Saturday, January 12, 2013

The East in the West and the West in the East


     Well, here I am in Burma again. Or maybe it would be fair to say that since I'm still in the city I'm in New Myanmar, but not in Old Burma yet. But I suppose first of all I should explain how I got here two days ago.
     In my latest current events post, "The Journey to the South," I described my trip to California with Wayne "the surfer dude" and my first few days at Kusalakari, a small Burmese house-temple in the suburbs of Fremont, about half an hour's drive south of Oakland. My five weeks there passed rather uneventfully, which is standard for monks at monasteries. Perhaps the highlight of the stay occurred about three days after I arrived, when I was requested to go to the recently acquired branch monastery and help chant pabbājaniya kammavāca there. In the books of monastic discipline pabbājaniya kammavāca, or the "formal act of banishment," is a formal act of the Sangha for ejecting a badly behaved monk from a certain area, but I have never heard of this being done by the Sangha in modern times. Such disciplinary acts appear to be obsolete in Burma, where it could be argued that the majority of monks, technically speaking, are badly behaved. Instead, this act of expulsion is a different one modeled on ancient formal acts, but as far as I know it was invented in Burma; anyway, it's not canonical. Its purpose is to use the authority of the Sangha of monks to drive away monsters. An English translation of the Pali text of it is as follows:
     Venerable sirs, may the Sangha hear me. These inhuman beings: ogres [yakkha], sprites [gandhabba], goblins [kumbhaṇḍa], and dragons [nāgā], are wild, fierce, violent, cruel, and troublesome, and their wildness, fierceness, violence, cruelty, and troublesomeness have been seen and heard. Furthermore, families troubled by them have been seen and heard. If there is readiness of the Sangha, the Sangha should perform an act of expulsion of these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, from this dwelling, from this monastery. This dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons. That is the motion. 
     Venerable sirs, may the Sangha hear me. These inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, are wild, fierce, violent, cruel, and troublesome, and their wildness, fierceness, violence, cruelty, and troublesomeness have been seen and heard. Furthermore, families troubled by them have been seen and heard. The Sangha performs an act of expulsion of these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, from this dwelling, from this monastery. This dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons. Whichever venerable one consents to performing an act of expulsion on these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, that this dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, he should remain silent. Whoever does not consent, he should speak. 
     And a second time I speak on this matter…[repeat the second paragraph] 
     And a third time I speak on this matter…[repeat it again] 
     Executed by the Sangha is the performance of the act of expulsion of these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons, from this dwelling, from this monastery. This dwelling, this monastery, should not be inhabited by these inhuman beings: ogres, sprites, goblins, and dragons. There is consent of the Sangha, therefore they are silent; thus do I hold it.
     A senior monk visiting from Yangon, my two three-day temporary disciples, two young women (including the girlfriend of one of the temporary monks), and I went to the new monastery grounds, some chairs were set up in the middle of the field near the center of the property, and the senior monk and I chanted the formal act while the others listened. Then we got back into the van and were driven to one corner of the property. No chairs were set up this time, as the senior monk decided it was too cold outside; so we sat in the van, with the young ladies waiting outside, and chanted the act of expulsion again. Then we drove as far into another corner as the bushes would allow and chanted it again. Then again in the two other corners, and one more time at a seemingly random location. Then we went inside the main building and chanted it one last time in front of the altar---a total of seven times.
     A while back I was told the opinion that monks are "performance artists," implying, I assume, that we do bogus ceremonies (among other things) for the sake of fooling gullible Buddhist laypeople into thinking we have special abilities. But this formal act was insisted upon by a monk, for the sake of monks; so can he be called a performance artist if he believes in it himself? My guess is that since he was going to stay at the new place alone for a few days he wanted to make sure there were no monsters that might get him in his vulnerable position. Burmese monasteries in America are usually more like Burma than America.
     Some more examples of this tendency are: much more Burmese is spoken than English; much more Burmese food is eaten than any other kind; and almost all of the visitors are Burmese, or at least South Asian. The only Euro-Americans to come to the place while I was there, aside from me, were the mates, and one mother-in-law, of Burmese women. Plus maybe a guy reading the electric meter or something.
     Most of the time I spent alone in my room, sometimes meditating, sometimes reading, sometimes meeting visitors, sometimes sleeping, and spending lots of time messing around on this computer. Every once in a while, especially on weekends, the monks would be invited to the homes of Burmese people to chant protection chants, deliver the refuges and precepts, preach sermons, conduct water-pouring ceremonies for the sharing of merit, and receive alms. I was almost always the only person of European ancestry present at such functions, and English was seldom spoken. In addition to a meal, the monks were also offered envelopes of money, whereupon one of the senior monks would inform the generous donors not to offer me any as I don't touch the stuff. I was the always the only monk who didn't accept an envelope, although I still consented to someone accepting it on my behalf to be applied to the cost of my plane ticket. Technically, it is against the rules for a monk even to consent to money being donated on his behalf, but that is so extreme that few monks I know of, even relatively strict ones, bother to follow it. I decided long ago, however, that if I can't live without handling it myself I would drop out of the monkhood, and I've managed for more than twenty years to get along fine without owning money. But I digress.
     A good person in Canada who likes what I write offered a train ticket, so I gratefully took advantage of the generous windfall to spend time with a few dear ones back in Bellingham during the big holidays---the winter solstice (i.e. the end of the Mayan calendar), and Christmas. I spent most of my time as an honored guest of the Zawoysky family, Steve, Wendy, and two-year-old Olivia; and I wonder sometimes that people invite me, a relatively strange person, into their homes as generously as they do. Possibly even more wondrous was that Steve wanted to drive me all the way back to Fremont in his car. So we did a road trip together very different than the one I did with my friend Wayne a month earlier.

Olivia Z. and me, at Christmas time

     Instead of staying at hostels, friends' houses, and communal farms we slept "in style" at nice hotels, and ate in style too. At one restaurant in Portland, Oregon I reportedly received several incredulous scowls from the man sitting behind me, and a lady at the next table took my picture. 
     Steve wanted to do some snowboarding on the trip, so we wound up at two ski resorts also. I was the only person at the Mount Shasta resort wearing flip-flops in the snow, and no jacket. I didn't ski, but hung out in the lodge reading Sun Tzu's The Art of War, where I received more stares and had my picture taken again. The next morning I did a little wandering around in approximately 0o F (-18o C) weather, which is the coldest I've managed in traditional monk's attire. I had already started wearing sandals by then, as I figured shoes might be required at nice restaurants. It's against the rules for monks (we're not allowed to wear shoes in public unless we're unwell), but possibly required nevertheless. Wearing thick denim robes instead of the standard light tropical stuff helps me to go without shirts, sweaters, thermal underwear, etc. without also freezing to death in the temperate zone.
     After one more week at Kusalakari, I got on the plane to cross the ocean. It is strange that I have felt almost no excitement about this trip; one day before liftoff I felt a little bit of a rush at the thought of my impending return to tropical Asia, but it passed quickly. Lately I've been in a state which might be called spiritual numbness, although I don't actually feel numb. Good books don't impress me, music doesn't impress me---I remain unmoved by just about anything, even when I know that it should be great, and would be considered great by me at other times. I've come to Burma with little more excitement than if I had simply walked across the street. It may be equanimity, but I suppose indifference would be the more explanatory word. Last winter when I came back I immediately came down with a case of the willies: I felt like I was returning to a place that I had escaped from only with difficulty. It lasted only a day or two however, and before long I deeply appreciated the opportunity to recharge my spiritual batteries, as my friend Damon puts it. America can take a lot out of a guy.
      I spent the night at the Taipei airport, where they have a very nice transit lounge for crashing without money. They also have a prayer room, or rather three prayer rooms, one for Muslims, one for Buddhists, and one for Christians. The Buddhist room had a painting of the Buddha on the wall, flanked by two Bodhisattvas, at least one of them being Kwan Yin (the two looked almost identical). The Christian room had a Slavic-looking icon on the wall. The Muslim room of course had no pictures. I meditated in the Buddhist one; and I was apparently the only person in any of the three rooms at the time. It was very early in the morning though.
     When I arrived at the Yangon Airport I suddenly became of high social status again: I was asked to go through the immigration line for diplomats, and when I put my iron bowl on the conveyor belt for the x-ray security screening, an official just smiled and handed it back to me. I was met by Damon and Stacy, two American dear friends who have been living long term in this country. It feels good hanging out with them here. Even though I'm still in Yangon, the biggest city in the country by far, there is still less tension in the air than I am used to, and more peace.
     Myanmar is changing fast though; for example there are probably about twice as many cars on the streets of Yangon as there were just a few years ago, resulting in the most messed-up traffic I've ever seen without an accident causing it. Also there seems to be smog now.
     Another difference is the accelerating Westernization of attitude, which, like just about everything else, has its bright side and its dark side. As a small example of the dark side, yesterday when Damon and I were walking to the Australian Club to meet some people, a fancy, new-looking Mercedes drove by with three young Burmese guys in it. One of them shouted out of the car window at me, in English, "Don't wear that, motherf____!" referring to my monk robes; then they stopped and waited for me to pass, and the same guy yelled, "Take that off!" On the way from the airport I saw a sight I would never have seen in Burma fifteen years ago: a Burmese girl wearing a miniskirt and orange hair. Buddhism among the younger generation in the city seems to be losing its effect. Soon I head for the country though, where life is pretty much the same as it ever was.  
        
The Shwedagon Pagoda at Night













1 comment:

  1. Namaste and hello, my friend,

    It is too hard for me to remember what to call you since I use the word so rarely, so, I'll do as I can and you can answer or not as you wish. Hopefully, you understand that I maintain utmost respect for both you and your path.

    What a wondrous journey you are on, in my view. So odd, yet so compelling. It is truly a joy to read of your adventures. I find that I experience a certain peace from the simplicity of the complexity of your very intellectual writings. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    May peace beyond depth, breadth and height be your experience.

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