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:
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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