Thursday, 16 January 2014

Burma Day 13: Settling In Before Heading Out

The day before can be seen here! The following excerpt was written by Kory Goldberg about the pilgrimage in BurmaYou can also consider joining a later pilgrimage in Burma yourself.

Pilgrims take a group photo with the Sayadaw at the Patipatti side of Webu Monastery

"Today was atypical as people had the opportunity to really follow their own rhythm. Following meditation and breakfast, most of us chose to take the village and Pariyatti Monastery tour, but some decided to simply take it easy and meditate on their own. Some even followed bhikkhus U Sasana and U Agga on their alms round through the village, getting a glimpse into the 2600 year old tradition in a location that probably does not look like too much has changed since then. For those of us on the tour walking through the village with U Mandala and the visiting monk U Yassa was quite special. Ingynbin's people are renown for their devotion to the Sangha and walking along with these English speaking venerable monks afforded us an opportunity to interact with villagers in a way that seemed impossible the day before when a small group of us went out on our own. The previous day, we certainly got a few brilliant smiles and mingalabas, but with the monks people actually came out to meet us after they had finished bowing in reverence to the monks. 

The group gathers for a photo in front of the magnificent Dhamma Hall on the Pariyatti side of Webu Monastery
When we arrived in the village centre, we came across a large float built to hold a coffin. Venerable Yassa's aunt had recently died and he was back in Ingynbin from Mandalay to participate in the funeral procession and practice the Asubha contemplation. One of the pilgrims asked the monk of 25 rainy seasons how he felt. He admitted that he felt sad, but he did not cry since he had so much Buddhist practice under his belt. He said he felt happy also at this moment, for he had helped to teach dhamma to his aunt and he knew that she had lived a pure and virtuous life. Sharmaji, with full compassion, held the monk's hand, for he too is a human being. 

U Yassa then translated the conversation to the crowd of villagers who stood close by (in a respectful and non-imposing manner, unlike in India when locals are not shy to surround a foreigner and gawk at him as if he were an animal in a zoo). The villagers were all smiling, including Yassa's uncle, understanding that death is just another part of the cycle of life. Yassa continued that his aunt was a dedicated Buddhist whose morality was stainless and her meditation strong, so he was confident that she was bound for rebirth in a celestial plane. He then invited us to attend the funeral and practice the Asubha, a reflection on the fragility of human life and the repulsiveness of the human body. To his surprise, we all accepted with gratitude and excitement to watch a corpse burn to ashes.

Since the ceremony was not for another 90 minutes we returned to the monastery for an audience with the Buddha relics. As I was at Chowse, I was quite skeptical regrading their authenticity, despite knowing that they had been donated to Webu Sayadaw by the Prime Minster of Sri Lanka (Webu Sayadaw had visited Sri Lanka only on the condition that he was given some Buddha relics to bring back to Myanmar). However, as soon as I entered the Sayadaw's darkened room where they were kept I immediately felt that distinct strong activation of the awareness of the anicca along with a coolness flowing through my body, a very unique movement of sensation that I feel only when in the presence of the Tathagata's remains. The 82-year old Sayadaw sat there flanked by some younger monks, and in front of him was an open relic casket. Right there lay before me mustard seed sized pieces of bone in the centre of an ivory lotus flower. Snow had been in the room for some time already, and she called each one of us up to the relics and then placed them on our heads for a direct blessing. Once everyone had had a turn, Yassa translated the Sayadaw's Webu-inspired teaching on practising continuously in order to awaken in this very lifetime. None of us wanted to leave, but this moment too had to come to the end of its life as the funeral ceremony was to soon begin.

The procession itself was neither solemn nor sad, but rather festive with lots of joking and laughter as people banged on the side of the float shouting out the Burmese equivalent to "Grandma, Grandma, come on Grandma." The float was then disassembled, the body removed from the coffin and placed on to the pyre. We then all moved to a nearby site where we were all given lychee juice while taking refuge in the Triple Gem and 5 precepts, followed by an Asubha-based discourse, which fortunately Yassa translated for us. 

Initially, I felt bad that we were given the seats of honour at a funeral of person we did know and that the translations stretched out the event for our sake, but when realizing that all the locals were so pleased to have us there, all such thoughts vanished. As the chanting and discourse commenced, the smell of burning flesh wafted through the air. When the discourse was over, we met Yassa's cousin, also a monk, and uncle who we met earlier. This time, however, the elderly farmer was no longer grinning from ear to ear as the direct realization of what was happening began to sink in. His son, the monk, looked devastated, despite wearing the armour of a bhikkhu. We then walked over to watch the corpse burn and reflect on the vulnerability of life and inevitability of death. To our surprise, most of the funeral attendees skipped out on what seemed to me one of the most important parts of the ceremony. Those in attendance, besides the freaky foreigners eager to see a dead body, were a bunch of young novices with their fingers stuck up their noses, a few teenagers, the calm Yassa, and those responsible for burning the body. Every now and again these guys would use a long piece of bamboo to scrape the flesh and poke at the bones to make sure that every part got consumed by the fire.

Later that afternoon as most people rested, a couple of us completely changed gears as we dove into the mud with the Thai women and a group of novices to work on constructing the mud bricks for the adobe house. We worked out our muscles by mixing the clay, water and rice husks and then carrying heaps of these mixtures over to the frame for shaping the bricks. It was a lot of fun and gave us an opportunity to interact with locals in a completely new and engaging way. Translating words into English, Thai and Burmese while building something useful is a great way to establish communication amidst linguistic and cultural obstacles. After we were done and bathed at the natural hot spring, we came across some young, local farmers playing their end-of-day ritual of chinlone-volleyball. At first we hesitated to join because these guys were amazing, but their skill and positive energy magically raised our bar and we fit in not too badly.

After our evening meditation the relaxation for most continued until bed while some of us went back to meet with Thais to learn more about adobe building and their projects back home. What an incredibly diverse and spontaneous day! The constant surprises and blessings on a pilgrimage can only manifest when their is a willingness to remain flexible and open to change, comfort with not knowing what will pop out around the next corner, and honest about one's needs and limitations. The next step is integrate these pilgrimage lessons back home where every day, every moment is its own little journey."

The next day's entry, when the group goes on to the mystical Sagaing Hills, can be found here...

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