Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Native Son of Ingyinbin


Located about 60 kilometers northwest of Mandalay, the small village of Ingyinbin is deeply connected to Webu Sayadaw, one of the most revered Burmese monks of the 20th century. It is here where the venerable monk was born, ordained as a novice, began his studies, took full bhikkhu ordination, and established a groundbreaking new monastery dedicated wholly to the teaching and practice of meditation. Most importantly, it is widely believed that it was in this small village where Webu gained the ultimate liberation from suffering.

Ingyinbin takes some effort to get to, and the travel is not entirely easy to reach what is essentially little more than a small village and two large monastic complexes set in a hot, dry, featureless flat plain. In former times, however, this humble region drew a steady stream of yogis and monastics, including several heads of state and some of the top VIPs of Burmese society. Interestingly, Ingyinbin tends to be better off regarding electricity than other similar, small villages in Myanmar. Given its prominence due to Webu Sayadaw’s fame, a senior monk once went to the Prime Minister’s Office in Yangon and stated that it was not acceptable for the village monasteries of the great monk to not have adequate power.

The spirit of Webu Sayadaw continues to loom large in this special village. It manifests through a depth of veneration and gratitude towards the Saṅgha that stands out even amidst this vast Dhamma land. For the Ingyinbinite, Webu will always be the loyal native son who, even after reaching the greatest spiritual heights and having every worldly possibility thrust before him, continued to spend much of his life in this remote village. And did so, in fact, annually during the summer season, in a scorching region that stands out in an already hot country. Some believe that the impoverished state of the village was an indication of akusala kamma that had been committed in previous times, and so Webu Sayadaw’s decision to stay and help the villagers get established in Dhamma was understood as an especially considerate gesture to help those suffering.

The deep reverence was once shown to Webu Sayadaw seems to have scarcely diminished in the four decades since his passing, as any visiting yogi will soon observe. And today, nearly every corner of the two monasteries and village vibrate with some great event from its noble past.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

An Unlikely Place to Start a Revoluion

Travel 85 miles west of Mandalay to a merchant town of nearly 200,000 people, and the pilgrim is welcomed by a humble yet honest sign announcing: “Capital of the Northwest, Monywa Must do Better than Other Towns.” For the yogi willing to look past its inhospitable terrain and hot climate, he travels back in time to a land where an unlikely confluence of events came together that would ultimately transform the monkhood and the faith— for this pilgrim, Monywa certainly does “do better!” In his essay, “Chindwin,” David Lambert captures the unusual opposing dynamics that characterize Monwya, writing that “beyond the conventional radar, this is the heart of yogi tourism, where foreign meditators, carrying tourist cash dollars, come to explore the heartland of their spiritual souls. For some, this is the area ‘where it all began.’ ”

Whether lay or monastic, a certain resilience was always needed to survive here. It has long been a very hot and dry region, something that even the later colonial irrigation projects did little to alleviate. Monks first came out here nearly a millennium ago during the Bagan Era, when the region was full of thickly wooded forests, and functioned as a kind of forest refuge for paṭipatti-minded monastics who wished to put some distance between themselves and the royal capital. As Michael Charney notes, the “harshness of the Chindwin environment and its relatively low population base may have dissuaded all but the hardiest monks.” More monks began to stream in the mid-18th century, when the region was spared the wars then taking place elsewhere in the country. As greater civilization came to settle in this area, the competition between city and forest monks (gamavasi and aranyavasi) eventually became so fierce that at least once even spilled over into violence.

And yet, still prior to the British arrival, Monywa was little more than a village. The town’s rise to worldly prominence can be traced to when the British named the town the Headquarters of the Lower Chindwin District in 1886. 
The British had originally chosen nearby Ahlone, but had to move following local unrest. Recently, Monywa was named the capital of the Sagaing Division. 

This happened to be around the same time that a young monk named U Nyanadhaja would venture into the Ledi Forest, to continue his scholarly work and meditation practice in the quiet that the vast wilderness provided. He would remain there for the following thirteen years, and would forever be known afterwards as the Ledi Sayadaw. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Maha Gandyon Monastery in Amarapura

The Maha Gandyon Monastery grounds in Amarapura were initially offered to the first Maha Gandayon Sayadaw in the early 20th century. At this time they were far from “civilization,” and only those monks intent on seclusion would venture out here. The first Maha Gandayone Sayadaw was one of the great, respected forest monks of the day, and a close friend of Ledi Sayadaw. Being an ardent partipatti master, the First Maha Gandayone Sayadaw spent most of his life in serious practice in secluded regions of the Sagaing Hills, and so did not take the time to visit this Amarapura site or look after its development. Over time, however, and through his successor Sayadaw U Janaka, it would come to grow in both size and renown, ultimately playing a major role in Burmese Buddhism and gaining the lasting respect and admiration of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and becoming the home of a rigorous and unique monastic study culture.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

S.N. Goenka, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka

Sayagyi U Goenka was one of the many who were greatly enamored with Maha Gandayone Sayadaw, and the monk was one of his very early influences. He often invited him to his Rangoon home on Mogul Street, and remembered being “highly influenced not only by his great intellect, but also by his simplicity, humility, and capacity for hard work.” He admired the “scores of books on Dhamma in simple Burmese” that the monk had written, although he still “did not have even a trace of ego. I observed not one iota of intellectual pride. I found him to be the incarnation of simplicity, honesty, and egolessness.” He was also one of the monks favored by Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who encouraged his meditation students to study with the Amarapura Sayadaw.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Dhamma Mahimār

This meditation center regularly runs 10-day retreats in the Sayagyi U Goenka meditation tradition. The name of the center translates to “The Excellence of Dhamma,” and was established in 2002. While there is no pagoda built here as yet, the small and friendly confines make for a very pleasant and peaceful course experience, particularly if one happens to be in the country during hot season. The center can accommodate a maximum of one hundred yogis, although it is usually only at capacity during Water Festival. It is located on Shou Road, just off to the right as one heads out towards Mandalay.

Significantly, Pyin Oo Lwin played a special role in the biography of the center’s primary teacher, Sayagyi U Goenka. As a youth, he traveled here from his hometown in nearby Mandalay, and would always recall how “the enchanting mountains and plateaus in that region left a lasting memory.” Then later, as a meditation pupil of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, his teacher asked U Goenka to accompany him to Pyin Oo Lwin to assist in giving a retreat. This was the first time U Goenka would do so outside of the near-perfect conditions of IMC, and he realized that he “was being given a preview of what I should soon have to face and deal with”… that is, when U Goenka would start leading courses on his own across India.

Resistance to Bowing in Burma

Each yogi approaches the act of paying respects in a unique and deeply personal way. For some Westerners, there is no conflict whatsoever, and they feel deeply grateful that they have the privilege of encountering living members of the Saṅgha and sacred statues before them to which they can bow. Others have shared that while they don’t know how much it affects their practice, they understand it is part of the culture, and on that basis are happy to embrace it. However, it is not uncommon for some foreign meditators (and even meditation teachers) to feel quite challenged by this practice, and who question its value during their time in Myanmar.

There are several possible reasons, some cultural and some personal, for yogis to feel resistance towards this practice. Some Western yogis feel comfortable with the idea of bowing towards those whose character they know and respect, but are uncomfortable bowing before a person that they do not know well— and respect-- in advance. Such obeisance is not common in Western countries, and is not stressed as a practice at many meditation centers—in fact, when meditation first spread to these countries, some teachers made a conscious effort not to include this aspect out of fear for this very resistance. Yet other yogis have mentioned that the physical act of bowing down and showing deference is to them a sign of weakness and submission, perhaps due to their ethnicity, culture, history or religious background. For example, some Jewish yogis have shared that they find it hard to bow because, for many Jews, bowing before another brings back painful anti-Semitic memories of when their ancestors were forced to bow down as a people before a foreign power. A different sentiment may be felt by some American yogis, who come from a culture where the self and the individual are so pronounced and a part of its historical narrative.

Prekhemma Sayadaw addresses these concerns in a beautiful way. He notes that the proper attitude for bowing should always be out of genuine respect and deference, and never out force, fear, capitulation, or even custom. Interestingly, in Saving Buddhism, Alicia Turner tells how Burmese themselves revolted at the idea of using the shikho as a sign of submission. In 1903, John Van Someren Pope, Director of Public Instruction for Burma, demanded that all Burmese pupils perform a formal shikho to their students each day. Students at the Rangoon Collegiate School, however, refused to do so, arguing that “shikoing was… reserved for religious objects of respect,” and not something that should be done by force or represent submission. The standoff ultimately resulted in a protest involving hundreds of students and which shut down the schools entirely for a period, and even some Europeans suggested that if these secular “teachers really wanted to be shikhoed, they should ordain as Buddhist monks.”

Prekhemma Sayadaw adds that regardless of one’s culture or religion, having— and manifesting— respect for those living a noble life is an important human quality to develop. For without having even a trace of humility or reverence for such living examples of purity, the Sayadaw cautioned that it becomes much more difficult to develop any such qualities within oneself. And for this reason, he felt that the specific form of bowing is not as important as cultivating the appropriate mental qualities. It is important to note, however, that this should not be taken as advice that can be applied in every Buddhist context. In some sites, bowing down in a formal and precise way is an integral part of the practice.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Dry the Paddy While the Sun is Shining!

Ne pu done, saba hlan (ေနပူတုန္း စပါးလွန္း) means “Dry the paddy while the sun is shining!” When used in a Buddhist connotation, this proverb urges the devout that when there is an opportunity for spiritual development, one must not let it slip away. Sun Lun Sayadaw often used this expression as an exhortation for yogis to meditate and to strive to reach nibbana in this very life, instead of merely doing good deeds and hoping to come back when the next Buddha arrived, as some Buddhists of his day were wont to do. 

Sun Lun Sayadaw explained that just as people had lost their chances to become liberated during previous Buddha Sasanas, one should not waste the opportunities in the present Sasana. A similar proverb is Ne win hma, saba hlan (ေန၀င္မွ စပါးလွန္း), or “at sunset one dries the paddy,” which refers to someone acting even after a precious opportunity has been lost.