Walking the path – meditating with monks in Burma

After chaotic India, I was thinking about doing something a bit more calming during my time in Burma. As the birth place of meditation, it seemed that this was an obvious choice of relaxing activities. By chance, I had met a guy in Cambodia who told me about a Buddhist centre he stayed at just outside of Yangon. It was a bit more alternative, and I liked the unlikeliness in which I had met him, so decided to pay the place a visit.

My guesthouse owner wrote for me in Burmese the name of the area I was trying to get to, and I boarded a local bus. On the bus ride I met a software student from the local university. She said her dream was to be a DJ in a club, and she was just getting a degree to make her parents happy. She was very curious as to where I was going, and why I wanted to learn about meditation.

Never struggling to find a monk.

Never struggling to find a monk.

The ThaBarWa Centre was different than I expected. It was a handful of new structures on a donated block of land. There were people coming and going, and going about daily routines – much like a village. Running solely on donations, the centre houses 2000 yogis (meditators) and 1500 sick, elderly and other. The ‘other’ category exists because anybody is welcome to go and live at the centre. Old, young, rich, poor, sick and healthy are all welcome to come and live and eat for free. Breakfast and lunch are provided each day, with the content dependent on the donations that were received that morning (generally rice plus fish).

This was breakfast most days. Sometimes without the fish.

This was breakfast most days. Sometimes without the fish.

Whilst staying at the centre I got to learn a lot about Buddhism, which I found very interesting. Generally when staying at a meditation centre you are expected to take some precepts, something like:

  1. No killing (even mosquitos)
  2. No stealing
  3. No lying
  4. No sex
  5. No alcohol or drugs
  6. No eating after midday
  7. No entertainment (music, singing, dancing, games, movies)
  8. No sitting higher than nobles

I never observed the last two, because I see little purpose to them, but for the first few days I observed the rest. I began eating dinner again after three days once I learnt that I wasn’t expected to skip dinner. I even brushed mosquitos off of me instead of squishing them. Dedication.

My bed.

My bed.

Part of the idea of the centre is that everybody works together. The whole place is run on donations, and an environment has been created where people are working together to help each other out. Cooking, cleaning and all sorts of other jobs are all done on a voluntary basis. The healthy take care of the sick (including HIV and TB patients), and the vast amount of donations fund a whole lot more people to be able to live their lives. The centre used part of its donated land to create an entire village, building housing for over 5000 people and allowing them to run the village as they choose. Needless to say, to see something like this in action was really inspiring. I love the thought of a place like this existing everywhere in the world, but I think there is one real necessity for anything like this to take off: buy in.

That’s where religion comes in. Without the head monk (or master as he’s sometimes referred to as) that runs the place, the donations wouldn’t be coming, and none of it would be possible. Sayaddaw travels the country (and the world) giving Dhamma talks at various other centres, and even at people’s homes when invited. Without the figurehead, the followers wouldn’t exist, and I don’t think that people would be so willing to part with their money. I followed him and his team of monks and nuns for a couple of these trips, and it sure was a wild ride.

Accepting donations.

Accepting donations.

One morning we packed into a bus and drove through bustling Yangon. Yangon is a nightmare for traffic, a lot of which is due to the ban on motorbikes. One local told me that a motorcycle gang offended the prime minister and so he banned all motorbikes from the city. We stopped for a Dhamma talk along the way and were fed a huge lunch (thank God, or Buddha, because I hadn’t eaten since 12pm the previous day). A Dhamma talk basically consists of a number of people sitting cross legged on the floor, listening to a teaching from the master who is perched cross legged on a raised seat. Whilst listening, they meditated. Not being able to understand Burmese, I just mediated (not very well) for some of the time, and restlessly shifted positions as I was not used to sitting cross legged on the wooden floor for 1-2 hours.

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From there we drove some hours to a village and gave another Dhamma talk. The village had constructed a small bamboo open air house for the meditation, which we packed into. It was about 8pm and thousands of mosquitos and various other flying insects and creepy-crawlies swarmed the room. A key part of the meditation teaching is acceptance. If you are hungry, just be aware of it. If you have pain, you just observe it. If you want to move, just understand that it is desire only. If you want to swat bugs of the back of neck, you just damn well swat the bugs off because that’s a little much for me. I noticed some of the monks and followers were hitting meditation level zen by having insects crawling all over their heads for over an hour. But hey, nobody said the path toward enlightenment was easy now, did they?

After the village we were back in the bus, bouncing along over increasingly potholed roads and being stopped at roadblocks set up to collect tolls. At each checkpoint the driver switched the bus lights on, said “pagoda” and we were waved through. Buddhism in Burma is given a lot of respect. Eventually the roads turned to dirt-only and as it was rainy season, there were a lot of puddles and mud around. By midnight we were stuck in the mud. We exited the bus, and as the nuns watched on the five men aboard began to try to heave the bus out. After perhaps 40 minutes, we got it out with the help of an SUV and some rocks under the tires. I had flashbacks to my childhood of four wheel driving with my brother Rick, and his Land Rover being towed out of big bogs in the Akatarawa Forest.

The bus also got stuck at the previous village.

The bus also got stuck at the previous village.

Some hours later around 3 or 4am we arrived at our final destination, a small village by the coast, south of Yangon. We filed into the large bamboo meditation hall and I looked for a spot to sleep. As could be expected I drew some attention and cheerily de-legged before drifting off to sleep with at least three people sitting around watching me. Nothing seems weird to me after India.

At 5am we were up again, time for the next Dhamma talk. I drifted between meditation and sleep, waking up each time just before I leaned all the way over with my head on the floor. You eventually get into a kind of rhythm where you sit up straight, then slowly lose out to sleep and wake up with the sensation of falling. Rinse and repeat, and the hour or two flies by.

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It was so surprising to see such an elaborate setup in such a remote village.

There was a meditation retreat going on for the villagers (in Burmese) so I hung out with the local kids during the day. One of them spoke some English, I think he was the only person able to in the village. They took me on a tour of their village, and we visited the beach. The children seemed adeptly aware that I was non-rural and went to great lengths to make sure I was standing in the right places as we walked around rice paddies and jungle. At one point we stood on a nest of fire ants. The kids quickly brushed all the ants off them and me before they were bitten (I was a bit slow and suffered a couple of bites). The beach was really interesting, because it was as if it were a normal road. There were trucks and motorbikes and ox-drawn carts making their way back and forth, presumably as a fast way to get from village to village. Something like this would not be allowed in New Zealand. The lack of rules is one of the things I love about Asia, I think we have too many needless rules and regulations in our society.

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At 9pm we boarded the bus and started our trip back to Yangon. We arrived back at the centre around 3am, and I took to my bed for a solid seven hours – bliss. The area I was sleeping was a sort of hall, I think ultimately built to house visiting monks. Myself and a German yogi who had been at the centre over a year shared the large room with various different monks who came and went for a day or two at a time. The floor was slightly padded over the concrete, and we had a flax mat. On another trip I slept on my towel on a concrete floor, I’m now very good and sleeping on hard surfaces.

He took a photo of me, so I returned the favour.

He took a photo of me, so I returned the favour.

Like Hinduism in India (which I haven’t written about yet), I managed to find myself thrown into the midst of it all with Buddhism. There are certainly things I’ll take away, and parts of the teachings that I thought were really great. There are 3000 year old teachings which fill gaps in our understanding of the world which science is just now beginning to explain. Ultimately though, like other religions I have encountered, there is a little too much blind faith for me, and a little too much hypocrisy. Monks take a vow of no entertainment, yet play games on their iPads (bought with donated money) and are glued to their smart phones. Nobody is supposed to harm animals, but there are a lot of loopholes for people to eat meat. The teaching also clearly states that nobody should be worshipped, yet the masters are treated like Gods (imagine old Roman empire grapes and fanning). Despite any skepticisms I have, what absolutely cannot be argued with is the work this centre is doing for people in need; this place is certainly one of a kind and inspiring. 

Meditation session on a pagoda rooftop.

Meditation session on a pagoda rooftop.

And what about meditation? Well, I meditated many times a day, and worked my way up to be able to meditate for a full hour, cross legged, without moving a muscle. It’s hard, and painful, but I can do it. I find it grounding, and it’s a great skill to have acquired; something I hope to build on in the future. Since leaving the centre, I’ve done very little meditating. Perhaps I’m feeling a bit jaded, and in need of a break. Honestly, it was full on experience, and I think I needed to disconnect from that world for some time after leaving it.

Check out this funny video of people sweeping the floor at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

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8 thoughts on “Walking the path – meditating with monks in Burma

  1. Your travels are unlike any I have experienced or read about. Thank you for sharing your stories, Jono, I always look forward to reading them!

  2. Pingback: Backpacking my balls off | One foot forward

  3. I just posted my own experience of the ThaBaWa centre, then clicked on the little WordPress tag prompt ‘see what other people are talking about’, thus finding this post! After spending a week at the centre, and having quite a similar experience, I am in complete agreement with the points you’ve made.

    A pleasure to read, thanks!

  4. I just re-read this after coming across a 10-day meditation walk in Chaiya, a little town outside our city. It costs quite a bit to partake in, but the rules are pretty similar. You’re quite noble for embarking on this, since I think I’d barely last a day!

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