It is difficult to remember the details of my first residence at Alaung Daw Kathapa after the eventful first few days, since I stayed there five times in all, and the events of the various years blend together, so it is hard to remember with certainty in which year an event occurred. It is very likely, though, that my issues with poachers and woodcutters in the “national park” began almost immediately.
As in many so-called “third world” countries, so in Burma, villages located near national parks and wildlife preserves tend to have an economy partly based upon poaching and woodcutting. The villages around Alaung Daw Kathapa are no exception, which was always a challenge for me, being a person who for most of his life has loved trees and furry and scaly animals more than humans. One time during my early years there a group of park rangers and soldiers came to pay their respects on their way into the park to catch poachers, or at least to discourage them a little. I took heart at this and began enthusiastically telling their leader how they could easily catch at least a dozen poachers in one day: all they had to do was wait by the main trail one or two days before a festival; the poachers come in at that time to sell their meat. As I was saying this I noticed the group leader was grinning and fidgeting in embarrassment, and it became pretty obvious that he had no intention of catching poachers. This became even more obvious when, at the end of my harangue, he replied, “But they’re hunting for food.” This was true, but it was food to sell, as a business, not food to keep their kids from going hungry. So of course, when the law enforcement officers are on the side of the poachers the case is approximately hopeless. I think at least they make some effort to protect the few tigers remaining in the park, and to prevent fishermen from dumping poison into the creek to kill the fish. At least that’s something.
Some of the hunters and fishermen were no happier to see me than I was to see them. One morning when I was walking along the creek toward the village I saw a guy carrying a large fish trap. As soon as he saw me he stared around in sudden panic and literally leapt into chest-deep water to avoid meeting me. On another occasion a fisherman coming up the trail with his fishing pole took one look at me and turned on his heel and ran. As I continued past the spot where I had seen him I could hear him, hiding behind a bush and whisperingly calling to his dog, which was looking around for its master. Another time I heard some kind of explosion coming from that same spot; as I approached I saw men scattering in all directions to avoid me, either diving into the bushes or swimming to the other side of the creek, with stunned and dying fish floating all over the surface of the water. They were using military explosives as a fishing device. I was told that hunters and fishermen believe that if they see a monk the karma imposed upon them by the meeting may prevent them from catching anything that day, but I figure it’s more a case of them seeing me as a kind of Dharma police, and having some childish idea that so long as they don’t get caught, they won’t have to face any religious consequences. But I suppose it doesn’t matter. We challenged each other, and, from a dharmic point of view at least, it is good to be challenged.
Sometimes during alms round I would receive some kind of stringy red meat in my bowl. At first I thought maybe it was water buffalo, but eventually I was told that it was barking deer from the “wildlife refuge.” So after learning what it was I refused to accept it into my bowl, telling the villagers that it is not right to kill animals in a wildlife refuge. This was too abstract or unfamiliar of a concept for them, however, so they chose to interpret it to mean that I was a vegetarian. (Of course, a Buddhist shouldn’t kill animals anywhere, but that point of ethics was so radical as to be totally unrealistic.) So in addition to no longer receiving poached venison, I also stopped receiving such grotesque delicacies as monitor lizard and frog eggs. So that was no great loss. I could go on and on about the killing ways of the villagers, and their disregard of basic ethics until they were too old to have the energy to get into trouble, but I may as well drop the issue and move on to something else.
There is one case of mild delusion I experienced during my first hot season there which involves a hunter, and which I might as well mention before dropping the subject of hunters entirely. Sometimes I would hear a man talking up on the hill above the south side of the box canyon. Also sometimes I would hear explosions like gunshots—not big gunshots, but something like a .22 caliber pistol, almost more of a pop that a bang. Anyway, I told one of my village supporters about it, and he told me that a hunter sometimes stayed up there. He considered this situation to be inappropriate, so he informed me that he would persuade the hunter to go elsewhere. After that I didn’t hear the man’s voice anymore, but I continued to hear the bangs, and sometimes would hear small projectiles pattering through the forest foliage immediately afterward. I tried to figure out what he was doing up there: The explosions weren’t loud enough to be ordinary rifle shots, so I thought maybe he had an old muzzle-loader flintlock (like some villagers owned), and due to economy was loading it with just enough powder to launch a bullet at a bird or whatever small game he was after. Sometimes after the bang I would hear the projectile flying in my direction; and I was tempted a few times to shout at the guy to be careful where he was aiming. Maybe I did shout once or twice. When the village supporter asked me if the hunter was still around I said yes, which had my friend surprised and confused.
Finally I somehow realized what the “gunshots” really were. There is a kind of strangler vine in the forest, which I assume is the very same as the proverbial māluvā creeper mentioned in the Pali texts: it starts out as a soft, downy little shoot, apparently totally harmless, and then grows up the trunk of a tree; eventually it grows so large that it overwhelms the tree, covering it, and it becomes so heavy that it can break the branches off or even pull the whole tree down, destroying it. There were a few trees near the cave that had been wrecked by these things. In the suttas the māluvā is compared to sensual pleasures, or more specifically to the soft, downy arm of a young woman, which eventually can overwhelm and destroy an ascetic. Anyway, the creeper has big seed pods made of a hard, woody material; and during the hot, dry weather they dry out and twist slightly, causing the whole pod to come under greater and greater strain until the whole thing finally bursts open explosively, shooting disc-shaped seeds for fifty meters or more. Those are what I was hearing shooting through the leaves of the trees. One advantage of living in rural Burma, with a semi-ancient, traditional culture and a natural environment very similar to that of the ancient Ganges Valley, is that one can learn more through experience what the suttas are talking about. I don’t remember the suttas mentioning the māluvā pods exploding, though.
I love and am fascinated by nature, and have been this way since I was a small child, and living at Alaung Daw Kathapa gave me many opportunities for observing mysteries of nature. For example, I shared my cave with many kinds of wasp, including several species of potter wasp. There is a kind of metallic green wasp that parasitizes potter wasp pots, so the potter wasps all have some gimmick for concealing their pots. Some of them simply cover the pots with mud, causing them to look like amorphous blobs rather than wasp pots; but the metallic green ones usually spot these and break into them. Others add strange stalagmites of mud to their finished pots which make them look like coral. There’s at least one kind which builds a group of connected pots and then covers them all with a clay dome, either to reduce the smell of the contents penetrating the walls and encouraging the parasitic ones, or to discourage them by causing them to find nothing on the other side of the first mud wall they chew through. But my favorite was a small, delicate-looking potter wasp that didn’t bother to build extra fortifications onto its pots. It left them plainly pot-shaped. What it did, though, was to go out and find black and white pigments and paint an abstract black-and-white camo pattern onto its pots to break up the visible outline. Not only does it fascinate me that they have evolved this behavior (they’re born with it, as potter wasps are quite solitary and have no friends or teachers), but also that they have no idea whatsoever why they are doing it. Even assuming that a wasp has some dim consciousness of what it is doing, it almost certainly doesn’t have the slightest idea of why it is going through the trouble of building domes or coral antlers or painting abstract designs. It probably has no concept at all of the dangers of metallic green parasitic wasps in the area. But the thing is, though, of course, naturally, that we humans tend to be the same way, if to a less absolute degree. Most women never bother to understand why they consider babies to be so adorable, and most men never bother to understand why a young woman’s shapely bosom is so tantalizingly attractive. Or why they care what other people think. Or why they stick their tongue out when they do something difficult. Or why they close their eyes before they sneeze. Or why they like the smell of baking bread. Et cetera.
It was also during my first or second year that I saw something of the pagan cult of Amei Gyi, the Great Mother. Once when I was in Her sacred grove I noticed a woman from Kuzeit village who came to the main shrine platform (the same place where I would stop to take my bowl out of its bag and cover both shoulders with my upper robe before entering the village for alms). She took an empty clay pot there, went down to the creek and filled it with water, picked a few leafy twigs and stuck them in the pot, offered the pot at the shrine, and then proceeded to ask the Great Mother for a long list of favors or blessings, including the health of her family, her husband’s economic success, and her son’s success in his school exams. It seemed to me that the nice lady was essentially trying to swindle the goddess: what kind of equitable trade was that? Some picked leaves from her own grove in exchange for that list? Some people have strange ideas about religion, and about life in general. Some Christians have similar ideas, believing that just making a brief confession before one dies is enough to ensure the reward of an eternity in Heaven.
On another occasion I saw a different lady with the old village guy who was part-time priest to the goddess (he mainly made his living in some other way, and just moonlighted as a divine intermediary). The little ceremony was interesting: This lady offered a whole, plucked, boiled rooster to the goddess, which the “priest” offered on her behalf, chanting/muttering something I didn’t understand. At one point he pulled the tongue out of the rooster, chanted some more, and then reinserted it and chanted some more. I would guess that most Europeans two thousand years ago did similar things. Even Socrates, on his deathbed, asked a friend to sacrifice a rooster for him.
So…to make a long story even longer, I lived in Belly Fall Cave, practicing in a predominantly head-oriented manner (as was my custom in those days rather more than it is now), until the monsoon began. I planned to go back to the blazing hot wastelands of Taungpulu Kyauk Hsin Tawya, in central Burma, after the rain started and cooled things down to a simmer. So, around the second half of May, the first big rain came down signaling that it was time for me to leave.
The next morning I found the creek, which was usually less than knee deep where I crossed to reach Pwingah village, chest deep, opaque brown, and flowing fast. I slowly, carefully waded through the flood to reach the villagers waiting to offer food, with my bowl and upper robe held up out of the water, but evidently was not careful enough, and took a bad step onto a bad rock and tore a piece of skin more than a centimeter across off the bottom of a big toe. I was still able to walk, but it was obviously a bit of a handicap when it was time to leave the area, especially since it was a 32-mile hike to the nearest functional car road. I moved into Hsine Teh village, home of the friendly, curious sayadaw that I had met my first day there. Also, the unscholarly U Nanissara had already been there for some time, and had made himself at home. One image of that monastery which remains with me is a heap of antique palm leaf manuscripts in a little shrine building with no front wall, rotting and scattered all over the floor. Burma is like that.
When the villagers of Hsine Teh discovered that I was lamed, they got together and tried to rent an elephant from a nearby logging camp, so I could ride it. The arrangements were apparently not going according to plan, however, and no elephant was forthcoming, so I was getting ready to make the trip on foot, lame or not. But the day before U Nanissara and I were to set out, I saw, coming up the dirt track to the monastery, an elephant. He looked huge at the time, although I was told later that he was only thirteen years old and not yet full grown. His name was Chit San Win, which means “Special Bright Love.” We, including the elephant and his driver, spent one last day at the village monastery, where the sayadaw was driven to distraction by the fact that the elephant was capable of eating entire banana trees and succeeded in eating one or two of them at the monastery.
In those days, before the new highway to India cut through the area, elephants were used to bring groceries and other cargo into the valley from the outside; so Chit San Win had a kind of luggage rack fitted to his back, a wooden contraption that was fixed up with cushions as a howdah or saddle for U Nanissara and me. When we took leave of the good villagers the elephant’s driver commanded him to kneel, so we could climb into the saddle easily. We were required to use the back of the elephant’s neck as a step, which bothered me. I remember saying “gadaw gadaw” to him as I stepped up—it means “I pay respect to you,” and is what Burmese people say before touching another person’s head. Even barbers say it before they start cutting someone’s hair. The Burmese, if they heard it, probably thought I was joking.
At the beginning of the monsoon season the wild mangos are ripe, and as we passed through the forest Chit San Win, being an elephant with a one-track mind oriented toward food, would stop at every wild mango tree we passed to eat the fallen mangos. The driver would scream at him and beat him and shoot him in the rump with a slingshot to get him going again. I figured the elephant was doing most of the work, and didn’t begrudge him an occasional mango break, but the driver saw things differently. So I requested that the two Burmese guys accompanying us on foot collect mangos whenever we passed a wild mango tree, and I would feed them to Chit San Win whenever we would stop. In the early evening we arrived at a wooden shelter where we were to spend the night, and the elephant came up alongside the elevated platform so we could dismount without him having to kneel. After we got off Chit San Win curled the end of his trunk into a kind of fist and started thumping the wooden floor of the platform with it. U Nanissara turned to me and said, “He’s asking for his mangos,” which I realized was exactly what he was doing. We had stopped, so it was mango time for him. Elephants like mangos.
Actually, elephants are remarkably intelligent, much smarter than dogs. They understand many different commands, and know their left from their right. If they didn’t think about food all the time they might make something of themselves in this world.
One other thing that flourishes in the forest at the beginning of the monsoon is horseflies. They are attracted to moisture, which means that I, the profusely sweating Westerner among Burmese people adapted to hot, humid weather, became a horsefly magnet. My sweat-wiping rag was in constant motion throughout much of that trip, as I tried to keep the little bastards off of me and away from my limited supply of blood. One time I noticed a horsefly on top of Chit San Win’s head; he noticed it too, and the tip of his trunk came up like a big thumb and squished it. An elephant’s skin is very sensitive, so he could feel that the squished horsefly was still up there, and so the trunk came up one more time and flicked it off.
The next day we arrive at a big village called Ya-Gyi, a corruption of Ywa-Gyi, which means “big village.” That is where the Nayaka Sayadaw, sort of the Buddhist bishop of the area, had his monastery. That is also where Chit San Win and his driver took their leave of us. I wanted to say goodbye to the elephant, the first one I had ever ridden, and maybe get him a bunch of bananas or something as a parting gift, but the driver was eager to leave, and took off quickly, and so I missed the chance to convey my gratitude to either of them. But, regret is always an unskilful mental state.
Being an exotic, white-skinned foreign monk in a remote area I was a big sensation in the village, so a crowd of people came to pay their respects. We all met in the main Dhamma hall with the venerable Nayaka Sayadaw acting as host. Before long he ordered a novice to fetch a plate and set it in front of me. Then he advised the laypeople to donate money on my behalf. I started scowling and shaking my head, not liking the idea at all; U Nanissara knew the score, so he advised the Sayadaw that I didn’t like his method. The Sayadaw came up to me and in an undertone urged me to be patient, as the money was for my boat fare. Then, more loudly, he advised the simple devotees to pray for Nibbana as they offered the money, which was sufficient for me to stand up abruptly and stalk out of the Dhamma hall. I suggested to my companions that we leave as soon as possible. At least I didn’t accuse the venerable Sayadaw/bishop of shamelessness in front of his congregation, though I came close to it. I was a semi-fanatical hardass in those days.
The second leg of the journey was sixteen miles of dirt road, unmanageable by cars, since a bridge had washed out, but doable by bullock carts. I had never ridden a bullock cart before either; and upon riding one I realized why riding one is against the rules of monastic discipline for a healthy monk: unlike horses, bullocks start slowing down as soon as they stop being beaten. A sixteen-mile trip involves a seven-hour-long beating for two bullocks. I don’t remember their names.
Our next stop was the town of Kani, on the Chindwin River. We were told of a good monastery with very respectable monks situated on the outskirts of the town, so that was our destination. But just before arriving we passed through a large cemetery with a huge wooden pavilion, which looked too good to pass up, so I decided to spend the night there. Before long a guy from town showed up, reportedly a local political officer, who strenuously, repeatedly invited me to spend the night at his house, somehow feeling that it would be better than staying at the cemetery (and I assume easier there to keep an eye on me). But my heart was set on the cemetery, and that’s where I stayed. It was kind of jungly, with a cremation ground and lots of human bones lying around—in other words, really nice for a semi-fanatical hardass monk. I stayed at that cemetery every time I went to Kani after that, too. Once I found the front half of a human skull lying face up on the road about a hundred yards from the cemetery. As cemeteries go, it’s hard to beat.
The next day we boarded a sampan headed downriver to Monywa, which city we had left three months previously. And thus we reentered “civilization,” such as it is. I returned to the cave at Alaung Daw Kathapa four more times, over the next four years, spending a total of almost two years of my life there, including one very challenging rains retreat. I also contracted falciparum malaria every time I went there, coming down with malarial fever at least once each time (seven times total). But that’s a totally different story, which I may or may not ever tell.