Friday, 22 September 2017

The Sagaing Hills: A Perfect Antidote to Civilization and Privilege

The Meditator's Guide to Burma, Part 2, is due out soon! Nearly four times as big as Part 1 and the result of nearly five years of intensive work by a team of volunteers, it will function as a kind of Lonely Planet's guide to the Golden Land... but specifically for those spiritual practitioners who wish to develop in Dhamma. Following is a draft from the Sagaing Hills chapter, which would be included in a potential Part 3-- but unfortunately, no work is happening currently as there is not sufficient financial support to sustain the project. This section introduces the Sagaing Hills before describing some specific site history. 

"The monks of 150-200 years ago were especially attracted to the ravines and hilltops of this remote region of the Sagging Hills, in sharp contrast to the congested, flat lowlands around Mandalay Hill they were leaving behind. Some took to criticizing some Mandalay monastics for their laziness or laxness in adherence to Vinaya, and saw in the promise of a simple life in the Hills the perfect antidote to the adverse pull of modern civilization, and privilege.

Given the wild nature of Sagaing in those days, forest monks were left to their own devices in finding a place to reside and practice. Caves were the shelter of choice for many. However, because there are few natural cave systems in the Sagaing Hills, forest monks had to hew many hundreds of make-shift enclosures out of hillsides or cliffs. Enough fresh water to sustain them was available either from collecting rainwater or a walk to the river, depending on how far away the monastic decided to set up camp.

Ironically, civilization followed these seekers of solitude. Over time, small settlements of lay communities slowly grew around these pioneering monks, which themselves turned into villages. Monks intent on complete solitude could, of course, venture deeper into the hills, where the dense forest and hilly terrain made it possible to live in near-total seclusion even in fairly close proximity to lay supporters. Indeed, the many winding, narrow hill paths throughout the Sagaing Hills have likely been used by countless monks on alms round."

Saturday, 26 August 2017

A walk back to the history of Vipassana in Burma

The following post is taken from the blog section of Myanmar Pilgrimage. It describes a special new pilgrimage being offered in Myanmar this winter that will tour 14 distinct regions connected to the lineage of S.N. Goenka, and in which all overnights will be at monasteries. 




"Experiencing the Dhamma riches of Burma can forever change one's life and one's practice, and can bring a unique sense of inspiration and appreciation that is never forgotten. And then later, sharing one's experiences with one's home meditator community, after returning, can further motivate even those who have never been to the Golden Land! For this reason, one of the goals of Myanmar Pilgrimage is to make these special sites accessible to as many people as possible.

However, this is made challenging by the fact that Myanmar has become the most expensive tourist destination of Southeast Asia, with prices over 20% higher than neighboring Thailand. For meditators who wish to see the special Dhammic sites of the Golden Land, this cost increase makes travel more challenging. And as many meditators have consciously chosen less materialistic lives, and to choose a simple life over a busier one that may yield a higher income, it can be difficult for many meditators to afford these soaring Myanmar prices.

For this reason, Myanmar Pilgrimage has developed a Dhamma tour that stays entirely at Buddhist monasteries. In addition to making it more affordable for a greater number of people, it has the added, and perhaps more important advantage, of allowing the pilgrim to stay wholly in a Dhamma environment for the entire duration of the trip. From the early morning gongs waking up the monks, to lining into the Dhamma Hall after the monastics have eaten, to evening meditation sittings conducted with Pali chanting in the background and followed by translated Dhamma talks and Q&A with senior monks, this holistic experience allows the foreign meditator to get a glimpse of the Burma-Dhamma as very few newcomers to the country can penetrate.

Exploring the Lineage: Monastic Stay is a pilgrimage that will take place from November 24-December 10, 2017. Only limited space is available, and it is first-come, first-serve. The pilgrimage will visit 14 distinct sites connected to the four main figures in the S.N. Goenka lineage. Informative talks will discuss the history and background of each place, and we will meditate together at the special sites we visit. The pilgrimage is the result of nearly five years of research, and many of the sites included have only very rarely been visited by the foreign meditator before.

Go here to learn more about this pilgrimage."

Thursday, 24 August 2017

"Myanmar Pilgrimage" to Offer Dhamma Tours of the Golden Land


Myanmar Pilgrimage will begin offering Dhamma tours of the Golden Land from Winter 2017-18. As its co-founders and several of its lead guides come from the volunteer Shwe Lan Ga Lay ("The Golden Path") project, the pilgrimages will lead meditators to many off-the-beaten track monasteries, pagodas, caves, and other important Buddhist sites throughout the country, and feature comprehensive information and historical background about them. Their Facebook page can be found here.

One of the pilgrimages will explore the sites (14 different regions in total) related to the lineage of S.N. Goenka, and to increase the Dhamma atmosphere, all nights of this 17-day pilgrimage will be spent at Buddhist monasteries. The American monk Bhikkhu Obhasa will also be joining this trip as a special guest. (Another pilgrimage will follow the same schedule but stay mostly in hotels.)

Myanmar Pilgrimage warns potential travelers that a pilgrimage is not a touristy trip. In its own words:

"Prospective travelers should keep in mind that a pilgrimage is different than a tourist trip or backpacking. The intent is not merely to see exotic sites, take photographs, and buy souvenirs, but also to appreciate Burmese Buddhist culture and most importantly, to grow in the Dhamma, or the teachings of the Buddha. If more interested in a standard tourist package, we recommend going with a more conventional Myanmar tourist agency. For those wishing to grow spiritually and experience the way that Myanmar society follows the Buddha's teachings, we welcome you."

 Elsewhere, in describing its mission, Myanmar Pilgrimage writes:

"All tourists are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the tours we offer to ensure a right fit with their expectations and reasons for visiting Myanmar. Those interested in a more conventional tourist experience, with a greater focus on shopping or following the standard traveler route, may want to consider other providers."

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Meditation Movement in Burma

Why did the patipatti (meditation) movement take off in Burma's postwar era? The Golden Path has tackled this question, and has discovered over 20 factors leading to the conditions where this not only could grow, but thrive. The following excerpt is taken from an unpublished draft, which would be included in the meditator's guide Part 3. (However, with minimal dana now available past Part 2, and given that the volition to ultimately share all works freely to all, it is unlikely this will reach publication, unless further support is forthcoming.)




One theory relates to the powerful experience of surviving the brutal war years. Such a period allowed some of the great future teachers to spend more time in meditation, and both during and immediately following the war many thousands of lay people were pushed from their home and found refuge in the monasteries. Author U Tin Oo notes that many Burmese fled to the Sagaing Hills during World War II, where they began a vipassanā practice that was maintained well after the fighting subsided. The same has been said of the vast Buddhist communities that the Mohnyin Sayadaw cared for at Thanboddhay Monastery. And even Mahasi Sayadaw himself saw his development and teachings affected by his experiences during the way. At this time, he had to leave Taungwainggale and return to his native village of Seikkhun, for it was safer. While here he practiced, taught, and wrote his famous Manual of Vipassana Meditation, a comprehensive guide on how to practice according to the Satipattana Sutta.

However, yet another factor seems to directly contradict this. Rather than seeing the hard times of the war as guiding people to concentrate on what was really important, Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka instead felt instead that they led to an opposite result. In Autobiogrgahy, he wrote that “[m]orality became too low after the war among both young and old people. The government commissioned a committee to give Buddhist lessons at school to check this moral deterioration.” U Silananda seems to bridge these two views in discussing his opinions on how the war affected morality. He writes: “World War II had caused to upset the living conditions of many a people in one way or another. Just as the people who were originally seemingly delicate, mild and soft-hearted in nature had joined the tough army as impulsed by their intense patriotism; there were some who had entered into monkhood being fed up with their own’ life’s condition.” 

Objective reporting certainly backs up U Janaka’s observations, as the rise in dacoits at this time in Burma was well documented—however, others made a political argument to account for this, and that it was more due to a weak central government than the overall morals of people. In any case, in U Janaka’s view, this decline began many years before, stemming from the Colonial Era, and only peaked after the war years. For this reason, he fully supported the idea of the Buddhist Revival, commenting that “State and Religion would have a perfect coordination to work out the progress of the State as well as the Religion.” With such low morality amongst the people, he compared the work ahead with that of King Anawrahta and Shin Arahan one thousand years earlier when Theravada Buddhism was established in the country. In this way, the rise of the patipatti movement could be seen as a kind of state-orchestrated policy accomplished with the cooperation of renowned monks, and having been motivated by the decline of the faith and morality that had been building for decades, and culminated only now.

Sagaing: the Hidden Treasure of the Golden Land


“After the return to Australia I found out that for a Buddhist to go to the Sagaing Hills is something like a Moslem going to Mecca, and when I casually mentioned to an Australian Buddhist who had been in Burma that I had stayed there, I could almost feel the halo growing round my head.” Marie Byles, Journey Into Burmese Silence

It’s difficult to overstate the majesty and wonder of the Sagaing Hills (The name “Sagaing” actually denotes three different things: the largest division in the country extending from Mandalay to the northwest; the town of Sagaing; and the Sagaing Hills. This chapter is concerned with the latter two.). And for the yogi intent on Burmese Buddhist practice, there are few—if any—places that compare. For yogis who have never been to Burma but have heard about the country from the lips of Dhamma friends or books by Burmese Sayadaws from another era, Sagaing may come the closest to approximating the image one had formed. More than one meditator has been known to remark, “Ah… this is Burma!” after spending time in the Sagaing Hills.

From almost the moment one leaves the dusty lanes of the downtown Sagaing for the rarefied air of the Hills, one enters the stillness and quiet of winding forest paths, past countless caves, kutis, monasteries, pagodas, shrines, Dhamma halls, monuments, and water stands. It brings a sense of calm to the heart. And like with Shwedagon Pagoda, even if a person is just passing at a distance, he/she often bows in veneration towards the pagoda-covered hills.

In Colorful Myanmar, Khin Myo Chit writes, “Of the first things I learned about pagodas, nothing had to do with the intellectual side of Buddhism, but all was full of colour and romance. Once, while we were crossing the river from Mandalay to Sagaing in a small flat-bottomed boat, we headed towards the long dark range of thickly wooded hills, crested with shining pagodas, and the tinkling bells from their htis chimed welcome to us. Colonnaded stairways zig-zagged through the flowering foliages. They looked so inviting that I could hardly wait to run up the steps and reach the pagodas there.”

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Coming Soon: "Myanmar Pilgrimage"

A pilgrimage is different than other trips. It is not backpacking, sightseeing, or a typical package tour. As the famous religious scholar Huston Smith once commented, "The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation or to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life."



Saturday, 22 July 2017

Mornings in Myanmar


Morning starts early in rural Myanmar. Since Burmese culture is very much grounded in the rhythms of monastic life, lay households are often up before dawn, sometimes as early as 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. For some rural villages, that happens by means of a kaladet (ကုလားတက္), a hollowed log beaten like a drum. Translated literally, kaladet means “foreigners invade” (while the origins of the word kala refer to Indians, it can also be used as a kind of a catch-all word for any foreigners). This was used during the Anglo-Burmese wars to warn the nearby population when foreign troops were on the march. Today kaladet are used for more peaceful purposes, most often to announce meal times at monasteries, though they can also be used in case of an emergency, such as a fire. Kaladet tends to be more of a Mandalay term, while in Yangon it may be known as a tone-maung (တံုုးေမာင္း). A similar but larger instrument is known as an on-maung (အုုန္းေမာင္း). A kyae see (ေႀကးစည္) is a flat, triangular-shaped or round gong without any middle bulge, and makes a similar sound. The kyae see is often used to announce a merit accrued or to invite people to join a meritorious activity, thus villagers can be heard crying out “sadhu” three times following the kyae see sound. In the past, some of these noisemakers were also used for spreading news within communities, but this is not the case anymore.


The housewife or daughter often begins to prepare the rice and curries that will be donated in several hours time for the monks’ alms rounds. Other morning activities may include going to the home shrine room to pay respects, meditating, reciting the parittas, and taking the precepts. Some leave early for the market to set up their wares. Burmese farmers have dawn-to-dusk, work-filled days, like farmers all over the world; their breakfast is often a fast and simple affair.
As the morning wears on, the day starts heating up, slightly and gradually in the cool season…and in the hot season, quickly, drastically, and with little mercy! Daniel Isaac Combs captures some of the early-morning routine during the hot season in Sorcerers and Cigarettes when he writes, “Every morning, shop owners would perform a ritual cleansing of the area outside, sweeping away the trash and then pouring buckets of water all over the dirt in an attempt to limit the choking dust storm that would come midday when people traipsed over the baked copper-colored sand. The seemingly futile practice had a patient, steady quality to it, a sense of inevitability—it’s not going to get any better, but we can keep it from getting too much worse.”

A shift of energy occurs around 11:00 a.m., when monastics are offered their last meal of the day. While this is more obvious in areas rich with monasteries, the passing of the noon hour can be felt everywhere in subtle ways, because awareness of the Vinaya pervades Burmese life. Long-distance buses with monastic passengers may ensure that they stop before noon, lay supporters may take time to serve monks during this hour, and monastics will rarely be seen in public around this time. Perhaps not coincidentally, lunch in Burma is the big meal of the day, for the food must sustain its community of monastics until the following dawn. In village areas near strict monasteries, laypeople feed monks only once per day, when the monks walk for an early alms round. But such strict monasteries are relatively uncommon today.