The year 1997 was a relatively eventful one for me. I began it in the midst of a two-month intensive meditation retreat at Panditarama in Yangon, under the severely critical eye of ven. Mahasi U Pandita (an experience described elsewhere on this blog); about a month after leaving that place I was embarking upon my first super-intensive residence at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park in northwestern Myanmar; within a month of leaving there I was in Japan, spending most of a rains retreat there at a tiny Theravadin monastery—most of us, including two very senior Burmese sayadaws with the high ecclesiastical title of aggamahāpaṇḍita, were essentially kicked out a few days before the rains retreat ended by the Japanese director of the place; immediately after that I returned briefly to America to see my family for the first time since leaving the country in 1992; and I finished the year in a vermin-infested Burmese hospital, approximately half-dead with my first bout of falciparum malaria, contracted at Alaung Daw Kathapa months previously. In this installment of the saga I’ll describe my finding of the place, and my first journey to and from wun-kya oat-hmin, or “Belly Fall Cave.”
As I have mentioned elsewhere in these prolonged ramblings, one of my primary inspirations for becoming a monk was the Sutta-Nipāta, a collection of ancient Pali texts composed in an ancient time when Buddhist monks were homeless wanderers. The monks described therein were iron ascetics, or at least made of hardwood; and when I was a younger monk than I am now I had this idealistic, romantic, macho ideal of being an iron ascetic myself—storming the gates of heaven, and all that. The monastery at which I stayed at that time, Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya, was a relatively rough place, and most monks, especially foreign ones, didn’t last very long there. But even so, I knew where my next meal would be coming from; I knew where I would be sleeping the following night; and although it was not a comfortable place, I felt that it was not uncomfortable enough for my satisfaction during the milder months of the year when the place wasn’t blazing like a furnace. Also, in those days I just wanted to be alone. So I had ideas of taking off and being more like the monks of the Sutta-Nipāta.
In Burma there is no phra tudong tradition as there is in Thailand—that is, monks who wander from place to place, sleeping under trees in forests, and staying in monasteries only briefly. There are some monks in Burma who live like this, but very few. But I tried it anyway: one cold season I attempted a walking trip from Yangon to the town of Wun Dwin, in Mandalay Division, a trip of more than 300 miles (or 500km). I covered about 12% of that distance before being essentially arrested by immigration officials and military intelligence guys. They took my passport and ID card, asked every silly question they could think of, including my parents’ address in America and my mother’s maiden name, took me back to the nearest immigration office, called one of my supporters in Yangon and commanded him to come fetch me, and even photographed his car when he arrived, to put it in the dossier with all the other information that nobody would read. But even if I hadn’t been stopped by the authorities (and now that the military government is camouflaged if not defunct, the government is probably much less paranoid about foreigners wandering around loose), I probably wouldn’t have made it the whole way to Wun Dwin anyway, since a large, conspicuous “English monk” draws crowds whenever he stops to rest. I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb. So I came to the conclusion that if I were to do any wandering trips it would have to be somewhere very remote, beyond the reach of immigration offices, military secret police, and crowds.
But a monk can’t live in just any remote wilderness. There are certain specifications that must be met, one of the most important being that he must live within relatively easy walking distance to a village inhabited by Buddhist laypeople, since they are his source of food. There has to be an alms resort. So I began investigating possible Burmese wildernesses.
In February of 1997, after my escape from Panditarama, I was residing briefly at Mahagandhayone, a huge school monastery near Mandalay where I had lived a few years previously. There I stayed in a meditation cabin staring at maps of Myanmar. I would sit there just contemplating a big map of Myanmar, waiting for something to gel and a decision to make itself with regard to which wilderness I should go to. I had a friend there, a Mon monk named venerable Khemissara (“Lord of Sanctuary”), who wanted to come with me, mainly in order to live up to the Pali ideal, and to get away from a crowded school in town for awhile. Sometimes he would come to my cabin, walk in, and start grinning to see me, as usual, sitting there on the floor staring at the map. I had my choices narrowed down to Kathah, a wildlife refuge near the Irrawaddy River north of Mandalay, and Alaung Daw Kathapa, a large national park in the northwest, in Sagaing Division.
Intuitively I favored Kathah, despite totally conflicting accounts of the place (some people saying it was dense forest teeming with animals, and other people asserting that it was mostly cut down and ruined by woodcutters), although there was the technical complication that the river boat company insisted upon receiving my fare in US dollars, since technically I was, and still am, a foreigner. U Khemissara, who did the wrangling over such matters, insisted that I had lived in Burma for years, and did not handle money, and that there were no US dollars to be had. (In those days it was actually illegal for a Burmese citizen even to own US currency, since the government wanted all of it.) The ticket officer didn’t care about this, and insisted that foreigners must pay in US dollars or else find some other way of traveling. It was mainly this hassle that started me leaning toward Alaung Daw Kathapa. Shortly after deciding upon ADK, the river boat official relented and said it was allowable for my ticket to be bought with Burmese kyats, but by then it was too late. The decision had been made, and I stared at the map much less than previously. I still stared at it a lot, though.
Along with U Khemissara there was a young Burmese monk I knew from Kyauk Hsin, U Ñāṇissara (“Lord of Knowledge,” which name henceforth I will spell without the diacritical marks, because I’m lazy). Ven. Kyauk Hsin Sayadaw had sent him to Mahagandhayone in order for him to get some education, but he was a simple village boy who had no great love for book-learning, and he quickly invited himself along on our trip to the wilderness. U Khemissara tended to worry a lot about his health, and was concerned that Alaung Daw Kathapa would be too cold during the cold season, so he wanted to wait until March before we set out. I wanted to get there as soon as possible, though, so we settled on a compromise. Around the middle of February we left for the city of Monywa, where U Khemissara knew some people who might be helpful in our search for a suitable place in the woods.
We stayed at the local Mahasi center there, where a Shan monk named ven. Paṇḍicca (“Intelligence”) was residing. He had a brother who was a park ranger at ADK, so we had our foot in the door, sort of. The thing was, though, that what I wanted to do was something nobody had any experience with; and the Burmese are not very good at, or enthusiastic about, doing what usually isn’t done. So the people helping me in my quest were a little confused and hesitant, and not very deeply committed to the glorious quest. Except maybe for ven. Nanissara, who was just happy to be away from school, regardless of any other circumstances.
We began driving around to monasteries in the direction of the national park and asking old monks about where a good place would be. We got plenty of answers like, “Well, there’s big forest there, so it will be difficult. It’s cold this time of year. You’d have to be near a village, but I suppose it’s possible. You might try around Gangaw.” But after about two days of such interrogations we knew hardly any more than we did when we started, and the others in our party were starting to hint that maybe we should just give up. I was becoming frustrated.
Finally, almost as an afterthought, we went to the national park headquarters, which I hadn’t known existed. By this time the haphazard and ineffectual investigations of my colleagues were inspiring me to be in a bad mood, and I didn’t even bother to get out of the car while the others were inside talking to whomever was in the office. But then, through the open front door, I noticed a huge contour map on the wall; it wasn’t some crummy undetailed map like the ones I’d been staring at for so long, but was a large-scale map made by the British during colonial times that showed everything. I jumped out of the car, climbed onto a chair in front of the map, and within fifteen seconds I knew exactly where to go.
The national park is shaped like a camel’s hoof, or a hand making the Vulcan “live long and prosper” sign: the main part of the park is roundish, and maybe 40 miles across, with two extensions coming out of the north end in a V shape, following two ranges of hills. The plainly obvious place for a monk was at the base of the V at the north edge of roundish part of the park; national park land lay to the east, south, and west, with a creek flowing through the middle, and two villages full of Buddhists directly to the north. We got back into the car, went back to the Mahasi center, and began making plans to get there. By this point U Pandicca was planning to come along too.
Between the two northern spurs of the park was a valley called Hseh Ywah Chaung, which means something like “Peaceful Place of Ten Villages.” There were no motor roads leading there in those days, so we rode a sampan up the Chindwin River to a little town called Kheh Daung and started a long hike over the eastern spur into Hseh Ywah Chaung. The first several miles were along very soft, sandy roads, until we neared the boundary of the park. I remember the four of us arrived at a small village to ask directions to the trailhead, which was pointed out to us, and so we immediately cut across an empty field to get there, as that was the most direct route. Someone began frantically calling to us not to go that way, which didn’t make much sense to me, it being just an empty field and the most direct route and all, until I noticed that this particular field was apparently the public latrine for the neighborhood. It was a minefield strewn with human turds. U Pandicca in particular was making guttural animal noises as we carefully picked our way through the field. After that the hike over the hills was beautiful. I love wildernesses, and I had never seen deep, thick tropical forest before. I had made one serious mistake, however: just the day before we left I shaved my head, so that I got a second-degree tropical scalp burn, mainly while riding on top of the sampan. It was one of the worst sunburns I’ve ever had. I still have a little scar from that.
Anyway, we arrived late in the same day at Hseh Ywah Chaung, where the people were simple, rustic hillbilly types even by rural Burmese standards. The villagers in that area tended to be Buddhists in a superficial or superstitious sense, that is, believing it without understanding or practicing it much. Most of the villages had one monastery each, with each monastery having a total of one resident monk. His job was mainly to be master of ceremonies for rituals that nobody really understood. He was also the resident living idol who provided the simple-hearted devotees an opportunity for earning merit by supporting his more or less idle existence.
Although few people in that area followed five precepts, let alone meditated or studied Buddhist texts, they revered their monks. There was one sayadaw in one of the villages who had been a taxi driver in Yangon before becoming a monk and somehow winding up in such a remote place as this. He began chafing in the Holy Life, so to speak, and let it be known that he was seriously considering dropping out of the monkhood. But the villagers revered him still and, knowing that he was not a native and not wanting him to leave them, they made him a deal: If he would stay in their village after he dropped out of the Sangha, they would provide him with a house, a field, and a girl. He accepted the offer, and at the time I passed through he was living in his house with his young wife.
We spent our first night in Hseh Ywah Chaung at a village monastery maybe twelve miles north of the base of the V on the map. We were told more than once that the one person who knew the area best was an old novice called Shin Dhammasiha (“Master Lion of Dharma”), who lived in a small monastery about eight miles north of the bottom of the V, the latter being my intended destination. It turned out that Shin Dhammasiha had formerly been a fully ordained monk, even a sayadaw; but the duties of being a senior monk didn’t appeal to him, so he disrobed himself down to novice rank in order to live his life in peace and quiet. He lived in a little cabin in a little clump of trees at the edge of some farmers’ fields. He had a large bunch of bananas hanging from his ceiling, and spent much of his time hanging out with old village men in white shirts who would come to talk, drink tea, and smoke cigars with him. Almost his only excitement was when monkeys would climb down the cliff face behind his cabin and raid his garden. (As it turned out, this same Shin Dhammasiha had lived briefly at Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery, years before I ever heard of the place, and had directed the digging of the cave that I subsequently lived in for many years.) The old ex-sayadaw told us that there was a large cave in the area where I was headed, and that he had lived there himself for a short time, but that big rocks sometimes fell from the ceiling of the cave, so that it wasn’t safe. He assured us that his little cabin-monastery was the best place around for Dhamma practice.
By this time my three companions were plunged far too deeply into the unfamiliar for their liking, and two of them, U Khemissara and U Pandicca, decided to turn back. U Nanissara, determined to stay away from scholarship as long as possible, opted to stay with Shin Dhammasiha, since after all the place was declared by a respectable authority to be the best. So the following morning I continued alone, walking toward the perfect bottom of the V that I had seen on the excellent British map.
I walked for alms in a village on the way, and found that walking for alms was not a tradition in this area, as the monks preferred to stay in their monasteries and have their food delivered. I received enough food from the surprised, confused villagers for a very rice-oriented meal, however. Another thing I learned was that the people in this area spoke Burmese with such a thick rustic accent that with some of them I could understand only about a third of what they said. By mid-afternoon I arrived at the village of Pwingah—“Open Spread”—the southernmost village in Hseh Ywah Chaung, closest to the sweet spot on the map, located where the narrow gorge of Patolone Creek widens out into a broadish, flat-bottomed valley of arable land.
I was directed to the village monastery, where I met two monks sitting in the large Dhamma hall drinking tea. One of them was the resident sayadaw, and the other the sayadaw of the nearby village of Hsine Teh. This second one was friendly and curious, but the Pwingah sayadaw was evidently not glad to see such a strange, radical, ascetic foreign monk moving onto his territory. He was a bit gloomy at my arrival, but not exactly rude. I was offered some tea; but mainly because strict Burmese monks don’t drink tea in the afternoon I declined it, being as strict as I could manage in those days. While I was there an old lady excitedly came up and tried to offer me a large comb of bananas, presumably with the idea that I could hang it from a ceiling somewhere, and the gloomy one barked at her, “He won’t even drink the tea! How is going to accept those bananas!” Neither of them knew of any good forest hermitages in the vicinity, and I continued on my way, into the north-central frontier of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park.
South of Pwingah the little valley of Patolone Creek was rather steep-sided, and just finding a flat place of ground to sleep on was a challenge. I eventually spent the night lying on the uphill side of a large tree, using the tree to keep me from rolling down the hill in the dark. The next morning I walked back downstream to Pwingah to walk for alms and collect my daily meal.
Again the villagers were surprised to see a monk walking for alms, especially a foreign one (foreigners are relatively very rare in that area, although I was later told that there was a landing strip in a nearby field for the Flying Tigers during World War II), but I received enough food to sustain me, and left the village, looking for a convenient place to eat.
On the previous day I had noticed a large stand of trees on the opposite side of the creek from Pwingah, and on the other side of some fields from another village, called Kuzeit. I had wondered at the time why they hadn’t cut it down like the rest of the forest near the villages. Anyway, I decided to eat there and waded the creek, whereupon I realized that the little patch of forest was actually a kind of pagan sacred grove. Later I was told that it was dedicated to a nature goddess called Amei Gyi, or “Great Mother.” Her image, usually kept in the grove in a kind of hutch with the door closed, shows her as a well-dressed female with her hair up and a sword in her hand, and with a tiger crouching beside her. While I was sitting on a shrine platform with my bowl of food two old gents from Pwingah, who had followed me, told me that they knew I had been sleeping on the hillside in the forest the night before (I was a little surprised at this, since I hadn’t noticed anyone noticing me while I was out there), and that if I was looking for a place to stay, they knew of a good one. After lunch they led me to “Belly Fall Cave,” the same place Shin Dhammasiha had mentioned as a place that wasn’t safe because of falling rocks.
It wasn’t as far into the forest as I had gone the day before, being only about a 30-minute walk from the village. It was at the end of a kind of little box canyon, or box gulley, branching off from the west side of the creek. A waterfall fell over the cave entrance during rainy weather, although at this time it was dry, with a small pond in front of the cave. I call it a “cave” for lack of a better word: Actually it was more of a huge overhanging rock ledge, the interior of the “cave” being about 100 feet wide, 30 feet high, and extending about 30 feet back from the outer edge of the overhang, being largest at the entrance. It was enough to keep the sun off me during most of the day, and the rain off when it rained. It offered shade without being dark; I could do walking meditation at night by moonlight inside it. It was relatively quiet, too, partly because the villagers believed the place was protected by an asaunt, a kind of powerful guardian spirit, a potentially dangerous and scary one. Most of the “cave” was composed of packed sand, not quite sandstone, which was hollowed out by the action of large, roaring waterfalls during the monsoon season; consequently it caved in rather easily, with great sand clods, some of them boulder-sized, occasionally falling to the ground with a thud. The places where cave-ins were most likely were pretty obvious, though, so I wasn’t too worried about being smashed by a collapsing ceiling. The place looked pretty much ideal, so I decided to stay there for some more or less intensive meditation practice.
I arrived there during the last week of February, and the weather was still relatively cold, as the place, like most national parks in this world, is in the hills (on land unsuitable for farming). Sometimes steam would be rising off the creek in the mornings. I learned to do walking meditation in the “sarcophagus position,” with both hands crossed over my chest to conserve body heat; and taking a bath in the creek took about twenty minutes: despite the morning steam, about seventeen minutes of bath time consisted of me standing there beside the creek looking at the cold water and thinking things like, “I really have to take a bath. Yes. I’ve got to do this. I’m gonna have to get down into that water and do it. Yes. That’s right. Let’s do it then.” Then finally I would work up the nerve to jump into the water, wait several seconds for my skin to go into shock and become numb, and then hastily wash myself off and clamber back out again.
After the first day the villagers overcame their surprise and confusion and became extraordinarily eager to offer alms food to the strange ascetic forest monk. On my second morning in Pwingah I found a crowd of people waiting for me beside the creek, at the south entrance to the village. Burmese villagers, bless their hearts, are not strong on organization or planning, so I had to take charge and instruct them to line up. Then I began working my way down the line, bowl in hand. But Burmese villagers are also not good at engineering problems, like how much each they can put into a bowl without it overflowing; so long before I reached the end of the line the bowl was full. People toward the end of the line noticed this, and the line rapidly degenerated into a mob scene, with hands thrusting food at my bowl from all directions. Within seconds I was holding the bowl away from my body to minimize the amount of splatter getting onto my robes. Finally I had little choice but to whip out my bowl lid, clap it onto the bowl, and make a quick getaway. Before I could extricate myself, though, a village lady managed to throw an entire comb of bananas onto the bowl lid. It took several days before I was able to instill enough order that I could usually make it all the way down the line, giving everybody an opportunity to offer something. In Kuzeit village sometimes I would count off the nice ladies, one, two, one, two… with the ones being allowed to offer only rice, and the twos offering only curry. Generally it was one spoonful of rice, one spoonful of curry each—although some old ladies would try to cheat by bringing a huge serving spoon or ladle, or balancing something big, like a ball of sticky rice or a whole banana, onto the spoon. This was my first practical experience with crowds at alms rounds, although I experienced it subsequently in other places. Over the years I’ve developed the ability to look at a line of people and intuitively discern how much each they can put into my bowl without the bowl hopelessly overflowing.
After a few days of settling into a routine, I figured March first would be a good day to start at least one month of intensive meditation practice. The night before, I performed a little ceremony, requesting anyone out there willing and able to help to please do so, and the following morning I endeavored to maintain mindfulness as unbroken as possible. I awoke early, sat in meditation, walked for alms as mindfully as I could manage, returned, ate, meditated some more, and then went down the trail to the creek to wash my bowl, bathe, brush my teeth, fill my water bottles—in short, to “do water things.” (The creek water, incidentally, was greenish and tasted sweet, almost like milk.) While I was at the creek I saw three people coming up the trail toward me: two local villagers and the unscholastic U Nanissara. Instead of meeting me at the creek they continued on up to the cave. I didn’t know what their mission was.
I returned to find the two villagers clearing some ground for U Nanissara’s sleeping place. U Ñ himself informed me that he intended to stay with me. I nipped that plan in the bud by informing him, with some firmness, that I preferred to stay alone. He accepted this gracefully, understanding my intention to practice Dhamma, and the two village guys then offered to dig me a latrine, which idea I welcomed, as until then I had been crapping on the ground among the trees like an animal. So, they started making a latrine.
While this work project was going on, two teenage girls showed up with offerings of candles and palm sugar. They were a little shy, and didn’t stay long. But around the time they left an old guy in a white shirt appeared with a pot of tea and some cigars, intending to hang out with me. When I said that I didn’t drink tea or smoke cigars he got a look on his face as though I were a fireman who had just told him that I didn’t put out fires—drinking tea and smoking cigars with elderly village gents wearing white shirts is what monks do. Then another guy showed up with a mattock, and was enthusiastically invited to join the latrine party. The latrine offerers, after constructing an unnecessarily elaborate latrine that I could not dissuade them from building, took a break and settled down to a little tea and cigar party with the white-shirted one.
By this point it seemed that my freshly started intensive meditation retreat was being promptly derailed by visitors and commotion, and I squatted on the ground in the cave holding my head in my hands. U Nanissara approached me, and I told him in confidence that if everyone didn’t clear out soon I’d take matters into my own hands and get rid of them somehow. U Ñ then kindly offered to move them out for me. The Burmese are much, much better at these things than I am. They know how to do it politely, yet effectively. Within a few minutes all of them, including venerable Nanissara, left with smiles on their faces, and I settled down to resume my first day of the meditation retreat.
At this point, before recounting the most bizarre event of that day, I suppose I should mention an issue I had been having since the day after my arrival. The local villagers, although materially very poor, were extremely generous, and were very eager to offer what they could. I had few needs from them other than a daily bowl of food, however, so their generosity often took the form of fixing the trail to the cave. The two men who had showed me the place in the first place had already cleared the path sufficiently for me to navigate it without trouble; but on average two or three work parties per day were hacking and digging away at the path, chopping down nearby sapling trees and large branches, etc. I didn’t want a broad, flat avenue leading from the village to my cave, so I discouraged continued trail-clearing. It became a minor obsession for me, and sometimes I would go around doing my business while muttering to myself, “Don’t fix the trail…Don’t fix the trail…” Eventually I even went to the extreme of wrecking improvements, or covering them over with plentiful wreckage lying around (dirt clods, severed tree branches, etc.) and re-routing the trail around them.
So, after the visitors had gone away I sat down to meditate. My eyes had not been closed for more than about ten minutes before I starting hearing the familiar boom, boom, crash, crash, crash of someone fixing my trail. It sounded nearby, too, in fact it sounded like it was right in front of me. So I swore in English (I’ve never really learned how to cuss well in Burmese), opened my eyes, and saw a villager with a towel turban and a mattock smashing away at the trail about fifty yards away.
I called out to him, in Burmese, “Stop! Stop! The trail has already been fixed!” But he ignored me, and the crash, crash, boom, boom, boom of digging and avalanching debris continued unabated. So I tried to dissuade him again, and then again. Before long I wasn’t yelling so much because of the distance between us as because I was getting, to put it plainly, pissed off. I yelled at him “Stop!!! Stop!!! Go away!!!” until I was hoarse, with absolutely no apparent effect whatsoever. I shouted until my shouting voice had ground down to hardly louder than normal conversational volume, with no effect, so finally I really lost my temper, ran down out of the cave, fell down, got back up again, ran up the trail to where he was so diligently working, and starting exclaiming in his face to stop fixing the goddam trail and go away, because said goddam trail had already been fixed, several times in fact. The man looked at me with a serene, childlike expression and said, “I’m fixing your trail!” He didn’t say it sarcastically or defensively. He said it as though I hadn’t been yelling at him to stop for the past five minutes, as though I might actually welcome the information.
So I kept exclaiming at him to stop, sometimes adding, to avoid any confusion, “NOW!!!” At one point while gesticulating in the direction I wanted him to go (i.e. away), my finger brushed against his turban, inspiring a moment of intrusive mindfulness as the anger was transcended and I felt something like, “oh, I didn’t mean to hit his head.” In retrospect I think the thing to do might have been simply to take his mattock away from him, march up the hill with it, and fling it off the steep hillside into the creek below; but at the time I was no longer thinking clearly—in fact I was as at wit’s end as I had ever been in my life. I wanted to gibber like an ape and jump in circles and throw dead leaves in the air. There seemed to be no way of getting this guy to stop fixing my trail, or even to consider stopping fixing it. It was alien, bizarre, a situation that would be unthinkable in a place like the USA.
Eventually though, with a strange foreign monk almost in tears and hollering in his face, with maybe a little bit of spittle actually landing on him, a tiny light went on in his head, and he started to realize that maybe I didn’t want him to fix the trail. (To some degree there was a culture barrier in the way of this, where it is polite to say the Burmese equivalent of “oh, you shouldn’t bother,” without really meaning it—but this barrier had been passed long since.) He said something, still looking rather serene, like, “Oh, well, I’ll go back now,” but as he slowly walked away he continued hacking at the trail with his mattock, one hack with every step. I followed right behind him, urging him on with continued exclamations of “Stop! Now! Go away! Now! Now! Now!” And then, miraculously, he cleared out.
I returned to the cave an agitated nervous mess with a shredded throat; and since sitting in meditation was nowhere near to being a realistic option until the adrenaline cleared, I decided to go fill my water bottles at the creek. As I arrived at the top of the trail, where the steep path down to the water things place branched from the main trail, I could hear, maybe a quarter of a mile away, way off in the distance, boom, boom, crash, crash, crash… He had simply moved farther down the trail with his fixing operation. I felt a brief urge to run after him and assault him, but the urge passed, and I went to the creek and filled the damn water bottles. Fortunately, the work parties greatly decreased after that day.
I’m pretty sure that the little keyhole-shaped box canyon, and the cave,
are in that central darkness somewhere (courtesy of Google Earth)