Around the middle of November I left Migadawun Monastery in the hills of east-central Burma to come back to my old home of Wun Bo Wildlife Refuge Monastery in the much hotter, arid lowlands farther west. I'm there now, or rather here now, writing this inside Tapoguhā Cave, strangely the one place I've lived longer than anywhere else in my life.
A group of supporters from this area came to fetch me at Migadawun. I had already been informed that they'd come in the afternoon and that we'd leave for "home" the next day, so when I asked one of the guys when we'd be leaving, he answered, "At whatever time is convenient for you, sir." A little later the driver suggested that 4:00 the next morning would be convenient—which of course hardly even registered in my brain. I'm definitely not a morning person; and for me, four in the morning is still practically the middle of the night. Besides, I had hoped to go for one last alms round there so I could say goodbye and give my blessings to the faithful, generous people who had been feeding me every day for the past 4½ months. But the situation was that we should not miss the sampan in Monywa, which leaves town for the villages at around 12:30 or 1:00pm. The sampan dock was about 150 miles (≈240km) from Migadawun, so it seemed to me that leaving at four in the morning was rather overcautious, assuming that we would be traveling faster than 18 miles per hour. I compromised by saying we'd leave at around six or seven; the driver interpreted that as six, and I interpreted it as seven (I was the passenger of honor and pretty much outranked everyone else with regard to social status, so I could get away with calling the shots). I skipped almsround that day, not saying goodbye to the faithful villagers, and ate by the side of the road later. The one person I missed most after leaving Migadawun, it turned out, was a black and white spotted dog with low self esteem issues named Helen Meyenburg.
It is a tradition that one of my first jobs upon returning to this cave after a long absence is to climb down into the adjoining gulley and pick up the garbage that Burmese people, including monks, have flung there. The Burmese, bless their hearts, have almost no concept of litter or pollution. Up until relatively recently everything was wrapped in banana leaves anyway, so if they threw garbage on the ground it would quickly biodegrade. Now the gulley becomes strewn with pop cans, plastic bags, and old flashlight batteries. Although Burmese Buddhists have great respect for monasteries, they generally see nothing wrong with tossing garbage on the ground there. Sometimes helpful folks will come to my cave, see my garbage pot full of plastic bags, etc. (which I eventually get around to burning), and pick it up, walk a few paces, and fling the contents into the gulley—as though the only reason I use the garbage receptacle is because I'm too lazy to walk those few paces myself. So if I see what has happened and they are still here, I endeavor to refrain from cussing, restrain my urge to scowl as best I can, and after they have gone I climb back down into the gulley to pick up the garbage again.
This indifference to litter is symptomatic of another peculiarity of the Burmese race: a marked deficiency, or incomprehensible aberration, in esthetic taste. There are a few really talented artists and musicians in Burma; but most "artists" here are really a kind of artisan who have learned to crank out a certain kind of uninspired product in accordance with some uninspired techniques they learned from an uninspired teacher—which helps to account for why there are so many grotesque Buddha statues in Burma. Another case in point is that one may visit a family of well-to-do Burmese folks and, if they don't simply imitate Western-style home decor, one may find, for example, an ornately carved teak table in their parlor covered with greasy engine parts, a wall mirror above it with a matching ornately carved teak frame—and right next to it a tattered calendar picture of a famous shrine, hanging crooked, with one torn corner and a big stain, and in a corner of the room a large display case housing awards, knickknacks, an ancient, scribbled-on Barbie doll, two bras, and several rolls of toilet paper. About the only really outstanding Burmese esthetic sense that I have noticed is that the girls know how to look pretty (although the metallic lime-green nail polish that is now in fashion totally eludes me), and that many people have very interesting, abstract-looking signatures. I wonder at their imaginative signatures sometimes. I have been informed by a Western monk that Burmese "classical" music is really very sophisticated, being well beyond, say, Western jazz music; but to me it sounds like pots, pans, glass, and one or two live geese packed into a crate and vigorously shaken. Maybe the ugly Buddha statues have some sophistication I'm just not noticing, too. But I don't get it.
Another early job for me after arrival here was accommodating the two dogs that moved in on me almost immediately. The little white female dog (made famous in the post "The Elder Sister of All Almsrounds" last cold season) is usually no problem, but her son is another story. I forget his name every year, and so every time I come back I give him a new one. This year he is Dunderhead, alias Caliban (I think last year he was called Doofus). He presented me with a dilemma: On the one hand, he really is a good-natured dog, usually, and he loves me; especially at first, at the slightest demonstrations of affection, like a few pets on the head, he'd go manic, jumping all over the place with joy. On the other hand, in addition to continually trying to snarl his own mother away from her food (not an endearing quality in anyone), it never occurs to him for a single moment that maybe he ought to stay out of trouble. He began following me everywhere, including into the village every morning for alms, upon which I found my almsrounds to be a scene of one protracted dogfight, with me at the epicenter. He just trots right into one hostile dog territory after another, sometimes whimpering a little at the fact that he's completely outnumbered and is bound to get the worst of it, but he keeps on trotting till the fight starts, usually around my legs.
One morning before even reaching Wun Bo village two dogs ganged up on him on the road. I yelled at them to stop, but of course they paid no attention whatsoever. So then I started throwing rocks, while still yelling. One dog was hit broadside and backed off, but the other, larger dog had clamped his teeth down on Dunderhead's right ear and obviously did not intend to let go of it. I bounced rock after rock off that dog at point blank range, but he was too berserk to notice, continuing to maul the ear. Finally, still hollering, I tried to kick him away from Dunderhead, who was in a hopeless position. I go barefoot, so at first the frenzied enemy dog ignored the kicks, too, despite my really putting my back into them. (If bhikkhus wore hobnailed jackboots, one kick would probably have been plenty.) Finally, after about ten kicks and almost laming myself, I persuaded the dog to let go of Dunderhead's bloodied ear. I was frazzled, panting, and exhausted before even reaching the village that morning. But now, strangely, I feel committed to Dunderhead, considering that we've now fought together on the same side of a dogfight.
I've found that it takes a few days after I come here for the hot cave to cool down, and for the place to become comfortable. Keeping the door closed by day and open by night really helps to reduce the heat inside. Also, there seems to be a kind of feel that a place takes on when inhabited, an aliveness. Maybe you've noticed how a house that has been empty for a long time has a very different energy to it than one with people living in it. Anyway, it takes awhile for that alive feeling to come back to the place.
After a week or so a man that I did not recognize came from town and told me that he wanted to donate a solar panel and an electric fan for inside the cave. I told him that I didn't need a fan (someone had already donated one, long before I had the electricity to use it), but that if he wanted to donate the panel, he was welcome to. What I mainly had in mind was recharging this laptop. He said he'd come back with it in a week or so.
Before the fellow's return my friend and supporter Aaron came from California for a visit. He had previously requested that I not mention him on this blog (and, incidentally, he's not the only person to have made that request)—possibly because he didn't want me saying things like, "I know this weird guy in California who named his kid after a pump company and—" Oh, I let that slip. Well, try to forget that you read that part about him naming his son after a pump company. Anyway, I warned him that if he was coming to Burma, and we were going to go on an exotic pilgrimage of idolatry together, then I pretty much had to mention him on this blog. I did promise not to psychoanalyze him publicly, though. So he is resigned to being mentioned now. Again, please forget that part about the pump company, even though it's true.
At about the same time that Aaron came, the little white dog, who naturally causes so little trouble, cringing and wagging her tail through life, went into heat. So during Aaron's few nights at the cave we were both awakened repeatedly by snarling, barking, fighting dogs—especially with Dunderhead's repeated and futile attempts to defend his mother's honor. At one point Aaron muttered something about if only he had a gun. We Westerners are strange: we don't like noise, especially when we're trying to sleep. The Burmese are different. They seem to like noise, and apparently can sleep through anything less than a volcanic explosion. But more about that later.
The day after Aaron's arrival we went to check out a medieval Buddhist temple less than a mile from here. It was built in the style of the temples of Bagan (formerly known as Pagan, ancient capital of the first Burmese Empire), so I figure it's probably at least 500 years old, maybe even 700. Strangely, although the temple is in plain sight of Wun Bo village, the locals pretty much ignore it, preferring newer, bell-shaped pagodas. Almost nobody goes inside it. I'd been inside it only once before; and since I had heard there was a stairway going up to an upper platform, I had long had the intention of trying it again. (The first time I had no flashlight and no shoes, and the floor was covered with bat poop, so I chickened out.) So we had a go at it, and this time I brought shoes—but we both failed to bring a flashlight.
Passing through the chambers of the abandoned temple, I smelled something more foul than the ubiquitous bat dung. Eventually, near the secret stairway, I found it: a dog that had been dead for maybe two or three weeks. Even before reaching the dog remains I had been feeling something like insects crawling on my feet and ankles. Stepping over the dog and into the light of an entrance, I saw that tiny insects were literally swarming all over my lower legs. Hundreds of them. At first I thought they were ants; but before much longer I realized that they were fleas. We made it as far as the stairway, but the lack of flashlights and the fleas swarming higher and higher up my legs, and Aaron's too, persuaded us to retreat and regroup. I was picking fleas off myself for hours afterwards, and I must have had several hundred bites. I think maybe they were bat fleas that fell from the bat multitude hanging from the ceiling, and which became desperately ravenous down there on the floor. Or maybe stray dogs slept there at night until their friend cashed in his chips there, and then moved elsewhere, causing the flea population to fall upon very hard times. Anyway, Aaron and I discussed coming back with a flashlight and trying again, but one flea plague was enough for me. There's a very good chance I'll never ascend the secret stairway to the upper level of the abandoned temple. It just doesn't matter.
The next day was a major expedition by car, mainly for me to feed monkeys under the pretext of showing Aaron Po Win Daung, a large complex of medieval cave temples west of the Chindwin River. My friend and supporter Ma Htay-I provided me with four big combs of bananas, plus I had some tangerines, some little two-bite bananas, and a sliced apple left over from my alms food. I dearly love feeding monkeys. (Aaron, on the other hand, had little interest in feeding them and perversely preferred investigating the medieval cave temples, sculptures, wall paintings, etc. It takes all kinds.)
I'm not sure why I love monkeys so much. Some of them are remarkably ugly, like little gargoyles, even without the red, swollen genitalia. Sometimes they're not very well behaved either. But usually the ones at Po Win Daung are very polite and gratefully accept what they are given. And usually only the little ones climb on people. It's always a sad feeling when I run out of monkey food. This is another case of loving others even when one is well aware of their many shortcomings. But more about that later.
the monkey messiah
After Po Win Daung we went to Shwe Ba Daung, a sandstone hill nearby that has a kind of temple village carved into the solid rock. After that we went to check out a place I had heard of nearby: Someone had told me that in a village not far from there, hot water gushed up out of the ground. I imagined it could be some kind of geyser, like at Yellowstone, so I was curious; but all it turned out to be was some warmish water smelling slightly of sulphur that came out of a pipe. Not nearly as good as feeding monkeys.
Next we went back past the notorious copper mines to Shwe Daung Oo, another monastery with a cave, at which the famous Ledi Sayadaw reportedly lived for a short time. The area around here is Ledi country, with most monks endorsing the Ledi method; in fact the village of Ledi is only about twenty miles from here. (Ledi Sayadaw, by the way, was one of the most famous and respected Burmese Buddhist monks of the 20th century; like the better-known Mahasi Sayadaw he was a combination of brilliant scholar and meditation master.)
It happened that at Shwe Daung Oo Monastery there was a kind of menagerie, so I checked it out. The main attraction was two obese bears who looked extremely, mindlessly apathetic lying in a large cage. As soon as Aaron saw that the place was a kind of prison or concentration camp for animals he cleared out, not wanting to be depressed by it, but I made the whole tour. The main thing that saddened me was two lorises in a kind of hutch. I was interested to see lorises close up, but they are nocturnal beings, and had no place to hide, and were huddled together in the daylight, trying to sleep. Cheerful, good-natured people were trying to pester them enough to get them to stop huddling and sleeping. When one of them finally lifted its head to show its staring, owl-like face I could see that it had a large open sore on its forehead.
This is another general feature of the Burmese: they love and respect people, but have little love or respect for nature. Even a Buddhist monastery can have scroungy, miserable, maltreated animals going half insane from an obviously wrong environment, but most people hardly notice, if they notice at all. Henry David Thoreau said that it seems to be a law that one cannot have a deep regard for both man and nature; and the Burmese, in general, have a deep regard for man.
Anyway, after this we headed back for the Wildlife Refuge, making a brief stop for a view of the volcanic crater lake about two miles from here. This is the site of the crashed Burmese spirulina industry. I've heard at least three different versions of the story, but the essence of it is that the lake, one of the world's relatively few natural sources of spirulina, became inoculated with tilapia fish, the babies of which eat spirulina. Either it was an accident, or someone was trying to control mosquitoes, or else some wiseguy was just trying to make some extra money, and now there's a lake full of tilapia instead of spirulina. Luckily for the Burmese government, they sold out the factory to a German company shortly before the crash.
The next morning we rode the sampan into the town of Monywa in preparation for the idolatry excursion to Mandalay. (Incidentally, going by boat is by far the best way of traveling in Burma, unless you know of some better way.) Aaron didn't want to stay at a monastery, so while searching for the hotel I made a wrong turn, and we wound up being energetically invited into a beer garden by the staff, one of whom had offered me alms food years previously. Fortunately it was morning, so no drunks were staggering around trying to pick fights, etc. Also fortunately, the folks were so eager to offer something that I came back the next morning for a happily offered free meal. The Monywa Hotel had the first soft bed that I had slept on in a very long time. The next day we took a kind of taxi van to Mandalay.
On our big day in Mandalay our first stop was the Mahamuni, a large, gold-encrusted image of Buddha supposedly made by Sakka, King of Gods himself. It's the most important Buddhist shrine in Mandalay, sort of the equivalent to Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda. Aaron was not allowed to approach the image because of his inappropriate short pants. Women also are not allowed to come too near it, for reasons I do not know. Maybe they have bodily organs that are inappropriate. The main Dharmic experience for me there was simply observing my own craving as we walked past all the vendors outside the Mahamuni. Some of the Buddha statues especially were really nice (although there were plenty of ugly ones too). Aaron bought a little image made of translucent yellowish jade, or some stone called jade. One of the "jade" images was almost completely clear. I didn't know jade could be like that. Anyway, I resisted my many cravings and didn't ask for anything, which was probably best.
Next we went to see the Peshawar relics, which are a strangely unknown treasure of Burma. They are, probably, genuine fragments of bone from the cremated body of Gotama Buddha himself. They were found in the very early 20th century in the ruins of a huge stupa near Peshawar, which is now in Pakistan. Since that area was predominantly Islamic, the government of British India offered the relics to the Burmese, which was a very nice gesture—they could just as easily have sent them back to some museum in England. Before gifting the relics to the people of Burma, the British placed them in a golden receptacle with the following inscription:
The bones enclosed within this casket are believed to be the relics of Gautama Buddha deposited by the great Kushana Emperor, Kanishka, in a once magnificent and famous stupa near the city of Peshawar. Beneath the ruins of that stupa, they were found enclosed in the crystal reliquary in which they still repose, and within a casket of bronze bearing the Effigy of the Emperor Kanishka. They are entrusted by His Excellency the Earl of Minto, Viceroy and Governor-General of India, to the Buddhists of the Indian Empire to be enshrined by them at the City of Mandalay in Burma. In the tenth year of the reign of His Majesty King Edward VII Emperor of India.
Ironically, although they may be the only really authentic relics of the Buddha in Burma, very few Burmese persons have ever heard of them, and those who have pay them little heed. They have much more interest in so-called relics which have fabulous legends backing them up, like the invisible hairs of the Buddha believed to be enshrined in the Shwedagon. I'm a Westerner though. Although I rarely bow down to statues, and didn't prostrate before the gold-covered Mahamuni, I did bow down to the little pieces of charred bone which may have once been contained in the body of the founder of my professed religion. (If you're interested in seeing the relics, instructions for finding the place, at the U Khanti Monastery near the foot of Mandalay Hill, are in the Lonely Planet Guide for Myanmar. U Khanti, totally by the way, wasn't a monk, but was a kind of Buddhist rishi who wore a hat shaped like a fish.)
possibly genuine relics of Gotama Buddha
Next we made the ascent of Mandalay Hill, where I began confusing people by telling them I was from Mars when they'd ask the standard question, in English, "Where are you from?" The term for "planet Mars" is inga-gyo; and one guy paused a moment and said, "inga-land?" thinking maybe I was trying to say "England" instead of "Mars." One of the main attractions of Mandalay Hill is the gibberish T-shirts for sale there, made by Chinese people with zero understanding of the English language. Probably my favorite part of the climb was a temple near the top with a room full of large Buddha images with psychedelic, flashing, multicolored haloes made of electric lights. One tip for anyone climbing the hill: Beware of the Nepali Brahmin fortune tellers. They're predatory.
After this our driver wanted to take us to a place he knew of with lots of relics of the Buddha, of famous arahants, etc. He also was apparently unimpressed by the verified authentic ones from Peshawar. But Aaron and I resisted the offer, and we went to the city of Amarapura, once briefly the capital of Burma, instead. I took the opportunity to visit Mahagandhayone, the school monastery where I lived more than twenty years ago. My cabin was gone, and I recognized nobody. The almost anatomically correct lion statues were still guarding the mausoleum of the first Sayadaw, though, so I pointed out the purple puckering of their anuses to Aaron, who was suitably impressed.
Then we walked across U Pein Bridge, which in a previous post I mentioned as an edifice which would be immediately condemned and demolished if it existed in America. I retraced my old alms route in the village on the other side, and I think nobody recognized me. I suppose one reason for that is that, besides the lapse of twenty years, there appear to be more than twenty times as many foreigners, mostly tourists, walking around than there were when I lived there. Lots and lots of tourists nowadays. Even the huge Buddha statue between the monastery and the bridge had been all fixed up; in the old days it was almost abandoned, with pigeon guano all over it. Also, the little temples nearby had been closed off with iron grilles; this may have become necessary with the modernization of Burmese young people—in the old days signs on the walls warning, essentially, "NO MAKING OUT IN THE TEMPLE" were sufficient.
After this came the most involved project of all: finding a new cell phone top-up card for Aaron. When that mission was finally completed we let the driver take us back to the hotel.
The following day Aaron was to make an excursion to Pyin Oo Lwin, and after that to Shan State. I didn't want to follow that far, so I returned to Monywa. Aaron was a little worried about my trip back, considering that I don't use money, and we both tried to explain to the hotel staff what taxi vans are. ("You know, a van—a car shaped like a loaf of bread…") Just when we figured they finally understood, one of them would say something that indicated that they didn't. This was strange, considering that I do speak Burmese. Eventually a nice lady who manages travel arrangements at the hotel offered to donate my ticket back to Monywa. The next morning she also wanted to offer my meal, although I had already eaten. So, since she was generously making the offer, I shut up about taxi vans and let her do as she pleased. I made it back to Monywa sure enough, but it wasn't in anything resembling a taxi van.
I can't say it was the worst bus ride I've ever been on, but I can fairly say it was the worst one I've been on in more than 15 years. Back when I was rigidly strict I would insist upon riding buses that did not show movies, which in those days often required me to ride very cheap buses that also served as cargo transports. I have found myself in scenarios where I'm sitting on a rice bag with someone's foot in my ear; and I can feel my bare foot is soaking in some kind of liquid, but I'm so crammed into my position that I can't quite bend over far enough to see what it's soaking in. I'm hoping it's something harmless, like hydraulic fluid, and not the puke from the carsick little kid two seats behind me who's been barfing continually for the past half hour. I've been on rides like that. This one wasn't that bad. The vehicle was apparently a retired and reconditioned municipal bus, as it had a big door midway down the length of it, in addition to the smaller one up front. It wasn't air conditioned, so most of the windows were open. Someone sitting behind me would occasionally open her/his window to throw something out of the bus, thereby jabbing my right shoulder in the process. Presumably because I'm a monk (the bus ticket said "sayadaw"), I sat in the front row, right behind the driver; and the legroom was so scant that my knees pressed up against a metal bar so that both heels would not touch the floor.
Sitting next to me was a rather criminal-looking Burmese monk with a mouth stained red from chewing betel. He obviously was very sleepy, and almost immediately began using the man sitting on the other side of him from me as a pillow. Before long, though, he began leaning in my direction, and his unconscious head was literally bouncing off my left shoulder like a ball. It's really amazing what some Burmese people can sleep through. I started being irritated by this monk sleeping on me, however, so before long I learned a trick: I'd lean forward, causing him to flop over sideways behind me, which would usually wake him up enough for him to sit up straight again. If he didn't, I'd lean back a little, squishing his face between the seat back and my back—although I worried a little that maybe some of the red stuff on his mouth would come off on my robe.
The driver, bless his heart, was one of those guys who cannot drive more than a few meters without blowing the horn—and the horn was one of those air horns, blasts from which sound like a trumpet blown lustily over a rock concert's speaker system. And since I was sitting right up front, and the window was wide open, it was almost like I was sitting in front of the horn instead of behind it. Sometimes he'd play the horn like a bongo drum. A single bicyclist by the side of the road might elicit eight or even twelve ear-splitting blasts from that horn. If the driver saw anyone near the road before him, he'd use that horn liberally, even if the object were looking right at the oncoming bus and thus had no need of the warning. The driver seemed worried that someone might suddenly fling himself under the bus's wheels if he didn't persuade him not to do so by blasting repeatedly on the horn. (Actually, it seems to me that the horn would be more likely to startle people into accidentally swerving into the bus than to dissuade them from it.) There was one time in particular, when the repeated blasts were well on their way to giving me a real headache, when I was tempted to lean forward and slap the guy upside the back of his head with some friendly admonition like, "Stop blowing the goddam horn!" But again, like dear Dunderhead, he really was a nice guy, and I couldn't doubt it. He wasn't simply using the horn as a kind of sonic force field to clear his path, and he wasn't mad, Caligula-like, with the power of his apocalyptic, ear-splitting noise—he sincerely didn't want to run over anybody. I have to admit, I'm glad I didn't succumb to weakness and slap him upside the head.
Meanwhile, the driver's assistant (who would collect fares, pay tolls, help fix the bus if it broke down, etc.) was hollering loudly again and again. He didn't do it out of anger, however; he was another very nice guy, and yelled simply to communicate information to people outside my window, causing him to yell almost into my ear, and also to communicate information to people whose hearing was impaired by the goddam horn. I was really getting a headache.
At one point a little girl nun, looking about ten years old, wearing the standard pink and orange robes of a Burmese Buddhist nun, got onto the bus. (This bus, by the way, had as many passengers crammed onto it as it could manage, with people sitting in the aisle.) After a few minutes she shyly offered some money to the attendant. He accepted the money, looked at it in his hand for a few moments, and then gave a big smile and handed it all back to her. Gawd I love that! What are the odds that something like that could happen in America? The attendant might be fired for stealing from the company, letting somebody ride for free. So what if she's a little girl, and a nun. In addition to feeding monkeys, I also dearly love seeing clear evidence of genuine human goodness. In spite of the noise and garbage, there's plenty of that to see in this country. To be fair, it's to be found in America, too—in fact it's everywhere, if one has eyes to see it. We humans aren't all that bad. But in Burma it's pretty obvious, often right in your face.
There were four very quiet, modest, grown up nuns sitting across the aisle from me, headed for the main Ledi monastery in Monywa. When we arrived in town, the bus guys went several blocks out of their way to drop off the nuns at their destination. Then they went several more blocks out of their way to drop me off at the local Mahasi center, where I planned to spend the night. There was one place where the bus was slowly, loudly scraping under low tree branches in the attempt to reach the monastery. The attendant carried my bag into the place and waited with me to meet the Sayadaw.
The venerable Sayadaw, for the umpteenth time, exhorted me to live at a monastery in America which he had helped to found, near a place called "Poat Wayne." He never, however, gives me more information than this, like the address, or someone I could contact; and he declined to give me this information again this time, even though I ventured to point out this fact to him. I'm not sure why he keeps doing this. Anyway, there's a good chance I wouldn't want to live near Poat Wayne, even if I found the place. He eventually conducted the bus attendant and me to a building serving as a dwelling for visiting monks. Then the bus attendant paid his respects and took off.
This building also housed two young scholar monks who had come from Mandalay to practice some meditation. One was soon to return, and the other, having recently earned his Dhammacariya degree, was soon to return to his home town of Homalin, a remote place far to the north. They were both eager to talk with me, and later to have their picture taken standing next to me. At one point the younger of the two informed me when the dawn meal would be served the following day, and I replied that I don't eat the dawn meal, eating only once a day. He then endeavored to explain to me that when the Pali texts say a monk eats only one time per day, the "one time" is morning; so one can eat as many times as he likes between dawn and noon, and it still counts as eating only one time per day. I answered that the venerable commentator Buddhaghosa apparently liked eating more than once per day, whereupon the young monk laughed in a peculiar way I've seen before—after I had told a funny yet very tasteless joke, and the person was laughing helplessly with a look like he's feeling like maybe he shouldn't be laughing. Burmese monks take their commentaries very seriously, and also their two meals per day.
I don't remember if it was already going on when I got there around 5pm, but by 6:00 a loudspeaker nearby was broadcasting the sound of a group of women chanting the three refuges over and over again. Sometimes they'd diversify by chanting something else, like the twelves links of dependent co-arising, but they always returned to the three refuges. In the early evening this was blended in with other Burmese city noises, including blaring car horns, revving motorcycle engines, barking dogs, cawing crows, and another loudspeaker blasting the famous Chan-Ee-Gan Sayadaw's peculiar, famous, strangely melodious caterwauling. (He died many years ago, murdered by his attendant/driver/nephew for his money, but recordings of his chants and sermons can be heard wherever Burmese Buddhists are to be found.) I figured the ladies would keep it up for an hour or so. But long after Chan-Ee-Gan Sayadaw and the horns, dogs, etc. had finished, the broadcast of the three refuges continued: buddham saranam gacchāmi…dhammam saranam gaccāmi…sangham saranam gaccāmi…, each preceded by an introductory sentence which would remain the same for about 30 repetitions, and then would change slightly. By about 10:30 that evening I was getting a little irritated by it, but I considered it prudent simply to observe the irritation, since by this point there was no telling how long the ladies would continue chanting. It so happened that they chanted all night long, and when I left the neighborhood at around noon the next day they were still going strong.
Of course there's simply no way that such a thing could happen in an American city; within the first half hour or so, or at least by 3am, people would be calling the police and angrily complaining about the noise. But, as I've already observed, the Burmese love noise. My tentative theory is that, if people don't think very much, they're more willing to let outside noises fill their mind in place of their own laborious cogitations. There's not much need to hear yourself think if you don't think so much. In other words, they let their cultural tradition do their thinking for them, so they don't need quiet. In other words, they have a kind of peace of mind that we Western barbarians don't have. That still doesn't explain how they can sleep through the racket, though. Or even with their head bouncing like a ball.
The plan was to wake up very early and use some Internet when nobody else was using it, thereby allowing it to be almost mediocre by Western standards. At around 1:00am I turned on the Internet, saw that it was working, and then turned it back off to go take a pee, as one pays by the minute. But when I came back, it wouldn't come on again. After maybe 15 tries over the course of a few hours, I gave up on Monywa cell-phone wifi and went back to bed. This is a typical situation in Burma. Keeping this blog going nowadays is more of a technical challenge than an intellectual one.
I fended off a number of offers to ride in a car on the long, bumpy road back to the forest monastery, and rode the sampan. I found the little white dog was almost finished with her mating season, and Dunderhead was apparently out trying to dishonor someone else's mother, so life became relatively quiet again. The feeling of the cave's "aliveness," which was still rather faint at the time I left, had pretty much faded out in my absence, so I set about working it up again.
Less than a week after my return the man from town who had offered a solar panel came back, accompanied by a group of about ten people who had contributed to the donation, most of them women, and none of them anyone that I recognized. I had imagined that the solar panel to be donated would be a little one, like the one down at the congregation hall, just enough to run a light and to charge batteries; but the one they offered was BIG, about the size of a sheet of plywood, with a battery as big as a five-gallon aquarium. The setup runs about a thousand watts at 220 volts, I think. In addition to this, they offered an "air cooler," a monstrosity of a Chinese electric fan that roars like a vacuum cleaner. It supposedly cools the air evaporatively by passing it through a moist filter, but I just don't think it's possible. I can accept the possibility that people like Jesus of Nazareth and Neem Karoli Baba could break the so-called "laws of physics," but I just cannot believe that this gadget can do it. It's a matter of the law of Conservation of Energy: heat doesn't just disappear, it has to go somewhere, or else change form; and this thing doesn't have any kind of exhaust pipe leading out of the cave. Maybe in a house it could work, but not in a cave. Overall, due to entropy, it would have to make things warmer. And it's loud. So I'll try to send it back to them, with my blessings.
While the group was here, one of the ladies came up to me and bowed her head to my feet, then took off her glasses and touched them to my left foot. I assumed she was trying to bless her eyesight and possibly improve her vision; and I hope she got some benefit; but at the same time she was doing it my own glasses were sitting right beside me. (I have found that gazing into a computer screen is even worse for one's eyesight than reading books by candlelight for several years.) Plus I had a cold, and a little flareup of gout, and some kind of mild skin infection. So blessing people's health seemed a little ridiculous at the time. Anyhow, a few minutes later two of the younger women shyly approached and bowed their head to my feet also. I don't know what they were praying for. I remember one of them had extremely soft fingers. Life is strange.
It eventually dawned on me that this whole solar panel thing was part of a large plot involving many villagers as well as some city people. They're trying to keep me here, always. One of my main supporters told me smilingly as the guys were installing the stuff, "You used to say that it's too hot here; now you can't say that anymore!" When I was at Migadawun a few months ago I was saying to myself, and to at least one other, that I hope I don't come back to Burma anymore after this trip; but I have to admit, there is a certain temptation to stay here now, especially since people love me here, and I've received nothing remotely resembling this kind of welcome and invitation in the West. One of the ladies who came with the group runs an electronics store, and she said she'd also offer a "repeater," some kind of gadget which would allow me to access Internet in front of the cave. If that materialized the temptation would be even greater. I could maintain an almost comfortable forest hermitage burrow with a computer and a tiny carbon footprint, surrounded by people who love and respect me. It is a consideration.
On the other hand, I still feel that America is more in need of someone like me than Burma is—even though America hasn't figured this out yet. I've received a few semi-invitations in the US, and I'm always more or less welcome at the Burmese monastery in Fremont, California, but so far I'm still looking for someplace to stay in my native country, or in some Western country anyway.
One disadvantage of living here is that staying in a forest cave, even though it's electrified now, brings out my latent caveman instincts, and my heart, which I'd like to develop more, becomes rather rough. The plan is to go back to the USA next spring and try to find someplace good for my heart there, presumably with a few relatively liberated females to challenge me. But, a bhikkhu should accept whatever comes his way, and not wish for something different. We'll see how it goes.
I think we're finally caught up now.
the Mahamuni, in Mandalay
APPENDIX: More on the Peshawar Relics
Since this narrative is already outrageously long, I may as well make it longer by including this speech by an unnamed British archeologist, circa 1910. It is copied from a document printed in Burma, and thus is laden with typos, so I have taken the liberty of reconstructing the original text as well as I can.
In order to trace out the history of these sacred relics, I must take you back to the time of the Chinese travellers who came on pilgrimages to India between the fourth and seventh centuries of our era. Three of these travellers—Fa Hien, Sung Yun and Hiuen Thsang—tell us of a pagoda or stupa, which had been built near the city of Peshawar by the Great Emperor Kanishka, and, in which, as Hiuen Thsang explicitly states, part of the body relics of the Lord Buddha had been enshrined. They described this pagoda as one of singular beauty and majesty, adorned with bands of precious substances and unequalled, in point of size or grandeur, by any monument of its kind in India. Its circumference was nearly a quarter of a mile, and its height was variously estimated by them at from four to seven hundred feet. It possessed no less than thirteen stories, the base being of stone, and the whole was crowned with a pinnacle of gilded discs attached to an iron pillar.
So much we learn about this magnificent structure from the Chinese pilgrims; and we may infer from an inscription of the tenth century that it survived the last of the pilgrims by at least three hundred years. What happened to it after that, history does not relate, but, we may presume that along with many other monuments of Buddhism, it was desecrated and thrown down by the marauding hosts of Mahmud of Ghazni. Whether that was its fate or not, it finds no mention in any later literary records; and with the decay of Buddhism on the Frontier, its very site appears to have been forgotten.
Fortunately for us, however, some definite indications as to its position were given by the Chinese pilgrims, and these proved sufficient to enable the French savant, M. Foucher, to locate the spot in some mounds a little to the east of the modern Peshawar city. Following his identification, we decided to explore this site, and to discover what remains of the great edifice might still be hidden beneath the soil. The work was begun rather more than two years ago by Dr. Spooner, but for several months it looked as if nothing was to be found except vast and confused heaps of debris. Little by little, however, there emerged from these heaps the stone plinth of a gigantic pagoda, which is undoubtably the largest of its kind known to exist in India, which in other respects also agrees with the description of Kanishka's memorial given by the Chinese pilgrims.
Indeed that this was the identical building constructed by the monarch, there could not be a shadow of a doubt, and as soon as I myself saw it, I pressed on Dr. Spooner the importance of setting to work at once and searching for the relics of the Buddha, which were said to be deposited within it. Accordingly a shaft was sunk in the centre of the basements, and was carried down with much labour through its heavy stone foundations, until at last, at a depth of some twenty feet below the surface, our expectations were realized by discovering a small stone chamber, and in it the relic casket, where it had been placed nearly two thousand years ago.
If any evidence had previously been wanting to prove that this pagoda was the one erected by the Emperor Kanishka, it was amply supplied by the finds which now came to light. On the relic casket itself is the figure of a king identical with the effigies of Kanishka, which alone would have been enough to indicate the date of the deposit.
Thus Hiuen Thsang's statement that this pagoda was erected by the Emperor Kanishka is proved to be perfectly correct, and there is no reason to doubt his assertion that the relics, in honour of which it was built, were those of the Buddha. The Kushan Empire, it must be remembered, extended over most of Northern India and Afghanistan, and it was quite an easy matter for the Emperor to obtain well authenticated relics of the Buddha from one or other of the celebrated pagodas containing them which existed within the confines of his dominions. Moreover, it is in the highest degree improbable that he would have wished to enrich his new capital at Peshawar by endowing it with relics of less sanctity in a monument of such costly magnificence.
For these reasons it seems to us that the testimony of Hiuen Thsang may be accepted without hesitation, and that with him we must regard these relics as those of the Great Teacher, which were first divided into eight portions after the parinirvana and afterwards subdivided by the Emperor Asoka.