Sunday, 25 September 2016

Burma Pilgrimage in Winter




Ultimate Reality Tours and Grahame White are offering a pilgrimage to Myanmar in February 2017. This 17-day trip will visit a number of key sites connected to the great monks and meditation teachers of the Golden Land. More information about this pilgrimage can be found here

In their own words, "Our 2017 pilgrimage will take us back to the golden land of Myanmar (Burma). On this pilgrimage we will be exploring a number of the most important sites connected with the development of meditation in Burma. We will be going to monasteries, meeting teachers and immersing ourselves in the culture of the Burmese people."

The dates will be from February 8-24, and pilgrims will visit a large number of important Dhamma sites and meet with Sayadaws and other monastics in Lower Burma, Upper Burma, and Shan State.

For more information, see the flyer here or register by sending an email to gralyn@ozemail.com.au.




Thursday, 11 August 2016

Ledi Sayadaw at Shwezigon Pagoda in Monywa



According to pagoda trustees, Shwezigon’s origination story goes back to the fourth century B.C., when King Widadapua attacked the Sakyan tribes (Siddhartha Gautama’s clan). Some Sakyans were said to flee all the 
way to Hpo Win Daung, on the west bank of the Chindwin River. From there, a great beam of light was seen arising from the east, which was taken as a good omen. 

Even given this august past, it is the events of about 150 years ago that give Shwezigon its current renown. It was on these grounds where the future Ledi Sayadaw first stayed after his Mandalay library burned in 1883, when he withdrew back to the solitude of rural Monywa. Here at this pagoda he continued his scholarly work and writing, residing at the invitation of Sayadaw U Nyanawuntha. About a dozen monks followed him, joining the other dozen or so monks who were already studying here. U Nyanadhaja, as he was known before heading out into Ledi Forest, resumed his teaching duties. According to U Candida, it was also here that U Nyanadhaja came to believe he could fulfill his two “latent wishes”; “to respect and pray to the Buddha regularly [and]] to fulfill Sangha needs.”

Ledi’s days here quickly fell into a routine. Sitagu Sayadaw describes what a day in the life may have looked like. “Sayadaw swept the shrine halls, terraces, open spaces, and stairways of Su Taung Paya and Shwezigone Pagodas. He swept the whole campus of the monastery, cleaned all the toilets (usually at night), filled all the water pots with fresh water, [and] attended and nursed sick monks.” In those days, sticks were used to clean oneself after a bowel movement, and U Nyanadhaja would take care even to clean these sticks after use. In addition, as the monastery complex had hollows up to ten feet deep, U Nyanadhaja personally carried earth from other areas to make the ground more level. Finally, he helped the Sayadaw complete the construction of a new Dhamma Hall.

His pupils became discomfited by the many menial tasks that their great teacher undertook, most on their behalf, and some felt unworthy to even drink the water he poured for them (yet another task U Nyanadhaja undertook, sometimes at three a.m., so as not to wake anyone). But he eased their concerns, declaring that in his past incarnations, his wives and children had benefited from the use of his body and limbs, and now finally as a monk he had the opportunity to fully serve the Buddha’s teachings. He added that one’s body is like a hired cart, and that one can make use of it while we are in possession of its functions, but eventually it, too, will be taken away.

An important event occurred while staying here that would affect U Nyanadhaja’s future plan, and which would have major implications in the worldwide spread of the Dhamma. One day, while engaged in his cleaning duties, he met the renowned Sayadaw U Thila, a forest monk whom many at the time believed to be fully enlightened. U Thila’s commitment and spiritual attainments, both of which were borne from his solitary practice, inspired U Nyanadhaja’s eventual decision to venture forth into Ledi Forest in the coming years.

In terms of the pagoda’s physical layout, the entryway is approached off of one of Monywa’s busiest streets. The pilgrim leaves the hectic worldly activity in turn for a quiet, colonnaded concrete hall, whose most prominent feature is the central stupa. Fashioned in the “diamond bud” style in pure gold, the top reaches upwards of 135 feet, a pair of ogres perching near the top. No less than 35 smaller stupas are scattered across the expansive compound, including many Buddha images, some of which go back to the 18th century. Several statues depict Ledi Sayadaw, honoring the historic role that the pagoda played in his development. The earliest Buddha image is listed from 785, and the donor list includes many of the great Bamar kings.

Also on the grounds is a Bodhi tree, a large Dhamma Hall, and an artificial cave structure, inside which are various statues of well-known nats and hermits. Perhaps most suitable for meditation is the smaller room to the right of the shrine area, featuring two pristine Buddha images… and also where there are explicit signs requesting visitors not to make any noise that may disturb a yogi’s meditation. And unusual to the Burmese pagoda landscape are a diverse host of tropical trees and professionally manicured bushes and hedges. A dusty monastery is connected via a blue gate, although it is uncertain if these are the original monastic grounds dating back to Ledi’s time. Today its courtyard doubles as the Royal Shwe Myint Badminton Club.



Monday, 8 August 2016

Why did Saya Thet Gyi Give White Scarves to Meditators?



Marie Byles, Australian author of Journey Into Burmese Silence, visited Maha Bodhi Meditation Center in 1957, and was taught for several months by Saya U Thein, one of the main disciples of Saya Thet Gyi. 

Byles recalls that on at “1 p.m. on Christmas Eve… U Thein placed a white scarf over my shoulders, saying that I was now a Yogi and should always wear the scarf when meditating.” Byles’ description almost seems to imply that the white scarf encouraged a formal spiritual transformation, not dissimilar to a monk’s ordination. 

Interestingly, Saya U Than wrote about how Ledi Sayadaw had instructed Saya Thet Gyi to wear a white scarf once he became a meditation teacher. Then, later on, many yogis at the International Meditation Center took up the practice of wearing a white shawl when studying under Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Although it is not clear where the garment originates from or its underlying meaning, it may relate to the brown shawl, or yawbut tin thi, that Burmese pilgrims and meditators wear today and that indicates their spiritual intent. However, U Sarana is doubtful about this, for he notes that “the brown scarf for ladies was an attempt to ‘label’ them with a ‘recluse mark,’ thus to differentiate them from the monastery workers and non-yogis.”

Buddhist history may also shed some light on this wearing of white. Dating back at least to the 3rd century B.C.E., the Sri Lankan laity would dress entirely in white to indicate their adherence to following eight or ten precepts. Some monastic traditions request that samaneras dress entirely in white before their ordination, and still in Sri Lanka today, lay yogis routinely dress entirely in white when visiting monasteries for uposatha, during meditation retreats, or on pilgrimages. It is uncertain if Ledi’s preference of a white scarf was contextual to his time, historical, or a unique innovation that he encouraged himself.

Note that the photograph above depicts a statue of Saya Thet Gyi at his meditation center in Pyaw Bwe Gyi, and the painting below shows him wearing the white scarf in a painting at the same site.  In the latter painting he is shown holding beads, suggesting that he may have used this in his meditation practice, as his teacher Ledi Sayadaw was also photographed with beads. 

 



Sunday, 31 July 2016

What Caused the Post-World War II Patipatti Explosion in Burma?

Following is an excerpt from an unpublished draft of Shwe Lan Ga Lay, the meditator's guide to Burma/Myanmar:


It was the postwar period where lay meditation practice really began to take off, a phenomenon that jumpstarted in Burma before spreading and becoming established in neighboring Buddhist countries. 
And in Burma, nowhere was this happening more than at Rangoon’s Sasana Yeiktha Center, where U Nu and other prominent lay leaders brought in Mahasi Sayadaw to establish the new grounds.
Ingrid Jordt, a scholar who spent many years as a nun at Mahasi, captures the excitement and enthusiasm that characterized the early days of this site. She notes that “the laity flocked to the center to practice for enlightenment. The thrill of participating in the mass lay project of enlightenment had never before been so conceived in institutional terms. The center grew around Mahasi in the way that the texts describe laity coming around the Buddha. People vied with one another to have their offerings accepted by him, and new forms of participation emerged: schoolchildren on vacation, night yogis who returned to their offices during the day, retirees, and nuns all immersed themselves in a rigorous schedule of sitting and walking meditation, punctuated by monkly meal offerings at which the laity thronged around the eating tables to observe the project of sasana revitalization happening before their very eyes.”  
And Masoeyin Sayadaw U Theiktha expresses just how it felt at that moment in time to have a genuine practice that one could undertake to follow diligently, after so many years of war and colonization: “It had been a long time that we had become almost unbearable or choking, as it were, for not knowing the real concept or meaning of it. Our happiness knew no bounds when we came to discover the right method relating to the latent ambiguity in the higher aspects of Maha Satipatthana meditation practice.”

And although the non-monastic International Meditation Center led by Sayagyi U Ba Khin may have not seen the same high numbers (and was not state-supported to the same extent), its role and influence were profound. Many of the elites of society attended courses and became deeply affected by their experience, which sometimes manifested even in their work in matters of state. And it was not only the heads of Burma who were attending, but also top politicians other countries, scientists, Supreme Court judges, university professors, and actors. 
As the monastic teacher Maha Gandayon Sayadaw U Janaka put it, “If I were asked what you pray for, my answer is simple. One has to work for himself to get what he wants.” This ethos took over the Burmese people in these years, and can be seen manifested in Sayagyi U Goenka's mission in the following decade (he himself benefited from his patipatti boom as a student during this time). 
Why was it at this very time that the patipatti movement began to flow now as a raging river? There are many theories attempting to answer this, and it may have been the case of several important factors occurring at once, making the conditions ripe for such an undertaking. In the following section, we present no less than twenty possible arguments that have been put forth on this topic.

The Reclining Buddha at U Khanti Monastery.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Release of "The Golden Path Part 2"






Shwe Lan Ga Lay, or "The Golden Path," the meditator's guide to Burma/Myanmar, launched in April 2013. "Part 1: Planning & Logistics" was released in May 2015, and the five chapters comprising Part 2 are nearly complete. In addition to the Introduction, other chapters due to be released are the regional guides to the following places: Around Yangon, Mandalay, Around Mandalay, and Shan State. This will include detailed information about sites where Ledi Sayadaw, Webu Sayadaw, and Saya Thet Gyi lived and practiced (along with countless other monasteries and pagodas), allowing meditators to more easily access these important sites and to appreciate their significance and history while doing so.

After having worked on these pages for so many years now, we are very happy that they are so close to being shared with the meditator community! However, we have one final, critical need before their release... that is of someone with a copy-editing background who can make a final review of these drafts. If you have such experience and are willing to join our project, please let us know, and help us to hasten the release of Part 2!

While not as critical, there are other volunteer roles we're happy to have help with as well. First on the list would be someone with map-making ability, including artists able to copy from maps, so that meditators can more easily find the sites we describe. Also high on our list is anyone with design/layout experience, and has an aesthetic background, to help in preparing our text for the designer.

As usual, we also welcome any artists who would like to draw/sketch, and photographers or anyone who is willing to donate photos from their time in the Golden Land. If you've been to Burma/Myanmar and have a story to tell, please do share with us, or if you are planning to go and have some time, let us know as there is always on-the-ground assistance and needs. Next, someone with writing or editing experience, who can act as in a dual style editor/author capacity. The person in this role helps shape new raw material gathered from different sources into a coherent mix with existing Shwe Lan text, and oversees the overall flow of the book. Volunteer translators have been working at the text of Part 1, and contact us if you wish to help in the translation. And if you have any other skill, or just time on your hands, let us know as well!

Finally, keep in mind that the project is entirely funded by dana, with almost everyone involved a volunteer, and the completed PDFs are freely available to one and all. We are always in need of financial dana to cover our basic costs, as well as to help print and distribute completed copies of the book. You can keep the project afloat by donating here.

To get in touch, please email us at burmadhamma (att) gmail. You can also follow our project on Facebook at www.facebook.com/burmagoldenpath.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Mogok Vipassana... in English!



Bhikkhu Obhasa shares his experience practicing Mogok Vipassana for the first time. The above photo shows the American monk's secluded dwelling for the Rains in 2016 in Kalaw, Shan State. For more information Mogok in English, see here.

"Last year I had the chance to attend an eight-day Mogok Vipassana course on the outskirts of Yangon. It has always been sort of an enigma as it's by far the largest and most widespread Vipassana technique in Myanmar with its famous Paticca Samuppada wheel seen everywhere, yet it has remained almost entirely off the radar to foreign meditators.

After understanding the general Myanmar teaching/learning style, it is clear why the technique has such appeal to the laity as it's laid out in a simple system that easily lends itelf to being delivered and learned in a way locals are familiar with.

That being said, although such a delivery would appeal far less to Westerners, both the practice and theory I think have incredible potential. My background in Vipassana has been mostly in the U Ba Khin tradition as taught by Goenka and the Shwe Oo Min tradition under Sayadaw U Tejaniya. I'd actually place these two traditions at opposite ends of a spectrum, the Goenka technique being prescriptive and focused, the other being more open and natural. In the Goenka method, the object, body sensations, is chosen for you whereas the U Tejaniya method, the object is whichever objects of the 6 senses naturally arises in the mind with more attention given to the mind. In the Goenka method, a clear cut technique is specifically laid out and its connection to theory is systematically explained whereas U Tejaniya lays out some basics and then explains more theory as it naturally arises in Q&A's from yogis individual practice. 

The reason I present these two as a spectrum is because some people may be familiar with one or both and it so happens that the Mogok method fits right in between the two. On the one hand, it shares the more choiceless open awareness via any and all of the 6 sense doors as U Tejaniya teaches. On the other hand, the technique is more systematically laid out like Goenka's and the practice is clearly and extensively connected to theory via the famous Mogok Wheel. All three I think have their appeal to different people at different times. I think the Mogok technique then, fills a gap in this spectrum nicely. It seems it would appeal to those that do well with more open awareness yet also enjoy a more explicit structure and clearly explained grounding in theory.

The issue currently is the Mogok method and facilities have yet to be properly adopted for a foreign an especially Western audience. Even though there are at least two teachers that speak English, the current Myanmar presentation style of the technique seems to me to be quite inadequate for foreigners. Also, the available texts in English are straight translations from Myanmar books which again are in a style unsuitable for foreigners and are full of culture specific examples from Myanmar. If these issues get worked out though, I think the Mogok method could fill in a gap and rise to some prominence in the Vipassana spectrum for Westerners."

An American Monk in Burma: "I Once Ate Organic, was a Vegetarian, followed Ayurvedic Principles...now, 'What Comes Into the Bowl!"


Bhikkhu Obhasa is an American monk living in Myanmar. The above photo shows the view from his secluded kuti from Kalaw, his meditation "cushion" being a straw hand-made Shan seat. He shares his thoughts with his new dietary restrictions:

"One of the biggest sacrifices of ordaining was putting my dietary health options into the hands of a culture with very little understanding of healthy nutrition. I ate organic, was a vegetarian, followed Ayurvedic principles for my body constitutional type, etc. I let go of that to live in a country that does copious pesticide and herbicide spraying, loves dishes swimming in low quality oils, loves sweets and pre-packaged food with artificial ingredients, etc. They don't seem to take care of their own nutritional health nor do they seem to have much nutritional education. There seemed no way they'd be able to take care of mine.

Still being a relatively new monk having just entered my second rains retreat, it has slowly dawned on me just how much stress I had put the mind/body under in this decision to move across the world to a new culture and life as a monk. In that stress, I noticed the mind seeking comfort by trying to control food, which inadvertently often caused more stress. In the mental health field of studies in America the powers-that-be have decreed obsession over such dietary concerns an actual mental disorder. My own observations of mind was seeing the same thing. Agitation and worry over diet and strict adherences to my dietary beliefs and choices only lead to more agitation. Who knows? I wouldn't doubt if that mental stess is actually as bad as or worse for my physical health than the food I'm fussing over. One thing I've done is re-examine some of my food beliefs and found some of them to actually not be true. Another is to loosen up on being a vegetarian, occasionally eating meat. In doing so, I have seen that there was attachment and defilement in both habits. Since then I have let go of some of the control I thought I needed to exert and life has become easier and I grow closer to exemplifying 'paccuppannena yapenti', being content with what is. In this case, what comes into the bowl.

Once the mind lightened up a bit, I actually noticed some of the positives of alms food in Myanmar. In most places devotees still offer fresh home cooked food with a fair variety of rice, veggies, meat dishes, salads, and other proteins. Within what's offered is usually a fairly balanced meal of fresh good. I dare say that what's offered overall is at least as, if not more, healthy than how most people eat back home. It's also pretty easy to be vegetarian here as protein via beans, peanuts, and tofu is commonly offered, and even more is regularly available if one eats eggs. Myanmar grows ample fresh fruit although they seldom offer it as they don't seem to eat too much themselves. It does though from time to time make it into the alms bowl. I occassionally praise the healthiness of certain offerings when appropriate, and often several families catch on to this appreciation and offer fruits, fresh cooked veggies, salads, and other healthier dishes.

Another positive aspect of Myanmar alms food is the sheer abundance given in many places and people seem to be extra generous towards foreign monks. This means I can be selective with my diet, choosing a good balance and allowing me to avoid the unhealthier options. In a pinch, I can always just eat more rice like the locals do which is always plentiful. And I can certainly forego the prepackaged snacks, deep fried treats, and the abundant artificial drinks and sweets. That's just lobha.

Overall, so far I feel pretty healthy. As my attitude has lightened up, the mind has loosened up and let go of some attachments. The wisdom that has arisen seems to find a way to maintain dietary health within what is given. So not only does the food situation seem healthier than it did upon first impression, the mind has become healthier too."