Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Cremation for Sayadaw U Pandita

As shared recently here, one of the world's greatest Vipassana teachers has died. This was also reported on Buddhist Channel, and cremation services are planned for Friday April 22 in Bago. An open question concerns what type of funeral it will be. In the past, monk cremations were large and glorious affairs, but some revered Sayadaws began speaking out against this as a waste of funds and not serving the ultimate purpose of Dhamma, and requiring that their own eventual funerals be humble affairs. Of course, U Pandita was no ordinary monk or even meditation teacher by any marker, and so many may justifiably wish to honor his life. Devotees are also waiting to see what relics may appear, as many believe he attained the state of being fully liberated.

Sayadaw Gyi's body is now available for paying respects in Yangon's Panditarama (Shwe Daung Gone Yeikthar) until tomorrow's midday. The body then will be transported to Bago with a retinue of buses, leaving the Yangon Panditarama at 1 PM. According to the Burmese program, Sitagu Sayadaw will give a discourse at 8:30 pm on April 21. The cremation ceremony will start the following day at around noon. 

Yangon Panditarama: No.80(က)။ သံလြင္လမ္း၊ ဗဟန္းၿမိဳ႔နယ္၊ ရန္ကုန္ၿမိဳ႔။ Phone no.: 01-705525.

Bago Panditarama: ပဲခူးတိုင္း၊ သံျဖဴေက်ာင္းေက်းရြာ၊ အင္းတေဂၚ၊ ၁၀ မိုင္ကုန္း မွတ္တိုင္။ Phone no.: 09-49450787.

Below, a recent photograph depicting the carrying of U Pandita's corpse to the eventual cremation pyre:

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Summit of her Ambition: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles

The Australian Marie Byles claimed to be the first Westerner to set foot in, and learn the Dhamma at, both Maha Bodhi Monastery in Mandalay and Thanboddhay Monastery in Monywa. She learned under Saya U Thein, the student of Saya Thet Gyi at the first site; then from Mohnyin Sayadaw, the greatest monastic disciple of Ledi Sayadaw at the second. She wrote meticulously about her experiences traveling and meditating throughout Burma in 1957 in Journey Into Burmese Silence, a book that is freely available here.

Now, Anne McLeod has written a biography about his pioneering woman, looking at what drove her to take trips few others were making at this time. 

Here is an excerpt about her life story:
In 1924 Marie Byles became the first woman allowed to practise law in New South Wales. Told she could only work as a law clerk, she triumphed over the patriarchal legal profession and a society that viewed women as second-class by establishing a successful practice. As legal advisor for women’s organisations in the 1930s she helped change legislation that discriminated against women’s rights in marriage and divorce – most cruelly, in the guardianship of their own children. Instead of the fame and fortune she could have earned through law Marie devoted herself to the conservation of the Australian environment. 
An early member of the elite Sydney Bush Walkers club, Marie and her friends (including Paddy Pallin who made their camping equipment) spent every weekend exploring unmapped terrain within reach of Sydney. As they grew to know and respect the landscape, the bushwalkers developed a commitment to protect the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive areas and became leaders of the conservation movement.
A zealous advocate for wilderness Marie worked as legal advisor on behalf of the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs to petition the government to reserve vast areas of land for future generations. Before the National Parks and Wildlife Service was constituted in 1967, bushwalkers took responsibility for managing the reserved areas by serving on Trusts and attending regular working bees to make paths that are still walked today.
It was mountains though that held the greatest fascination for Marie. After reaching the summit of Mt Cook in 1928, she twice returned to New Zealand’s South Island to climb virgin peaks and map unexplored areas before leading an international expedition to south China in 1938. The failure of this dream became the catalyst of a journey into places not found on a map as she began a quest to find the meaning of life beyond success and failure.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Funeral Services for Sayadaw U Pandita

Word has come that the great Sayadaw U Pandita has passed away during Water Festival in a Bangkok hospital. Also known as the Shwe Taung Gon Sasana Yeiktha Sayadaw, he was born on July 29, 1921, and so was 94 when he passed away. As his hometown was Bago (Pegu), his body will be moved there for cremation after a large ceremony at Panditarama on April 20th. The cremation ceremony will take place in Bago on one pm on April 22nd. Foreign yogis who wish to pay their respects and attend the ceremony may request permission from the monastery to do so.

Sayadaw U Pandita lived through times that scarcely another being can imagine. He saw his country during Colonial British times, Japanese occupation, independence, military dictatorship, and fledging democracy. Perhaps more importantly, his life intersected with the great patipatti movement of the 20th century; perhaps more than "intersecting;" his energy, wisdom, and enthusiasm in so small part pushed this movement along to become what it was.

U Pandita was the student of Mahasi Sayadaw, and hand-chosen by him as one of three monks to respond to the Sri Lankan government's requests in the 1950s for trained Burmese monks to go to the island and teach Dhamma to the people. From there he began traveling internationally and to the West often, where his English ability allowed him to deliver these essential teachings of liberation to yogis around the world (and took a number of trips to International Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, to lead courses there). By the time of his passing, Panditarama had become one of the great centers and traditions of Myanmar, with a loyal and dedicated following around the world, including branches in six foreign countries. The great monk's life of Dhamma and service to Dhamma literally touched millions of beings. May he be happy and liberated!

As The Lion's Roar reported, Joseph Goldstein issues this statement following his passing:

So many of us here are saddened to hear of Sayadaw U Pandita’s passing. He was such a powerful influence in all of our lives, urging us on to realize our highest aspirations. His great service to the Dhamma is inestimable. It feels like the passing of an era.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Ingyinbin Journal: "Tiny Irregular Crumbly Chunks"

John, a meditator from New Zealand, spends extended periods in Ingyinbin each year, the home of the revered Webu Sayadaw and with his friend Ashin Mandala. This winter, he has decided to keep a journal, which he has kindly offered to share with us. His journal alternates between observation and poetry, between meditation practice and commentary about Burmese Buddhist society, from his learnings and his questions. The full collection of his musings can be found here.

17 January

Sitting alone in the early morning, shutters closed due to the chill, I no longer hear the solitary pink-robed nun whose early chanting near the Mahamuni statue usually reverberates in the hut.

I sit with the breath flattening, as if it has lost its volume, only a thin intermittence half free of the body. More attention is given to the area of contact between the breath and the upper lip, something which until now I have given less attention because I have been intent on distinguishing (distracted by) the visual nimitta - usually for me a bright if rather broad light - and anyway the sensations that are felt on the upper lip and those that well unbidden within and through the entire body are quite distinct. In turn, the awareness of the breath becomes sharpened and clearer, until it reaches a stage where it breaks up almost into tiny irregular crumbly chunks.

Now too with the more deliberate focus at that place, the sensation fines to a needlepoint or roughens to one or two grains of dust. Outside someone is sweeping, short brusque strokes, pausing intermittently, resuming:
Endless brush strokes
sweeping through the mind,
settled on namarupa.
Sitting further, I become aware that the body is composed of innumerable, so many, individual flecks that appear insubstantial, unfixed; and while I remain aware of the body as a whole neither are these flickerings simply the same ones recurring.
1000 points
sweeping mind and body,
settled in namarupa.
On our evening walk through Ingyinbin village, again we are greeted with unguarded warmth by the local people, again the girls are just leaving the weaving factory. Looking back after them, I notice the dust clouds stirred up by the returning oxcarts and motorcycles: sunlight and fine dust particles hopelessly enmesh and the lightness of one and the heaviness of the other holds them together in suspension.
Rust-coloured, the late sun
bound in the dust of returning carts; gathered at their gates,
children dash towards us, smiling.
The following morning rain falls. Dust that last night wouldn’t settle will do so now for at least a day or two. Aum Pyee worries that the remaining unharvested rice will be ruined should the rain continue into a second day. Looking at the ground, I see particles of dust coagulate as they become absorbed into large misshapen droplets.
Cheerless hours, old Bhante-ji departed,
three young puppies with their motherscattered. Nearby the hut, a notched bamboo pole
extended, the elderly woman snares
thin uppermost branches, stripping
the tree of its small, plum-like fruits.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The First Vipassana Course in the Philippines

Although Yangon is "only" 2662 kilometers from Manila, the two Asian (and ASEAN) countries have had little contact in the last few centuries. The British (and nearly the French) came to Burma, while the Spanish and Americans landed in the Philippines-- with only the Japanese Imperial Army briefly colonizing both. 

The two cities also reached their heyday around the same time, in the pre-WWII era, when Manila was known as the "Pearl of the Orient" and Rangoon and Mandalay were some of the most cosmopolitan cities on the continent and with the most celebrated universities. But while Burma is one of the most devotedly Buddhist countries in the world, Catholicism reigns in the Philippines, and is one of the few Asian countries in the region to have scarcely been touched ever by the Buddha's teachings. 


Because in the last decade or so, the Philippines-- as have a number of other countries around the world-- has seen a renewed interest in the profound teachings and practice of the Buddha. Several Pa Auk monks have recently made the islands a home, and the ten-day courses in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka have been becoming popular. In fact, one of the initial supporters was a Catholic nun, and one course has even been held in a Catholic seminary near Cebu. 

Good news is coming for Filipino meditators, which will be shared in an upcoming post. For now, enjoy this video that recaps the first successful U Goenka course held here.

Below, a photo of the grounds of the new Vipassana center.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Ingyinbin Journal: Ordinariness in Everything

John, a meditator from New Zealand, spends extended periods in Ingyinbin each year, the home of the revered Webu Sayadaw and with his friend Ashin Mandala. This winter, he has decided to keep a journal, which he has kindly offered to share with us. His journal alternates between observation and poetry, between meditation practice and commentary about Burmese Buddhist society, from his learnings and his questions. The full collection of his musings can be found here.

16 January

Back from Shwebo following a muddle over the pickup arrangements, and Karen with a heavy cold, the prominent gold pagoda spire seen at a distance of some kilometres foreshortens the distance. Return with evening-time.

Under the wispy moon in the still-blue sky
lines of white birds sweeping into the tamarinds.
Silent, graceful, landing as new leaves.
The following morning I walk with Kwau Soe to the patipatti compound, where shortly after Yan Aung Shwe joins us, wearing treble sweaters. We examine the U Ba Khin building, which Aung Shwe has recently upgraded adding new facilities and paint. He wants the small corner room with generous windows on three sides where U Ba Khin spent a week ordained to be reserved for serious mediation only. Beyond this building stands another, rather dilapidated one, used during Webu’s time by his donor, a former Burmese Railways Minister.

From a nearby tree Kwau Soe plucks from a tree vine several tiny orange berries each with a black spot at one end which he holds out in his open palm. He explains that in his childhood they used to thread these berries onto a thread of cotton to make necklaces:

Kauw Soe gathers the tiny orange berries
they once threaded onto necklaces:
the devas on their elevated platform are benign.
He also stops to pick up from a narrow ledge at the arahant’s pool a small tortoise, white on the underside and less than half the size of his palm, with two small legs occasionally emerging and flailing, while the head remains firmly ensconced within the body - until the creature is returned to the water, where its head and legs re-emerge and after a brief flurry it disappears beneath the surface of the stagnant water. Shortly after, we visit the deva platform, a place where Webu is said to have been sometimes found meditating; and to my surprise beneath the expansive banyan tree nearby there are a couple of gnat altars decorated by devotees with fresh cut sprigs placed in jars; then over we head to the monks’ quarters, where just today the aged blue Plymouth car donated to Webu some sixty years ago has been towed back from Kin-U, a mere shell but impressive still.

We enter Webu’s rooms, where Aung Shwe recounts for me the last hours of the Sayadaw’s life: a final visit to the toilet in the adjoining room followed by collapse on his return, immediately lifted and carried by his assistants to the dais where shortly he passes away, cradled in arms including those of the current Sayadaw on the pariyati side. Several events of the final days are captured in the photographs that hang on the walls and I look long at them.

Karen and I return to the hut after lunch and sit through the afternoon, re-entering it late but still bright and welcoming.

Leaving the hut, the warm sun,
the wavy leaved tree displays perfumed white flowers
which we saw yesterday cupped in the old woman’s hands.
Perhaps this is a reasonable juncture at which to digress and recount an event of a few days later concerning the now 81 year old Sayadaw and the 83 year old Indian nuclear physicist and physician recently arrived to take robes and meditate. On the morning of his ordination the Indian gentleman is sat down on a small wooden stool beside the concrete trough used for washing by the monks and a young monk proceeds to shave the remaining ring of grey hair from the elderly fellow’s head in quick straight bursts of the razor. From there Bhante leads him to the dining room, where he becomes a novice prior to receiving full ordination. Pali phrases are said and repeated, robes passed as dana to the preceptor are returned and donned with the help of a couple of attending novices. Next a large young monk directs us to the Sima Hall, where an animated preceptor Sayadaw proceeds gleefully to compare the ripened age of each the novice, he himself, and the Buddha; once again he points to the upper lip and repeats Webu’s injunction to hold the attention right there uninterrupted on the breathe 24 hours in the day. The village musicians start up prematurely, thinking the foreign guests (six of us at this time) who now vacate the hall include the entire ordination party. It’s another 30 minutes before their cymbals and drums sound again in urgent unison as the monks reappear and we have the chance to give to tach of them a modest dana.

Late in the afternoon the guests enter the Sayadaw’s quarters in the ramshackle old teak hall, rows of empty Red Bull cans lining the inner entrance. Sayadaw sidles onto the floor with us and the priceless Buddha relics are brought out. A new glass dome has replaced the old one which has been roughly glued together following an earlier mishap. It is topped with a small black carved pagoda and the same wood serves as a pedestal, studded with lips of ivory. It is an ivory lotus that houses the tiny container which contains the dozen or so ‘mustard seed’ sized bone relics, wrapped in a small piece of purple cloth. Each petal has been individually carved, so that one that is near the relics curves up from the rest of the holder almost perpendicularly. Each of us in turn has a white cloth placed on our head while another holds the relic holder over the head for a couple of minutes. This has happened for me before, and at least this time the mind remains composed even though there is a strange and unsatisfied sense that there should be a ‘special’ experience or sensation to report. Ordinariness can feel like a major disappointment! Finally, it is Snow’s turn; as I rest the relics on her head a sudden buzzing sound is immediately followed by an itchy sensation and I realise a mosquito has just landed and bitten me on the cheek.

Sayadaw scrambles after almost spilling
a ‘mustard seed’ bone relic.
Cats, medicines, newspapers, plus one freshly ordained monk.

Cats race the roof as the black wooden bowl
housing the Buddha relics gets held in turn
above each head. Still within the mind kicks.

I hold the relic holder above Snow’s head
two minutes; knees pretty unsteady; hands
occupied, a mosquito stationed on my cheek.

As if I hadn’t appreciated the ordinariness in everything, later bhanti-ji, quite hard of hearing, explains that he had heard little or nothing, and asks why the grains of rice had been treated so reverently and whether it was these that had been referred to as ‘mustard seeds’.

The Sayadaw himself, surprisingly impish and bright-faced, each day perambulates the compound with his walking poles, using them to indicate this or that or else to admonish recalcitrant novices:

81, more a jaunty 18, soiled
robes and hugely calloused feet, this
Sayadaw held Webu when he passed.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Engaging with the Dhamma: Advice for Burmese Monastic Life

One hidden trap that some foreign yogis bring to their stay in Myanmar is coming with a frame of understanding how Dhamma is practiced in the Golden Land by idealizing it; this certainly applies to stays at monasteries as well. One becomes quite attached to this expectation, which ultimately carries within it the seeds of disappointment, as it is an preconception that will be impossible to meet. And when one’s experience inevitably starts falling outside that unrealistic frame, frustration (and even stronger emotions) sets in.

For example, it is not the case that all monks have joined the order with the sole purpose of attaining nibbana, that all lay supporters behave with perfect scruples when at monasteries and pagodas, that all young children possess a clear comprehension of the basic Buddhist principles as a result of their upbringing and education. Yes, some monks do watch the English Premier League while playing with their smart phones, some lay people flirt and listen to music at pagodas, and some children seem to take a pleasure in torturing monastery dogs.

There can be also be a well-intentioned but counterproductive (and condescending) Western meditators' bias that exults in finding wisdom in the poor, simple Burmese countryside, as if devotion and purity of practice can be explained by merely being burdened with less material opportunity in life. Some would-be monastics seek out monasteries in particularly isolated, rural villages with this as a partial motivation. But such an approach ignores the commonalities that form the fundamental human experience, whether in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, downtown Paris, a poor Delta hamlet… or almost any monastery. Lobha, dosa, and moha are encountered at every turn, as is the intention to follow the Noble Eight Fold Path.

In other words, this whole issue exemplifies the very thing Dhamma students who come to Myanmar come to practice… Dhamma! Yogis should examine their expectations carefully, and experience the country with open eyes, appreciating it on its own merits, not filtering it through an ultimately impossible standard or distorted set of expectations. The Middle Path is negotiated with life circumstances, and it can be inspiring to see how some of Burmese monks and meditators work to bring the Buddha’s teachings into every moment of (real, unvarnished) life.