Exploring Buddhist meditation in the monasteries of Myanmar.
By J. McGee.
It had been another full day at work and, I felt that instead of going home, an evening visit to the sacred and age-old Shwedagon Pagoda seemed in order. I’d now been living in Yangon long enough that I knew how to avoid the noisy thoroughfares. I could walk the entire way on small backstreets that skirted through local neighborhoods, parks, and monastery grounds, allowing me to slip out of work mode and prepare for the greater work of the mind ahead.
It was still afternoon when I reached the pagoda and, with few pilgrims yet arrived, a sense of spaciousness pervaded the environment. I sat down at my usual spot and started the purification work of ānāpāna and vipassanā, my mind now focused on an inner awareness of breath and body sensations. As the hours passed, I had a strange feeling that something was happening beyond this framework of the body but, as went my meditation training, I kept my eyes steadfastly closed. In time, however, the energy seemed to reach a kind of crescendo and I couldn’t resist finally taking a peek. To my amazement, I found myself sitting in a sea of people, more than I’d ever seen at the pagoda before. I stood and began to walk around, and I found hundreds of families lighting thousands of candles that made the golden glow of the temple shine even more brightly.
As I was to find out some time later, I had just happened to wander there on the fall night of Thadingyut, a holiday marked by placing candles in monasteries and pagodas across Myanmar. This was going to be one of many learning experiences ahead of me during my time there.
The practice of dhamma
For nearly 200 years, interest in Buddhism and meditation has grown steadily in the West, even if accurate understanding has often lagged behind. From the early Orientalists in the 19th century to the 1950s Beat poets and alternative spiritual traditions in modern times, for many, Buddhist meditation was most attractive for its perceived exoticism. John Coleman, a former CIA agent who became one of the earliest appointed Western vipassanā teachers, notes that this was a driving force even in his own search. In “The Quiet Mind,” he writes, “In the West there had always been a feeling that the East was in closer contact with unspecified mysteries than ourselves.” Those Westerners like Coleman who went beyond the sound bites and devoted themselves to learning meditation found a scientific and results-oriented practice that granted real personal clarity and inner calm. And as a young generation that was increasingly mistrustful of all authority and skeptical of all past traditions came of age in the West, vipassanā offered the opportunity to directly experience these truths inside.
Meditation is an incredible activity, utterly unimaginable and virtually unexplainable to one who has never attempted it. It is like describing the ocean to someone living in a landlocked region or the color green to someone who is blind. Buddhist meditation holds the promise of full liberation and freedom. However, the implications of these profound words will not resonate properly until one has begun to understand the extent to one’s own conditioning, blind habit patterns, and mental stresses.
For a Western dhamma student, the joy that a visit to Myanmar affords is the experience of a country where many Buddhist values are integrated across society. This is in sharp contrast to other countries in which meditation centers can feel like sacred grounds far removed from communities. For many of us Western meditators, it can also be an unexpected challenge to negotiate unexamined expectations arising from our own nascent practice with one that is many centuries older.
In my own experience, as I began to stay longer during each visit to Myanmar, my understanding of the very nature of Buddhist practice began to change. This happened as I gradually came to appreciate how my Burmese friends showed their devotion and integrated Buddha’s teachings into their own lives. As valuable as I continue to see the formal practice to be, I saw how even the smallest, most mundane aspects encountered in the course of a day could provide an opportunity for contemplation and application. Mindfulness, generosity, compassion, humility, and awareness could manifest naturally, as I often saw through the interaction with monasteries and the community. And in Myanmar, where simplicity is still widely acknowledged as one of the greatest virtues one can cultivate, the “good life” is understood by many as following Buddha’s words to the best of one’s ability. As one monk once told me, with every other life endeavor there is no end—it just keeps getting increasingly complicated and advanced, and there is no rest. In dhamma practice, however, as one progresses the mind gets unburdened and simplicity follows.
For those from a Western society that has been getting increasingly complicated, overwhelming, and generally “full” at exponential rates, notions of basic contentment can feel farther away than ever. This sentiment was never expressed better than when comedian and actor Louis C.K. said in 2008 that with the constant rise of ever-new technological gadgets, “Everything is amazing and nobody is happy.” Indeed, the idea that “more” and “more advanced” will not ultimately lead to any lasting contentment is a very hard life lesson that continues to elude many of us. Unfortunately, it is also an attitude that many carry over to their spiritual practices: by trying to “get away from it all” one ends up simply carrying the burden to their next destination or activity, hoping that the next “new” thing will be the one that will finally bring fulfillment.
Beginning a Buddhist practice
There are many ways in which one can engage in Burmese Buddhist meditation, from requesting permission to stay at a village monastery to studying the scriptures, and from ordaining temporarily to undertaking formal meditation instruction. While all will illuminate a part of Buddha’s teachings, it is important that one approaches any of these activities with an inner volition of renunciation and commitment. Even if one has only a week to spend, this is one full week where one can try to follow the practice of “letting go” within the heart, to a greater extent than it is possible in daily life. While visits to spas and healers promising that “more is better” may not insist in a customer giving up his or her own perspectives and steadfast beliefs, Buddhist practice emphasizes that real insight and clarity can only arise once this release is made, for it is only then that one becomes open to real learning. It is for this reason that Myanmar may not be the ideal destination for those still searching for the next big thing, but it is certainly the right one for those curious about the many small things that can only be understood when greater mindfulness and attention are applied.
For more information about meditation centers in Myanmar, check the box below; in case you are considering to spending your next holidays in vipassanā.
• S.N. Goenka: These centers offer 10-day courses year-round throughout the world, for which one must pre-register. The courses follow a rigorous schedule of formal sitting and strict silence.
In the two following centers, permission must be requested directly from the head abbot for one’s intended dates of stay:
• Shwe Oo Min Monastery: It teaches how to observe the mind and its contents, and students are encouraged to practice mindfulness and to watch the “knowing mind” during all activities of the day.
• Chan Myay Myaing Monastery: It teaches vipassanā meditation according to the Mahasi method of observing the rise and fall of the abdomen, and slowing down one’s movements to better note them. It also offers comprehensive teachings in the practice of mettā, or loving-kindness. (www.meditation-in-burma.com/en)
• Burma Dhamma: This is a blog about Burmese Buddhism, and it features excerpts from the upcoming book about meditation in Myanmar, “Shwe Lan Ga Lay.” (www.burmadhamma.blogspot.com)
• Compassionate Travel Myanmar: Burmese travel agency specializing in Buddhist-themed travel (tours, pilgrimages, etc.) to Myanmar. (www.compassionatetravelmyanmar.com)