Ten Days in Mahasi Monastery, Yangon: None flew over the cuckoo’s nest…

img_1931

Mahasi Monastery in Yangon, Myanmar

Somewhere nearby a gong sounds–loudly. Then someone beats a drum. Then again. And again. Then every dog in the surrounding neighborhood howls in anything but unison, as I smile thinking about Allen Ginsberg, howling, growling, smiling somewhere out there but not Heaven, crazy wisdom incarnate, poet’s blood unrepentant…

The air is still fresh and cool at night at this time of year in Yangon (Rangoon) and the scene at 0600 at Mahasi Monastery is a bit surreal: monks and nuns float through the monastery grounds in the moonlight, marching weeping shadows creeping. Ruby-robed monks line up in the streets with beggars’ bowls in hand, primed for the pump, while nuns float through on gossamer wings, all dressed in pink, with nothing to think…

img_1922

Lunch line-up at Mahasi

…least of all what to make of the matrilineal machinations that come with their feminine package and which for certain are at times more nuisance than necessity. That’s why they’re here, I assume, most of them, to forget their worldly burdens, if only for a moment, and find something in Buddhist contemplation that they fail to find as mothers and lovers. Man or woman, if you don’t want to spend your life f*cking or wishing it, then this is not a bad option for you, with free room and board, vegetarian on request…

Putting in 9-to-5 at the meditation factory, a yogi is like a patient in a hospital, or so says the sayadaw. And Mahasi is like a construction site, building non-personas and rebuilding broken lives. Some of these guys—and girls—have some damage, but most are just hypersensitive, perfect for Buddhism and its emphasis on detailed descriptions of mental phenomena, kinda’ like being on a psychedelic drug. Hypersensitivity fares fairly well in Buddhism, and that may be our only refuge…

A true yogi is hypersensitive to every breath of wind, every pulse of life. Monks pride themselves and inflate their non-self non-egos by being able to do absolutely nothing the longest, one hour of continuous motionless meditation the threshold for admission to the ranks, in my estimation. My own crowning achievement is to walk a straight line blind-folded, something the truly blind do every day. Don’t laugh until you’ve tried it..

img_1936

Meditation at Mahasi

Thus the measure of monk-hood is not about the details of dharma, but about your ability to STFU, and only then will the world survive. But here in Burma (Myanmar), outside the grounds, it’s every monk for himself, in cash or in kind, probably even take MC or Visa, no restrictions against money or soliciting, none that are enforced, anyway, convertible currencies accepted, top down and out on the town, looking for priestly sustenance…

Then there are the ‘foreigner yogis’ of which I am one, here for a variety of reasons, no doubt, but ‘self-improvement’ never too far down anyone’s list, at any given moment, I suspect. It’s funny: people ask how old I am, not because I’m so old, many here older, but because I act so young, I guess. I’d like to think that’s because of some timeless quality that I possess, but I know it’s just because of my general immaturity…

“How long you here?”

Ten days”

Yep, me too; what you in for?”

My wife left me.”

Ouch, I know that hurts!”

What, did your wife leave you, too?”

No, not exactly.”

Then why are you here?”

I thought the future would be cooler.”

“I hear that.”

img_1928

Lunch at Mahasi

Here I’m the cheery one! That’s scary! And before this I was the one always making jokes about the big smiley Wellness/Spa/Retreat groups, where the lady with the Big Hair grins largely while demonstrating yogic postures. But Mahasi Monastery is nothing like that. And the Buddha at his best had at least a Mona Lisa smile, not this gloomy karmic Buddhism of rebirths and reincarnations that seems to be currency here…

I guess I’m a contrary S-O-B, just like a former GF said! I only smile when others frown, and vice-versa. So here I’m the Nicholson character in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, I guess. But this is what I do, try to put heavy things in light packages, here of free will, have fun will travel. And I’ve only been busted twice, once for ‘talking while eating’ and again for reading, instead of meditating. Ouch!

But the meditation schedule is grueling and impossible to accomplish. My own personal best will only come days later when my muscles have had some rest from the excruciating 18-hour days of bodily re-programming, one hour of sitting meditation followed by one hour of walking meditation, all day every day. And all movements should be very slow, in the way of the Buddha, a way of life. But for me, this is mostly a retreat from the net, the Web, grid of dreams, samsara…

 

img_1915

Samsara

 

Burmese use the term samsara just like the Tibetans, with whom they are linguistically related, a cycle of rebirths to be extinguished by nirvana. There are four lower planes of existence for them: hell, animal, ghost and demon. So the Burmese may have even one-upped the Tibetans, hungry ghosts cruising for burgers on the Sunset Strip in Purgatory. The Burmese even have the same word for karma/fate/luck, so good luck = good karma…

But that’s not how poet Gary Snyder uses the term samsara, as something delicious to enjoy. Or is it? It is no small irony that Tibetans and Burmese are trying to escape the samsara cycle of re-births while Europeans and Americans are trying to prolong it as long as possible. Immortality is the Holy Grail for the average westerner in love with himself, may death they not part. But I assume that Snyder is using the term in another sense, i.e. the material world, with all its seductions and pitfalls. Which interpretation is correct?

I aim to get to the bottom of this. Thais may have the best answer: no books! You think too much! And they may be right. Thai Buddhism is certainly less obsessed with rebirth and karmic retribution, while Zen foregoes it almost altogether. What would the Buddha say or do today? For him to have renounced those pillars of Hinduism would be like you or I renouncing democracy or romantic love. Wait a minute…

Advertisements