Shwe Oo Min – Forest Meditation Center
23 January – 30 January
What follows are two accounts from our week at the monastery. The first is from Jessica and the second by Jacob. We are both genuinely grateful for having had the opportunity to practice in such a unique setting with a respected Burmese teacher – one who now has many Western students and travels to Europe and the US to teach. Our understanding of dharma was widened and our practice was reinvigorated.
When we arrived we were told there were no mattresses. I dropped my bag and stood, stunned and weary, blinking under the cold fluorescent light of my shared room, and took in the dirty white walls and hard surfaces. Two metal platforms and a tired formica folding table were the sole installations. Poking under one bed-frame revealed an almost-empty bag of Vietnamese, nag champa-scented laundry detergent and a women’s health pamphlet in Korean.
I had thought that getting up at 3:30 am would be the hardest practical adjustment of my meditation retreat (well, really it was a tie between that and going without dinner every day), but now, as I contemplated my first night on a bare surface, I realized that getting any sleep at all might be my biggest concern.
We had come, nine Americans in all, to this monastery outside of Yangon, Myanmar, to learn directly from a warm and respected teacher. I planned to stay for a week, but others had committed for up to two months. We had faithfully followed the instructions for foreigners on the website, but, as we had already experienced over-and-over in fast-changing Myanmar, reality tended to run circles around our expectations.
“Come, come, I give you blankets,” the no-nonsense woman at the front desk had commanded. We dutifully followed her out to the linen closet. “Cold, cold!” she squealed at the 75 degree weather, dancing and hopping as she led us down a covered wooden walkway between buildings. The grounds were lovely, with thoughtfully-placed well-tended plants and flowers. Climbing a flight of stairs, she opened a door at the top, and I stepped in behind her, only to immediately gag at a searing chemical smell. “Mothballs,” I barely managed to say as I staggered, coughing, out of the room.
That was when the bad news was delivered. “No mattresses,” the woman told our stunned group. Then, sensing our dismay, she started handing out blankets.
I stood in the hall trying to breathe. Someone handed me an odoriferous yellow blanket that I accepted reflexively. I wasn’t yet sure what was worse: having no bedding at all, or having some but mothball-infused. Either way, the chances for sleep were not looking good.
I was prepared to accept challenges; I was expecting the unexpected, but my goodwill was being severely put to the test.
Just prior to the mattress news had been the brown skirt news. Before leaving the US, we had read that wearing white and brown clothes was respectful at the monastery. So we had faithfully prepared, bringing brown pants and white blouses, some of us getting tailored clothes at markets in Myanmar. But at check-in at the monastery, we were told that only brown skirts, preferably longyi, were acceptable. No pants were allowed (for men or women, apparently). The office staff instructed us to purchase brown longyi from the monastery. This, in addition to the surprise registration fees ($6-$20, depending on visa type) did not sit well with me.
If we had been in the States, I would have suspected profit had come between the monastery and the dharma, but in Myanmar, I knew in my heart this was simply another vestige of the old overbearing cultural ways and general disorganization.
Back at the linen closet, my friend had spotted one tattered bedroll on the shelf and managed to convince our host to hand it to her. She faced the group. “Ok there is one mattress. Who should have it?”
We stared mutely at each other. I was trying to remember who might have back pain and how to convince the person who might need the padding most to accept it.
When it was clear no one was going to speak up, my friend said, “It’s Jessica’s first retreat, so she should get some sleep” and handed me the bedroll.
“Oh no no no,” I protested, horrified, “it should go to the eldest among us.”
“As the eldest among us,” said our oldest group member, age 69, with a smile,”I think it should go to you.”
And that was that. I found myself holding a bedroll, my Starburst-yellow blanket, and a mothball-drenched pillow in a ruffled pillow case. Tired, hungry (with no prospect of dinner), dizzy from mothball fumes and confused by conflicting emotions of relief and embarrassment, I escaped to my room.
I wasn’t sure I was going to keep the bedroll, especially if my roommate didn’t have one; I would never be able to sleep from the guilt. While trying to figure out how to get someone to accept the bedroll from me (and obviously failing at using any mindfulness techniques to deal with my emotions so far), I wandered into the bathroom area of the dorm for the first time.
After traveling first to Japan and then through SE Asia for 3 months, I had experienced a lot of previously unimaginable bathroom situations. I had learned how to use a hose instead of toilet paper to wash off (although mastering that without ending up soaked was another matter) and that the dirty old buckets and pails of water next to the toilet were for flushing. I had even managed to poop in a hole while squatting (my body does not register that position as safe for, uh, elimination, and it’s no small feat with achy knees). I figured I could handle most any situation at this point. In fact, I was mostly fascinated with just how different toilet rituals were outside of the States, and I often joked that I should have made our travel blog all about toilets.
The monastery, though, was on a whole other level entirely. As I expected, there was no toilet paper, and we were not to flush any toilet paper, either. There were both Western and squat toilets, and the stalls had hoses for washing off our posteriors. Out of the six sinks, one had a tiny sliver of a piece of soap. There was no tissue and no hand-towels. This was all standard for Asia so far.
The tough part was that there were also no trash cans. Not in the bathroom, the sink area, the hallway, the room, or by the front door. No trash cans anywhere. I took a deep breath, both deeply humbled and a little nervous. These people produce no waste! Everything is reusable, and no food is consumed that comes in a wrapper, only whole foods in the dining hall at meals twice a day. Wow, I thought, I have some changes to make in my life. Also: oh, THIS is why the left hand was traditionally considered dirty. Normally, I would just carry toilet paper with me and either flush it or toss it in a bin (I was not skilled enough using those water hoses to get poop off). But here, with nowhere to toss poopy toilet paper, I realized my left hand was about to get dirty, and that traditionally, there was probably no soap for washing it. As a proud left-handed person, I felt sad for the poor maligned sinister (I also wondered what in the world the women did during their periods – there was no evidence of tampons or pads anywhere, and without toilet paper or trash cans, did they use rags or what…?).
All of a sudden, that sliver of soap on the one sink was looking mighty inadequate. In truth, though, I had of course brought my own soap. And I was game to try to exist in the world producing no waste (besides the requisite bio waste). To my surprise, when I thought about the things I throw away each day, the one thing that bothered me the most to give up was…dental floss. I had to laugh as I realized that this was my first insight into myself on my first meditation retreat.
We barely had time to change into brown longyi and make our beds before a 6:30 pm English interview with the Sayadaw commenced. English interviews only occurred about once a week, so all the English-speaking yogis in the center, numbering perhaps 50 people (the board at the entrance informed us that out of 235 people at the monastery, 107 were foreigners, although many of these were Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean) gathered in Sayadaw’s office.
The office reeked of mothballs and had bad fluorescent lighting, but the floor was covered with tasteful plush carpets that my grandmother would have loved, and the walls were decorated with pictures of the Sayadaw interspersed with dharma encouragements such as “slow down – there’s no need to rush.” There was also a portrait of an extremely old man, who I assumed was Sayadaw’s teacher, festooned with blinking multicolored “Christmas” lights. Sayadaw had a good sense of humor, and it was intriguing to listen to him and several Western monks debate the finer points of perception and the nature of mind. However, the interview lasted almost two hours, and we all sat on the floor, with no cushions, forbidden to stretch out our legs (showing the bottom of your feet is considered rude in many places in Asia, including Myanmar). I am blessed with good flexibility and open joints, but even I was aching toward the end of two hours on the flat floor.
By bedtime (8:30 pm), enough (half-rotten) bedrolls had miraculously been found for the rest of the group. One of us was still lacking a pillow, but Jacob managed to request two from the well-stocked men’s linen closet and then accomplish a secret man-to-woman pillow hand-off.
There was such a strict separation of the sexes that even though the men’s linen closet was fully stocked (possibly simply because there are many more female than male meditators, but I suspected that additionally men receive more resources), the women weren’t allowed to use the items in it. Men were first in line at meals and ate separately, men and women had separate meditation rooms, and of course we lived in separate dorms. The women were locked in their dorms at night by a padlocked gate (“for our protection”), while the men could roam free.
Once, I tried to sit in a chair that I had previously seen a Western monk using. The head nun (‘Sister’, we called her, an extraordinary woman who I would quickly come to respect and admire) shoo’ed me away immediately. A second woman, just arriving, also tried to use the chair, and Sister said, “Yogi, you may not sit there. That is a man’s chair” (meaning: that chair is only for men to sit in). Women were traditionally considered farther down in the rebirth cycle than men, and I wondered if this chair rule was a manifestation of that old belief.
Between the lack of dinner, difficult sleeping conditions, sexism, and poopy left-hand issues, I was filled up with challenges. A week seemed like a long, long time to be in such a place. Contrary to the physical conditions of the center, though, the teachings of the Sayadaw were radical in their gentleness and acceptance. And we learned soon enough that even the Sayadaw had to make concessions to the much stricter Abbott who oversaw the center.
The first night, exhausted, I decided to “sleep in” and get up at 5:00 am (just in time for breakfast) instead of 3:30 am. But at 3:30 am, the wake-up gong sounded, over and over and over, slowly, with so much time between rings that anticipation started to activate my nervous system. Still, I stuffed in earplugs and tried to get back to sleep. At 4:15 am, the neighboring nunnery sounded its gong, straight through my earplugs, like magic. Then the loudspeaker started in. A man’s voice shouting rapid-fire, as if on a game-show. Is someone broadcasting a TV show?, I wondered in my semi-lucid state – but no, it was a dharma talk, with accompanying chants by women’s voices.
By 5:00, I had been awake for a while. I stumbled out of bed, delirious, and got in line for breakfast. I wasn’t really hungry, but with only 2 meals per day, I knew I had to eat. I gratefully advanced down the vegetarian line, only to find that breakfast was a savory, greasy noodle soup, with broth that smelled like chicken and raw onions for garnish. It was accompanied by another soup: a whitish-clear broth with small white worm-like objects floating in it, and a bowl of unidentifiable brown beans. A nun smiled at me over the serving dishes and made motions to indicate I should scoop the beans into the mystery white soup. I took some of everything, determined to cherish it all in meditative silence, examining each flavor and its provoked response. But in truth, I could barely eat. At least there was tea, a sort of chai, although it was more like a tea-flavored sickly sweet milk drink. I was not optimistic about the caffeine content.
After breakfast, my intestines staged a revolt, of the sort that I couldn’t bear to handle with my left hand. And so, yes, I flushed toilet paper, tiny little scraps that I tore off carefully, praying the system would not clog. Tired, hungry, and feeling weak, I couldn’t resist that little comfort.
Despite it all, I was ready to meditate. However, word came that Sister did not want us to go into the meditation hall until we had listened to an hour of taped Q&A from one of Sayadaw’s visits to the US. The taping would be at 1 pm in another hall and until then, we were to read the four (mothball-scented) books we had been given. They wanted to make sure we had the right instructions for meditation before beginning. It was sweet, but everyone in the group besides myself had been on multiple retreats and had practices spanning many years. They seemed to take it all in stride, with no pride. “I try to approach each time with beginner’s mind,” my friend told me.
Still, I stewed a bit. Here I was, finally ready to sit and sit and sit, done with the talking, the debating, the reading. Yet I felt I was being prevented from the very thing I had come to do.
I took my yoga mat out behind the buildings, where the laundry was hanging, near the open sewers. I furtively took off my brown skirt (my yoga pants were underneath), rolled out my mat, and exhaled into a sweet morning asana practice. I alternated between feeling defiant and hoping I wasn’t being too disrespectful. As far as I could tell, though, no one from the main walkway could see me, and everyone else from the women’s dorms was in the meditation hall.
At 1 pm, I found the audiovisual room. I entered the dark, sumptuously carpeted wood-paneled room and froze: I was confronted with a man who could have been Yoda. It was a moment before I realized that the seated figure before me was a wax replica behind a sheet of glass. It wasn’t Yoda, but Sayadaw’s extremely aged, big-eared late teacher, the founder of the meditation center, preserved in wax, seated with his favorite things and a plate of fake plastic food. Incredibly, outside the glass enclosure was also a life-sized cardboard cutout of the man. I looked around, stunned, but the other by-now-familiar English-speaking yogis were all seated on the floor, seemingly unperturbed, staring at a small blank tv in one corner of the room. I hastily sat, and the recording began. It was another hour-long lesson in sitting flat on the floor with no cushion. I don’t remember the Q&A, but I’ll never forget the wax figure.
Later that afternoon, just before we officially received our placement in the meditation hall, I was walking in my dormitory when the nun who oversaw my floor grabbed my arm. She spoke excitedly to me in Burmese. I stared, wide-eyed and worried, certain I was in trouble. Had she heard the clang of my spoon in my small metal cup as I secretly at my “dinner” of granola with chia in my room? Perhaps she had glimpsed me wearing pants while doing yoga.
A younger nun ran over to listen. Smiling at me, she said, “She says she love you.” Seeing my wide eyes, she repeated, slowly, “She. love. you.”
In total shock, I managed to stammer, “I love you, too!”
I fled downstairs, ready to go to the meditation hall for my first sit.
Turning the corner outside my building, something caught my eye. I paused for a moment and recognized an object that probably had been there all along, but escaped my notice until now: a small green trash can, right next to the path.
As February stretches on in SE Asia, the heat conspires with the parched land to accumulate dust on earth and skin. Every leaf on every roadside tree as brown as the dirt road, not because it has died, but because with each creaking trishaw, honking car and loud-clunking diesel-fuming truck that passes by, the road gives up a bit of itself and coats everything aside it. I imagine the layer half an inch thick or more by the time the first rains of the monsoon come. Riding along in the back of a pick-up, I can’t relate to the trees’ passive acceptance, and I pull my purple bandanna up over my nose, relieved by the left-over scent of orange peel, cinnamon and eucalyptus from the oil I used previously, themselves gifts from the trees.
More than three months after leaving San Francisco, Burma is where I finally feel homesick. Probably the result of many conditions coming together.
I. Simply, time. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt the cool envelopment of the fog and the warm embrace of my friends.
II. My 34th birthday. I received emails from a few friends and family members. An additional two or three apparently automatic emails from professionals I have frequented in the past. I had a lovely dinner with our Burma dharma-tour group wrapping up our two weeks; I even got a few gifts from two of them (excellent travel gifts from Linda – a travel foam roller, incense and a Burma travel guide, as well as a mala necklace from Sara). But spending this birthday away from home mostly emphasized how much I miss people there. Each year I’ve lived in SF, I’ve had a truly amazing and unique birthday party. I feel grateful for a group of friends eager to celebrate each other. I’m sure that, had I been home, I would have had the best party ever. And perhaps we can be critical of a cultural ritual that over-burdens this one day with expectations of gifts, surprises, memorable experiences and perfect reflections of love from everyone known past, present and future. But the day of and after my birthday I awoke in a hotel room infused with the acrid, heavily-sweet scent of mothballs and walked downstairs to find the entire lobby and dining area smelling of gas. Diesel being a solvent, the hotel staff were using it to clean the tiled floor just at the time most guests were emerging from their room to enjoy the noodle soup and kim chi breakfast. I felt homesick, or was I just nauseated and dizzy from the fumes? Not being home, of course, and not being on Facebook seem like big factors leading to the missing expressions from those that are thinking of and caring for me (as I’m sure they are). Sadness and doubt crept in.
What do we mean when we say we’re homesick? There’s often a sense of being exhausted or somehow challenged with one’s visited surroundings. I was certainly going through that. A slight (or strong) aversion that usually leads to cravings for the comforts of home. Those happened more often. Homesickness also arises after satisfying contact with loved ones back home, when we’ve felt close yet still so far away and longing for more frequent and physical connection. I felt that after some good Skype calls. There’s a taste of being known and missed and wanting more. And I’ve noticed it comes up more when I’m sick or lonely. It also arose while on retreat.
III. Retreat. At the end of our two week dharma tour of Burma, we arrived at Shwe Oo Min monastery for a week of practicing under the teachings of U Tejaniya. It was also a welcome opportunity to take refuge from the sweaty grind of traveling in Burma and recharge our capacity to take interest in and absorb new experiences. Talking less, away from email, unable to eat what I want whenever I want – generally a major abstinence from what my psyche relies on for momentary comfort and from the stimulus that keeps its focus externally occupied. I’m not the only one who gets homesick on retreat.
It occurred to me that part of my experience of homesickness is the loss of knowing that I’m known, a loss easily avoided in our age of constant twitters, texts, and likes. Homesickness sets in when I am deprived of the usual ways of knowing that I’m known. While traveling, I rely on phone calls and emails. While on retreat, not only do those disappear but often so does talking, and eye contact, probably the earliest and most basic form of being known. (I did indulge in some eye contact and talking during this retreat, where they were optional.) Deprived of the usual expressions, how do I know I’m known by others, other than through trust deep in my heart?
I believe the need to be known by another, the need to matter, is a basic human need, though we each differ in our relationship to that need. It could be conflicted, more unconscious, or more integrated and easeful, probably all depending on how it went when we were younger and not mattering was emotionally deadening or at worst, life-threatening. I’m in agreement with the psychoanalysts, who find that the need to be known is so strong that though it’s painful to be hated and judged, it’s still preferable to our sensitive psyches than being forgotten. It’s painful to have an unmet need, so defenses rise up around it. Instead of facing the possibility of not being known, some might experience others as judging them or plotting against them. Paranoid fantasies can be a response to the world’s disregard. For me, it’s something I’m exploring while on this journey. My need to be known and remembered is sometimes a source of suffering and can manifest in interesting ways when I’m not aware of it. Fantasy is one of them.
Though I’ve had my thoughtful and consciously defiant reasons for not joining Facebook, I now suspect this theme is related to the unconsciously motivated reason. In this light, I perceive FB to be a major arena for being known. (I also acknowledge the many different subjective and arguably objective uses and benefits of FB.) On the surface this is obvious, the whole explicit point of FB is sharing – for other people to know what we’re doing and thinking. More than any other body part, we feel most known when our face is looked at – even and perhaps especially in silence. As we might do with any product or institution, we also use FB to meet unconscious needs, and obviously it is hugely successful at meeting the deeper need to be known (or for some, aggravating that need more). Being someone conflicted with that need, I often defend against it and judge others who are so easily indulgent with broadcasting themselves. I crave being known, and assume it will never be satisfied by what I consider a commodified, corporate-mediated superficial means. So I miss out on many birthday messages, since most people now seem to rely on FB for these reminders. This confirms my judgments and keeps my need in it’s familiar place – frustrated. My relationship to FB has been based on what I consider a valid criticism of culture and technology. For me it’s sad seeing this external form come to supplement the way we hold loved ones in hearts and minds. Now, I’m also recognizing that my (avoidant) relationship to FB is another mirror to my unconscious. Will I possibly join FB in an uncomplicated manner and enjoy feeling known through our time’s relevant means? Still not planning on it.
In Burma, men usually wear a loose button-down solid or plaid shirt tucked into a longyi, a very wide, waist-to-ankle length loop of fabric that, when properly worn, appears to the Western eye as a skirt. Think of the wide-waisted Thai fisherman’s pants, but without legs or a strand of fabric for a tie, and even wider. A super large towel that’s sown together on the ends. A big, wide noodle of cotton. Men were required to wear one at the monastery. Somewhat annoyed at this decree yet somewhat excited for the opportunity to wear a comfortable skirt for a week, I handed over the obligatory 6,000 kyat ($6) and was given my first longyi. Quickly frustrated in the proper techniques for tying it around my waist and annoyed with the restriction of movement due to my improper wearing of it, I put it aside and seemed to get away unnoticed by wearing my Thai pants. Until one of the administrators pointed out that I wasn’t wearing a longyi, and I let go and attempted to be customary. I got inside my tunnel of brown fabric, pinched it at one side of my waist and wrapped the now double layer second half around to my opposite side and tucked it in like I would a towel. It wasn’t long before I noticed glances from some of the younger staff and monks at the monastery. Soon it felt like the whispers across from me at lunch, in a foreign language, were remarks on my attire. My unconscious filled the space and the slightest bit of paranoia seeped in.
Among these small personal dramas of fashion and feeling known in my existence, I returned to my stack of cushions to study awareness of the present moment. To practice giving to myself, in a way, that which I desire from the outside – being known. Known so far down to the depths that all longing is extinguished and the self is seen for the circumstantial phenomenon I’m told it really is. Sitting cross-legged under my private mosquito net in the dhamma hall, I wonder if this forgivable yet petty yearning of the ego reflects a glimmer of the soul’s essential curiosity for the truth about self and reality. I meditate with hope that these truths lead to a greater freedom.
On retreat, I had the tiny unadorned room to myself until the last night. An American about my age arrived late afternoon, driven the hour from Yangon by the principle of the school where he teaches music. Never having meditated before and knowing only a little about Buddhism, he was motivated by his upcoming marriage (in two weeks!) to a Burmese woman. He honorably wanted to show respect to her family by paying homage to their religion with a meaningful experience rather than a hollow ritual. He was to stay one week. I was happy to orient him to the monastery and the practice and very interested in hearing his story. He grew up in northeast US and told me with genuine delight that he considers Yangon home now. I was surprised, until he mentioned he was from Camden. (And he gave me permission to write about him). He’s learned an impressive amount of Burmese, a very difficult language for Westerners. His words, as well as his being at the monastery that long, showed a sincere respect for the culture and an eagerness to learn more. He’ll certainly need those qualities in abundance to make this cross-cultural marriage successful. (During that first conversation, he invited Jessica and me to the wedding. Yes, we went! There are some photos below.)
As I was walking along the covered boardwalk returning to my room after a sit, a nun stopped me and offered to explain how to tie my longyi correctly. She very kindly let me know that mine was tied the female way. To Western eyes it was a subtle difference – males and females seem to be wearing skirts distinguished only by pattern. But to their eyes I was cross-dressing! It was as if I was wearing a dress or high heels in America. I thanked her and returned to my room to practice, though I wasn’t hopeful. Maybe my roommate could help, I thought. He was there when I came in, and before I could say anything he told me that it was a bit of a curse knowing a little Burmese. Why? He had overheard some of the local men saying something that sounded like it referred to his poorly arranged longyi. And he’s been living in Burma for six years! I wasn’t just paranoid after all. Anyhow, it was the most “known” I’d felt all retreat. And the monastery gossip mill probably thought it funny that the two cross-dressers were rooming together.
Photos from the wedding: