Postcard from Burma
(Think of these postcards as very big, or as the writing on them as very small.)
Wigglet is in heat. I've described Wigglet is "my dog," though she now bounces between my place and that of Petra, the German woman who is living in the guesthouse about ten apartments down. It turns out that Petra and Wigglet have known each other for years. Wigglet is a smart dog: she knows to hang out with the Westerners, who all like dogs. She was Venerable Sopaka's dog after Petra's previous tenure (U Sopaka is the American bhikkhu who moved down to Sitagu-Yangon just as I moved in here). Anyway, we will probably see a lot of drama around the Guest House in the coming days. The male dogs are starting to hang out in masses. Often when I open my back door, where Wigglet never goes, there is a dog on the other side. I sympathize with the male dogs: they are all so miserable, and Wigglet keeps chasing them off. I can tell they are going through the total range of emotions that human males go through in corresponding circumstances.
Observing the male dogs is a good reminder for me of why one becomes a monk (or nun), that is undertakes a life of renunciation. Buddhism is to look from outside the box, then to think, "This is crazy. Why do people make themselves and others so miserable?" There is joy outside the box and much more opportunity to benefit others. Ajahn Tate writes that teaching the Dhamma is nothing more than pointing out the afflictions and flaws of worldly life.
One of the ironic things I've discovered in Myanmar is that often the quality of manufactured wares is better here than in America. Myanmar is a very poor country, Africa-poor according to the statistics, so people in general do not own much. However, people do use razor blades (especially monks), flashlights, clothing, and sometimes even little motor bikes. For probably a very small part of the population there are cars and cell-phones. (At the Sitagu Academy we seem to have a lot of computers.) All of my clothing is manufactured either in Myanmar or Thailand; it is Theravada monks' clothing; I don't even own a pair of pants anymore. But most manufactured goods now come from China, or less often Thailand, much as in the USA. What surprises me often, though, is the availability of good quality.
Everybody here seems to use rechargeable LED flashlights. LED lighting does not seem to have caught on in the USA. Scott, a member of our original pilgrimage team to Myanmar, who is a lighting technician for movie sets, commented that LED lighting is very expensive in the USA. I have a rechargeable LED flashlight that I bought before I ordained for 25000 Kyat ($2.50) for use when the electricity goes out. It works great. It plugs into a wall outlet to recharge. I think it might even recharge with American electricity; I may bring it back.
In my last few years in the USA I was working out ways to have as small a consumer footprint as possible. This is a good practice, not only for monks and nuns but for all Buddhists. I no longer owned a car or a house, so I was dealing on the level of things like razor blades. In the USA razor blade technology has made great strides, now offering many high-tech options at high-tech prices, such as three parallel blades encased in a plastic housing. It occurred to me that in my younger days shaving was relatively inexpensive. In an economy that grows primarily through the growth in inefficiency, finding a more labor- or resource-intensive way to do whatever it was you were already doing before, this is hardly surprising. In fact the most economical solution would seem to be the old Schick double-edged blade. The blade must be easy to manufacture, since no assembly is needed. Also you have two blades in one, like the double-edged sword that allowed you in days of olde to fight a much longer battle before your weapon became dull. And when both edges become dull you flip it over for additional mileage. I began experiencing nostalgia for my old double edged razor. After I discovered that you could buy double edge blades at CVS, but not the full razor, a fellow Zen priest, Korin Anita, found me an antique razor on e-bay, and I was in business. Although I found that I cut myself more often with the CVS double edge blades than with the high-tech alternatives the extreme cost differential induced me to stick with the double edge, and before I came to Myanmar I stocked up on CVS double-edged blades.
Now, in an economy like Myanmar's that has yet to grow into inefficiency one would expect that the optimal solution to the razor blade question would be widely recognized and practiced. And indeed, everyone uses double-edged razors, with blades of exactly the size that fits into my antique razor. In fact, a common offering people make to monks is double-edged razor blades; all monks use the same kind. In America, I've noticed, people offer monks disposable razors, because there is no telling what kind of razor the monk might possess. As a result, my supply of double-edged razor blades has steady grown since I've been in Myanmar.This is a long story, but now I get to the point: The razor blades in Myanmar are much better than the CVS blades I bought in the USA! I almost never cut myself. In fact I now enjoy a closer, smoother and more comfortable shave with less loss of blood than I used to with