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.
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.
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.
*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.
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 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.
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.
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.