Day 50: Serendipity seizes Myanmar meditation
Young monks receive alms at the market in Mawlamyine. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
THE Breeze Guesthouse serves breakfast at a long table overlooking the muddy Thanlyin River. Several foreigners are already picking at their white toast and boiled egg when Carlton and I arrive.
When I return from using the bathroom, a pamphlet for Vipassana meditation is sitting next to my toast. It's several pages of A4 folded in half and stapled together, with small print on the front and back of each page. It starts with an outline of the philosophy of Vipassana then goes into the history.
“Here's a plot device if I ever saw one,” I say to Carlton as I take my seat next to him.
“I was thinking the exact same thing.”
Last night, I made my weekly roll: 1) Fitness/ health (ironically, I was stuffing my face with off-brand Little Debbie cakes at the time) 2) Photography 3) Magic 4) Meditation 5) New food / No food 6) Videography.
It was a four: meditation.
The minimum time for Vipassana is supposed to be a ten day course, which is free of charge: lessons, food and lodging. The global program is based on donations.
Ivan the man who owns the guesthouse, sits down across from me. Everyone else has cleared out. I'm waiting for Tony to return. Tony, educated in Yangoon, is the manager of the guest house. He waylaid us us this morning, pulling out a book that he assisted the author in writing, as well as a few letters of recommendation for his tours. I had assumed that he was the one who left the pamphlets about the meditation on the table.
I am wrong. It was Ivan.
With the colonial tea cup in hand, I finish my 3-1 “coffee”. The re-hydrated powered mixture tastes more like hot chocolate than coffee.
From his fanny pack, Ivan retrieves a well-folded piece of paper.
“Here, proof,” he says. He's explained that for every one venerable monk in any other country, there are 100 in Myanmar. In fact, the monks have gained such high levels of enlightenment that some can fly.
The photocopied pieces of paper in front of me is a unclear; I have no idea what I”m looking at. The story is in the beautiful, circular lettering of the Burmese script, the images themselves are just black and white blurs. I would hesitate to consider it proof of anything besides a poor photocopier.
Ivan traveled up river to a town where more than 10,000 people witnessed the three monks flying high above them, he explains. However, since they did not have permission to take pictures, the monks did not show up on film. This was on October 8, 2003. Across the river, he heard the same story:
A small boy had gone to give alms to the monks, as his parents were not immediately available, after excepting them, the monks to rise toward the sky. They boy called to his parents and neighbors to come and look.
From inside his fanny pack, Ivan, in his big gold-rimmed glasses, fishes out a small photo album. Inside are pictures of him visiting several venerable monks, including the ones that could fly. There are also photographs. They are of the sort of quality one sees as evidence supporting Big Foot sightings. These show a smudge of light near a bright gold pagoda. The smudge is a monk, who gave the photographers permission to snap the shot after they wailed out, wanting to be able to share it with their parents and family.
“We are men of science; they are men of art. We can never totally understand them,” he says. “Do you practice meditation?”
“No, but I was thinking of trying.”
“Does your friend?” he asks, nodding to the empty chair where Carlton was sitting.
“See, that is way his face is so much calmer than yours,” he says, using his hands as he talks.
“Fuck you old man.”
Okay, I don't say that, but I joke about it later when recounting the story to Carlton. I'm use to being the shining example of this trait or that trait in a foreigner's eye when I'm traveling, which is not the case in this situation. Admittedly, Carlton does have a very chilled, relaxed demeanor.
Ivan than proceeded to recite some passages of text, explaining the difference between Buddhism and other religions, his hands working methodically through the versus as he goes.
My focus waxes and wanes as he talks, drifting off then coming back to his point, which is that in other religions salvation comes from outside, from god, while with Buddhism it comes from within. Buddha can show you the path, but you will be the only one who can walk the path of your own salvation.
Though I don't see myself taking a jog down such a path anytime soon, several days in the meditation center is certainly in the immediate future. In fact, I've already decided to give a 50/50 roll to see if I do five days, which Ivan said was fine, or the full ten days.
“During the retreat, students remain within the course site, having no contact with the outside world. They refrain from reading and writing, and suspend any religious practices or other disciplines. They follow a demanding daily schedule witch includes about ten hours of sitting meditation. They also observe silence, not communicating with fellow students; however, they are free to discuss meditation questions with the teacher and material problems with the management,” explains Vipassana Mediation: An Introduction, a text by the Vipassana Research Institute.
Perhaps the difference of five days and ten days will be unnoticeable, both occurring after some tipping point. Either way, it's best to let the dice decided. However, I decided to wait before making yet another significant roll.
After a coffee at a western-style cafe with WiFi, Carlton and I wander down the riverside road, looking for an ATM. I've been covering Carlton for the most part until now, which has amounted to me spending just a handful of dollars more, nothing really.
Just past the second ATM, the first one wasn't working, we find ourselves in a market. It's a thriving colorful market. At the entrance, young Burmese boys on their scooters say hello, offering us taxi rides.
An old man on an ancient bicycle comes peddling down the dirt road, his wife under an umbrella, sitting in a little sidecar attached to the bike.
The market in Mawlamyine. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The market is divided up by types of goods. We enter at a fruit section. There are piles of furry red rambutan clinging to branches; dirty, thick-skinned mangosteen; spiky, sweet smelling durian; and countless other types of fruits.
There is a natural bustle to the market, with the occasional horn being blasted as scooter makes its way down the market road. However, there isn't a frenzy; it's not a late-morning rush, just busy.
“What a beautiful dress,” Carlton says. “The red one, with the gold stitching.”
Carlton has an eye and awareness for detail, very much in the present, while I feel as if my mind is wandering off a bit. Admittedly, I'm ready for lunch.
We disappear down a side street that goes directly into a giant warehouse, there is a whiff of “dollar-store”, cheap Chinese plastics. Then, we are back out onto one of the many roads consumed by the market.
A man bounces a gold necklace under the flame of a torch. Next to him is a traditional scale, the sort that is rarely balanced in any justice system, but often depicted. The flames leap from the torch: blue, going orange as they wrap around the golden necklace. After a minute or so of this he examines the piece of jewelry before handing it to a partner who washes it in dirty, soapy water on the floor behind him. Across the street are a number of clean shops with glass counters displaying thousands of golden necklaces.
People's eyes follow us, especially the younger women, who hold eye contact for several seconds until their faces split into some of the most beautiful, genuine smiles I've ever seen. If I wasn't about to be locked into a monastery for several days, I think I could spend my days aimlessly walking around smiling at the round faced Burmese women, their faces painted with thanaka.
“I got my Yellow Fever vaccine, but I don't think it's working,” Carlton jokes.
“Welcome to Asia.”
Locking eyes with the next beautiful woman that passes us, I realize that I don't even find myself checking them out below the neck. There is something so enchanting about their faces that my eyes don't slip down to their modest dresses, unless I'm absorbed in the beauty of the dress itself.
In a different fruit section we are surrounded by enormous bunches of bananas: entire branches of short, stubby bananas, similar to the one we had with breakfast. It's strange, but until you leave the United States, you don't realize how many varieties of banana there are, each with a slightly different, texture, flavor and shape.
Unlike most markets I've visited in Asia and Africa, this sprawling one has wide roads. Picturesquely an antique bike – all the bikes in Myanmar appear to be antiques – rests with a pile of bananas in a sidecart. The fruit sellers give way to flower vendors, with their exotic flowers tucked by the dozens into black water buckets. Through an arch in a wall that I wasn't even aware of we find a section of restaurants.
Everyone's eyes are on us as we sit on the small wooden stools at the squat table of a local restaurant. Carlton, who is taller than me, doesn't quite fit, so is forced to sit on the corner. We look around at the people eating, curiously looking back at us. A handsome, young Burmese man who speaks a few words of English helps us order, which still mostly consists of us pointing at other people's plates.
I also walk up to the counter and order two bizarre drinks. One ends up being “an ice cream explosion in your face”, as Calrton puts it – though he didn't give nearly enough credit to the fact that entire thing is also packed with colorful strips and blocks of jellies. The other is a too sweet pineapple juice that Carlton isn't able to start on, let alone finish.
The plate of thick fried noodles in front of me is a blend of Indian spices with crunchy onions, layer after layer of beautiful flavors. The glass noodle salad the Carlton gets is more subtle and Thai-style.
Carlton tries my dish, then tries some more and some more, not wanting to give it back.
“It's like when you have to pull out, but don't want to,” he says, making a very apt comparison.
I devour my plate of food – once I wrangle it back. I've been eating a great deal recently, I'm unsure if it's my body adapting to a new, unhealthy diet, the cold or worms – all seem to be reasonable possibilities.
Back at the guesthouse, still licking my fingers from deep fried tofu stuffed with deep fried unions, spicy rice, a green chili pepper, we find Ivan.
He saw us at the market.
“Look at him, that is how you can tell he does meditation,” Ivan says looking at Carlton, who self-describes himself as an oily sloth due to the condition of his air at the moment, though I don't see exactly what he means.
“Meditation at the centers is the happiest moments of our lives,” Ivan says. “Nowhere else are we so happy.”
After parting ways with Ivan, I curl up for a nap in barracks.
Before I fall asleep, I remove the die from it's place around my neck and let it fall to the ground. Evens: ten days; odds: five days, naturally.
It's a six.
Here's to ten days and a new experience. An experience I would not have entertained if I had ended up in Myanmar with the bike. Already I'm planning on making a second trip into the country, this time with my bike, as part of Dice Travels.