Thursday, 24 December 2015

"As a Meditator in Burma, Should I Bow before Buddha Statues?"

Q: I appreciate the value of paying respects to a living monk, but I’m challenged when it comes to an inanimate object, such as statues, stupas, etc. How important or relevant is this practice, really?

A: “Lighten up!” laughs Bhikkhu Cintita. “It is true that in bowing to a statue there is no one to receive the bow. But we bow for ourselves, not for another. Bowing to a statue, or offering a statue food, water or flowers, is an enactment, it is theater. Learn to think of it as play, and do it anyway. Like bowing to monks, bowing to the Buddha is a wholesome practice of selflessness.”

As the American monk implies, some yogis may be perfectly comfortable paying respects to real people, but are not when a statue another inanimate object is placed before them. Some mistake this act as a sign of idolatry. J. George Scott noted this false assumption than a century ago:

There are few things which more irritate an educated Burman than to assert, or as most English do, calmly assume, that the Burmese are idolaters. The national idea is that idol-worship is especially the characteristic of the lowest savage tribes, and even fetichism is considered a superior faith. Therefore the accusation of bowing down to stocks and stones is intolerable, and the implication is combated with feverish energy. Where there are no prayers, in the technical sense of the word, there can be no idolatry. No one, not even Shin Gautama himself, can help a man in his strivings to lead a holy life. None but the individual in his own person can work out his special salvation, and he tries to do so by setting a splendid ideal before his mind. The words uttered before the impassive features of the Budh are not a supplication for mercy or aid, but the praises of the great Lord himself, through the contemplation of whose triumphant victory over passions and ignorance the most sinful may be led to a better state.
There is no Supreme Being; the Buddha himself, who even while he was on earth was no more than a perfect, sinless man, no longer exists to make intercession, were there any such power to which one might appeal. The only thing to be done is to praise, and in praising to strive to imitate, and through imitation to attain to the perfect knowledge, and so to the final deliverance, the exemption from the four burdens of heaviness, age, sickness, and death, which is the restful absorption of Ne'ban.

This explanation of the Burmese perspective still resonates today. A serene face, an inspiring posture, and a place to make offerings are seen as wonderful opportunities to develop one’s respect, humility, and devotion towards those aspects of Buddha’s qualities that one wishes to develop oneself.

U Sarana further advises that “giving up” and “non-clinging” are practiced in different ways, and that even when one brings such an attitude to an inanimate object, such as a Buddha statue, it can beneficially affect one’s spiritual practice. Thus, he notes, if one gives food to the Buddha statue, while the food will of course not be eaten, one has still relinquished one’s own possession and given it to a symbol of the Buddha. However, U Sarana adds there is a belief that while celestial beings do not ingest food, they do smell it (as they do incense, candles, flowers, etc.) This is why when food is offered to statues, it is often fragrant, such as ripe fruit. And even if one offers nothing materially, but simply prostrates oneself, this is also seen as a kind of “offering” or “renouncing,” for the yogi is letting go of some part of the ego in honoring the Enlightened One.

As Dr. Asabha reminds us, “When we pay respects to a statue, actually we are not paying respects to the statue, but our mind aims for the Buddha’s glory. This statue helps us to understand [the Buddha and his achievements]. When we see this statue, our mind aims to the Buddha’s glory, and we pay respects to the glory of the Buddha. Not this actual statue, this is only form. And when we pay respects to the pagoda, it is the same thing.” Venerable Rekkhita offers some specific advice for the Western yogi challenged with this act when he writes, “Perhaps one way is to practice chanting chants that involve visualising the Buddha and some of his foremost disciples. Such as the Buddha Mangala Gātha, where the Buddha is visualized seated in the centre and eight disciples are visualised at all the eight points of the compass. As these type of chants are a kind of mental imagery they can help understand the intention of the statue designers and builders or craftsmen.”

U Sunanda advises that when bowing to a statue of the Buddha, one should keep four qualities in mind: sīla, samadhi, vipassana, and vimutti. He also says it can be helpful to bring to mind that many paramis that the Buddha had to achieved in order to reach the end of suffering, and then the compassion he had in teaching this way to the greater community. Masoyein Sayadaw recommended to his many disciples that it was best pay respects to a statue of Buddha at least once daily. 

Prekhemma Sayadaw also speaks to this. He notes that there are four types of cetiya, or Relics, related to the Buddha. The third of these is odehta zedi, which includes stupas and representations of the Buddha. He advises that “[W]hen one pays respect to a statue or stupa, don’t think about it being a pile of bricks, but rather as the remains or as a representation of the Buddha. And who is the Buddha? He is the teacher of anyone who seeks to meditate. So in any structure, don’t think about the architecture or style, but its essence. Don’t think about the statue, but what it represents.” In fact, he feels this advice is as pertinent to Burmese Buddhists and monks as it is to foreign yogis; he laments that today, he sees many Burmese mechanically bowing down out of custom or tradition. The revered Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw used to counsel his students, pone daw go gone daw hlan deh, or, “When you see the statue, ‘cover’ [that is, give importance to] the qualities.”

Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw’s student, U Tejaniya, advises his Western students, “If you have resistance, then don’t bow. But if wholeheartedly the mind is calm, then do it. This is also a form of gratitude, gratitude for these teachings that are so valuable. I don’t want to push anyone to have to bow.” In this vein, U Tejaniya recalled an incident where a Muslim questioner came to meet with Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, and did not bow to him. Although others were upset, his teacher was not disturbed in the slightest, saying that he did not become a monk simply so that others would bow to him. Recalls U Tejaniya, “This is [each person’s] own business.”

Like his teacher, U Tejaniya has noticed that some Burmese monks may have too much of an attachment on the outer forms, and Maha Gandayone Sayadwa U Janaka spoke similarly half a century earlier when he suggested that an overly-fastidious attention towards the shrine area has distracted lay supporters from the more important part of the teachings. He wrote in Autobiography, “[T]he images of various styles and types so confused our visage that we lost the true Buddha.” It is important to add, however, that he was quick to note that benefit can indeed come to one who properly honors a Buddha statue, elsewhere saying that he did “not mean to say that prayer and offer of food, flower, and light at the pagodas are of no merit.” What bothered him was when he saw people praying at the Buddha images and pagodas for personal gratification.

Essentially, the decision of bowing before a statue is the yogi’s to make, and so long as one does not show overt disrespect (such as touching the image’s head, sitting higher than the statue, pointing one’s feet towards it, etc.) it is generally acceptable. For those that see it as another layer of the practice, it is fine to do, while for those that see it as veering into the category of “organized religion,” it can be avoided. Of course, one should also check with the Sayadaw of the monastery where one is staying, as some may feel that bowing is a central part of the Buddhist practice they are teaching. This is the stance that Sayagyi U Ba Khin took when a Muslim merchant friend of his student U Goenka wished to take a course to relieve his insomnia. Despite the fact that the “calmness of the place and the kindly presence of the Teacher made a strong impact on him,” he suddenly decided to decline attending the course based on a Buddha shrine he saw at IMC, for his religion prohibited the glorification of images. U Ba Khin heard about the man’s hesitation, and promised him that not only would he not be required to bow before it, but he could even curtain the image off during this course if he felt threatened by it. The man later felt comfortable paying formal respects to Sayagyi as he had great gratitude for his teachings, but did not ultimately bow to the statue.

“A great deal of nonsense has been written from time to time on the subject of the Burmese custom of Shiko. A Burman coming into the presence of a superior, a monk, a member of the royal house, an official, an elder of his family, adopts an attitude akin to kneeling, and places the palms of his hands together. Placing the palms of the hands together and slightly raising them is the essence of the attitude of respect. It is a charming and graceful salutation. ..[W]hat objection there can be to the hands slightly lifted in reverence, a natural and beautiful action, why it should be thought more dignified to pretend to cast dust on the head in salaaming, I cannot understand.” Sir Herbert White, A Civil Servant in Burma, 1913

 Sayadaw U Janaka Speaks
Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka was famous for getting to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings, even when it exposed traditional Burmese beliefs and practices that had veered away from this core message. He often spoke of this relationship between the Buddha and the Dhamma on the one hand, and a statue that represents them on the other. Following are some of his more memorable quotes:
· Images and idols of the Buddha are just imitations of the physique of the Buddha.
· Myanmar sculptures make the Buddha’s image in Myanmar style, so do the Chinese and Indian sculptures in their own styles. The real intention is to make people think of the Buddha and adore Him all the more.
· Images and idols lay a cover over the real Buddha; preachers’ preachings cover up the real Dhamma; bogus monks cover up the real Saṅgha.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Sitagu Sayadaw U Nyanissara gives Buddhist meditation instructions in En...

On July 15, 2007, the revered Sitagu Sayadaw U Nyanissara delivered a Dhamma talk in English, instructing a foreign audience on the principles of Buddhist meditation. Prior to his discourse, he led them in reciting the precepts and taking refuge in the Triple Gem of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. 

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Chan Myay Mying Sayadaw: A Personal Taste of Metta

The following quote is from Sayadaw U Indaka of Chan Myay Maying in Metta: The Practice of Loving-Kindness As the Foundation for Insight Meditation Practice. As noted in a previous post, he will be teaching intensive metta retreats in Pyin Oo Lwin for those English-speaking meditators who are interested. 
One day Chanmyay Sayadaw said, “I have a natural affinity for metta meditation, and I enjoy it very much. When I practise metta meditation, my mind becomes happier and more peaceful with anodisa metta (non-specific metta) than with odisa metta (specific metta). However with anodisa metta, concentration does not become very powerful and strong. I always encourage the monks and volunteers at the monastery to practise metta meditation, and I also tell the yogis who come to practise meditation at Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centre to develop metta. When I tell them to practise metta meditation, I ask them to do metta at the beginning of their vipassana meditation as part of the preliminary preparations. Or else, I advise them to develop metta during vipassana meditation when the mind becomes filled with anger or when the mind is very restless. Occasionally, I also tell them to practise Buddhanussati. Sometimes, I instruct yogis who are experienced in the practice of vipassana meditation to develop metta continuously for about one to one and a half months. Some yogis who have practised in this way have had a direct personal experience of the ‘taste’ of metta.

Chanmyay Myaing Meditation Centre
Shwe U Min Street
No.3 Highway, Laydaungkan
Mingaladon Township
Pale PO 11022

Friday, 13 November 2015

Burmese Monasteries: Rites and Rituals, and Sitting Postures

Following are two questions by foreign yogis about residing at Burmese monasteries. Feel free to email any additional questions to us here

Q: At the monastery, will I have to participate in the various Buddhist rites and rituals? Or can I just do my own meditation?

A: Most Burmese monasteries are fairly relaxed and foreign visitors will not be expected to know and follow the entire range of local Buddhist customs. Additionally, some foreign yogis see their main meditation practice as bhavana and to them, what is outside this is considered extraneous or less important. However, what may be seen as “rites and rituals” to an outsider is, to a Burmese Buddhist, part and parcel of their spiritual practice. This may include making offerings Buddhist shrines and images, cleaning and cooking, chanting, working with beads, daily bowing to monks and statues, Pali studies, recitations before eating, the alms walk, etc. While foreign yogis would not be forced to be a part of any of these activities during one's stay, it is important at a minimum to show respect, and in so doing, one may also find that these can support one’s meditation practice.

Q: Is there anything I should keep in mind when sitting at a monastery?

A: The proper posture is to sit with one’s legs tucked under one. One need not keep this posture indefinitely and it is acceptable to change posture as much as one needs. One should avoid sitting directly in front of a monk and not higher, either. Burmese do not sit cross-legged when facing monks or Buddha statues, though it is not necessarily considered rude to do so. A European monk was particularly curious about this, and inquired to Sayadaw U Kovida of the Pa Auk tradition. He replied that this is no violation of any vinaya, but rather within Burmese culture it is not seen as respectful in these circumstances.What one must be sure to avoid is sitting with one’s legs held up to the chest.

Adjusting to the austere environment of the Burmese monastery can be challenging for Western yogis from a more comfortable background. This was noted by Marie Byles in Journey Into Burmese Silence, who wrote: “When she first became a nun, for ten days she went without the evening meal, and found no difficulty. What she found far more difficult was learning how to sit on the floor. For many months she evinced an indecorous eagerness to find a chair whenever there was one to be found. But six months later, stiff limbs had become supple and there was no longer difficulty.” If one is looking for a testimonial as to how long a monk or yogi has spent studying and meditating in such environments, one of the best signs is the anklebone. On those who have put in the hours, the protruding bone is deeply worn away and calloused from long hours of sitting on hard surfaces.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Ledi Sayadaw: The Abhidhamma "Gives Delight to the Scientific Men of other Religions"

Eric Braun's stunning biography of Ledi Sayadaw shows how the great Burmese monk empowered lay people to practice in ways that led directly to the patipatti post-WWII explosion and today's Mindfulness Movement. In the following passage, Braun discusses the Manual of Insight Meditation, and how it written not for Burmese Buddhists, but with the foreigner explicitly in mind, and how it stresses Ledi's belief that study of Abhidhammic concepts was vital to anyone interested in the Dhamma. It is a powerful reminder of how adept and innovative Ledi was in reaching Westerners long before there was an interest in the Dhamma there. Today, all foreign meditators may feel gratitude at this forward-thinking Burmese monk.

"As I noted above, the book was written for Europeans. It was printed in English translation in Burma in 1915, the same year it was written. It is not clear to me how extensively, if at all, it was distributed in Europe, but it gained notice in Burma and came to be published in Burmese numerous times. Certainly, the intended Western audience did not cause Ledi to change his presentation of meditation in any fundamental way. On the contrary, based on his conception of Westerners, he only sharpens his preexisting approach to it as a plausible part of Buddhist lay life, rooted in study. In the decade prior to writing this work, Ledi had corresponded regularly with Westerners, mostly about matters of Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. The Westerner with whom Ledi corresponded most frequently and at the most sophisticated level was Caroline Rhys-Davids—he called her 'the London Pali Devī.' He discussed with her a wide range of complex Abhidhamma topics, involving such matters as epistemology and the mind’s role in causality. His answers to her questions about the Yamaka, the second book of the Abhidhamma, were printed in the 1913–14 volume of the Journal of the Pali Text Society. In addition to his communications with Rhys-Davids, he also corresponded at some length with Edmund J. Mills, a chemistry professor in London who was chairman of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the organization which distributed Ledi’s texts in Europe. The questions Ledi received from these interlocutors and others likely impressed upon him the idea of a Western inclination toward analytical analysis that prompted him to say... that the Abhidhamma 'gives delight to the scientific men of other religions.'"

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

A Meditator's Guide to Burma!!!

Earlier this year, Pariyatti released Shwe Lan Ga Lay, or "The Golden Path," a meditator's guide to Burma/Myanmar. The Foreword clearly explains the book's intent:
Shwe Lan Ga Lay’s intended audience is very simple: those seeking liberation from suffering through the Buddha’s teachings. Our goal is to humbly assist readers in deepening their practice in Myanmar, the country where we believe the Buddha’s teachings have been best preserved. Shwe Lan does not aspire or pretend to be an instruction manual for practice or a textbook on Buddhist scriptures. Rather, it is a guide to point you in the direction of Myanmar’s many great meditation masters, monks filled with wisdom, and nuns who daily live out the Buddha’s teachings.

Shwe Lan Ga Lay has been a labor of love for all concerned from the get-go. The vast majority of work on Shwe Lan Ga Lay has been done by volunteers, who have received no remuneration of any kind for this project. Additionally, all financial dana goes strictly towards covering the basic costs of the project, and sales revenue is split between project costs as well as to further support Pariyatti’s mission.

The only thing Shwe Lan asks in return is this: at the time of undertaking any meritorious action—from meditating to offering dāna to cleaning a monastery toilet—we will be very happy if you have the volition to share your merit with the book’s contributors (and happier still if we hear from you in the process).

For those who find benefit from this Part 1 early release, and would like to help us continue the work, there are two ways you can do so. First, you can join Shwe Lan as a volunteer by sending an email to us. There is always work to do, and many types of skills are needed. In particular, we can use help in the following areas: artists, layout editors, map-making, photographers, copy-editors, scholars, web designers, translators, public relations, publishing, writers, researchers, and general volunteers are always welcome. The second way support can be shown is through financial dāna for the project, which can be offered through Pariyatti’s website.

Finally, if you have already been to Myanmar, or plan to go, and are willing to help us during (or after) your trip, please let the editorial staff know! There are always “on-the-ground tasks” that need doing. Additionally, if you come across information not included in this edition, do inform us. We are constantly on the lookout to update our content, and what we have now was provided by meditators/visitors just like you.

Many pairs of eyes—Burmese and non-Burmese alike—have passed over these pages. While greatly lengthening the creative process and Shwe Lan’s timeline, the goal was to ensure that Shwe Lan Ga Lay be as accurate and respectful a portrayal of Burmese Buddhist practices and traditions, as well as Burmese culture, as possible. 

Our next step is to distribute Part 1 in e-book and printed form, as well as to release Part 2, which features literally hundreds of pagodas, monasteries, and meditation centers where pilgrims and meditators and monastics may go for practice when visiting Burma/Myanmar. 

As this volunteer-effort has taken enormous work, and still requires more continued effort, support is graciously appreciated to ensure that we can continue this project. 

The following are excerpts from Part 1:

Gratitude and Thanks

"...So, today we feel very thankful and grateful to Tapussa and Bhallika, who brought these relics to this country [of Burma]. And [who] later on they went back to India, learned Dhamma from him and brought Dhamma also to this country. And then, we remember arahant Gavampati. Who, just seven years after the parinibbana of the Enlightened One, came to this country to meet his brother of previous lives. Who was ruling, by the name of Tiha Singha, Singharaja. And who had established the capital of Sudhammapuri, which is now called Thahton.

And this king, Singharaja was a very powerful king. He had established this city of Sudhammapura. And the whole country of Suvanna Bhumi. He was ruling the entire country of 
Suvanna Bhumi. This Suvanna Bhumi was not only limited to today's Myanmar. A great portion of Thailand was in it. The entire peninsula of Malaysia was in it, down to the tip. And it is not wrong to say that this Singharaja established the city of Singapore. We don't remember him just for his political powers. We remember him, that he helped Dhamma to spread in all this area. With, of course, the help of arahant Gavampati..."

-- Excerpt from a 2004 speech that Saygyi U Goenka made to the Burmese Sangha in Yangon, Myanmar

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Dhammaduta Jetavana Monastery

Dhammaduta Jetavana Monastery was founded in Hmawbi by Sayadaw U Say Kain Da in 2000, and is in the illustrious tradition of the highly revered Dhammaduta Sayadaw. The wide monastery grounds feature large expanses of forested lands that are quite peaceful and quiet. The monastery is used for scriptural study and teaching young novices, however study sessions may be available for foreigners with a proper meditation visa. The Sayadaw, an engineer in his lay life, speaks good English and is currently a professor of meditation at the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. A plan is underway to build a very large meditation hall, along with comfortable accommodations for 500 meditators. The monastery is on the right, several kilometers before Hmawbi when coming from Yangon. Foreign yogis may apply for meditation courses, long retreats, or study classes in person or by phone.

Shwe Wa Win Mogok Monastery in South Dagon, Yangon

This center is overseen by the venerable Dr. Asabha, one of the few Mogok senior teachers who is fluent in English This allows the yogi an unparalleled-experience of learning the Mogok tradition directly from a very experienced practitioner. Yogis learn samathā and vipassana, and study the Law of Dependent Origination. There are two Dhamma talks given daily towards this end, with ample time available for Question and Answer to ensure understanding. The typical schedule with Dr. Asabha includes six hours of sitting meditation, four hours of walking meditation, and one hour of lying meditation. However, this is adjusted based on his teaching schedule, with daily hours scheduled to discuss the theory in depth.

Prior to the construction of this site, Dr. Asabha provided translation for his teacher U Sobhana, who oversaw Shwe Myint Mo Kyaung (5 Quarter, No. 1 Kyaung Taik, Tel 01-571258). Built in the 1990s, this is a modern meditation center with several multi-storied buildings, and comfortable single-room accommodation. Four hundred yogis usually reside here for courses, with as many as 700 coming for Thingyan. Dr Asabha still divides his time between the two sites, and so is able to continue to help out with translation for those foreign yogis who go there. However, to have more access to the good doctor’s time, one is encouraged to come to his new monastery.

The center itself was donated in 2000, with new construction taking place in subsequent years. The compound itself is relatively small, at just under one acre. There are large dormitory style rooms, and they are building modern single-accommodation rooms with private bathrooms as they hope to welcome more foreign yogis in the future. There are several Dhamma Halls as well, including a smaller one that they hope to make available to foreign yogis. A newer one is now being built that has a wonderful replica of a Bodhi tree at the front. All Dhamma Halls are built on the upper floors of their respective buildings, allowing splendid views of the surrounding countryside. The roof on one five-story building even has a large—although fake—tree in its center, giving the meditator a simulation of sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. Another unique feature about the Shwe Wa Win monastery regards its integrated location with the surrounding community of South Dagon. Neighborhood life teems throughout the monastery grounds, and this being far removed from the downtown areas, the foreign yogi is able to venture into a traditional setting of Burmese life where few have done so before.

Dr. Asabha travels frequently to give Dhamma talks, and also oversees a community clinic opened on Sundays that one may give dana towards. He is open to welcoming foreign yogis and guiding their progress, and extended stays are possible for those with correct visas (as is temporary ordination). One may also join a structured retreat, which vary from 7 days to one month in length. Capacity is 300 yogis, although usual numbers are just over 100, with about 20 monks and novices living there full-time.

Address: Maha Bandoola Road 104 Ward South Dagon.

The Wrong Way to Monywa

“After three hours, I realized that I was marching in the wrong direction! I was actually going to the north of the country, but [Ledi Sayadaw Monastery in] Monywa was back to the west. I left the train and I tried to buy another ticket. [The] wife of the stationmaster came in the office [and]… told me to take rest in the office. The train would come back only in the afternoon. So, I took a nap in the comfortable cane-made chair of the stationmaster. One hour later, she woke up me and put me on the train. I was moved to see her kindness: she gave me some fruit to eat and water for the trip. She waited that the train move, she greeted me and I was on my way to Mandalay, asking me what I have done to merit such love and care from completely unknown people.” 

--Enrico Billi, Italian meditator

Mogok Sayadaw: The Stages of Insight

"There is no need to speculate which stage of insight you have attained. This is not like climbing a flight of stairs. If (you are) climbing stairs, (you will) say you have reached the seventh step, or the sixteenth. But with the progressive stages of insight wisdom, you won’t be able to distinguish them."

--Mogok Sayadaw

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Afghanistan and Burma in Laurie's Colonial England

William Laurie wrote Ashé Pyee, the Superior Country in 1882, just years before colonial England occupied the whole of Burma. In much of this book, Laurie makes a case as to why it is in their best interest to occupy the Golden Land. Following are some of his arguments:
The mercantile gentleman—a gentleman to the backbone—remarks: " The country is full of wealth which only requires the commonest form of just government to tap and draw off. Now that all the mischief that can be done to trade has been done, and troops are on the spot, it is to be hoped that Government will make such arrangements—be they in the form of annexation or of a definite treaty with suitable guarantee for fulfilment—as will put trade on a secure basis, and prevent the recurrence of a similar commercial crisis." 
Again, the shrewd merchant makes the following very pithy remark, which, beyond all question, has considerable truth in it:—"Upper Burma occupies pretty much the relation to British Burma that a lunatic asylum does to a contiguous private residence. It is a constant object of dread to the merchant, and from a political point of view, it is a standing menace to British power and prestige in the East." 
The comparison of Upper with Lower Burma is very striking in every respect, and should be studied by all who are anxious to understand the Burmese question. In the former we have poverty, starvation, and barbarous oppression by the rulers, where the people are taught "that gambling is a virtue, and life and property of no particular value;" in the latter, there is safety for all under a beneficent Government—"peace, contentment, and happiness, and such a steady and ever-increasing development of the resources of the country as might make any wise ruler anxious to imitate a system which has produced such marvellous results." 
The difference, of course, in the two cases is simply that we require either possession of, or strict control over, the one country, to make an harmonious whole; but we do not at all, at present, require the other. We can wait for Afghanistan, if it is ever to be ours, meanwhile fortifying ourselves against all chance of attack; but we cannot wait for something to be done with Upper Burma without damaging Lower or British Burma.