Walking With the Monks

If you read the last couple of posts, you’ll know that in less than 24 hours we arrived in Myanmar, found our Couchsurfing ‘host’ (The ThaBarWa Dhamma Centre), and were almost instantly whisked away on a three-day road trip with a busload of nuns.

Having returned, we were introduced to life at the centre. There was no orientation, or introduction, or go-to person, and so we were left to slowly piece together information by chatting with the people around us. Slowly but surely, the centre started to reveal itself. In my last post I mentioned the high-level monk Sayadaw Ottamasara, and it is with him that I should begin my explanations.

In the mid 90s, Sayadaw was running a successful business in Myanmar (what it was, I’m not sure). In the late 90s, he began meditating to ease his stress levels, and quickly became a devoted practitioner of Dhamma. By 2002, he had given away all his assets, abandoned his business, and been ordained as a monk.

In 2007, he started the first ThaBarWa meditation centre in downtown Yangon. One year later, he established the centre where we were staying in Thanlyin. Since then, he had established a third centre in Pyin Oo Lwin in 2013, and a year later he had established over a dozen more centres across the country.

All over the centre were images of Sayadaw, calendars of Sayadaw, and quotes from Sayadaw. Small wonder he was a bit of a celebrity.

All over the centre were images of Sayadaw, calendars of Sayadaw, and quotes from Sayadaw. Small wonder he was a celebrity.

The Thanlyin centre was enormous, built on 80 acres and housing almost 3000 people. The whole idea was that anybody could live there for free, and eat for free as well. There were medical facilities and care units for the elderly, and the sprawling village that the centre had become housed an enormous group of yogis, monks, nuns, and laypeople. There were several halls scattered in no particular order where people could meditate, or learn, or eat, or take part in various ceremonies. Auspicious people from around Myanmar were always coming and going, sharing their meditation techniques and knowledge. Sayadaw had insisted that all styles of meditation, practices, and rites were acceptable, and so the centre was an incredibly diverse melting pot of various Buddhist teachings and ideals.

This man came to us with a huge grin and asked if he could take a photo of us. Afterwards we asked if we could take one of him, and so he put on this super-serious photo face. After we took this photo his huge grin returned and he ambled off.

This man approached us with a huge grin and asked for a picture of us. He took it using the camera on his Nokia brick. We returned the favour.

Your stock standard Myanmar truck.

A standard Myanmar truck. Bonnets are optional.

Many jandals means many nuns.

Many jandals mean many nuns.

Many nuns means many jandals.

Many nuns mean many jandals.

These kids were playing the (possibly traditional?) Burmese game of 'pick up the rock and smash it on the ground'. When we walked past they paused the game and asked for a photo.

These kids were playing the (possibly traditional?) Burmese game of ‘pick up the rock and smash it on the ground’. When we walked past they paused the game and asked for a photo.

People we spoke to said that there was nowhere else in the world like the Thanlyin ThaBarWa centre. The success of it possibly came down to the fact that nearly everyone was Buddhist, and Buddhists are always doing good deeds to earn merits and receive good karma. Therefore people were building huts for others, and helping others, and cooking for others, and cleaning up after others, and generally not doing any of it for money. It was kind of like the communes that Westerners are always trying to create, but never quite succeeding at.

We could do as we liked, and we wanted to give back for the free accommodation and food, so we helped out where we could, gravitating towards food-related tasks. One of the more interesting things we did was follow the monks in the mornings as they went on the alms rounds, begging for food in the streets of Yangon. In this post, I explained how we gave food to monks during the alms rounds in Thailand, but now we were with the monks, walking through the streets barefoot and collecting an unbelievably large amount of food from hundreds of devotees.

Our first alms round involved driving into Yangon city. My job was to hold the money bowl. "You must stand on my left," said the head monk. "Okay," I said, and stayed where was on his right. "No, left," he said. "Oh, right, other left," I said, sheepishly, and moved.

Our first alms round involved driving into Yangon city. My job was to hold the money bowl. “You must stand on my left,” said the head monk. “Okay,” I said, and remained standing on his right (my left). “No, left,” he said. “Oh, right, other left,” I said, switching sides.

Caroline's job was to hold a basket and collect dry goods (but only after they'd been touched by the head monk. A blessing, I think)

Caroline’s job was to hold a basket and collect dry goods (but only after they’d been touched by the head monk. A blessing, I think*)

*October 2015 Correction!
I’ve since learned from Felix that the touching of the food is not a blessing, but a way of ‘accepting’ the donation and transferring possession to the Sangka (order of monks), or the individual monk who touched it. The donation is transferred to the monk, and merits are transferred to the person donating.

We walked the streets barefoot. When asked why this was, a monk said, "Buddha said to walk barefoot for alms to remind us that we do not really need shoes. They are simply an unnessecary luxury."

We walked the streets barefoot, over rocks, mud, and through puddles. When asked why going barefoot was a requirement, a monk said, “Buddha is teaching us to walk barefoot to remind us that we do not need shoes. Shoes are simply an unnecessary luxury, but we only go barefoot for alms.” The people donating also slipped out their shoes when handing over food or cash. Occasionally they would bow down three times. One person said, “Bless you,” to me in English.

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The money bowl at the end of the collection. It was roughly 100 USD, which is a decent amount in Myanmar.

The money bowl at the end of the collection. It was roughly 100 USD, which is a decent amount in Myanmar.

One of several tubs of cooked rice. We also collected a couple of sacks worth of dry rice.

One of several tubs of cooked rice. We also collected a couple of sacks worth of dry rice.

Many people gave big bowls of cooked food. All the similar food, for instance chicken curries, were lumped together in large buckets.

Many people gave big bowls of cooked food. All the similar food items – for example chicken curries – were lumped together in large buckets.

Volunteers returning after the alms round

Volunteers returning after the alms round

Our second alms round was just through the ThaBarWa centre, so we got to see a lot of the village. The head of the line was Sayadaw himself, so it was a big deal. Kind of like when a royal family member visits New Zealand, except with less kissing of babies, and no smiles.

Our second alms round was through the ThaBarWa centre, so we got to see a lot of the village. The head of the line was Sayadaw himself, so it was a big deal. Kind of like when a royal family member visits New Zealand, except with less smiles, and no kissing of babies. We met one woman who was 108-years-old, grinning away while sitting up on her bed, tiny and adorable.

Some people were obsessed with pleasing Sayadaw, being the celebrity that he was. Somebody thrust an umbrella in my hand and said, "Hold it for Sayadaw for the rain and for the sun." It was sunny, so in this photo you can see me holding the auspicious umbrella of ultraviolet protection. Soon after I raised it, Sayadaw turned to me, stopping the monk line, and calmly said, "I don't need for sun. Just for rain," and my job was over.

Some people were obsessed with pleasing Sayadaw, being the celebrity that he was. Somebody thrust an umbrella in my hand and said, “Hold it for Sayadaw for the rain and for the sun.” It was sunny, so in this photo you can see me holding the auspicious umbrella of ultraviolet protection. Soon after I raised it, Sayadaw turned to me, stopping the monk line, and calmly said, “I don’t need for sun. Just for rain,” and my job was over.

Sometimes you just wish they'd break into a conga line, but it never happens.

Sometimes you just wish they’d break into a conga line, but it never happens.

A worshiper in a health care facilty (on site) offering Sayadaw an envelope. The guy holding the money pot is Felix, who was from Germany. He spoke very good Burmese and was our unofficial guide to learning the language, how to order food, which places in Myanmar were great to visit, how to wear a longhi, some of the more complex rituals around buddhism, and so much more. In fact, a very interesting post all about Felix will be written soon.

A worshiper in a health care facility (on site) offering Sayadaw an envelope. The guy holding the money pot is Felix, who was from Germany. He spoke very good Burmese and was our unofficial guide to learning the language, ordering food, which places in Myanmar were great to visit, how to wear a longhi, some of the more complex rituals around buddhism, and so much more.

Another daily task I did was to help load a truck with buckets of food, then drop them off at a different part of the village. There they would be distributed according to what was written on each bucket (in Burmese, of course). This job involved me hanging out in one of the kitchens, where I met happy, chatty cooks, and witnessed huge pots of food being prepared over wood fires.

I think the collective noun for this is 'a huge of rice'.

I think the collective noun for this is ‘a huge of rice’.

An enormous pot of pumpkin curry

An enormous pot of pumpkin curry

A bean in a beanstack

An okra in an okra stack

The rice man measured out portions of dried rice. The centre went through five sacks of dried rice per day (on top of the several large tubs of cooked rice, which were collected during the alms rounds).

The rice man measured out portions of dried rice. The centre went through five sacks of dried rice per day (on top of the several large tubs of cooked rice collected during the alms rounds).

The food delivery truck.

The food delivery truck.

This is Calvin collecting buckets to load in the truck. He was also the driver of the truck. Calvin was a German who had been living at the centre for a year already. He was very dedicated to meditation, and had an aura of calm detachment that comes with long-term dhamma practice. In three months time he would be ordained as a monk.

This is Calvin collecting buckets to load in the truck. He was also the driver of the truck. Calvin was a German who had been living at the centre for a year already. He was very dedicated to meditation, and had an aura of calm detachment that comes with long-term dhamma practice. In three months time he would be ordained as a monk.

Ladies collecting the food delivery

Ladies collecting the food delivery

Everybody washed their own lunch plates (fair enough!) in five tubs. The first tub was almost 50/50 detergent to water, and the tubs decreased in potency until the last one was just water. It was an effective system.

Everybody washed their own lunch plates (fair enough!) in five tubs. The first tub was almost 50/50 detergent to water, and the tubs decreased in potency until the last one was just water. It was an effective system.

I stayed in a large hall with other males, sleeping on a woven mat under a retractable mosquito net. The hall was used for various functions during the day, and so I was generally being woken at 5 a.m. to pack all my bedding away, or to help set up tables for breakfasting residents. Caroline slept in a house with a few other females on a mattress on the floor with a mosquito net, and was able to get a few extra hours sleep per night than me.

The hall where I slept: Maha Bodhi, or Great Enlightenment Hall.

The hall where I slept: the Maha Bodhi, or ‘Great Enlightenment’ Hall.

Inside the hall. In this photo it was 4.30 a.m., and we were setting up table for breakfast, having already packed away our bedding.

Inside the hall. In this photo it was 4.30 a.m., and we were setting up tables for breakfast, having already packed away our bedding.

In the evenings, we fell into a routine. At 6.30 p.m., we would go to the house of a monk, and he would cook dinner for us. He didn’t eat the food, since monks do not eat after mid-day, but it pleased him to feed the hungry foreigners. Monks aren’t even supposed to cook, because it is considered ‘pleasurable’, and will therefore ‘create feelings of attachment and craving’. We were lucky that not all monks follow the precepts strictly, because the food he cooked was delicious.

Oh, you naughty, wonderful cooking monk.

Oh, you naughty, wonderful cooking monk.

After dinner, we would usually go and chat to a lovely monk who would sit and answer questions, talk about his life before taking the robes, and show us meditation techniques. He had an adorable philosophy on mosquitoes, which are a hot topic when the ‘do not kill any living being’ precept arises.

“At first it was very hard for me ignore mosquitoes. But then I said to myself, ‘They are afraid of having a meal. Every time they eat, they are risking their life.’ So I thought, ‘I will donate my blood to them, and they can feel safe while they eat.'”

Ultimately, I can never become a Buddhist, because I will continue to smash all mosquitoes who come near me. That’s fine by me, though – I’m not the ‘seeking’ type. I simply observe.

~~~

Just an ordinary train

4 thoughts on “Walking With the Monks

  1. Hello There! Could you tell me more specifically where in Yangon does the alms round happen? I’m planning a trip to there next month and I would love to testify it happening! Thanks

    1. Hi Gustavo, they (as in, the monks we stayed with) go to a different neighbourhood for each day of the week. To use an inappropriate analogy, it’s like ‘rubbish day’, where people know which neighbourhood the monks are hitting on that day and prepare their offerings accordingly.

      I don’t know the schedule, but if you contact the TheBarWa centre they might be able to tell you. It’s likely that you’ll see other monks doing the rounds if you hang out in Yangon long enough. A telltale sign is the sound of approaching gongs…

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