Postcard from Burma

“The Alley”

The Guest House where I live is situated along the South side of the Sitagu grounds, actually just outside the monastery fence, but inside an outer wall that also encloses within its perimeter housing for staff, a small lumber yard, and other infrastructure facilities. Behind the Guest House, in the direction my back door faces, and on the other side of Sitagu’s outer wall, is a narrow street, more of an alley, on the other side of which are nothing but more monasteries and nunneries.

Most of the traffic on the alley is monks and nuns. A large group of about fifty novices heads west each morning after daybreak with their robes covering both shoulders, and with alms bowls in hand, single file walking silently without looking from side to side (except for the very young monks, who can’t help it; some of the novices look to be as young as six or seven years old). Then this group returns a couple of hours later, looking just the same, but this time walking east.

There are more novices in Myanmar than there are fully ordained monks. One incentive for becoming a novice is education. It seems that most of the education in this country is supported by the Buddhist temples, usually the construction of schools and hiring of teachers is spearheaded by monks. Schools are often few and far between, so they often end up providing kids with a place to sleep and try to work out a way to feed them. Essentially the schools become monasteries. There is a school of this kind very near here that supports about 100 boys.

Nuns, who do not seem to do alms rounds (they follow a different set of precepts), traverse the alley frequently. They are very colorful, generally wearing an orange skirt and a clashing pink robe with sleeves over that, and a small brown robe folded into a banner over the left shoulder. They usually travel in a group in which all nuns typically wear identical hats or carry identical umbrellas.

The lay traffic in the alley consists of a woman who each day carries a very large tray of snacky foods for sale, who shouts in to announce her wares as she walks; cows; some cars and horse carriages that often have trouble getting through the alley if the cows don’t feel like moving. Often lay people walk or ride motor bikes up the alley, and then go into one of the monasteries or nunneries.

The alley is recently paved; I am told was dirt until the mother of an American nun who was visiting her daughter at one of the nunneries here offered to make a donation to pave the alley. The alley was the site of a tragedy a couple of years ago: That year Sagaing was drenched with rain and the Sitagu Academy was flooded in a heavy storm. The double walls all around the Academy acted as a damn and water build up against the wall on the south side. Suddenly the wall gave way releasing the water into the alley as an instant river. A nine-year-old nun was drowned; they found her in a tree.

A few days ago one of the nunneries right across the alley began a recitation of the Pattana, the last book of the Abhidhamma, the third basket of the Pali scriptures. The Abhidhamma is very intensively studied in Myanmar; I read recently that Burma has been the center of Abhidhamma studies in the Theravada tradition since the Fifteenth Century. The recitation of its final book takes about five days and nights without break. I know about this because the recitation was piped through one of Burma’s ubiquitous loudspeakers. I think the nun who was in charge of the volume control must have been in a Heavy Metal band before she was a nun, because in this case it was especially loud. I think they started at 3am, a few mornings ago because that is when I was awakened. I needed to wear earplugs every night during the recitation in order to sleep. The recitation is one continuous voice, but with a new voice swapped in every hour or so, day and night.  It is inspiring to hear them work their way through the very long text, hour by hour, day by day without stopping. The way the Burmese intone a Pali texts can be very beautiful, but the skill and experience of the various nuns varied a lot.

Unfortunately I still can understand almost no word of Pali as they pronounce it in Burma, so the content of such recitation is lost on me. I’ve downloaded some chanting in Pali from Thailand and other countries, and I understand many words just fine. Listening to many people use Pali words here, I’ve come to realize that no original Pali sound is preserved in Burmese Pali if that sound does not also occur in Burmese. Imagine trying to speak French using only sounds found in American English (“Gee Swee Enchant-ee Madam-moyzul”). Then in addition many of the original Pali sounds that do occur in Burmese are changed anyway. I’m trying to do Pali “the right way,” for instance, making a double-length aspirated cerebral voiceless stop involves basically tying your tongue into a knot, keeping it there for a moment, untying it then putting a little puff of air after it, where the Burmese just say “tuh.” The Burmese have made Pali entirely their own. They have another word for the Pali they hear Sri Lankans and Thais, and presumably me, use: Sanskrit.

 

“Bhikkhu Cintita’s Plans”

I have not forgotten the “Mahayana and Theravada” series of blog postings. I’ve been writing a piece about doctrinal differences, and what that means for one’s faith, but have revised it a couple of times. Now that I have continual use of a computer I should make some progress. That will be the last posting in that series, number four.

I thereafter plan to begin a series on “The Buddha’s Teachings on Community.” This is the primary topic of the Vinaya, the first basket of the early scriptures. For the Buddha this topic was as important as, or maybe more important than, such things as the Four Noble Truths or the teaching of no self, and yet his teachings in this area are all but ignored in the West (and then we wonder that our Buddhist communities are not a little more harmonious). Before I came to Myanmar my first priority for study was the Vinaya. I’ve now read virtually the whole thing and several commentaries.  I don’t recommend each of you do this (it’s not easy going), so I thought I would summarize what I’ve discovered for the readers of my blog.

I plan to continue my studies here until the end of the term, to return to Austin the first week of March, in about six months time. But I will not be leaving Sitagu at that time, just moving the Austin branch.

Bhikkhu Cintita

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