Monday, 6 June 2016

Ingyinbin Journal: Pottery Making and Vipassana Practice

John, a meditator from New Zealand, spends extended periods in Ingyinbin each year, the home of the revered Webu Sayadaw and with his friend Ashin Mandala. This winter, he has decided to keep a journal, which he has kindly offered to share with us. His journal alternates between observation and poetry, between meditation practice and commentary about Burmese Buddhist society, from his learnings and his questions. The full collection of his musings can be found here.

1 February 

Day trip to the pot-making factory Kyaukmyaung, near the Irrawaddy, west of Shwebo
Kyaukmyaung pottery: orange mounds of stone
crushed to fine dust, doused
& struck on the wheel: Vipassana.
Soon on to the Hanlin Museum commemorating the Pyu people’s civilisation, but before that the group is shown various artefacts and scrolls assembled in the upper monastery room occupied by the visiting Russian academic, researching nineteenth century Buddhist Sangha texts - co-incidentally the same person we met a couple of visits back in an ancient cave in the Sagayan hills where he was painstakingly taking photographs of images in the cave and appeared equally distracted. But Kyaukmyaung: a tiny aperture low at the rear of one of the five or six large brick kilns (each some 20 meters in length) allows us to view the fire capering over the pots, a wafting and deadly light. A worker feeds different grades of pre-cut firewood into another of the several kilns: one day to build the fire, having it burn for three, letting it cool a further three. The young woman who carries a few bricks at a time from a large pile of bricks wears cloth mittens, her clothes thick with dust. Children in the adjacent field containing piles of uncut logs carry and drop bits and pieces. In a bamboo chair, a worker, enjoying Uposata, watches a Burmese soap on the old tube television housed in a dusty box of wood. Women in yet another shed produce more than 50 small elegant clay pots each day: one shapes, taking only a few minutes per individual pot, while her companion spins the wheel in a regular motion by swinging her own leg to and fro with a push with each swing, reminding me of the boatmen on Inle Lake. The larger pots made elsewhere are transported using a 6 inch diameter length of bamboo pole, the pot suspended between two Burmen doing the carrying. Jamie can’t resist, and as carrier he does a fair job, just as he did swinging his leg and spinning the pottery wheel."

Friday, 3 June 2016

Ingyinbin Journal: "Vipassana Begins"

John, a meditator from New Zealand, spends extended periods in Ingyinbin each year, the home of the revered Webu Sayadaw and with his friend Ashin Mandala. This winter, he has decided to keep a journal, which he has kindly offered to share with us. His journal alternates between observation and poetry, between meditation practice and commentary about Burmese Buddhist society, from his learnings and his questions. The full collection of his musings can be found here.

27 January 

"Leaving the breakfast hall, in the overcast sky I see a spread V shape of birds, up to 80 ibises in dark shadow, moving to the east, above the pond and tamarind. Sharp at the leading edge, and splaying outward from there, a few individuals cross from one side of the V to the other, edging in there. As the group moves, the lines of the shape undulate, as if it better belonged to the sea. Extraordinary.

One evening, returning from our daily walk to the canal and back, we see in succession three or four such formations, each one containing up to sixty birds, dark in outline, outliers to the main group forming of between two to five birds, soon re-assimilated as the direction pointed is headed in. Children near us, stopping at their top-spinning game gaze upward, reciting something that expresses their own amazement. Similar sights pull our eyes and thoughts upward in the coming days and weeks.

I walk by myself to the hut. Vipassana begins. The mind moves to observe sensations in the body. Attention narrows. Language itself oversized:

                                    Thoughts too large to   
                                    pass through this mental sieve -
                                    inexact fragments!

Sitting is very quiet and soon I cannot remember a happier time being so still a couple of hours. Contented, centred, tranquil, not wanting anything to be otherwise.

                                    Initially confused - does it contain
                                    or is it contained? - or perhaps body’s simply the element
                                    of wind, blowing about.

Very quiet:

                                    An orange peeled
                                    sealing nothing -               
                                    this body!"

Friday, 13 May 2016

"They were building a bathroom!"

Parami Sasana Yeiktha

Overseen by Sayadaw U Waseta, this monastery was founded in 2010. The Sayadaw was trained in the Sayadaw U Pandita tradition, and taught meditation overseas for years before deciding to settle into this mountain refuge, located just outside of the city. U Waseta follows the rigorous practice as characterizes that of his late teacher U Pandita, and as he speaks English, is willing to teach foreign practitioners who come to the Golden Land for Dhamma practice. Yogis can expect an 11-hour practice day, replete with walking and sitting meditation. Visitors to the monastery can also expect a very quite and secluded site, with sometimes the Sayadaw residing here entirely alone, although it enjoys a quite supportive local lay community. 

One American, Zack, ordained here as a Buddhist monk in May 2016, and he tells his following story below:
"When I arrived in Myanmar, I had no specific plans to cultivate Dhamma. I didn’t even know what the word meant! Though Buddhism had long piqued my curiosity, I wasn’t yet even a beginner when I arrived. 
Nonetheless, soon after I learned about the unique possibility, I decided to dive into the deep end and get ordained as a monk, if only for one week. For some reason, the opportunity just called to me. 
Rural Burmese monastic life is a far cry different from California layperson city-life. Though I was completely willing to understand and learn this different way of life, it doesn’t just come to you overnight.
One of the puzzles for me was bathing. Though I had read about outdoor bathing practices, I still wasn’t sure, e.g. what I should wear or take off, where and how discreetly I should scrub, whether it was okay to do this all with other (especially lay-) people around, or whether I should wait for privacy. It didn’t help that I was the only monk at the monastery aside from the Sayadaw! So I didn’t get to look to anyone for an example. 
I did the best I could for the first few days, deciding to clean more private areas in the confines of the toilet room and less sensitive areas outdoors. If unideal, this worked for me, and I felt clean. 
But on day four, curious if I was missing something, I asked the Sayadaw if this was an OK way to do things. “Oh, I forgot!” he exclaimed, “that you’re a Westerner and you shower indoors!” I assured him that I was okay bathing outdoors, and that I simply wanted to make sure I didn’t offend, but he still seemed distressed.
The next morning, a truck full of concrete, bricks, and other building supplies pulled in the driveway. A team of volunteer construction worked filed in from the neighboring town and began excavating for a foundation. The Sayadaw himself directed the team with a tape measure and a level. 
They were building a bathroom.
Of all the hospitality I’ve experienced in my life, this gesture stands unrivaled. And as my friend, who’s spent several years in the country, put it laughingly: “Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that happens in Burma.” 
How magical and impactful to be invited—and as an outsider and a beginner!—so warmly into this culture of support and generosity."

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Cremation and Relics of Sayadaw U Pandita

As a previous post noted, on the 22nd of April 2016, Sayadaw U Pandita was cremated. While no relics were found (which some believe would indicate full enlightenment and which were greatly anticipated by his supporters), there were golden-colored debris found in the cremation coffin, as shown below.

The following story is shared by U Sarana:

"U Maung Aye, a close helper of Sayadaw U Pandita, shared what he heard from Sayadaw U Pandita. Sayadaw U Pandita told to U Maung Aye, that he spoke with Mahasi Sayadaw about a month or so before Mahasi Sayadaw passed away. At that time Mahasi Sayadaw told to U Pandita that to his (Mahasi Sayadaw's) surprise, Mahasi Sayadaw had a dream. It is impossible for an Arahant to have a dream - and thus Sayadaw U Pandita knew, that Mahasi Sayadaw was not an Arahant at the time when this was said. However, Sayadaw U Pandita told U Maung Aye that it is not possible to tell for sure whether Mahasi Sayadaw became an Arahant shortly before he (Mahasi Sayadaw) passed away or not."

Following is a preview on the "Relics" section from the upcoming Shwe Lan Ga Lay:

Similar to the English expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so also can one say that the value and purpose of a relic rests upon the perspective of who happens to be before it. For rulers of any kind, from kings to elected officials, the acquisition of sacred relics is seen as an implicit acknowledgement that the leader has developed sufficient paramis to justify his rule (Specifically, if a king was said to be a righteous ruler, it would follow that his reign would see good weather and plentiful harvests, and that white elephants and Buddha relics would find him.) For pagoda-donors, enshrinement of relics amplify the merit they are already due to receive with the meritorious construction. For tourists, they are yet another curiosity to marvel over, photograph, and later revel to friends back home. For treasure-hunters and occult worshipers, relics represent another object to seek out, collect, and make use of. For supporters of a particular monk, they are seen as real evidence of his attainment and may forever be honored throughout the lineage. For many lay Buddhists as well as monastics, they are a profound symbol representing the Triple Gem in all its depth, and which guard against the decline of the Sasana. For historians and scholars, they are an object of study when analyzing politics, religion, and war. For religious scholars or defenders of the faith, relics can pose a challenge to the heterodoxy in that there is not explicit reference to them in the scriptures. And for some meditators and yogis, they offer a profound inspiration and vibrational support to the Path. 
Relics are not only confined to Burmese Buddhism or even Buddhism in general, but worship and reverence of sacred objects can be found across eras and cultures. As Schopen writes, “these bodies and bits of bone and otherwise seemingly dead matter have played a lively role in religious practices, economies, and institutions.”

The English relic is derived from the Latin relinquere, meaning “to leave behind,” and this certainly fits the Burmese Buddhist understanding of material “left behind” from the bodies of the country’s great monastics and meditators. Relics thus transcend the worldly and the divine, the material and spiritual, becoming a living embodiment “left over” from the great meditative masters in whose paths we are endeavoring to follow. As Mircea Eliade writes, they are the “manifestation of the sacred in profane contexts.”

Following is a photograph of the relics left by Sayadaw U Pandita: 

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Ingyinbin Journal: "The Moon Cares Little for my Despondency."

John, a meditator from New Zealand, spends extended periods in Ingyinbin each year, the home of the revered Webu Sayadaw and with his friend Ashin Mandala. This winter, he has decided to keep a journal, which he has kindly offered to share with us. His journal alternates between observation and poetry, between meditation practice and commentary about Burmese Buddhist society, from his learnings and his questions. The full collection of his musings can be found here.

24 January Uposata 

"Under the ramshackle wooden tiers of the old hall,the young Bhante paces delivering Uposata
to the children, themselves loosely tiered before him."

25 January 

The weather is warmer but I am on day 3 of a head cold. Surprising, with that and the poor night’s sleep, how cluttered and disconsolate the mind quickly becomes: dreaming of failure at work and with others, constantly tripping over and failing myself. A Lemsip before and a coffee after the morning group sit seems to help. I think of Bhante-ji, enduring a similar cold over a number of days.

Bante-ji, 83 and 40% total hearing,
burnt himself testing barium
for Indira Ghandi and the atomic programme.


Starting again, the breath gradually
distils to something finer, then the body,
until neither’s perplexed.

The moon and birds care little for my despondency. During breakfast the glowing spoon-hollow moon slips from above the trees to nestle among the uppermost branches, joining the ibises, which occasionally honk and shift position, before taking flight to other places and the day’s purposes. Looking like the concord, the bird lifts or dips slightly towards its long, curved beak, and is elegant in flight despite the initial dragging of the body and the straggling legs and the repeated short pump of its wings. The egrets are the engineers of flight, economical and precise. There are other birds, one a dark and narrow bird, maybe some kind of shag. At the lakeside a small frog, half the size of my thumb, hops away on hearing Karen’s footsteps and heads to the water’s edge, where it pauses.

The night traversing the sky, in the morning
the radiant full moon slips alongside
the ibises among the tamarind’s upper branches.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Cremation for Sayadaw U Pandita

As shared recently here, one of the world's greatest Vipassana teachers has died. This was also reported on Buddhist Channel, and cremation services are planned for Friday April 22 in Bago. An open question concerns what type of funeral it will be. In the past, monk cremations were large and glorious affairs, but some revered Sayadaws began speaking out against this as a waste of funds and not serving the ultimate purpose of Dhamma, and requiring that their own eventual funerals be humble affairs. Of course, U Pandita was no ordinary monk or even meditation teacher by any marker, and so many may justifiably wish to honor his life. Devotees are also waiting to see what relics may appear, as many believe he attained the state of being fully liberated.

Sayadaw Gyi's body is now available for paying respects in Yangon's Panditarama (Shwe Daung Gone Yeikthar) until tomorrow's midday. The body then will be transported to Bago with a retinue of buses, leaving the Yangon Panditarama at 1 PM. According to the Burmese program, Sitagu Sayadaw will give a discourse at 8:30 pm on April 21. The cremation ceremony will start the following day at around noon. 

Yangon Panditarama: No.80(က)။ သံလြင္လမ္း၊ ဗဟန္းၿမိဳ႔နယ္၊ ရန္ကုန္ၿမိဳ႔။ Phone no.: 01-705525.

Bago Panditarama: ပဲခူးတိုင္း၊ သံျဖဴေက်ာင္းေက်းရြာ၊ အင္းတေဂၚ၊ ၁၀ မိုင္ကုန္း မွတ္တိုင္။ Phone no.: 09-49450787.

Below, a recent photograph depicting the carrying of U Pandita's corpse to the eventual cremation pyre:

Monday, 18 April 2016

The Summit of her Ambition: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles

The Australian Marie Byles claimed to be the first Westerner to set foot in, and learn the Dhamma at, both Maha Bodhi Monastery in Mandalay and Thanboddhay Monastery in Monywa. She learned under Saya U Thein, the student of Saya Thet Gyi at the first site; then from Mohnyin Sayadaw, the greatest monastic disciple of Ledi Sayadaw at the second. She wrote meticulously about her experiences traveling and meditating throughout Burma in 1957 in Journey Into Burmese Silence, a book that is freely available here.

Now, Anne McLeod has written a biography about his pioneering woman, looking at what drove her to take trips few others were making at this time. 

Here is an excerpt about her life story:
In 1924 Marie Byles became the first woman allowed to practise law in New South Wales. Told she could only work as a law clerk, she triumphed over the patriarchal legal profession and a society that viewed women as second-class by establishing a successful practice. As legal advisor for women’s organisations in the 1930s she helped change legislation that discriminated against women’s rights in marriage and divorce – most cruelly, in the guardianship of their own children. Instead of the fame and fortune she could have earned through law Marie devoted herself to the conservation of the Australian environment. 
An early member of the elite Sydney Bush Walkers club, Marie and her friends (including Paddy Pallin who made their camping equipment) spent every weekend exploring unmapped terrain within reach of Sydney. As they grew to know and respect the landscape, the bushwalkers developed a commitment to protect the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive areas and became leaders of the conservation movement.
A zealous advocate for wilderness Marie worked as legal advisor on behalf of the Federation of Bushwalking Clubs to petition the government to reserve vast areas of land for future generations. Before the National Parks and Wildlife Service was constituted in 1967, bushwalkers took responsibility for managing the reserved areas by serving on Trusts and attending regular working bees to make paths that are still walked today.
It was mountains though that held the greatest fascination for Marie. After reaching the summit of Mt Cook in 1928, she twice returned to New Zealand’s South Island to climb virgin peaks and map unexplored areas before leading an international expedition to south China in 1938. The failure of this dream became the catalyst of a journey into places not found on a map as she began a quest to find the meaning of life beyond success and failure.