Breaking Burma Day 86: Shall We Give Meditation a Try?

The early morning sunlight broke through the train’s windows signaling the start of a day that I was not ready to tackle. Optimistically, I had gotten three hours of broken nap time but what I saw out of those windows shot me out of my seat and from my dazed slumber. The soft morning sunshine rose from the mountain-capped horizon and through the early morning fog and mist. It had the feeling of the first day of Creation in which the sun and its growing rays of light first came into being. This was the kind of sight I expected in Bagan, the popular spot on the tourist trail known for its sunsets and temple filled valleys. I did not yet know whether this was Mawlamyine but I desperately hoped it were so. I think I am falling for a girl named Myanmar; she is beautiful, has a smile that can light up the countryside, not superficial, friendly, and culturally diverse. As soon as I left the train station, I got a motorcycle ride to the monastery that sits well over ten miles away from the city. We went down a well forested road past what could be considered a small village after passing the entrance to the monastery’s complex. The females/nuns are separated from the men/monks in their own quarters. Finding the actual monastery and where to register was a challenge in itself. Luckily my driver was patient and willing to make sure I got to the right place. The one monk attending to the registration office commented on how young was, which to think about I am; you don’t see many 24 year olds willingly entering a monastery for the purposes of meditation. After filling out the paper work I was shown to my room, a space large enough to fit two simple beds holding to mattress to speak of but rather thin thatched mats thrown on top for cushion. Everything would be free from the meditation to the bed and to the food. Not only am I experiencing something new but it has the added bonus of being budget friendly. Until lunch would start, I had some time to walk around and get a feel for the area as I passed a small collection of the many monks that lived here. Although it seems like the monks do nothing, their schedule is quite packed with commitments for meditation and otherwise. They wake up at 3:30 a.m. (as I will soon experience while I follow their schedule) to begin the first of their five daily hour and a half meditation sessions, which doesn’t include the time they spend outside of that for walking meditation and interviews. Quite interestingly, the monks only eat twice per day with breakfast scheduled at dawn and lunch beginning around 10:10 am. The only other supplement they consume is a fruit juice/sugar water concoction that packs in more than enough calories to get them till tomorrow. Most monks tend to be skinny but a healthy weight nonetheless so I wondered how they got sufficient nutrition and boy was I about to find out. Fortunately, I was introduced to an American from California so that I could have an English speaking buddy. Side note: Of the Americans that I meet, most tend to be from the West Coast, which makes me wonder why that is compared to the more conservative Midwest. The Californian had only been here for one night so he was just as fresh to this whole experience as I was. He told me he was so confused by how the dining order and etiquette worked that he just decided to skip out on lunch the day before. His potentially American roommate had been here for a couple weeks and was able to show us around. Without him, I don’t think I would have ever gotten a meal. The order in which people line up to eat begins with the monk (those with a higher status enter the front of the line), nuns if they happen to be around, foreigner laypeople (treated as guests), and then finally the rest of the laypeople. After we picked up our trays, we stood off to the side and watched as hundreds of monks in their red cloaks lined up and slowly processed to the food alms area toting a large vase-like bowl in their hands. Once the monks had cleared through, we followed the same path that wrapped around the kitchen to where the food was handed out. A group of villagers had large metal containers filled with their designated food that they would hand out. On my tray laid a large bowl, an Asian spoon, a cloth used as a napkin, and a water container. Out of a large vat, a man scooped an eye opening portion of rice with something the size of an ice scoop. I figured he was going to slide a small portion of it into my bowl but he ended up giving me the whole thing, a portion so large it could have filled and satisfied an overweight family on its own. Before I could wrap my mind around what just unfolded, I was quickly ushered forward with the rest of the line as woman upon woman placed random ingredients into my rapidly burgeoning bowl. Corn, beans, cashews, okra, bean curd, mixed veggies including broccoli and tomatoes, some sort of squash slaw, and a fish paste (used as flavoring since most everything else is low on salt) went into my bowl with sides including a pear, an apple, ice cream with chopped nuts, a small bag of peanuts, a tin of soup, and a couple packages of dried seaweed. If these monks are served an Asian Thanksgiving each day, no wonder they haven’t shriveled up to skin and bone. The whole area for Pindapata (meal time) is kept quite quiet as breakfast and lunch are considered a moment for mediation as well. We sat down on the floor in the long, open hallway to try and work our way through such a bountiful feast. The food was incredible, beyond anything I had expected. It was like eating a weird, jumbo vegetarian Chipotle bowl but oh so much better. I was hungry but I could barely get through half of the rice so I sadly had to leave that unused. Next on the schedule was group sitting, otherwise known as meditating, but today they had something special lined up. The abbot monk of the area would be visiting Pa-Auk Forest Monastery. In one large room they packed in monks, nuns (a rarity for men and women to be together), and laypeople. The abbot spoke for an hour and half while we all sat on the floor with no cushion to speak of. For ever thousandth sentence he managed to squeeze an English phrase which perked up my eyes hoping I would hear more but alas he returned to his Burmese speech. If I could have understand what he was saying I would have had a better appreciation for what was going on but the entire time I felt cramped, tired, hot, and sweaty, so all in all it was a difficult 1.5 hours to sit through. I did enjoy hearing their chants all in unison after following the abbot himself. Once the ceremony ended, the abbot was the first to leave followed by the long procession of monks. Ideally the nuns would depart next in succession but women don’t get the respect that they deserve so it turned more or less into a free-for-all when the last monk left. With little time to sit down and rest, the two of us climbed the hill to where the monks meditate. After leaving behind my sandals, I walked barefoot up the long staircase to the meditation hall. For one and a half hours I sat trying to gain some peace and quiet in my mind but since I am so used to my head constantly churning I grew impatient and restless. For one, my flexibility sucks so every few minutes I had to shift my legs into a new position. Hopefully as I continue on this meditative retreat I will come closer to a clear mind. After the hour and half never seemed to end, I got to leave and relax in my kuti (sleeping quarters) before going back the hill once more. Since the cushions did not cut it for me I found a low sitting stool that would hopefully offer my less than nimble legs an opportunity to find peace in the standard cross-legged sitting position. Despite an onslaught of sweat, I enjoyed this meditation period much more than the last since it was after sunset and quite dark. About five minutes before the hour and a half was completed, that very wooden stool that supported me through the entire sitting time collapsed beneath me. The board didn’t creak to a crack but rather snapped as if I loaded a one ron weight on top of it. Since this is a meditation period in all, everyone is quiet trying to reach some zen-like peace of mind. When the board succumbed to the weight of my fat behind, the sound echoed through the entire hall. I tried to keep quite and pretend that it didn’t happen but everyone knew where the sound came from. After the 1.5 hours were over, people looked at me and the numerous pieces of shredded wood that laid before me. One of the young monks in training probably ten or eleven years old thought it was the most hilarious thing in the world. He had the biggest smile in the world, which helped me get over such an embarrassing moment. We looked at each other and just shrugged after which I shook me head in dismay at what unfolded. After swallowing my pride, I began the walk down the staircase. A Spaniard who sat near me during the mediation joked that I probably broke a few of the monks’ path to Nirvana. After meeting my elderly Taiwanese roommate who spoke maybe twenty words of English altogether, I grabbed a chilling shower before I falling asleep rather quickly around eight o’clock knowing that a 3:30 in the morning wake-up stood just on the other side of midnight. With the little of amount sleep I had the night before, I was gassed and now ready to be in the monk time zone.


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