Sunday, 31 January 2016

A Yogi Story: "Practice after Health Issues"

The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the ninth entry, and her entire story up until now can be found here.

"I kept practicing at the monastery and slowly the teacher helped me to see the difference between nature and concepts. This made a radical change in the practice and in the perception of reality for me. So then it was possible to investigate reality directly and to see the patterns in it. It was a very interesting time for me.

But it was around this time that I had a lot of health problems. They were mainly related with food and poor hygiene. At the beginning I had problems with digestion, and the precept of not taking food in the afternoon was very difficult because I had previously had gastritis and colitis, so the body was reacting a lot. The same problems happened in Kalaw with a lot of diarrhea but in Shwe Oo Min Yangon was even worse. I need to learn about local medicines because the medicines that I had were not working very well. So I try many things and I asked local people for help and advise. Most of the time local people were extremely kind and helpful. They really try to take care as much as they could.

The food in Myanmar tended to be extremely oily. It is the way they protect the food from fungus because of the heat. However, the quality of the oil is very bad. Normally is the cheapest oil they could afford. So many foreigners we struggle a lot with digestive problems. It can be constipation or chronic diarrhea. I needed to go many times to the hospital to take various kinds of tests.

The quality of the hospitals is very low as well as the hygiene. I could get some good information thanks to the doctors, who most of the time were very kind and willing to help, however, the standard is not very high at least in allopathic medicine. The best medicine in Myanmar in my experience is the local medicine. Is the one that works for diseases in the country. So what I ended doing was to ask mothers what medicine they use to give to their babies when they got strong diarrhea and that is the medicine that could relief the pain, symptoms and the problem.

Is good also to have supplements because in monasteries we only eat two times and the quality of the food sometimes is not very good because of hygiene and because of the amount of oil. Garlic helps to reduce cholesterol and to improve the immune system. Spirulina helps to keep one strong. Probioticis helps with chronic diarrhea. Ginger is good to improve digestion and heat in the body. Magnesium is good for constipation. I recommend to know local medicine and to learn form Ayurveda or Tibetan medicine. Those medicines are base on food. They will balance the body with alimentation, so is easier to find the products and just take them. In my experience this is what have solve the problem not antibiotics.

I kept meditating there until hot seasons and then I move again to Kalaw because of the heat. There I had the opportunity to keep practicing in an environmental that I already knew with new yogis. After it I needed to go out of Mynamar and I came back to Shwe Oo Min Yangon to keep practicing."

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Thread: How Should Western Meditators adapt from "Religious Burma"?

Although separated by continents, three Dhamma friends have been having discussions on practice and theory for some time via email, in order to share their perspectives and learn from one another as they continue on a spiritual path. All are American; two are lay and one is monastic. Between them they have nearly a half-century of practice, and all have been to Burma on several occasions, where they have resided at monasteries for some time. They have offered to share their ongoing Dhamma talks with the greater community, as others may be interested in considering the ideas that are discussed. To see their entire collection of messages, please see here.


I think we all agree that the West needs some kind of outlet so people who want to dedicate their lives to Dhamma are able to do so. U Obhasa hinted at one solution I had in mind when I posed the question. That is, perhaps the monastic system does not even need to be physically located in the West. Is it enough, for example, for a Theravada community in the United States to have an understanding that members who want to dedicate their lives to the teachings can go to Myanmar and ordain? Given how connected the world is now, it is not that difficult for a person to fly halfway across the globe to become a monk or nun. A means for the American community to offer material support for their member’s livelihood could even be set up. Would that kind of system be enough to convince Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu that the Western community is no longer “somewhat of a sham”? I’m not sure how I would feel about such a system. Certainly it would be better than nothing. But it also feels like a bit of a cop-out.

If, however, these dedicated people stay in the West, what kind of framework should there be to support them? Should it be a Vinaya-based system like in Burma and Thailand? Or can it take a completely different shape, while still hold to the core principle of providing a means of full dedication?

But instead of saying more on that topic right now, I’d like to bring up another theme that struck me from both of your responses. I noticed that both of you used fairly critical language to describe the development of Buddhism in the West, yet were more neutral/positive when talking about the system in Myanmar.

For instance, Gerald described Western Buddhism as being filtered by “Orientalism, Eastern exoticism, and transcendentalism/Romanticism,” and U Obhasa mentioned “additives already polluting and diluting the water” in the West. Then when describing Burmese Buddhism, Gerald called it “a millennium-long experimentation on the part of the Burmese people regarding how one organizes and orients an entire society towards the adherence to the teachings of a single supreme spiritual teacher.” U Obhasa used glowing language to describe the Burmese laity (though he did not name them directly) in the post Gerald linked to.

I don’t disagree with these sentiments at all. It’s just that they only seem partially true to me. I feel these descriptions leave out the fact that Buddhism in Burma was also shaped by negative forces. For instance, I’m sure authoritarian state and clerical control was a factor, and I know that due to illiteracy and certain structural factors, the great majority of lay people had little access to the deeper theoretical and practical aspects of Dhamma. Also, present day Buddhism in Myanmar is far from free of pride, greed and tribalism, which taint religions all over the world.

I bring this up not just to be contrarian, but to point out that there are very good reasons why many Western Buddhists are skeptical of adopting the practices of “religious Buddhism.” Certainly this skepticism can be taken too far, but I feel it is an important and valuable characteristic of modern spirituality in the West, and needs to be part of any conversation on how the teachings can best be transplanted and nurtured in the West.


That's correct, it sounds like none of the three of us are saying, "no monastic system is really needed at all in the West." It's important to pause at this point, however, as this is far from a common perception by Dhamma practitioners living outside of Buddhist countries. Some Western Buddhists point out that the Dhamma needs to adapt and adjust to the needs of the place and context in order to thrive, and that this may involve sacrificing the entire monastic system as a viable option. Goenka practitioners say a similar thing, with some variance, as some suggest that Ledi Sayadaw promoted Saya Thet Gyi specifically with an intent to establish a lay Sasana, as he (Ledi) feared that the monastic order could no longer play a primary role in this endeavor (it may be too tangential for me to comment on this particular theory at this time, but suffice it to say now, it is clear that empowering the laity was a major innovation of Ledi; however IMHO it is going a bit too far-- and perhaps imposing on history-- to suggest that his appointment of Saya Thet Gyi represented an acceptance that the Sasana was better managed under lay control). Looked at religiously (that is, in the context of what happens any time a religion moves across time, borders, and peoples), this seems to follow a familiar pattern of traditional beliefs becoming integrated in new cultures in an innovative way, and then this integration/adaption is redefined and justified as not only being a beneficial change, but also one that is more "authentic" to what is determined to be the core teachings.

In this case, one can go back long before Western Buddhists and the teachings of S.N. Goenka to examine the 19th century self-proclaimed Orientalists, who brought a form of "Protestant Buddhism" that sought answers not in the Buddhism of the people, which they determined was lost and impure, but from the ancient scriptures and written text alone.

Forgive me Ethan! You can tell I am a historian at heart and so many of your contemporary questions I get sidetracked to examine this historical progression, which I find so fascinating myself. I agree with your first passage Ethan, which is basically itself agreeing with U Obhasa's "water/canal" argument. This reminds me of a common belief in Myanmar, that if the written words of the Buddha are lost, the teachings may not last more than a century. This is because without a written guide to check against, it becomes impossible to know if one's practice and doctrine is in line or not with the Buddha's words. This contrasts somewhat with the Western concept that the Dhamma is something that is somewhat at the opposite end of academics and critical thought, for many practitioners have arrived at meditation practice after seeing the futility of higher education. It also explains why so many Western meditation teachers have almost no scriptural background or even basic understanding, but solely meditation experience as credentials; while Burmese teachers (of either meditation or scripture) must pass through many rigorous years of training before being allowed to preach the Dhamma in any form. And this relates to what U Obhasa said that without having a system of dedicated followers who are living in line with Buddha's teachings for every moment of their life, it is simply hard to have that wealth of resource in the West to draw upon, and which practitioners and meditation teachers alike can take advantage of. For the years of study that go in to being a qualified monk and teacher are so consuming, that one can concentrate on little else but this practice.

To me this is why both above Western arguments fall flat to me. Both Western Buddhism as well as the proliferation of Goenka's teachings have only been made possible by the millennium-long preservation of the Buddha's teachings that have been carried out almost exclusively by the monastic orders, and continue to so up to this day. As U Obhasa's humble post indicated last week, meditation practitioners are literally "riding on the backs" of so many who have allowed this practice to even exist. Or using his more recent metaphor, these canals are overflowing to such a degree today (which Sayalay Sukha and Monsoon Frog recently noted in this blog were resulting in monstrous waitlists at retreats across meditative traditions) directly because of the vast rivers and oceans that the monastic orders have maintained (and not to neglect the lay societies that have supported these monastic orders!). Those who have traveled to the rivers and oceans, or who have taken a plane across the land to see the geography; understand this. Those who have only seen the rushing canals without an appreciation of the deeper reservoir that fed them, may think that the canals are actually rivers themselves!

Happily, this segues directly into Ethan's closing skeptical assertion that U Obhasa and I may come of a bit glowing of Burmese Buddhism. This is a hard balance to communicate! Because he's right in his way, but it also depends how you are looking at it. For example, U Obhasa and I are two Westerners who come from a background where Burmese monastic society is downgraded as something "religious, traditional, and based on useless rites and rituals." What is more, both of us were strong advocates of these very ideas not so many years ago! So our comments about the value of Burmese Buddhism, and the undervalued role of monastics in Western Buddhist and meditative circles, often comes out stronger in response to this bias. A voice saying, "No, wait! There really is a lot of value here! You Westerners have your own bias, blind spots, and conditioning that is preventing you from properly seeing how it is operating." This forceful response, or rather over-compensation, can sometimes be heard as an unqualified "thumbs up" for the Burmese Sangha and overall Buddhist society, and a overriding criticism of how it is practiced outside. But this is not true, as Ethan points out there are many challenges found in Buddhist practice in Myanmar that need to be talked about openly, and many advantages to be found in the West, as Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu himself points out in his "Epic Battle" post, and which Bhikkhu Bodhi also voices concern about in the link posted in our last thread.

Not to shy away from this point, and fully admitting its truth, however this has been a long response by me already so perhaps I will come back to it in more detail next round.

Bhikkhu Obhasa:

Honestly I cringed at the accusation that I painted Burmese Buddhist laity glowingly. Taking a critical look at one side (especially doing so by exploring how my own personal biases were shaped and being willing to challenge them) does not equate to exalting the other. But if it's needed for clarity before the dialogue can move on, I will make it clear. Burmese Buddhism, both monastic and lay, in my opinion, are far from perfect. I however did not raise this point at the outset because it only seems bolster the fractionalized view that tradition is a broken system that need be ignored, forgotten, or even done away with. I realize none of us hold that view. Even so, if we're going to take a critical look at what's going on in traditional Buddhist culture to help inform the western Dhamma direction, understanding the biases we bring to the table seems primary.

My journey as I see it regarding this issue is to unpack my own belief systems, biases, cultural conditioning, and judgements, to see what I am bringing to the table. I've spent far too much time in my life focusing on and criticizing the imperfections of 'the other' so I am making a more concerted attempt to focus more on my 'stuff'. In doing so as a monastic here in Burma, I am finding value (sometimes begrudgingly) amongst the very things I criticized! And that doesn't mean that what I once saw as imperfect is now seen as perfect, just that with my arrogant idealized values of what I thought Dhamma should be blinded me from seeing the value in the imperfection of 'what is'. And most of the views I held of the superiority of western Dhamma are quickly crumbling.

Is there value in western Dhamma? Yes. Is western Dhamma fitting for its time and place? Yes. Does it supplant traditional Buddhism? No. Does it have something of value to offer the whole of Buddhism? Absolutely. I think the problem here and perhaps with Ven. Pannobhasa's original post as well as divisive discussions across the globe is pitting western and traditional Buddhism against each other. Shouldn't we be asking how they can support each other? Benefit each other? The thing is, while such debates go on, this symbiotic relationship is already happening. Much of the Buddhism in the west is still informed by and kept in check by tradition, and tradition is kept in check by the fresh look (at tradition and modern application) by adherents born outside of tradition. Of course that is only effective to the degree to which we are willing to check our own positions, views, biases, and beliefs. And that won't be perfect either but even some is enough to keep things going. Hopefully we heed the Buddha's many warnings of the dangers of views and attachments to them. Both east and west suffer from this.

I agree that the imperfections of tradition need to be understood and discussed. But how can that be objectively evaluated if we don't recognize our own biases we bring into the evaluation? So starting with internally trying to recognize those biases seems the most prudent and, to me, the most interesting way forward.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

"Experiential Learning in Buddhism and Truth"

Tharbawa Monastery requested to share the following announcement:

Date: 8 days retreat in 2016 [feb 7 to 16] 
Experiential Learning in Buddhism and TruthMeditation type: Insight meditation and loving kindness meditation
By Sayalay Cala (ITBMU)

Every 7 first days of the month 7 days meditation retreat at ThaBarWa Shwe Chaung (Pyin Oo Lwin)

Everyday in ThaBarwa Center, meditation class, Buddhism class & discussions. Possibility to do a self-retreat and limitless good deeds.

For all details refere to our website and can contact us through it.

Thank you for your collaboration,

Khema Cari
ThaBarWa Dhamma Center
Thanlyin, Yangon
+95 9 250047330

Monday, 25 January 2016

The Thread: The Value of Monastic Systems

Although separated by continents, three Dhamma friends have been having discussions on practice and theory for some time via email, in order to share their perspectives and learn from one another as they continue on a spiritual path. All are American; two are lay and one is monastic. Between them they have nearly a half-century of practice, and all have been to Burma on several occasions, where they have resided at monasteries for some time. They have offered to share their ongoing Dhamma talks with the greater community, as others may be interested in considering the ideas that are discussed.

Ethan: We’ve talked a lot about the differences and similarities, advantages and disadvantages of the meditation center-focused system that is common in Western Buddhist circles and of the monastery-focused system in Theravada countries. And I believe we all read U Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu's post titled “Epic Dhamma Battle: Myanmar vs. the USA." In the post he compares the Theravada Buddhist systems of Myanmar and the United States, coming to the conclusion that “Burma cleans America’s clock.” 

I disagree slightly with some of his conclusions in the post, but what I wanted to discuss is an idea that didn’t really catch my eye on the first reading, but that I started to wonder about as time went on. Here are a couple quotes from the post that

“Laypeople were originally intended to practice as much as they were able in their worldly circumstances and to support those really dedicated to practicing the system. So I repeat, the American lack of support for the more advanced levels of the system, which arguably are the most important levels, is a fatal flaw which undermines the whole thing.” (emphasis his)

“[I]f the really dedicated ones, regardless of whether or not they are wearing brown robes, are striving full time for the transcendence of Samsara, then they will need support. I suggest that any Theravada Buddhist organization in America that does not support at least one spiritual renunciant is somewhat of a sham, especially if its members are calling themselves ‘sangha.’ Theravada is a system first and foremost for renunciants.”

At its simplest, the question I’d like to discuss is, “Does Western Buddhism absolutely need a monastic system?”
Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu eems to be saying ‘yes,’ though not necessarily as a carbon copy of the Theravada system. In my interpretation, he doesn’t think this is because a monastic system is beneficial for the lay population, or even for the vast majority of monks (not that it is not beneficial for these groups, just that these aren’t the key benefits), but because it provides people who are “really dedicated to practicing the system” a chance to do so.

I can see his reasoning, as clearly if a committed Buddhist has no way to dedicate himself/herself fully to Dhamma there is something seriously wrong. However, I wonder if it is really necessary for Western Buddhist communities to develop monasticism in order to not be considered “somewhat of a sham.”

Gerald: What struck me is how Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu described his many years as a monastic in Burma, and then the shock of coming to the US. Of course, implicit in this dynamic is that Burma has had over 900 years of established Buddhist practice, and then during the 1,500 years before that had various touches with the faith. The US, and by extension the West, literally did not know if the Buddha came from either sub-Saharan Africa or ancient India as recently as a couple of centuries ago! (see Charles Allen's In Search of the Buddha). Given that Westerners knew so very little about the most basic origins of the Buddha, it goes without saying that they knew absolutely nothing about either the doctrine or practice. And when they did start to become interested, it was masked through the filters of Orientalism, Eastern exoticism, and transcendentalism/Romaticism, which more than skewed proper understanding (and later gave way to the later appropriations of Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg,Jack Kornfield, etc.)

What's so interesting to me then is that Western Buddhism (or as some like to refer to it, Non-Religious/Non-Secular Mind-and-Matter Observation of Pure Awareness and Mindfulness or some such variation) and Burmese Buddhism seem to be speaking the same language, however there are subtle gaps between how one is talking and the other. These subtle gaps ultimately cause immense confusion in the form of cultural bumps for those few who travel from one community to the other, expecting that the same understanding of the same practice is being followed, and becoming confused and disoriented by the gaps that continue to manifest. But that such a gap exists should not be confusing: on one hand we have a millennium-long experimentation on the part of the Burmese people regarding how one organizes and orients an entire society towards the adherence to the teachings of a single supreme spiritual teacher; while on the other hand you have a community in which the practice is barely a generation old, and is only practiced by a very small subset of the population who are still awkwardly trying to find how it fits within their cultural norms and established lives. In other words, the "minor cultural bumps and subtle gaps" are neither minor nor subtle, but blasting Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu directly in his face!

And to me, this represents the very difference of a society that has had centuries upon centuries to not only understand and investigate these teachings, but also to organize an entire society upon the establishment of the four-fold Sangha (the monk, nuns, lay men, and lay women), all of them fully engaged in carrying out their respective roles so the Sasana may continue (as Bhikkhu Obhasa himself so eloquently pointed out here). And the other society has experimented in their own way, from the innovation of the non-monastic meditation center (itself only about a half century old) to the presentation as Buddhism as being a kind of efficiency practice for the modern world. But the innovation of the West is still young, and has not yet turned its attempt on the monastic order, and so when a dedicated monastic such as Paññobhāsa Bhikkhu steps into the Western world of Buddhist practice, this is a glaring and shocking omission.

I realize I have somewhat sidestepped Ethan's question of "Does Western Buddhism absolutely need a monastic system?" I'm looking more at historical development and progression objectively, at how things developed and why it makes sense for them to develop in that way, rather than thinking about it as what they "absolutely" need and why. I may tackle this query next round. For now suffice it to say, that (a) it makes sense that most all the initial Buddhist teachers to the West innovated to bring the teachings without an emphasis on the monastic system as a primary concern; as well as (b), that we also have to be honest and not sidestep the fact that a huge component is lost by removing the central feature of both the Buddha's life and teachings and trying to develop further without ever looking to add this piece. On that last note of (b), I will add that while I am a lay practitioner, I have benefited beyond what words can explain by living within a monastic society such as Burma. In other words, a monastic system benefits not only the monastics, but as Bhikkhu Obhasa's post indicated, everyone involved in every facet of it

U Obhasa: It's a great question. My current answer is yes, the west needs the monastic system whether they know it or not, whether they understand it's value or not. And this answer I realize changes the meaning of the question in that I don't necessarily think the monastic structure needs to even BE in the west. It just needs to exist and the west would do well to understand it's value and stay connected. Along with the Buddha and Dhamma, the Sangha completes the core strength of the continued existence of these teachings. Monastic sangha in the west will only ever develop as much as supporting conditions allow. Currently those conditions are quite lacking and it's hard to tell whether those conditions will develop in the future. It could be that many will eventually understand the monastic sangha's necessity, even in it's inherent imperfection. But that need not be the case as the Dhamma is quite adaptive to varying conditions. Yet, whether the Buddhists in the west realize it or not, the Dhamma we have today exists ONLY because of the monastic system which includes all monks and nuns and all who have supported them both in the past centuries and today. Some say though that the monastic system is archaic and unsuitable to modern times. I feel that this view is rather shortsighted.

It's as if there's a big lake of water well cared for over many centuries. This lake, if not cared for in a certain way, would otherwise dry up. Others come from afar to drink and are even given permission to dig canals so the water may benefit those in distant arid places. But the people from afar don't channel it into another lake and take care of it in the same way as those they received it from. They create canals and distribution of the water based on the situations present in their own lands. The canals and the distribution system may be brilliant and a great fit for those lands but it would be ludicrous to think that it would survive long without the source being well taken care of, no matter how good the new system is. And this would be true whether it is understood or not. This is in response to those that not only emphasize certain aspects of the Dhamma at the exclusion of others but actually wish to abolish those other aspects completely from the face of the earth. These are some of the neo-athiest and secular mindfulness practitioners I've come across.

Another angle of this issue is brought up by Bhikkhu Bodhi. How far can the Dhamma be stretched to fit the current non-traditional culture? Using the water metaphor, one may emphasize secondary aspects of the benefits of water in order to appeal to the local culture like that one can swim in the water and swimming is both fun and good excercise. To a degree, nothing wrong in that because the Dhamma has a certain amount of adaptability and it does have such secondary benefits. But when those secondary aspects start to eclipse the primary benefit, when swimming becomes more important than drinking water and growing food, that's a detrimental perspective. It misses the point. When the emphasis in Dhamma is no longer liberation but instead secondary life benefits, we will have lost the core. A culture of primarily lay teachers is more likely to drift that way than one whose Dhamma is still influenced by a strong monastic tradition. The main emphasis of liberation seems far better anchored by those 100% committed to it than those who have other obligations. Do the monastics actually need to be within the physical culture? Maybe, but perhaps not. As long as the culture doesn't cut itself from the source.

Can another culture borrow from the traditional source and create a new way of sustaining it? Perhaps, but I am doubtful. It's too early to tell but even at these early stages it already seems too scattered and unstable. It could go on perhaps hundreds of years but the tradition has been proven to last for thousands. With all the Kool-Aid and other additives already polluting and diluting the water, so far the 'new' ways don't seem like they'd survive apart from the tradition let alone outlast it...

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Shwe Lan Ga Lay: "More Than a Guidebook"

American nun Sayalay Sukha, a resident nun at Pa Auk, has read a draft chapter of Shwe Lan Ga Lay, and shares the following comment on the soon-to-be-released work:

"You are also inviting/sharing about Buddhism, an incredible path that offers an alternative, a way out of the massive suffering that most Americans experience on a daily basis. A way out of delusion. Wow, that is no small offering! Thus this book could even appeal to many who know very little about Buddhism but have picked up the book for a different reason.

What I am saying is that the topic you have chosen is so rich and multi-layered and could not only serve as a guide on how to not offend the Burmese when eating a meal with them but could be a doorway to freedom for those who are lost and seeking inspiration from others who have found a way into seeing their inherent goodness and true nature. That is the second theme that I was wanting to convey. That this could be more than a guidebook. Through the path of Buddhism and what the Buddha had to offer and through the eyes and embodiment of a people, country and culture who live Buddhism and has so much more inner joy than most Americans I know, we have much to learn! How does a people who live so simply, with so little and in such basic/stark conditions end up so happy? And how does a culture with so much, so abundant in food, amenities, luxuries, etc, end up so unhappy? Isn't that part of the teachings of the Buddha?

Again, this book is very timely. There are just more and more people who are going to discover the treasure of Myanmar and are going to come and use what is offered, thus this is very critical that as 'embassadors' for our fellow Americans we set the tone for our fellow Westerners and make sure that Myanmar is safeguarded and our fellow Americans are noteworthy travelers. This is an incredibly well-kept secret but not for much longer. As people are more and more lost, dissatisfied, disenchanted with their lives and hungry to return to their hearts, they are looking for such opportunities. 

Did you know that this year, there were 300 people on the waiting list, wanting to attend the 10 day Burmese-led monastic retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center? Five years ago, this kind of retreat would barely fill up. Also with U Tejanyia coming to America now and offering retreats and his oh-so-approachable and recently published books, the word is out! People are hungry, people are waking up, people need places such as these to get quiet and find themselves again. It is becoming a hot and in demand necessity for our Western brothers and sisters. In that sense, do not take this book lightly. This book could be the next bible for those who are ready to make the shift in their life."

Friday, 22 January 2016

A Glaring Omission

Shwe Lan Ga Lay's underlying mission has been to illuminate and discuss the Dhamma as it is practiced in the Golden Land of Burma (Myanmar). Although Burmese Buddhists are greatly welcoming to the foreign meditator, and eager to share the wealth of the Buddha's teachings, due to recent history, the country has been rather inaccessible for some time. As it now opens up for investment, tourism, and other opportunity, we hope that its Dhammic venues may also open to foreign spiritual seekers, and that Burma's greatest export may benefit the many suffering people around the world. 

Bhikkhu Agga recently found an example of the startling lack of knowledge available about the country when trying to access it from abroad. He noted that the current Wikipedia entry for Mogok Sayadaw comes up with no information. A separate search for his Pali name, U Vimala, brings one to a very basic biography (of which much of what is written is not accurate to begin with). By comparison, this is about three times smaller than the entry for the one-hit-wonder American rapper Young MC, who had only a brief moment of stardom nearly three decades ago.

Mogok Sayadaw was one of Burma's greatest monks, a part of the patipatti movement in the postwar era, a reputed Arahant (fully enlightened person), and a key member of the so-called Golden Generation of monks and meditation teachers (which also included Thae Ingu Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw, Webu Sayadaw, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Sun Lun Sayadaw, etc.). What is more, the Mogok technique is the most popular tradition today in Myanmar, with over 800 Mogok monasteries in the country alone. That such a paucity of information is available about this highly historically important individual who single-handedly spread the Dhamma to literally millions of practitioners is, if not surprising, then highly unfortunate. Just as many Burmese venerate the great work of Mogok Sayadaw today, so also may foreign yogis who yearn for liberation, even if they practice according to different lineages, traditions, and techniques. 

For those who wish to learn more about the Burma-Dharma, consider downloading the free version of Part 1. For those who would like to support our volunteer project, more help is always needed, and will greatly appreciated for the benefit of future readers.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

A "Nibbana Market" in Burma

U Sarana shares the following story. He updates a weekly newsletter full of Dhamma information about Myanmar, to which any interested meditator may subscribe.

"In the Dazaunmon Month you may see in villages and especially towns what is called Nibbāna Market. Why is it called Nibbāna is little bit mystery to me, but most probably it is because all the 'sold' goods are 'sold' for free.

In the beginning, the people who will participate in this ‘run’ will gather at a certain place, make a queue, and one by one will receive tickets with numbers. Each of the ticket points to a certain stall where are already waiting volunteering ‘sellers’. There are however many such stalls, let’s assume about 50 to 100. But the person standing in the first queue will receive a single ticket only, with a single random number. These stalls are also not mapped at all – so the ‘customer’ will run here and there around the village or a town quarter, searching for the stall of his number. He comes to that stall, and gets one single thing – a soap, a packet of uncooked rice, a washing liquid, etc. If he wishes, he will obtain another ticket right at that stall. That ticket of course also contains number, and our poor customer will run here and there again – to find his new destination. In this manner the people are going here and there and searching for stalls with the right number, spending thus great amount of time just walking. And believe it or not – it is this running, which greatly reduces number of the participants and the number of stalls the visit, and thus also the goods they receive. Maybe this is also called Nibbāna Market because many people 'give up their attachment,' and realize that there is a lot of peace in detachment from craving from this constant and mindless running around, striving, and accumulating.

There are also special places where people are offered rice or sweet drinks (not with a number). These places are arranged not only during Dazaunmon, but also during various other occasions. Because people from any direction (North, East, South, West,) are welcome to come and have the meal or drink, these places are called “satuditha” (စတုဒိသာ, “four directions”)."

Panditarama: "A Requirement for Every Human Being!"

"Panditarama is on the top of my list for meditation centers. Effective and extremely well organized, they say that two months at Panditarama is equal to one year at any other center. It caters very well to foreigners through their yearly 60 day retreat. Having done their retreat, I feel it should be a requirement for any human being! The nightly Dhamma talks are simple, succinct, clear, to the point and even though they stick to the basics, in that sense they are brilliant. They keep bringing the meditator back to what is essential and most important for progress and for seeing through rising and falling of phenomenon. 

The staff and all material details are extremely organized so that one can simply focus on the practice and not have to worry about anything. The encouragement to stay with the practice is extreme as they want the practitioner to be mindful every waking moment to the time one opens one eye lids. This in a sense provides great opportunity for swift advancement. I cannot say enough good things about the center, the staff, the talks and the intention with which the retreat is built upon. There is no room for falling through the cracks or failure. The main office has everything and more if the yogi is in need of something, the food is abundant and has both meat and vegetarian and Indian options as well. The single room kutis are clean, quiet and peaceful and again, directed toward success and progress. With the structure, the support and the environment this leads to very successful results that one will not be disappointed with."

Sayalay Sukha (Sarah Wilds)

"I Moved to Myanmar with the Determination that I will Attain Nibbana Here Indeed."

"My name is monk Sarana (Ashin Sarana), as a lay person I was known as Jan Šťovíček. I am from Czech Republic, Pilsen City. Born in 1987, at the age of 20 I left to Sri Lanka because I wanted to become a monk, and preferably attain psychic powers. In Sri Lanka I was ordained ca. 6 months later as a novice. I realized that best psychic power that an ardent monk can attain, is Nibbana. The monastery where I stayed supplied me with peace and the most important necessities, so that I could dedicate myself to meditation, calm the mind, develop loving-kindness, get control over subtle greed and hatred, and keep equanimous even in difficult times.

I attended Buddhist and Pali University while staying in a village monastery in Sri Lanka. Thanks to the monastery, I could dedicate my time to the studies, and study not only what was required, but also additional subjects, such as Myanmar language. Because of the peace and freedom I gained in monastery, I was able to learn and understand great portions of Buddha's teachings - and to repay this wealth provided to me by lay people, I taught lay people Dhamma and meditation. Once I had a Dhamma discourse in Sri Lankan TV during the Vesak day, and ca. 10 million people were reportedly listening to my words. It was so successful, that it was repeated again next day in the morning. Also, I tought once loving-kindness meditation to ca. 3000 people, still while in Sri Lanka. In different monasteries I taught loving-kindness meditation to groups of 10-50 people, daily. At a certain period I was appointed to be a chief-monk, to increase moral of a whole village, when I stayed in a monastery where a monk just passed away. I believe the moral of the people increased, and their morality as well.

After four years in Sri Lanka I moved to Myanmar, with the determination that I will attain Nibbana here indeed. A few days after my arrival to Myanmar I gained the higher ordination, I became a bhikkhu. I continued to practice loving-kindness meditation under most positive conditions here in Shwe Oo Min, and with help of Sayadaw U Tejaniya's teachings I was able to penetrate the truth of reality in the way the scriptures praise it. Since then I helped a great number of visiting lay people and monks to understand the nature of meditation, and support them in purifying their views and methods, so that their practice progresses smoothly.

I am still staying in Shwe Oo Min monastery, and next year I plan to move to a true forest monastery, not only to meditate, but also to memorize another great portion of Pali Scriptures. Already here, apart from my meditation successes in Shwe Oo Min, I was able to memorize a great amount of Pali Scriptures and gain knowledge and understanding of both theoretical Dhamma as well as monk's discipline. These days the sayadaws here send the visiting foreigners 'monks-to-be' to see me and attend a basic course of monastic discipline under my guidance. Sometimes I am given the role of 'instructor' during higher ordinations. These then become monks for a short period of a month or so, and become lay people again. Thus by the help of a monastery lay people learn meditation, Dhamma, and themselves taste the peace and purity of monks.

I believe that the greatest benefit of existence of monasteries - and with it the support of monks - is that any other people can also become monks (temporarily or undeterminedly) and practice meditation, live in peace and purity. Monks in Myanmar are reported to increase people's moral, morality, happiness, peace, and especially wisdom in terms of non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion."

Becoming a Buddhist Nun: "There is No Guidebook"

"Being a Sayalay here at Pa Auk. Pa Auk Center only does 10 precept ordination. So if you are wanting only 8 or 9 and thus want to still handle money, that is not possible here, but is at other monasteries. There is no guidebook. One really needs to find someone they connect with in order to ask questions and get some basic guidelines on what it entails to be a nun. I requested to be ordained, they accepted, the date was set, my hair was shaved, I was expected to have brown clothes and if not they give you one set and then one recites the 10 precepts in front of the teacher and that is it. You think there is a class or basic training but there is none. Once again, you are on your own to figure everything else out and to discover what is allowed and what is not. Cast to the wind in a sense. Thank goodness there is one Western Sayalay here who has been ordained for a few years now and has been kind enough to answer any of my questions and help me along the way. Without her, I would be completely lost. 

The ordained community is very kind and very helpful but not all of them speak English or even know what to inform you on as they might assume that you already know what to do and not do. It is an unfolding in every moment and when I make a grave error, then someone kindly comes up to me and then tells me so. A learn-as-you-go kind of experience. There are so many details that I will not go into but can only emphasize that it truly is a learn-as-you-go, thus one must not be in a hurry or have some agenda because it unfolds as new needs arise. Such as how to buy soap? How to travel? Since one relinquishes all one's requisites, one is then dependent on the monastery and thus needs to figure out where the go, who to talk to, how to arrange things, etc....You get a bit of the picture? Everything is relinquished, there is no guidebook or manual for either behavior or for how to acquire necessities and then one finds oneself on the holy grail trail to find out how to get one's needs met. 

Thank goodness ones needs are simple and yet issues and needs to arise. And they do get addressed but it is a treasure hunt in the making! In addition to keeping one's meditation schedule, cleaning duties, interview time slots, etc..." 

--Sayalay Sukha (Sarah Wilds)

Monday, 18 January 2016

A Bit of Freedom

"Pa Auk Meditation Center is a great place if one does not need much support and is advanced enough in their practice to meditate without much guidance on their own. The Center is so large and mainly populated by Burmese thus all the daily Dharma talks are in Burmese and so are the study groups. One can interview with a teacher a couple of times a week, so some quick guidance but even then one might have a hard time understanding the teacher's English. Aside from the regularity of the sitting times, a foreigner can be lost in a sea of silent meditators and no one to go to for support. It is a very beautiful setting and quiet and conducive enough but one needs self motivation and independent effort. 

Many people make their lives here so the level of mindfulness outside the meditation hall is mediocre as people hurry about and chat here and there. Overall, Pa Auk Main Center is a wonderful opportunity to do long term practice and go deeper with ones' practice if one is already well established. Be prepared for very basic conditions such as no fans in the meditation hall and very basic food. One might also be sharing a room which at other centers is not the case. One might take on 10 precept ordination as monk or Sayalay which is a rare opportunity for a foreigner. One can stay as long as one likes and has quite a bit of freedom while at the center."

Sayalay Sukha (Sarah Wilds)

Friday, 15 January 2016

A Czech lesson in Dhamma

The Czech monk Ashin Sarana taught a series of lessons on the subject of "Dhamma", as the board above so neatly indicates. His students were several young Czech boys who were visiting the Golden Land for the first time and practicing meditation at a Yangon monastery. 

But is the Sasana Really Like an Organism...?

In his first blog post for "Burma Dhamma," American monk Bhikkhu Obhasa shared his reflections transitioning from having practiced in the Sayagyi U Goenka tradition to becoming a Buddhist monastic in rural Burmahere. His honest reflection in describing his painful learning bumps have, in the short time since its posting, made it one of the most popular blog posts yet. 

So popular, in fact, that the good folks at Dhamma Wheel have begun their own discussion of the blog post here. Burma-Dhamma readers interested to join the discussion may contribute their own thoughts to this thread.

Monday, 11 January 2016

The Cave of Mogok Sayadaw

Mogok Sayadaw is one of Burma's greatest monks. A presumed Arahant whose meditation technique spread across the country in the postwar period, the Mogok method is now considered the most popular meditation tradition in Myanmar, with over 800 centers in the country alone. Because Mogok city is also the site of mining for precious gems, it has long been out of reach from foreign meditators. 

Recently, however, one Australian meditator applied for and received special permission to visit here, and he was privileged to be able to to meditate for one hour inside the very cave where Mogok Sayadaw practiced so ardently in World War II. Hopefully more and more foreign yogis and monastics will get this precious opportunity in coming years. Above is the photograph he has shared of his visit. (Note the well-known Patisamuppada diagram above the cave, which figures prominently into Mogok Sayadaw's teachings.)

Sunday, 10 January 2016

"It is as if the Sasana is a Giant Organism..."

“I've come to recognize a certain type of arrogant view in myself, previously unseen, that the individual striving is the only thing that truly counts. I came by this notion honestly as it's a natural outcome resulting from having been raised in a culture that heralds the individual above all else. 

I now realize the absurdity of this notion. We are actually anyway totally interdependent. In regards to Dhamma, it is amazing how every piece, that is, all the paramis, and anyone that participates at any level in contributing any of them, helps to sustain the Sasana for future generations. It is as if collectively the Sasana is a giant organism that is bigger than all of us individually, more than the sum of its parts, and both impersonal and interpersonal at the same time. It is more clear now how the strength of this greater phenomenon, with and because of, all of its pieces has had the richness, adaptability, strength and momentum to survive generation after generation. Without that whole, it is unlikely that this practice I so deeply value would even still exist. 

And even though some do not engage the teachings at the level of meditation, the ones that do are carried on their backs and always have been. For those I once held in mild contempt for not meditating, I now am developing an ever-deepening sense of gratitude. And not only for those in the present, but also the many nameless beings that have done so in the past, as well as of course gratitude for the genius of the system and its originator. 

This unfolding realization has helped to reduce the ego and let go of a very limiting and limited view. Even the simplest acts of veneration are not for me but for the Sasana. Every bowing of the head, every flower placed on a shrine, every swipe of a broom at a monastery, every grain of rice that lands in my bowl, it is sustaining the Sasana. I see that I and others are simply performing roles as suit our current nature, none more important than another, that collectively make up the Sasana. 

A rare phenomenon that for over 2,500 years has held open the door and shown the path to liberation.” 

--Bhikkhu Obhasa, American monk

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Ariya Wasa Dhamma Yeiktha (အရိယ၀ါသ ဓမၼရိပ္သာ)

Located nearby Hnee Pagoda, this beautiful nunnery is relatively new to the Kalaw scene. Many of the buildings are temporary structures, as the compound is still in the process of being developed. Pleasant forest paths line the area, skirting between the many pine trees. At the highest point is a golden stupa that makes an ideal spot for meditation, as does the open-air gazebo surrounded by a dozen wooden pillars, and a Bodhi tree from Bodhgaya is growing steadily on a slight rise.

Of particular note are the two monks’ residences: made of wood and donated by a Burmese expatriate family in Texas, they feature an appealing circular design with private rooms and a spacious deck area.

Daw Nein Mala, who speaks English well, oversees the nunnery. In her early years, she had no interest in wearing robes, but listening to Dhamma discourses by some of the country’s great monks awoke in her a spiritual striving that she has been following ever since. She went on to learn meditation under Pakkoku Sayadaw, Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, and several teachers within the Mogok tradition. She now personally leads a ten-day meditation retreat each April, and her center can host over 100 yogis in Burmese style lodgings.

As of this writing, the site has no proper kitchen facilities, meaning that one would need to secure food needs elsewhere and come with a high degree of self-sufficiency. For monks, however, it is possible to eat from taking alms rounds in the area.

“I am in the eastern part of the country where it is more mountainous, cool, and less populated, scouting out possible places to relocate to in the future or retreat during hot season. I spent my birthday in this little hut in a pine forest overlooking the town of Kalaw in Shan state. It is rather peaceful here with a nice walking path for meditation just outside the door. Three of the neighbors kindly provide my one meal a day when I go for alms in the morning. I am well taken care of here.” Bhikkhu Obhasa, American monk