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

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