Since arriving in Myanmar Christina and I have wanted to experience and better understand monastic life in one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. We decided to do this spending 4 days secluded in the Pa Auk forest monastery, a 45 minute ride south of Mawlamyine.
Once we got to the monastery they split Christina and I up. It was 4 days until we would see each other again. This was the longest we have been apart on all of our travels. Christina was to stay in the women’s monastery and I was taken to the tops of the forest hills with the Sangha (the brotherhood of monks).
Upon arrival I walked into a little teak room with a hand written sign on the door saying ‘foreign registration’. A Burmese monk in his mid-60s sitting on the floor asked me to come in and join him. He examined me for a couple minutes before speaking. “How long would you like to stay?”, “4 days” I said. “4 days is not enough” he said, and then he gave a gentle smile. “Ok then 4 days. Passport please…your visa is expired.” “I know, I will pay the fees.” I said. “Ok, 4 days”.
He orientated me for 5 minutes in Burmese-English I could not understand. Instead of being rude to a very holy monk I sat and nodded my head. He eventually escorted me out of the room and pointed me into the direction of multiple monasteries, kutis (living quarters) and holy shrines. As I walked the path I passed by hundreds of monks. One stopped me, excited to practice his English, and helped me find a bed to sleep in. He then explained the schedule to me. He was a lively, older Burmese man who loved using cliché English phrases like “I will show you the ropes”, “stick with me kid”, and “that’s a rap”.
I learned from this kind man that wake up was at 330am, breakfast was at 6am, interviews with the head monk are at 9am, lunch at 10am, and pretty much all other time until 730pm is for meditation and spiritual worship. Later I found a typed schedule.
The temple I would meditate in was on top of the mountain about a 15 minute walk from my kuti. It was the most beautiful temple I have ever seen with a massive teak prayer hall that overlooked the entire forest. I was assigned a plot of teak floor next to other monks and laypeople. On this piece of floor is where I would spend 8 hours a day for the next 4 day in the lotus meditation position.
Controlling the mind is one important component to the Buddhist religion. In order to control the mind you must be able to remove all thoughts. “Don’t think!”… easy to understand but very difficult to practice. Theravada Buddhism uses the most traditional and basic form of meditation practice. This involves focusing all concentration on breathing, removing thoughts, and developing presence.
On the first day of meditation my brain was all over the place. Just about every thought you could think went through my head. My monk teachers suggested techniques to apply which helped greatly. The second day it all started to slow down and, even though thoughts continued, I was able to dismiss them easier and send my focus back to the present moment. By the 3rd day it was much easier to find focus. The body pains, the heat, the hunger, and the bug bites all slowly dissipated from consciousness over the 4 day period.
When the practice started I was given eight precepts to live by while in the monastery. In short they were: do not kill or cause harm to others, do not lie, do not steal, do not have sensual relations, do not drink or use drugs, do not eat after noon, do not use makeup or perfumes, do not overindulge in sleep or other luxuries.
None of these were very difficult to follow except for ‘do not kill’ (surprisingly). Theravada Monks do not kill any sentient beings which include all living creatures. The monastery and kutis are lined with thousands of small ants so whether they were crawling on my belongings or on the footpath in front of me it was hard not to accidently kill them. Also, there were mosquitos everywhere and I often found myself trying to show them away rather than kill them which was very difficult, especially when they were constantly biting me. One day I watched a geriatric monk take several minutes to save a few sugar ants that were drowning in a water bucket near the footpath.
In the monastery we were allowed two meals a day, one for breakfast at 6am and then for lunch around 10am. There was no eating allowed after lunch. The meditation was so intense that I hardly thought about food after 10am anyway. The only real problem for me was making sure the people giving alms for breakfast and lunch didn’t give me too much food. It’s frowned upon to waste food in the monastery so you are expected eat everything that is put in your bowl.
The people from the surrounding villages cook delicious and elaborate meals for the monks on a daily basis. For mealtime, we walked through a procession of 10 cooks who would put the food on our plates. These cooks are inclined to give way more food than necessary (maybe because they believe the more they give, the more good karma they receive. Or maybe because they saw me as a giant ogre that will eat anything you put in front of me). It took me a couple of days to realize I could decline any food given in the alms line.
Also, I made friends with a lot of the layman children around the monastery. In the morning when I would see them they would rush up to give me more food and snacks than an entire family could eat, including my favorite… fish crackers.
Part of what made this experience so worthwhile was having great teachers and a wonderful roommate. The devout Theravada Buddhist, Tje Kiat, was my roommate who became a mentor and a good friend. Tje would inspire critical thinking about Buddhism and had a strong tenacity for the best parts of the religion. His good nature was infectious. During meditation I would see him sit like a stone statue for hours at a time. Even for most devout monks this was a difficult feat. By the time I left the monastery I had a backpack full of gifts he had given me, mainly consisting of natural vitamins and herbal remedies which Tje was obsessed with. After I left he will remain in the monastery for at least another year.
Before we left Christina and I made a decent donation to the monastery but it is worth noting that they did not ask for or expect any type of compensation for having us there. You could stay at the monastery for years if you choose without paying a dime. There are hundreds of monasteries and meditation centers around Myanmar that operate in this same manner.
When we left the monastery we headed back to our favorite town in Myanmar, Mawlamyine . Mawlaymine was the British capital of Burma in the 1800s and most of the colonial buildings remain standing today. The town looks like a little London dropped in the middle of Asia and untouched for several hundred years. The old colonial buildings are completely neglected; dust, vines and mold cover most of their exteriors. The town is situated on a piece of riverfront that is the combination of 3 rivers from northern Myanmar. Palm trees grow everywhere around colonial architecture and ancient Buddhist temples.
The main attraction in town is the ‘Moulmein pagoda’ which lies in the center of town on top of a giant hill. This is where Kipling fell in love with Burma and wrote one of the most memorable poems about Asia. After climbing the pagoda for sunset I can say that a couple hundred years later Kiplings prose is spot on. It is an exotic place that deserves its praise in the pages of history. The one mistake Kipling made was notably calling the place ‘Mandalay’ when in fact where he visited was Mawlamyine, several hundred miles south of Mandalay. Kipling’s mistake is our gain as the town remains far from touristic.
When we walk down the street, faces along the road stop and stare. Half the people say “Hello” and “Where you from?” While others stare blankly as if watching an captivating TV show. We went to the local markets to find gifts for our family and it appeared the most interesting thing on display at the market was us.
Since Mawlamyine we’ve traveled back to Yangon and this afternoon we are leaving Myanmar. We have outlasted our visas by 10 days, so it will be interesting to see what the repercussions are. I have been told monetary fines which sounds very realistic.
We are taking a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for one night and then onto Kathmandu, Nepal. If I remember correctly KL has a McDonalds in their airport which I am super excited about. It has been a long 6 weeks of mohingas, curries, fish sauces, and leafy soups. My taste buds are ready to be Americanized again….
(Unfortunately the photographs from the monastery are lacking. It is against custom to take pictures.The few i have were taken in secret from my phone.)