Two Sides to Any Story
Sitagu International Buddhist Academy is square, with a 620-foot wall running along each of the four sides. I live in the Guest House, which runs the entire length of the South wall, just on the outside of the monastery proper. The Guest House has 32 rooms, all in a long row, used mostly for lay guests. For instance, a very old and eminent sayadaw died in Sagaing recently and people from out of town came and stayed in the Guest House. Two monks are situated long-term in the Guest House: U Issariya and I, at opposite ends. Most monks live in ‘hostels,” a few people to a room, within the monastery walls. I was accorded a room in the Guest House, maybe because I am a Westerner, the only one at SIBA at this time, and maybe because I am older than most of the other monks. Living here is a consideration, because it has a modern flush toilet. I’ve used squat toilets, but not easily. I do, however, share my quarters with a family of gekkos and sometimes a dog.
My appartment is three rooms, including a bathroom. I use one room to meet with students and one to sleep in. The latter originally had two beds, but U Issariya, I and a woman staff member, disassembled one and stored it in the corner of the meeting room to give me sitting space in the bedroom. The meeting room has two doors to the outside, one in the front to a 620-foot balcony, and one in the back. I can get a breeze through this room by opening both doors, at which point “my” dog Wigglet often comes in and lies on the floor. If it gets too hot I can close up and flick on an A/C in the bedroom, if there happens to be electricity.
I use a seven-foot two-by-two, part of the disassembled bed, to prop open the rear door. The Guest House is built on piers, rather high at my end, and outside the back door is a narrow concrete staircase leading down to shrub and grass and often cows. Often I throw mango rinds out the back, left over from what my kappiyas (monk’s donors) bring every week, and seem to have encouraged a gopher to take residence right below my door, or some kind of rodent. I have to take care when I set the two-by-two prop to the side lest it fall through the door. One day this is exactly what happened. It summersaulted down the stairs with an awful clatter and came to rest at the bottom, so I climbed down and dragged it back up.
Also outside the main monastery wall, along the West side, is housing for lay staff, and the kitchen. The children of staff play on both sides of the monastery wall. Actually there are many people about, only a small fraction of which seem to be employed by SIBA. There are often strange people lounging about, or engaged in various forms of work. I see older women collecting large wide branches that fall, or are about to fall, from trees, bundle them up and carry them off, balanced on their heads. The children and some monks are continuously involved in gathering mangoes and coconuts from the trees for the kitchen. People often burn rubbish. Often someone will tend cattle, which often moo right outside my apartment. Dogs are always yapping and geese and chickens run around.
One day a man, about fortyish, was sitting on a log directly under my apartment; who he was and for what reason he was there I have no idea, but this is common. Suddenly he was startled by the loud noise of wood against concrete, not ffiteeen feet away. Someone had thrown a heavy piece of wood out the back door of the Guest House. Apparently the intent was not to discard it, because steps followed the piece of wood down the stairs. The lower burgundy hem of a monk’s robe appeared from above. Monks usually do not throw heavy objects down stairs. But this was not an ordinary monk; this was a giant! And pale as a goose!
As I picked up the door prop I happened to glance up and see the kind of expression only Steve McCurry or someone like that can capture on camera: eyes like dinner plates, a jaw wide open, and a body ready to bolt.