Sunday, 11 January 2015

Intersection of Dhamma Travel and Tourist Travel in Myanmar




 As Myanmar continues to open up, more and more Dhamma pilgrims can come to experience the richness of its Buddhist sites. Unfortunately, more and more tourists can also come to tramp around these very same Buddhist sites. Such a fact comes out in an article written by Douglas Long in My Magical Myanmar. He describes his visit to Monywa. This was the place recognized as the home of the great Ledi Sayadaw, which meditator David Lambert celebrated in his essay Chindwin by writing that “beyond the conventional radar, this is the heart of yogi tourism, where foreign meditators... come to explore the heartland of their spiritual souls. For some, this is the area ‘where it all began.’”

Now, however, as Long's essay shows, it is no longer "beyond the conventional radar," as for him, it is a place to be "sheltered in our air-conditioned room and [wait] until late afternoon for a walk around town."

Long goes on to write that "we... enjoyed the long, casual amble that took us past a statue of national hero Aung San on horseback, the town’s central clock tower, a buzzing street market and the Shwezigon Pagoda. At the riverside, we enjoyed fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice as we watched the sun descend toward the horizon." Shwezigon, of course, is the pagoda where Ledi Sayadaw lived, mediated, wrote, and taught after a great fire in Mandalay destroyed nearly all of his books and he retreated the then-capital city.

The next stop is Bodhi Ta Htaung, where Long writes: "Myanmar’s tourism boosters are fond of declaring that this statue is one of the tallest such images in the world, but given the Buddha’s teachings on humility and impermanence, these trifling boasts seem somewhat contrary to the spirit of the religion." Not known or mentioned by the casual tourist, however, is that the great Bodhi Ta Htaung Sayadaw, originally known as U Narada, practiced meditation across Upper Burma, although his work was hindered by bouts of tuberculosis. Even after becoming Sayadaw, he regularly planned extended self-courses to pursue his own meditation practice, going to such sites at West Prekhemma Monastery in Sagaing, Kyuakse Hill, Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, among others. Between 1988 and 2004, he also travelled extensively throughout Asia and the West. His last known words, said while in the hospital were: “He who always cultivates mindfulness, attains Nibbana. He who does not cultivate mindfulness, is born and dies endlessly. Lord Buddha delivered a discourse time and again, mindfulness should be cultivated at all times.”

The road to Bodhi Ta Htaung Monastery

Long's next stop is Thanboddhay Monastery, which he notes as a "beautifully painted in a riot of bright colours and decorated with thousands of small Buddha images." Much more importantly, however is the former Mohynin Sayadaw who oversaw this site. He was one of Ledi Sayadaw's most renowned students, and followed Ledi's advice by coming here to meditate ten years in seclusion without talking to another soul. When World War II struck Burma, this became a refuge for thousands of lay Buddhists, with many learning meditation for the first time. It was a thriving meditation center after the war, with unique meditation cells constructed along the walls of the inner compound that still exist today. 

Thanboddhay Monastery

Long also mentions passing by Letpadaung mine, and he notes that "Myanmar riot police had used unnecessarily heavy-handed tactics while confronting monks and villagers protesting against the environmental and communal impact of the mine." However, he seems to miss that it was not just environmental concerns that people had. Even more importantly, this was where Ledi Sayadaw resided for over one year, living remotely in a cave while practicing meditation, and the local Buddhist community did not want his cave damaged or access to the site prevented to future pilgrims.

Finally, Long visits Hpo Win Daung caves, about which he says this: "We wandered around the main hill, saw a few Buddhist monks looking into the alcoves, and ran into a group of local kids who asked for packets of shampoo." Much more important to the Dhamma pilgrim, however, is that this is the site where Saya Thet Gyi was instructed by Ledi Sayadaw to practice his own teachings, and where he made his earliest advancements in meditation practice.

One wonders if these sites will become open further and further to conventional tourists who do not know-- and are not interested-- about the rich and important dhammic past of these sites, or if they may also be visited by those who recognize the sacred importance of these sites within the great tradition of Burmese Buddhist practice.

Maha Ledi Monastery in Monywa, where Ledi Sayadaw resided