Sunday, 29 June 2014

Lunch at Zabu Mingalar Monastery

The venerable Zabu Mingalar Sayadaw of 99 years of age

Lunch is served at Zabu Mingalar Monastery to the senior Sayadaw, who is 99 years old and has been in robes in the Sagaing Hills for more than seven decades! Still agile and quick of mind, he leads the younger monks and novices in the typical Buddhist recitations prior to the meal. The table setting is also unique, in that it is set in a circular fashion with a Lazy Susan in the middle. As the Sagaing Hills are perhaps the most fascinating and important place in Burmese Buddhist history, one can only wonder what knowledge and experience are stored inside the venerable Sayadaw's head. The Zabu Mingalar Monastery are on the hills above the Ayeyarwaddy River, offering a breathtaking view of Mandalay to one side, and the pagodas and stupas of Sagaing to the other.

Lunch before it is served
Fruit is served to visitors as monks eat their lunch

Digging A Hole in Kalaw

Water is a fundamental human need, and in the lush pine forests around Kalaw in Shan State, villagers band together to dig reservoirs that can be used for local monasteries. This clip shows several volunteers in the process of digging their own pit, to be used for some of the remote and secluded monasteries around this beautiful region. U Aye, a local benefactor and fountain of dhammic energy in the region, was helping to organize this undertaking. He can be seen directing the efforts. The video also shows a man hacking away a small branch. This is considered to be auspicious to place at the site of the new reservoir.

Planting the auspicious tree...

Sain Pyin Gyi: Where It All Began

This precious stupa and Buddha statue is hundreds of years old, and on the site where Ledi Sayadaw ordained as a young boy

"…beyond the conventional radar, this is the heart of yogi tourism, where foreign meditators, carrying tourist cash dollars, come to explore the heartland of their spiritual souls. For some this is the area ‘where it all began." Chindwin, David Lambert

Located in Dipayin township, Sain Pyin Gyi is the village where Ledi Sayadaw was born (1846) as well as where he first ordained as a full monk (1866). Saing Pyin Gyi can be translated to mean “many scattered bison,” suggesting the vast wilderness that must have existed here some time ago. Indeed, Sayadaw U Nyanissara lists the other wild animals that roamed here during the mid nineteenth century: barking deer, antelope, reindeer, hyena, wildebeest, and goat. Now, however, it is a community of over one thousand homes.

Here a major project is being undertaken to save for all posterity all remaining works by Ledi Sayadaw that have not yet been inscribed by stone. Once finished, serious meditators from around the world can come and pay their respects to the great monk.

Prior to his birth in the Katoe Quarter, a great rainbow appeared from a tamarind tree growing on his parents’ land, which then swooped into his family’s home and went back out again, bathing the sky in a brilliant radiance. In words chiseled in stone at the very site and rendered from a Monywa talk, Ledi Ashin Kelarsa Agga Maha Pandia has described this as a “miraculous, nay, auspicious event.” The event was later accorded its own name, referred to as “Indra’s Bows,” among other names. U Candima acknowledges that “from a modern perspective, this rainbow display is hard to believe. There were, however, many witnesses.” 

U Candima goes on to share that news of this rainbow quickly spread throughout the village, and “learned people predicted that the child would take delight in the Buddha’s Sasana when he came of age. They added that the child would master the Tipitaka and would devote his life to selfless service in missionary work.”

Following the great rainbow, the boy was given the name Maung Tat Khaung, which can be translated as “one who will climb up to the very top”. Maung Tat Khaung’s parents were simple rice farmers in a typical small village that revolved around agriculture. In pre-colonial Burma it was also standard for monasteries to look after the basic educational needs of the community’s young men. 

This is the very tamarind tree that a rainbow passed through on the night of Ledi's birth, an omen that many interpreted to mean that great things would come to the boy. Today, only serious meditators are allowed to meditate around it.

After turning ten, he entered Kyaung Ma Monastery as a novice and was given the name Shin Nyanadhaja, and here he began his study of Pāḷi and the scriptures under Sayadaw U Nanda. Maung Tat Khaung continued his studies in nearby Ye Thwet Village and received full ordination when he was twenty, having read all of the books held in the two towns near his home (and including a brief period in which he disrobed for eight months to help on the family plot). 

He studied not only from the scriptures, but also astrology and poetry, and in his later years would return to this field by composing poems based on the Abhidhamma. In fact, these poems came to be learned by the young and old alike throughout the country; people would often greet him to their town when he visited, and discuss and parse the meaning of these poems long after he left. Soon after turning twenty-one, it was said that he walked to Mandalay with his nephew to continue his formal studies at the royal capital. 
A painting in the very Sima Hall where Ledi Sayadaw was ordained as a boy depicts the event as it happens

This is the very Sima Hall where Ledi Sayadaw ordained as a young boy

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Original book by Ledi Sayadaw

One of the joys of being in Burma is seeing items being used over, and over, and over again. Nothing goes to waste. This is seen at monasteries all the time, where new robes, once old and worn, may be seen recycled in any number of creative (and useful ways). While walking through the Sagaing Hills, a monk was encountered reading this tattered copy of a Ledi Sayadaw book. Not holding it as a relic or momento, but the book was next to his bed and used as his night time reading to inspire his practice. Termite bites can be seen throughout, and the publication date indicates 1928, which would have been just years after the venerable monk passed away.

The World Cup Comes to Burma

Like the rest of the word, Burma also has World Cup Fever. Although the games are shown between 10 pm and 4 am, cafes, homes, and even monasteries across the land are waking up to watch the games. Here, a football fan catches the action from a teashop in Kalaw.

A Visit to Webu Monastery in Kyaukse

A life size statue of Webu Sayadaw depicts the venerable monk in a palanquin that was actually used during his lifetime. This is set next to a large Dhamma Hall where Webu would preach, before which, he always played his own recording of him chanting the Maha Sumaya Sutta, which is an invitation to devas and other celestial beings.

Kyaukse has a very important place in the story of the Venerable Webu Sayadaw. It was in Kyaukse that the venerable monk reemerged after several years of intense meditation practice, the details of which even his biographers are not clear about and which may never be satisfactorily unearthed. Webu Sayadaw would go on to reside in this area for much of the rest of his life, although when the Webu Monasteries at Ingyinbin and Shwebo were established he would stay here only for the Rains Retreat. It is also believed he attained the third stage of liberation in Kyaukse, and later gained full liberation back in his native village of Ingyinbin. U Ba Khin met Webu for the first time here, and soon after he taught his first student, the train station attendant, upon Webu Sayadaw's advice.

As Webu began to get more known throughout the country, many lay supporters sought him out and monks came here hoping to learn under him, causing this center to slowly grow into its present size, a 200-acre monastery compound. U Ko Lay ordained twice at this Kyaukse center, once in 1960 and once several years later. While the old sites of significance from Webu Sayadaw’s life are still standing on the grounds, much of the original construction has been abandoned in favor of a newer monastery where monks, nuns, and lay people currently reside. Today the monastery grounds are also home to over fifty pagodas.

This is the stone stairwell leading to the San Kyaung building, where many artifacts from the First and Second Webu Sayadaw are kept. Included here are relics, paintings, original alms bowls, and other such items. 
Foreign yogis mediate inside the very cave where Webu Sayadaw spent many of his days-- and nights-- when he first came to the Kyaukse area.

A Canadian yogi ascends the stairs to San Kyaung. Above his head one can see placards hanging. One of these was sponsored by Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and his name and family and address are listed as well.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Alms Rounds in Ingyinbin

During the Pariyatti pilgrimage in 2014, a Dutch monk and German nun joined a recently ordained New Zealand monk for his first alms rounds in Ingyinbin. This is the small village in Upper Burma where Webu Sayadaw was born, ordained, reached nibbana, and passed away. Also helping out was an American yogi who himself later ordained for three months.

A local villager pays respects to two foreign monks on alms rounds

More photos of S.N. Goenka paying respects to Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw

As was noted in previous posts, Sayagyi U Goenka had a special relationship with Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, and on his visits to Burma from India, he frequently visited his monastery to pay his respects. Following are four excellent quality photographs of one such visit.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

A Tale of Mohinga

“A dish which is much loved by the Burmese not only at breakfast time but at any time of the day is mohinga. This is a peppery fish broth, which some have eulogistically termed Burmese bouillabaisse, eaten with rice vermicelli. A steaming bowl of mohinga adorned with vegetable fritters, slices of fish cake and hard-boiled eggs and enhanced with the flavour of chopped coriander leaves, morsels of crispy fried garlic, fish sauce, a squeeze of lime and chilies is a wonderful way of stoking up for the day ahead.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters From Burma

“This fish broth is fragrant with lemongrass and pepper, and Myanmar people can hardly go a week without it—I know I can’t.” Ma Thenegi, Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy

If Myanmar has a national dish, it is certainly mohinga soup. It is eaten as a meal or snack, ordered at a restaurant or market stall, served at a home or monastery. Garnishes commonly added to the soup include boiled egg, gourd fritters, fried peas, shredded garlic, roasted chili powder, shredded leeks, coriander leaves, turmeric, lemon grass, lime, and banana plant. As Ba Than writes in Myanmar Attractions and Delights, “each region, each town, even each reputable shop has its own secret recipe to make it distinct and attractive.” Coastal regions tend to have more fish while the Mandalay area appreciates more of a thick broth with a dahl taste. The Dawei have a local leaf called lankaung that they place in it and the Rakhines like it so spicy there is even a proverb given to the dish, ah pu shar pu, meaning “hot palate, hot tongue concoction.” It is most often cooked in aluminum or steel so that it can be served while still piping hot. Myaungmya style is with fish caviar from the nga tha lout fish. But overall, Yangon is considered to make the best in the country.

Unfortunately for the many vegetarian foreign yogis, mohinga is almost always prepared with a fish broth. Thankfully, there are exceptions that substitute bean powder. Some monasteries will prepare a vegetarian version if they know many foreign yogis are staying, and there are various stalls throughout the country that also make a non-fish version. One of the most locally famous mohinga restaurants in Yangon also has a vegetarian option (which will be included in the upcoming Shwe Lan Ga Lay meditator's guide). On the other hand, when enjoying mohinga, non-vegetarians are wise to heed the Burmese proverb Nga thain mya hin hon, which can be translated as “Too much fish makes the broth unsavory.” This Buddhist-inspired saying points to the notion that having too much of sensual pleasures leads to excess glut.

Similar to mohinga is ohno khaukswe, often called Coconut Noodles. It is easier to find vegetarian versions of this, although it can be oilier than mohinga. A fun fact is that ohno khaukswe doesn’t actually use coconut water as many people think, but rather the milky liquid squeezed from fresh coconut meat until it is entirely dry. Some make it with evaporated milk, as it affects cholesterol levels less than coconut milk. Generally speaking, the lowland southern regions use more coconut milk in their dishes than elsewhere in the country.

One type of noodles used in mohinga that has been popular since 1970 is shwe taung khauk swe, named after its town Shwetaung just south of Pyay on the Ayeyarwaddy. It is an egg noodle dish in a small quantity of clear broth, with a dash of coconut cream and spices. The original shop that made these noodles received a loyal customer in the form of the nation’s president, who arranged for Myanmar’s stall to serve it at an Osaka Trade Fair in Japan.

S.N. Goenka at Maha Myat Muni Pagoda in Mandalay

Following is an image of the Burmese pilgrimage leader showing pilgrims the most revered Buddha image in all of Burma, at Maha Myat Muni Pagoda. This pagoda has significant importance for the pilgrims, who practiced in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, for the great meditation teacher's earliest Buddhist experiences were at this temple.


Sayagyi U Goenka has frequently shared his memories of going to Maha Myat Muni pagoda as a young child of eight with his grandfather. He admitted that his primary motivation in going at the start was the electric tram he got to ride to the pagoda, and once there he wanted to play in the open courtyard. But his grandfather would instead instruct him to walk around the temple three times before they sat quietly together for half an hour. Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with such playfulness at a pagoda; Khin Myo Chit writes that the young boy “is allowed to roam freely, playing or munching his snacks. Very little restraint is put on him—so long as he keeps away from the older folk doing their contemplation.” 

In any case, the young Goenka relates being bored for the first five to seven minutes, but soon after noticing that “the entire environment was very peaceful.” Having been born in Mandalay, U Goenka has referenced this early life experience as one of his first encounters with dhamma practice. He would later say that “the pure vibrations in the tranquil air of the ancient Maha Myat Muni Buddha Temple caused a thrilling sensation throughout the body and filled the mind with rapture. It was extremely enchanting and pleasing.” He notes, “I continued to visit the temple even after my grandfather’s death… The peace and cleanliness of Buddha’s temples attracted me. I knew nothing about meditation then, but whenever I visited Maha Muni temple I felt very calm.” 

When U Goenka sat his first course under Sayagyi U Ba Khin, “these childhood memories of peace and tranquility were awakened” and he recalled how it was here that the seed was initially sown in his mind. His grandfather’s example would continue to be a positive influence on his life in the years to come, as he would attribute his ethical business dealings and future itinerant life of traveling for the spread of dhamma to lessons he learned from childhood.

How to Tie a Longyi

On the December 2013 pilgrimage, foreign meditators are instructed in the art of the Burmese longyi-tying at the Yuzana Hotel in Yangon, as the pilgrimage started. For those meditators who would similarly like a lesson in how to wear the Burmese garment, sessions will be scheduled this coming winter. After the longyi-tying lesson, full pilgrimages will resume. Registration is now available, see here for more details. Or, this recent post describes the coming pilgrimage opportunity in further detail.

Monks and Punks

On an early morning alms walk in Yangon, a scene that perhaps may be unique to Burma....