Tuesday, July 25, 2006

June 15th - 30th... Monking Around in Myanmar

Monks were a powerful force in our Myanmar experience. The country has over 800,000 of them and the only place we didn't see their ruby robes, brown-black shaved heads and golden alms bowls was when we were sweating in the privacy our hotel rooms. Their desire to practice English is fierce and friendly and we received numerous invitations to take tea and conversation with them at monasteries. On our first night in Myanmar, we met one monk while exploring a temple and ten minutes later, we were sipping Nescafe (and sweating), eating mangoes and Burmese potato chips in his monastery and talking to ten eager monks of varying age by candlelight in broken English and pantomime. It was awesome and yet intense...trying to communicate with total strangers using only a limited number of shared English phrases and the Lonely Planet's Burmese dictionary is challenging. But each time, we found common ground in humanity and the routines of life, sharing with each other basic yet revealing things like our favorite fruits, what time we eat breakfast, if we wear glasses and our hobbies.

Plus, we got answers to important questions such as the following: what makes a monk laugh?

1) Tapping on his hard wooden bed and asking if it's really comfortable.
2) Pronouncing phrases like "I don't eat meat" in Burmese.
3) Explaining there's a Las Vegas hotel named after the city of Mandalay and it costs close to $4 million kyat per night.~> read more

4) Telling him the correction and glasses prescription of Andy's mom, Marjie. A whoppping -12.00! (sorry Marjie!)
5) Asking which team Buddha wants to win the World Cup.
6) Revealing how expensive mangoes are in the United States.
7) Inquiring what a monk wears when his claret-colored robes are in the wash.

By the time we left Rangoon, Andy and I had spent over 20 hours talking with various monks at monasteries and pagodas throughout Myanmar. Most all of the experiences were awesome and increased our appreciation for the country's special blend of Buddhism, and the fact this culture which values spirituality above all else. But, I also freely admit my head hasn't felt so full and I've not been the center of such attention (without doing anything involving a feather boa, that is!) since I was an exchange student to Brazil. At one point in Sagaing, I had three monks, two Buddhist nuns, and five Burmese people sitting in a circle around me listening to me talk in English and answer the monks' questions. It was crazy pressure and yet, crazy cool! People were genuinely interested and intrigued --in a good way-- because I was different and they wanted to be a part of the anomaly. For moments here and there in Myanmar, I felt like a time traveler or cultural explorer. I got to ask and answer questions from a hidden place in the world, unearthing secrets in an embargoed land and revealing the mysteries of life in the West.

Andy too was monk's best friend in Sengaing. This one monk, who we called the Una-monk because he wore a crazy pair of sunglasses reminiscent of Ted Kaczynski, spoke wickedly good English and freaked us out with his range of questions such as "Can you explain the USA's gun control laws to me?", talked to Andy for at least two hours! But, after Andy answered the Unamonk's curiousities, he took us on a personal tour of the temple and taught Andy how to pray in front of Buddha. Suddenly, the temples, spirituality and constant efforts and offerings made a lot more sense to us. It's not every day you meet a monk in dark glasses or get this kind of personal experience!

However, as with many things on the trip, there was a little of the bitter with the sweet during our monking around. I'm now convinced that some of the monks pray and then prey at the pagodas too as we ran into one bad mango at Shewadagon Pagoda and he nearly spoiled the whole bunch for me. Monks are disarming because they're so utterly symbolic of religion, and one that involves the powerful, slightly scary notion of karma. Somehow, when a monk is around, I don't want to screw up and it feels selfish not to spend a few moments chatting in English! Thus, we chatted and soon this spoiler of a monk took Andy and I around to see the Buddha's footprint, diamond-encrusted lotus bud, sacred parasols and more. It was a great tour of Myanmar's most famous, most hallowed pagoda and the setting was dramatic because twilight fell sapphire blue behind the golden stupas. But soon the shine came off the pagoda. As we thanked our monk profusely, he bluntly asked us for money. Taken aback, and crushed because this monk seemed so sweet...not to mention the fact monks take a vow of poverty and are not beg for anything but food with their alms bowls...we stood there for a minute and he repeated his request of money for the tour. Finally, Andy got out some kyat while I stood their silent and disappointed. The monk looked at the kyat which totaled $3 and then said, "I think maybe you pay five US dollars, because you're so rich!?"

That made us both very angry, but having an argument with a monk in a sacred pagoda doesn't seem good for the karma. Yes, we are rich in comparison to he and most all others in Myanmar, but we chose to visit Myanmar, and also it's our choice on how we spend our money. And frankly, you don't expect to get fleeced by a monk for the $5 tour! Andy gave him more kyat with disdain, and the monk immediately started chanting and blessing us since we'd now so generously "donated". But that was the last straw for me! I stalked off between the stupas in my dirty bare feet, saying anything but blessings. And I didn't care. At this point, I was more concerned about his karma than mine and figured Buddha would understand.


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