Tuesday, 25 November 2014

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

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