Friday, 13 November 2015

Burmese Monasteries: Rites and Rituals, and Sitting Postures

Following are two questions by foreign yogis about residing at Burmese monasteries. Feel free to email any additional questions to us here

Q: At the monastery, will I have to participate in the various Buddhist rites and rituals? Or can I just do my own meditation?

A: Most Burmese monasteries are fairly relaxed and foreign visitors will not be expected to know and follow the entire range of local Buddhist customs. Additionally, some foreign yogis see their main meditation practice as bhavana and to them, what is outside this is considered extraneous or less important. However, what may be seen as “rites and rituals” to an outsider is, to a Burmese Buddhist, part and parcel of their spiritual practice. This may include making offerings Buddhist shrines and images, cleaning and cooking, chanting, working with beads, daily bowing to monks and statues, Pali studies, recitations before eating, the alms walk, etc. While foreign yogis would not be forced to be a part of any of these activities during one's stay, it is important at a minimum to show respect, and in so doing, one may also find that these can support one’s meditation practice.

Q: Is there anything I should keep in mind when sitting at a monastery?

A: The proper posture is to sit with one’s legs tucked under one. One need not keep this posture indefinitely and it is acceptable to change posture as much as one needs. One should avoid sitting directly in front of a monk and not higher, either. Burmese do not sit cross-legged when facing monks or Buddha statues, though it is not necessarily considered rude to do so. A European monk was particularly curious about this, and inquired to Sayadaw U Kovida of the Pa Auk tradition. He replied that this is no violation of any vinaya, but rather within Burmese culture it is not seen as respectful in these circumstances.What one must be sure to avoid is sitting with one’s legs held up to the chest.

Adjusting to the austere environment of the Burmese monastery can be challenging for Western yogis from a more comfortable background. This was noted by Marie Byles in Journey Into Burmese Silence, who wrote: “When she first became a nun, for ten days she went without the evening meal, and found no difficulty. What she found far more difficult was learning how to sit on the floor. For many months she evinced an indecorous eagerness to find a chair whenever there was one to be found. But six months later, stiff limbs had become supple and there was no longer difficulty.” If one is looking for a testimonial as to how long a monk or yogi has spent studying and meditating in such environments, one of the best signs is the anklebone. On those who have put in the hours, the protruding bone is deeply worn away and calloused from long hours of sitting on hard surfaces.