Buddhism in Burma


I'm back at Sagaing Hills for a couple of days, which will be my home base  I feel at home here because in a lot of ways it reminds me of Marin County in California, where I grew up, only not so upscale. Sagaing Hills is very hill, often with very steep hills, and heavily wooded and is full of narrow winding roads. But even though there is a lot of Buddhism in Marin County by American standards, here there is one temple, pagoda or monastery after another.

I am impressed that Buddhism is seamlessly part of the culture here. I think that experiencing this is one of the primary reasons Ashin Ariyadhamma encouraged me to come to Burma. This really is a culture of generosity even tempers. I've never seen a public display of anger, I've never seen a bicycle with a lock on it, and this in spite of possibly the highest level of poverty in Asia. There is quite a bit of begging, but it is never pushy. People are not self-assertive or trying to distinguish themselves. People understand the teachings around moha and dosa and seem rather consistently to exhibit amosa (generosity) and adosa (compassion). Quite remarkable people.

People exhibit quite a lot of reverence for monks. Unfortunately less for nuns (who for historical circumstances are not fully ordained). At the same time monks mix freely with the general population. Often you see one riding on the back of someone's bicycle or hanging off of a truck. Most males in the country have been monks at some time, at least for short periods, and have received the same reverence during those periods, even from their own parents. I think this reinforces the idea that the reverence is for the robes, or for the Dharma, not for the individual that inhabits the robes. The monks make themselves totally dependent on the offerings of the lay people, yet give more than inspiration in return. I am impressed how many monks are involved in public services, like establishing schools, hospitals and orphanages. Ashing Punnobassa, who I've seen a few times now, and whom some people in Austin will remember, is involved in providing schooling for 100 novice monks (ages ~5 to 19). The arrangement is an economy of gifts which I think must inspire the pervasive generosity of the culture.

Temples seem often to accrue a lot of physical wealth, and this can be found in the Catholic-like extravagance of many of the pagodas. Gold leaf spires are very common. Many of the older more obscure monasteries at the same time can be quite run-down. Monks for the most part live very modestly, even older monks and abbots.

I've accrued most of my requisites toward ordination simply through spontaneous giving. To ordain as a bhikkhu one traditionally needs eight thing: the three robes plus a belt, an alms bowl, a needle, a razor and water filter. (At a hotel I realized I could take home two of the eight requisites: a sewing kit and a disposable razor. But I couldn't find a shower cap or shampoo on the list. We visited an old teacher of Ashin Ariyadhamma's, Ashin Suriya, who is a 100 year-old meditation master. As we are preparing to leave, he said to the three monks in our party (this was interpreted for my be Aung Ko, the Burmese American in our group), "I wish I could give you all robes. But there is someone I can give robes to." He had a young monk fetch something from the other room and he came back and handed me a set of robes. The very next day we visited another monastery, whose 80-year-old abbot gave me another complete set of robes, plus a bowl.

I see very small traces of commercialism creeping in to the culture and it makes me shiver. This shows up in billboards with oriental men and women trying to look sexy or distinguished and owning stuff. This is in start contrast with the apparent attitudes of most people.


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