Friday, 27 September 2019

Chinese tourists at Maha Gandayone Monastery

The Irrawaddy posted a story about Chinese tourists behaving poorly in Myanmar, especially in monastic settings. The article starts with this description:

Mahagandhayon monastery in Mandalay Region is one of Myanmar’s most prominent monastic colleges. Well known for its adherence to the Buddhist monastic codes, every year it attracts thousands of tourists eager to glimpse the peaceful monastic life of the more than 1,500 monks who reside and study Buddhist teachings there.
For visiting tourists, the monastery’s main attraction is the sight of hundreds of barefoot, downcast monks silently lining up to accept late morning meals offered by donors. Witnessing the ritual imparts a sense of tranquility and is a deeply moving experience for many onlookers. Mahagandhayon is also famous for its strict religious discipline. 
But the monastery’s tranquility was shattered one morning in early January this year when a group of visiting Chinese tourists quarreled loudly as they competed for the best place to take pictures of the monks. The argument sparked an uproar at the monastery, and tourist guides had to lead the tourists out of the compound. 
The Chinese tourists’ behavior forced the monastery to post instructions in Chinese on its walls, telling visitors not to enter prohibited places like dining halls, not to drink alcohol and not to engage in arguments inside the monastery compound. 

Most [foreign] tourists follow the rules on how they should behave while they are observing the peaceful monastery life here. But the Chinese do not,” U Nyein Kyaw Kyaw Win, a member of the Mandalay Tourist Guide Association’s executive committee, told The Irrawaddy. 

The tour guide, who caters to Chinese travelers, complained that most of his clients rarely follow the rules, such as taking off their shoes at pagodas. “We warn women not to wear shorts when visiting religious sites, but they ignore us,” he said. 

Myanmar society still mostly adheres to well-established dress codes, particularly regarding skirt length for women. In religious buildings, the knees and shoulders should be covered, and it is customary to remove one’s shoes. 

“It’s so annoying,” U Nyein Kyaw Kyaw Win added, referring to the offensive behavior he’s observed by many Chinese travelers.

While the level of carelessness on the part of Chinese tourists may exceed the typical Westerner, it's important to remind the reader that the "discovery" of Maha Gandayone did come with the Western visitor. Following is what the Meditator's Guide draft writes about the site:
It was noted that foreigners also came to study in the early days at Mahāgandhayon, and initially at least, it was a beneficial exchange. The sayadaw remembered how “[m]any foreigners came and talked with me. They looked around and said that they were quite pleased with everything they found here.” One Korean monk during this time was so moved that he commented, “This place is an ideal for monks and we hate to leave it. It is sad that we were not born here. We hope to gain mettā and hope to become this Venerable Monk’s disciple and pray that we reach Nirvāṇa together.”

Unfortunately, the monastery has today ended up on the backpacker trail, with large tour buses showing up and treating the grounds like a cross between a museum and an amusement park, freely snapping photos without regard for its monastic residents. Given the thousands of monasteries across Myanmar, it is uncertain how this one in particular got its unwanted reputation among foreign visitors. Ironically, Daw Onmar suggests it may have partly been brought on by Burmese themselves, who were so proud of the monastery’s Vinaya discipline that they touted it to “show off” to visiting foreigners…which ultimately led to the unintended consequences seen today, since so few tourists understand or appreciate Vinaya. Daw Onmar feels that if Webu Sayadaw and U Janakabhivaṃsa were alive today experiencing this, the former would “run away” to a more secluded spot, while the latter would stand up and address the issue head-on. Nearly one-hundred foreign visitors may come in a single day. Few tourists understand basic monastic discipline; many do not dress appropriately and wander freely about, leading to a 2015 CNN article comparing the monastery to a human zoo titled, “Hey Tourists, Leave Them Monks Alone!”

The biggest crush usually hits around 10:00 a.m., when tourists flock in to watch the monks take their meals. Sadly, while the monks are trying to eat mindfully as a part of their practice, visitors jostle for position and strain to record the “exotic scene.” There are even several package tour groups that organize visits here just for aspiring photographers hoping to catch iconic scenes at Buddhist monasteries. This is especially ironic for a monastery that once had signs posted throughout their eating halls reminding their novices, “Only if you can donate your life above the age of fifteen to Lord Buddha may you stay here.” That was the commitment that U Janakabhivaṃsa expected of anyone who sought entry.
Across Southeast Asia, treating monasticism as an exotic custom to encounter and photograph is almost de rigueur on the tourist circuit. And even when some tourists do try to involve themselves in traditional monastic customs, the results are not always beneficial for either side. For example, some Thai and Laotian abbots have complained about vendors selling poor-quality, packaged foods to tourists, ready-made to “donate” to monks on alms rounds. Moreover, tour guides are known to bring their groups to areas where monks seek alms, often creating a carnival-like atmosphere that sidesteps (and perhaps even undermines) the tradition of cooking and offering fresh food.

The hope, of course, is that, as tourism to Myanmar grows, at least some tourists will give food donations in a less tacky and intrusive manner, and that some food venders will provide less expensive but more wholesome food.

The schiziophrenia of the modern Western world’s relationship to traditional Buddhist sites and practices can be seen playing out at Mahāgandhayon in real time. For example, the 2009 edition of Lonely Planet recommended that backpackers visit the monastery specifically during lunch to watch the monks eat; then, in 2010, they stood by their recommendation but advised against wanton picture taking; and finally, in the 2011 version, they called picture-taking at the monastery “worth avoiding.” In even more descriptive language, LP writers added, “Busloads of tourists arrive to gawk while the whole monastery sits down to eat, their silence pierced by the endless rattle of camera shutters.” In other words, while the “Backpackers’ Bible” is to be commended for its growing awareness, it is now frowning on the very behavior it helped hype only a few short years ago.

But how do the Mahāgandhayon monks regard this increasingly frenetic circus? One response has been to plaster English signs throughout the grounds advising visitors on basic monastic discipline. Tourist access is also restricted within the monastery, with “No Entry!” signs in English hung throughout. Burmese tour guides are often implored to ensure that their foreign visitors are properly attired, but money almost always talks, and often shouts.
But the underlying question is why this is tolerated at all. When asked, some senior monks admitted that they are not so fond of the noise, disruption, and occasional inappropriate behavior; however, as one noted, a commentary on the Mingala Sutta advises that even one who only glimpses the sight of a monk becomes ever so slightly closer to developing a faith in the Dhamma. The resident monk went on to say, “Buddhism is to share, and not to own. Foreigners may come for tourism but still find some happiness while here. The Buddha would also allow this, because the Sāsana is open to all, it is like the moon that everyone sees.” He believed that some foreign visitors may become curious about the Buddha’s teachings as a result of their visit, and in asking may learn something valuable. Such a sentiment is found on the large English sign advising visitors on basic monastic etiquette, where Point No. 9 reads: “We all the monks from this monastery thank for your visit and pray for your happiness and goodwill.”

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