Saturday, 5 July 2014

Thein Daung Monastery in Kalaw

The inner majesty of the main Dhamma Hall at Thein Daung Monastery

Sayadaw U Paramar Nanda, who has been in robes since 1976, is the current Sayadaw here and the fourth since its founding. A kind man and dedicated monk, he is interested to meet serious Dhamma practitioners, although speaks little English. He has also said that he may allow foreign yogis to stay for practice, but that they first need to check in with Kalaw immigration to ensure their papers are entirely in order. There is a long covered wooden walkway (zaungtan) leading from the lower-lying town up to Thein Daung, and a wonderful view of the green valley that stretches out below. Similarly you can also take a lovely walk to approach the monastery, finding the long stone staircase just north of the marketplace.

The front of the shrine room

The site was established around the turn of the 20th century by U Kethera. However, he passed away after only two years, leaving it to be overseen by U Adesa, who became renowned throughout the country for his metta practice and rosary beads. When the great Mingun Sayadaw visited Shan State, he was highly revered by Shan people. When he met U Adesa he gave him his robe, he also paid respects to him as his senior. U Adesa said this was the greatest day of his life, as Mingun Sayadaw is one of the most famous Burmese monks in all history.

U Adesa learned directly from Ledi Sayadaw in Meiktila, and went on to teach in Ledi’s tradition when he took over the monastery, primarily emphasizing the observing of in-breath out-breath, or anapana. It is said that even Mogok Sayadaw came to learn under him when he was still a young monk. There are several photographs and paintings of U Adesa, hung throughout the monastery, showing him as a young man through to old age. 

Paintings of U Adesa

Inside the compound is a beautiful Dhamma Hall (that also has a sign proclaiming in English, “Museum of the Buddha”) with a long golden-mirrored shrine area featuring five Buddha images, an inner courtyard area allowing in light, and an inner ring of paintings that depict episodes from Buddha’s life. To the left of main shrine is an even larger collection of Buddha images in Shan style, and to the right are important artifacts from the monastery’s history and that had belonged to past Sayadaws. Also here are several paintings and statues of the highly revered U Adesa. It is a colorful room with nary a spot of unpainted ceiling or wall— while the upper paintings focus on tales from the Buddha’s life, the lower ones show scenes from rural Burma. Judging by the cracks in some of the artwork, they look to be quite old. This monastery is also closely connected with the beautiful hilltop Ma Naw Hla Monastery (which is visible from here and only reachable by motorcycle). Thein Daung serves only vegetarian food. Just a handful of monks are residing here most of the time, although the monastery also hosts ten-day meditation retreats in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka every May.

The treasure room of the monastery has many artifacts, statues, and artwork related to the revered U Adesa

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

A Shwedagon Replica in the Sagaing Hills

On the Pya Phone Ridge in the Sagaing Hills, one is treated to a spectacular view of the Ayeyarwaddy River to one side, and the many stupas and pagodas of the Sagaing Hills to the other. It is here where a great project is currently underway to build an exact replica of the wondrous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Lunch at Zabu Mingalar Monastery

The venerable Zabu Mingalar Sayadaw of 99 years of age

Lunch is served at Zabu Mingalar Monastery to the senior Sayadaw, who is 99 years old and has been in robes in the Sagaing Hills for more than seven decades! Still agile and quick of mind, he leads the younger monks and novices in the typical Buddhist recitations prior to the meal. The table setting is also unique, in that it is set in a circular fashion with a Lazy Susan in the middle. As the Sagaing Hills are perhaps the most fascinating and important place in Burmese Buddhist history, one can only wonder what knowledge and experience are stored inside the venerable Sayadaw's head. The Zabu Mingalar Monastery are on the hills above the Ayeyarwaddy River, offering a breathtaking view of Mandalay to one side, and the pagodas and stupas of Sagaing to the other.

Lunch before it is served
Fruit is served to visitors as monks eat their lunch

Digging A Hole in Kalaw

Water is a fundamental human need, and in the lush pine forests around Kalaw in Shan State, villagers band together to dig reservoirs that can be used for local monasteries. This clip shows several volunteers in the process of digging their own pit, to be used for some of the remote and secluded monasteries around this beautiful region. U Aye, a local benefactor and fountain of dhammic energy in the region, was helping to organize this undertaking. He can be seen directing the efforts. The video also shows a man hacking away a small branch. This is considered to be auspicious to place at the site of the new reservoir.

Planting the auspicious tree...

Sain Pyin Gyi: Where It All Began

This precious stupa and Buddha statue is hundreds of years old, and on the site where Ledi Sayadaw ordained as a young boy

"…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." Chindwin, David Lambert

Located in Dipayin township, Sain Pyin Gyi is the village where Ledi Sayadaw was born (1846) as well as where he first ordained as a full monk (1866). Saing Pyin Gyi can be translated to mean “many scattered bison,” suggesting the vast wilderness that must have existed here some time ago. Indeed, Sayadaw U Nyanissara lists the other wild animals that roamed here during the mid nineteenth century: barking deer, antelope, reindeer, hyena, wildebeest, and goat. Now, however, it is a community of over one thousand homes.

Here a major project is being undertaken to save for all posterity all remaining works by Ledi Sayadaw that have not yet been inscribed by stone. Once finished, serious meditators from around the world can come and pay their respects to the great monk.

Prior to his birth in the Katoe Quarter, a great rainbow appeared from a tamarind tree growing on his parents’ land, which then swooped into his family’s home and went back out again, bathing the sky in a brilliant radiance. In words chiseled in stone at the very site and rendered from a Monywa talk, Ledi Ashin Kelarsa Agga Maha Pandia has described this as a “miraculous, nay, auspicious event.” The event was later accorded its own name, referred to as “Indra’s Bows,” among other names. U Candima acknowledges that “from a modern perspective, this rainbow display is hard to believe. There were, however, many witnesses.” 

U Candima goes on to share that news of this rainbow quickly spread throughout the village, and “learned people predicted that the child would take delight in the Buddha’s Sasana when he came of age. They added that the child would master the Tipitaka and would devote his life to selfless service in missionary work.”

Following the great rainbow, the boy was given the name Maung Tat Khaung, which can be translated as “one who will climb up to the very top”. Maung Tat Khaung’s parents were simple rice farmers in a typical small village that revolved around agriculture. In pre-colonial Burma it was also standard for monasteries to look after the basic educational needs of the community’s young men. 

This is the very tamarind tree that a rainbow passed through on the night of Ledi's birth, an omen that many interpreted to mean that great things would come to the boy. Today, only serious meditators are allowed to meditate around it.

After turning ten, he entered Kyaung Ma Monastery as a novice and was given the name Shin Nyanadhaja, and here he began his study of Pāḷi and the scriptures under Sayadaw U Nanda. Maung Tat Khaung continued his studies in nearby Ye Thwet Village and received full ordination when he was twenty, having read all of the books held in the two towns near his home (and including a brief period in which he disrobed for eight months to help on the family plot). 

He studied not only from the scriptures, but also astrology and poetry, and in his later years would return to this field by composing poems based on the Abhidhamma. In fact, these poems came to be learned by the young and old alike throughout the country; people would often greet him to their town when he visited, and discuss and parse the meaning of these poems long after he left. Soon after turning twenty-one, it was said that he walked to Mandalay with his nephew to continue his formal studies at the royal capital. 
A painting in the very Sima Hall where Ledi Sayadaw was ordained as a boy depicts the event as it happens

This is the very Sima Hall where Ledi Sayadaw ordained as a young boy

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Original book by Ledi Sayadaw

One of the joys of being in Burma is seeing items being used over, and over, and over again. Nothing goes to waste. This is seen at monasteries all the time, where new robes, once old and worn, may be seen recycled in any number of creative (and useful ways). While walking through the Sagaing Hills, a monk was encountered reading this tattered copy of a Ledi Sayadaw book. Not holding it as a relic or momento, but the book was next to his bed and used as his night time reading to inspire his practice. Termite bites can be seen throughout, and the publication date indicates 1928, which would have been just years after the venerable monk passed away.

The World Cup Comes to Burma

Like the rest of the word, Burma also has World Cup Fever. Although the games are shown between 10 pm and 4 am, cafes, homes, and even monasteries across the land are waking up to watch the games. Here, a football fan catches the action from a teashop in Kalaw.