Friday, 27 February 2015

The Mantle of Romance in a Magic Land

A Burmese boy and the pilgrimage guide leader pose happily during the 2014 Burma pilgrimage

"It is easy enough to overlook this magic land. Nature has endowed this land with water-falls, rapids, whirlpools, hot-spring, and volcanoes. There are mountains, gigantic caves, and stately, irresistible rivers. Upon these has fallen the mantle of romance." Khin Myo Chit, Burmese Wonderland

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Wrong Medicine

"Because of the wrong medicine, you have already had life; and because of your past good kammas you are now enjoying a high standard of living. It is, however, to be borne in mind that whatever you may be, healthy, rich and first-rate; you will become old… decay and death are impartial to all."
-- Bhaddanta Saddhamma Kittisara, Buddha’s Way of Immortal Medicine

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

"Why do young Burmese girls become novice nuns?"

"Why do young Burmese girls become novice nuns?"

The truth is that many young girls join the Order out of economic necessity. Anecdotally, one Burmese lay supporter estimated that only one child out of ten chooses to wear robes from her own volition. Ma Thanegi agrees with this assessment. “They don't choose to be nuns,” she says. “Here I'm talking about female children, not late teen girls. They may be orphaned or abandoned by poor parents.”

Paradoxically, there are also many well-known stories of middle-class young girls who feel a great volition towards the Holy Life, but their family tries to veer them towards more traditional careers. As the above-mentioned lay supporter goes on to share, “even when the person is 30 or more years old, the family members have great difficulty allowing the ordination-- and even though they allow it, they weep during the ceremony.”

This was true for one Burmese nun who had been meditating at Pa Auk for some time as a lay woman. She had wanted to become a nun from a young age, but her parents persuaded her to first get her University degree. She did this, but immediately came to live at Pa Auk after this, for she sought spiritual development. Then, she wished to study Pali and Buddhist scriptures, so she decided to enter a nunnery, to which her family finally gave her permission.

Ma Thanegi agrees with the basic assessment that many who come to nunnery do so because of external circumstances. She notes, “unfortunately most women who enter nunhood are those who could not face the problems of secular life so they are by nature timid.” She feels that many women may temporarily wear the robes as a way of gaining merit. Additionally, it is an excellent way to learn about the Buddha’s teachings at a much deeper level. “A few of my schoolmates from wealthy families were put into nunneries every summer holidays as little nuns so that they would know more of Buddhism. They liked it apart from going back to school with shaved heads.” For those remaining in robes for life not out of economic or personal hardships, merit also plays a major role, according to U Sarana. “This is why their lifestyle revolves around religious activities, helping others, serving monks, etc.”

Asaygan Fort

By 1850, King Mindon began to build fortifications along the Ayeyarwaddy River to prepare for the expected skirmishes to come with British troops. In 1885, three forts were built in a triangle in attempt to trap oncoming British soldiers, and were considered the last line of defense before the royal capital of Mandalay. Asaygan was one of these three, designed in the shape of a semi-circle, with walls nine feet high with holes for rifle fire (except for the south-facing wall). In the end, however, the forts were never used because the King and Parliament ordered its troops not to resist when the British did eventually come; indeed, when the advancing Colonel White arrived to disarm the populace, he was given a dinner by the newly surrendered Burmese commander. Sir Herbert White writes in A Civil Servant in Burma, “The fall of Mandalay had been so sudden that it had not yet been realized in rural places, and the forces of opposition had not yet been organized. Very soon the turmoil began. It was then long before officers were able to travel without escort in Upper Burma.”

The inexorable march of tropical greenery has invaded even the innermost fortifications, but amidst this one can find some old cannons and the original walls. On the Sagaing side there are tombstones of British soldiers who died in some minor skirmishes in 1885 in spite of the overall peaceful surrender of Burmese forces.

Obviously, this fort is not really related to Buddhist practice in any way. So unless one is a history buff, it may not be worth the detour, and there are certainly no conducive sites for a sitting. But if one does go, the crows can be quite bad here during the cool season, so a laser is recommended. Admission to the fort is free.

Monday, 23 February 2015

A Grave Risk to Future Disaster

“As strict Buddhists, Burmans are supposed to abstain from animal food, or, at least, from taking life for the purpose of providing food. For fishermen, who must break this precept daily, special uncomfortable hells are reserved. Hunting and shooting are practised at grave risk of future disaster, and usually by the younger men who think they have time to make up for these derelictions, or are giddily thoughtless of the hereafter. A pious friend of mine in Upper Burma used to be much scandalized at the levity of his aged father, who persisted in coursing hares when he ought to have been making his soul. But as regards the consumption of flesh of birds, beasts, and fish, there seems to be no practical restraint among any class... The flesh of no creature which has died a natural death, except perhaps dogs and tigers, is despised.” 

--- Sir Herbert White, A Civil Servant in Burma, 1913

Yedagone Taung

One of the highlights of visiting the Mandalay region is to see the fabled Yedagon Taung. The name means “Waterfall Mountain,” and it’s so called because during the rainy season, the water pours in great amounts down its great sloping hills. It's been a sacred retreat center for centuries for monks to practice Vipassana meditation intensively, away from civilized society.

The area is a microcosm of the tourist boom and the affect it may eventually (and unfortunately) have on religious sites in Myanmar. Recently, it has seen an influx in outdoor enthusiasts, especially those looking for caving and rock climbing. Such heavy tourist activity has almost entirely destroyed formerly religious sites in Thailand, and one hopes that the same will not soon be seen in Myanmar. 

It’s best to go by motorbike from Mandalay. To get there, follow 33rd street east to the T-intersection, and after turning right onto the main road, then the first left. Walk ten minutes on a gravel road, and after one passes a village, the monastery sits atop a hill, with the waterfall just beyond. People in good shape can climb the waterfall cliffs, where one will be treated to one of the best views one can find of Mandalay. You can reach the area by following 19th Street east, either by pickup, or via car or bike.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Hsinbyume Pagoda

Also known as Myatheindan Pagoda and commissioned in commemoration of the king’s late wife, Hsinbyume was built in 1816 in the form of a great, white wave. Once completed, the king is believed to have enshrined a very valuable emerald inside, worth 100,000 gold coins (the meaning of myatheindan in its alternative name). It’s possible that the pagoda may have been built from the materials taken from the Mingun Pagoda after it fell into disrepair.

Burmese consider Hsinbuyme one of the more symbolic or poetic pieces of Buddhist architecture in their country. It is believed to be a representation of Sulamani Pagoda, which in Buddhist cosmology stood atop Mt. Meru, the mountain in the center of the universe. The Heaven of the Thirty Three Gods (Tāvatiṃsa) is believed to be found on the top of this. Seven terraces surround the pagoda, representing the seven mountain ranges around Mt. Meru. Various deities are carved around the base of the pagoda’s central tower. A Buddha image sits at the very top, and there’s an interesting story as to how it got there. A Buddha statue on a lower level was beheaded by treasure seekers, but when it was restored, pilgrims felt the new head was tilted too low, so this image was then commissioned to sit atop the structure. One of the original walls still runs across the perimeter, with some speculating this may be that barrier containing the cosmos. The top of Mingun Pagoda affords an excellent view of this site.