower than a monk, took a lower seat than a monk in the palace. He is addressed as 'Lord,' and those who address him are his disciples. Poor as he is, living on daily charity, without any power or authority of any kind, the greatest in the land would dismount and yield the road that he should pass. Such is the people's reverence for a holy life. Never was such voluntary homage yielded to any as to these monks. There is a special language for them, the ordinary language of life being too common to be applied to their actions. They do not sleep or eat or walk as do other men.” Harold Fielding, Soul of a People