Nun the Wiser

October 13, 2011

My monastery experience was intense. It turns out I chose one of the strictest of its kind, teaching a sort of meditation that takes at least three years to master... and the aim of the game here is to attain Nibbana. So no messing around!

For this reason I would describe it as the end of the road meditation, or the end of the wheel as the case may be. People come here having lived billions of lives, most describing their state of mind prior as bored, and wishing to be enlightened within the next couple of lives.

Having taken the night bus from Yangon I arrived super early last Monday, which was apparently just in time for the annual alms round. You see Pa Auk is so vast that standard procedure would bankrupt the whole village, so they hold one symbolic event each year to mark the end of the rainy season. This involves all of the monks and nuns taking to the streets to accept rice from the villagers.

Upon arrival I was greeted by a very enthusiastic English nun - as the only other fellow Brit and one of very few Western women to grace the monastery, I was welcomed with open alms bowls. "Oh you must come - you're so fortunate to arrive just in time!" It was indeed a great privilege to be able to hold Anuttara's alms bowl and escort her around, so I was much obliged. "Do I have time to change?" no I didn't. So I was sent straight out with my begging bowl, dressed in my multi-coloured American Apparel T shirt, leggings and (piece de resistance) the bumbag, stashed with cash. Well I certainly stood out amidst a sea of brown-robed monks and nuns! An utterly ridiculous scene, it was almost arty?! - Poor little Burmese village people offering rice to this picture of Western Wealth... who graciously accepted, secretly wishing it was wholegrain.

But beggars cannot be choosers, as I was reminded when receiving the oily offerings for meals twice daily. Myanmar cuisine is actually quite delicious, it just involves a lot of grease. And sugar. But not in fruit form because you get none of that... It's also super spicy, laden with garlic and quite pungent, which can be very distracting in the meditation hall. And I don't mean because of my own indigestion - mass wind release reverberates from wall to wall as everyone just lets rip! Hugely off-putting, but I think this is actually encouraged to aid a sort of repulsiveness of body meditation that is practised. It's officially repulsiveness of corpses and is supposed to remind us of the inpermanence of everything, and to help us resist lust and suchlike. One of the exercises involves focusing on the person in front of you and imagining their skeleton, thinking "repulsive, repulsive bones!" over and over again... nice.

Speaking of which, I was "fortunate" enough to be able to attend a funeral - "You're so lucky," began a very excited Anuttara, "a monk has died!"

You see someone dying means the perfect opportunity to perfect repulsiveness of corpses meditation. Because not only do you get to have a good gander at the body lying in the coffin, but you actually witness the whole cremation process up-close and personal. First they lift the body out of the coffin, then they remove his robes, then they put him on a bonfire. It certainly conjured up thoughts of Guy Fawkes nights, but in the brilliant afternoon sunshine. And what was more shocking than the burning body was the reaction of the monks and nuns - normally so composed, they were crowding around, almost falling over each other to see. Quite an experience..!

All of these ceremonies meant a lot of disruption to the meditation schedule, which contributed to my eventually leaving a couple of days early. As interesting as it all was, it wasn't the solitary Goenke-style Vipassana that I'd envisaged. Everyone was so attentive - they treated me like a celebrity; taking photographs, bringing extra food and books and generally just staring at me..! My Chinese roommate and Taiwanese neighbours especially took me under their wing, where it could be somewhat suffocating at times.

They were all fantastic, fascinating people though. "China" (really complicated Chinese name that I never mastered) spoke no English so simply talked at me in Chinese the entire time, occasionally consulting the giant dictionary that the nun had left as she allocated me the room. And "Taiwan" (again, never quite grasped the name) was my dietary saviour; showering me with daily doses of various sprouted beans.

As well as being super eager to help, everyone was keen to teach the teachings of the Buddha. This was welcomed because an interest in Buddhism had drawn me to the monastery, as well as the main desire to meditate. But I didn't realise quite how intense it all was...

Anuttara was brilliant. A Cambridge graduate in economics, she is super intelligent and was a great teacher; explaining the basics of a very complex religion. But although most of what I learned did make sense I found it all quite terrifying - like all or nothing, you need to give up everything... you're not even allowed to listen to music! Well perhaps this is the way to true bliss but I am certainly not ready for it. My kamma was only good enough to enable me to stay for eight days - I decided to abandone ship and spend more time traveling around beautiful Myanmar.

"Oh, you want to travel!" said Taiwan disappointedly, with a tinge of disapproval. You see we are supposed to have renounced all sensual pleasures. I just want to see the beautiful mountains! I think this is quite blasphermous!? Lovely Taiwan did her absolute best to save me from coming back as an animal "it's so difficult to come back as a human - you must stay and learn the Dhamma!" - she is an absolute Buddhist Bible basher (let's call her a Dhamma driller) but in such a caring and lovely way that it's very endearing. We had a two hour-long debate about eating meat (Buddhists can so long as it hasn't been killed specifically for them), writing books (apparently terribly sinful) and seeing the beautiful mountains. They just can't understand it because the stages they are at in meditation are apparently so blissful that beautiful mountains couldn't possibly compete anyway - Anuttara says that looking at a lovely view doesn't give her a fraction of the pleasure that she gets from meditation.

Oh, and it also so happened that my visit was timed perfectly to coincide with a Dhamma talk on intoxicants. This began with a list of different wines available to the average sinner, then continued with a list of repercussions; including "exposure of organs". Ooh, those wanton wenches of the West baring their organs! It closed with a true story about a man who was so drunk that he confused the meat that he was eating with his son, and ate him. And he didn't even notice! Make of that what you will. But a lot of the people there are quite naive - because the closer you get to Nibbana, the more likely you are to be fortunate enough to start your religious practice early - so as to avoid a life of suffering. And that is what life apparently is - suffering.

Anyway, I got my way eventually and packed myself off to see the mountains. China and Taiwan watched me, baffled, as I heaved my backpack onto a big water truck (a free ride to Mawlamyine!): "You're like a warrior woman, alone and out to take on the world!" I promised to go back, whether in this life or another, when I have earned enough good kamma to be able to stay longer.

So now I am in Mawlamyine, basking in the solitude! It turns out that the boat to Hpa An goes no more, so I can't see the beautiful mountains that I wanted to see after all (not sure what to make of that). But Tomorrow I will head up to a little village where I will stay with the family of our Baan Unrak nurse - very exciting. Then I will go to Shan State and see some other beautiful mountains around Lake Inle, which is described in the guide book as heaven on earth. Pomelo in hand, I really don't think life is suffering.





1 Comment

Kimber Worwood:
October 13, 2011
Laura, you really ought to write a book, you know. I could read your writing forever. Witty, poignant, unique--you make me wish I had stayed so I could be your tag-along in all of your amazing adventures.
Fuzzy Travel · Next »
Create blog · Login