Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Shwebo: A Place of Resistance and Dhamma


Some of the royal forces’ best fighting men hailed from the Mu Valley, particularly the old districts of Hladau, Tabayin, Tazfe, and Ye-O. Soldiers from this region were distinguished by a special vermillion tattoo on the small of their back. Given this history, it was not surprising that some of the last skirmishes between colonial troops and the Burmese resistance took place in the Shwebo area after the Burmese king was deposed in 1885.

One Shwebo-born rebel was the infamous long-haired U Yit, who had served the king and then fought the British after annexation. Seeing that further resistance was futile, he fled to Tadahgalay Village with his Shan wife. The area was at that time a dense jungle that they had to clear in order to farm (and which by now has morphed into Insein, an urbanized suburb of Yangon). So many Shwebo rebels settled here that for a time the area was called Shwebosu. U Yit lived to be over 100 years old, ultimately becoming better known the beloved grandfather and role model of the future Sayadaw U Pandita, the famous Mahasi disciple, than for his resistance exploits.

In the years that followed the king’s removal, dacoit gangs roamed the land, prompting the colonial government to engage in extensive “pacification” campaigns here. While the old British Gymkhana Club in Shwebo is no more, there is a small British War Cemetery honoring soldiers killed in these battles.

Spiritual striving and worldly gain often appear on opposite sides of the spectrum, but this is certainly not the case at Aung Myay Monastery. Its name translated means “Ground of Victory,” and refers to an episode connected to King Alaungpaya. (This is aung myay. Bate Mann refers to a religious building or holy place. Throughout history, other kings have proclaimed their own “Ground of Victory,” but this one associated with King Alaungpaya is one of the more famous in the country. In contemporary Myanmar, Burmese may declare their own “Ground of Victory” to motivate themselves in accomplishing a difficult task.) 

Long before ascending the throne, he passed this spot as a simple village hunter, afterwards claiming that he saw a frog eating a snake and deer chasing away a tiger there. Modern monastery artwork depicts this scene. U Sarana suspects that whatever King Alaungpaya actually saw was repackaged to evoke Jātaka Tale 77, in which King Kosala saw this identical scene as one of 16 symbolic dreams. The Buddha interpreted this as illustrating the perverse character of distant future times, when the less skillful would rule. In later years during the colonial period, some Burmese would interpret British rule and the country’s attendant social breakdown as fulfilling that prophesy. The Burmese typically learn about King Kosala’s dreams as children, so this land, the pre-colonial Burmese past, and this particular Jātaka Tale are culurally linked together in a powerful, symbolic resonance. Many years later when he was preparing for war against a stronger foe, he chose this auspicious spot as his “Victory Spot” because he had twice witnessed a weaker animal conquering a stronger one.

When the British annexed the country, they recognized the symbolism of this patch of ground, and that it represented past Bamar military might and nationalism. So they tried to deliberately render the grounds inauspicious, first by hanging prisoners there and then by converting the entire area into a British cemetery.

This British posturing evidently did little to dissuade Webu Sayadaw, however, as he decided to establish his third monastery here in 1940, eventually spending his Rains Retreats here after the invitation from a female doctor from Rakhine State who was concerned about his poor health. The compound spans thirty-two acres, with an inner, perimeter track that is a nice way to get a feel for the grounds. These dirt paths run parallel to an ancient wall and pass by some neighboring communities living just outside the monastery.

The photo shows the Victory Spot of Webu Sayadaw today.