Thursday, 19 February 2015

Burmese Buddhism: Vast, Brutal, Gentle, and Sticky

 By Miles Bukiet 

"Much of the Buddhist world has been crushed over the last century. The wake of devastation stretches across the Asian continent, a result of the Communists in Mongolia, Vietnam and Laos, the Cultural Revolution in China, and the ongoing ruthless occupation in Tibet. Even the countries spared violent political suppression have been assaulted by modernization and development. In Thailand, for example, economic growth has led to the wholesale destruction of the forests that once served as the ground of the Forest Tradition. Is there anywhere dharma is still at the root of things, where the people have been steeped in it for millennia, where the built environment reflects the devotion of a nation, where the spirit of the society is infused with the wisdom of the Triple Gem? 

Welcome to Myanmar. 

Many know of Myanmar as an incubator for the modern Vipassana movement, the home of Mahasi Sayadaw and the birthplace of S.N Goenka. Others know it as the base of the fabled Pa Auk monastery. These strands of teaching and practice lured me to Myanmar with their promise of fourteen hours of meditation a day, the strictness of their demands, and the fullness of their support. Wake up before dawn, keep your mouth shut, and sit through pain in exchange for a bed and a free lunch. This was the brutal no nonsense approach I sought. If this is what you seek, Myanmar won’t let you down. 

My own journey began last winter at Panditarama, a sprawling 100-acre campus still presided over by the indomitable Sayadaw U Pandita, a man who has been in robes for more then 80 years. Here the task is an unremitting focus on the moment-to-moment arising of phenomena. From 4:30am until at least 9:00pm you alternate sitting and walking meditation in one-hour blocks. There’s a ferocity to the approach here. It’s not about feeling good; it’s about relentless application of the technique, and hopefully over time a breakthrough to liberating insight.

Pa Auk has a similarly driven attitude although the focus is, at least in the early stages, narrowed to the breath and sitting meditation is prioritized. Its 500-acre campus inhabits a forested hillside with kutis spreading up steep pathways and extending deep into the jungle, making the scale almost impossible to grasp. These kutis house the monks, whose numbers sometimes swell to over 1000. Go to either Pa Auk or Panditarama and you will be assured a clean and comfortable lodging, abundant food twice daily and the expectation of rigorous practice.

I most likely would have stuck to this limited itinerary if it weren’t for a chance encounter with a man named Joah that would radically alter my trajectory. Neat, trim, fit, he carries a quiet calm matched by a fierce intensity of purpose. Two years ago a small group of foreign yogis at the Shwe Oo Min center north of Yangon met to exchange tips about where to study. Seeing that most of these yogis were new to the country and understood very little about the ins and outs of Burmese Buddhism and culture, Joah began gathering and collating information in order to deepen and enrich the experience of foreigners living and practicing in Myanmar. The project has since snowballed into an exhaustive and long overdue guide to Burmese Buddhism. This guide will become an immediate classic of indispensable value to anyone looking to experience the dharma first hand in Myanmar as well as for those with a more armchair style curiosity. But the book is about more then just satiating idle curiosity and facilitating the experience of foreign yogis. It’s a treasure trove of history and a chronicling of one of the richest extant cultural realms on this planet. It arrives at a time of radical change and will help to redefine what development and progress can mean, not only in Myanmar, but in Southeast Asia and the world at large.

The book is called Shwe Lan Ga Lay (Shwe Lan for short), which translates as The Golden Path. It contains a thumbnail sketch of hundreds of monasteries, practice centers, monuments, pagodas, shrines, and stupas across the country. It profiles dozens of Sayadaws, both contemporary and historical, and it contains information from interviews with Sayadaws, scholars, lay devotes, and seasoned foreign yogis. Much of this content has never before appeared in English, and some of it has never before been written down in any language whatsoever. The book has a section on Burmese culture and the ways to be respectful, focusing on common guffaws and cultural differences. It notes the practicalities of travel with information on transportation, health, food, and visas. It will even teach you how to ordain as a monk.

With dozens of artists donating original pieces, both professional and amateur photographers contributing photographs, and professional designers working to create a dynamic layout, it promises to pack a strong visual punch to match the hefty written portion. When Shwe Lan is completed Pariyatti, a non-profit devoted to disseminating the teachings of the Buddha, will publish it in a way that insures as broad a distribution as possible including freely available e-versions.

More impressive still, the entire document has been created exclusively by volunteers and a scanty few thousand dollars of dana (donations) to cover various costs. I was floored and struck with a powerful urge to lend a hand. Joah emailed me and another young American, Sam Hanft, a list of 25 places to scout in Yangon. For each place we were instructed to report back on the conditions, the food, the sleeping arrangements, the style of teaching, and the vibe. We were asked to iron out directions, cull anecdotes, interview Sayadaws, record relevant history, and take pictures.

The scale of the task begins to crush me as even finding the monasteries proves to be a maddening undertaking and a herculean test of patience. Hurled into Yangon, the pulsing hub of the emerging nation, I spend a sweaty confused week lost and stuck in traffic. Busted sidewalks, with potholes big enough to fall into, heave with swarms of people hawking cheap Chinese merchandise and local fruits. Several stories above the mayhem, trees grow through the cracks of the function over style concrete flats that dominate the downtown. A rooster sits on the top of a glass counter full of the latest model knock off smart-phones. This is the angsty epicenter of the nation set to set to become the newest democracy in Southeast Asia, set to increase its GDP ten fold in the next decade.

But despite all the hustle, and bustle, despite the promise of modernity, despite the smog, and despite the traffic, there is the palpable sense of a collective, expectant pause. On a balmy evening, wandering the streets of Yangon, a Burmese friend and a poet, quips to me “it’s like Godot around here, everyone’s waiting, but they don’t know what they’re waiting for.” Myanmar is poised to transform, but in the interim you’re still hard pressed to find internet or an ATM and you can still see an older, gentler way of life and practice of dharma. This poisedness lends a poignancy to all that I see, a sense that the world that’s unfolding in front of me, the world that Joah is eager to share, is open, but only for a moment. 

Even within the crowded downtown, each monastery is a universe unto itself. Aletawya Monastery is lost in time with decaying colonial relics interspersed with lush green foliage and hidden pagodas. Orange robes hang on lines as elderly monks move quietly about their business and cats bask in the sun. Dhamma Theidhi Kya Ung center is full of the charged youthful energy of hundreds of novices showering and running about. Smart new concrete school buildings stand proudly above the well-marked sports fields. The Mogok Headquarters occupies the sprawling former tax building. In the 1950’s this was a crucial center for the massive post war meditation boom, when tens of thousands took up the practice for the first time. Drenched in history it’s a Blade Runneresque maze of corridors and rooms, some filled with huge dusty machinery. Everywhere wires and pipes run this way and that. Dhamidaow Daya Dhukhidarma is an orderly and serene nunnery housing hundreds of well fed young women dressed in the classical hot pink robes. Some monasteries ooze a turgid energy with pudgy monks lazily lounging, chewing betel nut, the fast acting narcotic of choice in Myanmar, as packs of mangy dogs roam the grounds.

The continual refrain from the monasteries is: come stay, come practice, come learn. Everyone is ready to roll out another mat to sleep on, ready to set up another mosquito net to meditate under, ready to make room on the floor around one of the round tables laden with food. Whatever your style, whether it’s learning Burmese and studying Pali; practicing one of the many different types of meditation; or helping the young novices there’s somewhere to suit you. Shwe Lan will highlight this diversity of options opening dharma doors both within and beyond the formal practice of meditation. 

Something of both the relative and absolute scale of it all can be grasped by noting that Myanmar is a country with 53 million people and a whopping monastic population of over 500,000. Those 500,000 live off donations alone. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in the world, and yet the society somehow manages, through extraordinary generosity, to unfailingly support its bulging monastic population. Much of this generosity comes in the form of a single spoonful of rice given daily. Indeed this generosity, and the faith and understanding that inspires it, is legendary. This spirit of giving has created a softening effect on the country, such that despite the poverty, and despite the political oppression there is an air of friendliness and safety. The people possess an unusual uprightness both physically and psychologically, and they have a remarkable brightness and warmth. Some of the money that flows into the monastic world is squandered on flat screens for the Sayadaws, vain building projects, and sluggish monks, but much of it is funneled towards education and authentic practice whose fruits radiate through the entire society.

Watching a long line of monks marching through the streets at dawn, large metal bowls held out expectantly, people bowing and filling them with all types of food, I wonder how long such generosity can last as Myanmar hurtles into the 21st century. Shwe Lan reminds us that change is not new to Myanmar, recounting the mighty kingdoms that have come and gone, the rise and fall of colonial rule, the passing of the World Wars, and the five decade long grip of a corrupt military regime. Somehow through it all the dharma has remained strong and relevant, often reinventing itself to do so. But the juggernaut of consumerist culture that is already descending on the land is something unprecedented. How the society galvanizes to protect what’s worthwhile in the culture, while also working towards valid development goals concerning health, sanitation, infrastructure, access to education, ending hunger, the alleviation of poverty, and protection of minority rights, will have effects far beyond the boundaries of the nation.

Although originally tasked with investigating particular monasteries, it seems Myanmar is so saturated with Buddhism that I can’t help but trip and fall over it everywhere I go. Riding on one of the busy highways I see a massive Buddha, perhaps dozens of stories high, rearing up from the flat lands visible through the haze like a mirage. “What’s that?” I ask the cab driver excitedly. He dishes back a deadpan shrug as though such things are so commonplace as to be forgettable. Trundling through the streets on one of the 1950’s wood floor buses, I look up and notice that above the driver the bus has its own shrine, with flowers, pictures, and a small statue. I soon discover this is nearly universally the case.

Stumbling upon the former residence of Aung San, the much-loved father of modern Myanmar, I learn that despite being both a general and a communist, he was also a devoted Buddhist. In a turret of his house I pause for a moment of meditation in front of the gold, oddly squat Buddha statue where the general sat quietly each morning in the last few years of his life. My spine tingles and, chills course up and down my body. There’s a palpable charge to this turret. It’s not only here. Almost daily I find places that provoke this peculiar energetic reaction. 

At night Shwedagon Pagoda, beaming over Yangon, beckons me to retreat north of the downtown. As the heat recedes and the crowds dissipate, I walk barefoot on the still warm marble, head craning up to see the 344ft golden spire stretching towards the heavens. The profound allure of gold, its austere and relentless beauty against a dark sky, captivates the eye. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the singing of the small brass wind chimes placed high on the monument. Lovers walk hand in hand and families picnic idly.

In Myanmar the romantic rarely comes without a reminder of the real as the nation grows up. A youth anxiously spins his smart phone in his hand as he talks in a jittery manner with his girlfriend. LEDs have been affixed behind many of the bronze Buddhas nestled at the foot of the pagoda and cheesy looking plaster statues have been added around the base. The true devotees don’t seem to mind, kneeling silently by the Buddhas in the various reliefs, the altars full of offerings, fruits, flowers, dried goods, incense. A time for prayer. A time to tune into something beyond time.

I’ve become lost in this strange timeless momentum and have taken a young Sayadaw named U Asabha, at his word to come and stay. On the outskirts of Yangon is a vast sprawling neighborhood known as South Dagon. Flat, dry, hot, poor, and dusty, its massive blocks stretch for miles, lined with rickety wooden houses packed close to one another. Small makeshift footbridges cross the open sewers that run alongside the bumpy dirt streets. Sayadaw U Asabha speaks impeccable English, and teaches in the Mogok style, a style that is barely known in the West, but with more then 700 major centers, represents the most practiced tradition in Myanmar today. He presides over Shwe War Win monastery on a small plot at the corner of one of the blocks.

He takes me with him everywhere. Day after day we wind through the neighborhoods in his Toyota 4Runner, his infatigueable driver spitting betel nut out the window, honking his way through pedestrian-choked streets. We’re off to lunches and breakfasts, Sayadaw U Asabha blesses the homes, the babies, the marriages, and gives dharma talks everywhere he goes. Each home, no matter how modest the family, provides an immaculate spread, of fruits, rice, tealeaf salad, fish, curries, tea, sweets, on and on. Rolling out low wooden tables to sit around, they take great joy in offering food to the monks and me.

At night we’re often driven to this or that neighborhood of Yangon for large public talks where many hundreds of people cram into a temple or onto the streets that have been closed off for the occasion. The Sayadaw’s normally cool temperament is here augmented by a ferocity that sweeps the crowds on a roller coaster from excitement to hushed silence and on into the rollicking laughter so typical of the Burmese people. When he leaves the organizers present him with piles of cash gathered from the attendees, shoeboxes or plus sized envelopes stuffed with kyat. As per monastic code he doesn’t touch any of it. Instead one of his lay supporters carries it faithfully back to the car. This will go towards the construction of his monastery and towards feeding and educating the monks and young novices under his care. Somehow in his spare time he manages to instruct me on the Theory of Dependent Origination, the central teaching of the Mogok tradition. He’s adamant that the link between vedana (feelings) and tanha (craving) is the crucial link that must be severed in the karmic cycle.

He takes me south with him to the bottom of Mon state for a retreat. We clunk along in the 4Runner for twelve hours on poor roads with four people to a three-person seat. The retreat is an assault on my senses as Burmese continuously blares through loud speakers across the monastery. But the dharma is between the cracks out here. A young man noting the awkward position I’ve ended up in takes me on his motor-bike on an impromptu tour around the state to see massive religious monuments and enormous forested monasteries supported miraculously by local farming communities. I get a glimpse of the vastness of the monastic network and gain a new respect for the power of a spoonful of rice. In the small “kitchen” a handful of middle-aged women with large smiles, a few immense woks, and a small pile of wood, crank out enough food to feed hundreds. They consistently come by and ask me “alright?”, “happy?”, “enough?”. I assure them “kaun deh,” Burmese for “it’s / I’m great.” 

Golden Rock Pagoda in Mon State

When it’s time to part ways with Sayadaw U Asabha a young man offers to take me to the bus stop and once there he buys me a ticket before I know what he’s doing. It’s only 5000 kyat, a few dollars, but for him it’s likely a week’s pay. To refuse would be obscene so I accept as graciously as I can. “Call me when you get to Pa Auk, it’s good place, it’s good thing you do, good luck.” He leaves me with these words and I leave with a heart bursting with the absurdity and the profundity of such a gesture. There’s a saying that when it comes to Theravada Buddhism: if you want the universities go to Sri Lanka, if you want to learn the Viniya go to Thailand, but if you want to practice, go to Myanmar. Everyone is relentlessly ready to help and is determined to support you in any way they can.

Before I leave Myanmar I head north to the Sagaing Hills, a place I had never heard of, but for a few words from Joah and the battered pages of printed notes from an advance copy of Shwe Lan. “It’s difficult to overstate the majesty and wonder of the Sagaing Hills. And for the yogi intent on Burmese Buddhist practice, there are few—if any—places that compare... with an estimated 1,000 monasteries and 200 nunneries—many of them consisting of just little more than a scant collection of buildings on a quiet hillside— and well over 15,000 in robes, it is a living, breathing Buddhist community almost unparalleled in the modern world.”

Further along in the Shwe Lan section is a quote from V. C. Scott O’Conner in Mandalay and Other Cities of the Past in Burma that seems as true today as it was one hundred plus years ago when he wrote it. “By far the most interesting part of Sagaing lies in the hilly country above it, where austere monks live; and every peak bears testimony to the piety of bygone kings and people…. The effect of the spectacle is enhanced, and lifted up to something strangely majestic, by the atmosphere, dry, prismatic, mystical— glorious with all the effulgence of Sagaing… One does not come upon sights like this out of Burma. There is some unconscious undercurrent of great qualities in the Burman personality that alone makes them possible.”

At a quiet monastery, tucked into a valley in the Hills, I stumble upon an old friend and a small gaggle of foreigners. I tell them a bit about the project and they nod. “Ohhh, just don’t tell them about these Hills” they giggle to themselves, wanting to keep Sagaing a secret. For a moment I falter. Perhaps they’re right. Maybe sharing these places will just spoil them, leave them overrun the same way the Lonely Planet often destroys the very places it highlights. Joah has already considered this, opting to craft the Sagaing section not as a traditional guide, but as a monument to the unknown and untold history of Sagaing and an open invitation to make your own path there… still I wonder.

But as I wander for days up and over and around the hills I begin to see just how embattled this ancient bastion is. Only a generation ago wild tigers roamed these Hills, today the towns on the edges steadily encroach on the habitat once reserved for these magnificent animals and the seekers brave enough to live alongside them. In the Hills once quiet forest paths have been paved and tractors blare as workers illegally mine rocks that will be crushed and made into cement. The historic Dat Ma Ku Kan Pond has been reduced to a puddle by a strangely dry year. On the peaks you can hear the speakers of the nearby towns blasting pop tunes. Myanmar is surrounded by nations eager to plunder it. It’s filled with people enthralled by the promises of material wealth and its climate, like that of the rest of the world, is becoming strangely unpredictable. It’s these forces that will radically reshape the monasteries and transform the character of the nation and not a few earnest seekers. It’s these changes that also lend an urgency to the completion of Shwe Lan and to the explorations it will engender.

I leave on a direct Air Asia flight from Mandalay to Bangkok, one of many such new connections that are facilitating Myanmar’s rapid transformation into just another cog in an increasingly monolithic global capitalist culture. The plush red and black pleather seats contrast sharply with the brown earthy hews of the Myanmar landscape fading beneath me. The tight-fitting uniforms, fake smiles, and menus where everything is for sale likewise contrast sharply with the modesty, authenticity, and generosity fading beneath me. As I sink back into the seat I begin to reflect that perhaps Myanmar doesn’t fade from you quite so quick as that. Maybe its got more of a sticky hard to rinse off quality.

I went to Myanmar hungry for a certain almost violent approach to practice, but in experiencing such practice delivered in impeccable form I began to navigate towards something else. Of course there can be enormous value in hardcore practice environments, but the dharma is not one size fits all and even an individual will need different things as he or she evolves over time. Myanmar seemed to effortlessly accommodate, perhaps even instigate, my own shifting orientation and turned out to be more diverse, gentle, and nuanced then I’d ever imagined. It swept me along in its current, delivering teachings on its own time and its own terms.

Like a pebble emerging from a river I feel a little smoother and softer around the edges. I fear that upon returning home I’ll effortlessly regain all my old prickly hardness, but this is far from fated. Despite what the dominant culture may encourage, culture is not a one-way street. Individuals create culture just as culture shapes individuals. At one point the dharma was new to Myanmar, carried slowly by pilgrims, seekers, and wise men from the Indian subcontinent. I’ll be taking home a burgeoning understanding of how these initial seeds of dharma can root and flower and grow into something of tremendous scale and multifaceted value. Tempering this awesome possibility, I’ve also seen how even mighty trees can be threatened by storms and disease. And alongside these grandiose conceptions of how radical large-scale social transformation emerges and declines, I’ll carry something on a much more intimate, and visceral level, a quiet twang in my chest reminding me of the deep worth and infectious quality of human kindness.

Hopefully the majesty, the grandeur, the mystery, the improbable scale of it all can be a reminder that the world still holds pockets of wonder and goodness. As we consider the people who make all this wonder possible, as we reflect on the relentless drive of Joah McGee, the welcoming embrace of Sayadaw U Asabha, the patient persistent contributions of peasants offering their daily spoonful of rice, and the monks and yogis battling to transform their minds we can settle back in these reminders of uprightness and benevolence, finding solace and warmth in their glow. We can also use these reminders as an edge to inspire us to dig deeper in summoning our own relentless drive, in conjuring our own warm embrace, in finding an arena for our own consistent contribution, and in waging our own inner battle."

To read Shwe Lan Ga Lay Part 1, go here.

About the author: Miles Bukiet has followed a consuming passion for yoga, bodywork, and meditation to India, Malaysia, China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand.

Miles Bukiet

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