Sunday, 25 October 2015

Harmony in Diversity: Bhikkhu Aggacitta

Bhikkhu Aggacitta, at SBS (Sasanarakkha Buddhist Sanctuary) in Malaysia, delivers a Dhamma talk. 

The Malaysian monk (who himself hails from a Burmese tradition) is famous for trying to find commonalities amongst the great Burmese and Thai teachers in their orientation towards meditation, particularly Pa Auk Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, S.N. Goenka, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Gana, Ayya Khema, Bhante Gunaratana, and Ajahn Brahm. 

Here, Bhikkhu Aggacitta discusses the importance of following the Buddha's original teachings and in seeing how these different teachers transmit the Dhamma each in their own special way.

The Timeless Rhythms of Burmese Village Life

“The head of the village monastery virtually becomes the head of the village.” Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka

In many ways, the timeless rhythms of Burmese village life have changed little over the centuries. In Through the Looking Glass, the American monk Bhikkhu Cintita observed this timeless quality in village homes in 2013, writing: “Almost all houses in Burma are basically wicker baskets, thin but rigid structures of bamboo and straw with thatched roofs, simple holes for doors and windows, sometimes with a wooden flap but no glass, and an outhouse in the back.” In many villages, life still flows according to the seasons and revolves around farming. Today, about three-quarters of Myanmar’s population is rural, much of which is concentrated along the country’s many rivers, where agriculture the obvious main livelihood due to the very fertile soil. Similar to rural cultures the world over, it tends to be more “conservative” and religious in rural Myanmar than in its more urban counterparts.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

A Photographic Pilgrimage in Burma, Part 1

Shwe Lan Ga Lay author Joah McGee connected with local photographer Andrew Davis in Tasmania, Australia. Andrew had organized a showing of his photographs from his trip to Burma in 2013 in conjunction with several presentations Joah was giving in the area. Following one presentation, Joah and Andrew did a walk-through of the photos. As Andrew described his subjective, personal, and immediate impressions behind the photos, Joah provided a greater context and detailed information. This is the first of ten walls that the pair described.

Friday, 9 October 2015

A Great Dhammic Buffet

The Method of Vipassanā Meditation [by Mahasi Sayadaw] is very much like a grand dinner table prepared and richly laid with sumptuous and delicious dishes. Just as every dish of food and curry is good, palatable and wholesome, every part of the section of this book is full of flavor, highly remarkable and excellent.” 

Sayadaw U Silanada, Biography of Mahasi Sayadaw

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Burmese Flowers

U Sarana, the Mingaladon-based monk, has contributed the following stories. To join his weekly newsletter, contact us as here.

"Perhaps in every country children like to play with flowers. In Myanmar it is especially so, and many flowers thus get their 'children's name.' One of such flowers is paw-paw pan (ေပၚေပၚပန္း), of which official name is not known to me. This flower has a stalk that can be cleaned, removing the flower and the root, and used as a low-tone whistle. When blowing in the stalk, the sound you may hear is paw paw, said jokingly Ma Zin Mar. Ma Myint Way knows this plant in her village in the Mandalay region as Thingyan flower - and my dictionary in turn explains that there are seven different flowers with this name, called so because they are particularly selected for flower-vases in Thingyan days, i.e. during the holidays of Myanmar's new year.

An interesting plant described to me by Ko Thet Win Maung is magnolia (Michelia champaca), called in Burmese Saka-War-Pin (စံကား၀ါပန္းပင္). It's flowers are cut off and kept in a well-washed 'glucose glass-bottles.' These glass-bottles are then kept in front of a Buddha statue or on tables as decoration-- and can last up to one whole year. So far I don't remember having seen this, but if you see that, you may like to ask how long the bottle has been kept there. Ma Zin Mar says, that upon opening the bottle the flowers immediately wither."

Saturday, 3 October 2015

A Monastery more about the Buddha than Cats...

In his book Curious Encounters of the Human Kind, Paul Sochaczewski describes visiting Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery. Founded in 1843, the monastery is south-facing and contains 654 pillars, topped by a 3-tiered roof. The Dhamma Hall contains several large Buddha statues representing different regional styles. A local historian shared that many come from the former Shan principalities and royal palaces, and were transferred here for safekeeping. Many had been the centerpiece of their respective shrine rooms in the royal courts or important monasteries of the district’s saopha. The ceiling here is red lacquer with some gold leaf, and the north wall has an impressive painting depicting some Jataka Tales. Fine gold leaf engravings are also found on the base of the daises, which portray a variety of scenes, from taking the Five Precepts to the transfer of the Maha Muni Buddha to Mandalay. It is a space where one can appreciate the inspiration and faith these statues have provided countless Shan Buddhists over the many centuries. 

Sochaczewski describes this interesting exchange during his visit:

“Come on Brochette, jump through this hoop. Arnold Schwarzenegger can do it -- it can’t be that hard.”

Our ginger cat in Geneva was doing what cats everywhere do – exactly what she felt like. Which at this moment was not jumping through a hoop.

I was trying to accomplish a similar coup de persévérance to that which some monks in Burma have achieved. Teaching cats parlor tricks. But Brochette wasn’t buying it. What did the monks have that I didn’t?

Lots of patience and an abundant supply of Friskies, as it turned out.

I was introduced to the famous Burmese jumping cats at the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, on Inle Lake.

The “jumping cat monastery” is a key stop for the trickle of tourists who visit Burma. There I met Venerable U Nanda, 25, one of a dozen resident monks.

“It’s easy to train cats,” he said, somewhat reluctantly putting down his Burmese comic book. With a large dose of ennui he explained that you simply start when they’re kittens, scratch them under the chin, say kon, and reward them with kitty treats.

Obviously, it works. Every 30 minutes or so, when a group of visitors would accumulate, San Win, an assistant in the monastery, would put the cats through their paces.

“What’s that one called?” I asked, pointing to a black and white tabby.

World-weary U Nanda explained “That’s Leonardo di Caprio.”

“And this one?”

“Demi Moore.”

“Can I try?”

I held the wire hoop in front of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” paradoxically one of the skinnier cats in the temple. I gave him a little nudge, ordered him to kon, and after he jumped I rewarded him with a biscuit.

Meanwhile Tina Turner was curled up on my backpack, asleep. “Don’t leave your things on the floor,” U Nanda lectured. “She pisses everywhere.”

After a while U Nanda started to open up. Perhaps he saw that since I wasn’t going to go away he might as well have a discussion. I was interested in Buddhist history, he was interested in conjugating English verbs.

Throughout our conversation, the abbot, Sayadaw Kite Ti, 68, kept his distance and read a book. I don’t read Burmese, but from the pictures of cowboys and horses I was pretty sure that it wasn’t a religious text. He didn’t glance up as visitors stuffed tattered kyat notes and a few dollar bills into the offering box.

I left Inle Lake to travel around Shan state, and returned a few weeks later and sought out U Nanda. I felt I had unfinished business with the young monk, a feeling that there was more to him than a saffron-robed feline-inclined impresario.

“You again,” he said when I walked in. He wasn’t hostile, but he wasn’t overly welcoming.

I deliberately avoided the handful of curious visitors watching Brad Pitt and Michael Jackson leaping about on the linoleum. “Tell me about the temple,” I asked. And he did. He showed me around the 160-year-old monastery, the oldest on Inle Lake. Proudly, he turned on lights so that I could better see the six two-meter tall Buddha images made out of lacquerware, and the gilt-encrusted wooden statues and carved pillars. He took me into the abbot’s room to show me old, sacred Buddha images. In half an hour of looking through different eyes, the monastery for me had evolved from a tourist site into a combination art museum and place of worship

“What do you do?” he eventually asked me.

“I’m a journalist.”

“Then tell people the monastery is more than cats. It’s Buddha.” 

Paul Sochaczewski has kindly allowed Shwe Lan Ga Lay to include this excerpt in its upcoming Part 2 release, which will feature an extensive section on Shan State, including Inle Lake. For more information on Paul Sochaczewski's book, see here.