Mahayana/Theravada II: The Pa Auk Tawya Encounter

Theravada/Mahayana II: The Pa Auk Tawya Encounter


This Spring I spent almost two months at the Pa Auk Tawya meditation center in Mon State, with about four hundred other monks. This is, of course, a Theravada monastery, and it has a very famous Burmese abbot, who teaches a particular and very systematic method of Vipassana meditation based on the commentaries of Buddagossa, The Path of Purification. It was a good opportunity for me to consider the differences between this style and the radically unsystematic (Mahayana) Soto Zen style of meditation I grew up on. Also significant was the great number of monks from Mahayana traditions, probably about forty or fifty, who had traveled to Myanmar to practice meditation at this Theravada center.


The first thing that struck me about the Mahayana monks is that they looked just like me in a previous life, about two weeks earlier. Well, not just like me: They were primarily from Korea, with some from China and Taiwan. Interestingly there were also ordained Theravada monks from traditionally Mahayana countries, like Korea and Taiwan, and also one from Japan. But it was interesting to discover in me a kind of identification with Mahayana that I did not know was there. What reminded me of “my kind of people” is the deportment and attire of the Mahayana monks.


Mahayana clothing evolved in China as layers of clothing were added underneath the traditional Indian clothing, and then the traditional robe on top as abbreviated. Theravada represents something closer to the Buddha’s tradition, consisting of the triangular lower and upper robes, and generally nothing else. Different Theravada countries now wear robes of the same size, but differing color, and seem to have only one style in common of the many ways the upper robe may be worn. I understand that scholars really are not entirely certain how the upper robe was worn in the Buddha’s day, nor how big it was. Apparently, though, it was smaller than it is now, so maybe the Mahayana upper robe is not so great an abberation.


The Mahayana monks, on the other hand, enjoy the many benefits of sleeves! The most commonly worn Mahayana robe is like a large bathrobe. In the early days of Austin Zen Center Flint Sparks was the first to begin wearing a robe to early morning zazen; I thought that because of the early hour he had become to lazy to get properly dressed in the morning. None of the Mahayana monks at PAT had the voluminous sleeves that the Japanese seem to prefer however.


Most of the Mahayana monks had some smaller version of the Theravada upper robe, worn over the left shoulder and under the right, but hanging very smoothly and evenly with little overlap and no slippage. (Japanese Soto has managed to put the slippage back into robe wearing.) Most Mahayana monks generally dispensed with this robe altogether except on formal occasions and some did not seem to possess such a garment at all. Many were also wore monastic work clothing, something like the Japanese samu-e, or like a karate outfit, and some even wore t-shirts, into the meditation hall. I am sure that this seemed quite inappropriate to the Theravada monks (who uphold the tradition in their own very casual way, wearing their robes only in a technical sense as the weather became very hot), and even to me with my Zen training which included Dogen’s instructions always to wear Buddha’s robe into the zendo.


The Mahayana monks, I notice, uniformly sit with a very deliberate posture in the meditation hall, just as the Zennies in the States learn: They sit with their butts on raised cushions, very erect, generally in full or half lotus. Their erect posture also carries them outside of the meditation hall with a certain kind of dignity. The Theravadins, on the other hand, tend to sit any way they want, on very thin mats. Many of the older Theravada monks seem to have habituated a lopsided posture, that the younger monks are just in the early stages of developing. In Zen, of course, posture is everything.


As an aside, it has struck me how much Burmese nuns’ attire resembles that of Mahayana monks. Burmese nuns are not fully ordained bhikkhunis, they actually take only eight precepts. This does not seem to entail any less dedication to the Buddha’s Way, but it means that they are free of many obligations described for bhikkhunis in the Vinaya, including what to wear. Modesty is the norm for women in Myanmar, and much more so for nuns. So nuns are always well covered, wear robes with sleeves and wear the upper robe more ornamentally than as functional clothing.


In both Mahayana and Theravada traditions seniority is generally associated with ordination date. The Theravadins are particularly clear about this, as was the Buddha, in seating for ceremonies, in walking with a group on alms rounds and so on. (I am still the baby monk at Sitagu, though my physical age and my exoticness seem generally to give me a degree of undeserved status.) Now, it is very common, I have discovered, for Theravadins to question the validity of the Mahayana ordination. I don’t know what the basis of this is; Mahayana monks never, as far as I know, question the validity of Theravada ordination. In every Mahayana country except Japan, and a bit in Korea, monastics undertake the rules of the Vinaya, like Theravada monks, with varying degrees of success, like Theravada monks. Maybe the Mahayana monks just don’t look like professionals in Theravada eyes for reasons described above. Anyway, it is interesting how Pa Auk Tawya deals with this mixed set of monks for alms rounds: First, they put foreign monks and Burmese monks in separate blocks, and allow the foreign block to precede the domestic. Since there are no domestic Mahayana monks, this seems graciously to honor the Mahayana monks. However, this is a slight of hand: Within the foreign block they order all Theravada bhikkhus first, by ordination date (putting me at the end of this group, for instance), then all Theravada novices (I was actually followed by an elderly Korean Theravada novice; he apparently did not want to take all 227 precepts), and finally by Mahayana monks from the most senior to the most junior.


In the end, at Pa Auk Tawya is a large group of monks, differentiated in various ways but living together and sharing a deep dedication to the practice of liberation.


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