Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

Dog Update. Tiny Tim, the scrawny lame puppy I’ve been feeding, is still holding in there. He is not growing as fast as his siblings, but his lameness is gone. I was worried for a couple of days when there was no sign of him, but only of his two siblings.

Village Trip. Last week I was invited by one of the teacher monks, Ashin Issariya, to visit his home town. His teacher, 80, had just received a major recognition by the government and a major festival was organized to welcome their favorite son home. We had a car and a driver provided by U Issariya’s donor, which plowed through the pigs, bicycles toting housewares and building supplies, dogs,ox carts and women carrying precariously balanced things on their heads. We visited U Issariya’s family, ate with the monks at the monastery where U Issariya had once practiced,  and slept at a pagoda nearby. The monastery has maybe 200 monks. The pagoda has little built-in outdoor meditation niches, each with a little altar, and a lot of space for walking meditation, in a beautiful area with many trees. We had a lot of time to kill overnight and U Issariya was catching up on things with two sisters, one of whom is a nun, who also stayed at the pagoda. So I meditated very happily for about two and a half hours in the evening then for another two and a half hours in the morning.  The festival was at the monastery and was a huge affair, with live music, booths where food and toys were sold, and a lot of chit-chat. And of course a religious observance and words from the senior monks.

I witnessed my first altercation since arriving in Myanmar: I was standing on a second-story balcony of the monastery building watching families arrive and situate themselves in front of the outdoor stage. Someone had marked out a checkerboard pattern with chalk, each square labeled, and families arrived to claim their squares. Each family laid out a grass mat that was too big for their square, but they overlapped them and that was fine. On either side families had set up wooden platforms, about the same size as the squares, which would raise the family up about two feet. These platforms are ubiquitous in Myanmar, used where we use picnic tables. Their main function, I suppose, is protection from snakes, but at the festival they could afford a view over the heads of those sitting on the ground. The altercation concerned two of these platforms. Apparently the previous day one family had set up their platform, then left, then a second family arrived and set up their platform in front of the other family’s platform. The day of the festival the first family arrived again first, and the father was furious. He took his platform apart, shoved the offending platform into the place his platform had occupied and reconstructed his platform in the place the other platform had occupied. In the middle of this the other family arrived, and now the father in that family was furious. Both of them began yelling at each other and each armed himself with a 6′ slat from his respective platform, ready for battle. Each was immediately engulfed by a wave of bystanders, led by the respective wife, to restrain the father’s unskillful intentions. This incident surprised me, because Myanmarians are so invariably even-tempered. What’s more, this happened at a Buddhist monastery!

One other thing was unusual at this monastery: almost all the monks smoke. I had noticed that at Sitagu U Issariya is about the only monk who smokes. Actually not many people at all seem to smoke in Myanmar. At U Issariya’s home monastery, not only do the monks smoke, but lay people make offerings to the monks of cigarettes after meals. It makes me wonder if there are designating smoking monasteries in Myanmar; when somebody wants to ordain, they are asked, “Smoking or Non-Smoking?”

Goodbye to Sagaing. I’ll be leaving Sagaing, and the Sitagu Academy, in a couple of days to study in Yangon for a couple of months. I will be studying with Ashin PannyaSiha (Lion of Wisdom), whom I know and who has lived in the USA. My intention was to return to Sagaing for Sayadaw’s birthday, February 27, which is a huge event, but word is out that it will not be in Sagaing this year, but in Sayadaw’s hometown, near Yangon. So I may not return to Sagaing at all. I’ll fly from Yangon to Austin starting on March 2.

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