Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The cool, refreshing charm of Buddhist Hsipaw

There is an old Bamar custom to bury a pot of oil in the center of a town, based on the belief that the town will last until the oil runs try. Such a pot was buried under Hsipaw (pronounced “Thi-baw”) in its early days. In the 1980s, a few curious residents unearthed the clay pot, and were happy to find sufficient oil still remaining. Perhaps, too, they were equally happy not to find any human skeletons in the pot, dispelling rumors that the oil had been a part of human sacrifices. Thus, for those meditators especially attracted to Hsipaw’s charm, it will come as a relief that the town will probably be sticking around a while yet! And getting there can be a romantic adventure in its own right: the train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw and on to Lashio has been called one of the great railway journeys of the world.

Today, the historic small town of Hsipaw, originally called Ohn Baung (Ohn Baung was also the name of one of the great principalities of the Shan region, and a well-known lineage of great saophas ruled here), has many local cottage industries and workshops. For the foreign yogi, it also has a number of inviting places to practice. It is somewhat of a hot season escape, as it keeps slightly cooler than the rest of the country (though if one is really looking to escape the heat, Taunggyi, Pyin Oo Lwin, and Kalaw are even cooler).

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Living on Myanmar Time

“One thing that Joah hasn't quoted me on yet, is the thing I do say to a lot of people: ‘Myanmar is just a little bit closer to heaven.’ No, there are certainly a lot of things not okay in Myanmar, but the one thing that makes me very happy is that there are so many manifestations of the teachings of the Buddha here. There are those from the past, from Arahants who lived here and from pagodas made by Kings and laypeople centuries back. But there are also so many manifestations of the Buddha's teaching from the present here in Myanmar: so many people actually know and practice the teachings, they know about sila, samadhi and panna. There are so many monasteries and meditation centres and teachers, monks and lay people who are all supporting the Sasana.

For a long time people have been interested and curious in this country, and little by little have come here to learn, practice and get inspired by the Dhamma here. Most people who come to Myanmar get very enthusiastic about the people, the culture and the Dhamma. The enthusiasm of the practice of Dhamma brings this ‘ehipasiko,’ or the 'come and see.'

Shwe Lan Ga Lay is written with this in mind, with the volition to share something so unique and beautiful. Your holding a valuable gift in your hands, a gift for which many people have put in a lot of effort, giving hours, days, weeks, months and even years of their lives to create. It is a very special gift; it is not a tour guide that tries to satisfy temporary curiosities about some old buildings or fancy restaurants. It is a book helping you to understand, respect and appreciate a country and its treasures. Therefore, it is not a thin leaflet, because that would never do justice to the subtlety and depth of the experiences that one can have here. It is an extensive book, written with a broader perspective and timeframe in mind. It certainly will help you for a short trip to certain inspiring places, but it also provides in-depth information for those who develop a deeper interest in this country. Shwe Lan Ga Lay sets itself apart by taking time to explaining even details which come only alive after one has visited Myanmar for a second or third time. In this way, it is written in ‘Myanmar-time' instead of ‘Western-time,’ and Shwe Lan Ga Lay aims also at people who want to commit, to surrender to Dhamma fully in Myanmar.

And one feels, when reading this book which explains so many aspects of the manifestations of the Dhamma in Burma, it is all explained with this happiness which arises when you're able to share something so wonderful. I’m happy Joah chose to approach Burma on its own terms. This book is in a way a child of Burma, of its qualities: it is a Dana, a gift, intended on supporting you on your path of Dhamma.

I hope that people realize the magnitude and value of the information presented in this book, and they use it for their benefit, with respect and gratitude.”

--Bhikkhu Agga is a Dutch monk who has lived in Myanmar since 2011. He read the very first draft of 
Shwe Lan Ga Lay.

An American Forest Monk in Burma

Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu (formerly David Reynolds) is an American monk who has been in Burma for about two decades. Back in past centuries, Burmese forest monks were so removed from the standard orthodoxy that scarcely a record was kept of their practice, biography, and teachings, let alone their inner thoughts and musings, even in cases where these ascetics were suspected of becoming fully enlightened. Today, thanks to the ease of Internet and social media, the urban meditator may gain a glimpse even in real time of the secluded forest practice of such a monk. 

More information may be found on Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu's blog, which he regularly updates, as well as his main home page. Both are highly recommended for those wishing to learn more about Burma Dhamma.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Chin Daung Curry

Chin Daung Curry 

Today, the cabin in Amarapura appears a bit more cluttered than it was in Maha Gandayone Sayadaw’s day. Daw Onmar, a German nun who stayed here for several years, recalls him saying that it is with the utmost simplicity that a monk a should live, and for many years he had little else but a pen and paper. As the modern era came to Burma, he was once offered a new refrigerator for his private residence. He laughed, and declining, asked what he would possibly put in it—“rice and chin daung curry?” Rice, obviously, is cooked and offered fresh daily, and chin daung is very cheap-made curry that is only good immediately after cooking. Nowadays refrigerators are quite common at Burmese monasteries, a development Daw Onmar feels Maha Gandayone Sayadaw would not accept “with the tip of his toe.”

Monkey Minds

Just outside of Dhamma Nana Dhaja in Monywa, the meditation center in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka and named after the Pali words of Ledi Sayadaw's name, it was considered beneficial to build a large monkey cage, so some yogis may wish to bring banana dana. Strangely, the cage seems to be monkey-optional, as the primates wander back and forth between the bars freely, so those with “monkey phobia” may wish to avoid the area.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The Stone Library of Ledi Sayadaw

The only remnants of the lost forest refuge may be those represented in the full-scale diorama in Ledi Thein Ma Taw Gyi, or as it is known in English, the "Maha Ledi Edifice." This blue, circular building is located to the right of the arch, and also displays a number of items relating to Ledi’s life. 

Further reminders of the great monk’s work in this world are exhibited in the form of hundreds of marble slabs, in fact 806 of them to be precise. Completed in 1925, just two years after Ledi Sayadaw’s passing, most of the engraving is comprised from 89 of his dipanis. Seven additional texts are credited to his disciples Ledi Pandita and Ledi U Kavi, so marked by a giant board meticulously recording the titles, locations, and other pertinent details of each work. Most are in Burmese (Others are in Pali and Nissaya, or a word-for-word translation of Pali into Burmese), following Ledi’s innovation in making them accessible to the common person, so that any wanderer may read and contemplate the Dhamma. Some were damaged during World War II, but have since been restored. Walking freely through this garden of scholastic monuments is a living and nearly breathing testament to Ledi’s contribution within the field of pariyatti. Even these slabs, however, do not constitute the totality of Ledi’s writings. A current project is now underway in Ledi Sayadaw’s birthpace of Sain Pyin Gyi Village to complete the stone engravings of his remaining volumes, thus preserving the entirety of Ledi’s words for future generations. Or as Linda Chang, an American yogi commented, “meandering amongst these large slabs was literally 'going through' his works!” Found within these slabs and reached via a narrow walkway is the main Buddha shrine.

Entering the Wild Ledi Forest

The Lower Chindwin Valley monk Ashin Nyanadhaja had made a brilliant display in the royal capital of Mandalay— often as an ascendant shining star, while at other times as a transcendent lightening rod— but by the early 1880s he had seemingly given up this cosmopolitan life, choosing instead to wander alone into remote Ledi Forest in Monwya. This act gave the world Ledi Sayadaw, and gave Monywa Maha Ledi Monastery, an active pariyatti monastery on the very grounds where Ledi made his initial retreat into the wilderness.

A city has since built around it, and any trees left in the area have been intentionally planted to ease the urban landscape. Today it is the home of over two hundred monks and novices, and every year Ledi Sayadaw’s birthday is celebrated with a great Saṅgha Dāna feast and ceremony. It goes without saying that Ledi left very large shoes—or rather, sandals—to fill, and this duty currently goes to Sayadaw U Aindarwantha, also known as the Tenth Ledi Sayadaw. While foreign yogis are generally not permitted to stay overnight, one may ask permission to meditate on the compound and pay respects to the sites associated with the great founder’s life.

Pyat Kha Shwe Taung Pagoda

Burmese kings first arrived here between the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries to build dams throughout the region. They rode on royal processions preceded by a retinue of white elephants— there was a well established tradition in Burma linking these animals to the faith, for 33 white elephants were said to have carried the Tipiṭaka into the country from Mon state and there is believed to be a telepathic connection between the beast and the king.

King Anawrahta was the first of these kings to arrive in the area. After receiving a replica of the Buddha Tooth Relic from Sri Lanka in the 11th century, he set out with his favorite white elephant, proclaiming that it be allowed to wander freely, and wherever it stopped he would build a pagoda which would enshrine the Relic. This was not an uncommon practice at the time, and at least four pagodas in Bagan were constructed this way. The elephant paused as he reached Shwe Thar Hlaung Hill, the site that would become famous from the historic meeting of Sayagyi U Ba Khin and Webu Sayadaw. However, it was somehow divined that the great animal did not designate this to be the chosen spot for a pagoda, and so he was allowed to continue, and when on until he reached Pyat Khar Shwe Hill. Even as the king chose to have the pagoda built at the latter site, he authorized another pagoda to be constructed at the first hill as well. After the pagodas were completed, great festivals were held at both sites. Later, after laying an advanced system of canals in the Kyaukse region, the King suggested that Thadingyut be celebrated in the region by paying respects to and sharing merit with the white elephant. A competing theory for the founding of this pagoda is that it honored the patron Nat of elephants, Uttay Na, who is believed to have power over all elephants and oozies (trainers). Uttay Na shrines have been placed at elephant camps for many centuries.

Today, the pagoda’s annual festivals includes the exhibition of large, hollow, paper maché elephants inhabited and brought to life by two people within. The craft of making these very life-like costumes has remained a secret for generations, passed down only within family lineages. Prizes are given each year for the best costume and dance, with families and communities competing against one another, and routines include dainty steps and acrobatic twists and turns to the music of a traditional orchestra. Choreography may be practiced an entire year prior, and the winning teams from the respective age groups perform at the pagoda on the ensuing full moon day, as well as at novitation ceremonies and other religious functions in town. After the competition, village residents and visiting pilgrims ascend to the pagoda to present offerings to elephant figurines.

Friday, 4 September 2015

FAQs and Shwe Oo Min Forest Monastery

A team of international, experienced meditators in the Shwe Oo Min tradition of Sayadaw U Tejaniya has prepared this comprehensive document for any yogi or monastic around the world who has the intention to spend time learning at the Forest Retreat Center in Mingaladon. It may be downloaded here

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Maha Aung Mye Bon Thar Pagoda in Pyin Oo Lwin

This Pagoda is located in the downtown area of Pyin Oo Lwin, just south of the main market, and near some of the town’s historic sites. It is therefore a favorite for local residents, and its spacious compound and numerous structures also provide a welcome refuge for any yogi passing through to make use of the site for practice. On the Mandalay-Lashio road, heading towards Lashio, it is on the right side just before the main intersection with Zeiygo Road.

According to Lonely Planet, never a particularly careful or sensitive arbiter of social customs, it also “insists on broadcasting Buddhist lectures through its loudspeakers just in case you weren’t already awake” in the mornings; although likely this was just the complaint of a travel writer who stayed up too late and didn’t take the time to understand the common Buddhist practice of reciting suttas at pagodas. 

A wiser discussion on the Burmese practice of disseminating Buddhist suttas comes from 
Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu, an American forest monk who has lived here for almost two decads. He writes:

"Anyone who has spent much time in Burma will be familiar with the Patthan pweh, or Paṭṭhāna festival—an event in which monks recite Paṭṭhāna, the last portion of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, over loudspeakers, in relay, sometimes around the clock for several days in succession. To a Westerner who appreciates peace and quiet they are little more than an affliction, but the Burmese love and esteem them. I have often considered that it would be more to the people's benefit to recite something they would actually understand, like a Burmese translation of the Dhammapada; as even most of the monks who chant Paṭṭhāna in Pali don't really understand it. It is considered to be 'unreadable' as a literary document, even to those who know Pali... The reason for these very loud chanting festivals is that, according to the commentarial tradition, the last book of the last section of the Canon (i.e., Paṭṭhāna), will be the first portion of the Tipitaka to disappear from this world, in accordance with the inexorable effects of impermanence. So by repeating these practically incomprehensible texts the monks are doing their best to keep Buddhism from disappearing from the earth. However—while Burmese monks revere and preserve Abhidhamma, the other two sections, Vinaya and the Suttas, are studied but not practiced all that much, allowing the disappearance to occur from first to last."