American Buddhists in Burma
9 January – 22 January
R. Talbot Kelly writes in Burma (published in 1908 and now in the public domain), “Dagon pagoda stands before us so immense and so beautiful as to be rightly considered one of the wonders of the world…Nowhere in all Burma may a better idea of the Burmese be obtained than on this pagoda platform. At all times of the day it is thronged by people, not only from Rangoon, but from all parts of the country, who come to pray or to wonder at it’s beauty. At the shrines, in which are always one or more images of Buddha, groups of devout Burmans pray. Lighted candles burn before the images, while the worshipers, among whom it will be noticed women predominate, bear flowers in their hands, which before their departure they reverently lay upon the niche in which the ‘Master’ is enshrined.”
Hours after landing in Yangon, we found ourselves walking up the east entrance to Shwedagon Padoga, Burma’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site. I had first heard the name a few months before but I had no idea what it was. Six weeks later, when I would exit the country with tears in my eyes, I would put my palms together in front of my chest, saying goodbye as Shwedagon clearly came into and then quickly passed from my view out the airplane window. The French couple next to me would laugh and do the same, perhaps taking my gesture as some kind of joke or as an expression of casual respect to the culture.
Upon reaching the top of the long, holy staircase and entering the pagoda platform, my senses pulled my attention about like eager and undisciplined children brought to a candy store. Bells tinkled from the tall golden tops of the dozens (hundreds?) of temple hti (crowns) as crows circled and called. Gongs rang out in sets of three. Incense wafted about, toddlers meandered away from parents, and teenage couples sat sharing snacks. Monks and nuns chanted as a ringtone sounded off to the tune of “What’s the fox say?” I felt the cool marble platform beneath my feet. Shwedagon’s atmosphere was all at once like a church and an outdoor festival. Serene and personal while enthralling and convivial.
It might seem brazen of me to quote from a 1908 British book about colonial Burma, but I will weave the theme in more in a later post. I wanted to read something that was antiquated, wanting to look back in time and perspective rather than to learn anything factual. As if looking at a dated postcard from grandmother’s youth. Though Shwedagon has gotten even bigger and glitzier since Kelly’s time, and you can enter by a series of escalators on one side, his observations stand true today.
We were met with an expression of Buddhist culture entirely new to us, and once the immediate sensory impact settled, what arose for me was distaste. Grandly displayed before us was wealth poured into golden, gem-adorned idols and rituals of superstition. According to what I’ve been taught, this is not what Buddha had in mind. Cultural sensitivity and experience would eventually soften my aversive reaction, but at first I did not feel like I belonged nor did I want to.
We sat in our first circle with our tour group under the steady mute gaze of a dozen massive stone buddhas. Tempel, our guide and teacher for two weeks, presented a less cynical view of the role Shwedagon plays in Burmese culture. Even if many of these people aren’t meditation practitioners in the way we are, he said, Swedagon is a beacon of their value of generosity and a symbol of hope for the future. He passed out a gift to each of us, a thin brown shawl to be worn with its printed yellow dhammachakra (wheel of dhamma) facing out from over the chest. This symbol is recognized by every Burmese person and it would function as a reminder to ourselves and a signal to others about our intentions to be mindful travelers in this country. This sign would become something like a press pass into a region of the hearts of the Burmese people maybe not as easily accessible otherwise.
(Quite often I noticed we were being photographed without being asked. I would usually just offer to actually pose for the curious Burmese observers. We were also politely stopped by many Burmese people and asked to have our picture taken with them, and I would sometimes take one of them, too. Here’s one group that stopped us at Shwedagon.)
The first thing I noticed on arriving in Myanmar was that EVERYONE wears skirts (called longyi). Women AND men. We stepped off the plane and were met by a retinue of men in dark sunglasses and skirts. I have often thought it pretty unfair that men in the Western world miss out on getting to wear skirts, so in Myanmar, it was love at first sight, in a way (although it was also an example of how quickly I project my Western ideas of equality onto a new culture).
The second thing I noticed was the teeth. I was eager to try out a few words of Burmese and smiled at the porters and taxi drivers, but when they smiled back, I couldn’t help but recoil. Their gums were all dramatically receding in the same way, and their teeth were completely stained red. A sickly sweet smell emanated from their mouths.
It was my first introduction to betel. A leaf that’s wrapped around an areca nut, mixed with tobacco and sometimes lime and chewed as a stimulant, most men in Myanmar seemed to have a lump of it in their mouths or be between lumps. Instead of a plague of old chewing gum, the sidewalks and streets sprouted red blossoms of betel spit. And the slightly nauseating smell was everywhere.
Burma (the old name for the country, which I’ll use interchangeably with the current name, Myanmar, in this post) immediately clobbered me with sights and smells (especially smells) like no other country I had visited so far (Japan, Thailand, Laos).
We had come to Myanmar with a small group of meditation practitioners and a teacher who had visited the country many times over the past 15 years. I was nervous about coming to a nation that the leader of the opposition to the (now-overturned) oppressive regime had at one time begged tourists to avoid (before the political changes of 2011, any money spent in the country would likely only benefit the regime). I was nervous to make the inevitable mistakes, to barge in as Westerners do, with my Western needs (as much as I might try to subsume them to the local culture). But coming with our teacher who could help us tread carefully and make space and time to hear the stories of his local friends was an opportunity I could not pass up. I jumped at the chance to focus on the Buddhist culture of the country, to spend time in holy places, meditating, listening, and practicing dana (generosity), instead of rushing, demanding, and consuming.
Despite his mumbling through the betel, we successfully negotiated a taxi fare from the airport with a man wearing what I would come to recognize as standard Burmese attire: a regular white, collared, button-down business shirt tucked into a long skirt over flip-flops.
Clambering into a car so old I could almost see the street through the bottom, I noticed the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle and thought that traffic must follow the British road rules, driving on the left side. But when we turned onto the road, to my astonishment and momentary panic, the driver started driving on the RIGHT side.
Apparently, up until recently, the country actually did drive on the left side of the road, like the British (Burma was a British colony for 124 years), the Japanese, and the Thais. But then (or so the story goes) one of the generals had a dream that this was bad luck, and so decreed that everyone should drive on the right. Thus, now everyone drives on the right, but they still drive cars with steering wheels ALSO on the right. So, buses unload their passengers on the traffic side of the vehicle (a man is always standing on the street next to the bus exit with an arm outstretched to block passengers from careening into the middle of the street), and drivers have a tough time passing safely on the left (sometimes they ask passengers for help seeing behind them). Some cars have the steering wheel on the left side, but these appeared to be rare.
After a long ride in the afternoon heat, choking on the exhaust in the slow-moving traffic (the streets have been clogged with cars after motorcycles and bicycles were banned in Yangon in 2003 because [according to one rumor] one of the leaders of the old regime feared it was too easy to be assassinated by someone driving a motorbike up next to a car), we stumbled into our worn but optimistically named hotel, the Rainbow hotel. The cheerful and hyperactive staff almost made up for the distressing smells emanting from the tired carpet and stained walls. The clean towels in the room smelled of mildew. Air fresheners and mothballs were tucked in every corner, making an acrid perfume that would soon become all-too-familiar, encountered regularly in buildings all over the country. Yet, we came to love the old Rainbow, or perhaps we just feared ending up somewhere worse, so we returned there again and again over the course of 5 weeks.
Yangon is a city of decaying splendor, with leafy districts of restored colonial mansions existing next to rows of blackened, crumbling (yet still inhabited) buildings along potholed streets lined with grimy food stalls on top of open sewers. It is not an easily walkable city for foreigners.
Our first outing, shortly after arriving at the hotel, was a walk to Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar. I was eager to look around and take in the people and the street life as we walked, but the buckled sidewalk concrete and gaping holes meant I must look down or risk gashing my leg open and falling into the sewer. “It’s like the sidewalks haven’t been repaired since the British left in 1948,” I thought, uncharitably.
Smells combined in a dizzying odor like a cacophonous noise: sickly sweet betel, burning plastic (there is no trash collection, so much gets burned), the stench of drying fish, exhaust fumes, and the pungent open sewers. I found momentary relief as a woman passed with arms full of jasmine flowers. At some point, we had to cross a busy four lane street. A new bridge had been built, increasing traffic. There was no crosswalk, and the road curved sharply, so we couldn’t see oncoming traffic. Yet we had to cross there, as the sidewalk, under construction, was impassable.
Following the lead of some locals, we plowed across in stages, getting stuck in the middle between some concrete barriers while cars zoomed by all around us. On the other side, there was no sidewalk at all, only the street, and so finally, I could look up. Carts of food lined the street. Honking cars forced their way through throngs of pedestrians. We were looking for snacks to take and have a bit of a picnic at Shwedagon. The street scene felt not unlike Bangkok, except there were no other foreigners in sight. I felt no hostility, though, only a lot of curiosity mixed with caution. It was like they were waiting to see what we were going to do. Some people scowled at me, others smiled.
As soon as I would smile and say “mingalabah”, though, I would get a broad smile and a friendly wave in return. I felt real kindness and joy emanating from strangers; it was incredibly special. We finally found a sweet girl selling fried vegetarian food at the end of the row of carts. She was so helpful and kind and eager to teach us about her food. Trying to communicate with her bit of English and our bits of Burmese was a fun time all around, and we got plastic bags full of food and a tasty sauce for 600 kyats (less than a dollar).
This was an experience I would have over and over in Burma: the people I interacted with had a sweet innocence, a kindness, and a desire to help. Often a local person who spoke English would approach me unsolicited and offer assistance. My heart was deeply moved; never had I felt so welcomed. It really was like I was an honored guest in the country. I felt protective of this sweet place and worried about the coming onslaught of demanding tourists, even though I was one of them.
Entering Shwedagon required that we remove our shoes (we carried them with us) to walk barefoot up flights and flights of wide guilded stairs dotted with vendors and sleeping locals, across a city street (yes, barefoot), and all over the expansive area of the temple itself. I was used to removing my shoes in small temples in SE Asia, but this was in another league entirely.
We would make this barefoot pilgrimage in the crowds many times during our weeks in the country and come to hold Shwedagon in a special place in our hearts.
But I did not know that yet. In fact, I had no idea what to expect. I had never even heard of Shwedagon before coming to Myanmar. Actually, I hadn’t even really heard of Myanmar before coming to Myanmar. Me, the girl who loves maps – this spot had somehow escaped me.
Shwedagon is a golden monument said to preserve eight hairs of the Buddha, and it’s been built up for centuries. At my first sight, I was awestruck, more powerfully than by anything else we had seen, but not entirely in a positive way. I felt it was a sort of devotional amusement park on an alien planet. Everything was gilded and ornate, carved in startling and unfamiliar shapes, sharp and almost scary. There were Buddhas everywhere, enormous ones, tiny ones, sitting clumped together or in individual stone huts, some in their own special rooms, hundreds upon hundreds (thousands upon thousands?). Behind the heads of the statues was often a panel with radiating multicolor LED lights.
At the moment of enlightenment, light is said to have shot out of Buddha’s head. At Schwedagon, all the blinky lights had the effect of making a sacred place feel cheap. It was as if the place was trying too hard to convince me of something, with the excessive bling. Looking at the spires of all the stupas, in shapes I had never seen anywhere else, it all felt so thoroughly other. I wondered if it had actually been used on the set of Star Trek at some point.
The circular path around the main stupa was filled with local people, young, old, teenage couples, mothers with babies, all come to spend time walking, meditating, or making offerings. Every evening at sundown, a ring of candles around the entire base was lit. And yet the overwhelming strangeness of the shapes and the mix of the ancient and revered with all the blinky lights made the place feel sinister to me. I was saddened to have such a garish example of how humans had transformed even Buddha’s practical teachings, despite his exhortation not to deify him.
Shwedagon also showed Buddhism mixed with the local astrology, and all around the base were stations with the days of the week and their corresponding animal. The day of week of a person’s birth has special significance in Myanmar, and we could find our day (mine was Friday) and pour cups of water (equal to the number of our years on Earth) over the animal representing our day while silently saying our prayers for our year ahead. My animal was a guinea pig.
Figuring I could use all the good luck I can get, I approached my guinea pig (resting at the feet of a Buddha), where a monk was busy pouring cups of water. Monks are not supposed to touch women, and I figured he would ignore me. Actually, I was worried I might be offending the locals, a Westerner participating in their ritual. To my shock, the monk smiled at me and handed me the cup.
In the weeks to follow, we would visit Shwedagon many times, at daybreak and at sunset. It was most astonishing at night, when all the blinky lights came on and the sharp golden spires stood out starkly against the inky sky. Although it seemed a most unlikely place to be quiet and turn inward, I grew to love meditating there, and at times monks would take pictures of us, a rare circle of white faces, as we sat together. I also loved watching people as I circumambulated the main pagoda, catching girls playing Candy Crush, waving at smiling children, having my picture taken with locals. There were many nooks to explore and endless intricate carvings and tile mosaics to take in. Whatever else it was, it was also a sweet place of gathering, a safe place to spend quiet time or have a talk with friends, a glittering refuge from the noisy, dirty, chaotic city. I feel such gratitude that I was able to experience it many times, letting my reactions wash over me while I marveled at what humans can create.