Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Engaging with the Dhamma: Advice for Burmese Monastic Life

One hidden trap that some foreign yogis bring to their stay in Myanmar is coming with a frame of understanding how Dhamma is practiced in the Golden Land by idealizing it; this certainly applies to stays at monasteries as well. One becomes quite attached to this expectation, which ultimately carries within it the seeds of disappointment, as it is an preconception that will be impossible to meet. And when one’s experience inevitably starts falling outside that unrealistic frame, frustration (and even stronger emotions) sets in.

For example, it is not the case that all monks have joined the order with the sole purpose of attaining nibbana, that all lay supporters behave with perfect scruples when at monasteries and pagodas, that all young children possess a clear comprehension of the basic Buddhist principles as a result of their upbringing and education. Yes, some monks do watch the English Premier League while playing with their smart phones, some lay people flirt and listen to music at pagodas, and some children seem to take a pleasure in torturing monastery dogs.

There can be also be a well-intentioned but counterproductive (and condescending) Western meditators' bias that exults in finding wisdom in the poor, simple Burmese countryside, as if devotion and purity of practice can be explained by merely being burdened with less material opportunity in life. Some would-be monastics seek out monasteries in particularly isolated, rural villages with this as a partial motivation. But such an approach ignores the commonalities that form the fundamental human experience, whether in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, downtown Paris, a poor Delta hamlet… or almost any monastery. Lobha, dosa, and moha are encountered at every turn, as is the intention to follow the Noble Eight Fold Path.

In other words, this whole issue exemplifies the very thing Dhamma students who come to Myanmar come to practice… Dhamma! Yogis should examine their expectations carefully, and experience the country with open eyes, appreciating it on its own merits, not filtering it through an ultimately impossible standard or distorted set of expectations. The Middle Path is negotiated with life circumstances, and it can be inspiring to see how some of Burmese monks and meditators work to bring the Buddha’s teachings into every moment of (real, unvarnished) life.