Thursday, 2 January 2014

Burma Day 3: On the Road

The group poses for a photo in the Bamboo Grove at Sassana Won Saung Monastery in Hmawbi

For Day 2, see here! The following excerpt was written by Kory Goldberg, describing the ongoing Buddhist pilgrimage in BurmaYou can also consider joining a later pilgrimage in Burma yourself.

"Leaving Yangon for the unknown. Much of what we have been doing so far has been totally unprecedented, and the unfamiliar--for both us and our Burmese hosts-- would continue. After a brief halt at the Htaukkyant War Memorial with a reflection on the uncertainty and vulnerability of this precious human life, we stopped in at the Sassana Won Saung Monastery to offer food to more than 250 samaneras and bhikkhus learning and practicing the vinaya. As with all visits to a monastery, the first order of the event was to seek out the Sayadaw, pay respect to him, offer dana, and explain to him who we are and what we are doing. We were pleasantly surprised to be joined by Snow's father, who was very proud of his daughter's accomplishment of helping foreign yogis travel around their country to gain an intimacy with Burmese culture and Dhamma. Now that we have visited a few monasteries and Dhamma centres I also came to realize that not only were we curious objects of interest--and to some degree, pride, for the Burmese, but we were also in some way representatives of our teacher Sayagyi U Goenka and his teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin. We were showing these Sayadaws what Goenkaji has accomplished by disseminating the practice of Dhamma on a global scale, and that his international students were now respectfully visiting famous and out of the way places that have helped shape the form of Burmese Buddhism over the last century and a half. 

A subtle example of the exemplary discipline found at Sassana Won Saung Monastery is evidenced by the simple way that the novices leave their shoes when entering a building

From the Sayadaw's meeting room, we made our way to the massive dining hall filled with almost hunded small tables laden with several dishes. the men of the group formally offered the food to an elder bhikkhu who in turn led the group in a chant of homage. The men, not used to the Burmese pronunciation, fumbled all the prayers, causing even a chuckle here and there by both foreign and local yogis. (a short clip of this incident can be seen here) Then as the large number of monks filed in the women in our had the opportunity to offer rice in the bowls of the monks. This moment was a first for almost all the women, and the joy and excitement they were feeling was tangible. watching the monks silently accept and consuming alms was a blessing and an inspiration for mindful eating--a practice that most westerners are not habituated to do, and probably not unrelated to the various digestive issues that so many face. 

New robes are offered and merit is made at Sassana Won Saung Monastery by foreign yogis

When the monks were done eating the men in our group offered each bhikkhu a sachet of washing powder. We all worked as a team as some of us were separating the attached packets (and making a bit of a mess spilling powder everywhere--although a pleasant sign that we contributing to the cleansing of defilements!), others handing them off to the givers, and the rest sending metta, abiding in piti, and/or taking photos of the whole event. Then it was our turn to eat. Although it would be a lie to say that we followed the monks' tranquil example, we did eat our lunch with appreciation, joy, and great Dhamma discussions. To help digest the once again delicious meal, Snow and one of the monastery's lay supporters gave us a tour of the peaceful premises dotted with jackfruit trees and a cool bamboo grove, probably not dissimilar to the venuvana of the Buddha's day. None of us really wanted to leave the shade of the bamboo, but there was still much to do before the day's end.

The immensely peaceful Bamboo Grove walkway found at Sassana Won Saung Monastery

Our next stop was Aung Zabu Tawya, a monastery that recently acquired a 301 precious Buddha statues from a Japanese devotee (whose business apparently multiplied after the donation--Dhamma works!). As soon as we arrived, we were ushered to the front of the temple to meet the Sayadaw. He was so impressed by our group that he closed off the display to other visitors so that we could visit the statues undisturbed (not a small gesture as there were hundreds of people outside waiting to enter--apparently the temple now receives approximately one million vistors per week). As we walked around the temple inspecting and honouring the images, a small group of women pilgrims clad in brown chanted Pali suttas. Their beatiful voices in unison charged the moment with a devotional intensity, bringing tears to a few of our eyes. Again, how fortunate we are.

Myittar Shin Shwe Pyi Thar Monastary in Hmawbi, about 90 minutes from Yangon, was Our next and final destination for the next couple of days. Since the Sayadaw was out of station, we went straight to our accommodation. Unlike the luxurious 3-star hotel with comfortable beds and wifi connection we stayed at in Yangon, here we were to sleep on the floor in small dorms, sharing the space with spiders, frogs, lizards. These conditions provided us with a perfect opportunity to practice nekkhama parami with grace and trust that everything would be fine as long as we maintained equanimity and appreciation. before our group meditation in monastary's ordination hall, We walked around the grounds where we came across a group of construction workers playing chinlone outside the five thousand person capacity meditation hall. While the group toured the hall, I stayed back to watch the guys play, half hoping that they would invite me into the circle. they were much better than the guys I played with in Yangon (who were about the same skill as I was), so I was also happy to just watch. They invited me in and I hopped in without hesitation, not regretting it for a moment since I was able to follow along without dropping the ball too often. Like meditating in groups, we get charged by others and everyone's capacity to go deeper increases. After our group sitting, those of us who were hungry concluded the day with tea, biscuits, and fruit over wonderful Dhamma discussions and stories. Another great ending to another great day."

The next post can be found here! (You can also compare this day with the Burma Yatra #2)

This dhamma hall is most of the time empty, but twice per year they hold Vipassana meditation courses that accommodate 4,000 sitting students at one time! (as a comparison, one Canadian Vipassana center in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka welcomes approximately 1,000 students per year)

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