13 February – 16 February
Jessica decided she would leave Burma first for two weeks in India, and I stayed in Burma to explore Shan state on my own. We said goodbye in Yangon for what would be three weeks and I took my sixth domestic flight segment on Air Mandalay to Heho airport. I arrived in Pindaya by way of a two-hour van ride from Heho. I was the sole passenger. The driver spoke decent English as he oriented me to the villages we passed, which were sparsely set along the narrow paved road that wound through this rural tea-growing region. I asked if there was anything to see along the way, and he stopped for a moment when we came to a 40′ tall, sitting buddha statue carved from a single piece of stone. High up on the hill, the relaxed figure gazed eternally west, never missing a sunset. His posture a reminder of the search for his being and its space in the world. If there were such a space. And if it was knowable. I snapped a photo through the open window.
Behind that statue, long past its lengthening shadow, was my new destination – Shan state. Constituting about a quarter of Burma’s land area, Shan state was nearly a country itself. For 40 years after Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, armies in Shan state fought for their own independence. Today there is a fragile ceasefire with the still-active Shan army, and some remote areas remain outside the control of the Burmese government. I read that one third of the world’s heroin comes from opium grown in Shan state, and local warlords operate with private armies of thousands of men. Also, some areas are under heavy influence from thier giant neighbor, China. Two regions use Chinese currency and operate on Chinese standard time. Similarly to what we observed in Laos, China’s generosity in helping its vulnerable neighbors develop seems motivated by its need for their resources. A populist movement in Burma recently prevented a dam from being constructed on the Irrawaddy that would have sent power back to China.
As the sun set behind the hills, I felt a sensation I hadn’t felt for over a month – cool air on skin. After five weeks in the hot and dusty central river valleys of Burma, from Mandalay down to Yangon, this was a welcome relief.
I spent thee nights in Pindaya, a place many tourists only come to as a day trip from Inle. A small village situated around a small lake where women wash laundry at the shoreline while children play in the water. At night, the fairy lights lining the railing and large trees around the lake light up. Even way up here the Burmese love their colored string lighting.
The major tourist draw of Pindaya is the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda. Probably Burma’s most impressive cave pagoda, it contains within it a large golden pagoda and over 8,000 buddha statues. My first morning there, after another typical Western breakfast of stiff sweet bright white toast, runny eggs and something that looked like OJ but tasted like Tang, I walked toward the cave.
I passed through a park full of incredibly large Banyan trees, some with branches as big as trunks held up by concrete crutches. I got lost in this stunning complex of pagodas. (the cave entrance is on the hill in the right of the photo).
Burma is known as “The Land of the Golden Pagoda”. Most holy sites sell paper thin squares of gold that are purchased and rubbed on the pagoda for good luck. Some famous buddha statues have become unrecognizable lumpy masses after decades of this practice. And sometimes only men are allowed to participate. The picture above is of the pagoda just inside the cave.
Late the following morning, I decided to visit Pindaya’s small central market. Despite its size, I found the most diverse selection of dried fish I’d seen the entire trip. As I wandered past the cluttered stalls that pass for Burmese convenience stores, I stopped at the only counter that looked unique. A sandal and souvenir shop. Half of the space contained shiny new flip-flops wrapped in plastic, and the other half was filled with rusty tokens foraged from a faded empire. There in that 5’x5′ stall was a demonstration of Burma’s changing economy. Bronze, silver and teak have ceded to petroleum-based polymer. Craft has evolved to manufacturing. We introduced ourselves and with a quiet pride the shopkeeper began to show me some of his special artifacts. I was surprised by the low prices he asked for them, given the age he claimed they were. 16th century carved balancing weights, 100-yr-old music instruments, and rare currency from the 40’s with Aung San Suu Kyi’s father on them (General Aung San is the father of modern Burma, having negotiated its independence. He was assassinated soon afterward.) Interested in making a sell, the shopkeeper eventually showed me a coin with a familiar image – the 24-spoke dharmachakra that was also on the brown shawls we wore in our dharma group. The dharmachakra is one of the oldest Buddhist images, and it symbolizes many things, including the twelve causal links (forward and back) that perpetuate samsara. Bronze in color and appearing very worn, but not ancient, he told me it was coined in commemoration of the Sixth Buddhist Council, which took place in Burma from 1954-1956.
The First Buddhist Council, said to have taken place within the year after Buddha’s death, was called so that the Buddha’s main followers could sift through the oral teaching and agree on what he actually taught. The next council, considered by scholars to be an actual historical event, met 100 years later. It was not until the fourth council, about 400 years after Buddha’s death, that the teachings were committed to writing (on palm leaves). The goal of the most recent Council (the Sixth) was to affirm these original teachings and examine differences that may have cropped up between cultures. 2,500 monastics from eight SE Asian countries spent two years reciting and writing all the traditional Theravada Buddhist literature. The result, which concluded on the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s death (in 1956), was the modern printing of what is considered to be the pristine teachings of Buddha (and the “world’s largest book,” referred to in our Mandalay post). I’m impressed by this monumental achievement, which required hundreds of years of oral memorization and thousands of years of careful written preservation. The oral traditions were put down on the palm leaf, which was carried by foot across SE Asia. Palm leaf ceded to modern printing, and now we instantaneously send digital media across the globe. If there are future Councils, perhaps they will be symbolic, and meaningful discussion of Theravada dharma will take place in meditation halls around the world (or on Facebook). For 10,000 kyat ($10 US), I bought a 60-yr-old coin representing this sacred (yet perhaps dying) tradition.
Here are the rest of my favorite photos from Pindaya: