Thursday, 16 January 2014

Burma Days 15 & 16: Pariyatti and Patipatti

For Day 14, see here. Kory Goldberg continues to share his personal journal about the current pilgrimage now underway in BurmaYou can also consider joining a later pilgrimage in Burma yourself.

A Sagaing Hills Sayadaw shows the relics of his teacher, a fully liberated being, to two pilgrims
"As with every spot we’ve gone to, but different, our days in Sagaing have been a real blessing. More important than the beautiful Buddhist aesthetic, the lush gardens, delicious food and medium speed WiFi, the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy has provided us with access to some of Burma’s most learned Buddhist scholars who speak fluent English. Both our days here have afforded us Q&A sessions with U Kumara, the university’s rector, whose deep knowledge of scripture and practice has quenched our philosophical thirst. Conversations have ranged from Abhidhamma analysis to meditative experience, from mystical journeys to political musings, from historical fact to mythological narrative. Between these intellectual sessions have been both guided and solitary wanderings along the trails of Sagaing, visiting 900-year old monasteries that gave birth to Buddhism in the region, caves vibrating with the energies of awakened beings, and sugar-cane juice stands that replenish lost electrolytes. On Day 15 many of us met with the very venerable Prekhemma Sayadaw whose quiet and loving presence was yet another living expression of the Dhamma. When not teaching his small retinue of dedicated monks, counseling lay people, and overseeing maintenance and construction projects, this 50-something year old bhikkhu brimming with humility and kindness walks around the forested, hill-side property practicing mettā-bhavana for approximately 3 hours. And it shows. 

View of a long cave in the Sagaing Hills where one arahant practiced for 30 years
After a brief discussion, most of our group went off to meditate in the cave where the Sayadaw’s predecessor resided for 30 years and became an arahant. Caves like these abound the Sagaing hills, which are believed to have the highest concentration of enlightened contemplatives anywhere in the world. Prekhemma Sayadaw then showed some of us his teacher’s relics, as well as those of an unknown arahant. Since being in his presence, the latter relics have multiplied and expanded, many of them growing from the size of a sesame seed to that of a chickpea. This phenomena is said to occur when the relics abide in the presence of stainless morality. After examining and photographing the multi-colored relics, we meditated with them for about half an hour. As with genuine Buddha relics and the Webu Sayadaw’s relics at Ingynbin, I felt a coolness flow through my body and a deep sense of peace in my mind. During moments like these, the mind is unhindered by the typical incessant storylines and commentaries. Some craving arises to prolong these profound moments; wisdom also arises, understanding that they too are impermanent and ultimately dissatisfying.

Pilgrims walk at a monastery in the Sagaing Hills before a cave door opening where an arahant was known to practice, eating only a few spoonfuls of beans in his later years.
On Day 16 we all meditated at the 900-year old Pa Bar Jaon monastery overseen by a humble 28-year old Sayadaw, the youngest we’ve ever come across. Some of us stayed here for three hours in the morning (many taking a brief nap following another wonderful lunch); others mindfully explored other sites in the hills. We practiced in the ancient ordination hall containing two large containers filled with arahant relics ranging from the size of a chickpea to that of my hand. Apparently the original relic casket that was dug up on the premises only 20 years back was the size of a coffee mug. Now at least two dozen coffee mugs would be needed to contain all the relics. 

Pilgrims learn about the importance of water in the Sagaing Hills. As one Sayadaw said, "to come and practice in Sagaing, you always needed two things: sila and water!"
Even more extraordinary than these relics, however, was what we came across at another monastery resting on top of one of the hill’s ridges. Guided along the vast trails by a 73-year old Sagaing yogi with deep blue eyes, gentle wrinkles and a permanent grin, we entered a small shrine housing the corpse of the Venrable U Narativi. After attempts by his disciples to cremate this arahant’s dead body failed, as it simply would not burn, they realized that the body itself was a relic to be preserved. Twenty-eight years later the corpse rests peacefully in a glass casket studded with gems. Parts of the body are slightly rotten and charcoaled, but for the most part it is quite intact. In fact, the corpse’s caretaker must shave the old bhikkhu’s head and cut the nails at least once every couple of months so that he continues to look like a respectable monk! Reflecting upon this corpse completely turns the Asubha contemplation on its head!

Even though we have all had our own unique experiences on this pilgrimage in general, and in Sagaing specifically, no one can say that they haven’t been transformed in one way or another. For the time being, it may be difficult to say how, or even what had happened since processing the experience will take weeks, if not months. But something did shift during our numerous, and sometimes exhausting, visits to pagodas, sangha-dana at monasteries, meditation sessions in caves, thought-provoking Dhamma discussions, day-dreams out bus windows, sleeping on hard and dusty floors, interpersonal relationship issues with other pilgrims, and interacting with people from a totally foreign culture whose worldview is completely unlike anything any of us are familiar with back home. All of these experiences have been etched into our minds, remaining there for years to come, coloring our perceptions in ways that are incomprehensible, yet whose transformative impact will be felt for the rest of our lives."

More can be found about Day 17 here.

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