Nothing quite prepared me for the specialness of Myanmar. Since the occurrence of significant political changes in 2012, the country has only recently opened its doors to tourists from around the world. Myanmar has, to some degree, maintained its Orwellian features of vast jungle, untouched orientalism, and sweltering heat. After a bit of an airport mishap, I touched down in Myanmar one day after Sasha and went straight from the airport to meet her at a restaurant with a big group of friends of friends ladies. Immediately, Sasha and I both loved Yangon. Even though the streets are jam packed with cars (motorbikes are illegal for some reason), the city has a lot of character and beauty. Despite the quaint local tea shops on almost every corner and the amazing views, there a few antics about Yangon that are a bit strange. First of all, the sidewalks are stained with red splotches, which, at first glance, may appear to be blood but it is actually spit from betel nut which all of the locals (and I mean ALL) chew on a daily basis. Worse than the stains on the sidewalks are the stains on their teeth. The Burmese people are extremely friendly to tourists but if you ever travel to Myanmar, be prepared for grins full of decaying dark red teeth. Additionally, Burmese people use a kissing noise to get someones attention. By “someone” I don’t mean an attractive lady walking by, I mean a waiter, a taxi, a street vendor, a bus, etc. After several days of ego boosting thinking I was being cat called, I FINALLY figured it out. Below are images of Sasha and I enjoying a rooftop cocktail in the AC and the infamous Shwedagon pagoda, an icon of Yangon.
Next, Sasha and I headed to Bagan by way of night bus which actually turned out to be quite pleasant. We approached two Italian guys at the station to share a taxi into town which ended up being a great decision because we spent a lot of time the four of us over the next few days. Straight from the station we caught the sunrise over the temples of Bagan! Bagan has over 10,000 Budhhist temples scattered amongst the mist and jungle landscape so trust me when I say this picture doesnt even begin to do it justice.
One of my favorite things I did in all of Myanmar was a cooking class in Bagan. Our teacher, May, took us to a local market where we picked out vegetables and other ingredients. We then returned to her home, which is half a library May has created for her village community, and began cooking a variety of dishes. The experience was extremely authentic and not to mention delicious! Myanmar cuisine is difficult to describe and to be honest not my favorite of all Asian cuisines… they are, however, famous for different kinds of salads, especially the fermented tea leaf salad. We prepared two for our cooking class: a shredded cucumber salad and a tamarind leaf salad. Yum!
Next stop, golden rock! Another grooling night bus later and Sasha and I arrived in the quiet town of Kyaiktiyo. Theres not a lot to do in this town so we were fortunate to make friends with a group of Burmese ladies on our bus who whisked us a way to the local kicking spot. After a week of 103+ weather, we were overjoyed to play and swim in this beautiful waterfall.
The next morning, we woke early to see Kyaiktiyo’s only attraction: the Golden Rock Pagoda. In order to get to the pagoda we had to board an open air truck which they stuffed full with 51 passengers (we counted). The truck drove at an ungodly speed up the mountain through narrow winding passageways. It honestly felt like a disneyland ride and we didnt know if we should be having fun or feel terrified for our lives. In the end, we decided on a little bit of both. detachment lies the wisdom of uncertainty…
In the wisdom of uncertainty, lies the freedom from our past, from the known, which is the prison of the past conditioning.
After Golden Rock, I had to say goodbye to Sash. It was sad to watch her leave but I excitedly headed off to my first workaway adventure. For those of you who havent heard about workaway, it is basically a website for people to post all sorts of jobs where travelers can volunteer in exchange for housing and food. Check it out at workaway.info because its seriously awesome!!! I spent 8 days at ThaBarWa center in Thanlyin, 45 minutes outside of the heart of Yangon. ThaBarWa is a Buddhist Meditation center that was opened by monk Ottamasara in 2008 to provide housing and medical care for anyone and everyone in need. During my 8 day stay, I participated in many exciting projects while simultaneously learning about Budhism and honing in Buddhist values through vipassana meditation practice. This experience was so eyeopening and overwhelmingly meaningful that I cant even begin to describe it. Instead, I will copy and paste my daily reflections that I wrote in my iPhone at the end of each night. These reflections are quite raw and unedited so read at your own risk!
Today I arrived at 2 pm and checked in by signing my name on a list of volunteers. I quickly notice I am the only American. Everyone here is very nice and has a different story to tell of how they ended up here in Myanmar at a Buddhist center. There are many traveling alone like me which was both surprising and comforting.
At 2:30 there is a Buddhism class taught by a nun who is western and sounds American to me but I don’t know for sure. I seemed to be the most knowledgeable about Buddhism out of the volunteers present in the class. Today we learned about the 4 noble truths (suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path to the cessation of suffering). We discussed important issues like kamma and detachment which desperate Buddhism from other religions. The most important thing I learned was that in Buddhism there is no “creator” only kamma and cause and effect. Our teacher gave the example of an arrow being shot into your chest. At that moment you should not worry about who shot the arrow but rather how to remove it from your body. Buddhism is the same principle… We should not worry how we got to this earth but that we are here and how to make the most of our life.
At 4 I went for wheel chairing where we take the old and sick for an evening walk in wheelchairs. The man in my wheel chair was 93 years old. There was a moment on our walk where we passed a mother pushing her baby in a stroller and I thought how beautiful and tragic that we begin and end life in the same way. It caused me to think a lot about life and death and the cyclical nature of all things. In Buddhism, death is not a cause for mourning. If you can harness the art of detachment then you will see that everything is impermanent and forever changing. Life is just as impermanent as the ideas in your head as the cup of water next to your bed or as your family and loved ones and even your own body. I have a particularly difficult time reconciling death so I think I will try to process these ideas the rest of the time I am here.
After dinner, at 7, we joined the nun again for evening meditation. It was difficult to concentrate in the heat (and both my feet fell asleep) but I tried to count my breath from 1 to 10 over and over again. I pictured the old man and the baby in my head and sent loving kindness to them. I picture my heart and my mind as two major sources of energy and when I send loving kindness I have a mental image of light leaving those parts of my body and traveling to the intended receiver.
Today I tried to get up at 5 am for meditation but it was just not happening. When I got here they were all out of mattresses so I am sleeping on a metal cot with rolled up blankets as a pillow and no AC or no fan. Not to mention the neighborhood dogs (at LEAST 50 of them) like to have some sort of fight club at night.
After breakfast at 6 am I joined the monks for their daily alms rounds where they collect rice and food from locals. Today we drove into a small district of Yangon which took us about 45 minutes by truck. I was given a basket to collect packaged gifts such as cooking oil, cookies, fruit, etc. It was absolutely incredible to see the immense generosity that the Burmese people showed towards the monks. I had to return to the truck 5 or 6 times to empty my basket and start filling up again. Alms rounds are essentially like a glorified trick or treating session. After giving, some Burmese smiled and waved while others got on their knees to pray. In the Buddhist tradition, the idea of “kamma”, or cause and effect, suggests that if you do good deeds then good things will be returned to you. Kamma can also help you in the rebirth cycle. The more kamma you have, the more likely you will be reincarnated as a human instead of a more lowly creature. This is why people give so willingly and happily to the monks which starkly contrasts with western culture where people feel strong ownership of their belongings and are very protective of the concepts of “mine” and “yours”. Our teacher gave the example of a glass of water with salt in it. The water represents your good deeds and the salt represents your bad. When you drink the water it will taste very bad; however, if you do many good deeds the water will become like a river and you won’t be able to taste the salt anymore.
The alms round lasted almost 2 hours of walking around the village completely barefoot (not sure why we had to remove our shoes but I will find out). During this time I came to the realization that everything I have eaten thus far at ThaBarWa center has been thanks to the donations of others and I feel full of gratitude.
In the afternoon I tried a new meditation technique involving consistent and rapid breathing in and out. It takes a lot of skill and focus to move the diaphragm back and forth which is supposed to help the meditator eliminate other thoughts and facilitate concentration. For me it was weird and awkward and I didn’t like it compared to normal sitting meditation but I was happy to be learning and trying something new.
At 4 I accompanied some people (who we now fondly call “team biscuit”) for some “gardening”. I put the word “gardening” in quotations because it actually turned out to be tough physical labor ripping out weeds and bushes to clear a whole field for planting asparagus. Although I was drenched in sweat by the end of it, it felt rewarding to see a finished project. One of the Burmese working at the center, Mai, rewarded us for our hard work by inviting us to her personal home for dinner where she cooked us a delicious vegetable noodle soup.
I finished the night by going to the only local tea house in the village to drink tea and observe monks watching raunchy sex scenes in the movie “Troy” which happened to be playing on HBO. Hilarious.
Alms rounds again this morning at 7 am.
Lunch and relaxing afterwards. I finished my book! Guapa was a great ready, I recommend to anyone.
4-6 building an information sign for the new composting system. I hammered in those nails like a total badass!
7 pm meditation with western nun who I learned is American from virginia! For some reason I am so fascinated by the idea of her giving up her entire life and family to be a nun in Myanmar. I think Buddhism is fantastic but I also think it takes a westerner much more effort to commit to a monastic life as opposed to an Asian person who has grown up with a heavy influence of Buddhism. Today I focused my meditation on my sister which I think I will continue for some time. I have so much built up anger and resentment towards her which plagues our relationship from moving forward. Today I tried to replace those feelings with “love, kindness, and patience”.
Breakfast with friends at a local restaurant. Yay finally no rice! We all shared fried bananas, spring rolls, and a special fish soup called mahinga. After that I scurried to meet the truck for alms and turned out to be the only volunteer. The monks were very grateful and said I was to have good luck for participating three days in a row (fingers crossed they’re right).
After alms I went for a walk with Alokha (the American nun). I find her very peaceful to be around and I am fascinated by her story. She showed me the main office of the center and also the library (which has AC!). We read together in silence for a while until she left completely unannounced.
After lunch I helped to paint a giant whale bone with my friend Julia and a Malaysian nun named SheShe. She is only 17! I learned that she has only been a nun for two months and her family is quite unhappy about her decision. We were supposed to paint the whale bone to look like a fish but they only have the colors red, gray, and black so we’ll see how it turns out. I’m thinking finding nemo style in a different color scheme….
Finally I did some odd jobs for the composting project and dragged myself to dinner feeling totally exhausted. Evening meditation was frustrating today because both my feet fell asleep and I was really struggling to stay focused and detached from my body. Our teacher says you just need to ignore pain and it will go away but I found it nearly impossible. I even tried so hard not to think about my feet and concentrate on my breath that I ended up with a headache. Meditation is very difficult.
Sickness descends. Fever if 101.5 and diarrhea. I’m not at all happy about this turn of events.
Thank the heavens, my fever broke! I felt a bit shaky this morning and my tummy is still giving me trouble but I made it to the alms rounds this morning at 7 with another French guy who is high energy and fun to be around. I wanted to take the day a bit easy since I was still recovering from day 5 so I decided to take my meditation seriously. I meditated for an hour at 10 doing vipassana technique. In this style of meditation, as I’ve sort of mentioned before, you are supposed to clear your mind and practice the Buddhist values of detachment and non-self. Instead of interpreting your surroundings as happening to “you”, “me”, or “I”, you simply experience them as happening in general. You can also draw attention to your body, your feelings, and your consciousness and attempt to detach from them. At 1 I meditated again for an hour using another fast breathing technique in which you inhale and exhale rapidly by moving the diaphragm. I’ve never practiced meditation like this before and I find it quite intense… But every time I try it gets easier so maybe I will see the benefit as I continue my practice.
At 2:30 I attended intro to Buddhism class. Today we discussed meditation and answered the questions why we meditate, where we meditate, and what we meditate.
Next I helped with the water purification project. We’ve been cleaning stones all week and today we finally stacked the stones moving from bigger to smaller. Last, we put a layer of ash on top which turns out is an excellent natural filter. At this point, I’m covered in sweat and ash and I smell positively repulsive but I went straight for wheelchairing at 4. The lady in my wheelchair today was so sweet and tried to pay me 1,000 kyats (about $1). Of course I refused her money and she kept saying thank you over and over again as if this wheelchair walk was the best thing that’s ever happened to her. It made me feel like I’m making a difference here even in a small way. On our walk, we stopped at several stores for her to spend her 1,000 kyats elsewhere. She bought medicine and candy and fried snacks. At one store she talked for a while with the store owner, presumably mulling over a peanut purchase. In the end he gave her the nuts for free and it was a tender moment underscoring the kindness and sincerity I’ve witnessed continuously over the past week at ThaBarWa center.
7 pm another hour long vipassana meditation session. Afterwards we went to the local tea shop with some of the new volunteers. I don’t think there has been a single day where new volunteers haven’t showed up. It’s crazy how many foreigners are here helping out but also strange because the group dynamic changes every day and it’s hard to get a chance to know everyone before they leave!
Today was a good day! I didn’t get to practice meditation much but the reason is because I did a lot of volunteer work. The alms round went all the way into downtown Yangon which was a bit of a different experience. Instead of walking the quaint gravel paths of the villages and peripheral districts, we burned our bare feet on the hot paved roads. We walked down streets that Sasha and I had been strolling as tourists only a few weeks before. Many more people stopped to stare and take photos of the foreigners walking with the monks and I felt somewhat like a zoo animal. I was joined by two new volunteers, one from Chile and one from Brazil, who are both very interesting people. We had an excellent conversation about meditation, body massage, and mindful practice and also shared stories of our experiences while traveling. We collected so much food in the city that afterwards we had a mini picnic on the truck, passing around fried samosas, mangos, and cakes. Yum!!
The rest of the day I spent painting a large whale bone that the meditation master found on the beach (don’t ask me why) and also painting barrels for the compost project. I also spent a few hours in the office organizing files on the computer which I found mindless and enjoyable.
After dinner I went to meditation for an hour. Today my mind was restless but our teacher says mindfulness or no mindfulness is not important; the most important thing is that you keep trying.
The main meditation teacher and creator of TheBarWa center is named Sayedaw U Ottamasara. Today he is embarking on a lengthy journey through Europe to spread his teachings so he came to the center to say goodbyes. All of the foreigners at the center were given the coveted and esteemed privilege of offering breakfast to him. Offering food to a monk earns you a lot of merit and karma and the more pure the monk, the more karma you get so being able to do this was a gift from our supervisor. We woke up at 5:30 to begin preparing food and tables. Sayedaw was giving a dhamma talk to the local Burmese so he arrived quite late but we all waited patiently. Upon his arrival, two male volunteers waited by the door to clean his feet with a towel. Then 6 boys lifted the table full of food to symbolize our “offering” and Sayedaw touched the table to accept. We all ate in silence. Afterwards, he gave us a talk in English that was slow and slightly repetitive but interesting. He spoke of his journey to create ThaBarWa center and the importance of doing good deeds in life. After the speech was finished, myself and four other female volunteers participated in a ceremony where we each pour water into a small bowl until it overflows. This symbolizes the “sharing of merits” between everyone in the room. The whole event ended quite abruptly but I feel very lucky to have been here as a volunteer on this special day.
“In detachment lies the wisdom of uncertainty…
In the wisdom of uncertainty, lies the freedom from our past, from the known, which is the prison of the past conditioning.
And our willingness to step into the unknown, the field of all possibilities, we surrender ourselves to the creative mind that orchestrates the dance of the universe.”
– Anonymous , the law of detachment.