Postcard from Burma

Postcard from Burma

On December 23 I left Sagaing and took the overnight bus to Yangon. I
will live in Yangon for the next two months, until I return to Texas.
Sitagu Sayadaw, my preceptor, had made arrangements for me to study
with Ashin Pannyasiha, a teacher at the Sitagu International Buddhist
Missionary Center. Here is a picture of the center: with a short article.

By the way, it is not the case that the various Sitagu centers are
named after Sitagu Sayadaw, rather it is the other way around. Sitagu
Sayadaw's name is actually Dr. Ashin Nyanissara. Some time ago he
became the abbot of the Sitagu monastery in Sagaing Hills, so he is
called Sitagu Sayadaw, distinguished teacher of Sitagu. Similarly Pa
Auk Sayadaw acquired this name when he became the abbot of the
existing Pa Auk Forest Monastery where I lived March – June. From the
original Sitagu monastery grew the Sitagu Academy, established on the
other, western, side of Sagaing Hill, the Yangon center, Austin's
Sitagu Buddhist Vihara, and some other centers. The original Sitagu
monastery is under direction of a new abbot, who I don't think uses
the name Sitagu Sayadaw; at the Academy we always called the original
Sitagu East. It is quite a beautiful monastery overlooking the
Irrawaddy River, and mostly trains young novice monks.

I had known U Pannyasiha earlier in my trip; he traveled a bit with
the pilgrimage group last February. He is 36 years old, ordained at
20, and lived in Nashville, TN for 1 1/2 years. He is known as a good
teacher, and is a serious, smart, dedicated and enthusiastic monk, who
smiles a lot. Also his English is excellent. His name is cool, it
means Lion (siha) of Wisdom (pannya)."

U Pannya goes regularly for alms rounds. Most of the monks I have hung
out with are student and teacher monks, often known as pariyatti monks
or village (as opposed to forest) monks. Their lifestyle is often a
bit less traditional than the patipatti or meditating monks. At the
Sitagu Academy and at the Yangon center, as at many large monasteries
of both kinds, you only have to find your way to the dining hall for a
food offering. Many large monasteries, like Pa Auk Tawya (forest
tradition), keep the form of the alms round: you stand in line with
your alms bowl, robe covering both shoulders, and people drop food
into your bowl but it's all done in one spot. At Sitagu we do not use
the traditional alms bowl at all; food is formally offered by monks
and lay people lifting a table together on which food has been placed.
U Pannya eats breakfast and lunch at Sitagu each day, but goes on alms
round at 9am, then brings the food back to contribute to the Sitagu
kitchen or to other monasteries. He does this because this is what the
Buddha wanted monks and nuns to do; the point of alms round is not
just to feed the monks and nuns, it is also to bring them into contact
with the lay people so that the latter will have the opportunity to
learn Dhamma from the former, and otherwise benefit.

Anyway, U Pannya asked me if I would like to go with him on alms
rounds while I am living in Yangon, and I immediately said, "Yup." So
we went out for the first time this morning, single file, silently,
mindfully, alms bowls slung over our shoulders held in front but
concealed under our robes. He always follows the same route, visiting
the same families. He says in Yangon you have to learn the families
that give to monks and nuns; in Sagaing it's much easier: everyone
does. With U Pannya the process is more intimate than I understand it
normally to be; he knows the families well and likes to teach Dhamma
if they have questions. At every house we enter and sit down, and
someone brings generally rice and curry. Everyone does bows to the
monks, of course. Apparently other monks keep a lot of little
containers for curry in their bowls. I did not have any so people kept
donating them to me. We were offered tea and coffee at one house, to
drink there. Everyone was curious about me; I heard U Pannya say,
"Ameyika' pongyi," American monk, at each house. Sometimes he
explained my relationship to the Sitagu center in Austin. People asked
me, through U Pannya's able interpretation, "Are you a temporary or a
permanent monk?" "Can you speak any Burmese?" ("Bama zaga ma pyo da;
pu," the one thing I know how to say well) "Is your family Buddhist?"
"Are your children now Buddhist?" "Why did you become a monk?" and of
course, "How old are you?" All of these families are very poor, very
devout and very happy in their generosity. Most of the families have
cats, sometimes several, living inside. One family had two pet
rabbits, a white one and a brown one named Obama.

The Sitagu center is a 5-star monastery. It serves as a school and as
a transit center, given its location in the hub of international
travel. The rooms are very Western. The food is outstanding. The
reason is that many families make meal donations to the monastery. I
think it works like this: Donating a meal to a monastery, for all of
the monks or nuns, is a common practice, especially for the
well-to-do. Yangon has 4 million people, so a lot of such donations
must be made like this in the city each day. In a list of the many
monasteries in Yangon, "Sitagu" jumps out, because of the fame of our
Sayadaw. When they make a donation to the Sitagu center, they probably
have a cost in mind, but generally discover, if there is no great
event bringing transit travelers through, that there are only about
six monks to feed. Therefore, they can afford to donate something
really good, and do so multiple times. Anyway, we eat to square meals
a day here, both before noon.

Bhikkhu Cintita

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