This week I was tidying up my notebook, and found the notes from a conversation I had with a monk in a monastry in Burma. I promised at the start of January that I’d write about it, and now I’ve got round to it. So we go both back in time to the end of December and change note to the subject of religion. I’d been in Myanmar for about two weeks, and was recovering from minor illness in the disappointing city of Mandalay.
Phil had gone on a four day trip north while I rested, and I was soon well enough to make trips out into the city. The name Mandalay is very romantic, and I thought it would be quite beautiful and characterful. Instead it is laid in a grid, with a huge great military area plonked in the middle, which when walking past felt as large as Cambridge. There is a pleasant moat round the military area, with rich reflected colours of the sky in the early morning mist.
On the first day I climbed Mandalay hill, which is much higher than a skyscraper. It was a few km walk from my hotel, and like the hills in Cambodia it protudes alone from a vast plain. Coming from a small island where hills roll together in groups this is very unnatural to me, mystical enough that I can almost believe the legends about them being frozen giants or dragons. Half way up the hill is a most moving Buddha statue with one arm pointing out over the city.
At the time I was very into Buddha expressions. I spent a while kneeling down and looking into his face, reminding myself that life is change and everything is impermanent. This then made me think of the correct attitude to have about life, which balances both acceptance of the world as it is and compassion for it. Are these the Buddhist thought processes that led to this Buddha’s gentle-faced contentment called enlightenment?
The next day I went to the market to try and buy some warmer clothes, and was so overwhelmed by it that I completely failed. There was an intimidatingly large indoor centre, selling unsewn fabric and women’s clothes, but apparently none for men. I wondered round looking at vast mounds of Colgate toothpaste and popular books in Burmese script, until the colourful food market outside attracted my eye. Like most of these places in SE Asia, it bustled with people weaving through narrow paths between all manner of fresh fruit, vegetables and spices. A family in a shop attracted my attention and offered me to try a spicy snack, a mixture of nuts and strong herbs which was to much for my unaccustomed tastes.
By this point I was exhausted, depressed and still not really well; I didn’t know what to do for the rest of the day. I looked vaguely for a quality Burmese tea shop to sit down in, and instead spotted a temple. In Burma these are usually very tranquil places, where you can sit undisturbed in the open courtyard and look at the towering stupa, think and read your book. Within ten minutes about three different people tried to talk to me. This was a bit frustrating until I realised what was going on – the guidebook had mentioned that some temples in Mandalay were good places to meet monks trying to practice their English.
My third disturber was a young monk, perhaps 18 years old. Like all monks in Burma, he was dressed in orange robes with a shaved head, only in this case his head was particularly large and round. He was friendly, although not at all fluent. As he talked to me a small audience of non-monks stopped by to watch us, which made me a bit wary about what was going on. When I asked who they were, the monk said that people are curious, and he got them to move on.
He invited me to his monastry, so to get myself out of my depressed rut I agreed. We walked a few hundred yards across the road, and through an open gateway much like the entrance to an urban university accommodation block. There were narrow streets inside the enclosure, and scatterings of two or three story buildings. He led me through a smaller entrance to one of them, and we climbed an outside wooden staircase. I removed my shoes, and we enter a substantial, although divided up, room. Being nearly two metres tall I could see over the rough partitions.
Maybe 25 monks live there (with 600 in the whole outer compound). All the young ones sleep in a row on mats on the wooden floor, and the older ones have their own beds. An old monk was asleep on his soft platform in the far corner, and it was peaceful and light and sunny. The place is quite academic, but also a home. Blackboards with English practice chalked on them, books, calendars, flowers and chairs. I could imagine happily living there, not so differently from how I lived at university. Not quite what I expected of a monastry, my mind had thought of a stereotyped Catholic austerity.
The monks are from Shan state, in the north-east of Myanmar, a place not fully under the Burmese government’s control. Indeed, these monks are Wa people, famously stereotyped in colonial times for head-hunting, and now controllers of one of the warlord armies near the Chinese border. (My journey has taken me almost in a completed loop. I’m now, in China, only a few hundred km from the home of the Wa).
They are Mahayana Buddhist, which is more inclusive of lay people than the dominant Theravadan Buddhism in Burma, but philsophically more dubious with worship of god-like beings. The monk who found me won suitable brownie points for doing so, and stayed nearby all day, but I spent most of the time talking to a much more fluent monk who was 21 years old. He was friendly, calm, wise and thoughtful. He came to Mandalay when he was 10 years old knowing nothing; he initially had to learn the Burmese language. First I asked him about being a monk.
On Being a Monk
The monks’ parents pay for their study. They learn both the Pali language and Sanskrit in order to study scriptures in the original languages, but they also study other subjects such as English. The monks have an obligation to return to their village each year to teach Buddhism.
All the monks under 20 are really Novices, you must be at least that age to become a Monk. Even a young kid can be a Novice. The transition to Monk is made if you are invited to be one and you agree. You also need:
- Parental permission
- To commit to desire to become enlightened
- To commit to obey the rules/disciplines of the monk (precepts).
The precepts are prohibitions from killing, stealing, lieing and sex/marriage. You cannot decide to be a monk for your whole life, as you can’t know the future! You can stop being a monk whenever you like.
On Perception of Christianity
This was one of the most interesting areas that the fluent monk talked about. In Wa state, Christianity has been prohibited by the Wa chief. This is partly because Christians burnt down a monastry. The fluent monk believed that Christianity was an immoral religion, and was quite interested and surprised when I described that true Christianity has a strong moral code. He genuinely didn’t know about or understand Chrisianity, because of lack of information – in particular the Bible was suppressed by the government.
What was interesting was his surety of belief about it before, combined with his honest adapitability on finding out more information. We all believe things strongly, and in this case his belief was clearly wrong, although I could completely understand and sympathise with how he came to believe it. What do I believe now that is transparently false to someone with more knowledge than me?
A similar thing happend in northern Vietnam. A guide described the northern Mahayana Buddhism as being much better than the Therevadan sort praticed in the south. His reasoning was logical, that Mahayana Buddhism involves and can enlighten the lay people, whereas in Therevadan Buddhism you have to be a monk. However it was also flawed, as it ignored the huge philosophical holes in the justification for Mahayanan beliefs, and also the ease and commonality of becoming a monk in a Therevadan country. To me it was clear that he didn’t know the full picture, and the reason for that was because his experience was narrow.
On Lay Believers
There is no upper “coming of age”, people live with their parents until quite old. You can ask permission to leave you parents.
People in Myanmar rarely live in sin. To marry you get permission from parents, and sometimes they have a ceremony in a monastry. A monk tells them how to live and not to quarrel. There is also a state registry hall. Amusingly to me, marriage there is a promise for life, even though he had said that being a monk wasn’t because you can’t know the future.
90% of the population are Buddhist in Myanmar. Anybody can come in a monastry at any time. However, once a week people come to the monastry to hear teaching. The teachings are of the Buddha, translated from the Pali.
The fluent monk described that you worship Buddha to gain peace of mind. “May I be free from trouble, greed/ignorance and anger”.
The fluent monk specifically said that he cannot talk about the government. The one thing he did say I mentioned in a previous post – that the Wa people call the Burmese area “Myanmar”, as a way of indicating that they don’t like attempted Myanmar government rule.
I spent most of the day and afternoon there chatting. The monks fed me with some snacks, including more spiced nut stuff, which would be delicious if I had a taste for it, bananas and green tea. Their supplies all come from donations collected from the community. It was sunny and peaceful, and by the time it came to leave I felt light and happy again.
I took some photographs of the monks, and we all laughed about how tall I was that I could see over the partitions. The fluent monk took me across the street to another building also in the outer enclosure. Here about 20 monks were having an English lesson. The old teacher was quite excited; from his poor speech I could tell he hadn’t talked to westerners much. I sat at the front of the class, and was instructed to chant pairs of words with frustratingly similar pronunciation. “People”, “Pupil” and so on. Then I read a bit from an old teaching book which must have dated from colonial times. It was about a Burmese gentlement visiting London, and involved lots of exotic places. The teacher was particularly interested in the pronunciation of “Hackney”.
The fluent monk told me that you can visit any monastry at any time, and monks are always welcoming. So next time you’re on holiday in a Buddhist country, don’t be intimidated and check one out!
(Updated 28 March 2003, as I found some more notes with a few details on.)