My 52-day stay at Pa Auk Meditation Center represents phase II of my adventures in Myanmar. In the six weeks of Phase I our pilgrimage group (varying in size and composition with time) of Burmese monks and American lay people traveled through much of Myanmar and met many people from all walks of life, focusing mostly on Buddhist culture and monastic life. In the final days of the pilgrimage I joined the monastic contingent of group. Many photos were taken, but I understand that none have been posted yet to this blog. The group disbanded, as Aung Ko and Wendy returned to the States, and now Ashin Ariyadhamma a month later. Phase I was very busy and very informative. For me it was overwhelming to be in such constant contact with so many new people and to be on the road so much. Phase II was just the opposite.
The pilgrimage group dropped me off at Pa Auk Tawya on March 18. The hot season had begun in Myanmar, which will end with the coming of the rainy season in June. It is particularly hot and dry in Mandalay and Sagaing, so the Academy virtually shuts down. Quite a few people, including Sitagu Sayadaw, had recommended that I just take this time to attend a meditation retreat in a cooler part of the country. So, at the last minute, I heeded their advice.
Pa Auk Tawya Forest Monastery, in Southeast Myanmar near Moulmein, is very famous for its founding teacher, now known as Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw for the monastery he leads, as is the custom in Myanmar. At the time I showed up there were 700 people living and practicing there, including 400 monks, a large group of nuns and a large group of lay people. These three contingents are located in separate sections of the 500-acre (as I recall) property, so I joined the monks' practice. Of the 400 monks, 76 were non-Burmese, including a number of Mahayana monks from China, Taiwan, Korea, etc., and a number of Theravada monks from the above named Mahayana countries. Most of the rest of the internationals were from Theravada countries. There were about ten of us Westerners: one other American, a Dane who looks like Reb Anderson, a Dutch guy, a French guy, three Germans. Oh, and a Ugandan, who has been ordained for about 20 years.
The daily schedule looks like this:
3:30 am - Wake up.
4:00 – 5:30 am - Morning chanting a group sitting.
5:45 – Pindapata (alms round).
7:00 am – 7:30 am – Cleaning and personal time.
7:30 – 9:00 – Group sitting.
9:00 – 10:00 – Interview, walking meditation, personal time.
10:10 – Lunch pindapata.
1:00 pm – 2:30 – Group sitting.
2:30 – 3:30 – Interview and walking meditation.
3:30 – 5:00 – Group sitting.
5:00 – 6:00 – Interview, work period and personal time.
6:00 – 7:30 – Chanting and group sitting.
7:30 – 9:00 – Dhamma talk (in Burmese).
The schedule is almost the same everyday, no special days off, or skit nights. The only exception is that every full and new moon afternoon we recite the Patimokkha, bhikkhu precepts.
The bhikkhus live in individual kutis (huts) scattered through the forest. In general silence and relative isolation is encouraged. The feel is very familiar to me from Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and from sesshins I've attended. If you relax into it, and can stand spending so much time with yourself, it is a very easy lifestyle. All you have to do is show up for meditation and for meals and keep your kuti clean
More to follow …