The monk experience

I spent 10 days in Myanmar staying at a forest monastery, a few hundred miles south of Yangon, trying to experience what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk.

The monks live a simple life. They eat 2 meals a day, and spend their remaining time meditating, reading and practicing mindfulness. The monastery I was at hosted a few hundred monks, and foreigners were allowed to stay along with the monks free of cost, and for as long as they like. I met some foreigners who had been staying there for a few years. They give you a room (called a kuti), which you share with other monks / foreigners. The room itself is basic, it has a small bed with a thin mat (no mattresses), and a fan. You go along with the monks for alms during meal times, and eat the same food they eat. A typical day at the monastery went something like this:

3:30 am – wake up

4:00 am to 5:30 am – meditation

5:30 am to 7:00 am – breakfast

7:00 am to 7:30 am – personal time

7:30 am to 9:00 am – meditation

9:00 am to 10:00 am – personal time / interviews with the teacher

10:00 am to 1:00 pm – lunch and personal time

1:00 pm to 2:30 pm – meditation

2:30 pm to 3:30 pm – walking meditation

3:30 pm to 5:00 pm – mediation

5:00 pm to 6:00 – evening juice / personal time

6:00 pm to 7:30 pm – meditation

7:45 pm to 8:45 pm – Dhamma talks (talks about Buddhism, in Burmese (exempt for foreigners)).

What I liked about this monastery though, was that they didn’t force you into their routine. That really helped a beginner like me, who would have found it impossible to stick to a rigid routine. If you didn’t feel like going to the meditation hall, you could meditate in your room, or not at all. The only thing that was forced on us was the food timings. And strangely, even though my last meal was at around 10:00 am, I was not as hungry as I thought I’d be by evening, and they did give us some juice at 5 pm to alleviate any evening hunger. The food was vegetarian, since not harming animals is one of the precepts to being a monk, but it was some of the most delicious food I have eaten in my life. I got to talk to a lot of monks and learn about their experiences and views (there were many Indian monks who recognised me as a fellow Indian, and were more than happy to talk to me about literally everything).

For the uninitiated, Buddhism teaches you to try and achieve the status of Buddha. How one does that is by following the teachings of Buddha and reaching a state of enlightenment. Enlightenment is when you understand the purpose of life and its sufferings, and develop the skill to break away from it – kinda like divine knowledge. Suffering is a very loose term in Buddhism that includes everything that a person goes through in life. Attachment to things, emotions, love, anger, hatred, and the never ending circle of life. The meditation helps you rest your mind, improve concentration, and better understand the meaning of life. And the more you meditate, the higher level of understanding you achieve, and the closer you inch towards enlightenment. Overall, your life is the sum of your good and bad deeds, and how good or bad you are at the end of this life will determine both your life form and your sufferings for the next. Meditation gets you a few good karma points, but living a life as per the teachings of the Buddha get you a lot more.

One of the most important and difficult aspects of this path though is true faith. It’s what both, the books I read, as well as the teacher at the monastery, suggested. This was, however, the trickiest one for me. I’m generally rational and believe in things that science can prove. It’s hard for me to put all my faith in something like this without actually seeing or experiencing any of this divine knowledge. But then, the only way to see it, is to truly believe it exists. Quite a catch 22 situation. The meditation did, however, help me learn how to clear my mind, and for me, that’s enough to take back with me to the real world. I also got an insight into the monk way of life, and that’s a life experience that will always remain with me.

There’s no cellphones or computers allowed while you’re at the monastery, so I have no pictures of anything. The monastery does have a website that has pictures and a lot more information: http://www.paaukforestmonastery.org/

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Inle Lake

Inle Lake is a freshwater lake in eastern Myanmar. The village with the hotels and hostels is located in the Nyaungshwe township of the Shan State. It’s a beautiful little town with lovely restaurants.

Unfortunately, my time in Inle coincided with the rains, and I didn’t get to see any sunrises or sunsets on the lake. And since there was no worthwhile sunrise or sunset, I didn’t take the effort to make it to the lake to watch the local fishermen at sunrise – something which is apparently worth checking out at Inle.

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Boat ride on Inle Lake.

I did however go down to the Indein Village, which hosts temples from somewhere between the 12th to 14th centuries. No one knows when exactly, and there’s a debate on who built them as well. To reach the village, you have to travel an hour by boat through the lake itself. There’s farm lands all around, and you can see lots of flowers, rice and whatever else grows in marshy lands.

My problem with Indein though is similar to the one I have with Bagan. There’s restoration work underway, and they are simply replacing the old bricks with newer ones, and sealing them with cement. Some even get painted for a nice polished look, making them look like they were built a few months back, and not hundreds of years ago. A girl from the hostel I was with on the tour to Indein told me about how the place was described in an article she read: beautiful temples, being restored, they’d give an archeologist a heart attack. I agree with those words.

It’s unfortunate, but for what it’s worth, a lot of the original and crumbling stupas still exist, and while they’re a lovely site, they are in desperate need of restoration. I just wish they restored them by reusing the bricks rather than replacing them.

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Crumbling stupas.
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Only the headless Buddha image from the stupa remains.
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The tree is growing out of the stupa!

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Some of the original Buddha images from the inside of one of the many pagodas.
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Cluster of stupas.

From the many restaurants (all of them were excellent), Innlay Hut Indian Food House was my favourite. It’s run by an Indian origin guy who’s heavily influenced by Eminem. He raps as a part of his normal speech and has the mannerisms of a rapper you’d see in a music video. He calls himself Stan (from the song Stan, obviously), but his real name is Kumar (can it be more Indian?). The restaurant also has Eminem lyrics painted all over its walls, and the entertainment value alone made it a worthwhile visit.

Bagan

It’s a pity. Bagan has the potential to be a world renown historical landmark. Something maybe even worth comparing to Angkor Wat, or the other sacred and ancient lands of the world. Instead, what the Myanmar government is making / has made of it is something just so terrible. I always thought India was one of the worst countries in the world when it came to maintaining historical buildings and monuments (ignoring you, Afghanistan…), but the Myanmar government is one step ahead here.

Bagan is a historical land, spread across 25,000 acres in the western part of Myanmar. It’s a 5 hour bus ride from Mandalay (takes a lot more because the buses stop at random spots to pick up locals). At the entrance to the archaeological zone of Bagan, the bus stops, and every foreigner is required to buy a $25 ticket to enter – which I hoped would be used towards maintaining the temples, not ruining them further. Once you enter the zone though, there’s clusters and clusters of ancient temples all around, and there’s a temple ahead of you, no matter which direction you look.

Bagan was a village, and an important part of Myanmar’s history back in the 9th century. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the then rulers of the region built over 10,000 temples in the region. However, constant invasions and feuds with the Mongols led to the entire village just up and fleeing by the 14th century. The lands remained abandoned for many, many years. And this being an earthquake prone area, the 10,000 plus temples that originally stood here, have been reduced to around the 2,200 that stand today. That’s still a lot of ancient temples!

I read in an article online that once the British left Myanmar, and the military junta government was in place, they tried restoring some of the dilapidated and earthquake damaged temples. What the fools didn’t take into account was the fact that these temples are hundreds of years old (some even over a thousand), and you just don’t restore something that old with modern concrete, bricks and other sealing materials. But that’s exactly what they did. I’m no expert, but you don’t need to be one to know that that’s not how it’s done. Later on, Myanmar approached the UNESCO for heritage cite certification. These are, after all, really amazing heritage structures, and rightly deserved to be classified. But UNESCO has thus far refused certification given Myanmar’s ridiculous approach to restoring and maintaining their historical sites. Serves the idiots right, but is it really enough? I believe they are now working with UNESCO in restoring some of these temples, but that’s not going to undo what they’ve already done, is it? Besides, at Inle Lake I still saw them cut new bricks and patch up old temples with cement; so I’m not really sure they’re listening to UNESCO at all.

Another thing I noticed is that there are no security of safety measures in place. An earthquake that hit the region in 2016 has damaged (once again) some of its most important temples. While they have cordoned off certain temples and areas with bamboo sticks, and even put notices that the temples are under restoration and out of bounds, there’s nothing stopping tourists (and no one indeed does), from walking past these non-persuasive barricades, and climb to the top of these temples anyway. Imagine that!

Now, I completely understand that guarding and securing 2,200 temples is no easy job. But guys, a little more effort please?

Here’s some pictures of the (currently) splendid lands:

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Pyin Oo Lwin

Pyin Oo Lwin is a tiny hill-town north east of Mandalay. When Mandalay got too hot, British officers would make the trip up to Pyin Oo Lwin, where the air is always cool, and the sun, for some reason, feels a lot less intense.

I drove up to Pyin Oo Lwin in a taxi from Mandalay with JoJo (see On the road to Mandalay… for a refresher). We set out early in the morning, and the wind actually felt cooler once we got closer to the hills. It was a welcome change from the dreaded heat of Mandalay.

My first stop was the botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin, that was set up by the British way back in 1915! Today it hosts an array of flowers, bamboo and trees, that also doubles up as a research centre for botanists.

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From there, JoJo took me to a riverside restaurant for lunch. He told me he’d wait in the car while I got lunch, which I found odd. I asked him if he wanted lunch, and he said he would get some separately. I insisted he join me, and we got lunch together.

After that, I visited a small waterfall and some other touristy places before the big waterfall of Pyin Oo Lwin, which is a 1 hour trek on a hill (each way), and where two doggies led the way for me. Once we got to the waterfall, they decided to rest with me too.

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Small waterfall.

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Big waterfall.
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Doggies relaxing after the trek.

Now, in between the touristy places and the big waterfall, we went to the local market at Pyin Oo Lwin, and even though JoJo knew I didn’t want to shop, he asked me to walk around and take a look anyway – since we had a lot of time to kill before we went to the big waterfall. You know how I keep telling everyone I love Myanmar because of the people more than the country itself? This is why:

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Pyin Oo Lwin market area.

The market was in an old British made building with exposed walls. As I was walking around, one shopkeeper asks me where I’m from. I told him I’m from India. He got the biggest smile on his face, pulled a chair, and asked me to sit. He spoke to me in Hindi and told me he is of Indian origin. He came from a family of tailors, and his grandfather was brought to Myanmar by the British to promote culture in Myanmar. They ended up staying and have been in Myanmar for over a hundred years. We spoke about life, culture, religion and the constantly changing Myanmar. After about an hour, I told him I had to go, and he gave me a big hug and said goodbye.

I walked a little further in the market (at this point I was trying to make my way out), and another man stopped me. He was a tailor too, and he stopped what he was working on to talk to me. He could barely speak English and knew a few words in Hindi that he had picked up from friends over a period of time. After trying to piece together a conversation, he asked me for my email address to reach out to me if he ever comes to India. I wrote it down for him in his little diary. He looked at it for a few seconds, and then in the best Hindi he could muster, asked me if I’d like to eat dinner with him and his parents that night. It was so wonderful, I felt bad I had to refuse.

And then while we were driving back to Mandalay, JoJo stopped on the highway and told me he will be back in a couple of minutes. I assumed he wanted to pee. But you know the lunch I treated JoJo to earlier in the day that I mentioned in passing above? He stopped stopped to get me a bag full of lychees to say thank you for that. 🙂