Monday, March 9, 2009

Big Theravada Conference

March 5-8 I attended the 2nd conference of the Association of Theravada Buddhist Universities here at SIBA in Sagaing Hills. This was very much like many of the academic conferences I used to attend in the United States is format and feeling, bringing together a huge international set of scholars for general sessions and simultaneous panel sessions an a variety of topics.

There were hundreds of participants, perhaps 60% of which were scholar-monks and nuns, and 40% lay people. Many participants, both lay and monastic were professors or advanced graduate students. Countries represented, in approximate descending order of number of participants, were Manmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, Napal, Laos, USA, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Malasia, Australia, Uganda and Mexico. From the USA were Burmese monks and our group from Sitagu-affiliated centers, and the famous Bhante G. (Gunaratana, author of Mindfulness in Plain English; I've been a big fan for a long time). There were also a couple of Mahayana monks. Everyone was interested to meet a monk from Uganda, the only one. People are also very interested in Buddhism in the other frontiers of Buddhism, the USA and Mexico.

Topics for lecture included scriptural teachings (pariyatti), practice (patipatti), Engaged Buddhism, monsticism, current development of Theravada, and current Pali literatures. All talks were in English, except for the sessions on Pali literature, which were in Pali. One of my tasks over the next year is to master Pali, but I see I am just starting. One of the things I've discovered is that the Burmese have their own pronunciation of Pali (e.g., sadhu becomes thadu, with English-like "th," paccaya becomes pissiya, etc.). But I learned during the conference that while the Burmese call their version of Pali "Pali," they call the standard pronunciation, found for instance in Thailand and Sri Lanka "Sanskrit"! I'm not sure what they call Sanskrit.

An Indian scholar gave a talk on the role of Vipassana (Insight) meditation in Theravada. He declared it the heart of Theravada Buddhism, and stated that the Buddha's primary contribution in the area of insight or wisdom is the recognition that mere intellectual understanding of the nature of reality does not suffice, that one must go beyond conceptualisation and meet reality at the level of direct experience. This sounds exactly like Zen to me.

Bhante G. gave practical talk about Buddhism in the USA. He came to the USA in 1968 (from Sri Lanka) and has founded the Bhavana Society, so spoke directly from experience. Some asked him how he sees the future of Buddhism in the USA. He said he thought the future looked "very bright," pointing out how many Buddhist groups are sprouting almost everywhere. But, he warned, that there is a lack of teachers and as a result a lot of misinterpretation of Buddhism. He said this is a very dangerous thing, comparing it to grabbing a snake by the wrong end. I had an opportunity to have a long talk with him yesterday morning. He was very encouraging of my intentions here.

The conference also incorporated a lot of pomp and circumstance (the prime minister of Myanmar was here for the opening ceremony, for instance) and entertainment. The "cultural program" included chanting from Myanmar, chanting and dancing from Nepal, and music and dancing from Thailand. A group of about 20 young performers from a Buddhist university took a bus from north Thailand to come here. Their music was an interesting blend of traditional Thai and modern elements, for instance with very strange looking electric "guitars" and various percusion instruments, bamboo flutes, etc. The dancing, all be women, seemed completely traditional, very slow and graceful, moving in unison. The Thai's were a huge hit. Many normally constrained monks, many with cameras, seemed to take a lot of interest in the female dancers. (sigh.)

My ordination is set for tomorrow morning. After that, our group will make a final trip, to Rangoon and the Mailay peninsula, bringing me back here to SIBA about March 20.

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