Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Ingyinbin Journal: Ordinariness in Everything


John, a meditator from New Zealand, spends extended periods in Ingyinbin each year, the home of the revered Webu Sayadaw and with his friend Ashin Mandala. This winter, he has decided to keep a journal, which he has kindly offered to share with us. His journal alternates between observation and poetry, between meditation practice and commentary about Burmese Buddhist society, from his learnings and his questions. The full collection of his musings can be found here.

16 January

Back from Shwebo following a muddle over the pickup arrangements, and Karen with a heavy cold, the prominent gold pagoda spire seen at a distance of some kilometres foreshortens the distance. Return with evening-time.

Under the wispy moon in the still-blue sky
lines of white birds sweeping into the tamarinds.
Silent, graceful, landing as new leaves.
The following morning I walk with Kwau Soe to the patipatti compound, where shortly after Yan Aung Shwe joins us, wearing treble sweaters. We examine the U Ba Khin building, which Aung Shwe has recently upgraded adding new facilities and paint. He wants the small corner room with generous windows on three sides where U Ba Khin spent a week ordained to be reserved for serious mediation only. Beyond this building stands another, rather dilapidated one, used during Webu’s time by his donor, a former Burmese Railways Minister.

From a nearby tree Kwau Soe plucks from a tree vine several tiny orange berries each with a black spot at one end which he holds out in his open palm. He explains that in his childhood they used to thread these berries onto a thread of cotton to make necklaces:

Kauw Soe gathers the tiny orange berries
they once threaded onto necklaces:
the devas on their elevated platform are benign.
He also stops to pick up from a narrow ledge at the arahant’s pool a small tortoise, white on the underside and less than half the size of his palm, with two small legs occasionally emerging and flailing, while the head remains firmly ensconced within the body - until the creature is returned to the water, where its head and legs re-emerge and after a brief flurry it disappears beneath the surface of the stagnant water. Shortly after, we visit the deva platform, a place where Webu is said to have been sometimes found meditating; and to my surprise beneath the expansive banyan tree nearby there are a couple of gnat altars decorated by devotees with fresh cut sprigs placed in jars; then over we head to the monks’ quarters, where just today the aged blue Plymouth car donated to Webu some sixty years ago has been towed back from Kin-U, a mere shell but impressive still.

We enter Webu’s rooms, where Aung Shwe recounts for me the last hours of the Sayadaw’s life: a final visit to the toilet in the adjoining room followed by collapse on his return, immediately lifted and carried by his assistants to the dais where shortly he passes away, cradled in arms including those of the current Sayadaw on the pariyati side. Several events of the final days are captured in the photographs that hang on the walls and I look long at them.

Karen and I return to the hut after lunch and sit through the afternoon, re-entering it late but still bright and welcoming.


Leaving the hut, the warm sun,
the wavy leaved tree displays perfumed white flowers
which we saw yesterday cupped in the old woman’s hands.
Perhaps this is a reasonable juncture at which to digress and recount an event of a few days later concerning the now 81 year old Sayadaw and the 83 year old Indian nuclear physicist and physician recently arrived to take robes and meditate. On the morning of his ordination the Indian gentleman is sat down on a small wooden stool beside the concrete trough used for washing by the monks and a young monk proceeds to shave the remaining ring of grey hair from the elderly fellow’s head in quick straight bursts of the razor. From there Bhante leads him to the dining room, where he becomes a novice prior to receiving full ordination. Pali phrases are said and repeated, robes passed as dana to the preceptor are returned and donned with the help of a couple of attending novices. Next a large young monk directs us to the Sima Hall, where an animated preceptor Sayadaw proceeds gleefully to compare the ripened age of each the novice, he himself, and the Buddha; once again he points to the upper lip and repeats Webu’s injunction to hold the attention right there uninterrupted on the breathe 24 hours in the day. The village musicians start up prematurely, thinking the foreign guests (six of us at this time) who now vacate the hall include the entire ordination party. It’s another 30 minutes before their cymbals and drums sound again in urgent unison as the monks reappear and we have the chance to give to tach of them a modest dana.

Late in the afternoon the guests enter the Sayadaw’s quarters in the ramshackle old teak hall, rows of empty Red Bull cans lining the inner entrance. Sayadaw sidles onto the floor with us and the priceless Buddha relics are brought out. A new glass dome has replaced the old one which has been roughly glued together following an earlier mishap. It is topped with a small black carved pagoda and the same wood serves as a pedestal, studded with lips of ivory. It is an ivory lotus that houses the tiny container which contains the dozen or so ‘mustard seed’ sized bone relics, wrapped in a small piece of purple cloth. Each petal has been individually carved, so that one that is near the relics curves up from the rest of the holder almost perpendicularly. Each of us in turn has a white cloth placed on our head while another holds the relic holder over the head for a couple of minutes. This has happened for me before, and at least this time the mind remains composed even though there is a strange and unsatisfied sense that there should be a ‘special’ experience or sensation to report. Ordinariness can feel like a major disappointment! Finally, it is Snow’s turn; as I rest the relics on her head a sudden buzzing sound is immediately followed by an itchy sensation and I realise a mosquito has just landed and bitten me on the cheek.

Sayadaw scrambles after almost spilling
a ‘mustard seed’ bone relic.
Cats, medicines, newspapers, plus one freshly ordained monk.
 

Cats race the roof as the black wooden bowl
housing the Buddha relics gets held in turn
above each head. Still within the mind kicks.
 

I hold the relic holder above Snow’s head
two minutes; knees pretty unsteady; hands
occupied, a mosquito stationed on my cheek.

As if I hadn’t appreciated the ordinariness in everything, later bhanti-ji, quite hard of hearing, explains that he had heard little or nothing, and asks why the grains of rice had been treated so reverently and whether it was these that had been referred to as ‘mustard seeds’.

The Sayadaw himself, surprisingly impish and bright-faced, each day perambulates the compound with his walking poles, using them to indicate this or that or else to admonish recalcitrant novices:

81, more a jaunty 18, soiled
robes and hugely calloused feet, this
Sayadaw held Webu when he passed.