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