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.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Myanmar Dhamma coming to Europe - a unique opporunity!

European meditators will have the unique opportunity to meet Venerable Thabarwa Sayadaw Ashin Ottamasara during his Europe Dhamma tour this year in August. 

Sayadaw Ottamasara founded Thabarwa Meditation Center in Thanlyin in 2008, which has since grown into a large Meditation and Caring Center with over 3000 temporary and permanent residents. The Center is becoming increasingly popular also among foreign yogis and travellers, as hundreds of foreigners are living and volunteering in Thabarwa Center all year round and benefiting from doing good deeds of service, observing precepts and meditation.

Since a few years Sayadaw Ottamasara has been invited by his foreign devotees to their home countries to give dhamma talks and meditation retreats for the benefit of those who can't come to recieve Dhamma in Myanmar. Sayadaw has thus been teaching in Vietnam, Australia, UK and Italy.

In August a tour around Europe is planned for Sayadaw along with another monk, 2 nuns and an italian yogi. They will be giving a retreat in Lithuania from 5-10th August, then passing trough Germany and Switzerland/Austria (10-18th) and be staying in Italy around Milano/Novi Ligure 18-28th August.

All who wish can support Sayadaw's trip with donations to cover the expenses of transportation, food, lodging, visa and other logistics.

However meditators located in Europe have the unique opportunity to offer Sayadaw and his supporters one or several meals, help them with accomodation or transport, and even to invite them to their home region and arrange for a Dhamma talk or retreat.

The retreat in Italy is planned to be held from 18-28th August but a local group of meditators is still trying to find a place to rent for residential retreat in the area Milano or Novi Ligure. Any help in this search is greatly appreciated.

Plannings are still in progress so anyone interested in being involved with Thabarwa Sayadaw's Dhamma Tour can contact Sayalay Khema Cari, an italian nun living at Thabarwa center who will be accompanying Sayadaw on his tour.

May all beings be happy and share the merits of this tour.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Saya Thet Gyi's Method, in Mandalay

This 31-acre site got its name from the sapling of a Bodhi tree that was brought from Bodhgaya in the 19th century. The whole area, in fact, has been known as Bodhigone, or literally “Bodhi table.” This refers to the physical base on which a Bodhi tree is placed or from which it grows, and can also be used metaphorically. Even though the original tree is no longer here, the name remains.

Today Secretary U Win Maung is one of Maha Bodhi’s primary lay supporters. He recalled coming here regularly as a young man and learning under Saya U Thein directly. Upon returning from an extended stay in Singapore to find parts of the center left unattended, he made it his life’s mission to oversee much-needed renovations here. Bhaddanta Karunika Bivantha is the primary meditation instructor here. He spent thirty years learning under Saya U Than, another of Saya Thet Gyi’s important disciples, and today teaches in the tradition of his guru.

The daily meditation regimen consists of eight one-hour sittings, with a 30-minute break between. The sayadaw joins the meditators for three sittings daily. Anāpāna is taught according to the four stages of the First Tetrad as described by Ledi Sayadaw (in brief, these are: (1) establishing mindfulness, (2) knowing if the breath is long or short, (3) feeling the whole breath, and (4) becoming peaceful within calm observance.), and Bhaddanta Karunika Bivantha teaches that the student must pass through all four stages before moving to vipassanā. Practically speaking, yogis often follow anāpāna for the first four days of a 7-day course and switch to vipassanā during the final three days. Concerning the kind of vipassanā practiced here, Bhaddanta Karunika Bivantha instructs yogis to become distinctly aware of vedanā and how it is constantly changing. Once the yogi understands that vedanā is anicca, he says, then one can move on to observing the four elements.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

"Nothing But Nothing Should Be Taken at Face Value.”

In the same way that the notion of "face" can blend into the cultural trait of indirect communication, both of those together blend into the Burmese cultural concept of anar, which is a broader notion still. In fact, the characteristics of exactly what makes and goes into anar may be untranslatable outside of Burmese culture, where it is viewed as something of a national trait. Although anar can take years of living in Burmese society to fully understand, it is a very important quality for foreign yogis to try to at least begin to be cognizant of, since it will color nearly all interactions while in Myanmar in some way.

At its core, anar is a feeling of not wanting to impose on, or cause a strain in others, avoiding embarrassing them in any way, perhaps defined broadly as a constant attention to another’s state of mind. Chit San Win attempted to describe it in Myanmar Family, writing that anar means to feel shame in “expos[ing] other’s wrongdoings, willing to give things whenever asked for by others, acceding to someone’s request, and reluctant to go against someone.” Ma Thanegi explains it this way: “Feeling anar deh means feeling reluctant to take advantage of, to offend or to upset the other person…which means not saying no to an impossible request, or telling you what they think you want to hear because doing otherwise would just be too rude. In the same way they would agree with you even if they don't.” She then further emphasizes the role of indirect communication in anar by adding, “The locals have been used to this issue practically since birth, so they have learned to read the signs about the true state of things through facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc., of each other. Due to this very strong culture trait, nothing but nothing should be taken at face value.”

Anar is a major component of the cultural glue that governs the parameters of general, social interactions, used between people where there is some degree of social distance (that is, age, rank, etc). But it is not as much of a feature of genuine, personal relationships, when people truly know each other well, such as between and among family members and close friends. 

Ma Thanegi remarks, “With close friends or school mates or cousins, I feel no anar because it sort of implies I am treating them like strangers and keeping them at a distance, which makes them mad. Among close friends—and we Burmese tend to have lots of them—a quick ‘thanks’ is okay.” She also notes that in the West, it’s less common to have such a large circle of what-are-considered close friends. Moreover, Burmese friendships are so strong that, in her words, “we can swear at each other, borrow their clothes, disturb them at midnight, ask favors any time of day or night, drop in at their homes any time or at their work place, drag them off from work to have tea, etc. At government offices we drag off friends working there to go with us to teashops or book browsing or even movies etc.” Although, new friends who one meets may feel anar until they know one well enough to sense what will or will not offend.

Many Burmese extend this concept of anar and modesty to meditation attainments as well. The possible powers some monks purportedly attain are treated respectfully but ambiguously in much of the literature, as well as in the ways people refer to them. Of course, it goes without saying that openly referring to one’s own progress on the path would tend to negate one’s words! U Mya Thaung relates an anecdote recorded in the Shwegyin Nikaya Sasana that the famous, 19th century forest monk, Thilon Sayadaw, was suspected of having developed abhiññā, or supernatural powers. The document neither admits nor denies this fact, noting, “The wise tend to keep things to themselves.” Therefore, it is considered very bad form to praise oneself in either the worldly or spiritual sphere.