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.