Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

We are finally getting some rain here in Sagaing. This is the Rainy Season, one of three official four-month seasons, the others being the hot season and the cold season. (The Burmese do not recognize, or even seem to know about, our four three-month seasons.) We are also observing Vassa here at Sitagu, and at almost all Theravada monasteries, which means the Rains Retreat. But the fact is, it really does not generally rain very much in Sagaing, and this year has been very dry so far. In Yangon, on the other hand, I hear they been having huge storms. The last couple of weeks it has rained here most days, but not hard or long. I've noticed that it seems to make a big difference in the temperature. It's gotten quite a lot cooler.

Mosquitoes have grown in population, however. And the insect world in general seems to be thriving. I have to be careful or I get zillions of ants in my apartment. I often fortify myself with lemonade in the afternoon; my kappiyas (lay sponsors), U Htay Mint and Ma Doo Doo, bring me lemons or limes every Uposatha  Day, once a week, and keep me supplied with sugar. (Fruit juice is allowed for monks even after noon, according to the Vinaya. Actually, it is supposed to be filtered fruit juice and to be offered by a lay person on each occasion, but people don't generally seem to know it, and I'm not the monk to teach it to them.) If I don't clean up right away ants show up in droves.

They have very impressive ants in Myanmar. They show up out of nowhere in masses as soon as an opportunity arises, often completely covering a large surface, then disappear very quickly when the opportunity has been consumed. They seem to have a sixth sense (hmm, I wonder if ants have all the other five senses) about where the eating is good. I observed a long line of ants at Pa Auk Tawya one day marching single file but densely packed. I followed the trail backwards, toward where they were coming from and lost them after a few yards in the underbrush, then followed the trail the other way and discovered that the whole column was simply led by one very confident and determined ant, with the second ant in his immediate rear. There were no scouts or any hint of how the leader knew where he was going. I've had gained a new respect for ants since seeing the latest Indiana Jones movie when I was still in the States. The ants here are small, but very aggressive. I've been bitten numerous times.

There are some huge butterflies here, like with 8 inch wingspans, and very beautiful. Interestingly there are very few bees or wasps, or anything I've seen that looks particularly dangerous. A large wasp happened to fly in the doorway a few minutes ago while I was writing about ants, which is what made me think of how few there are here. Not like Texas. I've never seen anything like a scorpion or the famed deadly centipedes. There are six-inch millipedes all over the place, but they don't seem too threatening.

Flowers seem to be in constant bloom, though I haven't experienced the Cold Season yet. Cold in Myanmar, by the way, is not very cold. I understand that it is the most comfortable season. Winds bring cold air down from Tibet, on Burma's northern border.

I've been teaching English quite a bit. I have a group that meets in my apartment  to study vocabulary at 1:00 Monday through Friday, generally about five monks and two young women who take classes at Sitagu. (Classes may be attended by lay people, but I think all the lay students live outside of the Sitagu monastery wall.  Some of the monks that attend classes also live in neighboring monasteries.)

On Saturday and Sunday I teach four classes on English pronunciation. I was trying to resurrect the rather modern language lab that was built here some years ago, and actually used it a few times. It is quite substantial, with fifty student stations, each with a computer screen, headphones and a button to call the instructor for personal assistance, and a consol that allows the teacher to listen in an each student separately (for instance, when repeating phrases together) and that allows the piping recorded audio to the students and the use of a computer to display to student screens and the ability to talk to students individually, which comes through the student's earphones like God. Unfortunately, a lot of it does not work very well. At most half of the student computer screens have power and that number fluctuates as fuses blow out and take days to replace, and a lot of the buttons for one-on-one communication stick in place. Other screens have power but cannot get a video signal, and of course the power for all of Sagaing simply fails at least a couple of times a day, sometimes for hours. People here are in awe of the West, largely because they hear that things actually work the way they are supposed to. I've abandoned using the language lab in favor of a regular classroom. An unusual feature of all the classrooms here is a PA system for the teacher. I find this useful,  it enables the students to hear my pronunciation almost as clearly as in the language lab.

As I've reported before, I am generally the lone Westerner here at the Sitagu Academy, or anywhere in Sagaing as far as I know.  However, we have had three visits from Westerners since I returned here from Pa Auk Tawya.

First, Dr. Patrick Franke, from USA, a professor of Religious Studies who specializes in Burmese Buddhist texts. He has been associated with Sitagu Sayadaw for about twenty years and speaks fluent Burmese. He stayed a couple of days and gave a talk in English, which relatively few students here were able to actually follow.

Second, about two weeks ago a German woman, Petra, arrived, probably for about a month. She has lived in Burma for twelve years. She came here to study Buddhism and fell in love with Burma. Of course she also speaks fluent Burmese. She seems to have had various occupations. She lived at the Academy for some time, and was ordained as a nun for a couple of years. She taught English here during that time (of course like that of all educated Germans her English is excellent). She was a travel agent for a couple of years. She now works in the relief effort in the Delta and lives in Yangon, but had a chance to come up here to get out of the rain. She likes the peacefulness of Sagaing.

Third, an English-born Swiss nun in a Korean Zen tradition passed through here for a couple of days. Her name is Venerable Mujin and she is involves somehow with Sitagu Sayadaw in the Delta relief effort. I find I easily miss the company of Westerners; it is always a delight to have one visit.

My studies are going quite well. Sitagu Sayadaw has been teaching a class in English on the Great Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta, for foreign students, all four of us. Unfortunately he is away most of time. For instance, he was in the USA for four weeks in July. He returned but then made a trip to Thailand. On Wednesday he is going to the Delta region to dedicate a new school his organization has built there. He is often invited to give Dhamma talks various place, and various countries. And so on. But when he is in town to teach it his class is quite a treat. He is very inspiring, is a very skilled speaker, and provides a good model for me of the Burmese style of understanding and study.  

The standard way to study Buddhism in Burma begins with memorization of original texts, usually suttas, in the Pali language. At the same time, this is how one learns Pali. It is not important to know what the text means in order to memorize it. One then reads the Commentaries, texts that have near canonical status in Theravada, but were generally composed, or compiled also in Pali about 900 years after the Buddha, generally in Sri Lanka. Buddhaghosa is the best known author of commentaries, and Path of Purification is the best known of his many cross-indexed works. These generally attribute a lot of supplementary content to the original text.

I don't have as much faith in the value of memorization as the Burmese have; it seems to have been largely discredited in the West. Also, I don't expect to develop the skill of memorization that most Burmese monks have been generally cultivating since they were very young novices; these monks are amazing. However, what seems to be working for me is to take any original Pali text, look up and learn the most important words and then go back to the text and read it aloud repeatedly. This reinforces the Pali vocabulary I am slowly developing and gives me examples of Pali grammar, and of course gives me the Buddha's teachings in very slow motion. I then read modern commentary on the side. I am also identifying certain Pali texts for memorization, because they are often chanted. I am working on the Metta Sutta, for instance. The Suttas are actually a lot of fun to recite or chant, first, because Pali is a beautiful chanting language, and second, the Suttas are so repetitive, which lends a fluidity to the enterprise.

Burmese do not so much chant as recite individually. When they recite as a group they make little attempt to stay together, some reciting faster than others, but then at the end of a stanza pausing so that everyone can catch up. It is difficult to learn Pali texts through group recitation when people are  not on the same syllable at the same time. However, you often hear monks reciting by themselves, which often has a beautiful pattern of intonation (aka singing). Sitagu Sayadaw has a very good voice for this and like most monks simply recites long suttas from memory. Dhamma talks seem always to stick to a Pali texts, which the speaker intones in sections, discussing in Burmese the meaning of each section.

I have a computer! At least I get to use it in my room for the duration of the stay. Aside from preparing for classes this will allow me to write to my blog more conveniently and therefore more frequently.


Friday, August 7, 2009

Mahayana/Theravada IV: The Cultural Dimension.

Mahayana/Theravada  IV: The Cultural Dimension.


Many good Theravada Buddhists in Myanmar seem to feel that there is something mistaken in Mahayana Buddhism. There are differences, as I've described, including doctrinal differences that can be traced to ancient India and differences in style and garb. I would like to suggest that these differences are not so much divergence of doctrine and discipline as they are the awkward re-encounter of diverse cultures: Indian and Chinese. This is particularly important to consider now that we have thrown a third culture into the mix, the Western culture.


Look at a map of Asia and consider: first, in which countries is Theravada Buddhism practiced; second, in which countries is Mahayana Buddhism practiced; third, in which countries have people traditionally (before European colonial influence) eaten with the hands; and, fourth, in which countries have people traditionally eaten with chopsticks. Hopefully you will notice this correlation: Theravada Buddhism dominates in countries which have traditionally been part of the vast Indian sphere of influence, and Mahayana Buddhism dominates in countries that have traditionally been part of the vast Chinese sphere of influence. Tibet and Mongolia, I think, are exceptions, forming an additional cultural area as well as what many consider an additional school of Buddhsim, Vajrayana.


I speculate that two things are going on here: First, the local culture has selected the form of early Buddhism that has most appeal to that culture. Second, the local culture has exerted influence on the Buddhism that it has adopted.


For instance, it has been suggested that Mahayana Buddhism had great appeal in the Chinese because it was so colorful, and had a rich mythology, in contrast to the indigenous Taoism and Confucianism, as well as to the more austere Theravada school of Buddhism. The conditions to which Buddhism then had to adapt were different from its indigenous India: The weather was colder, the emperors were divine beings, there was no tradition of wandering mendicants, family relations were all-important, Pali or Sanskrit was hard to get the tongue around.


The more conservative Theravada Buddhism had a natural base of appeal in the Indian cultural area, but presumably so did early Mahayana. After all, both grew up there. However, cultural conditions would not have been more of a constant, requiring relatively little adaptation over time. Even if Mahayana had come to dominate, which in fact it did in much of the current Theravada area for a long time, it would have been, one would expect, a much more conservative Mahayana than found in the Chinese cultural area. I suggest that the great divergence in Buddhism began when Buddhism reached China. And something similar is now in the process of happening in the West.


How did Buddhism change in China? This is a mix of my understanding and speculation:


First there was the weather: Monks and nuns needed to wear more layers of clothing and daily alms rounds were more difficult.


Then there was the royal family: The emperor was a god. Monks bow down to gods; gods do not bow down to monks. For instance, kings in India were willing to comply with the Buddha's requirements in the Vinaya that prohibited monks from bowing to anyone but more senior monks. Also, some of the colors that Indian monks used to dye their robes were reserved for royal use.


Then, there was Confucianism: The Confucian code of ethics was almost universally observed, I understand, whether or not one was a Buddhist. This provided a framework that to some degree made Buddhist ethics redundant, and to some degree contradicted Buddhist ethics. For example, the family had a dominant place in Confucian culture, while leaving home to become a monk or nun was valued in India. Buddhism adapted by making the family a model of the Buddhist sangha, in which lineage was highlighted. Begging for food was denigrated in China, so the monastic sangha turned to other livelihoods, such as farming and land ownership.


Then there was the government: organizations were distrusted and regulated. More hierarchy was imposed on the monastic sangha, and the simplicity of consensus democracy was diminished or lost.


Then there was Taoism: this provided a new language for Buddhism, well known in Zen, and probably a doctrinal bias toward nondualism and mistrust of conceptual thinking, though this was certainly not entirely new to Mahayana thought in India. More generally the Chinese favored a more synthetic and less analytical approach to doctrine.


Buddhism adapted in China, and in the greater Chinese cultural area, including Japan, Korea and Vietnam, but was not defeated there. It thrived there and in its adaptations discovered new forms of teaching and practice. It is significant that much of what for a long time was considered part of the corpus of Indian Mahayana sutras was in fact composed in China or adjoining areas. The great Zen tradition began in China, in spite of the attribution of a mind-to-mind transmission through Kassapa and Bodhidharma in India. Whereas the bhikkhuni tradition (full ordination for nuns) died out centuries ago in all Theravada countries, it has flourished continuously in Mahayana lands since Sri Lankan nuns brought it to China, around 350 AD.


What are the lessons here for those who traditionally eat with forks? The first is that Buddhism will make many many adaptations to Western culture, making it unlike what we understand now as Theravada or as Mahayana. The culture of  West is distinct from both that of India and that of China, though perhaps sharing elements of each. The second is that Buddhism does not thereby have to lose its integrity if we do not lose sight of what Buddhism is all about and if we do not let our very persuasive consumer culture overwhelm Buddhism.


In America, Western Buddhism first sprouted from the Mahayana tradition. A danger in importing Chinese Buddhim is that we thereby accrete adaptations. For instance, Chinese Buddhism has adapted family lineage into Buddhism, but the recitation of the Zen lineage in Western temples I think fails to instill the intended faith in a land where family is probably of less importance that in India or China. I think it is important as Buddhism comes to the West to take stock and understand the history of the tradition. It is particularly important at this juncture to understand as best we can the roots of Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha as intended for the cultural context in which he lived. But we should not stop there. The Mahayana innovations are partly a result of creative and productive practice, partly a result of cultural necessity, and we should try to understand which is which.


Ultimately the differences between the Theravada and the Mahayana may not really matter so much in the land of the fork, any more that the differences between eating with one's hands and eating with chopsticks. We will develop a Buddhism that is appropriate to our culture, distinct from Indian and Chinese cultural influences, but hopefully retaining what is valuable in both of these ancient traditions.