Saturday, 3 October 2015

A Monastery more about the Buddha than Cats...

In his book Curious Encounters of the Human Kind, Paul Sochaczewski describes visiting Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery. Founded in 1843, the monastery is south-facing and contains 654 pillars, topped by a 3-tiered roof. The Dhamma Hall contains several large Buddha statues representing different regional styles. A local historian shared that many come from the former Shan principalities and royal palaces, and were transferred here for safekeeping. Many had been the centerpiece of their respective shrine rooms in the royal courts or important monasteries of the district’s saopha. The ceiling here is red lacquer with some gold leaf, and the north wall has an impressive painting depicting some Jataka Tales. Fine gold leaf engravings are also found on the base of the daises, which portray a variety of scenes, from taking the Five Precepts to the transfer of the Maha Muni Buddha to Mandalay. It is a space where one can appreciate the inspiration and faith these statues have provided countless Shan Buddhists over the many centuries. 

Sochaczewski describes this interesting exchange during his visit:

“Come on Brochette, jump through this hoop. Arnold Schwarzenegger can do it -- it can’t be that hard.”

Our ginger cat in Geneva was doing what cats everywhere do – exactly what she felt like. Which at this moment was not jumping through a hoop.

I was trying to accomplish a similar coup de persévérance to that which some monks in Burma have achieved. Teaching cats parlor tricks. But Brochette wasn’t buying it. What did the monks have that I didn’t?

Lots of patience and an abundant supply of Friskies, as it turned out.

I was introduced to the famous Burmese jumping cats at the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, on Inle Lake.

The “jumping cat monastery” is a key stop for the trickle of tourists who visit Burma. There I met Venerable U Nanda, 25, one of a dozen resident monks.

“It’s easy to train cats,” he said, somewhat reluctantly putting down his Burmese comic book. With a large dose of ennui he explained that you simply start when they’re kittens, scratch them under the chin, say kon, and reward them with kitty treats.

Obviously, it works. Every 30 minutes or so, when a group of visitors would accumulate, San Win, an assistant in the monastery, would put the cats through their paces.

“What’s that one called?” I asked, pointing to a black and white tabby.

World-weary U Nanda explained “That’s Leonardo di Caprio.”

“And this one?”

“Demi Moore.”

“Can I try?”

I held the wire hoop in front of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” paradoxically one of the skinnier cats in the temple. I gave him a little nudge, ordered him to kon, and after he jumped I rewarded him with a biscuit.

Meanwhile Tina Turner was curled up on my backpack, asleep. “Don’t leave your things on the floor,” U Nanda lectured. “She pisses everywhere.”

After a while U Nanda started to open up. Perhaps he saw that since I wasn’t going to go away he might as well have a discussion. I was interested in Buddhist history, he was interested in conjugating English verbs.

Throughout our conversation, the abbot, Sayadaw Kite Ti, 68, kept his distance and read a book. I don’t read Burmese, but from the pictures of cowboys and horses I was pretty sure that it wasn’t a religious text. He didn’t glance up as visitors stuffed tattered kyat notes and a few dollar bills into the offering box.

I left Inle Lake to travel around Shan state, and returned a few weeks later and sought out U Nanda. I felt I had unfinished business with the young monk, a feeling that there was more to him than a saffron-robed feline-inclined impresario.

“You again,” he said when I walked in. He wasn’t hostile, but he wasn’t overly welcoming.

I deliberately avoided the handful of curious visitors watching Brad Pitt and Michael Jackson leaping about on the linoleum. “Tell me about the temple,” I asked. And he did. He showed me around the 160-year-old monastery, the oldest on Inle Lake. Proudly, he turned on lights so that I could better see the six two-meter tall Buddha images made out of lacquerware, and the gilt-encrusted wooden statues and carved pillars. He took me into the abbot’s room to show me old, sacred Buddha images. In half an hour of looking through different eyes, the monastery for me had evolved from a tourist site into a combination art museum and place of worship

“What do you do?” he eventually asked me.

“I’m a journalist.”

“Then tell people the monastery is more than cats. It’s Buddha.” 

Paul Sochaczewski has kindly allowed Shwe Lan Ga Lay to include this excerpt in its upcoming Part 2 release, which will feature an extensive section on Shan State, including Inle Lake. For more information on Paul Sochaczewski's book, see here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The cool, refreshing charm of Buddhist Hsipaw

There is an old Bamar custom to bury a pot of oil in the center of a town, based on the belief that the town will last until the oil runs try. Such a pot was buried under Hsipaw (pronounced “Thi-baw”) in its early days. In the 1980s, a few curious residents unearthed the clay pot, and were happy to find sufficient oil still remaining. Perhaps, too, they were equally happy not to find any human skeletons in the pot, dispelling rumors that the oil had been a part of human sacrifices. Thus, for those meditators especially attracted to Hsipaw’s charm, it will come as a relief that the town will probably be sticking around a while yet! And getting there can be a romantic adventure in its own right: the train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw and on to Lashio has been called one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Today, the historic small town of Hsipaw, originally called Ohn Baung (Ohn Baung was also the name of one of the great principalities of the Shan region, and a well-known lineage of great saophas ruled here), has many local cottage industries and workshops. For the foreign yogi, it also has a number of inviting places to practice. It is somewhat of a hot season escape, as it keeps slightly cooler than the rest of the country (though if one is really looking to escape the heat, Taunggyi, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Kalaw are even cooler).

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Living on Myanmar Time

“One thing that Joah hasn't quoted me on yet, is the thing I do say to a lot of people: ‘Myanmar is just a little bit closer to heaven.’ No, there are certainly a lot of things not okay in Myanmar, but the one thing that makes me very happy is that there are so many manifestations of the teachings of the Buddha here. There are those from the past, from Arahants who lived here and from pagodas made by Kings and laypeople centuries back. But there are also so many manifestations of the Buddha's teaching from the present here in Myanmar: so many people actually know and practice the teachings, they know about sila, samadhi and panna. There are so many monasteries and meditation centres and teachers, monks and lay people who are all supporting the Sasana.

For a long time people have been interested and curious in this country, and little by little have come here to learn, practice and get inspired by the Dhamma here. Most people who come to Myanmar get very enthusiastic about the people, the culture and the Dhamma. The enthusiasm of the practice of Dhamma brings this ‘ehipasiko,’ or the 'come and see.'

Shwe Lan Ga Lay is written with this in mind, with the volition to share something so unique and beautiful. Your holding a valuable gift in your hands, a gift for which many people have put in a lot of effort, giving hours, days, weeks, months and even years of their lives to create. It is a very special gift; it is not a tour guide that tries to satisfy temporary curiosities about some old buildings or fancy restaurants. It is a book helping you to understand, respect and appreciate a country and its treasures. Therefore, it is not a thin leaflet, because that would never do justice to the subtlety and depth of the experiences that one can have here. It is an extensive book, written with a broader perspective and timeframe in mind. It certainly will help you for a short trip to certain inspiring places, but it also provides in-depth information for those who develop a deeper interest in this country. Shwe Lan Ga Lay sets itself apart by taking time to explaining even details which come only alive after one has visited Myanmar for a second or third time. In this way, it is written in ‘Myanmar-time' instead of ‘Western-time,’ and Shwe Lan Ga Lay aims also at people who want to commit, to surrender to Dhamma fully in Myanmar.

And one feels, when reading this book which explains so many aspects of the manifestations of the Dhamma in Burma, it is all explained with this happiness which arises when you're able to share something so wonderful. I’m happy Joah chose to approach Burma on its own terms. This book is in a way a child of Burma, of its qualities: it is a Dana, a gift, intended on supporting you on your path of Dhamma.

I hope that people realize the magnitude and value of the information presented in this book, and they use it for their benefit, with respect and gratitude.”

--Bhikkhu Agga is a Dutch monk who has lived in Myanmar since 2011. He read the very first draft of 
Shwe Lan Ga Lay.

An American Forest Monk in Burma

Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu (formerly David Reynolds) is an American monk who has been in Burma for about two decades. Back in past centuries, Burmese forest monks were so removed from the standard orthodoxy that scarcely a record was kept of their practice, biography, and teachings, let alone their inner thoughts and musings, even in cases where these ascetics were suspected of becoming fully enlightened. Today, thanks to the ease of Internet and social media, the urban meditator may gain a glimpse even in real time of the secluded forest practice of such a monk. 

More information may be found on Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu's blog, which he regularly updates, as well as his main home page. Both are highly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Burma Dhamma.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Chin Daung Curry

Chin Daung Curry 

Today, the cabin in Amarapura appears a bit more cluttered than it was in Maha Gandayone Sayadaw’s day. Daw Onmar, a German nun who stayed here for several years, recalls him saying that it is with the utmost simplicity that a monk a should live, and for many years he had little else but a pen and paper. As the modern era came to Burma, he was once offered a new refrigerator for his private residence. He laughed, and declining, asked what he would possibly put in it—“rice and chin daung curry?” Rice, obviously, is cooked and offered fresh daily, and chin daung is very cheap-made curry that is only good immediately after cooking. Nowadays refrigerators are quite common at Burmese monasteries, a development Daw Onmar feels Maha Gandayone Sayadaw would not accept “with the tip of his toe.”

Monkey Minds

Just outside of Dhamma Nana Dhaja in Monywa, the meditation center in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka and named after the Pali words of Ledi Sayadaw's name, it was considered beneficial to build a large monkey cage, so some yogis may wish to bring banana dana. Strangely, the cage seems to be monkey-optional, as the primates wander back and forth between the bars freely, so those with “monkey phobia” may wish to avoid the area.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Stone Library of Ledi Sayadaw

The only remnants of the lost forest refuge may be those represented in the full-scale diorama in Ledi Thein Ma Taw Gyi, or as it is known in English, the "Maha Ledi Edifice." This blue, circular building is located to the right of the arch, and also displays a number of items relating to Ledi’s life. 

Further reminders of the great monk’s work in this world are exhibited in the form of hundreds of marble slabs, in fact 806 of them to be precise. Completed in 1925, just two years after Ledi Sayadaw’s passing, most of the engraving is comprised from 89 of his dipanis. Seven additional texts are credited to his disciples Ledi Pandita and Ledi U Kavi, so marked by a giant board meticulously recording the titles, locations, and other pertinent details of each work. Most are in Burmese (Others are in Pali and Nissaya, or a word-for-word translation of Pali into Burmese), following Ledi’s innovation in making them accessible to the common person, so that any wanderer may read and contemplate the Dhamma. Some were damaged during World War II, but have since been restored. Walking freely through this garden of scholastic monuments is a living and nearly breathing testament to Ledi’s contribution within the field of pariyatti. Even these slabs, however, do not constitute the totality of Ledi’s writings. A current project is now underway in Ledi Sayadaw’s birthpace of Sain Pyin Gyi Village to complete the stone engravings of his remaining volumes, thus preserving the entirety of Ledi’s words for future generations. Or as Linda Chang, an American yogi commented, “meandering amongst these large slabs was literally 'going through' his works!” Found within these slabs and reached via a narrow walkway is the main Buddha shrine.