Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Sagaing Hills: "A Fairyland of Pagodas"

A view of the magical Sagaing Hills, resting on the Ayeyarwaddy, across from Mandalay.

New Zealander yogis Bruce and Marion Forbes brought their two children to Myanmar in 2012. In the following passage, they share about their deep connection with the Sagaing Hills:

"We had heard about Sagaing from one of our meditator friends, Karen. She had described it as 'Fairyland' because of the numerous golden-spired pagodas in the hills. She had spent a very special time there, meditating in a cave. We knew that it was home to 6000 monks and was believed to be the place where Vipassana Meditation was kept alive over the centuries. My husband had also visited Sagaing 5 years earlier and had made friends with an trishaw driver, Maung Htay and a monk called Panna Sami, so we were all eager to visit. We spent a few days in Sagaing visiting friends, walking in the hills, taking in the sights, visiting monasteries and meeting the monks and nuns. After a few days, we visited Pyin Oo Lwin, a cool hill station which had been the summer capital of British Burma in a bygone era. Though picturesque, we found that we were missing Sagaing, so we returned for a few more days. Our days in Sagaing flowed so well. We had many wonderful experiences and our family felt so welcome, especially at the monasteries. Staying in Sagaing was the highlight of our trip in both Myanmar and India."

Two novices sit at the base of a stupa in the Sagaing Hills

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Dhamma discussion at Shwe Kyin Monastery

On the February 2014 pilgrimage, the group was fortunate enough to spend an evening at the age-old Shwe Kyin Monastery. After paying respects as the novices made their traditional procession while reciting Buddhist suttas on their way to meditation, they spent an evening with Dr. Khin Maung Aye, a Burmese Senior Assistant Teacher in the Sayagyi U Goenka tradition. The good doctor is fluent in English and currently resides in England (he has also helped to support the South African Goenka center), thus he was a rare speaker who was able to communicate to the pilgrims across languages and cultures. He also spoke to the January group, so passionately that even one pilgrim late ordained at this very monastery! Being now in robes as well, he was able to speak about topics ranging from lay meditation practice to being a formal member of the Sangha. In this talk, he talks about establishing monasteries in the West, the sotapanna stage attained by Dr. Om Prakesh, and how dhamma practice has benefited his profession. Note that this is a small portion of a much longer evening's talk. Seated by him is Sayadaw U Thuttivara, the current Sayadaw of the monastery. Beside him is the American monk who was ordained temporarily after meeting the venerated monk the previous month; and a European monk who has been in robes for several years.

To learn about current pilgrimage offerings, see here.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A Burma Pilgrimage: "The Benefits should not be Overlooked"

Mårten Berg standing outside Sayagyi U Ba Khin's IMC
Mårten Berg, a Swedish meditator, participated on the February 2014 pilgrimage in Burma. Following he writes some reflections on his trip, now that he has returned to his home country. He hopes to return to the Golden Land next year for continued practice. To read about current pilgrimage offerings, see here.

"To those training in morality and with devotion making efforts towards development in the Dhamma, going to Burma for a pilgrimage is very auspicious. Burma, the golden land, is a unique place, strong in purity. The benefits of going there as a part of ones practice should not be underestimated nor overlooked. The merits gained on such a journey will last throughout ones life and future lives. It will give a strong push of urgency to keep developing in Dhamma and dismay towards worldly things. It will bring out whatever purity one has and multiply it. Whatever negativities there may be will subside, if they arise they will not be so strong and the good atmosphere all around will settle the mind quite effortlessly. It is important that the pilgrim receives support to overcome cultural, language and religious barriers. It is easy with a western mind, to discard the many ways in which Dhamma expresses itself. Being a country of about 60 million people, Burma has its good and bad qualities as any other country. But as one decides to go on a pilgrimage and ones mind attunes towards Dhamma, it gets connected to all the good vibrations of the golden land. There is a wide spectrum of practitioners all the way from just practicing devotion to being fully liberated. If one really makes efforts to understand and go beyond preconceived views one can fully connect to the gift which Burma is to the people of the world. The actual barriers are nothing but the five enemies, namely; craving, aversion, physical sloth/ mental torpor, agitation/ worry and doubt.

Mårten with Snow, her mother, and Branden (now U Ariyavamsa), preparing for monks' alms rounds

I am so full of gratitude as the pilgrimage hosted by Pariyatti, Joah, Snow, Bhante Agga and many others generated a wonderful environment for Dhamma to flourish. Much like a course there were requirements, rules, guidelines and expectations. We had daily meditation sessions, times for eating and resting, scheduled activities and endless opportunities for doing good deeds. We visited places related to revered Goenkaji and the lineage of teachers, and also other sites related to Dhamma in general. The pilgrims were allowed to submerge in the inner experience of the pilgrimage as the management was discretely taken care of behind the scenes. We also received support from our guides' deep intuitive understanding of the golden land and how Dhamma is expressed there. So much so that we also gained intuition and were inspired to visit monasteries on our own. It has been like from swimming in a fish bowl back home to be let out in the ocean of Dhamma to swim on your own. Burma has enriched my life so deeply. To visit the centers of our Dhamma grandfather and great grandfather and so on, to learn about their struggles and attainments, is so satisfying. To know that there is a serious Sangha, that monks and nuns are practicing very diligently, gives so much faith to the heart. To just be near such noble ones, to benefit from their radiating purity is enough to dispel so much of the negativities. And to meet a people so dedicated to following the Buddhas teaching of generosity and morality certainly inspires one to become a better person. I experienced a clarity of mind greater than ever before. Each day kept building on the previous one. We kept saying to each other, 'how can it get any better than this?', and those who knew better would say 'just wait until tomorrow' or 'just wait until we get to such and such a place' or 'until we meet so and so'. Indeed, the good atmosphere kept building throughout the journey. It is difficult to put into words, it is something to be experienced. The Dhamma-sprout planted several years ago in the depths of Vipassana under the protection of Goenkaji, that then needed so much tending, now had grown and was in bloom. With all the sunshine, water and good nutrition, this tree of Dhamma, tree of happiness, gave fruit. Something marvelous culminated in Burma. The negativities became so feeble, an exhilarating sense of freedom emerged. 

Pilgrims explore Saya Thet Gyi's center in Pyaw Bwe Gyi

I read that the Buddha compered his feelings of relief and happiness to those of a man who has just discharged a debt, or recovered from a painful illness, or been freed from prison, or released from slavery, or who has safely crossed a dangerous wilderness. Such was the experience. I am so happy to let you know, this experience wasn't mundane, not another high to come down from. It was transformative. It is something I have brought with me home, the fruits keep on coming every day. It seems this is a new chapter. Dhamma has taken root within. Not that there are no more negativities. But it certainly has helped me get past so many obstacles that would have taken so much longer otherwise. So much misery has been dispelled. My wish of deep sympathetic joy (mudita) and 'come and see for yourself' (ehipassiko) is that all serious practitioners of Dhamma will make a pilgrimage to the golden land, to benefit from its good vibrations and spread this happiness of Dhamma throughout the world.

A Burmese Monastery in the early morning hours

As the great emperor Ashoka inscribed on pillar edicts over two thousand years ago: 'Happiness in this world and the next is difficult to obtain without much love for the Dhamma, much self-examination, much respect, much fear (of evil), and much enthusiasm.'"

Mårten with a monk met during the pilgrimage

Monday, 24 March 2014

Abhidhamma Course at Sitagu during 2014 Rains Retreats

An older female yogi pays respects as monks walk past her

There is a belief in Burma that the Abhidhamma is so important, that when the Buddha's teachings start to disappear from the world, this will be the very first to be lost. Therefore, the need to preserve the Abhidhamma takes on a considerable importance in order to preserve the Sasana.

There is also an old tale, likely more mythology than reality, about a ship carrying the three books of the Tipitika crashing in the waters. Each one was saved, with the Abhidhamma Pitika going to Burma, the Vinaya Pitika going to Thailand, and the Sutta Pitika going to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This ancient tale is often repeated today in Myanmar, as if to describe the great importance it plays in dhamma practice and Buddhist life in the Golden Land.

Study of Abhidhamma is possible only under the assistance of a skilled teacher, for the material is so dense that many first-time readers struggle to understand its profound meaning. While Abhidhamma study is to be found throughout modern Myanmar, it is rare to find an opportunity to do so in English.

This is where the extraordinary opportunity being provided by Sitagu Academy Rector Dr. U Kumara comes in. For the first time in the Academy’s history, a two month Abhidhamma course will be offered in June and July to 20 foreign meditators.

For more information about this course, and to register, please see here.

Sandals laid out neatly reflect the discipline found among young novices at Sassana Won Saung in Hmawbi

Monday, 17 March 2014

Kittens in the Dhamma Hall

At Shwe Oo Min monastery, newborn kittens have taken up residence in the Dhamma Hall. They play under the golden statue of the revered arahant Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, they sleep inside drooping monks' robes, and they sit upon the plush chairs reserved for monks. One wonders what their previous life connection may have been with this center and Sayadaw...

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Dhamma Found in a Burmese Teashop

A young child awaits a fresh cup of tea

Sam Hanft, an American yogi, spent several months in Burma in the winter of 2013/2014. He relates some of his more special experiences that he had in the Sagaing Hills:

"I arrived in Sagaing in the evening, having taken the bus from Mandalay, and decided I would get a hotel and start my search for a monastery the next morning. I was approached by a motorcyle taxi as I got off the bus, and within minutes was at a newly built hotel several dusty lanes away. After settling in, I asked the owner where I could get a bite to eat, and he suggested a place just down the road.

In retrospect, I'm sure he was talking about one of several beer stations on the corner. But I was new to Sagaing, and I walked into the first place I saw: a teahouse.

My arrival caused some commotion. The owners, a couple in their 50s, greeted me with smiles and ushered me to a plastic chair in the center of the shop. There were shouts behind the counter. Soon after, their youngest daughter emerged with a bashful smile. 'Myanmar food?' she asked. 'Yes, please.' All around, wide eyes diverted their gaze from the Myanmar movie blaring on the TV and settled on me.

Within minutes, I had a soup, two bowls of curry, and a plate of steaming rice in front of me. I didn't know at the time, but this was from the family's dinner; normally, they only serve noodle dishes to customers. The rest of the teashop's patrons looked on with envy as I dug in. When the owner saw that I had finished my soup, she generously gave me her own as she was sitting down to eat. Another bowl of curry arrived soon after. As I ate, I took in the scene. Customers laughed along with the film, chatted among themselves, or quietly sipped a cup of tea. The owner's three children bustled about taking orders, while two grandchildren ran under and between tables, tossing a ball back and forth. Satisfied, I asked to pay and was charged only for the tea. I was stunned.

Sam with the family that offered him breakfast each morning

I spent the next day hunting for a monastery with no success. I was looking for a place with an English-speaking Sayadaw where I could go on solitary retreat. At lunchtime, I headed back to the teahouse, where I was met with more smiles and food. Despite my best efforts, the family once again refused payment.

U Pinnisami, the Sayadaw at the monastery where Sam stayed
That evening, as I was preparing to go back to the hotel empty-handed, a taxi driver shouted at me from across the street--'Hey! Would you like to stay at a monastery?' It seemed like a dream come true. He took me to the hotel to collect my bags, and I settled into the monastery that evening. Now in a different part of town, I couldn't head back to the tea shop to eat or say goodbye. Little did I know, they had prepared a special curry and were awaiting my arrival.

The next day I heard from a friend who invited me to join him for the tail end of a pilgrimage. He was leading a group of foreign meditators around Myanmar to visit sites of interest to the lineage of U Goenka. Six days and many monasteries later, I was back in Mandalay planning the next leg of my trip. After my experience on the pilgrimage, I felt like sitting a Goenka meditation course. I also had an urge to head east and see the Shan plateau. But the tea shop family had been so generous to me, I felt I couldn't continue on without thanking them. So I bought some toys for the grandchildren and headed back to the monastery in Sagaing, thinking I'd stay a night or two.

I went to the shop the next day for lunch. Still new to the norms of giving in Burma, I was nervous about how my gifts would go over. My entry met with familiar smiles. I offered my gifts, which were received as if my gesture was the most natural in the world. Soon I was sitting next to the mother, sipping tea and snacking on boiled radishes. I spent all day at the shop. Before leaving, War War, the youngest daughter (and only English I speaking member of the family), offered to take me to Mingun the next morning. I hadn't planned on staying in the area long, but I couldn't say no.

War War and her mother prepare the tea

I spent the next day with War War and her friend Soe Min Htet, touring Mingun and Kaung Hmu Daw pagoda and getting lunch at their favorite restaurant in town. Again and again, I was caught off guard by their generosity. War War saw that my bag was torn and bought me a new one without saying a word. They paid for all the gas and food--I was never quick enough to beat them to the bill. Having little prior experience with Burmese hospitality, I felt anxious and wondered how I would repay them.

I spent the evening at the teashop, and at the end of the night War War offered to take me somewhere else if I came back the next day. Of course, I agreed.

The tea making area at the cafe

I ended up spending six weeks in Sagaing. I slept at the monastery, where I maintained my daily meditation and practiced English with the friendly Sayadaw. Every morning, I was offered breakfast by a family down the street who sold me water. With not a word of English spoken in the household, it promised an interesting start to each day. After that, I headed to the tea shop. War War and I would go to the market to buy the day's supply of food and drink, then sit together while she made tea and served customers. We practiced English and Burmese. Slowly, I learned how to make tea and was eventually allowed to take orders for the shop's regulars, who got a kick out of my serving them. I ate lunch and dinner with the family. I tried to help out wherever I could--washing dishes, cracking peanuts, sweeping--but the family did their best to ensure I didn't do any work. Mostly, I sat around and drank tea.

I met friends and friends of friends and made contacts through the monastery. I was invited to visit local sites, like Inwa, Amarapura, and the pagodas of the Sagaing Hills, as well as nearby villages, which my hosts told me had never before seen foreign visitors. I witnessed several novitiation ceremonies, whose glittering ox-carts and fanciful costumes were unlike anything I'd ever seen. More than once I was invited to stay overnight. The more time I spent in the area, the more I let go of my inhibitions and opened to the local way of living. Soon, I was eating with my hands, sporting jade jewelry and fuzzy flip flops, and smiling more than I ever had before. Everywhere I went, the hospitality was overflowing--food, lodging, smiles--and no one would ever accept a single kyat.

The novitation ceremony that Sam witnessed

One such occasion left a particular impression on me. Five young men my age, English students of my monastery's head monk, took me to their village. After a day of eating, swimming in the river, and singing and playing guitar, I was ready to go back to the monastery. I was offered an overnight stay but declined. Feeling a little guilty, I wondered who would take me back. It was dark, the drive was thirty minutes each way, and the windy dirt road was littered with bumps and holes. There was a festival in the village that night to boot. To my surprise, without exchanging a single word, all five of my hosts jumped on two motorbikes and accompanied me back to the monastery, singing and joking the whole way. All I could think of was all the times my friends back home and I had argued over who would give who a ride home. When we got to the monastery, we parted with earnest handshakes and warm goodbyes.

Sam with his new Burmese friends

I did my best to give back by teaching English and computer skills to anyone who was interested, which was almost everyone. I bought year-long memberships to the British Council in Mandalay for several friends who were sincere in their effort to study. I also had many long talks with War War, who secretly desired to leave the tea shop to seek professional work but, as the youngest daughter, was too scared to tell her parents (or anyone, for that matter) about her ambitions. Before leaving, I signed her up for an accounting course and facilitated a conversation with her mother, who happily agreed to hire a new worker to allow War War to pursue her dreams. Today, I got an email for War War telling me that she has an interview in Monywa for a hotel reception job.

I finally left Sagaing with plans to attend a Goenka meditation course in Mandalay, spend a couple days in Bagan, and then take a flight from Yangon to Bangkok, and from there back to the States. To my surprise, on the morning of the last day of the course, War War and Soe Min Htet showed up to drive me to the bus station to catch my ride to Bagan. As soon as I arrived in Bagan, I felt like I'd made a mistake. So I made a quick tour of the temples and booked a ticket back to Sagaing, where I spent my last three days before heading to Yangon and leaving the country.

My stay in Sagaing has left me with a lot to think about. I witnessed and received kindness, generosity, and consideration such as I had never known. Just as impressive, I saw people act with a straightforwardness and sincerity I assumed were relics of a bygone era. I also glimpsed some of the darker sides of such traditional life, particularly with respect to the treatment of women. Above all, my experience constantly challenged my ideas about how and why life should be lived, which is the greatest gift I could ask for."

Thazin Khin, the sister of War War, with her child

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Monk and the Fly

A silly cartoon about a foreign bhikkhu looking for peace in the natural world, and just hoping to begin his meditation practice.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Shwekyin novices chant at evening

Shwekyin Monastery is one of the oldest and most important not only in Mandalay, but in the entire country of Myanmar. The original Shwekyin Sayadaw was greatly revered by many in 19th century Burmese society, and none more so than the very King Mindon, the second to last Burmese king. Shwekyin Sayadaw's strict adherence to vinaya (the monks' discipline as laid down by the Buddha) was admired by all, and he also wrote some of the very first books on vipassana practice that still survive to this day, and even Ledi Sayadaw referenced these. A yogi who visits his original Mandalay monastery today is able to meditate in the very cave where this great monk did so, many years before.

Every evening at 6 pm the novices make a procession as they chant, as they have since time immemorial. Following this, they sit for meditation, and foreign meditators are also able to join them. This video shows the young novices as they approach the dhamma hall.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Webu Sayadaw Dhamma Hall in Ingyinbin gets a fresh coat of paint


Since Webu Sayadaw's parinibanna in 1977, the Patipatti side of his monastery, which in his era saw 300-500 practicing yogis daily, has been in a state of steady decline. While most of the highly significant buildings and other sites still exist, little has been done to maintain them. This is why one feel great joy at seeing local donors providing dana to restore and add a fresh coat of paint to the Dhamma Hall. 

When pilgrims visited in February 2014, several workers were in the process of renovating it, what can only be seen as a hopeful sign for the rest of the compound. Some foreign yogis have talked about going in a group to the monastery for several weeks, with the aim of providing dhamma service to help restore some of the other important sites (such as where Webu ordained, attained nibbana, ordained Sayagyi U Ba Khin, meditated, taught devas, etc. etc.), out of gratitude for the key role Webu Sayadaw played in spreading dhamma to the greater world outside his village.

Monday, 10 March 2014

"The Beauty of Burmese Life is Hard to Qualify."

Pilgrims listen to a dhamma talk by monks in Sain Pyin Gyi, the small village where Ledi Sayadaw was born.

The following essay was written by Branden Macie, an American pilgrim who attended the recent Pariyatti pilgrimage in Burma (and is at present moment sitting a Satipattana course at Dhamma Joti!). The original piece can be found on the Living Vipassana website. To read more about the pilgrimages, see here. To learn about current pilgrimage offerings, see here.

"From January 2012 to March 2012 a nickel of wisdom arose in me while serving long-term at Dhamma Patapa in Jesup, Georgia, U.S.A. I was there to strengthen my individual walk in Dhamma and to share my merits with others who came for meditation alongside other meditators who wanted to apply the technique in daily life-like scenarios. At the time of my stay, I jumped into study (pariyatti) to gain a view of the context of Vipassana being taught there at the Center. Zipping through books with the lightning evaluation capacity which comes with strong concentration episodes, the texts chronicling the lineage of the Vipassana tradition appealed to me most.

One particular book which wedged a great impression in me was the Sayagyi U Ba Khin Journal where details unrelated to the teaching of the typical 10-day courses tested and touched my faithful side, enlivening my understanding of this Path. Leaving the center and maintaining the practice for years following that service period, heavy dreams of pilgrimaging within Burma made their eruption into my conscious stream over and over. Then, Burmese folks I’d meet would lift up those dreams further by inviting me to Dhamma related outings, studies unrelated to the language and practice Goenkaji’s teaching.

For the a long while a needle of uncertainty was lodged into my mind about living Dhamma through different techniques and actions than were known to me through the 10-day retreat center’s presentation. I held on so closely, so personally. The conditioning I’d developed was strong and a barrier to outside Dhamma works, events, and representations of ‘Dhamma’ began to form — I felt a bit off the mark even knowing the Buddha’s Liberation Teachings were specific to each individual. The attachment had to be let go of.

Navigating those walls, the concepts, the emotions they arose became easier with continued acceptance that Buddha’s Dhamma can’t only fit one categorization of language and practice. More important the Real Time at each individual’s mental level, efforts, and energies is where Dhamma exists and that’s gladdening.

Therefore, seeing Burma and the way the society has structured itself while noticing my own inner pilgrimage along the way helped me realize the vastness of walking toward liberation — all the efforts one CAN make for others (regardless of tradition). When one’s mind is settled into the heart of Right Intention much can be shared.

The beauty of Burmese life is hard to qualify. Learning of enlightened Arahats, even ones so recently passed away who revealed their attainments through body relics, were Great teachers of the Dhamma in their own special ways for the Burmese locals. The amount of devotion and merit gaining on a daily level in Burma is astoundingly high. One can go from Alms round serving monks to Pagodas for paying respects to Sayadaws and end the evening with a Dhamma talk on the Abidhamma or any of the hundreds of Suttas contained in the Tipitaka.

Pilgrims arrive at Thanboddhay Monastery, established by Mohnyin Sayadaw, a disciple of Ledi Sayadaw. Thousands of Burmese were sheltered here during World War II and learned meditation during this time. When the pilgrims arrived, dozens of Burmese college students were there for meditation and devotion.
The fruit to seeing the wider context of Buddha’s Dhamma is so sweet, so virtuous, so needed and for anyone interested in investigating Burma Dhamma, I would willingly be a contact point once one enters the country.

Here’s a quote by Harold Fielding from Soul of a People to end on:

“To hear of the Buddha from living lips in this country [Burma], which is full of his influence, where the spire of his monastery marks every village, and where every man has at one time or another been his monk, is quite a different thing to reading of him in far countries, under other skies and swayed by other thoughts. To sit in the monastery garden in the dusk, in just such a tropic dusk as He taught in so many years ago, and hearing the yellow-robed monk tell of that life, and repeat His teaching of love, charity, and compassion — eternal love, perfect charity, endless compassion — until the stars come out in the purple sky, and the silver-voiced gongs ring for evening prayers, is a thing never to be forgotten. As you watch the starlight die and the far-off hills fade into the night, as the sounds about you still, and the calm silence of the summer night falls over the whole earth, you know and understand the teacher of the Great Peace as no words can tell you. A sympathy comes to you from the circle of believers, and you believe, too. An influence and an understanding breathes from the nature about you — the same nature that the teacher saw — from the whispering fig-trees and the scented champaks, and the dimly seen statues in the shadows of the shrines, that you can never gain elsewhere. And as the monks tell you the story of that great life, they bring it home to you with reflection and comment that has application to your everyday existence.”

Two pilgrims relax at the base of a pagoda stupa

Sunday, 9 March 2014

"S.N Goenka: His Life, His Dhamma" Part 2

This documentary, chronicling the life of S.N. Goenka from a Burmese perspective, has been many years in the making by U Min Chit Thu and U Lu Min Khaung. While it is now available throughout Myanmar, this is the first chance for anyone outside the country to be able to get a view of it. The makers of the documentary have kindly given us exclusive permission to post this on the Internet, so that their work may reach more people throughout the world, and offer inspiration and appreciation. They would like to bring English subtitles but are currently running into technical difficulties; additional volunteers for this meritorious deed may contact us.

The documentary is in four parts. To see part 1, see here.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Information about Abhidhamma Course at Sitagu Academy in the Sagaing Hills

As a recent post indicated, the Sitagu Academy Rector in the Sagaing Hills has generously offered to teach an Abhidhamma course to foreigners during the months of June and July 2014. The opportunity is open to 20 fortunate meditators, and more details can be found below.

You can also download and share the following information by going here. To download the PDF version, simply click on "Download: Abhidhamma Course at Sitagu Academy.pdf" as it appears on the top of the page.

"S.N. Goenka: His Life, His Dhamma" Part 1

This documentary, chronicling the life of S.N. Goenka from a Burmese perspective, has been many years in the making by U Min Chit Thu and U Lu Min Khaung. While it is now available throughout Myanmar, this is the first chance for anyone outside the country to be able to get a view of it. The makers of the documentary have kindly given us exclusive permission to post this on the Internet, so that their work may reach more people throughout the world, and offer inspiration and appreciation. They would like to bring English subtitles but are currently running into technical difficulties; additional volunteers for this meritorious deed may contact us.

For Part 2 (of 4), see here.

A Bhikkhu's Single Meal: Alms Rounds In Burma

This beautiful Burmese documentary from several decades ago has now been added English subtitles, allowing yogis all over the world to benefit from watching it. It shares the role that food, and the offering of food, plays in the life of a bhikkhu.

“The gifts are never acknowledged. The cover of the bowl is removed, and when the offering has been put in, it is replaced, and the monk moves on. And when they have made their accustomed round, they return, as they went, slowly to the monastery, their bowls full of food… It is a good thing to give alms—good for yourself, I mean. So that this daily procession does good in two ways: it is good for the monk because he learns humility; it is good for the people because they have thereby offered them a chance of giving a little alms. Even the poorest may be able to give his spoonful of rice. All is accepted. Think not a great gift is more acceptable than a little one. You must
judge by the giver's heart.”

--Harold Fielding, Soul of a People

“The first alms round was a magical experience with devout donors and plenty of gratitude both from them and from us. The life of an alms mendicant is interesting, the householders are respectful and grateful to have someone representing Buddha to them, when they give us food they feel joyful and thus earn merits. We monks are equally grateful, with their donation we can live this wonderful life another day without difficulty. It is a mutual symbiotic relationship of joy with neither side accumulating a sense of debt to the other.”

--Canadian monk

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Abhidhamma Course for International Meditators

Most foreigners initially become attracted to the Buddha's teachings through a desire to learn formal meditation, as this is a practice which gives wonderful (and often immediate) results. Indeed, such an experience allows for direct insights that are often far more powerful than mere intellectual discussion or contemplation.

However, as one advances further in the practice, greater complexities are to be found in the inner world of the mind. This is where the Abhidhamma comes in, for the text is historically considered to be one of the most important and sacred by many Burmese Buddhists. The Abhidhamma carefully maps mind-body relationships and organizes components according to many specific classifications. Developing a greater understanding into what the Buddha actually taught regarding these factors can greatly advance one's overall understanding of the Dhamma, and provide wonderful support to one's meditation practice on the cushion.

This June and July, Sitagu Academy Rector Dr. U Kumara has announced his intention to offer a two month Abhidhamma course to foreigners in Sagaing. The course will be given entirely freely, and those accepted will be provided a meditation visa to attend. Finally, Compassionate Travels Myanmar will be offering three one-week dhamma tours around the country to coincide with the Abhidhamma course dates, allowing students/pilgrims to explore more of the country's Buddhist background while in this part of the world. Especially recommended, however, is Muditā Works.

To learn more about the requirements for applying to this Abdhidhamma course, please see this blog post. You can also directly download the PDF version here.

Many foreigners may already be familiar with the Sitagu name, as they have a branch monastery in Austin, Texas and the head Sayadaw, U Nyanissara, is one of the most respected in all of Burma today. U Nyanissara was also very close friends with U Goenka. The great lay meditation teacher regularly visited here when visiting the country and stopped at the Academy several times while leading several hundred foreign meditators on pilgrimage in the early 2000s.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

San Kyaung Building at Webu Sayadaw Monastery in Ingyinbin

This short clip shows a German meditator in very early morning in the San Kyaung building at Webu Monastery in Ingyinbin village, located in Upper Burma. In January 2014, a group of 25 foreign meditators visited here, and they sat a one day course in this building.

This building is highly significant because it was here that the venerable Webu Sayadaw, widely believed to be an arahant, resided during each hot season (he spent the rainy and hot seasons in Kyaukse and Shwebo, but always came to his native village for hot seasons). He meditated in this two story building and received visitors here as well. It was also in here where the great monk entered passed away and entered parinibbana. More about him can be learned from the documentary "Webu Sayadaw: Anthology of a Noble One."

The building is usually kept under lock and key, but the pilgrims received extraordinary permission to meditate in this building as they wished during their stay. The main altar is shown in the video, and where precious relics are kept, along with other items from Webu Sayadaw's day.

A more comprehensive and informative map of Ingyinbin and its history is coming soon.

For more information on current pilgrimage, see here.

Pa Auk Retreat Winter 2012-2013

A stunning 20 minute documentary about the 2012-2013 Pa Auk Retreat in Maymyo (Pyin Oo Lwin) has just been released. It shows a day in the life of a yogi on this retreat, and precious footage of the venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw, one of the most deeply respected monks in all of Burma/Myanmar. The film gives extraordinary access into a day in the life of the retreat and monastery during this time.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

"135 Years in Dhamma Land": A Short Clip

SN Goenka made one final pilgrimage to Burma, the land of his birth, in December 2012. A feature-length documentary of the visit has since been produced and is available throughout Myanmar today.

This is a short clip that shows the great meditation teacher being introduced to a capacity crowd in the National Theatre in Yangon (a live feed was shown to the several hundred local Burmese who sat outside in the parking lot to listen). The speaker shares the Goenka family history, and then questions are asked to Sayagyi U Goenka that members of the audience submitted in writing.

The Burma Pilgrimage: "A Great Pool of Contentment and Silence"

January 2014 pilgrims meditate for one hour at Maha Myat Muni Pagoda in Mandalay, the pagoda where SN Goenka first came in contact with dhamma, when he used to visit here with his grandfather.

"It is certainly true that a great pool of contentment and silence is felt all the time after the pilgrimage to Burma. It is an out of the world experience. Things have changed after the pilgrimage for the better. The fear of taking rebirth in the lower worlds have gone away after the pilgrimage. May be it is due to the learning of generating mudita (sympathetic joy) after doing a wholesome deeds of donation (nobody can match Burmese people in this regard), May be it is due to taking refuge in the triple gems with real intent and meaning, May be it is due to being with good companionship during the pilgrimage. We really cherish the great moments of our Myanmar pilgrimage. May all of our friends who were with us, enjoy real peace, real harmony, real love, real freedom. With lots of love and regards. If one can make it, one should visit Burma NOW!"

-- Gaurishanker Sharma, India

Sunday, 2 March 2014

A Diary of Pilgrimages

Three young Burmese boys join a group siting at a pagoda with the pilgrims

42 days of pilgrimages have now been completed, and two groups of devoted yogis have now seen the best that Burma has to offer, with many lives transformed in the process. Some pilgrims ordained and are still in robes, with others coming in the next few weeks, months, or even years with a similar intention in mind. Others have grasped the dhamma in more profound ways than was possible in one's home country, and have returned to their local community to share their wealth of experience, understanding, and inspiration.

The following guide shows the diary entries recorded for the two yatras. The majority of the first diary entries were made by Kory Goldberg, a Canadian yogi and author of Along the Path. The majority of the second yartra entries were made by an anonymous American pilgrim.

While no yatras have as yet been confirmed for the following winter of 2015, there are upcoming opportunities for those interested to join part on such excursions in the near future. U Kumara at Sitagu Academy has indicated an interest in hosting Abhidhamma workshops in English for any interested foreigners in the Sagaing Hills in June, and brief ten-day dhamma trips will be organized both before and after these courses for those wishing to attend. Finally, one may also contact Muditā Works  (the agency which arranged for the entire following two pilgrimages) at any time to arrange such a dhamma trip according to the wishes of one's group.

The ruins of Htut Kaung Monastery in the Sagaing Hills. This was one of the world's first meditation-oriented monastery 

Pilgrimage #1
Day 1: Yangon
Day 2: Pyaw Bwe Gyi
Day 3: Yangon and Hmawbi
Day 4: Hmawbi
Day 5: The Road to Mandalay
Day 6: Mandalay
Day 7: Kyaukse and Mandalay
Day 8: Mandalay and Monywa
Day 9: Monywa
Day 10: Monywa, Sain Pyin Gyi, and Ingyinbin
Day 11: Ingyinbin
Day 12: Ingyinbin
Day 13: Ingyinbin
Day 14: Ingyinbin, Shwebo, and Sagaing Hills
Day 15 and 16: Sagaing Hills
Day 17: Mingun
Day 18: Sagaing Hills and Yangon
Day 19: Yangon
Day 20: Yangon

A typical rural Burmese scene

Pilgrimage #2
Day 1: Yangon
Day 2: Pyaw Bwe Gyi
Day 3: Yangon and Hmawbi
Day 4: Hmawbi
Day 5: The Road to Mandalay
Day 6: Mandalay
Day 7: Kyaukse and Mandalay
Day 8: Mandalay and Monywa
Day 9: Monywa
Day 10: Monywa, Sain Pyin Gyi, and Ingyinbin
Day 11: Ingyinbin
Day 12: Ingyinbin
Day 13: Ingyinbin, Shwebo, and Sagaing Hills
Day 14: Sagaing Hills Nunneries
Day 15: Within the Sagaing Hills
Day 16: Sagaing Hills One Day Sitting
Day 17: Mingun
Day 18: Sagaing Hills and Yangon
Day 19: Yangon
Day 20: Yangon

Pilgrims travel back from Mingun to Sagaing may ask, what is so special to have to come across the world to Burma anyway, when the practice is basically inside already? Harold Fielding, a British administrator, provided an answer to this question in 1898 in "Soul of a People":

"To hear of the Buddha from living lips in this country, which is full of his influence, where the spire of his monastery marks every village, and where every man has at one time or another been his monk, is quite a different thing to reading of him in far countries, under other skies and swayed by other thoughts. To sit in the monastery garden in the dusk, in just such a tropic dusk as he taught in so many years ago, and hear the yellow-robed monk tell of that life, and repeat his teaching of love, and charity, and compassion—eternal love, perfect charity, endless compassion—until the stars come out in the purple sky, and the silver-voiced gongs ring for evening prayers, is a thing never to be forgotten. As you watch the starlight die and the far-off hills fade into the night, as the sounds about you still, and the calm silence of the summer night falls over the whole earth, you know and understand the teacher of the Great Peace as no words can tell you. A sympathy comes to you from the circle of believers, and you believe, too. An influence and an understanding breathes from the nature about you—the same nature that the teacher saw—from the whispering fig-trees and the scented champaks, and the dimly seen statues in the shadows of the shrines, that you can never gain elsewhere. And as the monks tell you the story of that great life, they bring it home to you with reflection and comment, with application to your everyday existence."

School children gather before a backdrop of rural stupas

A Sacred Altar

As is customary for all Burmese Buddhists, the U Ba Khin family has a shrine room in their home, in front of which one can pay respects, take the precepts, and meditate. However, being related to one of the great meditation teachers of Burma gives this shrine room an altogether special feel.

A collection of Buddha images coming from around the world. The three green ones in front are from Thailand, and the grayish white one beside them is from Korea. The central golden image was U Ba Khin's original statue, and the small brown one besides it was offered to the family by SN Goenka.

An overview of the shrine area

A lighted U Ba Khin display was donated by Taiwanese friends

This inspiring photograph greets visitors upon entering the parlour

Burma Pilgrimage #2, Day 20: "Deep Gratitude also Arises"

The following excerpt was written by an American yogi about the pilgrimage in Burma. To read about the last full day around Yangon, go here. To read about this second yatra from Day 1, and read the journal entry in order, start here.

You can also consider joining a later pilgrimage in Burma.

"It's hard to see the full breadth of what's taken place these past three weeks.

Twenty pilgrims from multiple countries, came together and learned about the fabric from which the cloth (which we all find so invaluable) was cut.

One take away is appreciation of the breadth and depth of the practice. The richness of Dhamma in Burma, manifesting in both physical forms, and actions. The integration of monastics into national psyche, and the integration of off the cushion 'practice' in daily life. The seeing of what is possible - that, like Mingun Sayadaw, one can penetrate deeply into pariyatti into patipatti and beyond (and vice versa). That, regardless of gender, it's still possible to reach advanced stages with rigorous practice (and that there are still those carrying this torch). All of this inspires one to keep on walking, and renews faith that the path will remain for generations to come.

Deep gratitude also arises... Gratitude to the the 'Knower of Great Peace' for the teachings, and to the Sangha for preserving them for centuries. Gratitude to Goenkaji for illuminating a path in the forest - providing a nonsectarian technique that extracts the essence. Gratitude to Snow, Joah, the Bhante, who believed, and generously gave of themselves. Gratitude to all who helped shepard us through safely...

It will take time to fully understand the impact of this journey, but one thing is for sure - we go back changed, and with little bits of our hearts left behind, in Burma..."