Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Classes are in full swing at Sitagu International Buddhist Academy (SIBA). The place is full of resident monks, and monks and nuns from the densely monastic environs come to SIBA to attend classes as well.

My schedule is much as it has been, with a heavy emphasis on study. I generally meditate for an hour in my room before the 5:30 breakfast bell. For the two daily meals I sit at the foreigner table. Four of us are actually there to help put the "I" in "SIBA": a Lao, a Cambodian, a Vietnamese and myself. Two of the four speak Thai, two of the four Cambodian, often better than English.

After breakfast I sweep the 630-foot long balcony of the 32-unit Guest House, in which I live at the far West end. I generally connect up with "my dog," Wiglet, at this time, who has totally adopted me, especially since I've started bringing her scraps from meals. Then I have a long gap for study until lunch. I've been meeting with one of the Burmese monks, U Kittimara, most mornings 8-9 for a Burmese lesson. Mostly I study Pali.

Yesterday was Uposatta Day, every week according to the moon. Generally a lot of lay people come to SIBA, and to all monasteries, and it is a holiday from classes. My kappiyas, or sponsors, U Htay Myin and Daw Too Too, a couple from Sagaing, come to visit me on Uposatta Days. A kappiya is someone who tells a monk, or presumably a nun, "If you ever need anything, just let me know." I did not fully understand how this system works before I came here. Most monks have a kappiya; I have two, it turns out, counting Htay Myin and Too Too as one joint kappiya. The other is U Tin Hliang, a bachelor who lives in Yangon. None of these speak a word of English. When I receive a visit from Htay Myin and Too Too I feel like a college freshman whose parents have dropped by: They bring things they think I might need and ask repeatedly and eagerly what else I might need. I never need much (through SIBA of basic needs are taken care of.), but I know I can count on them if something major comes up (I've asked Tin Hliang to provide me with a new suitcase, as the one my daughter Kym lent me before I embarked on this trip is falling apart).  A very helpful monk in many ways, U Issariya, helps interpret, while I try to think of a few phrases in Burmese to interject. It is a very upbeat encounter; they are always happy when they leave.

Bhikkhus, of course, depend entirely on the goodwill of people like Htay Myin and Too Too, for the food we receive in the dining room, or more traditionally for alms, for our robes, for our housing. Often we do not see who the contributors are in an organization like SIBA, but seeing who they are and particularly having a familiar relationship with a sponsor reminds us of the immediacy of this dependence. At first I thought that this "adopt a monk" system was a modern Burmese innovation, but in studying the Vinaya I've come to realize it is very ancient indeed. It is one part of the "Economy of Gifts," the basis of the Buddhist community.

So what am I giving in the Economy of Gifts? That is a koan that people like Htay Myin and Too Too remind me to engage. The answer is not simply, "Monks give the greatest gift of all: the Dhamma." Like the best koans it can be turned this way and that and never quite settles. For instance, I can see that just the opportunity to give is an enormous gift to my sponsors. In fact I feel I would serve them better if I could think of something more to ask for!  But also I understand that they have an interest in my meditation practice, my studies and my plans for the future. Yesterday they expressed their hope that I continue to wear the robes when I return to America, which I could happily report is my intention. Even this is a gift.

The lunch bell sounds around 10:30. Often other donors are present for lunch. They bring most of the food, sometimes very fancy indeed, and are involved in serving and offering it to us monks. They are always delighted and continue being so as they wash up dishes after the meal and sit down to enjoy whatever the monks have not finished. Yesterday we seemed to have as many donors as monks and the food would have made even Charles Ball (AZC president) envious (and we each got toothpaste to boot).

We join in a meal chant for the beginning of each meal, which is part of the Pali Reflections on Using the Requisites: "... not for enjoment, nor for intoxication, not out of gluttony, nor to become attractive, but only for the continuation and nourishment of this body, for keeping it unharmed, for helping the brahmacariya life, ..."  When we have donors for lunch we generally also recite the Metta Sutta, which I do not yet know in Pali. I must say that not eating after noon has made me very mindful of what and why I eat. It is difficult to eat abundantly, and there is less opportunity to make up later for what you might have failed to give your body earlier. I find that I am very aware of the nutritional value of what I am taking in and whether it will sustain me until the next morning. It is a wonderful practice. I am, by the way, saying quite healthy in this way. I've lost weight but not more than I should.

After lunch I have a lot of free time for studying, washing robes, etc. I also have been teaching English to a group that meets in my room, every day at 1:00. The Lao is the most regular student and has actively recruited most of the other 3-4. At 4:00 Monday through Thursday, Wiglet in tow, I teach fifteen minutes of English pronunciation to a large formerly scheduled class otherwise devoted to English grammar.

There seems to be a difference between vision and reality in the role of English at SIBA. The vision, as I understand it, is that SIBA is "International," both in offering instruction in English, the most international of languages, and in attracting students from many countries. In fact, most students' English is very poor, and there are only four of us internationals (and I'm not a formal student, but a "guest"). As a result, classes begin with a short lecture in English, followed by a long discussion that becomes increasingly Burmese as more people join. From my own attempts at teaching to a large "Intermediate English" class, I've found that most people have little notion of what I am saying unless I speak very slowly, which I had thought was a talent that comes naturally to me.

At 7:00 in the evening the monks gather for chanting (recitation). Afterwards I generally study Vinaya. Recently I have decided to add a little more spice to my routine: a bedtime novel. There are a very few in the English library here. I started with George Orwell's "Burma Days," his first novel, written after having spent five years in Burma. I am currently rereading "A Tale of Two Cities," which as I recall makes little reference to Burma.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

At a temple near Mandalay

Hi. I've set up a google gallery of some photos from our tour of Myanmar.  This is the site:

I have been subject to sloth and torpor getting this up.  But here it is, and I will be adding to it.
Peace, harmony, and metta,


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada I

In my recent bhikkhu ordination I've crossed the divide between the two major modern branches of Buddhism, Mahayana and Theravada. This was anticipated in the name of this blog: "Bhante" is the Theravada title for a monk or nun, and "Dogen" is a reference to the founder of Japanese Soto Zen Mahayana Buddhism. It feels indeed like I have one foot in each branch.

The Mahayana distinguished itself in India as a separate movement within Buddhism India by about 300 or 400 AD, and the early users of the name "Mahayana" (Great Path) used "Hinayana" (Small Path) to refer to the numerous non-Mahayana schools. Mahayana is almost the exclusive school of Buddhism in the north Asian countries of China, Japan, Korea, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Mongolia.  For many centuries Theravada has been the only remaining school originally designated as "Hinayana." It is almost the exclusive school in the the southern Asian countries of Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia. I believe Vietnam is the only country in Asia in which both schools substantially exist side by side.

Centuries of separation have not fostered understanding between these two major schools as they re-encounter one another in modern Asia and in the West. For instance, last Summer I read a (very inspiring) book, The Banner of the Arahants, written by an early British Theravada bhikkhu, who therein details the history of the monastic sangha from the time of the Buddha, through the spread of Buddhism as an international religion to modern times, and never once acknowledges that there is a monastic sangha north of Himalayas. A Zen priest, on hearing that I would be traveling to Myanmar to reordain, responded, "Theravada?!? I don't get it." In our pilgimage travels before I ordained I was repeatedly introduced as the Mahayana monk who was about to ordain in Theravada; the responses were informative. The abbot of one monastery we were visiting suggested that I read the Buddha's discourse on wrong views (of which none of those enumerated can be said to characterize the Mahayana). A different reaction was elicited by the ninety-two year-old leader of the large Shwe Gyin sect of Burmese Theravada, who expressed his high regard for the Mahayana tradition. Many monks I've talked with here think of Mahayana monks as not following any precepts.

Many on both sides trace the divide to the Second Council, 100 years after the Buddha's parinirvana, which, so it is recorded, resulted in a serious schism because of differing views, according to the Theravadins with regard to discipline, and according to the Mahayanists with regard to doctrine. However, this was hundreds of years before even the rudiments of the Mahayana school has arisen.

I would like to explore many of differences and similarities of the Mahayana and Theravada in a series of blog postings. I think this is an important topic for Western Buddhism as we individually go shopping among the various sects of Buddhism now present in the West and as as we collectively develop a Buddhism that works for the West. My plan is two write seven more blog postings as follows:

Mahayana/Theravada I (this posting)

Mahayana/Theravada II: The Pa Auk Tawya Encounter

Mahayana/Theravada III: The Great Schism?

Mahayana/Theravada IV: Will the Real Mahayana Buddhism Please Stand Up?

Mahayana/Theravada V: Carrying the Torch

Mahayana/Theravada VI: The Cultural Context

Mahayana/Theravada VII: What Makes Buddhism Thrive?

Mahayana/Theravada VIII: The Future History of Buddhism in the West

Saturday, June 13, 2009




A priority for the next months is learning Pali language. At the same time I am a rare resource for this "English-media" institution: a native speaker of English and a trained linguist; teaching English will be an important task for me. Still the language most spoken here is Burmese, and among foreign students Thai seems to rival both English and Burmese as the language of choice.




Pali is, of course, the most traditional language of Buddhism. The wide-spread belief among Theravadins is that it is the language of the Buddha. I think modern scholarship casts some doubt on that claim, though the Buddha most likely spoke a language, or maybe several languages something like Pali. The early Buddhist scriptures say nothing about this. However, after being preserved orally for many generations, the early Buddhist scriptures were first put into written form in Pali.  


Pali is closely related to Sanskrit. I think of it as Sanskrit with the r's, e.g., Skr "Dharma" is Pali "Dhamma," "Karma" is "Kamma" and so on. Pali and Sanskrit are, along with Greek and Latin classical languages in the huge Indo-European family of languages, which also includes modern English. So like Latin, Pali has lots of declensions and conjugations along with many irregularities. The family resemblance to English is slight.


Pali is to Theravadins as Latin is, or used to be, to Catholics. Almost all chanting in the Theravadin tradition is in Pali and children in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand begin learn Pali in school. Most bhikkhus are quite proficient. This is another area in which I am playing catch-up.




The academy naturally attracts students who want to learn English. I've asked some monks why they would like to learn English and hear two answers: First, it opens up a much larger world to some bhikkus who have grown up in relative isolation. Second, many would like to teach Buddhism abroad. I like this last answer, because I think there is certainly a great need for competent teachers of Buddhism in America, where anyone who has read a few books and has public speaking ability is ready to hang a shingle. English language is the most important skill to acquire for a Burmese monk to teach in America, though I think classes in American culture and American comparative religion would be important as well. I could see some of the young monks thriving in America.


I am trying to arrange an advanced class on English pronunciation. I think this is where I can be most effective, starting with articulatory phonetics and a comparison of the English and Burmese sound systems, then zeroing in on the problem areas, such as syllable-final consonants, consonant clusters and intonation patterns. I just learned that there is a language lab here that has never been used. I'm trying to get the keys to get into it to see what might be helpful. We may have to make our own recordings; I can get two other American voices in Yangon, male and female.




My plan before coming to Myanmar was not to put much energy into learning Burmese, so that I could focus on Pali. I am a dabbler when it comes to language. I've studied probably fifteen different languages at one time or another, sometimes for just a week, including three American Indian languages and an African language. The only language besides English that I ever learned really well is German, and that is has now been rusting for about 20 years. I can see Burmese sitting on top of the pile.


However, I will probably be here a whole year (my visa just got approved, finally, for a full year), I will probably have a affiliation with the Burmese Buddhist community in the States when I return, and there is a lot of incentive to learn Burmese while here. A lot of staff and kids know no English, and people are curious about me wherever I go. Most of the monks here are supposed to know English, but are uncomfortable actually having to use it, and are therefore a bit afraid of me. Besides it is impolite to be in a country and not at least try to speak the language.


I've spent about 4 hours going over the sound system/pronunciation of Burmese with two different monks, one from Upper Myanmar (where we are here), and the other from Lower Myanmar, the two major dialect areas. I've got a good handle on how the sounds work, which will help me in teaching English. Burmese is easy to start using because almost everything in a Burmese sentence is optional. So, there are no declensions are conjugations (required parts of words in languages like Pali, and to a lesser extent English). You don't even need pronouns for "I" and "you" if they can be inferred. If you enjoyed a meal, just say "sa: gaun: de" (eat good past-or-present). No matter what you put together it seems to be perfectly understandable Burmese. When you do want to use a pronoun it gets a bit complicated, however. For instance, your choice of pronoun depends on if you, the speaker, are a man or a woman. Also, very relevant for me, if you are a monk or speaking to a monk a different set of pronouns is used for "I" and "you."

So, this excursion seems to be almost as much about language as it is about Buddhism, which is fun for me.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Pictures from Myanmar

This link should take you to some pictures that have been posted of
the pilgrimage tour to Myanmar:


I cannot actually visit the site from here to give you any tips for
navigating the site. I think there may be a massive number of pictures

I should appear in a good percentage of them, especially group shots.
The pictures probably cover the period February 2 to April 20. I might
potentially be in any picture from February 2 to March 18. I will be
in robes only from March 10 to March 18. My ordination was March 10 at
Sagaing, if that helps.

Good luck exploring these. Let me know if you have any navigation tips
for others (email bhante.dogen@gmail.com).


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Burmese Miracle Stories

Outside of us monks, two things that help sustain Buddhist faith here
are (1) really big buddhas and pagodas, and (2) miracle stories. Both
are exemplified in Kyaik Tiyo, Golden Rock, Pagoda. This is the last
site the pilgrimage group visited before dropping me off at Pa Auk
Tawya Meditation Center on March 18.

The miracle of Kyaik Tiyo is the golden rock, a huge boulder, maybe 20
feet in diameter, perched on top of a sheer cliff, at the very top of
a tall mountain, in such a way that it has been just about to roll off
for maybe the last hundred thousand years. It is amazing. Inspection
from below invites one to try to pass a string, an accomplice holding
the other end, under the rock all the way across; it looks like it
would work, maybe by rocking the rock a bit. From higher up, one can
see that its center of gravity does keep it from rolling off the
cliff, but golly it seems that there must have been an earthquake or a
big dinosaur sometime in the last innumerable millennia that would
have toppled it. It is certainly a wonder of nature.

In Myanmar all miracles have to do with Buddhism. The story is that
some of the Buddha's hairs are contained inside of the rock and that
the rock remains in place be the power of the Buddha. Once upon a
time, there were some non-Buddhists tried to push the rock off the
cliff in order to undermine people's faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and
Sangha, but they were turned into monkeys. That'll show them! In an
inspiring, hopefully not foolhardy, display of faith, there is now a
nunnery directly below the rock, and the point of first bounce.

A huge pagoda and tourist attraction has been built at Kyaik Tiyo. A
bus (or actually truck) takes you up the mountain, and one needs to
walk for about 40 minutes up a steep path to reach the top and the
rock. We stayed at a hotel near the top. Hundreds of people were
milling around, looking at the rock, doing prostrations, lighting
incense and candles, and chanting when we arrived. We got up the next
morning around five-ish, before dawn, and I'll be darned if there
still weren't hundreds of people around. A group of around 20 Thai
monks did some marvelous chanting.

Many miracle stories have to do with relics that remain after an
arahant is cremated. There are many samples to view in Buddhist
museums here. The relics usually take the form of crystals. In one
museum they are kept in a jar and it is reported that they keep
multiplying by themselves. They can give samples away and the samples
will continue multiplying. A museum has been built in Amarapura, near
here, in the temple where a local arahant lived and died. Pictures in
the museum reveal he had very intensive eyes. Anyway, after he died
and was cremated, his eyes did not burn!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ashin Cintita before an image of the Buddha made of bamboo covered in gold.