Sunday, 29 December 2013

A Dhamma Yatra in Burma

Foreign yogis sit in meditation at Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda as a monk chants through a loudspeaker, seated before them

Journal entry by Kory Goldberg after the second day of a Dhamma Yatra in Burma.... (to see how the next yatra turned out on this same day, see here!) You can also consider joining a later pilgrimage in Burma yourself.

The view of Shwedagon from the pilgrims' hotel

"What a privileged life we live! Morning stretching with spectacular dawn views of Shwedagon followed by a traditional Burmese breakfast of stirfried veggies and a fruit platter. i was not alone in the joy that I felt as was clear on the faces of all my companion pilgrims in the Golden Land. our first stop was Dhamma Joti to join the local community for a group sitting in the centre's fabulously charged pagoda. Sharing a cell with three of my companions, I observed the piti arising from a sense of well-being, security and trans-national community that dominated this mind-matter structure. After the session, our group of 23 from seven different countries shared metta with the local yogis, and I was pleasantly surprised to briefly rekindle a connection I had made with a yogi from Pyaw Bwe Gyi eleven years back.

From the Light of Dhamma our group continued onwards to the country's largest and most beautiful reclining Buddha statue at Chotagyi. On the way Snow and Joah showed us how to wear the Burmese pilgrimage uniform composed of a Brown longyi, white shirt, and brown sash. Although I understood intellectually the value of everyone in the group wearing the same thing as a marker of breaking down distinction and creating a group bond, for some reason I didn't really feel comfortable with the standardized attire, especially the sash. nevertheless, I wore the sash at Chotagyi, as did everyone else, and thought to myself this is a great ego destroying practice. As soon as we got off the bus I noticed how everyone's eyes turned on us. While the handful of foreign tourists at the site looked at us as if we were more alien than the culture that they were visiting, the Burmese were all smiles, feeling proud that a group of foreign yogis came to their country to practice the Dhamma and wear specialized local attire to boot. Listening to the monks chant at the temple and feeling the metta coming our way while we meditated and toured the site was precious. Our next stop at Natagyi Pagoda with jewel laden Buddha image wearing royal regalia was equally interesting, providing us with food for thought about the nature of appearance and the ease of projecting erroneous conceptions onto a transient, disatisfying, and impersonal reality. Whatever opinions we form about the unknowable only cause further confusion and suffering.

Next we went to IMC where Goenkaji first learned vipassana. Although we were unable to enter the meditation hall or pagoda because a course was in progress, we were permitted to meditate on a small pavillion just ouside the pagoda. Despite the sounds of nearby construction work and honking cars in the distance, the tranquility in the atmosphere was tangible. Upon opening my eyes after the session and seeing the doors of the pagoda I visualized Sayagyi standing there (as In the photo that many of us have at home). i felt waves of gratitude for what has taken place at this powerfully charged space and felt so fortunate to have the opportunity to experience it first hand. We then continued the journey to the monastery of the recently deceased arahant Pakoku Sayadaw to meditate with and examine his corporeal relics, and also have all of our questions answered about this phenomena of relics (and their multiplication) by two of his disciples-one a radiant bhikkhu and the other a knowledgable and inspiring lay yogini who spoke perfect English. Another rare and fortunate moment in all of our lives.

The Pakkoku relics on display in Yangon

To top off this wonderful late morning, we feasted at a Chinese Buddhist Temple. Never have any of us had so much delicious vegetarian food presented to us. One dish after another kept arriving at the table, each looking and tasting more delectable than the last. Buddhist vegetarianism is a concept and practice that all of the yogis in our group embrace with open arms.

From the lofty spiritual realms we visited all morning, we then descended into the mundane, physical realm of Bogyoke Market. Most of us shopped for ourselves and for our loved ones back home. An exciting moment, but also a little draining as our attention was challenged. Fortunately, our next and final stop was Shwedagon Pagoda. Although we did not have time for a formal sitting practice, simply walking around the sacred monument containing eight of the Buddha's hair relics recharged our batteries. Snow guided us through various nooks and crannies, pointing out spots that are so evident but so easy to miss amongst the plethora of monuments, statues, paintings, ATM machines, money changers, monks, nuns, yogis, devotees, tourists, security guards and other beings whose presence contributes to the site's power and meaning. Finally, before heading back to the hotel, we stopped in for dinner at a restaurant that had already prepared us a wonderful Burmese vegetarian meal even though we weren't really hungry, allowing us to attune to Burmese sensitivity by practising the avoidance of anar. A great first day to a great first yatra."

To read about Day 2 at Saya Thet Gyi sites, click here!

Pilgrims begin their yatra with a group meditation sitting at Shwedagon Pagoda

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Becoming a Nun in Burma

Two young Burmese nuns with a plant
A foreign nun who has been in robes for six years in Burma has graciously agreed to answer questions for other Western women who wish to ordain. The full discussion will appear in Shwe Lan, and for now we include her responses to two questions:

When I explained to my family my intention of become a nun they didn't understand my decision. I felt tension and guilt and there were tears. It's really difficult. What can I do?

"Usually it is easier for women coming from Buddhist countries, but still many times the family and friends are not ready for this. There are expectations about your life, and the close relationships make the separation difficult. Foreigners most of the times face more difficulties because the lack of knowledge about what is a Buddhist nun. Often some fear arises: they think that maybe you don't come anymore, they don't really trust the place or teacher that you are planning to join, they wonder how you can live without working. Sometimes they think that you are selfish, and that you have taken a decision that will bring suffering to them. Maybe they think that this is just an escape from your responsibilities. Many times one’s family can understand that you want to grow in meditation, but they then wonder, why to become a nun, why go to a distant country? Why you don't remain in your place doing meditation as a lay woman like other people? Sometimes they are afraid that you will be sick in short time if you don't take any food after noon. I feel fortunate because I met one family of a Western nun who came to visit her in Myanmar. I asked them for advice when explaining to my family. The main thing that they said it was: 'keep in mind always that to accept your decision is a process for them: they need time.' To follow this had been really helpful."

You said that you made decision to become a nun following your intuition inside more than your thinking process. Please, can you explain me a little more about this?

"When my teacher of Pali suggested me to become a nun, the first reaction was to say: 'No! I am not ready for this. I don't have enough purity for this kind of life!'. I was quite sure, because all my defilements were so clear in my mind. I felt dirty. But the fact is that when we talked a seed was planted. There were many reasons to continue on with the plans I had for life in Europe when I was to return. Intellectually it seemed that it was better to just forget about nun's life. But deep inside I had the feeling/intuition that this was the next step for me in Dhamma. Like other times in my life, as soon as I made decision of follow the intuition all doors were open. So much support, unexpected help came and in short time I was in Myanmar ordained as a nun."

Friday, 20 December 2013

Thursday, 19 December 2013

A Dhammic Buffet in Burma

“One of the most remarkable things I’ve found is how the people here seem to talk about monks, monasteries, meditation techniques, and Buddhist suttas— that is, about Dhamma— with a similar passion as you find people in other countries talking about sports or politics. Everyone has an opinion on the matter and many seem to feel there is nothing better to discuss than this. Now knowing a little Burmese, I can also join such conversations, and I have found myself in discussions with waiters, taxi drivers, and hotel clerks in which we discuss the nuances and benefits the Buddha’s teachings.

A common topic is to discuss the best way to follow these teachings. For example, some may feel that mettā should always come before any formal sitting, while others feel it is best for it to come after; still others think that there is no need to send mettā intentionally as it will come naturally as one develops, and for some, the whole of their practice is mettā. Some work with the mind focusing on the breath as it touches below the nostril and above the upper lip, others on the rise and fall of the abdomen, others on the mental contents, while others share that their practice is not so much on any particular object but rather to observe the awareness itself. There is such flexibility in how one is following the Noble Eightfold Path, and different Sayadaws and meditation teachers emphasize different aspects, with yogis able to select a path that seems suitable and effective for their own individual background and preference. And many yogis and monks gain benefit by learning from several different traditions, since really, they are all teaching with the same end goal in mind. And, everyone here seems to enjoy nothing more than sharing their own way of practicing the Buddha’s teachings, and learning what others are doing.

This point was driven home to me when myself and four other foreign friends were invited to the home of a Burmese family for lunch. The entire family had practiced Mogok all their life, and at present they were engaged in a project with Chan Myay Yeiktha. The five of us foreigners (two European, one American, one Asian, one Latin American) had all initially found Dhamma through U Goenka courses in our home countries. Now, three were in robes, two were Shwe Oo Min practitioners, one had just spent two years at Pa Auk and another three years in solitude in the forest. Also invited was a Burmese family who were disciples of The Phyu Sayadaw.

After lunch we went to visit a monastery overseen by the disciple of Maha Bodhi Sayadaw, who himself seemed to practice by integrating a Pa Auk approach. And all day long we talked of Dhamma. While the The Phyu meditators shared how valuable it was to sit for long hours without moving, the Shwe Oo Min yogis talked about applying awareness in every moment, and the Pa Auk monk discussed the developing of nimitta.

It was a general devotion to the Buddha and his teachings that bound our group that day, and on this point there was overwhelming coherence and agreement, all bowing to the same monk and statue whenever the opportunity presented itself. We discussed Abhidhamma theory and the joy of performing meritorious deeds.

While such dhammic communities may exist within a single tradition in other countries, what I have come to love about Burma is that one finds this throughout the very society, and across traditions. People here seem to understand that just as the Buddha taught in different ways to different people, so also we can apply the teachings according to our style and preferences. Walk the Path we must, but there are different ways to advance upon it. We are going to the same place and speaking the same language, but there are different ways to get there.”

--Western Yogi in Burma

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Five Years After Cyclone Nargis: A Reminiscence

The following is from an anonymous Burmese meditator:

"Meeting after 5 and a half years, To the Door of Light to be continued………..

Today at the middle of Inle Lake, at a restaurant I met with a girl whom I served at 2008 Cyclone Nargis was storming in Myanmar. We recalled our thoughts and memories. I have to say this will be one of my unforgettable moment of my life and also hers.

When she took her first ten days course at Dhamma Joti at 2008 April-May she was only a young girl in her late teenage years. Even though she was young her dedication to meditate was so strong. At this historic and unforgettable course, I was served as a course manager for 10 days Vipassana meditation course as taught by S.N Goenka and she was a one of 108 female meditators.

The Cyclone Nargis hit Yangon on early 3rd May morning. We did our usual procedures even the strong winds is distracting and trying to fall down age old trees in our meditation center. Meditators are meditating in Dhamma Hall, I felt really worried how I have to overcome this situation. All of us have no idea of what is happening outside, how big and dangerous this storm will be and announcements from Myanmar Radio or T.V as we were totally cut off from outside news. After sitting for 2 hours at 6:30 a.m. it was the time for breakfast. I known well that the dining hall is situated at a lower level and there are no big trees around, so it can be safer than the Dhamma Hall (which itself is surrounded by big trees). Moreover, the kitchen team was ready with preparations for breakfast, I still remember they were preparing "Milk Noodles", a dish that I will never forget in my life. But trees fell down on the covered walkway. We could not use this walk way so I had a decision to make. That is to cross in open air with stormy winds of 100 miles per hour (I learned how fast they were moving only later), or to remain there. I tried to find a way out first. Before doing all these things, I dedicated my life and body for the benefit and safety of all meditators. As a Buddhist we offer our life to Buddha and I thought if I have to be die to help all these meditators, let my life be, because I know well with this strong wind, rain and falling tress and flying roofs came I can die at any moment. But I was not afraid.

I personally led the first group to run from Dhamma hall to dining hall with 5 of youngest meditators as a test run. She was the one in this group. She voluntarily came into our choice. We reached there safely. So all the meditators followed us group by group until all were safe. We took our meal and started helping the kitchen workers, standing on the floor with water came in, rain water pouring in from the windows, we just kept cutting veggies and helping meditators to feel safe and shining lasers to keep the crows away. Helped some to go to nearby toilet, water came into the entrance, creatures crawl in, crows still away. We have 8 Dhamma Servers and all of us are like sisters for many years even passed.

Cyclone stopped around 12 noon and many people would like to go back home. Some were allowed to go back because of the dire situation. Now we had to share our bed, our clothes and water. This one girl is so young, her parents are worried and asked her to come back home three times. Her decision is so strong and sharp. She told her mum “no”, I would like to finish my course at first time. But her father kept insisting her mum to bring her back. But even though she is in her 16 she says she will stay. Her mum was in difficult situation. At last we asked permission from teacher to write her father to inform him she really want to finish her course before she go outside from Myanmar to do further studies and scholarship. She is from a well-off family and well-educated young girl. She stayed at Dhamma Joti for the remaining part of the course, when there was no running water and we had to get it from well by hand and pull it with buckets, no electricity and not even any candles for some time, with one room being shared by 4 people- double the usual amount, and a center filled with fallen trees and rubbish. But main thing I will never forget is their acknowledgement. Those volunteer Dhamma servers are serving for us and are the very reason why we can meditate and try hard, and work more diligently. After the cyclone Nargis hit, we have to move to the downstairs of the dhamma hall because upper hall is impossible to use. But the momentum of the course changed. We can see and notice everybody tried hard and no one complained. Some of the Dhamma servers I met again, they told their experience with great memory. When I have a chance to meet with my old meditators of this course, they told me this is the course they will never forget. Today her mother recalled how persistant her daughter was at that time not to stop her course. I feel so happy and my heart is warmly touched to see her again, and see how she is developed and grow up. Now she become a second year student at Singapore studying Bio Chemistry Medicine, such a real scholar. But she still remember her time at Dhamma Joti and shared this website.

I didn’t expected Cyclone Nargis to change my life so strongly. But with my amazement, it also changed my life stream. Before this event, I did only donation with my own saving but after this Cyclone Nargis to help more efficiently and effectively, I founded a new service and charity organization and can helped thousands of people. Unbelievable moment."

Monday, 9 December 2013

A Forest Nun in Burma

The following words are from a foreign Buddhist nun who lived in seclusion for three years in northern Myanmar, ardently following the Buddha's teachings and practicing serious meditation in the total silence of the forest. The following excerpt is part of a longer description she has written about her experience for the upcoming guide of Shwe Lan.

"When entering the Forest, the first thing that impressed me it was the deafening noise. I have been in many forests and mountains but everywhere it was silent in comparison with this. It was the full moon of April and all animals seemed to be out to celebrate the summer with loud voices. For months I had wished to go here, but it was not easy do to so as a nun. Eventually one day, unexpectedly, everything it was arranged in just a few hours. 
Huge trees, high and straight. We arrived at the place when it was already night. One kuti was made of wood and bamboo, and there was one latrine and a wooden ground area. This was all. I was not discouraged but firmly decided to stay there as long as possible.
At first I was dwelling alone in an open wood tent at the top of the mountain, where it took twenty minutes to trek from the common areas. There was not latrine here for some time, and “showers” could be had when one very kind local woman brought a fresh towel along with the daily food she offered me. Even when it was rainy, or old in winter, or when illness came, the woman never failed to arrive. Her generosity was beyond words.
During my childhood, and also later, I was afraid of being alone in isolated places. Perhaps there was some infantile fear of ghosts. But during this time I felt happy, really happy… there was a big freedom. Later I came to learn that local Burmese believed that many unfriendly ghosts were in fact in this area, and intentionally avoided it for this reason.
Besides for a necessary visa trip, I spent the following three years living full time in this forest. Most of the time I was totally in silence, only doing meditation in solitude… fascinated by the wild life there… enjoying the incomparable brightness of the stars at night.
Later, during some months I was in a little open bamboo hut. When the rain started it was necessary to use the umbrella to protect me and my bag. It was at this time that I was offered a real bamboo kuti and a "luxurious" bathroom. Of course there was still no electricity or running water, but I now had a roof and walls! Still, some times in summer the water for shower was more similar to mud than to water.
The energy in the forest it was extremely pure and fresh. Gradually I came to learn about all the beings sharing this place with me, such as noisy monkeys, big snakes, all kinds of ants, squirrels, precious birds, owls, first year wild elephants, and even tigers.
The rainy season was long—nearly six months and so much rain came that the all the roads became inaccessible. The winter really cold, and often it was entirely without proper shelter, and sometimes the best one could hope for was a fire during the night.
During the first year, the food was mostly rice and red beans for breakfast, but the warmth of the local villagers who gave love in cooking and offering this every day made it delicious to to me.
The forest is in a malaria area, and twice I became sick, the last time becoming really weak. The care, warmth, and kindness that I received at this time was far away higher than the huge trees.
The last night in the forest, many of the Dhamma workers came to my kuti and one translated the following: "When one person who has engaged in deep meditation leaves a particular place, it is good to give thanks to all of the beings that have watched over and offered their protection.”
They then started lighting hundreds of little candles and incense upstairs (where I used to meditate), downstairs (where everyday they brought food and offerings for me), around the kuti (where I walked daily), near the flowers (that with deep love they had planted for me), and under all the many trees surrounding the area.
First in silence and later with soft Burmese chanting the area became full of lights, delicious smells and so much love.
Deeply touching.

Some tears arose to my eyes and immense gratitude in the heart.”

Monday, 2 December 2013

Preparing for U Goenka's ashes upon Yangon River

This video shows scenes from Dhamma Joti in Yangon, on the night before U Goenka's ashes were scattered by special barge upon Yangon River, November 8th. One can see the care and respect given by many local meditators in honoring the great meditation teacher. One can also view the video here.