Shortly before I left for Thailand in January I was told that on Burmese Independence Day, January 4th, U Thein Sein, President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, had conferred on me the religious title of AGGAMAHĀ SADDHAMMA JOTIKADHAJA.
I was asked to present myself in Burma towards the end of February in plenty of time for the investiture ceremony on March 4th in the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw. I had to think what to do. I was due to return to the UK from Thailand at the beginning of February and I was obviously hoping to catch up with my prison visits and my Monday evening meetings at Warwick Uni. Then on Sunday, March 1st we had scheduled a Magha Puja celebration here at the Forest Hermitage and for the following Saturday, on March 7th, I had planned an all day workshop for Angulimala’s Buddhist prison chaplains. Neither of these could be cancelled or moved and I had to be at both. So I worked out that I could fly out on the evening of March 1st and return early the following Saturday. I checked with Ven. Dhammasami at Oxford with whom I was liaising and when my plans were approved the tickets were booked.
Unfortunately, a week after I got back from Thailand on February 4th I went down again with the same flu-like bug I’d had before and bronchitis again. It took two courses of antibiotics and a lot of care to make sure I was fit in time for that long-haul flight on March 1st but I just made it.
So, according to plan, on Sunday, March 1st, we had a marvellous Magha Puja day here in the morning and early afternoon and then when everyone had gone I quickly packed my bowl and robes and various bits and pieces and made for Heathrow. At Bangkok I was met off the plane by a very dignified gentleman from the Burmese Embassy who was there to look after me while I waited for the flight to Rangoon. Unfortunately, he could speak neither English or Thai and as my Burmese is practically non-existent our communication was limited, to say the least. At Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport I was joined first by Ken, who was to be my attendant for the trip, and then by Ven. Dhammasami, who had been attending a meeting at MahaChula University.
We landed at Yangon (Rangoon) a few minutes before 7pm on Monday, March 2nd and after being greeted at the airport we were driven to a nearby hotel for the night. Waiting for me at the hotel was a retired Burmese woman doctor who, when she was working at the hospital in Newport, used to come and see me at the little vihara I had on the Isle of Wight. That was thirty-two years ago and I hadn’t seen Dr Thet Thet Nwe since! A happy reunion. Thankfully my room had a bath and blistering hot water so before I slept I was able to soak away some of the aches and pains of my long journey. It wasn’t long though before I had to be up and back at the airport, this time to fly to Nay Pyi Taw, the new capital, where that morning the President was offering the lunch meal of the day to all of us monks who were receiving various titles and awards. It was only a thirty-five minute flight before we landed at this brand new, state of the art, international airport. Mind you, the international bit isn’t open yet and there aren’t many flights in and out but as with practically everything in this new, well planned, oriental garden city they have had the sense to think ahead and plan for the future. Thus the roads are extremely wide, even though there’s not much traffic yet. But I bet it’ll increase and when it does they’re ready for it. We were driven to the hotel and then almost immediately decanted into a small coach and taken to the massive hall where U Thein Sein offered the dana meal.
The hotel was a sort of upmarket motel with each of the several large bungalows comprising a pair of semi-detached suites. Ken and I had two large rooms, a hallway and a good sized bathroom, again with a bath and piping hot water. My meal the next day, that is on Wednesday, March 4th, the day of the investiture, was served in my room and soon after a buggy was at the door to take me down to the coach. Burmese monks invariably carry a large fan that they hold in front of them. The previous day for the President’s dana we had been equipped with bright yellow fans but now for the investiture it was deep red fans. I don’t know why nor do I know what was inscribed on them. The little coach, led by a motorcycle outrider, took us to the same hall as on the day before but this time we processed in through a fairly packed congregation. Glued to my red fan was a number in Burmese numerals, which of course I couldn’t read, and that was the number of my seat and generally my place in the proceedings. Next to my seat there was a box with above it a sign bearing my name and new title, a large framed certificate and a flag. It turned into a long afternoon, and much of the time I hadn’t a clue what was happening. At one point someone came along and presented the certificate and later on there was a sudden flurry of activity, chairs were pushed aside, young men appeared and off we went in a procession with several of these young men walking ahead bearing one’s flag, box, name plate and certificate and another following holding aloft a multi-tiered umbrella.
The procession went back down through the hall, then outside and onto the road, before rounding a corner and then proceeding along to where a line of tented stalls began, the first of which belonged to the President who made the first offering. The stalls mostly seemed to belong to Government ministries and various companies and contained the offerings they were to make, but it wasn’t only them, on both sides as we walked for what seemed ages our path was lined with crowds of people showering us with things they wanted to give us. Thank goodness for the small band of young men following me with large sacks. I don’t know now how many sackfuls were collected but it was several and a lot of stuff, which later we left to be distributed to some poor local monasteries.
The day after, Thursday, Ken and I were given a whirlwind tour of Nay Pyi Taw. We glimpsed from a distance the magnificent new parliament building and we paid a brief visit to the precise replica of India’s Mahabodhi Temple, the original built by Asoka at the site of the Buddha’s Enlightenment. Replicas of the other major Buddhist holy places were also to be seen nearby but for these we had time only to drive past for time was running out and we still had to eat, pack and make it to the airport in time for the afternoon flight to Yangon (Rangoon).
Later, back in Yangon, we spent the late afternoon and early evening walking around the magnificent Shwe Dagon, the huge Cetiya that is dedicated to and believed to house the relics of the last four Buddhas. Our small pagoda at the Forest Hermitage was named after it and called the English Shwe Dagon and has inside soil from this great Shwe Dagon in Yangon as well as images of the last four Buddhas all of which were presented to me when I visited during my short stay in 1987. With me and the group with me at the Shwe Dagon this time as we walked and talked was a young Burmese woman who two or three years ago was President of Warwick Uni Buddhist Society. All the while she was at Warwick, every Monday Neelam would be there for meditation, sitting bang in front of me. Every week, that is, so long as there wasn’t an important football match involving Barcelona!
On Friday, on our last morning in Burma, we dashed out very early to visit Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung, the monastery where I’d stayed in 1987 and whose abbot, Ven. Sayadaw U Thila Wunta otherwise known as Aung Min Gaung Sayadaw, had stayed at the Forest Hermitage in 1988 and supervised the building of our English Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Afterwards, back at the hotel, it was time to eat, then pack and get ready and after a last look at the views of Rangoon from the hotel roof, we were driven to the airport in time to board Thai Airways’ afternoon flight for Bangkok.
At Bangkok I had a seven-and-a-half hour wait for the midnight-plus flight to London. So I escaped from the airport and went to the kuti where I usually stay in Bangkok and spent the time in relative comfort, showering and rearranging some of my baggage to accommodate some Buddhist rosaries that I wanted to bring back for our Buddhist prisoners. Then Ken took me to the airport and I was on my way back to England.
And I made it back to Warwick and The Forest Hermitage in time for the day-long Angulimala workshop.
Now looking back it seems almost like a dream – it was over so quickly. But it was a marvellous few days and I am so grateful to everyone who contributed in so many different ways to enable me to be there and for the honour that was bestowed upon me.