Towards Ingynbin,
a train passes—
We arrive at the end of the rainy season. It is extremely humid, and the journey is uncomfortable: twenty miles or more on the back of small motorcycle taxis, backpacks between our knees, along potted, dirt roads, scattered trees.
Bhante U Mandala, a senior monk who speaks some English and deals with foreigners, had received our letter and expects us; but he has a new phone and so we couldn’t confirm our time of arrival. He smiles disarmingly. We settle into the same room in which we had spent two nights last year. It’s pleasing to be back—although, as I say, the first week requires making several adjustments. Aside from the weather, there’s no running water in the accommodation for the first week and we must carry buckets filled at the nearby bore-fed tank in order to flush the toilet and to wash ourselves—even then nothing feels particularly clean. Occasionally John douses and soaps himself at the tank.
bones uneasy, sweat—
no turn in the weather
The first night brings a crashing storm and the roof leaks, large drips just missing our makeshift mattresses. We’re awake anyway. Whereas locals manage to sleep on wooden boards, maybe with a rattan mat and bed sheet if they are lucky, we are provided with thin square foam meditation mats, which we place in a line of three held together with a towelling sheet. Sleep’s intermittent in the first days, with an accompanying restlessness during the day.
Movement of thought
on the monastery path
searching out dead things—
this agitated mind
 Apart from encountering a few snakes, unthreatening in themselves, more troubling is the gang of unneutered, mostly male temple dogs who immediately sense our foreignness and snarl, before barking in crescendo. U Mandala relates how some months ago late at night he tripped over one and ended up in hospital for a week with the bite wound that continues to cause him problems.
The dogs are cared for by the monks, yet they are not pets by any stretch, perpetually bickering—the older they are the more disfigured, especially around the face. One old mutt, heavily scarred, is uncharacteristically motionless, a slackness to its open mouth and tongue. Seeing no breath movement at the stomach, I mention this to Karen. Re-entering the monastery later in the afternoon, we notice a long drag trail on the dusty ground past the buildings and alongside the weed-covered pond:
curt epitaph, old battler
the novices drag away to burial
Lunch leftovers are spread for the dogs to scrap over on a concrete platform under a roof on which leftover rice is scattered for the crows.
Probably due to the heat and the difficulties in washing properly, we start to notice rashes and blisters forming on our legs. We smear them with papaya cream and they slowly start to clear, leaving purple stains. I come down with a heavy cold and fever, bones aching from the hard bed. There is a bamboo chair in the room, designed for people of local height, which hardly fits us. The mind continues a gradual settling into its unfamiliar surroundings, obstacles seemingly everywhere:
Sitting proves difficult. Eight days
Attention wafts, throat dry, perdure—
wanting’s grip quietly replenish
 We establish a meditation schedule—five or six hours each day—and read U Jotika books and a dated but useful Journey into Burmese Silence by Marie B Byles; after a long break I can get back into my Pali studies. Daily meals (breakfast and lunch) are eaten with U Mandala in two different halls (in the first disordered days: On the table / a dozen fresh dishes: / wanting pleasure). Typically, as well as the usual rice and soup, there are up to a dozen side dishes of local vegetables, beans and a sort of tofu, chili-fried. Fruits and cakes, some Western biscuits—best of all we like the local confections, milk sweets, pan fried sticky rice cakes flavoured with jaggery and coconut wrapped in banana leaf, with fresh apples, bananas, papaya.
Starting at four there’s an hour’s English lesson, followed by an extended evening walk together alongside the luminous rice fields and occasional tree-sheltered villages, acknowledging the women walking with emptied earthen pots balanced on their heads, lumbering oxen drawing the carts homeward, and other unexpected sights and sounds in the dusk:
Across the water lilies
moonlight that belongs to the sky
belongs also to the water—
frogs haul their
steely balled voices, knowing
moonlight is a factor of water
We have been encouraged to use the small meditation hut used by the Webu Sayadaw, an enlightened master who died near his home Ingynbin village in 1977, cared for by the current Sayadaw. Sensitivity sharpens:
Inside Webu’s hut
what moves up straightaway
subsides, dog’s bark
 During our stay festival days mark the dana (donation) time of year for the lay folk at the end of the rainy season, and we are fortunate to be able to attend the ordination of a thick-set young novice from the Shan states. Om Pyee serves as our chaperone, taking an occasional photograph on his smartphone, darting here and there. He was himself ordained some years ago but found monastic discipline tough and now works the fields for his father, the village medical man, who observes with a friendly disposition nearby. When the monks leave the ordination hall, following the pātimokka recitation, the local village folk rush forward and fill proffered robes with dana, fruits, soap, cans of drink, seeking merit. The entire culture is blessed with the virtues of generosity and loving-kindness. The new monk blinks in the sunshine:
sweet in mind
Village men bashing cymbals, a small bronze temple gong, and a cylindrical drum lead the procession—children pushed out front, dogs chased aside—to a celebratory lunch.
 During the post-rains holiday most of the young monks and nuns are off visiting their family homes, the Pali classes are suspended and the monastery, a major teaching centre, remains largely quiet. U Mandala usually teaches three Pali and Abhidhamma classes each day, leaving more time now to study English: our class remains a satisfying challenge—Bhante remains irrepressibly confident and eager! He wants to be able to welcome visiting foreigners in English and to introduce them to the Webu heritage, including reciting to them Webu’s translated talks.
The village living standards are at most rudimentary. They have electricity (U Mandala says he went to see the Prime Minister in Yangon some twenty years ago and insisted that the government provide electricity to the monastery of such a famous monk as Webu!). Otherwise, life continues to look much as it must have done for hundreds of years, complete with rats running through the Dhamma Hall and rain coming through the roof or causing the ground outside to turn immediately to mush. The precious oxen are well-cared for and their coats are shining as they settle for the night in the earth yards.
One farmer is using a foot-driven chopper to cut fresh feed for his beasts. Others are slowly returning from the fields:
Pacing the rice paddies
where Om Pyee labours each day,
we understand neediness
The village area is still, agreeable:
Evening walk together
through the palm village:
cattle bowed, girls laughing
Later, young village children arrive with bottled water and sweets:
Children at the door,
 Tomorrow is the last full day and we will have a change of schedule. After breakfast at six, while it is still cool, we are going to head out for a longer walk through the countryside. The dusty tracks wind through kilometres of fields, and everywhere we see birds, dragonflies, frogs, farm animals in yoke, lads in longyis carrying farm implements. In the east we can see the outlines of the closest of the Shan hills. But we need to be back at mid-morning. A significant local donor family has arranged a special lunch at the neighbouring monastery, and they have invited the senior monks from here; we are also special invitees. The sprightly father is in his eighties and speaks reasonable English; his son is an engineer in Singapore. Later we will clean up and U Mandala insists that tomorrow he’ll drive us the seven miles to the nearest bus stop in Kin-U.
Meantime the novices are starting to return from their rainy-season break:
Karen goes snake hunting.
Robed novices are again about the place,
doors, windows thrown open
We are driven in the monastery car with U Mandala and the second-in-charge, the monk U Tiloka, to a nearby village where they are building a new main hall to replace the extremely rickety 100-year-old wooden one (the floor undulates and we see through to the earth beneath). Our Ingynbin monk, the 80-plus Sayadaw, delivers a severe Dhamma lecture in the outside tent that ricochets through loudspeakers. We meet a Burmese friend (Kyaw Soe whom we met on our last visit) and his wife and young son. A separate table is prepared in advance for us with just vegetarian food, and a further table full of fruits and dessert sweets.
After eating, we pay respects to the local abbot before being whisked back to spend a while with Kyaw Soe and his wife cleaning up this room. Kyaw Soe also helps us do the rounds of people to whom we want to say thank you, and who speak no English, including two ancient ladies who kept giving us cake and bananas when we entered the meditation compound, and the ever-busy pink-robed nun who prepares the breakfasts. Her courteous gratitude is palpable.
A last afternoon in Webu’s hut.
Outside a small white bird with a long tail
and sharp cry. Intent
Body and mind are quite still. Waves circle waves, eddies forming here and there, either physically or mentally, over which occasionally larger movements spread:
Days spent pursuing
touch of the breath,
At times, there is an awareness of a layer of unease in the mind, as if it seeks to press through to even stiller layers, or else simply to smooth more into its own quietness. Picking up our mats, the sense of richness in the surroundings, the monasteries, the devas, the ones who have practiced here, is sufficient.
 Back in Mandalay. Bhante said he had some things he had to do in the city, so he has accompanied us by bus, making sure that we arrive in one piece. It is strange to be back in the city. We take a hot shower and lie under the aircon and watch Al Jazeera. Not much has changed really. Outside the night is clear and passes only slowly. The sky is filled with moonlight:
Outside the late moon
a tipping glass
Before departing, U Mandala suggests that we come and live in the monastery for the rest of our lives and bring family members to live in the village. He appreciates that being technologically more advanced and having better infrastructure is no guarantee of happiness in life. An alluring proposition.
Not yet morning—
new sky stretches
The text is adapted from Karen’s original journal notes to her parents. The verses are John’s.