Monthly Archives: May 2018

Burma in January


Kuthodaw Pagoda – containing the largest book in the world.

Now back to Burma. We left Ubon on January 17th immediately after the Ajahn Chah Memorial and drove down to Bangkok where we spent the night before flying to Mandalay the next day. There, our first stop once we’d checked in was a temple that proudly displays what it calls the largest book in the world, an extraordinary collection of 729 marble slabs on which were engraved over an eight year period from 1860 to 1868 the entire Tipitika, that is all the books of the Pali Canon, the oldest and earliest account of the Buddha’s life and teachings. It’s all in the Pali language and in Burmese script, and each slab is housed in its own mini temple, the whole collection covering 13 acres.

From there we drove out to a famous wooden bridge, U Bein’s Bridge. It’s almost three quarters of a mile long, rather peculiarly constructed and entirely of teak. It spans a huge lake which gradually dries up as after the rains the hot season advances. It’s one of several places in Burma to view spectacular sunsets and tourists armed with hugely expensive and complicated photographic paraphernalia flock here every evening to snap away. I’m afraid I deplore this craze to record everything instead of just being there. Time is a precious commodity, you know, and when you try to capture it, you miss it.

The next morning saw us at the old Royal Palace and once again I climbed the circular tower from where it is said that in 1885 Burma’s last Queen watched the British invading forces sailing up the Irrawaddy. Then in the afternoon we visited a few of the hundreds of temples clustered around the Sagaing Hill before a brief return to U Bein’s Bridge for the sunset and finally, as darkness fell, the Mahamuni Pagoda with its famed Mahamuni Image of the Buddha, the most revered in Myanmar.

Our third day was spent sailing down the Irrawaddy, previously known to the British colonialists and to Kipling as ‘the Road to Mandalay’. This is an enormous and majestic river and it’s a wonderful experience. We were on a smarter and faster boat than last year and it was only late afternoon when we pulled in to Bagan, home to a colossal number of ancient and mostly crumbling pagodas, just in time to check in to our hotel and walk down to a favourite riverside temple for yet another sunset. We stayed there as darkness fell and small oil lamps were lit along the terrace overlooking the river and around the pagoda. Unfortunately, on our boat down the river we’d been rather over exposed to the sun and I’d got badly burnt. I’m one of those fair skinned persons who can be cooked like a lobster and it’s not all that much fun when it happens. So, the next morning I was not at my best but on that, our fourth day, we did manage visits to some of the more prominent of Bagan’s two thousand odd pagodas before being dropped off at the airport in time for our flight to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and until a few years ago, the capital.

Here we stayed as in previous years at an hotel with a view of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. This is a massive chedi, covered entirely in gold that sits on a small hill from where it dominates the entire city. It’s dedicated to the last four Buddhas and at each of the four cardinal points there is a temple and image of one of these four great beings. As you climb the stairs at one of the entrances it draws you on and as you emerge onto the piazza that surrounds it, it welcomes you. There you find all sorts: monks and nuns, lay people, tourists, children – all sorts – some walking and looking about them, some sitting telling their beads, some chanting, some meditating. It has a serenity and a life that’s addictive. We went there as soon as we’d arrived and stayed until closing time and early the next morning we were back there again.

Our five few days in this golden land were over all too soon. All that’s born must pass and our visit too had to come to an end but I hope we’ll be back again next year.


Magha Puja

March, this year, began with a full moon. It was also the full moon that concluded the ancient lunar month of Magha. On another Magha full moon, more than two and a half thousand years ago the Buddha was staying on the Vulture’s Peak near Rajgir. Below him was the Bamboo Grove, the very first piece of land offered as a place where he and his disciples might stay. Suddenly, without any kind of prior arrangement, a great company of monks began to gather at the Bamboo Grove. Within a short space of time one thousand, two hundred and fifty monks had arrived and were sitting there. Every one of these monks was not only a personal disciple of the Buddha and had been ordained by him but was also an Arahant, that is Enlightened. Once they were all assembled the Buddha came down from the Vulture’s Peak and joined them and together they sat silently meditating into the night. Eventually, the Buddha addressed them and recited for them what is known as the Ovada Patimokkha.

Only three short verses long, this summary of the Buddha’s Teaching contains one particular verse that I want to draw your attention to and ask you to remember and often bear in mind. In translation it goes something like this: ‘Avoid all evil, cultivate the good and purify the mind; this is the teaching of all the Buddhas.’ I hope its meaning is clear. Do your best to control what you say and do and try to make sure that your actions and words do no harm. Keep well away from what is unskilful and brings no peace or happiness and do your best to promote what is good and productive of happy results. Then reflect, is that really good enough? It’s all very well but if your control slips or you forget, what then? Well we all know what happens. It doesn’t take much for bad words to escape your mouth or for you to do things that later you regret. And why is this? Isn’t it because your mind is not yet pure and still harbours greed, hatred and delusion? So, then there can be nothing else for it, you have to go further, to the very root of your bad behaviour, to the very place where all suffering begins. You still mustn’t neglect to be careful of what you say and do, that foundation in virtue is enormously important – it’s just that it’s not enough. But the peace and stability morality brings does enable you to gradually still and watch your mind – and so begin to gain insight into how things change, and how unsatisfactory and insubstantial they are. Thus, by seeing and knowing the true nature of things, the mind is eventually cleansed of greed, hatred and delusion.

At the celebrations of events like Magha Puja and at any important occasion the lay people always ask for and then receive and reaffirm the Three Refuges and Five Precepts. Having only a moment ago been speaking of avoiding evil and cultivating what is good, to help you do just that I recommend those precepts and suggest that you recollect them frequently and make sure they’re with you always, wherever you go and whatever you’re doing. And especially the least popular, the fifth, abstinence from alcohol and drugs. I know some people say it’s intoxication that you must avoid and therefore a small amount socially is alright but that’s not what the texts say. You don’t have to be unable to walk – even a sip is a breach of the precept. There is a saying, ‘First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man!’ We don’t say of the other precepts that a little bit of killing is alright or a little bit of stealing. No! In this practice it’s vital that you make your mind clear – how else can you begin to really see things as they are? That’s why we meditate and so if you’re determined to develop your mind there should be no place in your life for drink or drugs.