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.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Death of Ledi Sayadaw

Ledi Sayadaw spent the last two years of his life at Zingyan monastery in Pyinmana. U Sarana explains that the Burmese term Zingyan (စႀကၤံ) is derived from the Pāḷi word cankamana, which means “walking up and down.” The Buddha’s doctor, Jīvaka Komārabhacca, recommended walking as a way to maintain health, and the Buddha acknowledged the value of this advice by suggesting that monks use special paths for walking meditation (from the Mahāvagga, the third book of Vinaya Piṭaka). In Burmese, the term “zingyan” often refers to a place where walking meditation is practiced, so it may indicate Ledi's dhamma practice at that time. By then, however, he had gone completely blind, the result of so many years of reading and writing in poorly lit places.

In 1923, the day before a full moon, a strong earthquake rocked the region, and the monastery trembled. Ledi lay on his bed and explained to his students that this was in fact a request from the devas that he teach them the Abhidhamma in the Celestial Realms, suggesting that the human realm had already benefited adequately from his years of guidance. After a second earthquake occurred the following day, Ledi instructed his top disciples to recite the Mahāpaṭṭhāna (Pañhāvāra Pāli) from the Abhidhamma, since it was now his time to depart the human realm entirely. The moment the recitation finished, at 2:30 p.m., Ledi passed away. He was 76 years old. Apparently his death was partly due to accidental poisoning from a laxative herb by a visiting Thai monk, who fled in terror when he realized what had happened.

The photograph shows an American meditator standing before the central Buddha image at Ledi Sayadaw's forest monastery in Monywa. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Meditation under Ledi Sayadaw: Hiding in Plain Sight All Along!

Ledi Sayadaw was certainly endowed with enormous dynamism and intellect, and an ability to think outside the box. He saw opportunities and possibilities where others did not. Specifically, he broadened people’s understanding of what was allowable within the scripture regarding spiritual development. From our present vantage point, where there is now such open and widespread access to Buddhist meditation, it is a given that insight practice is possible even for householders with full lives; they do not need to cultivate a base of very deep absorption, or commit to taking robes and renouncing the world. While this had scarcely even been acknowledged as a theoretical possibility before Ledi, he taught that householders could cultivate bhāvanā, and that justification for this (at that time) radical perspective had actually been hiding in plain sight all along, in the scriptures and other works such, as the Visuddhimagga.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The White Scarf and Burmese Meditation

Marie Byles records that at exactly 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, something curious happened at the Maha Bodhi meditation center in Mandalay. “U Thein placed a white scarf over my shoulders, saying that I was now a Yogi and should always wear the scarf when meditating.” Her description almost seems to imply that the presentation and donning of the white scarf was symbolic of a formal, spiritual transformation, not dissimilar to a monk’s taking of saffron robes during an ordination ceremony.

Looking through the lens of Buddhist history, U Sarana notes that references to white garb are found frequently throughout the Pāḷi scriptures, occurring in all five nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka (including thirty-nine times alone in the Majjhima Nikaya). In the scriptures, white is associated with purity in general, and specifically can mean that one is following eight or ten precepts. Interestingly, Saya U Than recalls how Ledi Sayadaw had instructed Saya Thet Gyi to wear a white scarf once he began teaching meditation. Sayadaw U Vajirapani, one of the most senior students of the famous Tipiṭakadhara Yaw Sayadaw, noted that Ledi was adhering to the scriptural reference of seta paribajaka, or “white recluse,” (Also written as setavattha paribbājaka. More information is available in the Khuddakavatthukkhandhakaṃ, from the Vinaya Pitaka.) as well as odata vasana gihi, meaning “person clothed in white.” U Vajirapani suggests that Ledi reduced the practice of wearing entire white garments down to a plain white scarf, asking lay yogis to wear it when they came to the forest to learn Dhamma from him, and then the custom was carried over when meditation-oriented monasteries came to be established in later years. Photos of white scarves from the early 20th century show them as being much larger than merely covering the neck or acting as a kind of sash, as it is worn today, suggesting that it has since been reduced further in size.

 Then, U Ko Lay describes that when U Ba Khin was learning under Saya Thet Gyi, Saya Thet became pleased with his student’s meditation progress, and advised him “to sit in mental culture for seven days, and to wear a white cloth around his shoulders.” Later, when Webu Sayadaw encouraged U Ba Khin to spread the Dhamma, he is reported to have said, “Give [the lay practitioners] a method. Give him the teaching as a layman after having changed to wearing a white cloth.” Later on, many yogis at the International Meditation Center took up the practice of wearing a white shawl. The practice of the white scarf is not very common in meditation centers and monasteries in Myanmar today. However, in other Buddhist countries (such as Sri Lanka and Thailand), some monasteries continue to require a fully white garb for meditation courses and other ceremonies, as do some organized pilgrimages.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Who is a Meditator?

Thanks to Phillip Harbor for the photograph.

The common, contemporary term used by Dhamma practitioners in non-Buddhist countries is “meditator.” However, the way the word “meditator” is used outside of Burmese culture (i.e., as someone whose identity is implicitly connected to their meditation practice) has no exact equivalent inside Myanmar. While many Burmese do meditate, in Burmese Buddhist culture, meditation practice is rarely seen as being a totally separate activity from the rest of one’s overall dedication to the Buddha’s teachings. Rather, it is viewed as but one key component of the Buddhist path. Thus asking a devout Burmese if he or she is a “meditator” as a term of self-identification can lead to some confusion, since meditation is understood as but one of many ways that one must develop in the Buddha’s teachings.

The closest Burmese term for the English word “meditator” may be tayar shu hmat thu (တရားရႈမွတ္သူ); however, this term connotes someone currently engaged in sitting meditation, “in the now.” Thus, if one were to use this term to describe oneself, then one would by definition have ceased the formal act of meditation, rendering the term inoperable!

Another possibility is “vipassanā student,” which names the specific meditation in which many Buddha-Dhamma/Buddha-Sāsana practitioners engage; however, again looking from the outside-in, “vipassanā student” doesn’t work for the same reason as “meditator.” Neither term captures the dynamic, full sense in which the Buddha’s teachings are understood and practiced in Myanmar, which is not just formal meditation. Also, neither word has a true, meaningful Burmese equivalent.

“Dhammist” is a more recent attempt to address this conundrum. While “Buddhist” comes from “Buddha,” “Dhammist” is a derivation of “Dhamma,” taking its cue from the second rather than the first of the three Triple Gems. Looking from the outside-in, not only is this not a commonly used term by many foreign practitioners, but Burmese also do not have any exact equivalent in their own language. After all, many Burmese looking to convey the same meaning as “Dhammist” in English would simply fall back on the standard... “Buddhist”! (while Burmese do use the term “Buddha-Dhamma,” it is not a label of self-identification, but rather describes the overall practice and doctrine. Again, in terms of identifying terms within their own language, Burmese Buddhists most often describe the practitioner’s proximity to the Sāsana, and a profusion of words and terms may be used depending on one’s practice, gender, attainment, renunciation and precepts.) 

Some might further modify it as “true Buddhist,” “real Buddhist,” or would flesh out the definition as has been seen in some of the English statements by Sayagyi U Ba Khin. And, One also cannot dismiss the impact of a second language when discussing possible English terms used by Burmese (and vice versa).

Monday, 12 June 2017

The 8th Ledi Sayadaw and S.N. Goenka: A Meeting of Cousins

Just as students in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka come from around the world to pay respects to Ledi Sayadaw, so also have the heads of these traditions remained close over the years. Some years ago, when U Goenka was in the country, the Eighth Ledi Sayadaw invited him to visit Monywa, but he had to decline due to previous commitments. However, the 80-year-old sayadaw was so keen to meet him that he arranged for his own trip to the Sagaing Hills, where the lay meditation master was staying. Ultimately, two of the monk’s disciples carried him up a flight of stairs to the second floor, where the meeting took place. The sayadaw expressed his joy that Ledi Sayadaw’s teachings had not only reached India, but had continued to spread around the world. He gave his blessings to U Goenka to continue his good work. The Ninth Ledi Sayadaw also met with U Goenka at Shwe Taung Oo Pagoda, where he was carried up in a palanquin.

The meeting is commemorated by this two-framed photo display, depicting Goenkaji's visit to Monywa, and which hangs in the building where Ledi Sayadaw practiced walking meditation. Once a remote forest monastery, it is now in the center of an urban area of Monywa.