Thursday, 27 November 2014

Rice and Dhamma

One of the most important and sacred events in the Buddhist faith happens in every village and city throughout the country on every single day, when even the poorest of the poor find time and resources to be able to give just a single spoonful of rice to monks on their morning almsrounds. This ritual, taking place since the Buddha’s time, links the small rice grain to the great religion in the minds of many. 

And there are several proverbs linking one’s home store of rice with his or her ambitions for the world. One goes maouq lun they hsan, peiq they. This means that “the overfilled rice tends to spill,” figuratively suggesting that an overproud person brings himself down. Another states San me shi, a sa gyi, meaning “no rice at a home, but a big eater,” and is said for people who squander their possessions. Finally, there is the good practical advice of Thu oh hnin thu san tan yone. This means that “The pot and amount of rice should be of equal size,” or simply “live within your means.”

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"The Making of the Mass Meditation Movement"

The podcasts Buddhist Geeks interviewed Professor Erik Braun on his new book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw.

In the first episode, the site describes: "Erik joins host Vincent Horn to discuss his book and the legacy of Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw. By connecting the dots between changes in Burmese Buddhism with the political disruption caused by the British takeover of Burma in the late 19th Century, Erik describes Ledi’s role in bringing insight meditation practice to the modern world."

In the second part, "Erik and host Vincent Horn continue a discussion on Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw and his role in bringing insight meditation to the world. The conversation digs deeper into the connections between Burmese political disruption and changes to Buddhist practice in Burma, how meditation became more accepted in Burmese Buddhism, and how this all led to the export of insight meditation to the rest of the world."

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Editing "Shwe Lan"

Many readers may be aware that much of the content featured on this blog are excerpts from an upcoming book, Shwe Lan Ga Lay, or "The Golden Path." What is this book, one may ask.... the answer:

The Shwe Lan Ga Lay (The Golden Path) project – a Burma guidebook for Dhamma pilgrims – was launched in April 2013. The intention behind this book is to make the Golden Land more accessible to seekers & meditators who have the noble intention to develop in Dhamma. In the past year-and-a-half a team of volunteers has visited hundreds of monasteries and pagodas throughout Burma and interviewed dozens of monks and scholars. They have gleaned information that was previously not available in English, and some of which has never been written down in any language. More can be read here.

The project is run by volunteers from around the world who are offering their skills freely from within their own areas of professional expertise. Shwe Lan Ga Lay has a number of different components, from photography to art, translation to research, and layout to web design. In this blog post, we peel back the curtain on just one of these fields: text creation and editing.

For example, the following single page is the result of months and months of hard work. Even this single page was only able to be written after sufficient research was been completed and dozens of various monks, nuns, meditation teachers, and scholars were been interviewed. In rough draft form, it looks like this:

Because the content of this section is so important-- discussing the role of women in Buddhism-- we want to make certain that every word on the page is subject to exceptional scrutiny. To bring in another layer of critial feedback, a European monk in Burma has volunteered to read this draft. In addition to speaking Burmese and Sinhalese fluently, he has also graduated top in his class from some of the world's top Buddhist universities. However, these days he is spending almost every available moment memorizing the Vinaya Pitaka, and so has decided not to be online. For this reason, we are only able to avail ourselves of his help through the following way:

First, we must send the above document (along with other documents, ultimately totaling many hundreds of pages) to a Shwe Lan volunteer in Japan. He then formats the document so that it may be printed. On this excerpt, that means making sure that the comment box may appear "in line". After doing so, for the second step, he then emails the now-printer-friendly document to Yangon, where an attendant of the monk uses dana to print the entire document at a local cybercafe (third step). The fourth step involves the lay supporter taking a taxi to the monastery, thus depositing the printed document for his inspection. The European monk reads the entire document, making comments as you see below:

The numbers correspond to longer comments that he wishes to make, which he records in a separate journal (fifth step). As he has an extensive Buddhist library, he regularly spends weeks checking and referencing his sources where additions and changes are needed to the text. Many of his comments are from Sinhalese, Burmese, and Pali sources, and some are from oral interviews he conducts with senior Burmese monks. When making his extended comments, here is an excerpt referencing the above page:

For the sixth and final step in this process alone, he photographs all of his notes with his camera-phone, and these reach the writer where his changes can be considered.

From this point, the next journey the text will undertake is to reach a professional editor for comprehensive review. There are two such editors currently volunteering for Shwe Lan Ga Lay, one in Massachusetts and the other in Australia. They look at flow, organization, grammar, readability, style, and many other issues associated with the text. They then send their comments back to the main writer who further incorporates their changes. The above page on "Women in Burmese Buddhism" has not yet been passed to the editors, so their comments are not yet available. However, here is an example of how one editor has marked up a page discussing arrival in Myanmar, and particularly Internet:

Note that this is only the very first draft, and the writer and editor may correspond for many months and dozens of more drafts, further refining the document so that when it is ultimately given to the foreign meditator, they have a practical and useful guide for how to better develop in Dhamma while in the Golden Land.

In truth, there are many more people and steps involved in this process of text creation alone, but hopefully this provides a basic idea of how we are spending our days in making Shwe Lan Ga Lay. This also does not mention the many dozens of other volunteers making original artwork, laying out the design, organizing photographs, and many more tasks. (As an example, you may have noticed that in Point #3 the European monk suggested that we ask an artist to draw a nun's alms bowl, so that request will be forwarded to the relevant volunteers)

For those who would like to join our effort, please see here for more details. You may also write us at burmadhamma(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thoughts on Gratitude in Burma

"I was living in Myanmar for several years, and had in this time developed a number of good friends. One Burmese woman in particular went out of her way—far above and beyond the call of duty—on several occasions to help me in quite profound ways. I wanted to recognize how grateful I was for her friendship and assistance, and how much I valued her kindness. But whenever I tried to thank her, she would be quite upset and insist that in true friendship one does not help another for any ‘thanks’, and I need not say this. I tried to follow her wishes, but it was quite difficult for me to be the recipient of such good will and sit back quietly without expressing the warmth and appreciation—it actually started making me feel like a miser. When I realized this, we had a talk on culture. I said that expressing gratitude was not just for her, but for me too, and something that she didn’t have the right to take away from me. I said that it was a natural human response to share this notion, rather than the kind of automatic ‘thank yous’ said when getting out of a taxi, and it didn’t feel right for me to leave this unsaid. Eventually we came to a kind of negotiation on this—I wasn’t effusive and overbearing, and she recognized that this was something I needed to say for myself and allowed space for me to say it." -- American meditator

"I had a lot of misunderstandings with Burmese people because of cultural differences. One example is how affection is expressed. In Mexico it is seen as wholesome to show our affection to people that we love by hugging and kissing. But in Burmese culture this is very strange behaviour. In Kalaw there was a Burmese language teacher who came to the monastery to support the yogis with food. Every time I was sick she would come and see me, and so I felt a lot of appreciation towards her. My way to express gratitude was to hug and kiss her. However, later on I was told that she felt very strange when I did that, and she did not know what was happening because she had never hugged anyone before. So it was a new experience for her and for me as well. Something that is so common for me, for her is an uncomfortable moment." -- Mexican meditator

"I remember after I came to Burma and saw the first alms-round, it was so beautiful I got tears in my eyes. In India there was no alms-round. In Burma I saw the people (mostly women) waking up so early before 6 am to cook the food for the monks. All the families come outside, children sitting on their knees, palms folded and there is this silence in this ritual of giving which I found magic. It felt like a feeling of goodness, caring, harmony, oneness and community. It melted my heart. The giving culture in Burma, especially if you are a monk was overwhelming. I can’t imagine this happening in any other country of the world. Sometimes when I walked on the street people even ran after me to offer drinks or cookies. The giving was everywhere, it grows into everything. People are just very happy to take care of you without expecting anything in return. In Burma after I received help, the person helping me suddenly disappeared. Not even wanting any contact details, nothing in return at all. The effect that it had on me was that it gave me the urge to do the same. Do something back. I didn’t have much money but I started with buying small things here and there and cleaning something for somebody. I realized it felt so good! It was actually the helping itself which was the reward. I think we in the West, often on a deeper level, feel somewhat bad about ourselves. And the ability to mean something for someone, the power to make someone’s heart open and happy is a profound and joyful experience for all. It might even help healing these deeper 'Western' wounds. At least it makes one less self-centered and you orient yourself more in what is needed around. This becomes a habit from which I think only good results can come, for oneself and the community at large. What an amazing culture! It made me reorient how I looked at the phenomena of sharing and helping each other. We have this ‘something in return’ culture. I did give and share in the West also, from time to time at least, but it was less of a priority or a habit in my life and there was less insight into the value and the joy of giving. I think by just being in this culture it made me a better person." -- Dutch monk

Monday, 24 November 2014

Exclusive Pilgrimage Opportunity to Myanmar in Early 2015 for Vipassana Meditators in the tradition of S.N. Goenka

Pilgrims at Bogyoke Market

Pilgrims meditate before Nga That Gyi Pagoda in Yangon as monks chat suttas

Compassionate Travels Myanmar has asked us to share the following message:

"Dear Vipassana Meditation Friends,

Compassionate Travels Myanmar (CTM) is pleased to announce an opportunity to participate in a 14-day pilgrimage throughout Myanmar to sites related to Vipassana Meditation in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. The pilgrimage will commence on January 23, 2015 and end on Febraury 5, 2015. Extended travel options are available after the 14 days tour.

The pilgrimage includes stops at the International Meditation Center (IMC) in Yangon, a visit to Saya Thet Gyi's farming village and meditation center, travel to Monywa where Ledi Sayadaw learned and taught meditation, and more. The full itinerary and costs associated with the excursion can be viewed in the downloadable PDF file located here.

Options for additional travel after the pilgrimage include places connected with Venerable Webu Sayadaw - the celebrated monk who inspired Sayagyi U Ba Khin to teach Vipassana Meditation - or other unique Myanmar sites such as Bagan, Mt. Popa, Inle Lake, Golden Rock, Sagaing Hills, and Shan State. Exact prices for those options are discussed on a per case basis.

The founders of CTM have independently been taking pilgrims to these sites and researching them for many years, and CTM as a company itself was founded in 2013. This is our second year of offering group pilgrimages and as Myanmar opens its doors to the world, it is much easier for meditators to experience the heart of this practice in ways that have never been possible before. We can also offer customized meditative travel and stays for any type of group at any time.

If you have more questions about this pilgrimage or other touring options, please contact us at

Pilgrims eating lunch

Follow us on Facebook, read streaming Burma Dhamma blogposts, and visit our website for more information.

Compassionate Travels Myanmar
Myanmar Phone: +95 9-3102-1496
United States Phone: +1 425 296 3593
Skype ID: CompassionateTravelsMyanmar

Pilgrims talking at Ma Khaing's restaurant in Mandalay

Pilgrims meditate in a shrine area at a restaurant before eating lunch in Upper Burma

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Life and Attainment of Ajaan Paññavaddho

The great British monk Ajaan Paññavaddho was ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition, and was blessed with the revered teacher Ajahn Maha Boowa. Ajahn Panna was one of the first known Westerners to ordain, and was widely believed in his lifetime to be an arahant. Although his life intersects little with Burma, his inspiring, five-part biography is being shared here. May this offer inspiration to meditators and monastics everywhere.

"Was the Buddha a Fatalist?" An Response To Thomas Fuller's New York Times Article

This morning, for its Sunday edition, Thomas Fuller wrote a cover page article on a famous Yangon traffic cop. While the article is interesting in how it describes the changing traffic situation in Yangon and one honest traffic cop's attempt to help new drivers, there is one quotation that many familiar with the Buddha's teachings might find highly offensive:

"The third of five children from a rice-farming family in a remote village three miles from the Bay of Bengal, [Khin Myint Maung] shows no resentment toward the wealth that flashes past, only Buddhist fatalism.

'Everyone has their own destiny,' he said during a break from directing traffic at the corner of Dhammazedi and Link Roads, his usual spot not far from Shwedagon Pagoda. 'The rich are rich because they did many good things in their past life. Everyone has their own place.'"


The following response was prepared and sent to Mr. Fuller, and is shared here again for the benefit of others interesting in Burmese Buddhist practice:

"I would not be surprised to see such a use of the term 'Buddhist fatalism' if the article was dated 1914 rather than 2014, when Western writers wrote largely misguided descriptions of the faith, scarcely understanding any of the basic tenants of the Buddha's teachings. So much unneeded confusion has come from these Western writers claiming that Buddhism was fatalistic, and long responses have been written in response over the years demonstrating that nothing of the sort can be found within the pantheon of Buddhist scriptures. It is with great surprise that I find such a term in use on the front page of the New York Times today.

The fact that Khin Myint Maung believes that those who have gained riches is due to past acts of merit in no way correlates to your claim that it is an example of 'Buddhist fatalism.' To me, this is a sign that you have not understood the basic elements of the Buddha's teaching or the Burmese Buddhism that your subjects devoutly follow. In addition I have to tell you honestly that I find this extremely patronizing to write in an objective news article. That you find his quote was a sign of 'Buddhist fatalism' is in no way any objective fact, but rather an sign of your own limited opinion and perspective, and is not supported by any serious study of either the basic tenants of the faith or how it is seen in daily practice.

Using this term, 'Buddhist fatalism,' implies that Khin Myint Maung is a simplistic chap who allows inequality to flourish around him without developing more of the righteous injustice that you may think better suit his situation. 'Fatalistic' implies that the subject is doing nothing of any kind to improve his situation, that he believes his lot in life has been entirely pre-ordained, and that his future will be determined by forces greater than himself. Such an attitude completely contradicts every fabric of the Buddha's teachings, who clearly taught how to actively and intentionally follow a path of morality, generosity, and the development of mental factors leading to enlightenment. There is not a trace of fatalistic thinking, and quite the opposite is promoted, in that the actions one takes now directly affect one's future happiness or suffering. Most definitions of 'fatalism' completely contradict such a premise! 

Khin Myint Maung's quote is in acknowledgement of this truth, as far as I can see. His quote may be an example of 'Buddhist acceptance,' but in no way does it suggest 'Buddhist fatalism.' Although you may have been disappointed he was not more angry at the wealth of the cars going past him in comparison to his own relatively poor salary, this is in no way an example of fatalist thinking on his part, and it is incorrect to suggest that the Buddha's teaching themselves contain any fatalism therein, or that Burmese Buddhists follow such kinds of thinking either."