Back in the mid 1990's I was living at a big school monastery called Mahagandhayone, near Mandalay. Living in a crowded monastery in town wasn't really my style, and I was intending to find a good forest to live in after I had finished my studies. A friend of mine, a Mon/Burmese monk named U Khemissara, was from Mon State in the southeast of the country and knew of many good forest areas there, so after his courses were over for the year (I didn't speak Burmese well enough to take regular classes) we went on a tour of forests in Mon State. I settled on a place called Thabeit Ain Tawya, or "Alms Bowl Pool Forest Monastery," where I spent the following hot season.
Before I left Mahagandhayone U Khemissara warned me in all seriousness of the dangers of the forest near Thabeit Ain. Before getting any farther with this story I should explain a little about my friend. He was an intelligent and serious monk, and perhaps he deserves an entire article to describe his rise and fall as a great Burmese monk. For now, suffice it to say that he had a university degree in Physics and worked as a high school Mathematics instructor before his ordination. He was not a frivolous person, and was certainly not dishonest.
Anyway, U Khemissara warned me that the forest around Thabeit Ain was infested by ogres (in Burmese, baloo, and in Pali, yakkha) who were armed with a kind of supernatural guns that could render people insane or worse. There was a well-known story of a Hindu swami who had lived in that forest many years before. The swami knew of the ogres, so he made the mistake of marking off an area for his own protection with spells and rituals. This was possibly the worst thing that he could have done, as evidently ogres are territorial, and they bitterly resented a human intruder marking off their territory as his own---so they attacked, using their magic guns. The swami was overcome and went into something like a fugue state, not knowing who or where he was, and wandered lost through the forest until he happened to come out on a highway, where some villagers took him in and nursed him back to some semblance of health. I didn't hear what happened to him after that, or whether he regained the full use of his faculties. Maybe he went back to India.
U Khemissara also earnestly cautioned me that there was at least one dragon (in Burmese, nagah, and in Pali, nāga) in that same forest, plus a terrestrial deity called an ossa saunt, which was even more dangerous than the dragon. He was confident that Dhamma and the power of my own meditation would protect me however, so long as I didn't try to mark off any territories for myself and treated the powerful beings there with respect.
I lived under a big tropical chestnut tree just outside the boundary of Thabeit Ain monastery; and my first month and a half there were relatively uneventful. (My biggest excitement was keeping woodcutters away from the trees near my resting place, and trying to keep rascally villagers from sneaking into the monastery and poaching fish from the pool.)
Then, around the middle of April, which is Burmese New Year, a one-week meditation retreat was held at the monastery just below where I was staying. The leader of the retreat was a serious monk from a nearby school monastery, and although he was strict and seemingly wise, he was apparently more of a scholar than a meditator, and gave much instruction over a public address system. He even talked during the meditation sessions. So one night he was giving a long Dhamma discourse over the loudspeaker which was interfering with my concentration. I decided to lie down and go to sleep early, then wake up early and meditate. So that's what I did.
I woke up before dawn and meditated until my legs were sore, then changed positions and meditated some more, but still it was not dawn. The ground was all up and down, and there were poisonous snakes in the area, plus I had no flashlight, so walking meditation was not much of an option. So I lay down and slept a little more. It seemed like a very long night.
Finally I woke up again and looked toward the horizon to see if there were any signs of dawn. (I didn't have a clock at that time, so I went by the sun; the only time I really had to know was dawn anyway, as that was the time I left for the village for alms.) As I lay there with my head propped up on my arm, craning my neck to look for signs of daylight, I heard two loud sounds coming from down the valley, not from the monastery below, but more from the direction of the nearest village. It sounded like an electric bass guitar amplified over a concert loudspeaker system: BWONGGGGGG…..BWONGGGGGG….. I wondered what it could be. Then I suddenly noticed that I was completely paralyzed; I couldn't move a muscle. I was stuck in the position of craning my neck to look toward the horizon, my head propped up on my hand. Then I began hearing the voices of a crowd all talking at once, rather like in "Welcome to the Machine," an old Pink Floyd song I used to listen to, but this time I knew the voices were inside my head. They did not sound like they were coming from anywhere outside me.
A momentary thought flashed into my mind: Should I be afraid? But another moment's thought was sufficient to remind me that fear wouldn't help anything at all; that even if I weren't paralyzed I still couldn't run anywhere, as I was on a steep hillside in the dark. With snakes. I figured that if this were caused by some kind of beings, in Burma, arguably the most Buddhist country in the world, maybe they were Buddhists; and so I began silently reciting homage to the Buddha: namo tassa bhagavato, arahato, sammāsambuddhassa…and the spell was broken. The voices stopped, and I was able to move again.
I sat up and meditated some more, and still it was not dawn. So I lost patience and decided to walk down the hillside by starlight and hang out with the retreatants until it was time to leave for alms round. On the way down I almost stepped on a banded krait, a very venomous snake, which began writhing and flopping all over the ground in front of me as a warning not to mess with it. (For a picture of a banded krait, see the illustration to the previous blog post, "Poisonous Snakes and Yogic Systematologies.") Within fifteen minutes of reaching the monastery it was morning, and time to walk for alms.
My own best guess as to what happened is that it was a waking dream. I know that my eyes were open and that I wasn't entirely asleep, but I had just woken up, so maybe the dreaming mechanism in the brain was slow to turn off. Also, that would explain the paralysis, as I have read that we are paralyzed when we dream to keep us from acting out our dreams. I assume sleepwalkers do not have their sleep paralysis functioning correctly. I can't entirely rule out influence from nonhuman beings, but I would guess that an attack by ogres or an ossa saunt would be more obvious, and more clearly identifiable as such. But who knows.
I made the mistake of informing a monk at the monastery of my experience. He also had a university degree (in English), but he did not look like the typical scholar or intellectual: He had a big, very nasty-looking scar on his head, as from some really awful accident in the past, and his body was practically covered with tattoos. They were not tattoos of scorpions, spiders, and the like, like some Burmese men (including monks) have on them, but were magical tattoos of protection. If I remember correctly, at least one of them was an inn, a diagram resembling a tic-tac-toe board, with mysterious runes of power drawn into some of the squares. In Burma some sorcerers and alchemists specialize in these diagrams. I figure he had enough protection tattoos to protect him from just about any malevolent influences that might come along. When I told him of what had happened during the night his eyes got very big, and he said, "Don't be afraid! They were just testing you!"
A few weeks after this incident the monsoon rains started, and a few weeks after that I found myself at a monastery in central Burma, about 400 miles away from Thabeit Ain Tawya. Almost as soon as I got there I went to see an Australian monk I knew, and one of the first things to come out of his mouth was, "What's this I hear about you being attacked by ogres?" Shortly after that I visited another friend, a Texan hermit who lived in a huge hollow banyan tree about a mile from the Australian's monastery. Almost as soon as I entered his tree (it was really a huge one) he asked, "What's this I hear about you being attacked by ogres?" News travels fast, especially news of allegedly supernatural events occurring to forest-dwelling foreign monks in Burma.
If there really are ogres in that forest, I wonder why they don't stop the villagers from cutting the forest down. If I were an ogre I think that might be what I would do.
|Ogres (lower right) guarding a shrine in NW Burma|