Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Sample of Modern Burmese Buddhist Poetry

     Several years ago in Rangoon I came across a little yellow booklet which poetically describes a Burmese man's experiences as a newly ordained monk (probably a temporary one) at a monastery/meditation center in Burma, alias Myanmar. The booklet appeared to be privately printed and published, and had no copyright information that I can remember. What it contained moved and inspired me, because it conveys the feel of being a newly ordained monk---the idealism, the gratitude, the reverence for the profundity of Dhamma---better than anything else I have ever read. Even the nervousness of the postulant waiting outside the congregation hall before his ordination ceremony is suggested by the verse beginning "jasmine and gardenia drench the walk," and the very next verse contains a poetic rendering of part of the upasampadā kammavācā, the formal act of ordination, chanted in Pali at the creation of every bhikkhu since ancient times. I'm not nearly so starry-eyed as I was at my ordination, although I feel that I am wiser and more content nowadays. Still, I liked the little booklet and transcribed its contents into a notebook, and I think it's good enough to share with you who are reading this.
     I don't know who U Win Pe is, although, like very many Burmese laypeople, he obviously knows his Buddhism: the following lines are embellished with plenty of philosophical allusions and symbols that a beginner in Dhamma may not notice. I don't know who he is, but I am grateful to him. Here is what he wrote:

The Yellow Robe: A Travel Diary
by U Win Pe

     Self did not make me, nor self nor any other. Yet the notion of Self or self or some other made me. And with a body and mind caused this body and mind which will cause another body and mind so long as there remains the notion.
                                        from the ambulatory I can see
                                             beyond the tops of mango
                                                  doorian and mangosteen
                                                       the shoulder of a hill
                                   in the morning it is dim with ground mist
                                        in the afternoon it is blurred with haze

                                        walking beside the jasmine bush
                                                  the mynahs do not heed me
                                   they cluck and whistle and flutter and hop
                                             and one flying in low from somewhere
                                                  alights with a whirr of wings

                                             tea-dust swirl in the cup
                                        dark brown specks in amber liquid
                                             slowly drop to the bottom
                                                  there they stay
     Travelling the round of births of Samsara. Treading the Eightfold Path. Winning the Stream. Metaphors of Wayfaring. Incessant movement, there is no standing still. For one is not doing nothing at any time, one is always doing. And to do is to impel. So one goes -- going on or getting out.

                                   jasmine and gardenia drench the walk
                                        with their delicate flavours
                                   I take 31 steps up this way
                                        and 31 steps down that way
                                   and 31 steps this way again

                                   let the assembly, revered brothers, hear me
                                        to whatever venerable it seems good
                                             let him remain silent
                                        to whomsoever it does not seem good
                                                  let him speak
                                             to the assembly it seems good
                                                  silent it remains
                                                       take it so

                                                            head shaven
                                   carrying only the eight requisites
                                        the heavy robe somehow seems light
                                             as I take the first steps slowly
                                                  from the Ordination Hall
                                                       onto the path

                                   salted boiled peas and plain hot tea
                                        to help this body get out of
                                   the low round table seating five
                                        body, sensation, and so on
                                   a small cloud passes quickly across
                                        the sky in the refectory window

                                        a round face in an aged head
                                   a low voice beneath soft words
                                        standing beside the coconut palm
                                             talking of pain and the end of pain

     The life lived without awareness is the tainted life: tainted with wanting, tainted with not wanting, tainted with not knowing about the notion of Self and self. Awareness should be of each doing every moment. Mindfulness is the watching and warding of awareness.

                                        4a.m. the stream of breath
                                             216 cycles per minute
                                   in-breathing, out-breathing, in-breathing
                                             watching the touch
                                        aware of sensation as it is
                                             airflow at the nostril tip

                                        the morning is noisy with birdtalk
                                   koels, jays, mynahs, sparrows, bulbuls
                                        I follow each song and twitter
                                   not koel shout, jay song, sparrow twitter
                                        but each note as it falls upon my ear

                                        the wind rises in the afternoon
                                   it ruffles the topmost branches of
                                                  the doorian
                                        then it shakes it thoroughly
                                   raises a flurry in the almond tree
                                        flutters the window curtain
                                                  and comes to me

                                             9p.m. mindful of sensation
                                   when sensation is full with mind
                                        and mind is full with sensation
                                   the bright green world beneath the waves
                                                  at Set-se beach
                                   the sea is permeated with one taste

     Colours seen with the eyes closed are brighter than colours seen with open eyes. Brighter than these are the colours seen when the mind is brought to a point. But colours, lights, and images are distractions.

                                        mango tree, sky, monastery wall
                                             sun brings out the green
                                                  the blue, the white
                                        and sunlight all bright yellow
                                   on monk's robe hanging out to dry

                                   lights are a curtain hiding Light
                                        lights are a turn-off to delight
                                             lights are bright colours
                                                  not hot but cool
                                        lights are a pleasant quiet pool
                                   lights do not light the way to ardour
                                        lights are a curtain hiding Light

     The end of the world is not reached by travelling. Within this fathom-length body with its sense-impressions, thoughts and pains, is the world, the making of the world, the ceasing and the way to the ceasing.

                                             inside this cell
                                        sleeping, sitting, walking
                                        reading, thinking, praying
                                             better to look
                                             inside this body

                                   several fields west of the monastery wall
                                        one under paddy, one under melon
                                                       one under peas
                                   a speckled bull grazes there during the day
                                        this body my grazing-ground

                                        it goes from field to field
                                             feeding indiscriminately
                                             on straw, duckwort, poisonweed
                                             browsing here or lying there
                                   chased by men with sticks in the field beside the road
                                   pelted by boys with stones in the water-meadow
                                        rope it with in- and out-breathing
                                             tie it to the hitch-post pain

     No pain, no gain. This banal expression describes what is so but we would take it metaphorically. There is no path that has no pain. Pain is the stumbling-block or the stepping-stone.

                                             the aching inner muscle of the thigh is pain
                                   the thin thread of sharpness along the bone is pain
                                             the burning hands is pain
                                   pain is the general tone of discomfort
                                                       only pain is
                                   or that which we have named pain

                                   it is not the hardness of the floor plank
                                        which hurts
                                   it is the softness of my foot
                                        pain is not in the wind
                                   it is in the bones the bands
                                        pain is in the mind

                                   discomfort from sitting too long on the floor
                                        the bother of setting out in the sun
                                             to retrieve the robe
                                        vexation from holding the book too long
                                   displeasure from thinking about the task to be done
                                        pain from the meditation exercise
                                        unease is the common element

     We err by naming that which is itself. We err by clothing the world in concepts. Knowing happens in time present and not by reaching before and after. Knowing happens in its own way.

                                   I say this robe this mat this razor
                                        this alms bowl
                                   this water-strainer this needle and thread
                                        this over-robe
                                   but pain is

                                   a jay sits daily on the almond tree
                                        it whistles several phrases
                                   whom is it telling all that to
                                   how to watch the pain in my ankle
                                        as it is without saying

                                   in present pain is birdsong and jasmine
                                   in present pain is the cup of hot tea
                                   in present pain is the wind in the afternoon
                                   in present pain is the shoulder of the hill
                                   in present pain is the path through the orchard
                                   in present pain the cup of tea is smashed

                                        drawing water
                                   the well is wide and shallow
                                   I draw a bucketful and put it in the tub
                                   another bucketful and put it in the tub
                                        14 buckets and the tub is filled
                                        getting to know is not filling a tub

     Joy does not come through pleasure, joy comes through pain. Agitation accompanies pleasure. The way to stillness accompanies pain. The end of pleasure is dissatisfaction. The end of pain is joy. Then comes whatever has to come in its own way.

                                        a set of sharp knives
                                   turning and turning in the ball
                                             of my ankle five days now
                                        it went away this morning

                                        this flesh hung on these bones
                                             and knit with nerves
                                        I have seen shredded
                                             and dropping
                                        like great cliffs falling

                                        flesh is not solid
                                        sunbursts burn at every pore
                                             no arms no thighs no legs
                                        only the play of electricity
                                             vanishing in small flashes

                                             the monk on my left
                                        the coming does not make him glad
                                                  is the monk on my right
                                        the going does not make him sad
                                        gruel is food, boiled peas is food
                                                  hot tea is food
                                             pain comes and goes, joy comes and goes
                                        sun in the morning, stars and moon at night

                                        novices planting a jackfruit tree
                                             9 years before the first fruit
                                        they laugh and quarrel and banter
                                   to them the world is trees and food and walking
                                        the world is trees and food and walking

     One sets out to arrive. One fares as one should. Arrival is in accordance with its own nature and in its own way. One sets out and goes on faring.

                                             not a garden of roses and junipers
                                                  nor a valley of lilies
                                             not a palace with cool drinks in the windows
                                                  nor a moon and a finger pointing
                                                  not the path through an orchard
                                                       to the shoulder of a hill
                                                  but a journey across hot sands
                                                            to a river

                                             a small cloud moves in the southern sky
                                   the morning breeze carries a wetness of river water
                                                       namo Buddhassa


  1. There are many wonderful lines in this poem. One of my favorites is,

    "We err by naming that which is itself. We err by clothing the world in concepts. Knowing happens in time present and not by reaching before and after. Knowing happens in its own way."

    I appreciate the lightness of this blog entry. Thank you for sharing!

  2. This is good poetry. Theravada, as far as I've seen, is fairly barren of much decent creative output, so this is refreshing. It seems to also have some Mahayana influence.. the 'one taste' reference, no?

    1. Yes, I agree that not only Theravadin poetry but Theravadin literature in general tends to be lacking in creative inspiration. This is largely because it is so strongly oriented toward preserving an ancient enlightenment tradition--which, like everything else, can be seen to have its good points and its not so good points. "Enlightenment tradition" itself seems somewhat of a contradiction of terms. Enlightenment is ALIVE AND SPONTANEOUS.

      The reference to the sea having only one taste, the taste of salt, is genuine Theravada, from the Pali Canon. It is a simile for Dhamma/Vinaya, which also has only one taste, the taste of Freedom (cf Udāna 5:5). However, the "moon and a finger pointing" appears to be taken from Zen.

  3. I know who U Win Pe is..he is one of the most amazing people I've ever met. I am wondering though, where did you come across this piece of writing?

    1. I came across it at the home of an old Burmese gentleman in Rangoon/Yangon. It was in a crummy little yellow booklet that looked as though it were printed on a mimeograph machine and published on a very small scale for free distribution.