Saturday, February 9, 2013

Stone Elephant

     I am sitting in a bamboo and palmyra wood chair in front of a cave called "Mandalay Goo" at Kyauk Sin Tawya, or Stone Elephant Forest Monastery, in central Burma. In addition to sitting here writing in the prehistoric manner—with ink on paper—I'm occasionally listening to the rats moving around in the roof thatched with palmyra leaves above me. Thatched roofs are good insulation from the sun and shed water well enough, but are much favored by rats, possibly because roofs are less accessible to snakes than are holes in the ground.  
     This place is called a forest monastery, but actually it's more of a desert monastery. Not much rain falls here even in the monsoon season, and there is an abundance of thorn bushes, cacti, and scorpions. A Burmese supporter once told me that foreign monks come here fat and white, and leave here thin and brown.

One of my roommates in Mandalay Cave

     Kyauk Sin is about 15 miles from Wun Dwin ("Inside the Belly"), the nearest town—but the road from there is so bad that it's an hour and a half by jeep. And that's during the dry season. Recently, though, the new one-car-per-minute freeway was opened, which runs within a mile of the monastery. The turnoff is between mileposts 308 and 309, about a hundred miles south of Mandalay. The huge white pagoda (also new) can be seen from miles away.

     This is one of the oldest monasteries in the Taungpulu tradition, and is the first place I lived at long term after arriving in Burma almost twenty years ago. At that time the dammed-up lake didn't exist yet, although there were some smaller reservoirs then, so water was available. I've been told that in the old days before the reservoirs were established the monks had to walk two miles to a village monastery to take a bath, and were often very sweaty again by the time they returned to Kyauk Sin. The food here is pretty rough, the temperature gets up to around 120o F (49o C) in the hot season, and one occasionally gets parasitized by intestinal worms and/or bedbugs. Long ago a Japanese monk who spent a rains retreat here told me, "If you can live here, you can live anywhere." I spent a total of four rains retreats here, but, thank the gods, only two or three hot seasons.

     When I first arrived here as a junior monk fresh from America in 1993, I spoke almost no Burmese, and none of the Sangha here spoke English except for a temporary monk (dullabha) who lived here for only a couple of weeks. While he was present he was in charge of most of the intercultural communications, despite the fact that he knew only one English verb: "happens." But as it turns out, if you know only one verb, "happens" is a good one to know—I always understood what he meant. For example, one time I was sitting in front of a little meditation cabin and he approached me, pointed at some clay water pots nearby, and said, "Water happens no," which of course meant, "Don't drink that water." Then he said, "Cup, fire, alcohol happens." The meaning: Give me your bottles and I'll bring you some sterilized water. Sometimes when we'd meet I'd greet him by waving and calling out, "Happens!" Before he left I gave him some little treasures, like a Burmese translation of the Dhammapada and an American butane lighter; then I discovered that he was a relatively rich man, a resident of the wealthy city of Mogok, producer of some of the finest natural rubies in the world.

     After he left I communicated my needs whenever an English-speaking visitor was here, which wasn't very often, or else I spoke broken Pali with venerable U Kovida, who had received some formal monastic schooling in town, and who was the Abbot/Sayadaw's trusted lieutenant. (Now, ever since venerable Pakhokku Sayadaw died a few years ago, he is the reigning Abbot of Kyauk Sin.) His Pali vocabulary was more extensive than mine, but I was better at manipulating verbs—he always used the present tense, third person singular. Some of the first Burmese I learned consisted of the usual things villagers would say to me when I walked for alms in the morning; before that I had to interpret their meaning as best I could from their tone of voice, like a dog does it. The two most important expressions were "Yat daw mu ba om hpayah!" ("Please wait, venerable sir")—used when they wanted to offer food, and "Gadaw zun ba hpayah" ("I pay respect as my offering, venerable sir")—used when they weren't going to offer any.

 Sayadaw U Kovida and me (I'm the taller one)

     Here at Kyauk Sin, as a rule, the monks do "the sitter's practice," i.e. they never lie down, and sleep in a sitting position. However, it didn't take long for me to learn that anything I leaned back against at night would quickly become foul with sweat, and that the coolest way to be was sprawled horizontally on the cement floor of my little cave. So, I bagged the sitter's practice pretty quickly. In fact the heat has always been my main limiting factor (to use some Biology jargon) in this country. I was not required to participate in daily monastery activities, like group chanting or whitewashing rocks in the blazing sun; instead I spent most of my time alone inside the cave where it was often cool enough for me not to be totally soaked in sweat. I became semi-nocturnal, sleeping as much as I could during the day, and staying up at night when it was less uncomfortable. At the biweekly uposatha ceremony, which all monks are required to attend, I would often literally have sweat dripping from my elbows, as though from leaky faucets, creating two wet blotches on my sitting cloth as I squatted on it with my hands joined in front of me. The sweat has always been more of an issue for me than the heat.

     I came back here mainly to finish ecclesiastical penance for breaking certain rules in America. Kyauk Sin has traditionally specialized in "wut saunt" ("upholding the observances"), as it is called in Burmese, and monks from all over the country have come here for it. (What is required for this kind of penance is a relatively remote monastery with an available Sangha of at least twenty monks.) Probably the most severe penance I've observed so far is simply remaining in a squatting position during the ceremony in which the six days and nights of manatta penance were conferred upon me—three of the monks recited the formal act very slowly, carefully pronouncing their Pali in accordance with the Pakhokku method (which is even stranger than ordinary Burmese pronunciation of Pali; I know of one venerable sayadaw who actually herniated himself while enunciating the explosive consonants of Pakhokku Pali) so as not to invalidate the proceedings. I've grown unused to prolonged squatting, and my feet and calves were burning mightily by the time the monks got as far as "Dutiyampi" ("And for a second time…"), the entire act being recited three times, not including the introduction and conclusion, plus the parts that I had to recite. (Incidentally, the bell which summons the Sangha to the congregation hall for formal acts such as this is apparently made from the casing of an old WWII bombshell that didn't explode like it was supposed to.)

     Penance here is somewhat tricky for me now, because of the very cool fact (I love this) that after twenty years I'm now one of the most senior monks here. Sayadaw U Kovida is traveling around the country conducting meditation retreats, and the only monk at Kyauk Sin who is senior to me, as far as I know, is old U Makua, who's 85 years old and lives in retirement on the outskirts of the monastery grounds—and even he's just a few years senior to me, because he was ordained relatively late in life, very unlike U Kovida, who is younger than me but was ordained as a child, and grew up in the Sangha. Anyway, junior monks are continually wanting to bow down to me, and when we walk together they want to slow down to let me be in front—despite the fact that a monk doing penance is not allowed to let a monk not doing penance to bow down to him, and he should walk behind everybody else. Once I slowed down to let the other monks pass me, and they slowed down too. Then I stopped, and they stopped too. And requesting that they stop treating me so deferentially doesn't always work. Just now a monk has come to sweep my "front yard" for me. I told him not to bother, that I'd do it myself, but he went ahead and started doing it anyway.


The "front yard" of Mandalay Cave

     This next part may be debatably improper—but we're all friends here, right? (Right?) I'm considering celebrating my twentieth anniversary of first arriving in Burma by consuming some Ayurvedic butter infused with a certain "psychotropic ancient plant medicine" which a dear friend (not Burmese) gave to me recently. The anniversary also happens to fall on the eve of the full moon of Pyatho, which is even more auspicious. I think it will be very interesting to be in such an expansive state doing walking meditation in the moonlight, surrounded by the sounds of crickets, owls, and scurrying rats in the thatched roof in front of the cave.

     May all beings find peace in their heart, like the peace that is so easy to find here…when the weather is cool, and the bedbugs aren't biting.

Kyauk Sin Shwedagon Pagoda, Pakhokku Sayadaw's glorious monument

in the midst of a desolate wasteland


  1. Hahaha, you're going to get high right after doing penance. I think you love to be controversial.

    1. Well, actually what I consumed on that lovely evening was worthy of a brief confession at most, certainly not more penance. I think it would qualify as a dukkata offense - an offense of the lowest level of severity - for consuming a medicinal substance without a real medical need for it.

  2. Namaste, my friend.

    It is amazing to me just how much life through your eyes appeals to me. Perhaps I will yet ordain in this life. Of course, as I write this, a lovely woman looks at me a smiles. Amusing to me as well as a source of some consternation. Seems I am growing old less than gracefully.

    In any case, a question: what is it about your life-style that makes it fulfilling for you? It obviously isn't an easy or comfortable way to live. Of course, the same has been said about my life, but it is positively lush when held up to yours.

    1. What makes it fulfilling? Well, for starters there's the deep satisfaction of accomplishing something difficult. Sometimes I feel like Martin Sheen at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, when he says that when he's not on a mission he feels like he's degenerating, getting weaker. Which leads to another fulfillment: It is a spiritual vent for macho instincts! Plus I just like to be strange.
      Oh, I almost forgot...It helps me to be more conscious.

    2. I've found 'liking to be strange' to be common among monks. I think those that see themselves as strange do so as a rebellious act against what they believe to be are the faults of normality with which they have repeatedly come into conflict. Their character, at its most base, sits uneasily with the common man. Being a monk is a perfect fit for such people: your suspicions about the fundamental errancy of the common person is validated, and you don't have to listen to them go on about their favourite sports team.

    3. Ah, Kai,
      As I was leaving the Internet place last time it occurred to me that I should have also pointed out that I consider your chosen lifestyle to be a particularly courageous one. I've ducked the system and gone out into the wilderness, while you have been working out your "salvation" in the concrete jungles of Babylon. You seem more of a renunciant than most monks I have met.
      I promise I'll catch up on your blog after I get more or less regular Internet access. I've realized the strange fact, since living where there is not only no Internet but no electricity even, that this computer I'm typing on has become an extension of my own body and sense organs. Being without Internet access is almost like being required to keep silent, writing on a piece of slate or something instead of talking. It's really that much of a "disability."

  3. It is so nice to see you serene and peaceful, and not camera-shy at all.... wish you could maintain the same level of peace when you come back to America.