Postcard from Burma

Classes are in full swing at Sitagu International Buddhist Academy (SIBA). The place is full of resident monks, and monks and nuns from the densely monastic environs come to SIBA to attend classes as well.

My schedule is much as it has been, with a heavy emphasis on study. I generally meditate for an hour in my room before the 5:30 breakfast bell. For the two daily meals I sit at the foreigner table. Four of us are actually there to help put the "I" in "SIBA": a Lao, a Cambodian, a Vietnamese and myself. Two of the four speak Thai, two of the four Cambodian, often better than English.

After breakfast I sweep the 630-foot long balcony of the 32-unit Guest House, in which I live at the far West end. I generally connect up with "my dog," Wiglet, at this time, who has totally adopted me, especially since I've started bringing her scraps from meals. Then I have a long gap for study until lunch. I've been meeting with one of the Burmese monks, U Kittimara, most mornings 8-9 for a Burmese lesson. Mostly I study Pali.

Yesterday was Uposatta Day, every week according to the moon. Generally a lot of lay people come to SIBA, and to all monasteries, and it is a holiday from classes. My kappiyas, or sponsors, U Htay Myin and Daw Too Too, a couple from Sagaing, come to visit me on Uposatta Days. A kappiya is someone who tells a monk, or presumably a nun, "If you ever need anything, just let me know." I did not fully understand how this system works before I came here. Most monks have a kappiya; I have two, it turns out, counting Htay Myin and Too Too as one joint kappiya. The other is U Tin Hliang, a bachelor who lives in Yangon. None of these speak a word of English. When I receive a visit from Htay Myin and Too Too I feel like a college freshman whose parents have dropped by: They bring things they think I might need and ask repeatedly and eagerly what else I might need. I never need much (through SIBA of basic needs are taken care of.), but I know I can count on them if something major comes up (I've asked Tin Hliang to provide me with a new suitcase, as the one my daughter Kym lent me before I embarked on this trip is falling apart).  A very helpful monk in many ways, U Issariya, helps interpret, while I try to think of a few phrases in Burmese to interject. It is a very upbeat encounter; they are always happy when they leave.

Bhikkhus, of course, depend entirely on the goodwill of people like Htay Myin and Too Too, for the food we receive in the dining room, or more traditionally for alms, for our robes, for our housing. Often we do not see who the contributors are in an organization like SIBA, but seeing who they are and particularly having a familiar relationship with a sponsor reminds us of the immediacy of this dependence. At first I thought that this "adopt a monk" system was a modern Burmese innovation, but in studying the Vinaya I've come to realize it is very ancient indeed. It is one part of the "Economy of Gifts," the basis of the Buddhist community.

So what am I giving in the Economy of Gifts? That is a koan that people like Htay Myin and Too Too remind me to engage. The answer is not simply, "Monks give the greatest gift of all: the Dhamma." Like the best koans it can be turned this way and that and never quite settles. For instance, I can see that just the opportunity to give is an enormous gift to my sponsors. In fact I feel I would serve them better if I could think of something more to ask for!  But also I understand that they have an interest in my meditation practice, my studies and my plans for the future. Yesterday they expressed their hope that I continue to wear the robes when I return to America, which I could happily report is my intention. Even this is a gift.

The lunch bell sounds around 10:30. Often other donors are present for lunch. They bring most of the food, sometimes very fancy indeed, and are involved in serving and offering it to us monks. They are always delighted and continue being so as they wash up dishes after the meal and sit down to enjoy whatever the monks have not finished. Yesterday we seemed to have as many donors as monks and the food would have made even Charles Ball (AZC president) envious (and we each got toothpaste to boot).

We join in a meal chant for the beginning of each meal, which is part of the Pali Reflections on Using the Requisites: "… not for enjoment, nor for intoxication, not out of gluttony, nor to become attractive, but only for the continuation and nourishment of this body, for keeping it unharmed, for helping the brahmacariya life, …"  When we have donors for lunch we generally also recite the Metta Sutta, which I do not yet know in Pali. I must say that not eating after noon has made me very mindful of what and why I eat. It is difficult to eat abundantly, and there is less opportunity to make up later for what you might have failed to give your body earlier. I find that I am very aware of the nutritional value of what I am taking in and whether it will sustain me until the next morning. It is a wonderful practice. I am, by the way, saying quite healthy in this way. I've lost weight but not more than I should.

After lunch I have a lot of free time for studying, washing robes, etc. I also have been teaching English to a group that meets in my room, every day at 1:00. The Lao is the most regular student and has actively recruited most of the other 3-4. At 4:00 Monday through Thursday, Wiglet in tow, I teach fifteen minutes of English pronunciation to a large formerly scheduled class otherwise devoted to English grammar.

There seems to be a difference between vision and reality in the role of English at SIBA. The vision, as I understand it, is that SIBA is "International," both in offering instruction in English, the most international of languages, and in attracting students from many countries. In fact, most students' English is very poor, and there are only four of us internationals (and I'm not a formal student, but a "guest"). As a result, classes begin with a short lecture in English, followed by a long discussion that becomes increasingly Burmese as more people join. From my own attempts at teaching to a large "Intermediate English" class, I've found that most people have little notion of what I am saying unless I speak very slowly, which I had thought was a talent that comes naturally to me.

At 7:00 in the evening the monks gather for chanting (recitation). Afterwards I generally study Vinaya. Recently I have decided to add a little more spice to my routine: a bedtime novel. There are a very few in the English library here. I started with George Orwell's "Burma Days," his first novel, written after having spent five years in Burma. I am currently rereading "A Tale of Two Cities," which as I recall makes little reference to Burma.

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