Postcard from Burma

MEALTIME

The monks at Sitagu eat in the dining hall, generally around 5:40am
then again around 10:45. Since our vows do not permit us to eat after
noon, except for certain things considered medicinal, we have to
finish eating our second meal by then. Someone hits a big bell
outside with a mallet to tell us that it is time to eat. Every time
this happens all of the dogs that roam around Sitagu, including
Wigglet, take this as cue to point their chins skyward and howl. From
my room I hear the dogs better than I hear the bell and sometimes
Wigglet is right outside my door.

The monks sit on the floor, actually raised platforms about a foot
above the main floor, around round table, five or six monks to a
table, and the food is place in the middle of the table. Food is
always supposed to be formally offered to monks, so this is done by at
least one monk and one staff member or lay donor lifting the table
together. Once food is offered to one monk it can be shared freely
with any other monks who might come late without additional formality.

Most meals are simply cooked by the Sitagu kitchen staff. Sometimes
the same beans or the same fish dish is served day after day. But
generally about four or five meals each week are offered by donors,
usually a family, I think, or two families, or a group of friends.
This is a big deal for them. They sometimes travel many miles to be
able to make the offering. They wear their fanciest cloths (I assume),
often bring cameras, of course bring food, and sometimes bring other
offerings (last week a group of donors brought new sandals for all the
monks; someone searched out the biggest they had for me, but they were
still way too small). The food is always especially good if provided
by donors, and sometime very good. The overstaffing of the kitchen for
donor meals leads to a lot of turmoil, such that meals take longer to
serve.

The donors are always so happy to be there; this is the great merit of
dana. They are very respectful of the monks, very humble and very
attentive. When they are not serving or making themselves useful, they
sit on the lower part of the floor, so that the monks on raised
platforms are above them. Donors are generally astonished to see me,
a big Western monk. Sometimes they take turns posing for pictures next
to me, sometimes a lot of donors at a time all, in anjali (gassho)
paying their respects.

NEWLY OLD

I've gotten some feedback from readers concerning my turning 60. You
might recall that I entertained three approaches to handling this
circumstance: denial, despair, and acceptance. The first is the
American way, the second the way of the multitude, and the third the
Buddhist way. I was kinda leaning toward denial, but my daughter
wrote, "I don't think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you
are 60." That took the wind out of my sails. I also realized that
denial always slides gradually into depair. So, I've been turning over
in my mind the possible advantages of the second approach, despair. I
would probably make a really great bitter old man. I can do a great
Bodhidharma frown. I'll wager within a short time I could strike fear
in the hearts not only of children, but even of dogs and cats. And it
would just get better as I get older and older and older, and more
and more bitter. What do you think? This would be the last resort
before I need to get serious about (gulp) Buddhist Practice.

TROPICAL DISEASES

Petra, the German lady who has been staying in the Guest House, became
very ill a couple of weeks ago. She had an extremely high fever. Since
there is a Sitagu hospital, medical care was not far away, but they do
not provide all of the services a Western hospital would. For
instance, they do not draw blood and analyze it. So there was no
diagnosis for several days. Petra used to live here for a couple of
years, and was at one time ordained as a nun, and speaks fluent
Burmese, so she had many people, especially nuns, to look after her.
After the fever subsided, but she was still not eating, and feeling
lousy, she was finally diagnosed … with typhoid! Luckily she has
survived, and on the mend. Typhoid is communicated in food and water
under unsanitary conditions. She says she has been eating many places,
including restaurants and nunneries. Sitagu generally has a pretty
good record in the kitchen, though I know they sometimes serve certain
dishes for too many days in a row, which results in stomach
complaints. This reminds one that infectious diseases are very common
here. I had a bunch of vaccinations before I left home, including for
typhoid. But it makes me even more cautious about what I eat.

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