Saturday, 3 May 2014

Chanting at Thanboddhay Monastery

When Pariyatti pilgrims descended upon Thanboddhay Monastery in Upper Burma in January 2014, they were pleasantly surprised to find nearly one hundred college students, who had arrived to chant Buddhist suttas at the holy site. The two groups were able to sit together in meditation for some time before making one another's acquaintance. One may be hard-pressed to imagine Western university students doing similar things in their free time!

Today, there are three distinct parts of the grounds: (1) the Thanboddhay area, (2), the old Mohnyin monastery and meditation center (sometimes known in English as Mohnyin Forest Monastery Retreat), and (3) Mogaung Pagoda. All sites were developed by Mohnyin Sayadaw, one of the earliest disciples of Ledi Sayadaw. He was advised by Ledi to spend ten years living in the forest, eating food only from alms rounds and avoiding speech with others. During the lifetime of Mohnyin Sayadaw, there were man-made “caves” or niches at this site where monks and yogis could sleep and meditate. It was also known as a site where many locals came to seek protection from the violence of World War II, and those that arrived were sheltered and kept safe until the war’s end. The Sayadaw was famous for laying down a strict code of discipline guaranteed to ensure the community’s survival, which prohibited waste of fuel and water, regular education to children, and daily maintenance and cleaning of the compound. As a result, thousands of Burmese survived when the Japanese left in 1945, and many of them following a strict Buddhist regimen as they did so. This resulted in the construction of a meditation center on the grounds following the war, as well as a pagoda and a collection of huts where yogis could stay for practice and carry on with their study. The grounds were divided in two, with monastics on one side and laypeople on the other, and further segregated by gender.

The monastery today bursts forward with color like few other Theravada Buddhist sites you will find in Myanmar. Built between 1939 and 1952 upon thirty-seven acres, it is believed to contain 573,888 distinct Buddha images and an additional 7350 relics and other holy material. Arriving at the complex, your eye sense door will be flooded with bright colors and your field of view will be filled with uncountable small Buddha images—some large statues but most are simple hand-sized figurines that literally cover the walls. The complex has been compared to Borobodur in Indonesia, and unlike other Burmese pagodas the entrances are not guarded by chinthe but instead by white elephants. Another unique feature is its shape, which has a square base topped by receding terraces, over which rise hundreds of small stupas (864 to be exact). There are many smaller monasteries to be found between the larger pavilions, each one featuring similar architectural style and motifs. Some statues feature fashionable ladies out of the 1930s on a stroll with parasols, dogs sneaking into open doorways, and some donors even commissioned their own likelihoods. There are several statues of Mohnyin Sayadaw himself, depicted at various stages in his life. One compound was even donated by the Tiger Balm family, easily identifiable by the two plaster tigers trying to scale the wall as two barefoot men in Western suits look on. There is also a large square pool filled with fish and turtles, known as Laik Kan, and the animals here are free from harm. Popped rice and watercress is sold nearby and can be fed to them by pilgrims. The large tower (completed in 1936) is called Arlain Nga Sint, or “Five Stages Spiral Tower”, and symbolizes the hair that Prince Siddhattha cut off before seeking his spiritual journey. The hair was said to float upwards, eventually reaching the King of the Celestials, who built Sulamuni Pagoda in the sky. Additionally there are twenty tagundaing (large decorated pillars), and many stone sculptures of different fruits that are venerated by local farmers.

To learn about current pilgrimage offerings, see here.

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