Into the Bomb Shelter

“Are you scared?” my grandma asked as I secured the heavy door and sat down on the cool floor of the bomb shelter. I looked up at her. She was seated on a small purple stool, nervously cleaning her glasses with the fabric of her white dress. For moment I hesitated, mumbled something in response about having had to run downstairs.

Outside, barely audible through the thick walls of the shelter, the siren blared boldly and persistently. I pressed my palms to the floor, relishing in its coolness. My pulse was rapid and I felt a little lightheaded. Was it fear? Or was it the violent transition from restful sleep to finding safety?

I was napping upstairs when the siren first began its wailing. In a moment I was up and dashing out the bedroom, screeching to a halt when I realized I was wearing nothing but boxers. Have to be decent, I thought, and turned around to the sound of my name being shouted from downstairs.

And after all, I told myself, a minute and thirty seconds is a long time. That’s how long it took for a rocket, fired from the Gaza Strip, to strike Jerusalem. That’s infinity in comparison with the 15 second warning given in southern communities, like Sderot and Ashkelon. After a brief return to the room, I was dashing down the stairs, awkwardly throwing on my clothes mid-step.

Now in the bomb shelter, I turn on the national news and we — my grandma, grandpa and his Philipinno helper – listen to the breaking news. “Reports of rockets fired at Jerusalem and southern communities.” The shelter is small and narrow, with cream-colored walls which absorb sound immediately. “No confirmed strikes as of yet.” My grandpa, in late stages of Alzheimer’s, taps his knees, smiles and let out a small laugh. “Rockets fired at Tel Aviv…” Our hearts are heavy, and my grandma’s face is in her hands, praying to G-d for help. “At the moment we are awaiting further reports…” We all turn to look at grandpa and in an instant his smile disarms us.

We laugh, curse the situation, and bless G-d for being alive.

Bomb shelter selfie! We shall fear not

Bomb shelter selfie! We shall fear not

I pray that the situation will subside, and that, above all, we uphold the sanctity of human life. Israel, with its incredible Iron Dome missile defense system, punctual sirens and emergency procedures, is doing astonishing well at preserving civilian life. Hamas is unfortunately putting the lives of innocent civilians at risk by firing from within civilian populations and encouraging civilians to crowd roofs that have been targeted – and warned – by the Israeli Air Force. Hamas needs to be held accountable for using civilians as a tactical advantage, and the world must understand that Israel must, and will, defend itself.

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Burma

Burma is now months in the past and I’ve finally decided to just sit and write! A big block to my writing has been the tremendous number of experiences I’ve had that can’t, and probably shouldn’t be summarized in a blog.

Burma was amazing but also extremely difficult. For the first time since my Watson began I was truly on my own, seeking references and resources from point zero. At times I’d have as little as a bookstore name or temple associated with a sayadaw (teacher) from which to begin my search. Government policy kept me (for a time) isolated in hotels and identified as a tourist. My goal became to overcome that identity trap and really get to know some of the locals and, through them, Burmese Buddhism.

I find that what I miss most about Burma – being that I am in Cambodia, a country where vegetarian foods are an oddity –is the food. And here I’m not just referring to the food itself, but the mystery of eating regionally different dishes, with distinctive flavors and textures. I’d walk up to a street-side stall and call out “tha-tha-lo?”, the Burmese word for non-meat food. The response was usually incomprehensible to me – a string of foreign sounds – but if the general tone implied “yes,” I’d sit down and wait, not knowing what will be served. To this day I don’t know the names of the dishes I grew to love (but for a few). Sitting on the low stools (and I mean low, where knees are at par with head), fumbling with chopsticks (I’ve gotten much better) and drinking out of small cups of Chinese tea, I couldn’t be happier. An afternoon could easily be spent stall-hopping and tasting their choice (“Chef’s Choice,” I would imagine) of “tha-tha-lo”.

Yangon

The markets of Yangon are bustling with colors, sounds, and smells. Vegetables, fruits, chickens and meat, dry fish – all these are packed into every crevice of the street. Even the road itself becomes selling-space; the vendors just have to remember to get out of the way of incoming traffic. Clever, I know you’re thinking, but probably not so hygienic. 

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The rooftops leading to Shwedagon pagoda

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Young monk at Shwedagon

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Clever street market!

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The Burmese are known for their friendliness

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Before I returned “home,” I’d buy a few cut-up chapatis (Indian dough fried in oil) garnished in several spoons of sugar. Though they were fried in thick oil and tossed around by money-exchanging hands, these sweet treats were irresistible and indispensible to making it a good night.  

Quite randomly, I ran into Tenzin (he spelled it quite differently), who worked as a door-boy at one of the hotels I stayed at. Yangon is a small city, I suppose. On our third meeting I invited him for pizza at one of the “Western” restaurants. He was shocked I’d pay so much for a pizza (about $7), but for his first pizza it was definitely worth it! He quit his job at the hotel and is now working for Muslim Aid in Kachin State, assessing community poverty conditions and needs.

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Tenzin having his first pizza

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U Sue and I at his Indian restaurant

U Sue, or Mr. Sue, is a friendly and convivial man who co-owns an Indian restaurant. During my first couple days in Myanmar, I was petrified to try the local food. I thought everything contained meat and the concept of vegetarian null (of course, it was just naïve fear). U Sue and I spoke for hours about Myanmar, our families, Buddhism. Throughout my two months in Myanmar, I’d stop by his restaurant and we’d catch-up, discussing my most recent experiences – from wandering through monasteries searching for sayadaws (teachers) to vipassana meditation. U Sue was thrilled to hear about my studies. When we met for the second time, he gifted me with an Abidhamma book (in Buddhism, the gifting of Dhamma – the Buddhas teachings – is the greatest gift). 

When I told U Sue I would enter a two week meditation retreat, he beamed with pride and happiness. “That is so good!” he would say with a heavy accent, pushing a thumbs up in my direction. His encouragement eased my nervousness about the retreat. Alternating between sitting and walking meditation from 4:00AM till 9:00PM, striving to maintain mindfulness throughout the day, from going to the toilet to drinking tea, keeping absolute silence unless addressed by my teacher… The retreat was unlike anything I have ever done. The goal was to develop an awareness of the present moment; what phenomena arise and pass at the doors of the six senses (the mind is number six) and to clearly see how mind-body influence one another. True peace is in complete mindfulness. It is where the three defilements of anger, greed and ill will cannot arise. Reaching this point is extremely difficult and I can honestly say that, in two weeks, I only got a glimpse of such a state of being.       

I was fortunate to meet U Dhammapiya, who received a Ph.D from the US and could easily address my questions. We met many times and I stayed at his monastery in Mandalay. I joined a couple of his classes (taught in English to mostly Burmese and Taiwanese students) but particularly enjoyed the hours of conversation with him about Buddhist philosophy, the role of culture in society and religion, and the relationship between social activism and Buddhism. I visited a few of his projects, including an orphanage and a school for the disadvantaged (poor and orphaned). He introduced me to a couple notable voices in Burma’s monastic body, such as an ex-political prisoner who was targeted by the government for speaking out against its policies.  

Mon State

In Mawlamying, Mon State, I was welcomed like family by Sila Dipa and Thiha MgMg. After being on my own for about a month, it was nice to be supported and looked after by someone. In the two weeks I spent with them, my hosts took me around Mon State, introducing me to the leading sayadaws and showing me ancient Buddhist sites. “You know what this white line is?” Thiha MgMg asked me, pointing to the thick white line running through the middle of his longy, or traditional Mon and Burmese dress, “it is the pure blood line of the Mon people.” And just like that, I was introduced to an ethnicity that, while a small minority today, was once a great people. One evening, we traveled about an hour and a half into a remote part of Mon State, passing small villages separated by vast rice fields. We attended a massive funeral of a chief monk, for whom a large spiral funeral pyre was built to cremate his body. Live bands, DJs, restaurants, and festival games were set up in the middle of a rice paddy field. For about a half an hour I was in shock: it was a funeral which more closely resembled a popular social outing. 

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Half our crew making our way to the shore — Sila Dipa on back. Wait.. Whose watching the road?

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Thiha Mgmg introduced me to palm wine, a sweet and sour alcoholic drink

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“The Boat Man” on our way to a small island

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yum

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Golden Rock in Mon State. Said to be leaning on only one of Buddha’s hairs

Bagan

Bagan was short-vacation from my active pursuit of Buddhist knowledge. I spent three days just relaxing at pagodas, talking to locals, and taking time to reflect on life. Bagan has the densest number of stupas in the world, so it’s quite easy to get lost and find yourself completely alone. While wandering back home from an overcrowded sunset viewing spot, I crossed paths with this man. It was an odd feeling – we both slowed as we were passing each other, and then just stopped, looking at each other. We each didn’t speak the other’s language but somehow communicated. He told me about his family, his village and his job, selling ice-cream to local children at the temples.

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A festival in Bagan where young children are being sent into the monastic order. Their families take them on horse and ox-cart to the temple

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A big festival to give alms to monks. Thousands line up on both ends — monks to receive, and laypeople to give and receive merit

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The cheapest form of transportation

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Mwe and me on the way to sunset hotspot

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Ice-cream vendor I met on my way from an overcrowded sunset spot

I met Mwe the day before, a cute local girl selling souvenirs to tourists who wander into temples near her. She followed me into the temple and, in a quite predictable fashion (they all do it the same), told me the history or details of the temple and the fading paintings inside. I smiled when she tried to sell me her merchandise, politely declining. After about thirty minutes of chatting with the local vendors, drinking (deliciously) cold Coke-Cola, they opened up and started sharing more about their lives. I joined them as they moved to a new location, a sunset viewing point popular among tourists. It was difficult watching them trying to sell their souvenirs, especially since they were identical to all the other vendors’. Mwe has never been outside the Bagan area. Her eyes were sad, and I could only imagine what it feels like to see so many tourists come and go – people with the money to travel to distant parts of the world while she can’t visit the neighboring city.  

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Gold-leaf Buddha. The gold-leaf are donated by anyone and plastered on

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Bagan shortly after sunrise

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Down in Bago

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Bago. Children on their way to school — another project site I was visiting organized by a progressive, and not unlike a hustler, monk.

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A shofar in Myanmar

The synagogue was huge, beyond anything I would expect in this seemingly off-the-map city of Yangon, Myanmar. I was surprised to learn that three thousand Jews lived here before immigrating to the newly-established State of Israel. Their home used to be Iraq; today, the only indication of their lives in Myanmar is this old synagogue (1854, rebuilt in 1893) and one Jewish family. Moses Samuel, the caretaker of the synagogue, motioned to me that during the high-holidays the synagogue was packed with people and in fact it couldn’t contain everyone in its stone walls.

Now there was complete silence and I could feel the walls begging for a presence. It looked like a home whose family quickly departed, leaving behind their favorite books, clothes and pictures. Two Torah scrolls still stand in the heichal, waiting…

I saw a shofar* resting by the menorah and I didn’t hesitate. I squeezed and squeezed past the point of feeling faint and past the point of surrender. I felt my blood rushing and temple throbbing as my breath slowly filled the temple with life. It did not matter that there were only two men here, for in my mind I could see a thousand Jews listening to the sound of the great shofar. Moses’ eyes were wide and his smile wider – I think he felt the same.

In the Shmoneh Esrei prayer – the most personal one between the prayer and God – I read and meditated on these words (translated as I understood the Hebrew text, which varies slightly from the common translation):

Sound a great Shofar for our freedom, and deliver a miracle to unite the dispersed; gather us as one from the four corners of the earth to our land. Blessed are you, G-d, who unites the dispersed of His nation Israel.

Am I not one of “the dispersed” of Israel? What am I doing here, so far from “our land,” Israel? If we all lived in Israel, would there no longer be “the dispersed”? I don’t think so, for unity cannot be about a physical place, could it?

The Shofar in my hands was a miracle: it connected me to the thousands of Jews that lived here in exile, and it turned this sleepy synagogue into my home. Though still empty, there was a presence about it – sustained throughout my repeated visits – that made it feel like the synagogue I grew up attending. Maybe it’s as simple as that! A symbol of unity, though easy to conceive of (as easy as a long breath, right?), is much more difficult to realize. The miracle is to find that symbol, hold it in your hands, and make it shake the walls which confine you.

*Shofar: a ram’s horn traditionally sounded on the Day of Atonement, symbolizing the closeness between self and God.

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Sigiriya

SIGIRIYA

Sigiriya is very famous in Sri Lanka. It’s one of the tourist hotspots, as is evident from the AC buses unloading on the main road and countless hotels spread throughout the area. Sigiriya itself consists of beautiful gardens, ancient ruins and irrigation systems, ancient texts and the remnants of a massive lion. According to the Buddhist text Mahavamsa, this rock was built over two thousand years ago by a fervent king, and after his death it became a monastery.

Despite it’s lure I didn’t go. The Sri Lankan government has an outrageous policy of overcharging policy of overcharging tourists for tickets. So instead I went to the rock right next door, Pidurangala, where a monk demanded 200 rupees to enter. It was well worth it, with incredible views of Sigiriya and the thousands of acres of jungle around. I went up to Pidurangala at least four times.

Anya doing some yoga as the sun sets. I met with Maria and Anya in Sigiriya, and we spent some time exploring the area.

A temple on the way to the top. Everything inside was carved out of the stone of the rock

The monastery’s bell to signal for meal-time and other events

Excavation project at the outskirts of the complex

The two rocks from across a water reservoir. We came here to swim a couple times. This entire region is experiencing a serious drought… This was the only significant body of water to be seen. Saw a crocodile eying me and swimming in my direction, which was enough to get me out, fast.

Do you believe it?

Getting down in the dark was a little tricky, but the bright moon and stars (together with a powerful flashlight) made it all right. We saw a group of porcupines and I was quite relieved they weren’t the cobras we were warned about.

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