Saturday August 20, 2016
A few days ago I arrived at Shwe Oo Min Buddhist Monastery, located on the outskirts of Rangoon, Burma. This place had been on my radar for a little over two years. Someone had told me the focus here wasn’t so much on hammering anapanasati (watching the breath) all day long, but rather on practising awareness in everyday activities. This was appealing because I want to live in the world, and I want to bring the teachings into my everyday life. I don’t want two lives (one “spiritual” and one “normal”), but one. So here I am, completing my sixth day, having arrived Sunday afternoon, on August 14.
Burma is full of monastic complexes such as this one. Who knows how many there are. I hear meditation is practised in a very traditional way here, and the Burmese have a bootcamp reputation when it comes to meditation. This place is a bit different, but I’ll get to this topic later. In this first post, I mostly want to provide some context, to set the stage for this monastic adventure. Shwe Oo Min is one of countless meditation centres in this country. My taxi driver in Rangoon had never heard of it, and when we got close, even people in the immediate area gave us contradictory directions. We’re in the northernmost outskirts of Rangoon here, in the village of Kon Tala Paung, Mingaladon Township.
My heart sank when I opened the door to what was going to be my room. A small square room with dirty white walls and no furniture except one plastic chair and two metal cots with thin ratty mattresses on top. Two? Yes, I would have to share this glorified closet, and my roommate’s stuff was all over the place. One ceiling neon bulb, one ceiling fan, no power plug. Hmmm… But six days later, I quite like my little hovel, and my roommate Kuzaw and I seem to get along. When I first arrived, he kept complaining that our room stank, and he asked me on Monday if I was going to shower! I hadn’t noticed any bad smells, but after checking my stuff, I found the likely culprit: my running shoes. I washed them and removed them from the room, and Kuzaw hasn’t complained about the smell since. His English is rudimentary, which makes for very basic conversations.
There are roughly 150 women and 100 men here, plus 60 novice monks (samaneras) who attend monastic school on the premises. Of the 150 women, roughly 50 are ordained and 100 are lay, and this proportion must be around 50-50 among the men. Most of the monastics wear the robes of this monastery, but some are visiting from other countries and other Buddhist traditions. It’s hard to say how many, and I’m cautious when it comes to approaching the monastics, because they are obviously quite into their practice, which means very little talking and eye contact. We lay people are also encouraged to practise this “Noble Silence”, but most of the chitchat around here comes from us, and unfortunately, the loudest voices usually seem to come from our two American lay visitors.
Some of the monastics are Westerners, but most of the non-Burmese monastics come from other Asian countries. Some are permanent, some are temporary, meaning they’ve ordained for a few weeks or months, after which they will disrobe. Temporary ordination is very common and normal in the five Theravadan countries (Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Lao and Sri Lanka). Many monasteries also allow Westerners to take temporary ordination. But I’ll get back to this topic later. And to Theravada. For now, I want to provide a general idea of the place.
So it is a fairly large complex, with many buildings, including accommodation buildings (separate for men and women), a dining room, a meditation hall, a shrine room, a kitchen building, and several administrative buildings. And everything runs on donations. Every square metre of the concrete walls around the property was built with donated money. Every meal is prepared with donated money. The water filtration system, the covered walkways that connect all the buildings, the steel basins where we wash our plates and bowls, all donated money. Who are the donors? The people who stay here (like me), and probably Burmese people who want to earn merit.
I share my room with a 43-year-old Burmese guy called Kuzaw. He is here for the duration of vassa, a three-month retreat that takes place from July to October every year during the rainy season in Theravadan countries. Monks typically go into retreat during this time, as they are not supposed to leave their monasteries, and many lay people join in. Some even take temporary ordination. Like the other laypeople here, Kuzaw seems to take his spiritual practice quite seriously.
Ok, enough for now.