Saturday, November 9, 2013

Life at a Burmese Cultural Center

     Since August I have been gratefully staying at Kusalakari Monastery, a Burmese house/temple in the suburbs of Fremont, California. The first two months of my stay here were rather uneventful (which is to be expected at a monastery), and so I didn't have much to write about by way of "current events" posts. But lately noteworthy things have started happening—so many that I may have to divide it all up into two posts or more. Anyway, I'll start at the beginning.
     I suppose the most noticeable quality about this place is that almost everyone who comes here is Burmese, or Burmese/Chinese. (Back in the 1960's and 70's the Burmese military government used the Chinese and Indians in Burma as scapegoats to account for the nation's troubles, and many of them were driven out of the country. Most Indians apparently preferred to return to India, but the Burmese of Chinese ancestry tended to prefer emigrating to places like Singapore and the USA. Consequently many or even most Burmese émigrés in this country are of Chinese, or part-Chinese, ancestry.) Much more Burmese than English is spoken here. This year I have yet to see a Western Buddhist monk.
     Another noticeable quality of this place is that people do not knock on doors. I won't go so far as to say that nobody knocks on doors before opening them, but it usually doesn't happen. It is contrary to Burmese custom to knock on doors; and even the Vinaya rule specifying that a monk should knock, cough, or say something before entering another monk's quarters is neglected in favor of all-powerful Burmese tradition. The Burmese are a very people-oriented people and have little sense of privacy, except maybe when they're using the toilet, and maybe even then only when they're going number two. Long ago a monk in Burma asked me the standard question, "How is America different from Burma?" and I immediately answered that there is very little notion of privacy in Burma. Although he was well educated and spoke almost fluent English, he didn't understand the word "privacy," so I looked it up in an English to Burmese dictionary and showed him the definition. After reading the Burmese definition he still didn't understand what it meant. This lack of a concept of privacy used to bother me, but after all these years I've gotten rather used to it.
     Another outstanding feature of this place is that after opening a door and entering, the door is often left wide open. This applies not only to inside doors but also to exterior ones, even during cold weather, even in the middle of winter. Last Sunday there was a ceremony and some weekend commotion here, and people were continually entering my little building (without knocking), and almost every time I would have to get up and close the door after they left. The main monastery building often has the front and/or back door standing wide open. The flies come in, the heat goes out—they don't care. I simply do not understand this. Once or twice I have asked a Burmese person why the outside doors are left wide open, and I was answered with an uncomprehending stare, as though I had asked the question in Swahili. I have a few theories. One is that they developed their door habits in a tropical country where the temperature and number of flies are not so different indoors and outdoors anyway. Another theory, which seems to fit the evidence a little better, is that the Burmese have an instinctive fear of suffocation. I don't understand it, and may never understand, since I don't want to understand badly enough to conduct a careful investigation of the matter.
     Then there is the notorious issue of the Burmese virtual need of noise, but I don't even want to get into that here.
     There is a festival or other social gathering for the Burmese community (Buddhist holiday, birthday, anniversary, earning of merit for a dead relative, temporary ordination, etc.) on average about once per week; but they all follow essentially the same pattern of talking, chanting, and eating (not necessarily in that order), and tend not to be very exciting. Consequently, the only excitement here during the first two months of my recent stay was one time a few weeks after I got here. One day two Burmese gentlemen came into the sīmā hall where I live (probably without knocking first) and asked me to come look at a Burmese monk's computer. I went with them and found that the computer screen was frozen, with a big, official-looking warning on it, bearing a variety of official seals including those of the US Department of Defense, the FBI, and Interpol, and also bearing a photograph of a very stern President Obama pointing an accusatory finger at the viewer. The frozen screen informed the viewer in big letters that the owner of the computer was accused of viewing illegal websites showing child pornography, rape, and/or zoophilia, and was furthermore suspected of various other crimes including the distribution of pornographic spam and even accessing restricted government information. We were given 48 hours to send a kind of processing fee of $300 to an unspecified destination via a PayPal style payment system. At first I wondered if anything I had looked at on the Internet could have caused this, but a few moments' thought resulted in the conclusion that this was extremely unlikely. The strange accumulation of official seals, the over-the-top accusations, and the lack of any phone number, name, or address to contact on the matter rendered me suspicious that the whole thing was a fraud, and I advised the Burmese men that they should contact the Internet server. One of the Burmese men was panicking to the point of borderline hysteria however, and was strongly inclined just to pay the $300 as quickly as possible. He kept pointing at the official seals saying that with those seals it had to be official. Calmer heads prevailed though, and they called the Internet place and found that it was indeed not really official. Sometimes it saddens me to think that there are people out there who actually make a living by invading other people's computers with malware and spam. There seems to be a law of economics, and of human nature, that if a person can make a living by doing something—it doesn't matter what it is, it could be computer spamming or kicking nuns and orphans—then there will be somebody out there doing it.
     I get very little exercise here, other than an occasional walk to the park. I have no hiking and camping partners here like I had in the Pacific Northwest. Besides, the places to hike around Fremont, California seem pretty lame. Once a friend took me to a local "wildlife refuge," which turned out to be some partially reclaimed salt-making ponds, with cityscapes and freeways in plain sight all around it. It looked like about half of the trees had recently been cut down, I would guess because they were not indigenous species, or some such. The only wild mammal we saw there was a rat. The only really impressive thing about the place was just how majorly unimpressive it was. I thought wildlife refuges like that were only in third world Asia. Again, I've been spoiled by the abundant wildernesses of the Pacific Northwest.
     This year in America has been a difficult one—not difficult in the positive sense of challenging and stimulating, as was the case two years ago, but rather difficult in the sense of discouraging and depressing. My ideal of living in America in association with spiritually oriented Westerners (an ideal which maybe I shouldn't have had) has apparently fallen through for the time being, and I am soon to return to Asia, where, admittedly, living is easier and my meditation is usually deeper. Anyway, for more than a month my spirit has been contracted, withdrawn, and uninspired. I've noticed that lately I rarely make eye contact with people, just taking a quick glance and then looking away (then sometimes compensating by looking at them again, in order to be more considerate). And lack of physical exercise has me feeling restless besides. Last night I managed twenty sit-ups and ten pushups, which is pathetic compared to what I was capable of as a "buff" young layperson.
     Because of the aforementioned contracted spirit my meditation has been markedly substandard, and I've been meditating only two or three times a day. Also I have had little interest in studying Dhamma books, another symptom of "contracted spirit." Thus I can sympathize with people who spend their entire lives having no interest at all in spirituality. I've gone through a phase of watching movies and even playing video games.
     Lately I've seen movies ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. One which contains elements of both is Zardoz, an old, LSD-inspired "art movie" featuring immortal, semi-nudist hippies who have replaced sleep with "stage two meditation," and none other than Sean Connery running around wearing a red diaper and a long ponytail. I think I can honestly say that Zardoz is my favorite bad movie of all time.
     Another mind warper, a bizarre masterpiece, is David Lynch's film Mulholland Drive. I don't like not understanding what interests me, so I studied this movie; and especially after reading an elaborate commentary by a man named Alan Shaw (accessible on the website "Lost on Mulholland Drive"), I can assure you that the movie does actually make sense. (Hint: The first three-fourths of the movie represent the drug-induced dream fantasy of a very disturbed young woman who is trying to straighten out terrible issues in her mind. Another hint: She was sexually abused as a child.)
     One last movie that I'll mention before moving on, which made a strong impression on me, is Terry Gilliam's film The Fisher King. Like other Gilliam movies it is essentially about people seeking sanity, or trying to sustain it, in a very insane world. There is one scene in particular which had me crying my heart out—not just choked up or teary-eyed, not just heaving a single convulsive sob, but really boo-hooing all over the place. It is the only scene in any movie, thus far, that has had this effect on me. It's the scene where Parry (Robin Williams) is declaring his love for Lydia (Amanda Plummer). It's not so moving just because it's a love scene, and it's certainly not a matter of beautiful, glamorous people falling beautifully, glamorously in love like in Titanic or Pride and Prejudice; one thing that makes it so moving is that Parry is a mentally ill street person and Lydia is an eccentric, awkward, lonely misfit of a woman. Parry, who used to be a college professor before he saw his beloved wife get murdered by a lonely misfit of a man, knows full well that she is awkward and all the rest, but he loves her anyway. The very fact that such love can exist in this world, creating beauty and divinity out of ugliness and dysfunction, can easily move me to tears. (The probable fact that their mutual mental dysfunctions would severely muck up their relationship is conveniently overlooked in the movie.) As I've said before and will continue to say, the only way to make a heaven on earth and bring divinity and perfection to this world is through love, and love is acceptance. And I must say that this kind of love is more easily found in Burma than in America. Love, in whatever form, is the only thing that makes life worth living. You are better off loving your golf clubs, or heroin, or the devil, than not loving anyone or anything at all. Life without love is walking death.
     Anyway, the scene in question may be found here, so long as the YouTube link survives the inevitability of impermanence. Please bear in mind that taken out of context it may not seem all that wonderful.
     A month or so ago venerable Garudhamma, the managing sayadaw of this monastery, asked me if I would accompany him to a nearby hospital and chant at the bedside of a sick man there. I did. Part of the plan was that the sick man would offer a set of monk's robes, which is common in Burmese Buddhism as a way of earning much-needed good karma. So U Garudhamma brought a set of robes from the monastery with the intention of giving them to the man, with the man earning merit by giving them back to him. But when we arrived we found an ancient man lying unconscious in bed. He had an oxygen mask on his face and an IV stuck into his arm, and his shoulders moved in shallow, rapid jerks as his unconscious body labored to maintain the process of breathing. For the first time in a long time I felt a strong urge to meditate, as though there was a palpable need for meditation here. However, after our chanting and a brief ceremony in which U Garudhamma received a set of robes from an unconscious man, he and the driver were ready to leave. Later I was informed that about eight hours after we left, the old man died. His family came to the monastery a week later and offered alms on his behalf.
     Just recently another old fellow in the Burmese/Chinese community passed away, and we monks were invited to come and chant at his funeral. It was the first time I have ever seen an actual dead person in America. He didn't look dead though—he looked quite healthy in fact, and very well groomed, wearing a dark purple blazer with a white shirt and blue and white tie, with his hands perfectly manicured. I was well into my contracted spirit phase at that time, and after the chanting, while U Garudhamma was delivering a sermon in Burmese, I sat there, withdrawn, slightly bored, and spaced out, occasionally coming out of my reverie to the sound of somebody bursting into tears and the realization that a corpse was lying in plain sight right behind me.
     People in America seem to be fascinated by death on television, but they tend to be rather freaked out by it in "real life," with many of them supposing that death is by far the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. Personally, I think lots of things are worse than death. Telling a lie, for example.
     Meanwhile, twice a week I've been trying to help a Burmese boy learn to read English better. He was born in the USA, but his mother, and possibly his father also, speak broken English, which may help account for his difficulty. He reads the words well enough, but doesn't comprehend what he just read. Last week we spent 15 or 20 minutes on the one sentence "Many canals built to support human development are being removed." He reads it aloud without difficulty, but if I ask him why the canals were built he can't answer. If I ask him what is happening to the canals now, he can't answer. It is interesting, but I don't know how to help him other than stopping him frequently to ask questions and repeatedly encouraging him to pay attention to what he is reading, as though it were being told to him.
     One other thing that is noteworthy, at least to me, is that practically from the beginning of our classes together the boy has shown no shyness about leaning up against me while he reads. He seems to enjoy the physical contact. This may seem like nothing to a layperson, but I have been a recluse for most of my adult life, and this boy is the only person who deliberately comes into physical contact with me. I can go for months at a time without touching another human being, or being touched by one—especially since leaving the New Age people in the Pacific Northwest who want to hug everybody. 
     The Burmese boy also is taking a class in elementary Buddhism with U Garudhamma, and once while he was away taking a pee I wrote down the boy's version of the five precepts, as found in his notebook: 

     I am not killing any being.
     I am not stealing other's things.
     I am not kissing except own wife.
     I am not liying.
     I am not drinking any beer.

     Add to all this that I am preparing to give a talk at the Dharmapala Institute in Milpitas, and that I may have to address the Stockton city council to try to persuade them to allow a Burmese Buddhist group to build an 80-foot-tall pagoda in the suburbs (the neighbors are reportedly vehemently against the idea), and I think we're pretty much caught up for now.
     In less than two months I may be living in a cave again. Strange.


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