After spending the past six days basically being on holiday in Myanmar (in Yangon, Bagan, and Inle), Graham and I were ready to get back down to business! Our bus ride from Inle back to Yangon was mostly uneventful, except for the seemingly recently started but quickly-spreading forest fire we drove past in the mountains! It was all the way up to the road and moving up the mountainside, and we both wondered if the bus would have to stop, and where the nearest water was, and whether any homes were nearby… but then the bus just took the hairpin turn and we simply bounced past the flames and down the road. A half a minute later and we had taken yet another turn around a corner leaving both the orange glow and our accelerated heartbeats diminishing behind us. It is funny how some things stick with you, and hard to believe that it has been close to a full five years since the 2008 Tassajara fire!
We arrived back at the insanely crowded and hectic bus terminal in Yangon by 6 A.M. and caught a taxi to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda where we would have a few hours before making our way to Pa Auk’s Yangon branch monastery in nearby Thanlyin. As mentioned in earlier posts, Graham had been wanting to study with Pa Auk for the past few years and had hoped to spend a few months at least at his Forest Monastery down in Mawlamyine in the Mon State of Myanmar during this trip before his back started acting up as soon as we got to India (seven months ago). He had pretty much given up the idea of making it to Pa Auk’s after that. However, after our attempts to practice at a northern Wat in Thailand had been thwarted we reconsidered our options yet again and happily made it out to Myanmar to explore Burmese meditation practice and make contacts for a possible longer trip in the future. We had contacted the Thanlyin branch when we first arrived and were told that they did not take reservations, but that we should simply show up and inquire about space a little bit after the peak Burmese retreat time around the Burmese New Year (when we first arrived in Myanmar). So it was with crossed fingers that we made our way by taxi out to Thanlyin…When we arrived we asked the taxi driver if he would wait while we determined if there was indeed space for the two of us, and even though the receptionist initially gave us a hard time for not having the specific meditation visa needed, after a short interview with one of the head-teachers (which our taxi driver joined us for) we were granted entry for the next ten days. Hooray!
On that first day we were given time to settle into our rooms, which were spacious and clean, and to take a walk around the grounds before being brought to meet with the main English-speaking teacher for meditation instruction and a brief Dharma talk. We were also given a copy of their daily schedule, but beyond that there was very little instruction given. In terms of rules there were nine precepts to follow: the traditional eight plus a Metta practice they informally called the “ninth precept.” The teacher we met was a young, friendly, and boisterous bhikkhu with a lot of enthusiasm for the Dhamma. He gave us handouts on the “pagoda to enlightenment,” instructed us in the various stages of practice by means of a power point presentation he had proudly created, and gave us several gigabytes of Dhamma talks by Master Pa Auk. While sitting with him in his office we missed the last few meditation sessions of the day and the nightly Dhamma talk given by the resident Abbot, and were told that we should just listen to the Pa Auk talks instead of going to the scheduled nightly talk, as it would be given in Burmese. We spent a few hours with him that evening and scheduled more interviews over the next two days. After that it seemed that he and the two other teachers at the center would be traveling to Malaysia and Indonesia to hold retreats at new Pa Auk centers established there. With new centers in California and in Thailand as well, it seemed that Pa Auk was becoming a very popular international meditation teacher indeed! After listening to a few of his Dharma talks, I could see why, as his manner was clear, direct, precise, and charmingly sweet as well. By nine o’clock Graham and I had parted ways and were safely tucked into our respective rooms for our first night.Daytime temperatures in Thanlyin were in the low 100s and the pre-dawn lows were in the upper 80s (and humidity in the low 90s), so I was very appreciative that my room was on the second floor and had windows on three sides, which allowed for the few breezes that came along to enter. Unfortunately the mosquitoes, while not swarming, were plentiful enough that I felt the need to sleep under the netting they had thankfully provided to me, which felt only slightly better than being in a plastic bag (which is pretty much what it is). The bed, as per usual monastic regulations against excessive comfort, consisted of a sheet of plywood placed on a bed frame, with a plastic “bamboo” mat and a fleece blanket that I used for some padding.
Happily, I also had the luxury of my own bathroom with a shower, which I used at nearly every available opportunity to rinse off my sweat-drenched body and clothes. The bathroom was also the site of much local wildlife, and I thought of a National Geographic special on “Creatures of the Monastery Restroom.” Over the course of the week I had countless translucent geckos, spiders, ants and even a frog who somehow made it up to the second floor to hang out and meditate with me for a few days. At one point one of the geckos perished and the ants went into a frenzy that lasted the whole week, providing much to reflect on with regard to impermanence of the body! They were very efficient in my room as well, carefully clearing the top of my mosquito net of any stray dead insects…
There were many birds living under the eaves outside my windows as well, and I found their chirping and squawking cheerful and pleasant. Sometimes they too would enter the room through the open windows and balcony door and the little geckos would scramble under curtains or behind the furniture to hide. Life and death.The daily monastic schedule began with a 3:30 wake-up bell followed by an hour and a half of seated meditation in the very spacious and sex-segregated mediation halls. The hall was also used for chanting, which took place several times in the day, as well as for the evening lectures (that we did not attend).There were little foam cushions and assorted pillows available at the front doors to the hall to use for sitting, and if one wanted, individual mosquito nets to tie above your sitting place onto wires that stretched across the room in neat rows. There were also rotating fans affixed to the ceiling at regular intervals, but I never saw any of them turned on. Apparently Graham later told me that he loved using his little net, but as I simply could not stop sweating throughout the entirety of our time there I simply could not fathom getting under one while sitting! It was bad enough to leave my cushions drenched after each meditation period, which would still be wet when I returned. No wonder I developed a persistent heat rash over the course of my time there, even with multiple applications of medicated talcum powder! But enough about the obvious discomforts in practice.The early morning meal was offered at 5:30 and we had a little time afterwards for a rest and a rinse-off before returning to the hall for the second and third periods of sitting in the day. Breakfasts were served in the big communal dining hall, usually consisting of simple but plentiful rice porridge, vegetables, and sometimes fruit. When the drum for meals would start I would watch out my front window at the monks lining up along the walkway, followed by the lay-men. Nun sramaneris and lay women lined up in a different area, but both lines joined at the entrance to the dining hall with the monks entering first, followed by sramaneris, then lay-men and finally lay-women. Usually after the lay-men passed I would take the stairs down to get into the lay-women line. The monks took their meal in a separate room from the rest of us, and we were further mostly separated by gender and apparently, nationality. Graham, I, and the other foreigner, a Taiwanese man named “Tony,” always sat together and were occasionally joined by a visiting foreign Asian man.
The next three and a half hours before the 10 a.m. morning bath-time was spent alternating between sitting and walking meditation. At 10:30 we would line up again to receive lunch, which would be the last meal of the day. Lunch was often a VERY BIG DEAL and on most days there would be large groups of lay supporters who would show up bearing gifts of food and sometimes supplies for all the monks and yogis. Sometimes we would collect armfuls of snacks and toiletries on our way into the dining hall from the families and children who had showed up for the day to pay their respects to the monastery and to gain merit from their offerings. Even though the idea of merit-making has its problems and can easily be misused as a way to justify either future or past misdeeds, the actual giving that we encountered on those occasions moved me to tears. It was as if they had come simply to offer their support for the practice of meditation. Perhaps they couldn’t take the time off to come for a retreat themselves due to other obligations such as work and family? In any case, the whole ceremonial enactment of giver, receiver, and gift always felt very pure of heart, and the support we received (in intention as well as in the physical forms of things like monkey balm, toothpaste, instant noodles, laundry detergent and other sundries) was much appreciated.And then we would sit down at our table where sometimes there were over 12 courses of the most incredibly tasty food we had encountered on our entire trip! We were served dishes like peanut fried onions, seitan fake meats with potato, tofu skins with greens, shredded salad, glass noodle soup, hot brown sauce, rice, spicy cauliflower, jackfruit, tea, cake, biscuits, condensed milk with multicolored tapioca shapes and a scoop of ice cream for dessert!After lunch there was a half hour rest period before we would be back in the hall for another four hours of sitting and walking followed by an hour of “personal time” (which for me meant another shower and laundry). Then we would return to the hall for another few hours of meditation, breaking at 7 p.m. for a half an hour before the Dhamma talk. Over the course of the week many of the nuns and lay women in the hall were incredibly sweet to me, and some of the ones who sat by me seemed to want to take me under their wings. They showed me how to change my sitting from meditation to chanting postures, offered me bug sprays or nets in the evenings, and at one point a lay-woman approached me while sitting to give me an English copy of “The Essence of Buddha Abhidhamma” by Dr. Mehm Tin Mon, a student of Pa Auk’s. After I was there for a few days I was abducted by a group of nuns in the break before the Dhamma talk and taken past the dining hall to a golden pagoda that I didn’t even know was on the premises. One of them, a pink-robed nun named Daw Tin Tin Aye, spoke English very well (and was a professor at the University in Yangon) and showed me how to pray for good luck at the correct altar at the pagoda (determined by the day of birth). The nuns were quite hilarious, and even though I was initially shocked at the break in noble silence, I was thrilled at having some contact with these women whom I had been sitting with throughout the week. They pinched my cheeks and cooed over me, asking all sorts of personal questions and insisting that I needed to return to Burma for at least a year to enter into the main Pa Auk forest monastery at Mawlamyine. On the second excursion I took with them out to the pagoda we stayed out a little too late and the poor things got scolded as we returned to the hall. I felt sorry for them as they lowered their heads and hurried along without another word, but it was kind of funny as well… None of the nuns who went on these little excursions were living full-time at the center, but were merely visiting.
When we first arrived Graham and I were introduced to a resident sramaneri nun named Uttara who was studying for her PhD. in Buddhist Studies at the University of Yangon. I was told that I could interview with her after all the English-speaking bhikkhus left for Malaysia and Indonesia, and she invited Graham as well (although the lay-men who shepherded Graham around said Graham would basically be out of luck after the bhikkhus left in terms of having practice discussion, it being quite unthinkable that she would have anything to offer him). She was young and quite knowledgeable as well as cheerful, and her enthusiasm for the meditation practice was so infectious that I began plotting a return to the center in the not too distant future, and even wondered quite seriously if it might be possible to simply apply for the meditation visa while I was there and simply remain in Myanmar for the next year. At one point when Graham and I were sitting in wait for an interview we discussed that option in earnest, but decided to take it up together after our retreat was over. But when we told Uttara that we were thinking about it she kicked into high gear, procured some applications and took us to see some bhikkhu higher-ups (whose signatures we would need for the visa application). That process ended up with us taking a trip into town (a visiting doctor with a car kindly drove us) to get the necessary photocopies!The meditation practice in the Pa Auk system is a very straightforward and practical interpretation of the Theravada Buddhist tome, the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification which was complied from the earliest recorded writings of the Buddha by the 3rd century Sri Lankan monk, Buddhaghosa. It is comprised of three basic divisions in practice: 1.Sīla (ethics or moral conduct), 2. Samādhi (meditative concentration), and 3. Pañña (wisdom). Our time at the center was mainly focused on practicing the second step while following the precepts contained in the first. The initial steps were entirely comprised of painstakingly paying attention to the breath exactly at the point at which it enters and exits through the nostrils, which is somewhat different from other anapanasati concentration practices (like the one employed at Suan Mokkh in Thailand). Emphasis is placed on following this practice until the appearance of the nimitta (sign) which heralds the entry point into meditative absorption (jhana). From there one masters the four material jhanas and can advance on to other practices using the stability of the mind’s concentration as a foundation for vipassana or insight into the true nature of our conditioned existence, that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self-nature. Sounds good, huh? Needless to say, I found it extremely difficult. But Pa Auk, Buddhaghosa, and countless other meditation masters insist that it is absolutely essential to advance in one’s practice, and that even the practice of Metta is close to useless without it. This seems shockingly at odds with western Vipassana schools of practice, but what do I know about such things as a Soto Zen priest?So I tried, and I discussed my practice with Uttara almost on a daily basis. But sometimes it seemed that the harder I tried, the more unwieldy my mind would become. At one point after I got dismayed when Uttara casually mentioned that I would be able to look into the causes and conditions of my unfortunate female birth (while extolling the virtues of the meditation practice) my mind was trapped in incessant thinking about the unfortunately pervasive sexism in Theravada Buddhism. This lasted for days.On our last night at Pa Auk’s I declined another visit to the Pagoda with the nuns and returned to the silence of my room instead to concentrate on the in and out flow of my breath. I did not know when we might be back in Myanmar again, or whether I would indeed ever enter into training at the main forest monastery. We now had our sponsorship letters in hand for applying for the meditation visa and would no doubt have some serious discussions once we left the monastery and returned to Yangon for our last night in Myanmar. Graham and I had a few nights together in Kuala Lumpur before we would part ways… him back to Canada and me on to Cambodia. It was exciting to think of the possibilities, yet also scary to not know what would happen next in the unfolding of our lives. While this “not-knowing” is a central part of Zen practice, it is also not so easy when everything seems up in the air! I went to sleep dreaming of a big bright and stable golden nimitta at the tip of my nose…
On our last day at Pa Auk’s Thanlyin branch we checked out the little monastery store while waiting for our cab back to Yangon and said farewell to some of the wonderfully friendly women who obviously took great care of the practice at the center. Yes, we would be back, we said to them… someday.