Life in Sagaing Hills

I arrived here at the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, my home base, once again on May 12, and have now settled into a routine I can report to you.

The Academy is still closed for the hot season, until the third week in June. It is very hard to acquire any information about the schedule here, or what classes will be offered when the Academy reopens. I had to ask a lot of people to get the information, "third week in June," after being told at one time that classes on June 1.

Anyway, the academy is closed, but there are about ten or twelve monks here. I think most of the foreign monks have arrived. I had thought that Venerable Sopaka, an American who had lived here for two years would be here for the duration of my stay, but he has relocated to the Sitagu Center in Yangon. I saw him there as I was passing through. That will make me the only native English speaker for the coming term, as far as I know, and in fact the only Westerner. In fact as far as I know, I am the only Westerner in Sagaing.

The academy is officially closed, but I have access to the library and worked it out so that I can get into the computer room to send notes like this, be means of a hidden key. When I left Sagaing, after ordaining in the morning, this place was teaming with people. Now it is quiet, the convocation hall where I ordained is locked up.

U Sopaka was worried about his dogs when I talked to him. Burmese do not usually befriend dogs, but of course Americans do, and he had a small group of dogs, generally three, that followed him around everywhere. Well, they have found me. Two particularly, Wigglet and Nibblet (Wendy named them when she was here), are always close at hand. However, one Burmese monk has actually started feeding the dogs every day, so he gets a lot of attention now too.

I am occupying one of the rooms in the guest building, which I had stayed in previously. The guest building has 32 units, each with three rooms: a visiting room and bedroom with two beds and a bathroom. They also have A/C, but the electricity is usually working only about half of the time.

My schedule typically looks like this:

3:30 Wake up.
4:00 Meditate in my room.
5:30 Breakfast for monks.
7:00 (4 days per week), Vinaya, Pali tutoring.
9:00 Burmese tutoring.
10:30 Lunch for monks.
12:00 English class.
6:00 Evening walk.
9:00 Beddy-bye.

There is not much community practice here. In Burma there is often a clear distinction between practice Buddhism and scholarship Buddhism, and the academy represents the second of these. I think a lot of the monks meditate regularly, I see them doing walking meditation outside and hear them chanting inside. But practice is pretty much self-directed. I've set up an altar in my room.

Breakfast is generally offered to the monks by the lay staff here, and is fairly informal. We sit on the floor at a low table and eat, with little conversation. There is a foreigners' table where I sit. The food is generally about the same each day: rice with sauce, vegetable, soup and meat dishes to mix in. Sometimes a meal is donated, a couple times by lay families and a couple times by nuns. The food is generally more interesting on those days, sometimes noodles!

Sitagu Sayadaw asked a senior monk and scholar (Ph.D.) here to look after my scholarly needs. So we have been meeting four times a week to discuss, so far, Vinaya. Two foreign monks have decided to join our sessions, one Cambodian and one Lao.

The last couple of days a Burmese monk has started giving me daily help with Burmese. We have been going over the Burmese sound system. Before I came, I thought I would not put much energy into learing Burmese, because this is an English-speaking (International) academy and I want to focus on Pali language. However, not very many monks speak English well; I don't know how they actually conduct classes; I guess I will soon see. Also Burmese is more immediately useful, for speaking with the laypeople here, who are without exception very friendly and have little English, or getting about outside of the academy.

I have been offering an English language class in my room. So far the Lao has been coming, and the Burmese monk who is helping me with Burmese, and is also the one who has taken to feeding the dogs. I have also just invited a guy from the kitchen, Thanton (sp?), who has been very interested in learning English.

You will notice that there is a lot of free time in my day. This gives me the opportunity to study. I spend about two hours a day just memorizing Pali words, and additional time studying Pali grammar and learning to recite texts. I have already read about one quarter of the Vinaya in English translation, and have been studying some Dharma materials. Then I have time for exercise and keeping my room clean, contributing to this blog and taking an evening walk. I also sweep the porch of the guest house every morning, the whole extent of the 32 units.

It's a good simple life and I am enjoying it. I love the time to study. I plan spend the next several months basically like this.

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