Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Noble Flight of U Nandiya

     While I am staying here at Wun Bo, I suppose it would be appropriate for me to compose a tribute to my old friend U Nandiya. This is a very long one, but, I hope, worth reading.
     When I first moved into this place the only other person living here was U Nandiya. I considered his name to be possibly auspicious, as it was also the Pali name of the late venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw, the founder of the tradition in which I was ordained. He was in his early 70's, I think, and his face was dark brown and very wrinkled, like a dried apple, and he had maybe eight or ten teeth in his entire head. He gave me a cheerful welcome, and I moved into the cave on the hill, while he lived in a wooden cabin with no windows down by the river, about a four-minute walk from my place.
     He had lived in various parts of Burma, but his native village was Wun Bo, about half a mile away. He had seven or eight grown children, some in the village, some in the nearby city of Monywa. Nobody seemed to know the exact number of his grandchildren, but the general estimate was around fifty. I never heard a word about his wife, and I assume that she was dead. Although many of his family lived close by, he had let it be known that he didn't want to be pestered; he wanted to live quietly in the forest and devote his remaining years to Dhamma, and to peace and quiet in general.
     Although he was more than thirty years older than me, it turned out that I was a few months senior to him in the Sangha, because he had become a monk later in life, after his retirement from being a subsistence farmer. (In Burma it's pretty common for people to be ordained as monks or nuns after they retire. They are called taw htwet, one who goes out into the forest.) So I was technically and officially the senior monk at the forest monastery, and he called me Bhante ("venerable sir") when we did confession, etc., together. I was slightly embarrassed about this at fist, but it was fine with him, as he was pretty passive and easygoing, and not much interested in overseeing a monastery. There wasn't a whole lot to oversee anyway.
     Like probably at least 97% of Burmese monks, U Nandiya paid little heed to monastic discipline. He had received almost no monastic training, and had lived at Wun Bo alone for most of the time since his ordination. He went beyond the norm by sometimes going for almsround in the village without even his upper robe on, wearing a red or brown sweatshirt instead and/or going wrapped in a blanket. Like almost all Asian monks he handled money, and I suspect that he had a niece or granddaughter sell some of the brooms he made – he made really good ones by hand out of bamboo and palm fronds – at a village market to get money for cigars and betel. (I'm not sure how he managed to chew betel nut, considering the fewness of his teeth, but he managed somehow.) I also suspect that he cooked dinner for himself sometimes. But, I didn't want to know these things, and didn't try to find out. In my younger days I had a strong tendency to despise lax, sloppy monks, and I still occasionally experience residual twinges of it; but U Nandiya was an old man, and he had lived here much longer than I had, and anyway I hadn't come here to look for trouble.
     We got along fine – up until the end of my second rains retreat here. The issue was over a kathina ceremony. Judging from the ancient Vinaya texts, the original purpose of the kathina ceremony was to be a kind of test: if after living together for the three months of the rains retreat the Sangha are still harmonious and cooperative enough to accomplish the difficult task of receiving cloth and measuring it, cutting it, sewing it, and dyeing it into a regulation monk's robe, all before dawn of the following day (and if there is sufficient cloth it is required to be a two-layered outer robe), then they are awarded an extra three months of "kathina privileges" in addition to the standard one month: for example they have the right to keep as many robes as they like. (The usual limit is three robes, with any additional clothing having to be relinquished within ten days.) However, I've never had any great desire for these privileges, and U Nandiya, as already mentioned, didn't pay much attention to monastic discipline, and casually allowed himself the kathina privileges all year round, ceremony or no. So from the perspective of Dhamma and Vinaya, the ceremony would be practically pointless. In fact, the kathina ceremony in Burma has degenerated into a kind of festival where the monks don't cut, sew, or dye anything, but just receive a store-bought, factory-made robe (which in most cases isn't made according to Vinaya anyway). There's music sometimes, lots of eating, a senior monk delivers a sermon, the Sangha does a brief ceremony of "rejoicing" at the donation of the robe, and then comes the big climax of each monk receiving a pile of donated loot, including envelopes of money. For many monks the kathina ceremony is the number one money-making opportunity of the year.
     My first year here I considered myself to be a newcomer and looked the other way; I didn't come out of the cave for it. But the second year I put my foot down and refused to allow a kathina festival at the monastery, as was my right as a member of the Sangha, even totally setting aside the fact that I was senior monk. (It is a little-known fact that the tradition of an abbot being lord and master of a Buddhist monastery is completely alien to the ancient rules of monastic discipline. According to Vinaya, the Sangha is governed my consensus, with every monk in a community required to give his consent to a formal act in order for it to be valid. If even the most junior monk does not agree, then it's no go.) A few lay supporters of the monastery who were keen on festivals began maneuvering behind my back, and in front of it, continuing to invite monks from town, and so forth; but after I informed them, with considerable heat, that if they wanted a kathein pweh (a kathina festival) they were going to get a sit pweh (a battle), they backed away. Possibly because of blowing the number one money-making opportunity of the year, U Nandiya would hardly look at me for two or three months afterwards. I was told that sometimes he grumbled about me, and suggested that it would be good if I lived somewhere else. But the cave here was too good to leave; and the forest was too good; and besides I really had nothing against U Nandiya. So I stayed.
     A few years later I had the occasion of throwing out of this place a truly amazing old crook of a part-time monastery attendant. (He's so remarkable he deserves his own blog post. Maybe some other time.) After finally realizing that his obvious strategy of gradually easing back into the monastery wasn't going to work, he attempted to have me thrown out (so he could move back in) by going to the local branch office of the central government and formally accusing me of being a political agitator. So I came under investigation by the military government on political charges. On the day of my second visit from the police I was down at the well drawing water, when old U Nandiya walked by. I smilingly said to him, "The police were here again today." He said that he knew, and then, with shining eyes and obvious heartfelt emotion, he told me, essentially, "Don't worry. I'll always stick up for you. So long as I'm around, I'll always protect you. Don't be downhearted!" I figure that if the military government really wanted me arrested there wouldn't be much that a humble old monk, formerly a village subsistence farmer, could do about it; but I was moved and heartened by his obvious feeling on my behalf. I realized then that he had become a true friend.
     (In all fairness to the Burmese military government, they did a responsible job of investigating my case. The township chief of police could see clearly enough that a meditating forest recluse living alone in a cave was hardly likely to be a dangerous political agitator, and all the villagers that he questioned vouched for my lack of interest in politics. I'm not sure that I even knew who the leader of the country was at that time. My accuser was scolded and fined; I assume the fact that one of his sons was an army officer helped to keep him out of jail – which, however, was exactly where he belonged. Gawd he was amazing.)
     As the years went by, I developed a genuine love for U Nandiya, regardless of his almost total lack of monastic discipline. I adopted the habit of checking on him at least once a day, usually under the pretext of bringing him the best of my extra food. If I found him asleep in front of his cabin (he eventually stopped sleeping indoors for some reason) I'd check, just to make sure, to see if he was still breathing. As he got older his eyes started turning a hazy bluish color, and he became very hard of hearing. Those of you who have read Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby may recall deaf old Peg Sliderskew, who would participate in conversations like the following: 

     "Well, my Slider!"
     "I hear you," said Peg, receiving him very graciously.
     "I've come according to promise," roared Squeers.
     "So they used to say in that part of the country I come from," observed Peg, complacently, "but I think oil's better."
     "Better than what?" roared Squeers, adding some rather strong language in an undertone.
     "No," said Peg, "of course not."
     "I never saw such a monster as you are!" muttered Squeers, looking as amiable as he possibly could the while; for Peg's eye was upon him, and she was chuckling fearfully, as though in delight at having made a choice repartee…
Some of my conversations with U Nandiya were rather similar, except without the strong undertones. Once somebody offered me a fancy cigar from town, and knowing that U Nandiya liked cigars, I gave it to him. A few days later I asked him how the cigar was, and his response was something like, "Is that so?" Our dialog proceeded as follows:

     ME: No. The cigar. How was the cigar?
     HIM: I ate it! I gave some to Ko Myint Oo also.
     ME: No. (picking up a hand drill resembling a screwdriver and pretending to smoke it) Cigar! Cigar!
     HIM: Oh, that's for making holes.
     ME: No. (roaring at the top of my lungs) CIG-A-A-A-R!!!
     HIM: (sheepishly at this point) Oh, I haven't smoked that yet. I have it in the cabin there.

     I could relate to his pretending to understand what he couldn't hear. Possibly the closest I've come to positively lying since becoming a monk has been when I have pretended to understand what people have said to me in Burmese. (I do speak "like a lawyer" sometimes though, avoiding telling the whole truth without actually lying.) After all these years I still haven't bothered to master the language, and speak it about as well as a seven-year-old Burmese child.
     One afternoon we did the uposatha ceremony together, on the full moon or the new moon – I don't remember which it was. U Nandiya had never memorized the formal chanting for pārisuddhi uposatha, or for confession, so he read it from a book, wearing glasses with lenses like the bottoms of pop bottles. The last thing he said to me before we parted was, "My eyesight is growing very dim."
     The next morning I came down the hill to bring him the best of my extra food, as usual, and I found him lying on the wooden bed in front of his cabin in a delirium. A young village guy was there, who with wide eyes explained that earlier that morning he had passed through the monastery compound and found U Nandiya lying on the ground. He was afraid to touch him (he said because he was a monk), so he found two older men herding cattle by the river, who came and put him on his bed, and had then gone into Wun Bo village to get help. What happened was that U Nandiya had a condition which required him to pee frequently, and so in the middle of the night he went out to pee, and because of his dim eyesight he didn't see a snake, which apparently he stepped on, and it bit him two or three times. No snake has venom powerful enough to knock someone down immediately, so I assume the reason why he spent the night lying on the ground is the shock and horror of stepping on a poisonous snake, being bitten by it, and knowing that in all likelihood he was a dead man. I hesitate to imagine what was going through his mind as he lay on the ground for hours in the darkness. Maybe he fainted.
     In his delirium U Nandiya was asking for his "blood medicine," some traditional herbal concoction that he had somewhere, but he was in no condition to explain clearly where it was, and we couldn't find it.
     I admit that I really didn't know what to do. Nowadays they say that you shouldn't cut open the fang marks and suck out the poison; and besides he had been bitten several hours previously. Nowadays they say you should simply immobilize the bitten body part until medical help is forthcoming; but U Nandiya was already pretty much entirely immobilized. In retrospect I think maybe the best I could have done would be to lay hands upon him and pray, or do my best to send healing juju into him, or maybe just stay with him, but I didn't. After a few minutes of indecision I hurried into Lay Myay village to fetch U Nyunt, the medical officer there.
     I wasn't sure where U Nyunt's house was, plus I was bare-chested, wearing only my lower robe, so I stopped at a monastery at the edge of the village and told the people there, including the abbot, what had happened, and requested that someone quickly go and call U Nyunt. But nobody seemed to "get it." The sayadaw was like, "You say somebody was bitten by a snake? Was it you?" 
     "No, it was U Nandiya. He may be dying. I need U Nyunt to come to the forest monastery."
     But then the sayadaw just stood there in silence. Two ladies who had brought food offerings were transferring their food into monastery containers, and seemed to be in no hurry. A middle-aged guy wearing a big towel turban beamed at me merrily, as though he were tickled just to be hanging out with the foreign monk. Again, I wasn't sure what to do. Finally, after the ladies finished ladling their food into different containers, I urged them to go and fetch the medical officer, and they said they would. Then I hurried back to the forest monastery with a young village monk following.
     U Nyunt and the medical officer from Wun Bo village arrived at about the same time; and several minutes of confusion ensued for me, or rather continued. At one point the officer from Wun Bo stated that U Nandiya's blood pressure was zero; but afterwards she was explaining to me the inadvisability of using antivenom, as she couldn't be sure what kind of snake had bitten him. So I assumed that he was still alive, and that a blood pressure of "zero" meant that it was too weak to measure, or some such. Then I was told that if I wanted, they could find a vehicle to drive him into town, but that the road was very rough, and that in his delicate condition it wouldn't be good for him. They didn't seem very enthusiastic about the idea. But I was like, "Of course you should find a vehicle to take him into town. We have to do something." Then U Nyunt gave me a penetrating look and with some impatience said, "His blood pressure is zero." Then I got it. They didn't want to say that he was dead. As for me, I hadn't wanted to assume that he was dead. But he was.
     The medical officers had done all they could, which was simply to ascertain that U Nandiya had died; so, rather late, I instructed the village monk, who was sitting on the bed next to the body, to start chanting Paritta.
     As the day progressed, more and more of U Nandiya's family, friends, and supporters showed up at the forest monastery. I was struck by the fact that none of his relatives, even his own children, seemed particularly sad about the state of affairs, and one or two of them were even smiling. I prefer not to believe that they didn't love their father; and I'm sure they weren't smiling over any rich inheritance they were to receive. I have little choice but to attribute it to the astonishing stoicism of Burmese villagers. Besides, they're devout Buddhists, and know that death, like everything else, is only temporary. There were some tears shed later on though, at the funeral.
     It was decided to cremate him the following day, because it was the beginning of the hot season, and meat goes bad fast in hundred-degree heat, and we had no refrigeration. Young guys started collecting wood for the funeral pyre, and I donated to the cause from my own firewood, including a really nice little teak log that I'd been saving for a special occasion. Some of U Nandiya's male relatives carefully bathed his body, and even shaved his head. After they had finished with this, I noticed lying next to him on the bed a little lattice-like object made out of bamboo sticks. I considered tossing it because it didn't seem to belong there, but then I considered that I'd better ask first, just to make sure. When I asked Ko Myint Oo, U Nandiya's nephew, what it was, he said, simply, "A ladder." It was a traditional Burmese Stairway to Heaven.
     The Burmese have very poetic language with regard to Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha; there is a whole different vocabulary involved when speaking of them. The words used for monks' eating, sleeping, going, speaking, etc., are different from the words used for laypeople. Even the word for "human being" is not applied to monks. So when a monk dies, he doesn't just "die," he nobly flies.
     I had been having very difficult times even before my friend suddenly died, or nobly flew away – lots of "stuff" had been coming up, and I still hadn't fully recovered from the blazing hot drought of the previous "rainy season." I remember looking closely into U Nandiya's completely motionless, peaceful face and sincerely thinking, "You are the lucky one." After this I touched his forehead at the "third eye" (which didn't feel cold at all because of the weather), partly as a contemplation of death, and partly just to say goodbye. Goodbye, my friend.
     Remarkably, the very next morning, the day after U Nandiya was bitten, and the day we cremated his remains down by the river, I went to my outhouse, opened the door, started to go inside…and then suddenly noticed an adult Russell's viper – the deadliest snake in Burma – coiled up right next to the water pot. It is not the deadliest snake in Burma because it has the most potent venom; that honor belongs to the many-banded krait, whose bite packs enough wallop to kill twenty full-grown men, according to the scientists. The Russell's viper is the deadliest because it's the meanest, and by far the most likely to bite and kill someone. I once had a baby one about a foot and a half long actually come after me on the road, lunging again and again...but I digress. Anyway, needless to say, I changed my mind about taking a dump just then, and slowly backed away and closed the door and left it there. 
     It probably wasn't the same snake that bit U Nandiya though. First, my outhouse is rather a long way from U Nandiya's place. Second, judging by how far apart the fang marks were on his foot and ankle, it would have to have been a huge viper, as Russell's vipers have pointy snouts with their fangs close together. Third, U Nandiya didn't seem to be in great pain after he was bitten, and viper bites are very painful. Fourth, the places around the bite marks were not swollen or discolored, as is generally the case with viper bites. And fifth, U Nandiya's cabin was only about twenty feet from a hole in the ground which people had seen, on various occasions, a cobra going in and out of. So he was probably bitten by a cobra.
     The funeral was not so different from the kathina festivals that I strictly forbade several years before. Music was blasted over a loudspeaker, village monks were invited and fed, a sayadaw delivered a sermon and the monks did some chanting, and then offerings were made to them, including envelopes of money. I exercised my authority only to the extent of having the music turned down a few notches. I walked around and observed, but otherwise didn't participate in the festival aspect of the thing. I didn't much like the way the "cremation festival" was going, but out of consideration for U Nandiya's family I kept such feelings to myself.
     I had requested that the actual cremation take place in the afternoon, to allow the heat to abate somewhat, and to allow any of U Nandiya's relatives and supporters in town time to arrive in time; but the village sayadaws decreed otherwise, more or less. The proceedings began at one p.m., with the sun blazing full blast. The traditional gong/horn/xylophone music was cranked up to a crescendo, U Nandiya's closest male relatives shouldered the decorated, open wooden casket, and at a semi-trot they began a swaying, circuitous, sinuous course through/around the monastery compound before heading down to the riverbank. It was at this point that people began weeping, especially the women. It was essentially U Nandiya's Last Hurrah.
     The casket was placed on top of the stacked wooden pyre, and then, grotesquely (maybe just in order not to waste a good set of robes), U Nandiya's clothes were removed and he was flopped, naked and face down, back into the casket. I remember spontaneously exclaiming, in English, "That's undignified!"
     The only monastics who stayed to watch the body burn, aside from myself, were a junior monk and a little novice. Many of the laypeople also left before the fire was lit. It seemed to me that the most important part of a cremation ceremony would be the cremation itself; but, obviously, many Burmese people see things differently. To my surprise, before the fire had died down people began flinging bucketfuls of water onto it to extinguish it. This was so there would be something remaining to entomb. The next day one of U Nandiya's sons and a few of his granddaughters were cheerfully picking through the ashes looking for pieces of bone.
     I can totally understand how people have come up with all sorts of taboos and strange beliefs about death, even in very early and "primitive" stone age cultures. It seems so counterintuitive, even paradoxical – one day there is this human being, a living person, walking around and maybe cracking jokes, with hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, a wealth of experiences; then just 24 hours later all that remains is a lifeless "it," already starting to decompose and smell bad in the heat; and 24 hours after that all that's left of this being is a little clay pot full of ashes and fragments of charred bone. How could that personality, all that complexity and richness, that life, simply disappear? It is an enigma, and regardless of scientific materialism, the traditional belief in something surviving death feels more reasonable, and more likely. Anyway, we enshrined U Nandiya's remains above the lower cave, where centuries in the past there had been some other shrine or tomb – all that was left of it was some old scattered bricks.
     Starting on the afternoon of the cremation, some of U Nandiya's relatives took upon themselves a one-week vigil of sorts at the monastery, meditating and keeping eight precepts. They set up a little shrine in front of U Nandiya's cabin, putting on it, among other things, some of his favorite kinds of food and some of his favorite cigars, just in case he might somehow be able to enjoy them. However, on the fifth day after his death a very strange event occurred which disrupted everyone's plans. I was doing walking meditation inside the cave when I heard the wind start blowing very violently. I went to the cave entrance and looked out to see what was happening, and saw that the sky had turned brown. Everything on the ground looked brownish, as though I were looking through brown-tinted glasses. Then hailstones the size of strawberries began falling out of the sky, hitting the ground at an angle because of the wind. They fell so hard and so fast that within seconds they were piling into drifts, with entire areas of ground completely covered with white ice – in a tropical semi-desert, during the hot season. I do not frighten easily; for example, finding the viper in the outhouse didn't scare me. But, seeing what I was seeing outside the cave, genuine fear arose in me. It was the eerie kind of fear which comes from being completely unable to make sense of what is happening. It was the same kind of feeling that might arise if you were looking right at somebody who then suddenly vanished – poof – or if a cup on a table right next to you were to levitate into the air and then hang there motionless. I recalled a scene I had read as a teenager in a science fiction novel (Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) about a comet that smacks into the Pacific Ocean: a man is walking down a city street in California on a bright, sunny day, when suddenly the sky blackens and rain starts lashing down in sheets. Some of the rain trickles down his face into his mouth, and he tastes that it is seawater – and then he realizes that something terribly wrong is happening. Watching the hailstones battering down out of a brown tropical sky, I think I felt like that guy. But, the world didn't come to an end. There was no comet impact, and no nuclear holocaust. It was just freakish weather. Although the world wasn't destroyed, many thatched roofs in the area were, including the one under which the village men were conducting their vigil. So, they gave up on it and went home.
     After that I was left alone here. I moved down into the lower cave in order to better keep an eye on the main monastery compound – which mainly meant keeping village rascals with slingshots and snares from killing off the semi-tame red jungle fowl that wander around the place. I stayed in the lower cave for only a few months, though, before I became very sick, and was required to spend most of the rainy season in town. A doctor in Rangoon informed me that dysentery amoebas had invaded my liver…but that's an entirely different story.
     I apologize if this story is more about me than about venerable U Nandiya. I feel that the best I can do here is just to record my experiences in relation to him.
     I still think U Nandiya was lucky. Seriously, to be bitten by a cobra at the age of eighty is not at all a bad way to go. As it was, his health was faltering but not completely shot, his sense faculties were fading (although his mind was still intact), and in all probability he would have lived just a few more years, in increasing feebleness and decrepitude, until some illness, possibly a slow, icky one, finally finished him off. Instead, before his health had broken down, he was bitten by a snake in the middle of the night, and before noon of the next day his business was finished, at least for this round. (There is still that unpleasant question of what was going through his mind as he lay there on the ground in the dark, though.) I've told this opinion about U Nandiya's good luck to some of the villagers here, but most of them just don't agree. They are convinced that being bitten by a snake is always a bad thing.
     In conclusion, I will say that I've occasionally considered that U Nandiya would have been more venerable if he had not been a monk. Perhaps even more than most Burmese monks, he didn't give the proverbial tinker's cuss for ancient rules of monastic discipline; but he did live the life of a genuine spiritual recluse, or at least a religious one. He handled money, but people didn't give him very much of it, so he lived in modest poverty; and he voluntarily took upon himself a life of rough, humble simplicity, solitude, and silence. And I think that is truly venerable. Besides, he was a good person. Wherever U Nandiya is right now, if anywhere, I hope he's in an even better place than the one he left.
     (Written at Wun Bo, on rough, blotchy paper)

The tomb of U Nandiya
anicca   dukkha   anattā


1 comment:

  1. Aaron McClure (From Fremont)March 24, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    U Paññobhāsa,
    Very nice story. It encompass so much of basic Buddhism Impermanence, attachment, desire.

    Thank you so much for sharing this.