Sunday, 24 September 2017

A Day in A Myint, northern Burma



Zaw Win Htet describes a day discovering ancient Buddhist sites around his hometown:

"Last Friday morning when I was having Monti (Burmese rice noodles) as my breakfast with all my family members, a car arrived and parked in front of my house. Ven. Pinnyasara, a chief monk of Bodhi Tahtaung Monastery's meditation centre, and his guests from Yangon came in and then asked my dad if anyone of us would mind to take them to A Myint as a volunteer guide. My dad and brother looked at me at the same time, then they pointed to me. I said happily, "yes." Thus, my wife and I became "Saw Ke Kings" as in a proverb of our township, "Saw Ke became a King (of Innwa) without any intention." This proverb is not strange to us as natives of Chaung U township because King Saw Ke from that proverb and from the history was not from other far sites and he was from A Myint in our township.

The monk and two guests let my wife and little niece come along with me that a space was available for two of them as well. On the way to Amyint, we went in a village beside the road where there is the sole palmprint of Buddha, the only one in the country and the world. We were taken to the pagodas by 76-year old Chief Monk of that monastery. In that monastery, though there were many old pagodas, many of them have been rebuilt. We feel missing of them and local people should be started to be educated how to preserve the ancient works. We saw a brick Buddha statue of a square face under a heap of bricks. Historian scholars inferred that this statue has an artistic sculptural style of Bagan Era. At about 10.30, we left there and went on.

Just a few minutes drive later, the recently preserved moat with no water was welcoming us, so was a high heap of old reddish bricks that local people call "Mingalar Myo Oo Pagoda", by showing or telling us a phenomenon or a philosophy of Constant Flux. I feel it is like telling us, "We were very new and beautiful one time but now all the people who built us, had gone and we ourselves are sadly old. See us!" Yes, it is true. In this way, I usually think about the past A Myint City of Innwa Era whenever I cross that moat and pass that pagoda. I see the Change of Everything by Time in A Myint. It was one time a big city where the Princes, Princesses and Dukes governed and lived. It was a big city where ancient kings relied on for their army when there was a war, but now it is just a big village where the township's administration offices are not stationed. King Swar Saw Ke had already disappeared, so had Duke Min Latwar. Although they and their people disappeared, today A Myint is still standing as a milestone of Myanmar's history and majestic days of ancient A Myint city. It is showing us the proofs of ancient Burmese people's outstanding architectural constructions, designs, arts of paintings and golden generosity. Today A Myint is still telling us some important points of history of our country. It is like telling us the Tides of History and Human Beings over River Chindwin's basin areas around Sanlahvati Kingdom, the original another name of Ot-jay-ni Kingdom. (Ot-jay-ni Kingdom and Sanlahvati Kingdom are the same capital citiy of a kingdom early before Bagan dynasties and at the same time as early Bagan dynasties; these names refer to A Myint.)

First of all in A Myint, we went in Pya-that monastery where Bagan Era's resin Buddha statue is. The Buddha statue is believed to be the one that King Alaung Sithu worshiped at the palace in Bagan. Although it was found in its own big pagoda in the south of the village, people brought it here to this Pya-that monastery so to be safe from the thieves of ancient statues. Some proofs have also been found to show that this resin Buddha statue was worshiped by King Alaung Sithu. The Chief Monk of that monastery gave all of us small booklets about the history of the Resin Buddha Statue (မံဘုရား, in Burmese). After paying worships to this Buddha, we went to Min Ye monastery and Min Ye Su Pagodas (meaning a cluster of pagodas in Min Ye monastery). We parked the car in the monastery next to the area of pagodas. U Thein Naing and U Thet Naing, the guests, took photographs of the old leaning wooden monastics. We walked up stairs of a few wide deep steps in the area of pagodas through a narrow gate. We walked on the walkways between the pagodas and the guests took a lot of time to take photos of different styles of old temples and an old lying Buddha statue with a slightly big flat smiling face as showing the style of Bagan Era's statues and as that can be seen in mural paintings. To show my guests the mural paintings of Thu-yaung trees and Jatakas pictures, I led the group to a temple numbered by the Ancient Research Department under the Ministry of Culture. This temple is one of the most famous temples in A Myint because it has mural paintings of the afore-mentioned Thu-yaung trees. It's famous for them. After about half an hour, we left Min Ye Su pagodas and led to the market for lunch of the monk, so it cannot be late. After lunch in a restaurant of Burmese cuisine, we left A Myint for another part of Second Bagan, Thone-pan-hla village (previously called A Naint village) where U Wisara, the national hero for Burmese in the days of colonial British Burma, was born. In this area around A Myint, a lot of famous people and monks were born. U Nyo Mya, who wrote the article "Hell Hounds at Large" to criticize at the British Headmaster of Yangon University, and wrote a lot of books, was born in A Myint. Duke Min Lat War was very famous for his governance that thieves or robbers were killed by a strike of his very wide palm, in King Mindom's times. (He was known as Min Lat War, meaning Duke Palm, for the above reason.) Ledi Pandita U Maung Gyi, a great writer and disciple of Ledi Sayadaw, was born in Nyaung Phyu Pin village where formerly was in the township of Chaung Oo, in the north of A Myint.

After our lunch, we went to Min O Chan Thar Pagoda that was built by King Alaung Sithu. Althogh this is a famous ancient pagoda, just a few ancient works are remained because today people renewed it again and again. It's a kind of stupa with four main sets of stairs, so we can go up the stairs to look over around but it is not too high.

Just in the south of A Myint, we saw Man Pagoda where the Resin Buddha Statue was previously put. In Tazaung village on the way to Thone Pan Hla, Monastic Donors Nga Yauk Thin Couple's stone inscription is famous and the village is situated just beside the dirt road to Thone Pan Hla. It was dated ME-658 (AD-1296) and the scholars recommend that it is a stone isncription of "mula-htoe (in Burmese, မူလထိုး)" meaning "original inscription". In that village, there is another mula-htoe stone inscription called "Monastic Donors Nga Pyae Nyi Couple's stone inscription", dated ME-677 (AD-1315), too. Since we did not have much time, we did not go in the village to see them. For the historians, Sanae Nan Gone in Tazaung village is a good site to study and make a History research from the above stone inscriptions.
(For more information about the historic stone inscriptions around A Myint Old City and A Neint Old City to make a study in history, please see in my own blog page: www.bloggerzawwinhtet.blogspot.com.)

Old trees are beside the dirt road along the way we went. It must have been an old avenue that connects A Myint City and A Neint City since the past times. After we crossed some villages and a 30-minute drive, we started to see a cluster of very old dun temples and pagodas cloaked by shrubs here and there. The temples are spreading over the areas and between clusters of palm trees or in the fields. In a place beside the road, we saw a sign and a side road to a cluster of some temples named "Thone Pan Hla Pagodas Compound". We took a right turn to the side road to visit and see them. Near a brickwork lion in front of the archway of the compound, we took photos together. At the eastern gate, only one lion statue was left as original and the rest can be only seen as a heap of bricks. We took a careful look at the remained one which was built by bricks. Its legs are wonderfully firming without any help of reinforced concrete-work and its brickwork is amazing. We can see amazing brickwork in its legs in deep strength though they are not thick enough. (Please, see the photo.)

When walked on the pavement in the compound, we were seen and directed by an old man named Bagyi Gyan (bagyi means old grandpa), a trustee member, to the temples in which the mural paintings are there. Inside the temples in the southernmost of the compound, we could have a great chance to see priceless mural paintings. In the paintings, we saw some ancient writing styles that are quite different from today's. For example, we once read and learned that the Pali term "Thera (meaning elder bhikkhu or elder monk)" is written as either "မေထရ္(ma-te)" or "ေထရ္(te)" today. But, in the ancient writing that is found in mural paintings of Bagan Era, it was written "မထည္(ma-hti)" or sometimes "မထည္း(ma-htee)". Myanmar linguists said in the books that later people and today people read and write it "မထီး" and they think this is another term and a term for those monks who are not Theravada Buddhist monks. We also found the writing "အရည္း" in the mural paintings on the walls and concave roofs of the cave inside the pagodas. The terminologists and Myanmar linguists said that this word was derived from a Pali word "အရည (Aranna)" and adopted as a Burmese word "အရည္း" by putting ( - ္) and ( - း). The words "အရည္း" that we found in the mural paintings, used to mean Theravada Buddhist monks who used to live at a monastery in the rural areas. However, we do not write and call those as "အရည္း" today. If someone sees a word "အရည္း" or sometimes "အရည္းၾကီး" today, he misinterprets that this means the ones who told themselves as monks, practiced non-Buddhist practices without perceiving any Buddhist percepts and principles, and who founded a religion-alike in early Bagan Era before King Anawratha's times when Buddhism started to flourish in upper and other parts of Myanmar, except around Mon State, the initial start point of Theravada Buddhism in the entire Myanmar in history. Therefore, what I get a message from the mural paintings that we saw, from the scope of Myanmar linguistic and history, is that we can elicit these pagodas were built in the Era of Bagan. Another supportive strong reason to elicit this point or statement is that some scholars say the pictures of people, Buddha, monks or Arhats, look those of mural paintings in Bagan temples. To clarify, this means that faces in the paintings are pear-shaped. Anyway, it was very good and knowledgable to see or observe the paintings and learn the way that scholars made historical elicitations by observing the writings and pictures in the paintings.
Lovely, the name of one of the pagodas where there mural paintings are well reseved, is "Ma-shi-ka-na (မရွိခဏ)" Temple that means the temple of "No Lack". (PS: There are many other so-called "Ma-shi-ka-na" pagodas in Sagaing and in some other parts of the country.) In our group, the two guests from Yangon, also have the same interest in interior mural paintings and exterior decorative arabseques in the pagodas as me. According to U Panna, they are makers of the documentary of Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung Sayadawgyi and they seemed to make a documentary about A Myint and Thone Pan Hla, the areas of Second Bagan. They were taking a lot of photographs outside the temples and then we all were brought by Bagyi Gyan to another important site of the compount which is Aung Myay of Queen Sambula. In Myanmar Theravada Buddhist's beliefs, people like to visit Aung Myay where a famous person or a famous monk once succeeded in his resolution and wish in the past. We went up the stairs of the throne or platform of Aung Myay and stood on the slab to wish and make a resolution. The story about this Aung Myay is that Sambula once made a resolution here to renovate old stupas and temples in Thone Pan Hla before she became a queen. When she became the Queen of King Kyan Sit and her wishes were fulfilled, she built Thone Pan Hla Stupa surrounded by seven smaller stupas. At the other side of these red stupas and near western gate, the Aung Myay is there and there is another famous temple outside the brick walls of the compound. That temple is called Pitakat Wahso Teik and the mural paintings of Arhat monks who are paying homage to Buddha, on the concave ceiling of the temple. We walked on the walls to that temple and almost the whole of its exterior was recently renovated, so it seemed to lose some parts of ancient exterior decorations and even some lower parts of mural paintings inside the temple were already lost because of the later paintings of lime. Not only in that temple but also in the other temples, the lower parts were limed by the later people. U Thein Tan, one of my guests, said that they might have been lost perhaps because the later people who came here and stayed in the temples while perceiving eight percepts on Sabbath Days, might probably be leaning against the walls and thus they were faded. He continued to elicit that the paintings were probably made of watery fruits or vegetables and it might be a certain reason why their colour were easily faded years after years. Anyway, it just took a short time to fade them because the later people were less-educated in preserving ancient temples and antiques. Aother reason is that Buddhist people do renovating and rebuilding old stupas or temples as great merits. Thus, they were careless to preserve or renovate them without losing any ancient works that can become a national proof of the ancient times' standards in architecture and of the history.

We were shown the enshrined stuff which were found in renovating, such as broken ornamented smoking pipes in a big tent of trustees. In that tent, the picture of King Kyan Sit and Queen Sambula, a big map of spreading stupas and temples around Thone Pan Hla village and some pictures are hung on. Buddha statues and a red statue of U Wi Sara, the sign of this village and national hero who made a hunger strike over 160 days against British Colonial Government in British Rule and then passed away, were put on a table in the tent. After taking some photos and listening to Bagyi Gyan who was explaining to us about the temples without feeling tired, we walked back to our car. Bagyi Gyan walked along with us and waved his hands to us until our car had already left.

We passed through Tone Pan Hla village and saw other ancient stupas in different sizes and shapes. We passed a pond under big trees and people playing caneball nearby. In the center of the village, we passed a library named after U Wisara. Since we hadn't got much time and were going on to Pareinma Village, the native village of King Kyan Sit, in Myaung Township, we didn't go to any other temples. About at 1.00 pm in the afternoon, we said goodbye to Second Bagan where is rich of spreading historic temples and stupas covered by bushes. We learned that there are 132 stupas and temples, so I made a decision to visit Thone Pan Hla again very soon to look at more stupas and temples and study more about history of Second Bagan, our township's pride.

Anyway, I felt I was told a message by Thone Pan Hla that everything is Anicca (meaning 'impermanent' or 'not stable') according to Buddha's Dhamma. Thone Pan Hla was telling me that we have faced a lot of changes by time and reminding me not to forget this phenomenon. It had been a big city which its people commercially communicated with the people of the great Bagan Kingdom. It had been a city where dukes governed. Today, it becomes just a village but it still owns a great dignity in history.

We continued to Parein Ma, the native village of King Kyan Sit, where there also had a communication with Thone Pan Hla."


Friday, 22 September 2017

The Sagaing Hills: A Perfect Antidote to Civilization and Privilege

The Meditator's Guide to Burma, Part 2, is due out soon! Nearly four times as big as Part 1 and the result of nearly five years of intensive work by a team of volunteers, it will function as a kind of Lonely Planet's guide to the Golden Land... but specifically for those spiritual practitioners who wish to develop in Dhamma. Following is a draft from the Sagaing Hills chapter, which would be included in a potential Part 3-- but unfortunately, no work is happening currently as there is not sufficient financial support to sustain the project. This section introduces the Sagaing Hills before describing some specific site history. 

"The monks of 150-200 years ago were especially attracted to the ravines and hilltops of this remote region of the Sagging Hills, in sharp contrast to the congested, flat lowlands around Mandalay Hill they were leaving behind. Some took to criticizing some Mandalay monastics for their laziness or laxness in adherence to Vinaya, and saw in the promise of a simple life in the Hills the perfect antidote to the adverse pull of modern civilization, and privilege.

Given the wild nature of Sagaing in those days, forest monks were left to their own devices in finding a place to reside and practice. Caves were the shelter of choice for many. However, because there are few natural cave systems in the Sagaing Hills, forest monks had to hew many hundreds of make-shift enclosures out of hillsides or cliffs. Enough fresh water to sustain them was available either from collecting rainwater or a walk to the river, depending on how far away the monastic decided to set up camp.

Ironically, civilization followed these seekers of solitude. Over time, small settlements of lay communities slowly grew around these pioneering monks, which themselves turned into villages. Monks intent on complete solitude could, of course, venture deeper into the hills, where the dense forest and hilly terrain made it possible to live in near-total seclusion even in fairly close proximity to lay supporters. Indeed, the many winding, narrow hill paths throughout the Sagaing Hills have likely been used by countless monks on alms round."

Saturday, 26 August 2017

A walk back to the history of Vipassana in Burma

The following post is taken from the blog section of Myanmar Pilgrimage. It describes a special new pilgrimage being offered in Myanmar this winter that will tour 14 distinct regions connected to the lineage of S.N. Goenka, and in which all overnights will be at monasteries. 




"Experiencing the Dhamma riches of Burma can forever change one's life and one's practice, and can bring a unique sense of inspiration and appreciation that is never forgotten. And then later, sharing one's experiences with one's home meditator community, after returning, can further motivate even those who have never been to the Golden Land! For this reason, one of the goals of Myanmar Pilgrimage is to make these special sites accessible to as many people as possible.

However, this is made challenging by the fact that Myanmar has become the most expensive tourist destination of Southeast Asia, with prices over 20% higher than neighboring Thailand. For meditators who wish to see the special Dhammic sites of the Golden Land, this cost increase makes travel more challenging. And as many meditators have consciously chosen less materialistic lives, and to choose a simple life over a busier one that may yield a higher income, it can be difficult for many meditators to afford these soaring Myanmar prices.

For this reason, Myanmar Pilgrimage has developed a Dhamma tour that stays entirely at Buddhist monasteries. In addition to making it more affordable for a greater number of people, it has the added, and perhaps more important advantage, of allowing the pilgrim to stay wholly in a Dhamma environment for the entire duration of the trip. From the early morning gongs waking up the monks, to lining into the Dhamma Hall after the monastics have eaten, to evening meditation sittings conducted with Pali chanting in the background and followed by translated Dhamma talks and Q&A with senior monks, this holistic experience allows the foreign meditator to get a glimpse of the Burma-Dhamma as very few newcomers to the country can penetrate.

Exploring the Lineage: Monastic Stay is a pilgrimage that will take place from November 24-December 10, 2017. Only limited space is available, and it is first-come, first-serve. The pilgrimage will visit 14 distinct sites connected to the four main figures in the S.N. Goenka lineage. Informative talks will discuss the history and background of each place, and we will meditate together at the special sites we visit. The pilgrimage is the result of nearly five years of research, and many of the sites included have only very rarely been visited by the foreign meditator before.

Go here to learn more about this pilgrimage."

Thursday, 24 August 2017

"Myanmar Pilgrimage" to Offer Dhamma Tours of the Golden Land


Myanmar Pilgrimage will begin offering Dhamma tours of the Golden Land from Winter 2017-18. As its co-founders and several of its lead guides come from the volunteer Shwe Lan Ga Lay ("The Golden Path") project, the pilgrimages will lead meditators to many off-the-beaten track monasteries, pagodas, caves, and other important Buddhist sites throughout the country, and feature comprehensive information and historical background about them. Their Facebook page can be found here.

One of the pilgrimages will explore the sites (14 different regions in total) related to the lineage of S.N. Goenka, and to increase the Dhamma atmosphere, all nights of this 17-day pilgrimage will be spent at Buddhist monasteries. The American monk Bhikkhu Obhasa will also be joining this trip as a special guest. (Another pilgrimage will follow the same schedule but stay mostly in hotels.)

Myanmar Pilgrimage warns potential travelers that a pilgrimage is not a touristy trip. In its own words:

"Prospective travelers should keep in mind that a pilgrimage is different than a tourist trip or backpacking. The intent is not merely to see exotic sites, take photographs, and buy souvenirs, but also to appreciate Burmese Buddhist culture and most importantly, to grow in the Dhamma, or the teachings of the Buddha. If more interested in a standard tourist package, we recommend going with a more conventional Myanmar tourist agency. For those wishing to grow spiritually and experience the way that Myanmar society follows the Buddha's teachings, we welcome you."

 Elsewhere, in describing its mission, Myanmar Pilgrimage writes:

"All tourists are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the tours we offer to ensure a right fit with their expectations and reasons for visiting Myanmar. Those interested in a more conventional tourist experience, with a greater focus on shopping or following the standard traveler route, may want to consider other providers."

Saturday, 19 August 2017

The Meditation Movement in Burma

Why did the patipatti (meditation) movement take off in Burma's postwar era? The Golden Path has tackled this question, and has discovered over 20 factors leading to the conditions where this not only could grow, but thrive. The following excerpt is taken from an unpublished draft, which would be included in the meditator's guide Part 3. (However, with minimal dana now available past Part 2, and given that the volition to ultimately share all works freely to all, it is unlikely this will reach publication, unless further support is forthcoming.)




One theory relates to the powerful experience of surviving the brutal war years. Such a period allowed some of the great future teachers to spend more time in meditation, and both during and immediately following the war many thousands of lay people were pushed from their home and found refuge in the monasteries. Author U Tin Oo notes that many Burmese fled to the Sagaing Hills during World War II, where they began a vipassanā practice that was maintained well after the fighting subsided. The same has been said of the vast Buddhist communities that the Mohnyin Sayadaw cared for at Thanboddhay Monastery. And even Mahasi Sayadaw himself saw his development and teachings affected by his experiences during the way. At this time, he had to leave Taungwainggale and return to his native village of Seikkhun, for it was safer. While here he practiced, taught, and wrote his famous Manual of Vipassana Meditation, a comprehensive guide on how to practice according to the Satipattana Sutta.

However, yet another factor seems to directly contradict this. Rather than seeing the hard times of the war as guiding people to concentrate on what was really important, Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka instead felt instead that they led to an opposite result. In Autobiogrgahy, he wrote that “[m]orality became too low after the war among both young and old people. The government commissioned a committee to give Buddhist lessons at school to check this moral deterioration.” U Silananda seems to bridge these two views in discussing his opinions on how the war affected morality. He writes: “World War II had caused to upset the living conditions of many a people in one way or another. Just as the people who were originally seemingly delicate, mild and soft-hearted in nature had joined the tough army as impulsed by their intense patriotism; there were some who had entered into monkhood being fed up with their own’ life’s condition.” 

Objective reporting certainly backs up U Janaka’s observations, as the rise in dacoits at this time in Burma was well documented—however, others made a political argument to account for this, and that it was more due to a weak central government than the overall morals of people. In any case, in U Janaka’s view, this decline began many years before, stemming from the Colonial Era, and only peaked after the war years. For this reason, he fully supported the idea of the Buddhist Revival, commenting that “State and Religion would have a perfect coordination to work out the progress of the State as well as the Religion.” With such low morality amongst the people, he compared the work ahead with that of King Anawrahta and Shin Arahan one thousand years earlier when Theravada Buddhism was established in the country. In this way, the rise of the patipatti movement could be seen as a kind of state-orchestrated policy accomplished with the cooperation of renowned monks, and having been motivated by the decline of the faith and morality that had been building for decades, and culminated only now.

Sagaing: the Hidden Treasure of the Golden Land


“After the return to Australia I found out that for a Buddhist to go to the Sagaing Hills is something like a Moslem going to Mecca, and when I casually mentioned to an Australian Buddhist who had been in Burma that I had stayed there, I could almost feel the halo growing round my head.” Marie Byles, Journey Into Burmese Silence

It’s difficult to overstate the majesty and wonder of the Sagaing Hills (The name “Sagaing” actually denotes three different things: the largest division in the country extending from Mandalay to the northwest; the town of Sagaing; and the Sagaing Hills. This chapter is concerned with the latter two.). And for the yogi intent on Burmese Buddhist practice, there are few—if any—places that compare. For yogis who have never been to Burma but have heard about the country from the lips of Dhamma friends or books by Burmese Sayadaws from another era, Sagaing may come the closest to approximating the image one had formed. More than one meditator has been known to remark, “Ah… this is Burma!” after spending time in the Sagaing Hills.

From almost the moment one leaves the dusty lanes of the downtown Sagaing for the rarefied air of the Hills, one enters the stillness and quiet of winding forest paths, past countless caves, kutis, monasteries, pagodas, shrines, Dhamma halls, monuments, and water stands. It brings a sense of calm to the heart. And like with Shwedagon Pagoda, even if a person is just passing at a distance, he/she often bows in veneration towards the pagoda-covered hills.

In Colorful Myanmar, Khin Myo Chit writes, “Of the first things I learned about pagodas, nothing had to do with the intellectual side of Buddhism, but all was full of colour and romance. Once, while we were crossing the river from Mandalay to Sagaing in a small flat-bottomed boat, we headed towards the long dark range of thickly wooded hills, crested with shining pagodas, and the tinkling bells from their htis chimed welcome to us. Colonnaded stairways zig-zagged through the flowering foliages. They looked so inviting that I could hardly wait to run up the steps and reach the pagodas there.”

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Coming Soon: "Myanmar Pilgrimage"

A pilgrimage is different than other trips. It is not backpacking, sightseeing, or a typical package tour. As the famous religious scholar Huston Smith once commented, "The object of pilgrimage is not rest and recreation or to get away from it all. To set out on a pilgrimage is to throw down a challenge to everyday life."



Saturday, 22 July 2017

Mornings in Myanmar


Morning starts early in rural Myanmar. Since Burmese culture is very much grounded in the rhythms of monastic life, lay households are often up before dawn, sometimes as early as 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. For some rural villages, that happens by means of a kaladet (ကုလားတက္), a hollowed log beaten like a drum. Translated literally, kaladet means “foreigners invade” (while the origins of the word kala refer to Indians, it can also be used as a kind of a catch-all word for any foreigners). This was used during the Anglo-Burmese wars to warn the nearby population when foreign troops were on the march. Today kaladet are used for more peaceful purposes, most often to announce meal times at monasteries, though they can also be used in case of an emergency, such as a fire. Kaladet tends to be more of a Mandalay term, while in Yangon it may be known as a tone-maung (တံုုးေမာင္း). A similar but larger instrument is known as an on-maung (အုုန္းေမာင္း). A kyae see (ေႀကးစည္) is a flat, triangular-shaped or round gong without any middle bulge, and makes a similar sound. The kyae see is often used to announce a merit accrued or to invite people to join a meritorious activity, thus villagers can be heard crying out “sadhu” three times following the kyae see sound. In the past, some of these noisemakers were also used for spreading news within communities, but this is not the case anymore.


The housewife or daughter often begins to prepare the rice and curries that will be donated in several hours time for the monks’ alms rounds. Other morning activities may include going to the home shrine room to pay respects, meditating, reciting the parittas, and taking the precepts. Some leave early for the market to set up their wares. Burmese farmers have dawn-to-dusk, work-filled days, like farmers all over the world; their breakfast is often a fast and simple affair.
As the morning wears on, the day starts heating up, slightly and gradually in the cool season…and in the hot season, quickly, drastically, and with little mercy! Daniel Isaac Combs captures some of the early-morning routine during the hot season in Sorcerers and Cigarettes when he writes, “Every morning, shop owners would perform a ritual cleansing of the area outside, sweeping away the trash and then pouring buckets of water all over the dirt in an attempt to limit the choking dust storm that would come midday when people traipsed over the baked copper-colored sand. The seemingly futile practice had a patient, steady quality to it, a sense of inevitability—it’s not going to get any better, but we can keep it from getting too much worse.”

A shift of energy occurs around 11:00 a.m., when monastics are offered their last meal of the day. While this is more obvious in areas rich with monasteries, the passing of the noon hour can be felt everywhere in subtle ways, because awareness of the Vinaya pervades Burmese life. Long-distance buses with monastic passengers may ensure that they stop before noon, lay supporters may take time to serve monks during this hour, and monastics will rarely be seen in public around this time. Perhaps not coincidentally, lunch in Burma is the big meal of the day, for the food must sustain its community of monastics until the following dawn. In village areas near strict monasteries, laypeople feed monks only once per day, when the monks walk for an early alms round. But such strict monasteries are relatively uncommon today.

Friday, 7 July 2017

The Death of Ledi Sayadaw




Ledi Sayadaw spent the last two years of his life at Zingyan monastery in Pyinmana. U Sarana explains that the Burmese term Zingyan (စႀကၤံ) is derived from the Pāḷi word cankamana, which means “walking up and down.” The Buddha’s doctor, Jīvaka Komārabhacca, recommended walking as a way to maintain health, and the Buddha acknowledged the value of this advice by suggesting that monks use special paths for walking meditation (from the Mahāvagga, the third book of Vinaya Piṭaka). In Burmese, the term “zingyan” often refers to a place where walking meditation is practiced, so it may indicate Ledi's dhamma practice at that time. By then, however, he had gone completely blind, the result of so many years of reading and writing in poorly lit places.

In 1923, the day before a full moon, a strong earthquake rocked the region, and the monastery trembled. Ledi lay on his bed and explained to his students that this was in fact a request from the devas that he teach them the Abhidhamma in the Celestial Realms, suggesting that the human realm had already benefited adequately from his years of guidance. After a second earthquake occurred the following day, Ledi instructed his top disciples to recite the Mahāpaṭṭhāna (Pañhāvāra Pāli) from the Abhidhamma, since it was now his time to depart the human realm entirely. The moment the recitation finished, at 2:30 p.m., Ledi passed away. He was 76 years old. Apparently his death was partly due to accidental poisoning from a laxative herb by a visiting Thai monk, who fled in terror when he realized what had happened.

The photograph shows an American meditator standing before the central Buddha image at Ledi Sayadaw's forest monastery in Monywa. 

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Meditation under Ledi Sayadaw: Hiding in Plain Sight All Along!



Ledi Sayadaw was certainly endowed with enormous dynamism and intellect, and an ability to think outside the box. He saw opportunities and possibilities where others did not. Specifically, he broadened people’s understanding of what was allowable within the scripture regarding spiritual development. From our present vantage point, where there is now such open and widespread access to Buddhist meditation, it is a given that insight practice is possible even for householders with full lives; they do not need to cultivate a base of very deep absorption, or commit to taking robes and renouncing the world. While this had scarcely even been acknowledged as a theoretical possibility before Ledi, he taught that householders could cultivate bhāvanā, and that justification for this (at that time) radical perspective had actually been hiding in plain sight all along, in the scriptures and other works such, as the Visuddhimagga.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The White Scarf and Burmese Meditation



Marie Byles records that at exactly 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, something curious happened at the Maha Bodhi meditation center in Mandalay. “U Thein placed a white scarf over my shoulders, saying that I was now a Yogi and should always wear the scarf when meditating.” Her description almost seems to imply that the presentation and donning of the white scarf was symbolic of a formal, spiritual transformation, not dissimilar to a monk’s taking of saffron robes during an ordination ceremony.

Looking through the lens of Buddhist history, U Sarana notes that references to white garb are found frequently throughout the Pāḷi scriptures, occurring in all five nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka (including thirty-nine times alone in the Majjhima Nikaya). In the scriptures, white is associated with purity in general, and specifically can mean that one is following eight or ten precepts. Interestingly, Saya U Than recalls how Ledi Sayadaw had instructed Saya Thet Gyi to wear a white scarf once he began teaching meditation. Sayadaw U Vajirapani, one of the most senior students of the famous Tipiṭakadhara Yaw Sayadaw, noted that Ledi was adhering to the scriptural reference of seta paribajaka, or “white recluse,” (Also written as setavattha paribbājaka. More information is available in the Khuddakavatthukkhandhakaṃ, from the Vinaya Pitaka.) as well as odata vasana gihi, meaning “person clothed in white.” U Vajirapani suggests that Ledi reduced the practice of wearing entire white garments down to a plain white scarf, asking lay yogis to wear it when they came to the forest to learn Dhamma from him, and then the custom was carried over when meditation-oriented monasteries came to be established in later years. Photos of white scarves from the early 20th century show them as being much larger than merely covering the neck or acting as a kind of sash, as it is worn today, suggesting that it has since been reduced further in size.



 Then, U Ko Lay describes that when U Ba Khin was learning under Saya Thet Gyi, Saya Thet became pleased with his student’s meditation progress, and advised him “to sit in mental culture for seven days, and to wear a white cloth around his shoulders.” Later, when Webu Sayadaw encouraged U Ba Khin to spread the Dhamma, he is reported to have said, “Give [the lay practitioners] a method. Give him the teaching as a layman after having changed to wearing a white cloth.” Later on, many yogis at the International Meditation Center took up the practice of wearing a white shawl. The practice of the white scarf is not very common in meditation centers and monasteries in Myanmar today. However, in other Buddhist countries (such as Sri Lanka and Thailand), some monasteries continue to require a fully white garb for meditation courses and other ceremonies, as do some organized pilgrimages.


Saturday, 24 June 2017

Who is a Meditator?


Thanks to Phillip Harbor for the photograph.

The common, contemporary term used by Dhamma practitioners in non-Buddhist countries is “meditator.” However, the way the word “meditator” is used outside of Burmese culture (i.e., as someone whose identity is implicitly connected to their meditation practice) has no exact equivalent inside Myanmar. While many Burmese do meditate, in Burmese Buddhist culture, meditation practice is rarely seen as being a totally separate activity from the rest of one’s overall dedication to the Buddha’s teachings. Rather, it is viewed as but one key component of the Buddhist path. Thus asking a devout Burmese if he or she is a “meditator” as a term of self-identification can lead to some confusion, since meditation is understood as but one of many ways that one must develop in the Buddha’s teachings.

The closest Burmese term for the English word “meditator” may be tayar shu hmat thu (တရားရႈမွတ္သူ); however, this term connotes someone currently engaged in sitting meditation, “in the now.” Thus, if one were to use this term to describe oneself, then one would by definition have ceased the formal act of meditation, rendering the term inoperable!

Another possibility is “vipassanā student,” which names the specific meditation in which many Buddha-Dhamma/Buddha-Sāsana practitioners engage; however, again looking from the outside-in, “vipassanā student” doesn’t work for the same reason as “meditator.” Neither term captures the dynamic, full sense in which the Buddha’s teachings are understood and practiced in Myanmar, which is not just formal meditation. Also, neither word has a true, meaningful Burmese equivalent.

“Dhammist” is a more recent attempt to address this conundrum. While “Buddhist” comes from “Buddha,” “Dhammist” is a derivation of “Dhamma,” taking its cue from the second rather than the first of the three Triple Gems. Looking from the outside-in, not only is this not a commonly used term by many foreign practitioners, but Burmese also do not have any exact equivalent in their own language. After all, many Burmese looking to convey the same meaning as “Dhammist” in English would simply fall back on the standard... “Buddhist”! (while Burmese do use the term “Buddha-Dhamma,” it is not a label of self-identification, but rather describes the overall practice and doctrine. Again, in terms of identifying terms within their own language, Burmese Buddhists most often describe the practitioner’s proximity to the Sāsana, and a profusion of words and terms may be used depending on one’s practice, gender, attainment, renunciation and precepts.) 


Some might further modify it as “true Buddhist,” “real Buddhist,” or would flesh out the definition as has been seen in some of the English statements by Sayagyi U Ba Khin. And, One also cannot dismiss the impact of a second language when discussing possible English terms used by Burmese (and vice versa).

Monday, 12 June 2017

The 8th Ledi Sayadaw and S.N. Goenka: A Meeting of Cousins



Just as students in the tradition of Sayagyi U Goenka come from around the world to pay respects to Ledi Sayadaw, so also have the heads of these traditions remained close over the years. Some years ago, when U Goenka was in the country, the Eighth Ledi Sayadaw invited him to visit Monywa, but he had to decline due to previous commitments. However, the 80-year-old sayadaw was so keen to meet him that he arranged for his own trip to the Sagaing Hills, where the lay meditation master was staying. Ultimately, two of the monk’s disciples carried him up a flight of stairs to the second floor, where the meeting took place. The sayadaw expressed his joy that Ledi Sayadaw’s teachings had not only reached India, but had continued to spread around the world. He gave his blessings to U Goenka to continue his good work. The Ninth Ledi Sayadaw also met with U Goenka at Shwe Taung Oo Pagoda, where he was carried up in a palanquin.

The meeting is commemorated by this two-framed photo display, depicting Goenkaji's visit to Monywa, and which hangs in the building where Ledi Sayadaw practiced walking meditation. Once a remote forest monastery, it is now in the center of an urban area of Monywa.