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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.