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.

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