Friday, February 27, 2009

Peculiarities of the Burmese

Our itinerent group has taken two more trips since the last posting without enough time between for me to get a post off. The first was to Taunggyi and Lake Inwa in Shan State. Shan State seems to be the most prosperous in Burma and Taunggyi is very clean. In Burma a vacation trip is a pilgimage and vice versa, since anything worth seeing includes a pagoda as the dominating feature. Near Taunggyi we visited a very deep cave... containing over 8,000 Buddhas. The second trip was to Monywa, the home town of U Maho, the leader of our expedition. We stayed at his old monstery, at which he has recently founded a new grade school. Near Monywa there is what is reported to be the world's largest Buddha: 400 feet high, with stairs and windows all the way up. From Monywa we made an excursion to near the border of India, Kassapa National Park. It is deep in the jungle, and we rode elephants for the last couple of miles. It is reported to be the site of MahaKassapa's (MahaKashyapa's) demise. Kassapa is known for leading the First Council after the Buddha's death, and is also considered to be the second ancestor of the Zen lineage, right after the Buddha.
Let me record a number of impressions I have of the Burmese:
Most Burmese and slender and attractive in appearance. They exhibit a lot of racial variety; you can see Chinese-looking faces, Indian-looking, characteristic Burmese with rounder eyes than the Chinese, and sometimes European characteristics. The women are so attractive, it makes you wonder why there are so many monks (or what I am doing).
Almost all Burmese, men and women, wear longyi, long skirts that wrap around and constantly have to be retied. In wealthier areas a certain proportion of Western-style clothing is found.
Most women and many children wear thanakha on their faces. This is made from a tree bark, protects the skin and is supposed to be cooling. Its color is an off-white. Some women wear it stylishly symmetrically on each cheek, others just cover their whole faces (and bodies, I am told), giving them a ghost-like appearance.
A lot of Burmese, mostly men, young and old, chew betel nuts, which are a mild stimulent. This turns the teeth red, lending a vampire-like appearance to the consumer.
Burmese are very playful and smile a lot. This is even true of people hawking small items at tourist sights. They take their profession as a kind of game and generally feel no resentment when turned away; for instance, they will be glad to give you directions thereafter.
I suppose Westerners are disorganized in their own ways, but it is more noticable in a foreign culture. Schedules change constantly. Some may recall that our group was originally going to embark on our trip from Austin on February 14, then this changed twice. This seems to be quite normal here. For instance, I have been scheduled to ordain on March 5 for some time now, right between two other events. Now I notice that the two events have been merged without notification (I don't know what that means for international travelers to the second event who have already made travel arrangement). Another thing I observe constantly is that no one seems to paint a wall or ceiling without dribbling paint on the floor. Sometimes beautiful wood or marble floors are impaired by this. I am not sure what they are thinking; they do have newspapers here.
People tolerate and feed cats and dogs, which are abundant, but rarely claim ownership of are particularly fond of these animals. One reason, it occurs to me, might be that monks provide an outlet for their affection, and may be even more good natured and loyal.
The hardest thing for me to understand is that people seem to be completely insensitive to noise. Americans get mad when a neighbor plays the stereo too loud or too late. To the Burmese this seems to be a kind of offering; they even set loudspeakers outside for the benefit of their neighbors, full blast, and this can be any time, even at 3:30 in the morning. People just don't seem to care. Buddhist temples often plan Pali chants full blast, sometimes throughout the night. Weird.
People seem to have a completely different sense of personal space than we. Their houses tend to open directly to the outside. They don't care if people peek in on them. On tours of hospitals we have been surprised at the places we were allowed to visit. Men have a lot of freedom to wear as little as possible, and often bathe outside. Monks too. Women always maintain a high degree of modesty, even if bathing outside.
I'm getting to understand traffic patterns, or lack thereof, a bit better. Initially I interpreted the inceasant honking and meaning "get out of my way!" and wondered why no one who was targeted in this way appeared in the least angry. I now see that there is part of an interactive process. I honk means, "I'm right behind you." The response is typically to look ahead, determine if it is safe for the honker to pass, then to turn on the left blinker to signal the go ahead. After passing there are usually a couple of seemingly friendly hand gestures involved. Right of way seems to depend entirely on relative size of vehicle, even when a car is entering the street from a driveway as a bicycle is passing. There seem to be no traffic laws, no traffic police and no auto insurance.
Myanmar has some light industry, and manufactures a couple of different cars, from, I understand, 65% domestic parts. One of these is a kind of Jeep. Another is a little blue truck, hardly bigger than a skate board, that apparently comes in a kit for home assembly. Most of the economy is agricultural, and seems not to have changed through the centuries. Farmers work with little more than hoes and sometimes oxcarts. Even highway construction is very primitive, with large numbers of people hauling rock and sand by hand, and heating asphalt in barrels with wood.
There is for the most part little protection of the environment. Most cities have no garbage collection; people simple burn trash wherever they want, producing some awful smells. Exceptions are Taunggyi, in which I was surprised to find garbage trucks. The air seemed very clean there. People dicard rubbish rather indescrimately. Kassapa National Park is another exception, in which the forests are well preserved. Apparently the park was endowed with a huge grant from the Japanese.
Electricity is very unreliable here. We have power at SITA about 70% of the time, with daily outages. If you get a very abrupt email from me, it is probably because the power has just gone out and the computer is running for a short time on battery.
Public health is an issue. I've seen little evidence of emergency care. Most health clinics are run by monasteries at very little cost. We have been very careful about the food and water we consume; it is easy for Westerners to get sick here. It is lucky that we are traveling with Burmese monks who have lived in the USA for a time, since they are concerned that they have lost their immunities. Sitagu Buddhist Academy, where I am now, is very careful about food and water. I read that the life expectency here is about 53 years.
Burma is a country where, working through Buddhist organizations, a little help from abroad can go a long way. We visited a new school in Monywa, two stories tall, with classrooms and housing for teachers, that was built through a donation from one person in Baltimore for $20,000. Health care and education are to two biggest concerns of Buddhist organizations, though I would like to see orphages and nunneries also better supported. At the same time, Burma in turn has a lot to give the West; though not materially, it is certainly spiritually much stronger.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Buddhism in Burma


I'm back at Sagaing Hills for a couple of days, which will be my home base  I feel at home here because in a lot of ways it reminds me of Marin County in California, where I grew up, only not so upscale. Sagaing Hills is very hill, often with very steep hills, and heavily wooded and is full of narrow winding roads. But even though there is a lot of Buddhism in Marin County by American standards, here there is one temple, pagoda or monastery after another.

I am impressed that Buddhism is seamlessly part of the culture here. I think that experiencing this is one of the primary reasons Ashin Ariyadhamma encouraged me to come to Burma. This really is a culture of generosity even tempers. I've never seen a public display of anger, I've never seen a bicycle with a lock on it, and this in spite of possibly the highest level of poverty in Asia. There is quite a bit of begging, but it is never pushy. People are not self-assertive or trying to distinguish themselves. People understand the teachings around moha and dosa and seem rather consistently to exhibit amosa (generosity) and adosa (compassion). Quite remarkable people.

People exhibit quite a lot of reverence for monks. Unfortunately less for nuns (who for historical circumstances are not fully ordained). At the same time monks mix freely with the general population. Often you see one riding on the back of someone's bicycle or hanging off of a truck. Most males in the country have been monks at some time, at least for short periods, and have received the same reverence during those periods, even from their own parents. I think this reinforces the idea that the reverence is for the robes, or for the Dharma, not for the individual that inhabits the robes. The monks make themselves totally dependent on the offerings of the lay people, yet give more than inspiration in return. I am impressed how many monks are involved in public services, like establishing schools, hospitals and orphanages. Ashing Punnobassa, who I've seen a few times now, and whom some people in Austin will remember, is involved in providing schooling for 100 novice monks (ages ~5 to 19). The arrangement is an economy of gifts which I think must inspire the pervasive generosity of the culture.

Temples seem often to accrue a lot of physical wealth, and this can be found in the Catholic-like extravagance of many of the pagodas. Gold leaf spires are very common. Many of the older more obscure monasteries at the same time can be quite run-down. Monks for the most part live very modestly, even older monks and abbots.

I've accrued most of my requisites toward ordination simply through spontaneous giving. To ordain as a bhikkhu one traditionally needs eight thing: the three robes plus a belt, an alms bowl, a needle, a razor and water filter. (At a hotel I realized I could take home two of the eight requisites: a sewing kit and a disposable razor. But I couldn't find a shower cap or shampoo on the list. We visited an old teacher of Ashin Ariyadhamma's, Ashin Suriya, who is a 100 year-old meditation master. As we are preparing to leave, he said to the three monks in our party (this was interpreted for my be Aung Ko, the Burmese American in our group), "I wish I could give you all robes. But there is someone I can give robes to." He had a young monk fetch something from the other room and he came back and handed me a set of robes. The very next day we visited another monastery, whose 80-year-old abbot gave me another complete set of robes, plus a bowl.

I see very small traces of commercialism creeping in to the culture and it makes me shiver. This shows up in billboards with oriental men and women trying to look sexy or distinguished and owning stuff. This is in start contrast with the apparent attitudes of most people.


Thursday, February 12, 2009


Our group (3 monks, 3 lay and me), ison a pilgimage to Buddhist pagodas and monsteries, but we've also had the opportunity to visit some parks and look around some cities and towns. The Sitagu organization, a network of monasteries and public service establishments, all founded by Ashin Nyanissara, has taken us under its wing, so wer feel well cared for. On a couple of occassions our group has been invited to a meal by lay supporters of Sitagu, once on board a boat that took us up and down the Irrawaddy River. We have stelpt in Manday, in the middle of the country; in Sagaing Hills, which will become my home base, just across the Irrawaddy from Mandalay; Maymyo, east of Mandalay, on the road toward China;  and Taungoo, in South Burma, where we just arrived today. We've stayed mostly in monasteries.
Mandalay is a very busy, largely impovershed city that was once the capitol of King Mindon, but captured by the British in 1885. An interesting sight is the world largest book: the entire Pali Canon on marble slabs, each slab housed under a tine pagoda. It goes on and on. Maymyo was developed by the British as a resort, since at 3000 feet it is much cooler than most of Burma. There are many solid British colonial buildings and the city is visibly much more posperous than Manaday. Ashin Punnobassa, whom some readers might remember as the monk who took the Nagarjuna class at AZC, works in Maymyo at a training monastery for 100 novice monks. We offered them all breakfast one morning. Taungoo is near Ashin Ariyadhamma's home. We met his preceptor on arrival, and will meet his teacher, a 100 year old meditation master, tomorrow.
People here a very friendly and smile a lot. Almost everyone is a devout Buddhist. We really see that when traveling with monks; people spontaneously start doing prostrations when they pass. Life here is very bare-bones. A typical house is basically a wicker box, with a thatched roof, a garage-sized opening for a door and large shuttered windows, no glass just holes. Many of the roads are good, but there is nothing like a bicycle lane or even a sidewak. Bikes, scooters, pedestrians, cattle, pigs, cars, semi carrying goods from China, horse carts, ox carts and dogs all share the same space. To drive a car you just plow through this and honk a lot. Bikes and scooters typically carry multiple passangers, and sometimes large loads of various wares, including lumber.
At meals, in a monastery, restaurant or house, each person almost always receives a plate of white rice and sometimes a bowl of soup. Then various things like fish, chicken, pork, cooked and raw vegetables and spicy condiments cover the table and people mix what they need in which the rice. The food is quite good, though Scott, an American in our group, got very sick today, apparently from something he had eaten. Monks almost always eat separately from lay people because they must eat their last meal before noon. Today we visited a family for lunch. After the monks had eaten, seated at a low table on the floor, the family simply picked up the whole table, with lots of uneaten food, and moved it to where the lay people were sitting and replaced it with a table full of tea and desserts.
We will return to Sagaing Hills in two days, after which I should be writing more regularly.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

I'm Here!

I arrived in Burma the day before yesterday. We flew from Yongon (Rangoon) to Mandalay the first day and attended part of an enormous Buddhist conference at a temple in Mandalay. We've been visiting quite a few temples, and even and hospital and a hospice. Things are very interesting here, the people are incredibly friendly and people are sure Buddhist. It is amazing how many monks there are, how big the temples are and how many temples there are. We came to the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy yesterday. The facilities are very good, as is the food. There is one other American monk here, I was glad to see. Someone here will post some pictures on this blog in a couple of weeks.