Saturday, 31 August 2013

Introduction to Burmese Monasteries

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our "Monasteries" chapter. Following is the introduction for the "Monastic Life" chapter:

One of the great joys that your visit in the Golden Land can bring is to experience an extended stay in a monastic environment.

Integrating into monastic life can involve joining a devoted community of practicing monks, nuns, supporters, and lay people. While you may have to negotiate some gaps in language and culture, many monasteries warmly welcome foreign yogis who come to learn more about Burmese Buddhist practice and take it as a privilege to look after them. For many, it is a treasured meritorious deed as through their actions they are able to spread Buddha’s teachings beyond their own limited region. It is also a wonderful way to make lasting relationships with Burmese monastic and lay people, and by joining their community wholeheartedly, it can deeply transform one’s practice and understanding of Dhamma. As one American monk notes, “My teacher, Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw says that if you like this place, then you have certain qualities, or as we call it, ‘parami’… eventually it comes down to being one who ‘enjoys themselves.’ Those who cannot and who want an easy and relaxed life eventually leave.”

Burmese monks at a local monastery

Friday, 30 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Laphet

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our FOOD chapter. Following is a short piece about the place of Laphet in Burmese society:

“Tea is believed by some to be a gift of the gods. It is an essential item in propitiating nats or spirits. It also, along with a quid of betel, forms part and parcel of ceremonial offerings in Buddhist rituals as well as on ceremonial occasions such as weddings, novitiation ceremonies, ear-boring ceremonies. In courts of Myanmar kings, parties to a dispute ate pickled tea together before the judge as a token of having reached settlement. The losing party paid what is known as Kwan-bo, literally 'the price of betel' to the judge. A special officer collected these fees. He was called a Kwan-bo-htein, literally ‘officer in charge of kwan-bo, the old counterpart of court fees.’ ” U Tin U, Myanmar Memorabilia

Pickled Tea Leaf Salad (Lahpet): Pickled or fermented tea is arguably the most important dish in Burmese cuisine. No doubt you will encounter it frequently in your travels, as it is a common snack to offer guests.

Although laphet refers only to the pickled green tea leaves, it is almost never served alone. Often presented in a lacquer bowl, laphet comes surrounded by various condiments, including peanuts, toasted sesame, dried shrimp, fried peas, roasted beans, tomatoes, and shredded ginger. Another popular version is laphet mixed with the above condiments, and served like a salad with fresh tomatoes, garlic, chilies and other vegetables. It can also be mixed with rice to give flavor and sustenance.

In the traditional method, after the tea leaves are picked, they are steamed and then mashed by hand on bamboo platforms. The mashed tea is then placed in a large hole in the ground that has been lined with bamboo and fresh tree leaves. After being spread evenly and tamped down hard, a heavy wooden lid is placed on top, with large stones added to increase the weight. Most tea in Myanmar comes from Shan State, to be used for laphet as well as drunk with hot water.

Laphet is sold in bulk in the markets, often with sealed packets of the proper condiments, and is perfect for taking home as a gift or for your own consumption. Though it is fermented, laphet does not have a strong taste, and the fact that it comes drizzled with sesame oil and mixed with salty, crunchy peanuts and peas makes it quite an appealing snack. While laphet can be enjoyed as a tasty snack to share between friends or guests, it is also frequently offered in formal ceremonies. In times past, the parties of a lawsuit would share laphet to symbolize the end of the dispute. Some students favor them when studying late into the night as it is known to be high in caffeine as well. Packets of laphet used to be handed out to announce a couple's betrothal, and served as quasi-wedding invitations. If a man is embarrassed to express himself, sending a tea packet will gently get the message across. As the Burmese saying goes: Lu ma daq thaw ley, leq peq thout daq. “If the man doesn’t know how to do it, the tea packet does.” Indeed, no Burmese ceremony or celebration, whether religious or secular, would be complete without plenty of laphet.

J. George Scott even notes the use of lahpet in helping one to change their name. In The Burman, he writes: “Sometimes when a boy grows up he does not like the name his parents gave him. He can then change it by a very simple process. He makes up a number of packets of le'-pet and sends round a friend to deliver them to all his acquaintances and relations. The messenger goes to the head of the house and says: ‘I have come from Maung Shwe Pyin (Mr. Golden Stupid). He is not to be called by that name any more. When you invite him call him Maung Hkyaw Hpe (Mr. Celebrated Father). Be good enough to eat this pickled tea.’ ”

A villager in the Shan Hills

Rhythms of the Burmese Day: Afternoon

In this excerpt from the book, we look at typical rhythms throughout the day that one may find in Myanmar. Following is part of the entry that occurs for "afternoon":


During this time work is tending to wind down. As the Burmese are known to say, “Nan neq lin hma, eiq meq meq," meaning that “after daybreak, and one is dreaming,” the sense being that one has waited too long to begin his labor. There are no standard siesta hours, although many locals seem to have a special talent for falling asleep under just about any condition, and after lunch tends to be a common time as it is also the hottest period of the day. As the afternoon rolls around, you may see security guards, caretakers, and others with less intensively demanding jobs start to snooze in their chairs as the sun reaches its peak. Markets and businesses will continue their final push until around 4pm, when the work begins to taper off and people prepare for the crowded trip back to their home, made longer in some of the urban areas by the recent heavy construction taking place on city roads and highways. Most try to get their final shower in before dusk, as some hold the belief that it can be dangerous-- and even fatal-- to bathe later than this (an even more widely held belief is that one should never bathe after being out in the hot sun).

“In the tropics the border between day and night is sharp; as soon as the sun drops below the horizon it becomes pitch-dark.” Michio Takeyama, Harp of Burma
Sunset comes over the sunflower fields at Ingyinbin, Upper Burma, near the home of Webu Sayadaw

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Dalla and Pyaw Bwe Gyi: Saya Thet Gyi's Center

For this Shwe Lan Ga Lay excerpt, we have included the introduction to the Dalla region, the gateway leading to the area south of Yangon across the river, and which leads eventually to Saya Thet Gy's village and meditation center further south.
“Halts are made at every village and the people swarm on board by the hundreds, and great is the haggling, noise, and confusion. It is curious to watch the manner in which this is kept up over every article purchased, until the last warning whistle drives the crowds ashore.” M.M. Shoemaker, Quaint Corners Of Ancient Empires (1899)

Getting to the sites listed below is half the fun, and as the journey takes you over Yangon River it also takes you closer to the rice fields of the low-lying regions of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, close geographically but increasingly further in culture and tradition than Yangon. This is the river that a middle-aged Sayagyi U Ba Khin rowed across when escaping his government office to learn meditation under Saya Thet Gyi, which at the time would have been filled with ships and junks of all kind dealing in trade. B.M. Croker describes an amusing incident in The Road To Mandalay (1917) where a herd of 60 elephants are encouraged to swim the entire one mile between Rangoon and Dalla, and upon reaching the shore are promptly hoisted onto a ship at the pier one by one. Although it’s not clear if this is a true story, Dalla served as a repository for the Burmese rulers’ elephants, so it is certainly plausible. Long before this, however, Dalla was a place of great importance, and Dagon (the village that stands where Yangon is now built) was known for one thing only: its Golden Dagon (or Shwe Dagon) Pagoda. Although this was almost 1000 years ago, when Dalla was the principal town in the Delta and was located closer to what is modern day Twante. Even as late as the 16th century it was known, with Englishman Ralph Fitch noting that it “hath a faire Port into the Sea, from where goe many ship to Malacca, Mecca, and many others places,”

When looking to get out here, you can take the long and expensive way, which involves taking a vehicle from Yangon and driving far out of your way to cross the river at Hlaing Thar Yar bridge (and will take you a half day in total and cost as much as 100,000 kyat), or you can go the short and inexpensive way by ferry. To do this, go to Pansodan Boat Jetty. As you walk in the station, you’ll be directed towards the left side and into an office area, where you will be required to purchase your tickets with US dollars (or kyat if you don’t have them). The cost is $2 (or 2000 kyat) per person per way, and you might as well buy for the round trip. Make sure you bring a copy of  your passport when purchasing the ticket. The most you’ll have to wait for a ferry is a few minutes. When one pulls in it will be impossible to miss, as you’ll see a mass exodus of humanity on and off the wooden dock. Once on the boat, you can go to the upper deck, where you have a better view, and sit on one of the small plastic chairs for about 100 kyat. You’ll reach Dalla in ten minutes, but in many ways the ride feels more like 30 years or 300 miles. You’re now at the edge of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, where the landscape has flattened out and the villages are more rural and poor. 

A Burmese man looks out on his boat across Yangon River, with Dalla stretching across the far shore

Western Ordinations

In the section in Shwe Lan Ga Lay where we write about those Westerners who choose to take robes, we present the following quotation to introduce the chapter:

“The peace and quiet ate into me very bones, and I took on the yellow robe. The rest and the holy life tamed me and did my soul good.” B.M. Croker, The Road To Mandalay (1917), words spoken by an Irish soldier turned Burmese monk

Two monks at Dhamma Sukha Meditation Center, Shwe Oo Min Monastery, Yangon

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: The Sagaing Hills

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from the first three paragraphs of the chapter on the Sagaing Hills:

It’s difficult to overstate the majesty and wonder of the Sagaing Hills, and for the yogi intent on Burmese Buddhist practice, there are few—if any—places in the country that can compare. For many who have never been to Burma but have heard about the country from the lips of Dhamma friends or in books by Burmese Sayadaws from another era, Sagaing can come as the closest approximation of the mental images that had taken shape. “Ah… this is Burma,” more than one meditator has been known to remark after some days in the Sagaing Hills. Local residents would concur, as evidenced by a bilingual sign greeting your arrival that reads “Welcome to the Abode of the Holy Recluses.” Or as one local Sayadaw has noted, “there are two things were always needed in order to come to Sagaing: water and good sila.” And indeed, with an estimated 700 monasteries and 200 nunneries—many of them consisting of just a couple of buildings on a quiet hillside— and well over 6,000 in robes, it is a living, breathing Buddhist community almost unparalleled in the modern world. A walk through the peaceful hills will take you on winding forest paths and past countless caves, kutis, monasteries, pagodas, shrines, dhamma halls, monuments, and other sites that bring a sense of ease and calm to the eyes of a yogi. Almost the moment you exchange the dusty lanes of the downtown area for the rarefied air of the Hills, the stillness and quiet become readily perceivable.

You couldn’t do wrong if most (or even all) of your time ended up being spent in this region, and some yogis do just that. At the very least, for those coming to the country to develop in Dhamma, the rolling hills that float above Sagaing are not to be missed. While Bagan may be the only other region with more religious buildings, the sites remaining in the Sagaing Hills continue to be used for active Buddhist practice. Many locals make their way to Sagaing during the Full Moon of Tazaungmon (around October or November) when the weather begins to cool, and when they make offerings of monks’ robes and other requisites.

In this section we cover the area around the lowlands of Sagaing town, the meandering paths and slopes of the rambling Sagaing Hills, and Sagaing’s sister city Mingun, another village located in this hill range.

The cushions for four meditators set out inside a Sagaing monastery where they are sitting a self-retreat

Monday, 26 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Rainy Season

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from our Weather section, and this describes what mediators can expect from Rainy Season:

Hot and Wet (e.g. “Rainy”) Season (June-October)

“Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry.” George Orwell, Burmese Days

As the Burmese proverb goes, two things you can’t control are the rain and bulls (Nwa tho hnin, mo aso ma ya) and Myanmar has both in heavy supply. During rainy season, the dry heat recedes as the first monsoons hit land, and a heavy humidity makes its return to daily life. The open sky provides some relief and brings refreshing winds, but the heat is by no means evaporated. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi once wrote, “The word ‘monsoon’ has always sounded beautiful to me, possibly because we Burmese, who are rather inclined to indulge in nostalgia, think of the rainy season as most romantic.”

Again, what does this mean for the meditator? As one might expect, moving around during this season can be rather inconvenient, as afternoon drenchings are pretty much a sure thing, and can come with only a few minutes’ warning. If you’re planning to move around and see many sites, or are staying in a place where you need to walk under open air from one place to another, you’ll have to brave the rains. But if you are planning to stay in one place for an extended period, have a good roof overhead, and don’t mind the leeches and frogs that will make their appearance, then you’ll be in good stead for your own rains retreat. For those cave-dwellers, keep in mind that this is the worst season to spend significant portions of the day sleeping or sitting in caves, for the dampness that the moisture brings can be dangerous to your health.

There are some perks to planning a dhamma trip during the rains. This is considered the traditional time that monks spend in serious meditation, so it may provide some inspiration to be here during these days. Additionally, you’ll have less other visitors to contend with than during winter.

As for what one especially needs during this season, what would first come to mind are quick-drying garments and additional changes of clothes. A large umbrella and hooded rain jacket and rain pants also won’t hurt. If you’re sensitive to breezes, you may want some long-sleeves and a light windbreaker. Sandals more sturdy than flip-flops are recommended, for roads can become quite slippery and flowing water can sometimes come in force.

Traveler, yogi, and monk aside, how do the rains affect local life? This can be evinced from the rather unlikely Burmese proverb “the black face will weep and the dead shall come to life.” When unpacked, the phrase refers to the black monsoon clouds that pour out their contents on a parched land, allowing the dead vegetation and hibernating animals (such as frogs) to show their life once again and the country’s rivers to again flow with bountiful water. Burmese author Hpone Thant expands on this local scene: “The land will once more be green again. Vast acres of paddy fields to feed the people of Myanmar and to fill the granaries with food. Typical scenes at these times would be a solitary farmer behind a pair of oxen tilling his land under the lashing rains, his dear wife and children waiting under the shade of the big rain tree, waiting for him to finish his work and join them for lunch. A simple farmers’ lunch, nothing elaborate. Heaps of steaming rice, a lump of ngapi, a clear veggie soup made from the vegetables found on the land near their modest hut… Unless the young paddies are planted carefully they might not ripen into golden stalks heavy with rice grains. Their songs float on the air despite the heavy monsoon rains that pelt them mercilessly. The peals of thunder and streaks of lightning forming a perfect background to their singing. Those would be the typical scenes in all the farming communities in Myanmar. And nights would be filled with the sounds of the frogs, came back to life.” Children love it too, as the common ditty “we shall play in the rains” (Moe Ywa Yin Moe Yay Cho Mae) attests to.

“The rain may be limited to certain seasons… and it may not rain for days on end, but when it does rain you really know about it. This rain is a primeval thing. The clouds gather, dark and ominous and then they open. They open wide. Being caught in this sort of rain is like someone upending buckets of water over your head—one after another. The water hurls itself towards the earth with a force that means that close to the ground there is as much water bouncing up as there is coming down. But after a short while, at least for routine downpours, the scene is transformed, the sun comes out, everything steams for a while and ten minutes later you would not know there had been any rain.” Patrick Forsyth, Beguiling Burma

“Sunsets on the river were spectacular, especially since we were not yet out of the monsoon season. There were enough clouds in the sky to provide a canvas for the sun’s palette of scarlet, gold, mauve, and vermillion. At one turn of the river on our first day out, the water was as smooth as a mirror, placid and silken, as it reflected the brilliant evening colors.” Ma Thanegi, Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy

A stormy day over the pagoda at The Phyu Taw Ya Monastery in Hmawbi

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Monasteries and Meditation Centers

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from a section that looks at Burmese monasteries and meditation centers, and includes an excerpt from a Canadian meditator who went on to ordain as a monk:
“There is a difference between being on a meditation course, and living the spiritual life.  When on a course, there is a time limit, a timetable, and these seemed to create tension in the way I worked.  Here one can let go of the work, and let things happen naturally, exerting effort without trying. Coming to a monastery allows you to experience this monastic life and its effects on meditation. Time seems to pass in a rich manner here, and it feels like my stay is always much longer than it actually is. Another difference is that at some monasteries there may not be a very exact meditation technique as one finds in a meditation center. Here it is more about adopting good mental qualities like respectfulness, diligence, gratitude, awareness – which then support your meditation however you wish to practice. The way of life is not focused on only sitting, but on meditating throughout the day while completing duties, chanting and also seated or walking meditation.” Canadian Monk

Airport seating at Mandalay Airport

Saturday, 24 August 2013

New Twitter Account

To follow updates about the free meditator guidebook to Burma and other dhamma-related Burma info, follow us on Twitter at @ShweLanGaLay

Friday, 23 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Planning Your Trip

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from the introduction of our section on "Planning Your Trip":

"Burma, I declare! One does not hear much of that part of the world; it's always connected in my mind with rice and rain.” --B.M. Croker, The Road to Mandalay (1917)

The words spoken above are given to a British fictional character after learning that her friend has decided to leave London for Rangoon. Though written almost one hundred years ago, travelers to the Golden Land today often face a similar reaction from their friends and family upon learning of their intended destination (that is, assuming it is not confused with Burundi or Bhutan). However, since the time that the venerable Ledi Sayadaw began a written correspondence with some of the top Western thinkers about Buddhist theory and British chemist Allan Bennet became the first foreigner to take robes in the country, a steady trickle of foreigners have continued to keep Burma on the mind, and certainly in the heart.

From the British occupation to World War II strategic planning to the Cold War Era to very recent history, the country has for the most part been overlooked by the greater world. Neighboring countries always seemed to have bigger crises, greater global relevance, and perhaps a more accessible understanding. But this is now all quickly changing, a factor that has immediate and long-term implications for yogis now using this book to making their own preparations for travel. A country once forgotten in time for all but a select group is now receiving regular visits by top world diplomats, celebrities, billionaires, and investors. Its transition and gradual opening are being watched with awe and commentary as one phase continues to the next. And its tourist numbers are off the charts, changing landscapes overnight. As one author recently noted, “the numbers are still climbing. In the Lonely Planet based economy, places are changing.”

Indeed, “places are changing,” this much is indisputable. But what kind of change? For the generation of yogis, meditators, dhamma students, and Buddhists who are the living beneficiaries of Ledi Sayadaw’s works, and to those who wish to follow the example set by Allan Bennet in his ordination, what will these new changes look like? In other words, for that audience for whom the book is meant, how will these changes alter plans and extended stays? And how will the country’s greater openness and access to opportunity affect its age-old traditions and customs?

The way forward is not yet clear (as this following Planning Your Trip chapter will certainly illustrate), although perhaps we can turn to a pundit who was present during a preceding period of transition. Following their taking of Upper Burma in 1885, England deposed the Burmese king and sent him to exile, moved the capital 693 miles south, opened new ports to bring both international trade as well as entire new immigrant populations, revitalized new industries, developed infrastructure that still stands today, instituted a new educational and administrative system, and brought overwhelming changes into a previously closed country in the fields of technology, food, weaponry, and transportation, among others. A little more than a decade after such drastic transformations were underway, Harold Fielding pondered this very same question, and questioned aloud how the local traditions and religion might be able to withstand the modern pull.

Here is his answer: “But a community that has lived through twenty-four centuries of change, and is now of the strength and vitality that the Buddhist monkhood is, can have nothing to fear from any such change…. the pattern and ensample of purity and righteousness will always remain.”

While the early 21st century experiment has yet to be played out, we can see how the late 19th century experience ended up. What may be different now as opposed to then are the many fertile seeds of dhamma practice that have been sprouting in many diverse corners of the world. As meditators and Buddhists begin to stream into Myanmar in higher numbers to take a retreat or pursue a life of inner calm, outside interest in the practice will continue to increase, and respect for the traditions may give way to greater sustainability. And perhaps in ten years time a contemporary writer can comment on how Burma is holding up her traditions then, which a guidebook 120 years from now can pick up and quote from, and our future reader can evaluate how the Buddhist practice of the people has continued to adjust and adapt to an ever-changing world. For now, in this chapter, we do our best to advise you on the ever-changing current conditions, and how to best prepare for them prior to arrival.

Monks on an Alms Round in a small Burmese town

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here is an excerpt from our Taunggyi section, describing one of the city's most famed pagodas:

One of Taunggyi’s most famed pagodas, this one provides an impressive view of the city and surrounding hills, and on a clear day you can see clear across to Inle Lake. It’s also a very peaceful and (usually) quiet spot, with the higher winds tickling the pagoda bells and the cooler air making a nice place for a sit. You can come here by vehicle or motorbike, of if you’d like some exercise you can walk from downtown, which will take an hour or two depending on your stamina. Just walk to the east side of the city towards the mountain side, and eventually you’ll find the serpent-covered stairway just across the train tracks leading up. It’s a beautiful walk, and you can take a rest midway at Naga Monastery before reaching the peak. If you go in the morning you’ll see monks going and coming back from alms round. Just off the other side of the pagoda you can find Ruby Cave. Not far from here and clearly visible sits Toung Chun Zedi, a small pagoda on a steep jagged peak that is only accessibly by footpath. Several years ago it was struck by lightening, and it remains a place where few people visit.

Local residents pay their respects deep inside Ruby Cave in Taunggyi

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Dhamma Joti

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. We have one large entry on Dhamma Joti, and the following is one quote in this section by a meditator who shares his feeling after sitting a course here:

It’s very difficult for me to give a top-ten list of the sites which have a special place in my heart. Dhamma Joti is not a place: I think it is a part of me, now. They welcomed me kindly, even if they were not aware of my registration because of problems with the internet connection... My room was very comfortable: it was in a high spot of the centre, with shower and toilet. The memories of every details of Dhamma Joti: the heat, the mosquitoes, the noodles, the cell, the garden full of unknown plants, the noise of the birds, the full moon...everything is so vivid that when I recall it I feel like being still there. The food was just delicious: noodles for breakfast and some fried bread which makes my mouth watering even now! The servers were so kind to me to give me an extra-mango or a sweet. The teacher did not speak English but his advices were the most effective: just try! It was the first time for me to meditate in a cell: the pagoda was beautiful, the hot inside was quite suffocating but the meditation was very strong.” Italian meditator

Street Entrance to Dhamma Joti Vipassana Center

Friday, 16 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: "Being a Western Monk in Ingyinbin"

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. Here are two paragraphs taken from the Ingyinbin chapter, which is the birthplace of the venerable Webu Sayadaw, and concerns his habit for alms rounds:
When Webu first returned to Ingyinbin, his teacher did not ask him to join the daily alms round, which is a common practice for pupils who are considered highly advanced or have much potential. However in his later years, he went on alms round by himself, doing so out of great compassion in allowing local villagers to gain merit by giving food to such a highly-attained monk. He established a routine of going to eight nearby villages, one for each day of the (Burmese) week. One Dutch monk who stayed for some time at Ingyinbin recounts what it was like to literally follow in the Webu’s footsteps:

“When I stayed with two of my Dhamma-friends in Ingyinbin in the beginning of 2012, U Mandala kindly explained many aspects of Webu's life. When I asked him how Webu Sayadaw went on alms round, U Mandala explained... I asked if I could do the same, and with permission, I now could also go to all these villages on alms round. Since we were planning to stay for more than two weeks, I went two times to the first village, two times to the next village, etc. It was amazing how much the people from these villages were supporting, every house seemed to be making food offerings, and it was done in such a respectful way. The dhamma that Webu Sayadaw had brought to this place was very much alive, and that there was this possibility to 'walk in his footsteps', was greatly inspiring and motivating. In the end, two people from the village helped carrying all the food that was donated back to the monastery, where it was shared with the monks, novices, nuns and guests.”

U Mandala, a senior monk who ordained at age 17 under Webu Sayadaw, is shown seated at one of Ingyinbin's monastic buildings

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Introduction

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. In this post, we present you the complete first page from the Introduction:
In the past couple of decades, Buddhist practice has begun to reach regions of the globe that have scarcely been impacted in the 2500 years since the teachings passed from the mouth of Siddhartha Gautama himself. The American Religious Identification Survey estimated that the number of self-indentified Buddhists in the US increased by 170% between 1990 and 2000, while an Australian government bureau showed a 300% increase between 1991 and 2001, making it their nation’s fastest growing spiritual tradition or religion. The numbers jump out even in places where you least expect them, such the eightfold rise in Buddhist converts in British jails (where it also has the “fastest-growing” moniker), to Brazil, which boasts the third-largest Buddhist population of the Americas and has 150 temples spread across the country, and where one state government even began a mandatory meditation program for its military police.
As these teachings spread and are further established in local communities around the world, native sanghas begin to grow and take root in their own right. In so doing, the Buddhist practice finds a way to fit the needs and values of local communities. For example, the Buddhism brought in the 19th century to various African countries by Indian, Sri Lankan, and Burmese communities who arrived with the British would later catch on among liberal whites, who would go on to organize multi-racial meditation courses (which government agents promptly infiltrated). Buddhism in Africa now has followers among all segments of society and new meditation centers and monastic orders coming up, with a Burmese ordination in 1997 in South Africa and Tanzanian elephants re-trained to carry a pinnacle for a new pagoda inauguration. Similarly, there are also unprecedented stories of group meditation sittings and instruction taking place within organizations and communities that have no such prior history. While it may be not terribly surprising to hear that some progressive Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues have started meditation programs, a Midwestern congressman organizing a mindfulness group in the U.S. Capitol and General Mills equipping every building on its corporate campus with a meditation room would have been unimaginable only 10 years ago. Meditation has now gained official legitimacy from neurologists to psychologists to executives to scholars, and a 2007 National Institute of Health survey found that a full 10% of Americans meditate in some form on a regular basis. While meditation-only groups would likely seem quite foreign to traditional Buddhist communities and certainly outside of their own definition of sangha, spirituality and religion have always migrated in those ways that the people find them to be most useful and needed, and Buddhist meditation has been no exception.
As Theravada Buddhist teachers, sanghas, and traditions become established and strengthened throughout the world, the need to travel to a specific region or meet a particular abbot or teacher seems to be less vital than it was in years past. Indeed, there is the story of an American renunciate in the 1970s who decided to ordain in Sri Lanka, knowing little of other options available to him. After some time there, he happened to come across an Ajahn Chah book describing the Thai forest tradition for the first time, and was so moved that he changed course and immediately re-ordained in Thailand. He is now one of the senior foreign Ajahns there, a circumstance that came about only by a chance encounter with a single book, and one that took him many years to eventually come across.
For better or worse, the modern yogi need no longer worry about a scarcity of such resources. Today, one can never leave the confines of one’s own home and still access a nearly unlimited (and free) amount of Buddhist material. This may range from podcasts to electronic books to documentaries, and may cover everything from Abdhidhamma theory to meditation instructions to personal narratives. And for the yogi who wishes to find quality teachers, practice environments, and a greater spiritual community, it is similarly getting easier and easier to simply do it all locally— an option that just a few decades ago would have been extremely rare, if not impossible. This is all the more true if one happened lived away from certain communities known for their progressive and eclectic nature— such as small enclaves in northern California, western Massachusetts, Byron Bay, Glastonbury, and Christiania— where a mix-mash of various Eastern-inspired teachings were beginning to find followers.
While such greater accessibility provides more opportunities for one to find the Noble Eightfold Path, it also lessens the urgency of having to actually travel to a foreign land, and by extension having to face a foreign culture, language, practice, climate, food, and a host of other logistical issues that comes with any global movement. In other words, there is no need to go to the practice, since the practice can come to you.
Additionally, for many who come upon the path of Dhamma after years of searching, one of the first profound realizations that one makes is that practice is essentially an internal affair. This may sound obvious, but for many who have been engaged in external pursuits and searches in the physical world, it is quite a revelation to realize that true peace comes only from looking within.
The question then comes that if the answer lies inside, and if the resources to navigate these inner routes have become more available, what is the need for going half way across the world anymore? In other words, if the practice is only one of “going inside”, then why make such an effort for “going outside?”
This is a good question, and there may be no greater response than the one Harold Fielding provided in 1898, referencing his many years spent as an Englishman in Burma:

"To hear of the Buddha from living lips in this country, which is full of his influence, where the spire of his monastery marks every village, and where every man has at one time or another been his monk, is quite a different thing to reading of him in far countries, under other skies and swayed by other thoughts. To sit in the monastery garden in the dusk, in just such a tropic dusk as he taught in so many years ago, and hear the yellow-robed monk tell of that life, and repeat his teaching of love, and charity, and compassion—eternal love, perfect charity, endless compassion—until the stars come out in the purple sky, and the silver-voiced gongs ring for evening prayers, is a thing never to be forgotten. As you watch the starlight die and the far-off hills fade into the night, as the sounds about you still, and the calm silence of the summer night falls over the whole earth, you know and understand the teacher of the Great Peace as no words can tell you. A sympathy comes to you from the circle of believers, and you believe, too. An influence and an understanding breathes from the nature about you—the same nature that the teacher saw—from the whispering fig-trees and the scented champaks, and the dimly seen statues in the shadows of the shrines, that you can never gain elsewhere. And as the monks tell you the story of that great life, they bring it home to you with reflection and comment, with application to your everyday existence."

Yogis who have been to Burma in this current century can attest to similar impressions. Even several years after a visit, many can describe in vivid detail how their time in the Golden Land provided an invaluable gift to their practice and to their life.

The guide that follows was made by those who have tasted the joys of living and practicing in Burma, even for a short time, and wanted to find a way to share these treasures with a wider audience. This includes native Burmese who sincerely wish to welcome and support foreign yogis planning a visit to their country, as well as non-Burmese who have spent time here and wish to share their experience.
... [Introduction continues]....

A monk walks over an old stone walkway in the Sagaing Hills

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Jaggery

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. here is one paragraph taken from the section that examines various aspects found with Burmese society, the focus of this section being jaggery:


Jaggery is often referred to as “monk’s candies” or “Burmese chocolate” since it is allowed under the rules of the Vinaya after noontime, and meditation centers often have big bowls of it at the 5 pm tea break, where Burmese yogis help themselves liberally. Some Westerners don’t care for the extreme sweetness of the snack, but others following eight precepts appreciate the sustenance and energy boost it gives, without the subsequent drop that comes from processed sugars. This may be explained due to the fact that jaggery is a simple carbohydrate that provides easy energy on intake through oxidation, but as it is more complex than white sugar it is digested and absorbed more gradually and doesn’t risk overwhelming the internal organs. It is interesting that while jaggery is served after a meal, research has shown that it can be an effective digestive agent by activating the digestive enzymes and itself changing into acetic acid in the stomach. Other studies have shown it to help with constipation and provides a good source of minerals, especially iron, and local folk wisdom holds that when boiled it eases the menstrual flow. Burmese dogs would agree with this, as they seem to know it as a “cure-all” and many will delight if you pass a piece or two to them. The toddy syrup is also an important ingredient in many traditional Burmese medicines, and is mixed with betel to cure fevers and crushed and fried in oil to relieve an upset stomach. In Myanmar it’s possible to buy jaggery made from either sugar cane or palm trees, although it is formerly the latter, and most comes from the Bagan region, specifically the region east of the Tuyin Hills. Here many families’ livelihoods come from the dangerous business of scaling the toddy palm (Borassus flabellifer) trees, using a 15-foot bamboo ladder fastened together by fibers of toddy palm itself and placing an earthenware pot to collect the sap. In fact, no part of the tree is useless, as its wood makes timber, the leaves make utensils, the deedpods can be tried and made into folk art boxes, and its seedlings can be roasted and eaten over empty fires. After scaling 8-10 trees per day, the sap is then boiled and stirred continuously until it becomes thick and golden brown, whereupon small pieces are separated by hand and left to dry. It’s possible to visit some sites around Mandalay and Bagan to see this business first-hand. Sometimes the liquid will also be mixed in fruit juice or added to yoghurt or coconut milk, and even poured over popcorn. Alternatively, it can also be collected and fermented to a make a foul-tasting, sometimes lethal moonshine drink in rural areas.
One Western monk who has been in the country for many years sees parallels between the production of jaggery and how Burmese culture has preserved dhamma practice. He writes:

“The essence of a system, of a culture or of a religion is what is most important to preserve. That essence, however, cannot be preserved unless extra elements come into play, and this could be denoted by anything coming under the label ‘tradition.’

“For example, the essence of a tree, let say, the ‘sweet palm tree,’ is its sap or molasses that can be collected from its flower. From that syrup is made the jaggery, and in a way we could also say that jaggery is the essence of that tree. This is what seems the most important. For the continuation of the species, for its preservation and further production, however, the bark and the foliage are as much important.

“In the same way, a tradition is for the protection of the essence of a culture, as is the bark and foliage is for the sap and sugar of a tree. In respect to Buddhism, we could add that its philosophy has not and should not be based merely on tradition. A tradition should be questioned, but nevertheless not be rejected totally. An intelligent attitude will always be the support for lasting healthy social dynamics.”

Typical Scene from the Burmese countryside

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Giving

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. here is one paragraph taken from the section that examines Burmese Buddhist culture, and in which a foreigner shares his observations about local attitudes towards giving and generosity:
"I remember after I came to Burma and the first almsround, it was so beautiful I got tears in my eyes. In India there was no alsmround. In Burma I saw the people (mostly woman) 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. If you need information, go to a dentist or doctor, 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 had made me reorient on 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.” Marnix, Dutch monk

Western and Burmese monks on alms round at Shwe Oo Min Monastery in Mingaladon, Yangon

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Shwe Yan Pyae Monastery

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. here is one paragraph taken from the Yawnghwe section, and in addition to the text also features original artwork designed by one of our arists:


Shwe Yan Pyae Monastery
This monastery is about two miles north of town, on the way to Shwenyaung, so easy to catch on your way in or out of the area. This is a real monastery, though you might not know it by the hordes of tourist buses that pile on and off here for photos. This is mainly due to its very photogenic elliptical windows, and the curious novices or graceful felines who always seem perched in them. Still, it is worth seeing, and the grounds date back to the 19th century. The plinth where the Buddha statues sit are gilded with glass mosaics and gold filigree, and make a nice place to pay your respects. The statue itself is nine feet in height, and is made of gilded bamboo strips. Also, a gilded Celestial Being can be found in the Sayadaw’s chamber, where the monastery keeps a chest with ancient palm leaf manuscripts, also gilded. Shwe Yan Pyae Monastery is also known for its teak pillars, and indeed there are 167 of them, with the front ones gilded and adorned with glass mosaics. More teak shingles were placed on the monastery’s roof, and the inner ceiling has beautiful teak carvings as well. Note also the two guardian chinthe on the eastern side and garudas on the west. Also make sure to see the long hallways with many thousands of miniature Buddha images set into the carved out spaces, and the beautiful tiles of the floor below. This is located in the small temple behind the yard, on the right from the wooden building, across from the Shan stupa. As the site can unfortunately be overrun by tourists these days, if you do go, it can be very nice indeed to do so with respect and veneration, as many foreigners do not go with this sort of mindful intention. It is also a good place to practice your meditator Burmese with the many novices.

Shwe Yan Pyae Monastery in Nyaunshwe

Shwe Lan Excerpt: Monywa

The Meditator Guidebook to Burma is in its final stages! As the guide gets closer to publication, we will begin to share excerpts of what yogis may expect... some sneak previews of what is to come. here is one paragraph taken from the Introduction to Monywa section:

With a sign welcoming you that proclaims “Capital of the Northwest, Monywa Must do Better Than Other Towns,” it’s not surprising that Monywa is not high on the list for the tourist or backpacker. However for the yogi, it’s a different story. Not only are there very unique sites in the city itself, but also there are many opportunities for side excursions in the countryside just outside of Monywa. David Lambert captures the special quality to be found in this area in his essay Chindwin, writing, “beyond the conventional radar, this is the heart of yogi tourism, where foreign meditators, carrying tourist cash dollars, come to explore the heartland of their spiritual souls. For some this is the area ‘where it all began.’ ” Some yogis choose to stay in town for some time in order to take in all the sites and have adequate time throughout, while others will include Monywa as one brief stop of many on their yatra and just take in any outlying sites that are not too far off their route.
Monywa is far from a small town with a population of nearly 200,000 people. It is located 136 northwest of Mandalay, situated on the Chindwin River, and so is a major hub for merchants and traders. Prior to the British arrival, Monywa was little more than a village, although the central Chindwin Valley area had given birth to the then-popular Sudhamma monastic movement, in which monks stressed the importance of textual study. Monywa’s own rise to prominence can be traced to when the town was named the Headquarters of the Lower Chindwin District by the British in 1886. It was this same year that the young monk U Nyanadhaja decided to venture into the Ledi Forest, where he would continue his scholarly work in the quiet that the vast wilderness provided, and remain for the following 13 years.

Maha Ledi Sayadaw Monastery in Monywa