16 February – 21 February
The long wooden boat lazily chugged away from the jetty right at 9a. The spray of water from where the prow cut lifted my shadow up from the surface of the water. The vibration of the motor as we cruised down the canal toward Inle lake gave a wiggle to my script as I wrote in my journal, as if I was scared and trembling. Surrounded by teak houses on stilts and narrow wooden boats paddled by foot, I had the feeling I had traveled back in time to a world where glass and plastic didn’t yet exist. A world forgotten but happily so. Or resembling a world ahead devoid of ice and oil, submerged, where people build shelters and make tools from the waste of the last fallen empire. Rusty cans faintly labeled with lost and forgotten languages are used to scoop dry beans and chilies at the market. Worn clothing with images of animals unknown to this part of the world clothe the children. Children are no longer children once they can work to help their people move into a better age or out of of a worse age, whichever it is. Depends on who you ask.
Puttering across the lake, I inquired into why I often felt uncomfortable traveling in Asia. Out of place. Why am I here and how does my being here affect the local people? What happens inside any of them when I point my small shiny black device and capture an image foreign to me yet mundane to them? How do they make sense of my leaving a wealthy land in which many can only dream to live to take interest in the tomatoes they toil over on a floating garden and bring to market by boat in a wicker basket with hopes to sell enough to sustain life another week. As long as enough trees remain on the hillside to prevent the erosion that threatens to fill the lake. What are my intentions and what is my interest when I snap the photograph? To have something to show and to remember, as if it justified my being here by the fact that it called witness to the beauty I saw?
I thought of George Orwell, who developed his anti-imperialist views while working as an officer in British-controlled Burma in the 1920s, and I wondered what the colonialists felt. Orwell is known to have not fit in with the British officer pukka culture, the often drunk and “aloof, impartial, incorruptible arbiter of the political fate of a large part of the earth’s surface.” He learned the Burmese language and spent most of his time alone writing. He struggled with his role. He was known to have on occasion become so frustrated with a Burman as to have hit him with a cane. He was led to actions he had likely already ethically renounced due to the expectations others (both Burmese and English) had of his role. Something that could easily happen to any of us given the right context. As if our world were a large Stanford prison experiment created by some curious divine post-doc who impartially gave power to some and not to others, gave the Earth a spin, and sat back with pen and clipboard. Orwell wondered why he and his countrymen were there. After returning to Europe, he was inspired to investigate the down-and-out of his own culture, so he spent five years intermittently living in the slums and working class neighborhoods of London and Paris.
I can see how I could shed my feeling of not belonging here with the belief that these people somehow don’t belong. Or that the land they inhabit doesn’t belong to them. I might believe they were put there by a god favoring and bestowing upon me a sacred task of generously spreading my values to those “less fortunate”. We are told that sometimes pre-contact civilizations met early explorers and colonialists with generosity and warmth, according to their customs. Perhaps assuming goodwill and perhaps having nothing else to assume. The Burmese smile at me a lot. What does the camera fail to capture that only conversation might reveal? Not understanding each other’s language means the conversation is halted before it can begin.
Burma is shedding the hard and violent shackles of authoritarianism as it opens to the cold and hollow embrace of materialism. If America is the cultural imperialist of the world, I am one of its officers and missionaries, no matter how softly and respectfully I travel. I bring money instead of guns and take pictures instead of resources. Welcomed by hopeful if naive smiles. Some already turning sour and impersonal, perhaps afraid my presence and the presence of my people will lead to a decline – a change – in their way of life, despite the conveniences of plastic and electricity and the benefits of health care and education.
I went out on the lake to tour some of the markets and monasteries. One of many scores of boats, most carrying 2-4 tourists but me alone with my driver. The sky was clear and the lake spilled out on its sides into the canals and villages. Being around 6′ feet deep in most places, it’s more like a giant marsh. I was out for ten hours that day, and at my last stop, Nga Phe Kyaung (also called “jumping cat monastery”, though the cats I observed only lounged around licking themselves), I was tired of being a tourist and wandered through the crowd of my camera-toting comrades hoping to find a monk that wanted to practice English. I’d had a nice day but was feeling particularly eager for something memorable to happen before heading home. Then I saw someone I recognized but hadn’t ever met personally, an American Buddhist teacher who was key in bringing Buddhism to the West, someone whose books and talks have supported my practice for 15 years. I casually but directly approached and introduced myself. He shook my hand and told me his name. There I was in Burma, in the middle of Inle lake, in a 150-year-old teak monastery, bumping into Jack Kornfield. I was present to the heat of the blush passing through my face. He asked what I was doing in Burma, and I found myself relieved to have something of notable Buddhist value to share. Jack is a teacher of Tempel’s, the man who led our dharma group, and he was curious about my stay at the monastery. We only talked briefly since his group was leaving. The whole thing a short and exhilarating experience. I hardly factored into their day and was hopefully not the most memorable part of it for them, but for me it was very special. I appreciated all the timing that had to be just perfect for that to have happened. Just zooming in on that day, any of us staying five minutes more or less in any one of the many places we all visited and it wouldn’t have happened that way.
The next day, I decided to bike to the local hot springs. The bumpy dirt road was lined with waist-high piles of rocks waiting to become the new road. It went up the hill a bit and ended at a T-junction, where I turned left to ride along the ridge to the springs, which turned out to be an impressively built oasis rather than a collection of natural pools. I enjoyed a long afternoon break there.
Biking home from the hot springs, I passed a small shack to my left, another tourist checkpoint where the government collected a $10 tax on foreigners entering the Inle area. I had paid it a few days earlier when my taxi arrived from the main road. The young man at the gate waved to me as I passed and called, “Hello. Where you go?” I continued cycling, only turning my head slightly to the left as I raised my left hand, as if I didn’t understand English but wanted to acknowledge what I pretended to take as a greeting. As I continued down the road I passed through the rural village as the sun was setting and farmers were returning home by foot, bike and ox cart. Children waved to me as they swung and climbed on crude bamboo fencing. Dogs barked and chased me as their owners called out to them. A man followed a herd of oxen down the road and into the village where other animals waited and would sleep near the humans which they were fed by and would later feed but as they slept would dream very different dreams. The world between them as invisible to them as the world between me and that herdsman.
I came to a place where the fallow rice field reflected the purples of the sunset and I stopped there to appreciate that sacred marker of life’s passing. The scenery as novel and interesting to me as my presence there to the people watching me. Soon after continuing on my bike, I was again asked by someone, “Hello, where you go?” He was loading dried cane into a truck, clearly not working for the government or in any way looking to make a buck off a tourist. I told him the name of the town I thought I was biking toward. He lifted his arm back to the direction I came. The extended finger at the end only emphasized that I was out of my way. “Three miles,” he said. “Two lions. Pagoda.” I had gone far out of the way, and by the time I got to the turn it was dark, and I had just begun to feel a bit worried. I noticed the checkpoint station at the T-junction I was looking for. As I turned down the hill and waved to the man I passed before, I felt a strange mixture of regretful awareness of my mistrust and gratitude for what I had seen while lost. Had I heeded his question, I would have missed that beautiful stretch of rural Burmese life.
I went out on the lake again the next day, this time going three hours one way to a small village called Sankar. All I knew was that it was supposed to be beautiful and that I could find a monk named U Tamana. It was noon when I arrived, and insanely hot, so I quickly made my way into the monastery. Not many people were around, so I wandered around until I noticed a couple of monks setting out thin wicker floor cushions. I thought they were about to have lunch, and I hoped I might get invited. The first monk I introduced myself to turned out to be U Tamana, and though he didn’t speak English very well, he smiled a lot. Soon after, a Burmese family of about seven people walked in with bags of goods and proceeded to sit and arrange their things. One of the men struck up a conversation with me. He had been living in Australia for about 20 years and was back visiting his family. Somehow he was there on a tourist visa. I laughed at the irony when we acknowledged that because I was on a meditation visa I could stay longer than him in his native country. His family gestured for me to join them on the monastery floor for a packet of very sweet coffee mix and sugary crackers. It was a welcome refreshment.
We talked for a little while, their chubby 12-year old son translating between me and his family. It quickly became obvious they were a well-off family from Yangon come to make offerings and donations to the monastery. The boy had his own cell phone and a fancier camera than me, and he had been studying English for as long as he could remember. As usual, they were excited to hear about my reasons for coming to Burma and were impressed by my stay at a monastery. To my delight, I was invited to join them for lunch and a tour of the village led by U Tamana.
We first passed by a pig that had just given birth. I won’t post the close-up here.
I mostly talked with the boy, whose Western name was Brian. After passing a villager with a baby on her chest who stopped the family so the baby could practice its culture’s greeting, Brian remarked, “The Shan are nice. Burmese people are rude. The friendly people in Burma are the Shan and the Mon. People in Yangon are rude.”
“Rude as in unfriendly?” I told him that most tourists say that all the people in Burma are friendly. He explained with the know-it-all confidence of youth that most act friendly for the tourists but are sometimes only doing it for the tourists, but they are rude to each other. I remarked that it seemed to me that in most places in the world people were less friendly in the cities and more friendly in the villages. He agreed.
Back at the monastery, the family and monks went through the donation ritual. I was invited to kneel alongside them, and we all paused in the act of handing over one of the packages, as if in a frozen tug of war with the monk, while they chanted a blessing for generosity and merit. My heart was touched by their warm inclusion of me in their afternoon. The family invited me to join them at another monastery across the lake, but it was already 3pm and I had a three-hour return boat ride ahead of me. The monks considered this and invited me to sleep at the monastery! I was elated by the offer, but I had a trek scheduled for the following morning and wasn’t sure how I’d arrange the transportation, since Sankar was a place tourists only visited for the day. I think having the offer made was a better experience than actually staying at the small rural monastery would have been. On my way out, following Maimonides’ tradition of generosity, I waited until everyone’s back was turned before I slipped some cash in the donation box.
With the amazing scenery, my headphones and my journal, I wasn’t bored for a moment during the six hours on the water that day.
On my last full day at Inle (and in Burma overall) I went on a trek with a local guide. We hiked up into the hills, then through the villages along the east ridge overlooking the lake. Using my usual approach to bringing up Buddhism, I asked if he had ever been a monk. He replied that he had only lasted 11 days because he got too hungry. After that, we got to talking about meditation, and when he learned of my experience in Burma, he spoke with enthusiasm about dharma practice. He even took me to a small retreat area with a dharma hall that the villagers used for practice. He introduced me to the monk that oversaw it, a small old man missing most his teeth, the remaining ones stained red and barely hanging on, who seemed more interested in watching the television than in talking to us.
It was burning hot in the bright sun but almost chilly in the shade with the breeze. The shade given by the occasional sacred bodhi tree, all other trees having been cut down, sacrificed to agriculture. The people are afraid to cut down bodhi trees, as it might bring bad luck (Buddha reached enlightenment under a bodhi tree). “I think the next buddha should sit under a different tree so we have more sacred trees,” the guide said with his critical wit. He explained that erosion from deforestation threatened to fill the lake with silt.
I asked him about this family and he explained that he and his wife separated, she taking their two children, due to fear around his involvement in the democratic party. He is a leader in the local branch of democratic party, and though the NDL now holds seats in parliament, he is sure military officials keep track of him, and he thinks his wife’s fear is legitimate. They live in the same town and still see each other regularly (we heard expats say that there’s only a facade of democracy now, and most Burmese I talked to are holding out hope for next year’s election, when there is a chance Aung San Suu Kyi will be elected). He said, with a soft smile, that he does not fear death and will do what he can to work for the freedom of his country. Choosing to risk life and family for freedom and peace is an unfortunate but necessary choice too many people throughout history have had to make. For rarely has freedom been granted without sacrifice and struggle. My guide seemed to be a courageous and honorable man.
The guide also talked openly and thoughtfully to me about the tourist situation in Burma. He explained where each of the 25 dollars I spent for the trek went and how he only takes home $10. It felt like we had bonded during the day’s hike, having been able to be as open as I would have with a friend. At the end of the trek we went for a swim in the lake and returned by boat at sunset. In the middle of the lake, the driver cut off the engine and we sat there swaying in the gentle motion of the water. “I like the sunset,” the guide said. “One day we will die.”
I woke up my final morning Burma excited for the cooking class I was fitting in before I had to go to the airport. The class included just me, the cooking instructor, and a sweet older British man traveling with a small stuffed elephant in memory of his wife who had recently died of cancer. The food we cooked was the best I’d had in Burma – we just followed the directions of our amazing host. But it was her company and story that made the morning a special ending to my time in Burma.
She explained that her father had always loved talking to foreigners and was known to invite them for dinner. When she was a girl, no one in the family spoke English well and there were very few tourists. She grew up learning as much English as possible from the books her father would occasionally bring home. She remembered being about 12 years old when a tourist first asked her for directions somewhere and then gave her a bit of money after she told them, and the pride she had when she told her father. She’d kept in touch for many years with foreigners who visit Burma and tries to help individuals like her develop small businesses. Already known for her cooking and hospitality, last year a tourist encouraged her to start a cooking class – a popular tourist activity in Thailand that hadn’t yet taken off in Burma. She now has a beautiful outdoor kitchen by her lush garden and her class is highly recommended online. The table we ate at sits inside a gazebo filled with family photos and paintings of Aung San Suu Kyi. It turned out she was a friend of my trekking guide and also a member of the local democratic party. She is raising money to open a children’s library, and she arranges for young tourists like me to teach her children English during summer afternoons in exchange for her home-cooked meals. Excited by hearing about my meditation practice, she introduced me to the rest of her family as “the American Buddhist.” She talked about how many of her friends were critical at first when she started developing friendships with Westerners. And how, as a progressive Burmese Buddhist, more interested in social action, environmental protection, right livelihood and kind relationships than in making offerings at full moon ceremonies, she is often the target of gossip. She isn’t affected by their judgments, rather she’s critical of those who go through the motions of religious ritual. Her father, who had already passed, would be very proud of his daughter: successful business woman, community leader and happy mother.
I left the cooking class and went directly to the airport, crying as the taxi wound its way from the the lake. My heart was full from personal interactions with those struggling to change their lives and their country. After such a rich and varied experience in Burma, I felt my care for its future.
Why did I go to Burma? I was not there for material gain but simply out of curiosity and the privilege that allows me to indulge it. I had seen more of Burma than most Burmese. I learned that life didn’t improve after independence from the British, and in some ways it worsened. The military tortured political prisoners in the jails the British built. The regime reestablished the ethics-based educational system of the monasteries that the British dismantled, then put shaven-head spies in those monasteries to root out revolutionaries. This leads me to the next logical question: what will be better and what will be worse for Burma as it “transitions” to democracy and capitalism?
A few days after leaving Burma, I read an article by Erik Braun from the spring 2014 issue of Tricycle magazine: Meditation en Masse: How Colonialism Sparked the Global Vipassana Movement. The article challenges romantic notions that our beloved mediation practices are ancient and undiluted forms passed from teacher to teacher since the time of the Buddha, claiming that before colonial Burma there was no widespread practice of meditation. Buddhism was as I saw it at Shwedagon and so many other places, focused on merit-seeking and discipline-building. The royal family financed the Buddhist community, but when the British invaded, this support ended. The lay people refused to see their religion die, so they organized to support the monastic tradition and began deeper study themselves.
Meditation practice itself was seen as a way to preserve Buddhist teachings, and monks began to teach a new and optimistic message about what one can expect to attain in a single lifetime. Lineages that emphasize practice emerged at this time, for example leading directly to Goenka, a hugely influential teacher of worldwide insight practice, and influencing Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield (three Americans perhaps most responsible for bringing Theravada Buddhism to the US).
In America, we now have meditation instruction without the religious context which would include ethical training and philosophy on the construction of mind and reality. So it’s not surprising we see corporations teaching mindfulness to employees and bestselling books about lowering stress with meditation. Perhaps psychology, with its understanding of human development and focus on healthy communication, functions in the place of religious context as Buddhism intertwines with it in America.
If the information from the article is correct, I must realize that a practice I considered to be ancient wisdom from the East has not only been shaped by colonialism but perhaps is available to me because of it. As has happened time and again on this journey, the search for cultural authenticity yields a more complex view, one that undermines my grasping to historical reference points. Does the same thing happen when we search inside for an authentic self?
“The ongoing transformations of insight meditation point to a powerful and possibly liberating fact: meditation doesn’t really exist. Not, anyway, as some single, unchanging entity. There are, instead, only the many interpretations and techniques of practice bound together in contingently arisen contexts over time.”
How could it be any other way?
In the words of the real Cormac McCarthy:
“For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame tale and contain as well all else within them…and the tale has no abode or place of being except in the telling only and there it lives and makes its home and therefore we can never be done with the telling. Of the telling there is no end. And rightly heard all tales are one.”