Friday, 19 May 2017

Locating the Birthplace of an Italian Buddhist monk

Research has been ongoing to learn more about the fantastic life of the Italian Buddhist monk U Lokanatha. 

A friend of B.R. Ambedkar, Sun Lun Sayadaw, Webu Sayadaw, and Ajahn Pannya, and an inspiration to General Aung San and Dr. Nandamala, his life biography nearly defies imagination. Despite coming from a conservative Catholic family in which several uncles and brothers were priests, his pull towards the Dhamma led him to walk from Italy all the way to India, and he is said to have once repelled a mob in Turkey due to the strength of his metta. He hoped to convert Mussolini to Buddhism as a way of preventing World War II, but was instead imprisoned in a POW camp in India as he was accused to being with the Axis Powers (where, as a prisoner, he underwent a hunger strike and taught Dhamma to the prisoners). 

After the war, he would go on an American tour, describing the Buddha's teachings as the antidote to the nuclear age, and saying he would bring an "atomic bomb of love" to his audiences. He would give Dhamma speeches at such diverse places as Hollywood seances and before Account General office employees prior to the opening of U Ba Khin's IMC, and calling himself the "first Dhamma Ambassador to the West," he also helped to arrange a meeting between Webu Sayadaw the the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, resulting in the offering of precious Buddha Relics to the tiny Ingyinbin monastery, which still has them today.

This picture shows the result of efforts to locate his birth home in Naples. Since a flood in 1999, it has been inhabitable, but appears to be the original building. Supporters would like to see a Burmese stupa constructed here to honor the great monk. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

From Siddhartha Gautama to Tony Soprano

The 705-foot tall Yankin Hill is three curvy miles east of Mandalay. Yankin means “free of danger,” so it is not surprising that the area affords a bit of peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Sir Herbert White more liberally translated the name as “Hill of Peace.” The hill also goes by the name Nga Yant Taung, after the fish described in the story that follows. Its name is also a testament to the safe refuge it afforded Mandalay residents from the intense fighting and bombing in and around the city during World War II.

The hill area was first developed as a pilgrimage site by U Khanti during the colonial era. Further playing to the meaning of its name, two Jātaka Tales attest to this being where the Buddha escaped enemies in former lifetimes, one of which places him as a snakehead fish in a pond in a cave near the top of the hill. The Jātaka Tales, or stories of the Buddha’s past births, appear to have been canonized in the 5th century (most appear in the Cariyapitaka i
n Khuddaka Nikaya of Sutta Pitaka). Apart from these, there are also the “apocryphal Jatakas” in which local cultures and contexts are brought in. In Myanmar this is known as လက္တန္း၊ ဒဏၭာရီ, and such stories are not found anywhere in the Pāḷi scriptures. This particular Yankin tale appears to be an example of this.

The Yankin area is famous for a reputed connection to the Buddha: that he was a snakehead fish here in a previous birth. Interestingly, fossil records trace this species back 50 million years to the Himalayan region of northern India, which also happens to be Siddhartha Gautama’s birthplace. The fish eventually migrated into European, African, and Asian waters.

However, in spite of the fact that some people find them an exotic delicacy, overall they are considered a big nuisance, partly because of their rows of small, sharp teeth. They are such an invasive species in the United States that it has been strictly illegal to bring live snakeheads since 2002. The theory is that at some point, someone must have tired of having a few as “pets,” and dumped them into a local waterway. After cleaning that pond or lake of prey, the snakeheads literally marched off in search of new waterways to conquer…on their fins, since they can breathe air for short periods. In this way, they migrated far and wide, wiping out local species as they went, waterway after waterway. This is not dissimilar to another invasive species from the Golden Land, the Burmese Python. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the reptile took over Florida’s Everglades and eventually stretched as far to south Texas, and was eventually banned for import in 2012. This has earned snakeheads such monikers as Frankenfish and Fishzilla. They have even wiggled their way into American pop culture, earning a mention on “The Sopranos,” no less, among other things.

Today, while snakeheads are apparently no longer found anywhere near “Snakehead Fish Cave” in Yankin Hill—they exist there still in spirit, through the plethora of statues all around the hill.

Another tale associated with this site took place many centuries ago. King Alaungsithtu, who ruled from Bagan in the 12th century, was concerned about his wayward sons, especially the oldest, named Min Shin Saw. The king sent him to the northern part of the kingdom, where he governed a town near Amarapura. There was a severe drought there and the town’s lake and water tanks had become perilously close to empty; Min Shin Saw began construction of an irrigation system connecting Aung Lake(south of Yankin Hill, although Aung Lake is no more; it has been filled in and transformed into many paddy fields) to the town’s farms. This irrigation system eventually supplied water to over 31,000 fields. But meanwhile, the drought raged on, and knowing the Jātaka Tale told above, Min Shin Saw ordered a large statue constructed of the snakehead fish. The story goes that from these demonstrations of piety, combined with monks reciting and making a collective “vow of truth,” the rains came back and the land once again became fertile. And in this case, when it rains, it pours…local Burmese believe that the rain kept on until the point of flooding, causing the villagers to lug the statues further up the hill so they wouldn’t be inundated. Once the statues reached the top of the hill, the torrential downpour finally ceased. In the years that followed, other snakehead fish statues would similarly be created in times of need, to be stored in the royal palace and brought out during droughts. Due to these seemingly miraculous events, many Burmese believe this is a region favored by the celestial beings, and there has been magical practices happening within the caves of these hills for some time.

Today, snakehead fish statues are found along the path leading up the hill, as are nga yant dwin (ငါးရံ့တြင္), “snakehead fish wells.” Annual festivals are held in June, in hopes of bringing about a good rainy season. These are regularly attended by farmers whose livelihoods are directly impacted by the weather, and the statues also get paraded through the streets of Mandalay.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Sayagyi Shwe U Daung

Much of the diversity and depth of Dhamma practice found in Burma has scarcely penetrated the West, often because so few foreigners have been here to experience it in past years, and so few of the resources have been translated into English. 

One such example is the postwar figure Sayagyi Shwe U Daung, a lay meditation practitioner who argued for a sati-based method that de-emphasized samadhi practice and encourages an awareness of the six sense doors. The controversial yogi had several famous arguments with Mahasi Sayadaw, who ultimately could not support his methodology, however the other Buddhist giant Mogok Sayadaw did ultimately give his blessing to his teachings.

Still widely read among Burmese Buddhist today, one reader hopes to provide a translation to Western readers, saying that reading his Dhamma discussion "will blow open your entire mind," and has compared his teachings to Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw and his disciple Sayadaw U Tejaniya. However, she notes that the method he describes is so challenging, that very few practitioners in Myanmar were ultimately able to succeed in learning it, despite the popularity of his book.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Discipline at Burmese Monasteries

There are at least two ways that a visitor may be able to glean some insight into how serious and disciplined a monastic school is only moments after entering. 

The first is, are there leaves or dirt on the walkways? At monasteries with good discipline, the morning usually begins with sweeping of the grounds. 

The second question is, what care do monks and nuns take with their shoes when entering buildings? This immediately indicates what they are taught and encouraged by their teachers. 

The following three photos illustrate this. The first is of the monastic school Sasana Won Saung in Hmawbi, the second of Setkya Ditthi Nunnery in the Sagaing Hills. The third is from outside of Mandalay but for our purposes shall be nameless, and shows a mixed (monk/nun lay/monastic) school in which that discipline is clearly not followed.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Chaung Oo Samosa Salad

Chaung Oo samosa salad became famous after a local restaurant named Mya Thida won a national award at a tournament. At first look, their samosa is not too different than the standard Myanmar variety, with such fillings as potato, onion and tomato, all then mixed with bean powder. It is from here the Chaung Oo fare departs from the norm, as the cook, Aung Shwe, assiduously prepares all of the ingredients separately, rather than doing so together as is common practice. This heightens the taste once the foods are combined at the end. Additionally, while the standard samosa can be fairly dry, Mya Thida mixes either a chicken or vegetable sauce within, making it further succulent. Their tournament success enticed other cooks to copy that formula, thus standardizing a regional style here. So appreciated are these samosas that many Burmese who travel through Monywa make a special, cuisine-inspired side trip to Chaung Oo to sample them.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Ledi Sayadaw's Legacy

Ledi Sayadaw was a dynamic figure whose great accomplishments continue to be felt today, even a century after his death, in both the mundane as well as spiritual spheres. As with other great innovators and transformational figures throughout history, the complete extent of his influence (on Burmese society, culture and the spread of Dhamma) is hard to measure. 

However, one can say that many of the subsequent monastic biographies, meditation practices, and contemporary characteristics of Burmese Buddhism were built—either directly or indirectly— upon Ledi’s sturdy foundation.

The photo below shows the Third Ledi Sayadaw at Maha Ledi in Pyinmina, the site where Ledi passed away. The current monk is showing kamawasa written by Ledi and still stored at the monastery today. 

Monday, 24 April 2017

A Book on the Jhanas, by Sayagyi U Ba Khin

Many great Dhamma books have never been translated into English. One of these is Pariyatti a-chay-kham nhin pattipatti a-phyay mhan, which translates as "The foundation of Pariyatti and the correct answer of meditation." The small book was written in 1951 by Sayagyi U Ba Khin with the help of his disciples, and republished in 1965, and then again in 2014 with the biography of the great meditation master by his son U Thein Zan. 

The book deals with all 40 meditation methods of the Visuddhimagga, and discusses the difference between the Jhana consciousness and the supramundane Magga and Phala consciousness, with description of the sequence of consciousness from the Abhidhamma. As one meditator commented, "It is concise, but based on practical experiments of higher aspects of meditation."

Although two drafts of the English translation were made, neither has yet been made public.