Sunday, 30 November 2014

"The Fires of Lust are the Fiercest of Fires"

The following is a quotation by the great Italian monk U Lawkanatha, who spent many years as a monk in Burma. After meeting Webu Sayadaw, he took a vow never again to lie down, which he upheld for the remaining decades of his life. He was also close to such 20th century luminaries as Ajahn Pannavadho, Sun Lun Sayadaw, B.R. Ambedkar, among others. His dreams of returning to Italy prior to World War II and converting Benito Mussolini to Buddhism did not pan out, and instead he found himself in a British POW camp. Undeterred, he argued that wearing the saffron robes negated any implied political involvement, and used his time at the prison to teach Dhamma to other political inmates. Following the war, he made the Buddha's teachings especially relevant in an age when there was a constant fear of nuclear annihilation. The following excerpt is from a speech given at Rangoon University:

"The only reliable Guide is the Greatest Physician in the Universe who removed his own cause of unhappiness who destroyed his Craving and attained the highest happiness through the destruction of the cause of unhappiness. Economic ways will never give happiness because economics never destroy Greed, Hatred and Ignorance. Each one must attain his own happiness within himself; each man must be a physician to himself. Only by conquering the passions, which burn within can one attain the cool state where there is no longer any burning. There is no fire like lust, our Lord Buddha said. It is the fiercest of all fires. And those who think that burning is a pleasure, well, they can go on burning. They can go on burning because our Lord Buddha said that the fires of lust are the fiercest fires. And we have been burning from the infinite past and we will go on burning to the infinite future until and unless we extinguish the flame by means of the water of Truth and by withholding the fuel. Adding water of Truth and withholding the fuel. Withhold what fuel? It is the fuel for the fires of passions. We must see without attachment. We must listen philosophically — seeing and knowing things as they really are without attachment. And once we see, we smell, we taste, we hear, we touch and we think without attachment, then, we are using the senses as our Lord Buddha used the senses — as the Master and not as a slave. He used the senses without clinging. This divine detachment withholds the fuel from the senses and by withholding the fuel the fires die."

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Rice and Dhamma

One of the most important and sacred events in the Buddhist faith happens in every village and city throughout the country on every single day, when even the poorest of the poor find time and resources to be able to give just a single spoonful of rice to monks on their morning almsrounds. This ritual, taking place since the Buddha’s time, links the small rice grain to the great religion in the minds of many. 

And there are several proverbs linking one’s home store of rice with his or her ambitions for the world. One goes maouq lun they hsan, peiq they. This means that “the overfilled rice tends to spill,” figuratively suggesting that an overproud person brings himself down. Another states San me shi, a sa gyi, meaning “no rice at a home, but a big eater,” and is said for people who squander their possessions. Finally, there is the good practical advice of Thu oh hnin thu san tan yone. This means that “The pot and amount of rice should be of equal size,” or simply “live within your means.”

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

"The Making of the Mass Meditation Movement"

The podcasts Buddhist Geeks interviewed Professor Erik Braun on his new book The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw.

In the first episode, the site describes: "Erik joins host Vincent Horn to discuss his book and the legacy of Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw. By connecting the dots between changes in Burmese Buddhism with the political disruption caused by the British takeover of Burma in the late 19th Century, Erik describes Ledi’s role in bringing insight meditation practice to the modern world."

In the second part, "Erik and host Vincent Horn continue a discussion on Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw and his role in bringing insight meditation to the world. The conversation digs deeper into the connections between Burmese political disruption and changes to Buddhist practice in Burma, how meditation became more accepted in Burmese Buddhism, and how this all led to the export of insight meditation to the rest of the world."

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Editing "Shwe Lan"

Many readers may be aware that much of the content featured on this blog are excerpts from an upcoming book, Shwe Lan Ga Lay, or "The Golden Path." What is this book, one may ask.... the answer:

The Shwe Lan Ga Lay (The Golden Path) project – a Burma guidebook for Dhamma pilgrims – was launched in April 2013. The intention behind this book is to make the Golden Land more accessible to seekers & meditators who have the noble intention to develop in Dhamma. In the past year-and-a-half a team of volunteers has visited hundreds of monasteries and pagodas throughout Burma and interviewed dozens of monks and scholars. They have gleaned information that was previously not available in English, and some of which has never been written down in any language. More can be read here.

The project is run by volunteers from around the world who are offering their skills freely from within their own areas of professional expertise. Shwe Lan Ga Lay has a number of different components, from photography to art, translation to research, and layout to web design. In this blog post, we peel back the curtain on just one of these fields: text creation and editing.

For example, the following single page is the result of months and months of hard work. Even this single page was only able to be written after sufficient research was been completed and dozens of various monks, nuns, meditation teachers, and scholars were been interviewed. In rough draft form, it looks like this:

Because the content of this section is so important-- discussing the role of women in Buddhism-- we want to make certain that every word on the page is subject to exceptional scrutiny. To bring in another layer of critial feedback, a European monk in Burma has volunteered to read this draft. In addition to speaking Burmese and Sinhalese fluently, he has also graduated top in his class from some of the world's top Buddhist universities. However, these days he is spending almost every available moment memorizing the Vinaya Pitaka, and so has decided not to be online. For this reason, we are only able to avail ourselves of his help through the following way:

First, we must send the above document (along with other documents, ultimately totaling many hundreds of pages) to a Shwe Lan volunteer in Japan. He then formats the document so that it may be printed. On this excerpt, that means making sure that the comment box may appear "in line". After doing so, for the second step, he then emails the now-printer-friendly document to Yangon, where an attendant of the monk uses dana to print the entire document at a local cybercafe (third step). The fourth step involves the lay supporter taking a taxi to the monastery, thus depositing the printed document for his inspection. The European monk reads the entire document, making comments as you see below:

The numbers correspond to longer comments that he wishes to make, which he records in a separate journal (fifth step). As he has an extensive Buddhist library, he regularly spends weeks checking and referencing his sources where additions and changes are needed to the text. Many of his comments are from Sinhalese, Burmese, and Pali sources, and some are from oral interviews he conducts with senior Burmese monks. When making his extended comments, here is an excerpt referencing the above page:

For the sixth and final step in this process alone, he photographs all of his notes with his camera-phone, and these reach the writer where his changes can be considered.

From this point, the next journey the text will undertake is to reach a professional editor for comprehensive review. There are two such editors currently volunteering for Shwe Lan Ga Lay, one in Massachusetts and the other in Australia. They look at flow, organization, grammar, readability, style, and many other issues associated with the text. They then send their comments back to the main writer who further incorporates their changes. The above page on "Women in Burmese Buddhism" has not yet been passed to the editors, so their comments are not yet available. However, here is an example of how one editor has marked up a page discussing arrival in Myanmar, and particularly Internet:

Note that this is only the very first draft, and the writer and editor may correspond for many months and dozens of more drafts, further refining the document so that when it is ultimately given to the foreign meditator, they have a practical and useful guide for how to better develop in Dhamma while in the Golden Land.

In truth, there are many more people and steps involved in this process of text creation alone, but hopefully this provides a basic idea of how we are spending our days in making Shwe Lan Ga Lay. This also does not mention the many dozens of other volunteers making original artwork, laying out the design, organizing photographs, and many more tasks. (As an example, you may have noticed that in Point #3 the European monk suggested that we ask an artist to draw a nun's alms bowl, so that request will be forwarded to the relevant volunteers)

For those who would like to join our effort, please see here for more details. You may also write us at burmadhamma(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thoughts on Gratitude in Burma

"I was living in Myanmar for several years, and had in this time developed a number of good friends. One Burmese woman in particular went out of her way—far above and beyond the call of duty—on several occasions to help me in quite profound ways. I wanted to recognize how grateful I was for her friendship and assistance, and how much I valued her kindness. But whenever I tried to thank her, she would be quite upset and insist that in true friendship one does not help another for any ‘thanks’, and I need not say this. I tried to follow her wishes, but it was quite difficult for me to be the recipient of such good will and sit back quietly without expressing the warmth and appreciation—it actually started making me feel like a miser. When I realized this, we had a talk on culture. I said that expressing gratitude was not just for her, but for me too, and something that she didn’t have the right to take away from me. I said that it was a natural human response to share this notion, rather than the kind of automatic ‘thank yous’ said when getting out of a taxi, and it didn’t feel right for me to leave this unsaid. Eventually we came to a kind of negotiation on this—I wasn’t effusive and overbearing, and she recognized that this was something I needed to say for myself and allowed space for me to say it." -- American meditator

"I had a lot of misunderstandings with Burmese people because of cultural differences. One example is how affection is expressed. In Mexico it is seen as wholesome to show our affection to people that we love by hugging and kissing. But in Burmese culture this is very strange behaviour. In Kalaw there was a Burmese language teacher who came to the monastery to support the yogis with food. Every time I was sick she would come and see me, and so I felt a lot of appreciation towards her. My way to express gratitude was to hug and kiss her. However, later on I was told that she felt very strange when I did that, and she did not know what was happening because she had never hugged anyone before. So it was a new experience for her and for me as well. Something that is so common for me, for her is an uncomfortable moment." -- Mexican meditator

"I remember after I came to Burma and saw the first alms-round, it was so beautiful I got tears in my eyes. In India there was no alms-round. In Burma I saw the people (mostly women) waking up so early before 6 am to cook the food for the monks. All the families come outside, children sitting on their knees, palms folded and there is this silence in this ritual of giving which I found magic. It felt like a feeling of goodness, caring, harmony, oneness and community. It melted my heart. The giving culture in Burma, especially if you are a monk was overwhelming. I can’t imagine this happening in any other country of the world. Sometimes when I walked on the street people even ran after me to offer drinks or cookies. The giving was everywhere, it grows into everything. People are just very happy to take care of you without expecting anything in return. In Burma after I received help, the person helping me suddenly disappeared. Not even wanting any contact details, nothing in return at all. The effect that it had on me was that it gave me the urge to do the same. Do something back. I didn’t have much money but I started with buying small things here and there and cleaning something for somebody. I realized it felt so good! It was actually the helping itself which was the reward. I think we in the West, often on a deeper level, feel somewhat bad about ourselves. And the ability to mean something for someone, the power to make someone’s heart open and happy is a profound and joyful experience for all. It might even help healing these deeper 'Western' wounds. At least it makes one less self-centered and you orient yourself more in what is needed around. This becomes a habit from which I think only good results can come, for oneself and the community at large. What an amazing culture! It made me reorient how I looked at the phenomena of sharing and helping each other. We have this ‘something in return’ culture. I did give and share in the West also, from time to time at least, but it was less of a priority or a habit in my life and there was less insight into the value and the joy of giving. I think by just being in this culture it made me a better person." -- Dutch monk

Monday, 24 November 2014

Exclusive Pilgrimage Opportunity to Myanmar in Early 2015 for Vipassana Meditators in the tradition of S.N. Goenka

Pilgrims at Bogyoke Market

Pilgrims meditate before Nga That Gyi Pagoda in Yangon as monks chat suttas

For all pilgrimage and meditator travel in Myanmar, please refer to Muditā Works

From Compassionate Travels Myanmar:

"Dear Vipassana Meditation Friends,

Compassionate Travels Myanmar (CTM) 
is pleased to announce an opportunity to participate in a 14-day pilgrimage throughout Myanmar to sites related to Vipassana Meditation in the tradition of S.N. Goenka. The pilgrimage will commence on January 23, 2015 and end on Febraury 5, 2015. Extended travel options are available after the 14 days tour.

The pilgrimage includes stops at the International Meditation Center (IMC) in Yangon, a visit to Saya Thet Gyi's farming village and meditation center, travel to Monywa where Ledi Sayadaw learned and taught meditation, and more.

Options for additional travel after the pilgrimage include places connected with Venerable Webu Sayadaw - the celebrated monk who inspired Sayagyi U Ba Khin to teach Vipassana Meditation - or other unique Myanmar sites such as Bagan, Mt. Popa, Inle Lake, Golden Rock, Sagaing Hills, and Shan State. Exact prices for those options are discussed on a per case basis.

The founders of CTM have independently been taking pilgrims to these sites and researching them for many years, and CTM as a company itself was founded in 2013. This is our second year of offering group pilgrimages and as Myanmar opens its doors to the world, it is much easier for meditators to experience the heart of this practice in ways that have never been possible before. We can also offer customized meditative travel and stays for any type of group at any time.

Pilgrims eating lunch

Pilgrims talking at Ma Khaing's restaurant in Mandalay

Pilgrims meditate in a shrine area at a restaurant before eating lunch in Upper Burma

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Life and Attainment of Ajaan Paññavaddho

The great British monk Ajaan Paññavaddho was ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition, and was blessed with the revered teacher Ajahn Maha Boowa. Ajahn Panna was one of the first known Westerners to ordain, and was widely believed in his lifetime to be an arahant. Although his life intersects little with Burma, his inspiring, five-part biography is being shared here. May this offer inspiration to meditators and monastics everywhere.

"Was the Buddha a Fatalist?" An Response To Thomas Fuller's New York Times Article

This morning, for its Sunday edition, Thomas Fuller wrote a cover page article on a famous Yangon traffic cop. While the article is interesting in how it describes the changing traffic situation in Yangon and one honest traffic cop's attempt to help new drivers, there is one quotation that many familiar with the Buddha's teachings might find highly offensive:

"The third of five children from a rice-farming family in a remote village three miles from the Bay of Bengal, [Khin Myint Maung] shows no resentment toward the wealth that flashes past, only Buddhist fatalism.

'Everyone has their own destiny,' he said during a break from directing traffic at the corner of Dhammazedi and Link Roads, his usual spot not far from Shwedagon Pagoda. 'The rich are rich because they did many good things in their past life. Everyone has their own place.'"


The following response was prepared and sent to Mr. Fuller, and is shared here again for the benefit of others interesting in Burmese Buddhist practice:

"I would not be surprised to see such a use of the term 'Buddhist fatalism' if the article was dated 1914 rather than 2014, when Western writers wrote largely misguided descriptions of the faith, scarcely understanding any of the basic tenants of the Buddha's teachings. So much unneeded confusion has come from these Western writers claiming that Buddhism was fatalistic, and long responses have been written in response over the years demonstrating that nothing of the sort can be found within the pantheon of Buddhist scriptures. It is with great surprise that I find such a term in use on the front page of the New York Times today.

The fact that Khin Myint Maung believes that those who have gained riches is due to past acts of merit in no way correlates to your claim that it is an example of 'Buddhist fatalism.' To me, this is a sign that you have not understood the basic elements of the Buddha's teaching or the Burmese Buddhism that your subjects devoutly follow. In addition I have to tell you honestly that I find this extremely patronizing to write in an objective news article. That you find his quote was a sign of 'Buddhist fatalism' is in no way any objective fact, but rather an sign of your own limited opinion and perspective, and is not supported by any serious study of either the basic tenants of the faith or how it is seen in daily practice.

Using this term, 'Buddhist fatalism,' implies that Khin Myint Maung is a simplistic chap who allows inequality to flourish around him without developing more of the righteous injustice that you may think better suit his situation. 'Fatalistic' implies that the subject is doing nothing of any kind to improve his situation, that he believes his lot in life has been entirely pre-ordained, and that his future will be determined by forces greater than himself. Such an attitude completely contradicts every fabric of the Buddha's teachings, who clearly taught how to actively and intentionally follow a path of morality, generosity, and the development of mental factors leading to enlightenment. There is not a trace of fatalistic thinking, and quite the opposite is promoted, in that the actions one takes now directly affect one's future happiness or suffering. Most definitions of 'fatalism' completely contradict such a premise! 

Khin Myint Maung's quote is in acknowledgement of this truth, as far as I can see. His quote may be an example of 'Buddhist acceptance,' but in no way does it suggest 'Buddhist fatalism.' Although you may have been disappointed he was not more angry at the wealth of the cars going past him in comparison to his own relatively poor salary, this is in no way an example of fatalist thinking on his part, and it is incorrect to suggest that the Buddha's teaching themselves contain any fatalism therein, or that Burmese Buddhists follow such kinds of thinking either."

Thursday, 20 November 2014

The Sagaing Hills During Wartime

The following interesting incident occurs from the celebrated biography of British Field-Marshal Sir William Slim, Defeat Into Victory. It gives a fascinating account of how the most spiritual part of the country, with a history of over 1,000 years of meditation, fared during the war.

“I was sitting outside my headquarters at Sagaing when I was surprised to see a civilian motor-car drive up and disgorge half a dozen Burmese gentlemen, dressed in morning coats, pin stripe trousers, and grey topis. There was a definitely viceregal air about the whole party. They asked to see me. They were a deputation of influential Burmese officials from the large colony who had taken refuge in the Sagaing Hills in the bend of the Irrawaddy opposite Mandalay. They submitted a neatly typed resolution duly proposed, seconded, and passed unanimously at a largely attended public meeting. This document stated that the Burmese official community had received an assurance from His Excellency the Governor that no military operations would take place in the Sagaing Hills, a locality held in particular veneration by the Burmese people. Trusting in this, they and their families had removed themselves there. Now to their dismay Chinese troops had entered the hills and were preparing defences, even siting cannon. They there demanded that I, as the responsible British commander, should order out the Chinese and give a guarantee that, in accordance with His Excellency’s promise, no military operations should take place in the Sagaing hills.

I was terrible sorry for these people. They were all high officials of the Burma Government, commissioners, secretaries, judges, and the like; their world had tumbled about their ears, but they still clung to the democratic procedure of resolutions, votes, and the rest that we had taught them. They brought me their pathetic little bit of paper as if it were a talisman. When I told them that, as far as I was concerned, I had no wish for military operations in their hills—I might have added truthfully, nor anywhere else at that moment—but that the Japanese general was equally concerned and not likely to be so obliging as to agree, they departed polite but puzzled. The impressiveness of the proceedings was somewhat marred by one gentleman who came back and asked could he not be issued with a six-months’ advance of pay? I do not blame him—it would be a long time before he would draw his British pay again."

Monday, 17 November 2014

Reference to Vipassana on HBO's "Newsroom"

The story of Buddhist meditation getting picked up in the West has been going on for over a century now, and stretches from the early Orientalists and Transcendentalists through to the Beats and the Hippies. Today, interest in the Buddha's teachings has perhaps never been more keen, with people from all various walks of life attending meditation courses. One clear sign that this has become integrated into American culture could be seen in Sunday's surprise reference to Vipassana meditation on HBO's "Newsroom". Season Three, Episode Two features the episode "Run", in which characters Sloane Sabbith and Don Keefer are making conversation during rush hour in New York City. The conversation proceeds thus:

Sloan: You know what Vipassana is?
Don: It's a small Italian motorbike.
Sloan: Not a Vespa. Vipassana.
Don:  I know what Vipassana is.
Sloan: It's a meditation retreat in India where you don't talk for a week.
Don: But feel free to tell me anyway.
Sloan: Maybe two weeks. Think I'm gonna do it.
Don: You should. 
Sloan: You seem tense.
Don: Mm, you got that backwards, money honey. 
Sloan: No, I'm only a little tense because of what's happening at the office right now.

Although it is not entirely clear which Vipassana tradition the reference refers to, it is highly likely that it is a nod to the Sayagyi U Goenka tradition. This is because the organization is well-known for running ten-day silent meditation retreats, and their headquarters is indeed at Dhamma Giri in India.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

An Attitude of Renunciation

When foreign meditators stay for extended periods to practice Dhamma at Burmese monasteries, their attitude of renunciation is very important. For this, one may keep in mind the Burmese proverb, pyaw yah ma, ma ne ya. Taw ya hma, ne ya. Translated literally, this means “Where one is happy, don’t stay; and where one is in seclusion, stay!” U Sarana renders this further as “one should stay at a place conducive to one’s spiritual development, regardless of the comfort to be found there.” He notes that this Burmese proverb can be traced to the Vanapattha Sutta, in which the Buddha advises monks to remain at any site where “unestablished mindfulness has become established.”

In this Sutta, the Buddha goes on to state: "Here, bhikkhus, a bhikkhu lives in some jungle thicket. While he is living there his unestablished mindfulness becomes established, his unconcentrated mind becomes concentrated, his undestroyed taints come to destruction, he attains the unattained supreme security from bondage; yet the requisites of life that should be obtained by one gone forth...are hard to come by. The bhikkhu should consider thus: 'I am living in this jungle thicket. While I am living here my unestablished mindfulness has become established...I have attained the unattained supreme security from bondage; yet the requisites of life...are hard to come by. However, I did not go forth from the home life into homelessness for the sake of robes, almsfood, resting place, and medicinal requisites. Moreover, while I am living here my unestablished mindfulness has become established...I have attained the unattained supreme security from bondage.' Having reflected thus, that bhikkhu should continue living in that jungle thicket; he should not depart.

S.N. Goenka's Second Birth

A rough draft of IMC that was drawn for the upcoming Shwe Lan guidebook

“I was born twice on this Dhamma land. The first birth was from my mother’s womb; the second was by tearing apart the shroud of deep ignorance at Sayagyi U Ba Khin’s Vipassana centre in Inya Myaing.” 

--Sayagyi U Goenka

Friday, 14 November 2014

Thoughts on Women in Burma


“In Burma there is no prejudice against girl babies. In fact, there is a general belief that daughters are more dutiful and loving than sons and many Burmese parents welcome the birth of a daughter as an assurance that they will have somebody to take care of them in their old age.” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma

“Nowhere within the limits of British India, perhaps nowhere in Asia, is the social position of woman so assured as in Burma.” C.C. Lowis, Burma: Census of India, 1902, Volume XII

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Ajahn Panna: 5. Cremation

The great British monk Ajahn Panna was ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition, and was blessed with the revered teacher Ajahn Maha Boowa. Ajahn Panna was one of the first known Westerners to ordain, and was widely believed in his lifetime to be an arahant. Although his life intersects little with Burma, his inspiring, five-part biography is being shared here. May this offer inspiration to meditators and monastics everywhere.

Here in Part Five, the last part, we see his final cremation. It was through this that his devotees were able to have their faith restored that the great British monastic had reached the final goal of full liberation. The documentary can be started with Part One, which can be watched here.

A Truck in the Sagaing Hills

This video shows pilgrims in January 2014 on the way to a one day group sitting at Pa Bar Monastery in the Sagaing Hills, which was held during the Dhamma pilgrimage. 

To read an inspiring journal entry about these three week pilgrimages, see here. To attend one in the future, please see here.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

"What I Was Missing Was Structure"

The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the sixth entry, and the beginning post can be found here.

"After some time in Kalaw a Western monk came and he joined the interviews. I found his instructions incredibly skilful and clear, so I kept asking him many questions about my experiences. He was not sure if he would stay a long time at the monastery so I made sure I asked all my questions! Thanks to this interaction I could understand clearly the method of Sayadaw U Tejaniya. What this Western monk was offering was structure. He was explaining step by step how to meditate with the Shwe Oo Min method.

This kind of well organized explanation I did not find in Shwe Oo Min Yangon. So after this Western monk explained it all I immediately applied the knowledge and I started to progress a lot faster. He explained in detail that there are three yogi jobs, and he emphasized the importance of the Right View. The Right Information was coming a lot more clearly to me. Afterwards I understood why.

I asked many other Western beginners if they could understand correctly all the instructions. The majority of the yogis told me that they were very confused, the instructions were not fully clear and it was very easy to get lost in the practice. But when I asked some Korean yogis if they felt the same they said no. They liked the way U Tejaniya explained. So then I understood it was a matter of culture. I believe that in Asia, the way they teach is very different from the West. In the West it is necessary to have some structure where the student can follow step by step the teaching so she or he don't feel lost. But in Asia this is not the case, because they like the teachings to be very open, free and without strict structure. So because the structure that I was use to was not present, I got what was able to understand at that moment.

This was a very good experience for me cause I realize that the instructions are made and directed for people in Asia, with Asian habits, beliefs, behaviours and so on. So then I learned to adapt the teachings that were clear to me to one way that was more understandable for me. Mixing Western culture and Mexican culture was one thing. And Mexican culture in some aspects is similar to Myanmar, but in others it is radically different! So it was interesting and funny to figure out how to behave and how to understand the teachings and instructions.

I believe is important to recognize that the teachings in Myanmar are saturated by culture. This is completely normal. In some others countries that I had been they still preserve the teachings of Buddha but in a way that is more understandable for that culture in particular. Normally the meaning is the same. The way they perform the rituals it is different a little bit form culture to culture, country to country. So a practitioner that does not belong to any Asian culture, need to learn to read between lines.

For myself, sometimes I needed to dig very deeply to understand the actual meaning and to adapt it in a way that could be more comprehensible for me. The risk in not reading the underlying ideas behind the teachings is that it is easy to pay too much attention to the culture or forms without the meaning. In my little experience I had encountered foreign yogis who appreciated so much the practice that they stopped any sort of critical thinking and investigation. For this reason, they confused what is culture and what is part of nature or reality.

Is easy to pay much attention to the forms of the culture as a way to show gratitude to the great support that Burmese people give to the yogis, but is equally important to see that the teachings by themselves are not part of the culture, they are not part of any culture, is just how reality is. Nature or reality is non-cultural. However, some cultures preserve or emphasize more of the teachings than others. This is nature as well. Nevertheless, a degree of critical thinking should be present not to confuse nature with the culture that preserves the teachings.

This critical thinking, in my experience, is also important to balance. If faith is very strongly present, it is easy to develop blind faith and and little wisdom will arise because investigation is not present, only devotion. This faith can balance the investigation into nature, and the critical thinking in the culture. However, if critical thinking is present too much, doubts can misbalance the practice. Some degree of doubts are needed to keep the mind curious as they investigate if the teachings are true, and ultimately this is resolved by the practice itself. If the yogi practices continuously, it is possible to see that some of the teachings and instructions are really true. Nevertheless, if critical thinking is too strong, the mind can get very confused and Samadhi will be weaker. So it is a matter of learning how to balance. Balance between the beliefs of the culture and the aspects that the yogi can see by her/himself. I myself have experienced this many times and I need to learn to balance these two aspects that are very important for the practice. Getting into the extremes make the practice imbalance. Finding the middle way will allow to practice to grow smoothly."

"Is it Easy to Communicate in English at Burmese Monasteries? Are Interviews and Guidance Provided?"

Meditators from the Pariyatti Pilgrimage had many successful experiences communicating with monks, despite the language gap

One yogi recently sent us a question asking how foreign yogis may communicate with Burmese monks. Following is our answer. For more questions about Dhamma in Burma to be answered on this blog, shoot us an email at burmadhamma(at)gmail.

"Is it easy to communicate in English at these monasteries? Are interviews and guidance provided?"

This depends on the type of monastery you are visiting. If you are staying at one that is consistently engaged in meditation practice and instruction, then a means of English communication is more likely to take place, especially if foreign yogis already come in some numbers. Translations and communication may occur through either monks or lay people who have spent time abroad, or written or audio material that is made available. At some monasteries sit may depend upon your luck when happening to visit, as there may be times when no bilingual people are present. For those monasteries that double as meditation centers, it is likely that they will have their own protocol as to when interviews, guidance, and Dhamma talks are given, and how (and if) translation is available. If you wanted to discuss meditation or Buddhism directly with a monk or Sayadaw, you would be welcome to, however a translation or English-speaking monk would be needed (and women yogis should take care to initiate such conversations only when another male is present).

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

A California Sangha Dana in Honor of S.N. Goenka: More Photos

As noted in an earlier post, one year following the passing of the great lay meditation teacher Sayagyi U Goenka, a Sangha Dana was organized in his honor in Azusa, California, at the Dhammakaya International Meditation Center. U Goenka had visited here in 2002 on the Meditation Now tour. This time, over one thousand guests attended, including many bhikkhus and nuns. There to photograph it was Mitchell Walker, and he has kindly allowed his images to be shared on this blog. Many of these photographs will be included a book that will come out in the following months.

A caterer prepares the offering
Meditators and Buddhists from many Asian countries came to the Southern Californian monastery

Western meditators also attended, although in smaller numbers

Buddhist suttas are chanted by the monks 

Sayadaw U Tejaniya in Kalaw 4

In this fourth of eight parts, Sayadaw U Tejaniya continues his Dhamma discussion in Kalaw. He is answering questions at the Shwe Oo Min Monastery in Kalaw, from a group of foreign meditators and monks. This is precious footage that can now be shared with those all over the world who endeavor to follow the Buddha's teachings of peace.

To begin at the first part, go here.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A Deep Vipassana Dive in Japan

Sayagyi U Goenka has successfully made the liberating activity of Burmese meditation available throughout the world, and to countries where the Buddha's pure teachings have never reached in the 2500 years since Gautama Buddha himself taught the Dhamma. 

For those well-accustomed to practice as it is found in Theravada Buddhist countries, this account may be intriguing to read.

On the Full Thangha blog, the writer describes his own experience taking a course here, which can be read here in full.

In the Japan Times, Karryn Cartelle writes about her "deep dive with Vipassana," where she writes that "In an ironic twist, after coming to the land of Zen meditation, I decided to take a different approach and instead have begun to learn the ancient Indian meditation technique of Vipassana because of its closeness to yoga."

"The Environment in the Monastery"

Flowers are laid for Yaw Sayadaw at Shwe Oo Min Monastery

The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the fifth entry, and the beginning post can be found here

"After water festival I still wanted to keep meditating, so I asked the teacher if I could go to another centre in Kalaw. In this new monastery we could keep practicing the same method. However, I was still a bit confused about the method at Shwe Oo Min. I thought that perhaps I should do a little bit of samathā because my stability of mind was not very strong. When I felt lost in the practice I used to follow the instructions of my old teachers.

Some other foreign yogis also came to Kalaw to practice, meanly because the heat in the hot season in Yangon is very strong. The weather in Kalaw was wonderful, very similar to Mexico City so I felt like coming home. In the monastery a single monk was living there, and he granted us an interview everyday. By that time we were only four yogis. We were sharing our experiences and he would respond with some advice. I learned some good things in this meeting but what I liked the most was the environment that we built together. It was very nice and friendly. We made a good dhamma team.

This monastery in Kalaw allowed me to deepen my practice because it is very free. The monastery itself is beautiful, it is surrounded by nature and yogis can follow their own timetable and choose places where they wish to meditate. This freedom gave me a lot of comfort and security in the practice.

At Shwe Oo Min I used to follow the timetable that was programmed for yogis. However, I did not find it skilful to follow all the time. Sometimes to allow the mind to be more relax and open helps awareness to work naturally instead of an artificial timetable. This natural work of awareness start to happen in Kalaw due to the freedom that the monastery gave to the yogis. I found it incredibly useful for deepening the practice. Slowly I started to see the hindrance that did not allow me to progress in the practice and this realization helped me to change my attitude and behaviour. I felt a lot of freedom when this behaviours change, bliss and calmness in the mind."

The next entry can be found here.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Ajahn Panna: 4. Dhamma Questions

The great British monk Ajahn Panna was ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition, and was blessed with the revered teacher Ajahn Maha Boowa. Ajahn Panna was one of the first known Westerners to ordain, and was widely believed in his lifetime to be an arahant. Although his life intersects little with Burma, his inspiring, five-part biography is being shared here. May this offer inspiration to meditators and monastics everywhere.

Here in Part Four, we hear Dhamma questions and his answers, informed by his many decades of meditative practice. The documentary can be started with Part One, which can be watched here.

The Penny and the Anna

The devoutness of the Shans are well known and acknowledged by the Bamar. There is an old saying, “If a Shan has got an anna, he will donate a penny.” As a penny is worth more than an anna, it reflects the deep wellspring of generosity that Shans are known to have. In modern times, temporary ordination is also less common with the Shan than for the Bamar, and the Shan novitation ceremony features a Tipitika placed upon a beautiful horse leading the procession.

Friday, 7 November 2014

"Can I give a purely vegetarian Sangha Dana?"

The vegetarian favorite Tofu Salad

One yogi recently sent us a question asking if it was appropriate to give a purely vegetarian Sangha Dana. Following is our answer. For more questions about Dhamma in Burma to be answered on this blog, shoot us an email at burmadhamma(at)gmail.

Today, whenever and wherever Bamar food is being served, it is customary for there to be at least a few purely vegetarian dishes. Interestingly, Burma provided a “vegetarian line” during the 1954-56 Buddhist Synod held at Kaba Aye Pagoda, and it was S.N Goenka (a life-long vegetarian due to his Hindu caste) who oversaw the vegetarian food distribution during the event. In Burma, single vegetarian dishes may not be a balanced meal on their own, but with advance warning from foreign meditators residing at monasteries, arrangements can be made to prepare more options and this is usually not difficult. For example U Agga, a Dutch monk who came to Yangon for a short period found that he was given whatever vegetarian fare happened to be available on his alms rounds, with promises offered by the well-wishers that on future days they would cook something more substantial ahead of time when they knew he was coming.

A common question that comes from vegetarian yogis wishing to sponsor Sangha Dana, is whether they can stipulate that their financial dana can only go towards serving vegetarian food. This will depend largely on the meditation center or monastery. Some may already be pure vegetarian, or vegetarian-friendly, and such a request will be understood. In other sites, however, the monks and yogis have come to expect meat and fish as part of their diet, and it may not be appropriate to demand which food can be served them, and which cannot. In these cases, practicing renunciation when giving the dana may be the best practice, and one can do this by inquiring of the monastery trustees or senior monks what is possible and what would not be in line with their particular tradition.

Finally, in Burmese vegetarian dishes, there will likely be fresh vegetables and herbs, and maybe beans, tofu, or other soy products. There are three kinds of commonly-used tofu: a Chinese kind that is firm and white, a jelly-like brand from Kachin state, and yellowish tofu from Shan state made from chick peas. Sometimes a generous dose of turmeric will be mixed in, giving the tofu a yellow color. Also note that while there are more vegetarian dishes in Shan cuisine, they are often prepared in the same pots as the meat dishes, in contrast to Bamar cuisine, which though having fewer vegetarian dishes, usually prepares them entirely separately.

Hta Min War Yellow T

Sitagu Sayadaw and President Obama

The great venerable monk Sayadaw U Nyanissara, more commonly known as Sitagu Sayadaw, is by far the most famous and well-known monk of Burma today. It is then no surprise that President Obama sought out a personal audience with the monk during his brief one-day visit to Myanmar in 2012. Now at Sitagu Academy, the innovative free Buddhist university run by U Nyanissara, this portrait with the American president hangs in a prominent place. As President Obama plans to return to visit the Golden Land next week, he may again take the time to consult and pay respects to the great monk.

For those students of S.N. Goenka, one may also remember their dear friendship over the years. U Nyanissara stayed at Dhamma Giri for three months many years ago, where he wrote a biography of Ledi Sayadaw, and he later led 500 monks in scattering Goenkaji's ashes in the Ayeyarwaddy River. It may be fitting that the first (and second) groups to hold meditation sittings in the new Sitagu Vipassana Center in the Sagaing Hills were pilgrims on the Pariyatti pilgrimage.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Ajahn Panna: 3. Ordination

The great British monk Ajahn Panna was ordained in the Thai Forest Tradition, and was blessed with the revered teacher Ajahn Maha Boowa. Ajahn Panna was one of the first known Westerners to ordain, and was widely believed in his lifetime to be an arahant. Although his life intersects little with Burma, his inspiring, five-part biography is being shared here. May this offer inspiration to meditators and monastics everywhere.

Here in Part Three, we learn about his ordination in the Thai Forest Tradition. The documentary can be started with Part One, which can be watched here. For the next one, see here.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Water Festival

The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the fourth entry, and the beginning post can be found here.

"I spent the water festival in the monastery because one foreign Sayalay told me that it could be a good experience for me. Certainly it was one of the most inspiring moments in Myanmar! The Sayalay told me that many local people come to meditate during that time because it is holiday. For me this was surprising. I found it incredible. In the meditation hall we were more than a thousand women meditating together. They were many lines for going for lunch and the dhamma talks were saturated. It was the first time I had the opportunity to share meditation with that amount of women. It was incredible.

Most of the women were extremely kind and caring about foreigners. There were not a lot of foreigners, four in total. In the hall, at lunch time and in the garden local girls would come to me to ask me if they could take a picture with me. I was very strange for them and many times I felt some girl were staring at me trying to figure out where I was from, I suppose."