Webu's Meditation Hut

By John Geraets | 1/22/2022

 


Dedication: I think of Webu’s sick-bed inside his dwelling, the renovated meditation hut next door that we could share. Beyond a  devotional exercise, which is present, the following explores an underlying feeling of strangeness, or perhaps it’s an unfamiliarity that doesn’t feel strange, or unpleasant to experience. It reaches into a gratitude that wants to be precisely expressed.



[1]           The young Kin-U woman in the restaurant invites our return should we require internet access, which isn’t available at the monastery. Minutes later a white car arrives, Sangha flag secured mid-bonnet. Inside U Mandala, broadly smiling, welcomes us back. We are driven along a stone dirt road, lined on the left with fields of rice and on the right with cracked earth, stubble:

 

Nearing Ingynbin

egrets atop buffaloes

coming, going

 

Following prostrations, we present Bhante with a National Geographic Atlas, which will form the basis for our English lessons, and other small gifts that are, for him, treasures. There is an incompletely installed new toilet, annexed to the main building, freshly painted white green gold & silver. Soon we are taken to see the nearby monastery ‘lake’, a mere 25 metres across, as well as the newly constructed white pagoda, situated on a man-made earth mound, overlooking the water. Then on to the ample guest house accommodation, passing a moving feast of restive dogs. Relief comes with having our own private space to settle into and silence re-established. Of course, it can’t last:

 

barking dogs

all night ransack—

homely

 

At five we rise and prepare to sit. Torchlight flickers outside the glass panels of the metal door, where Bhante removes his sandals and places them neatly at the doorstep. Part way through the meditation, a settled enough space, the temple bell suddenly clangs in sets of three, calling the monks to breakfast, and unleashing a crescendo of yelps and barks.

After breakfast, we stop to enjoy the young monks competing at chinlone over a makeshift net, red robes draped over nearby branches or tucked round their bellies as they cavort. They nimbly kick the ball back over their heads or head it with precision to a teammate:

 

cane ball crosses the net

dextrous monks!

chinlone mind


Then we take ourselves around the road perimeter to the adjoining patipatti monastery, where once more we have been invited to use Webu’s meditation hut, elevated on poles. The feeling is exorbitant. We sit without a whisper.


[2]          On our way out we are accosted near the bamboo huts at the entrance gate by an elderly woman with only few blackened teeth in her mouth, brandishing a wide smile. Proffering fruit and cake, she daintily fingers at Karen’s longyi—‘la-la, la-la’, she opines. Outside the walls, in the field adjacent, we notice the figure of a mythological duck atop a concrete pillar that marks the outer extent of the monastery land.

Slowly, through the afternoon, breath settles and some clarity establishes. Topsy-turvey is an apt descriptor—

 

following each

moving (breath):

no easy bottom, top

 

Our regular evening walks are varied. Now we wander through the village alleys, stepping aside for the traipsing bullock carts on their return from the fields. From the weaving factory women and girls stream out, shiny empty tiffins dangling in their hands. Seeing us, they grasp each other and giggle.

 

a line of bullocks

returning bustle

spilled dust, glint-of-tiffins

 

Couples stand at their gates, smiling. A small group works at a threshing machine, tossing in bundles of rice stalks that on exit are automatically separated into lots. One lot forms a mound of stalks that require further chopping before being fed to the cattle. The other, husked rice (paddy), tumbles into prepared large woven baskets. When one is filled, a young woman hefts it onto her head and carries it with surprising elegance to the storage shelter. Our walk leads past simple houses, yards filled with families, cattle, dogs, chickens, pigs, an occasional cat. One young woman looks suddenly abashed on realising that she has been observed striking the family’s large feeding sow. Our eyes drop and we move on.

Alongside several villagers, we watch the mechanical harvester move back and forth in the adjoining field. What takes minutes for this machine will take workers an entire day. It is impossible to determine what the future might bring to this communal way of life.

As Karen and I return to the monastery, looking up we observe several wavy lines of ibises, wings extended, returning to take roost in the large trees round the lakeside perimeter:

 

skirting the green lake—

masters of the evening sun

spill upon the monastery

 

whitening

re-shaping themselves, fill

tamarinds, neighbour branches

 

[3]          Early next morning they vacate their roosts, while below smaller birds wander about on the lake weed. The pagoda, east side, has a stainless-steel spire fixed on a gold-painted base, flaring brightly together in the rising sun and more mutedly at night when lit with electric display lights, another anachronism. Occasionally we will sit together inside the pagoda with Bhante and visiting meditators. On the far bank, shaven-headed bikkhunis, clad in pink-and-orange robes, grip coarse bamboo brooms and vigorously sweep the bare earth around the kitchen and their quarters. The trees are inundated in dusty sunlight. An elderly solitary monk, who dwells in the green cottage built for him by his children beneath a huge tamarind tree , emerges a short time later to sweep around his own small abode:

 

morning sun, without care

illumines trees, empty compound—

an elderly monk, sparkles

 

Meditation continues. To be in the secluded hut with its bare floor and wooden shutters continues to invigorate the mind. It momentarily flies.

 

leaves, birds, dogs,

three, one, mere sounds!

wafting in Webu’s hut

 

 

(4)          Uposata day. An aggressive boy makes his young companion cry. An elderly woman smokes a cheroot as she comforts another small child beside the lake. Several novices take turns sliding down an angled stack of coloured roof iron, lifting their robes as they descend with small shrieks. Sayadaw, the head monk, and other senior monks occupy the head table, others to the most junior are spread outward in descending order. They regard their plates with active enthusiasm. Layfolk serve, some lingering near Karen’s and my table astonished at the spectacle as we pile rice and vegetables chosen from numerous dishes that crowd our special round table. The bhikkunis, who have spent the night in food preparation with rudimentary equipment, sit as a group near the entrance door, their faces radiant. Outside the doorway,

 

half its tail length, the squirrel

scampers along the cable:

mirror earth

 

It leaps from the slung cable onto a nearby tree, a good two metres away. A meditator’s dexterity!

At the family compound of Aum Pyee (two households of three generations) we are seated and offered fruit and bread, a sweet local tea that’s deliciously refreshing. White bullocks, mother with calf, dogs, pigs, heaps of cut rice (waiting to be threshed and sold or stored indoors for family use), assorted trees, various accommodations including a new brick house occupied by an older brother his wife and their two children, aged 7 and 12, conspicuously shy.

 

the body

breathing somewhere

the body

 

On board a bullock cart, bamboo floor with an encasing rail, we join a mother-driver with her child and infant, whose eyes peek ruefully to scrutinise the strangers from under the safety of its sibling’s arm. The lumbering white bullocks are struck, repeatedly, with a switch the mother wields, until a final hard pull on the reins brings them to an abrupt halt. We disembark, jumbled and sore, rubbing our bottoms – after less than half a kilometre of travel!

Evening brings a delivery of three cartloads of basketed husked rice. Labourers carry and empty them into a raised storage shed, shielded against the rats.

 

[5]          I sit a couple of hours, engrossed, until the patipatti wood gong is struck, a thick hollowed sound, followed by a metal clang, then another. Across the road the pariyatti bell strikes three times. Dogs bark howl whimper—their lunchtime too!

 

clamouring birds

howling dogs; pounded wood—

air—sentient

 

We see a lone puppy’s legs covered in rank sores as it drags itself around. Karen prepares a blanket, placing water and soft food ready for it to eat. To our surprise, the mother, who has kept a distance, emits a small whine and comes to us to be petted. Another white dog rolls onto its back to be tickled, its hind leg scratching air.

 

[6]          Going to breakfast each morning we tread over dust that has been endlessly swept from one place to another, a rippled surface of broom scores. Birds depart from the overarching trees singly or in small groups, headed to their own places for the day.

A monk reclines on a bamboo chair, reciting. Someone has dropped a gladioli stalk on the ground, leaving a sequence of white flowers in the dust.

 

                            (monk) intoning

U Jotika citakisas

glass sunlight

 

Schoolboys respond to my greeting, offering high-fives. Near the gate entrance, a couple of ox-carts piled with hay, drivers dizzyingly perched above, have stopped. A grey-brown bird, firm beak, russet upper breast, saunters by.

 

children’s hands outstretched

‘thank you, what's name?’

soon gone

 

On the way to Webu’s hut I notice several pairs of children’s flip-flops discarded at the monastery gate.

They are playing with spinning tops in the school yard next door. One sits in the area in front of the classroom and uses a piece of brick to hammer a bent finger-length rusted nail into a nut that will serve as his top. A string is wound round the nail and top and pulled until the top is released. Soon it flips onto its nail end and, before it threatens to tumble, the novice regathers it by looping his thread round the nail again and flipping the top up to a catchable height. Then start again. The children are participants and their own avid audience.


Emotions have their own spinnings, retrievals. Stutterings.


 

early sadness, I sit,

pigeons mute, pagoda ledges bare,

breeze in Webu’s hut

 

[7]          Woken by traditional music emanating at 4am from nearby loudspeakers, we know it is another donors’ day. Lavish breakfast, which hinders easy sitting, yet irresistible, delicious. Lunch more so: beans, mint, salad, bamboo and other roots, ground nuts, white rice, biryani (sultanas included), grapes, apples, little oranges, nutted banana cake. A delegation of teachers from Kin-Oo has banded together to give dana, understanding the benefit of giving that is richly their own; with care and bright ease, disregarding thanks, they serve the monks – and then – us.

In the afternoon we walk in positive anticipation to our meditation hut. We cajole three young puppies who continue to refuse to be petted, as much as they want to. Then ascend the concrete steps and through the low wooden gate with its wire latch and the doors into the hut, having removed our footwear. Settle onto the cushions after gently closing the shutters both sides, due to the cold, which Karen especially feels. Body and thoughts stilling, not leaning overmuch into distractions or overly anxious to resist them. Settling more, some extraneous fleeting half images or half thoughts that wondrously fail to crystalise, specks of dust in sunlight. First the head slowly then sections of the body, from chest to legs to feet and coming back to the hips and torso, alive, airlifted. How long has passed? Much piti, flushing, swirling, and again:

 

breathing                                              —glass  

discernible                                            —narrow brim   

commotion?—yet                               —a finger

 

Listening to a recorded talk of Pa Auk in the evening is a reminder to me of my modest place in this great order of things, this great uncertainty. Or talking briefly with the old Sayadaw, the impish one, who, despite the walking stick he uses—

 

81, jaunty, soiled

robe callous feet, who

held Webu’s head—

 

in death.

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1 Comments

Jacques Achsen
Date: 2/19/2022

Lovely story of beloved Ingynbin. I don't know if you are aware that the old Sayadaw mentioned at the end of the story, U Pinnya Vansa, passed away this past September (2021). Recent news is that due to violence and army activity in the area, and especially in the village next to the monastery, there is great difficulty and a serious shortage of food for the monks and novices. Perhaps those of us who have benefited from our time there, or anyone else sympathetic to the plight of the Burmese people, can come together to try and provide them some help. Here is a link to an article on recent activity in Ingynbin and information on how to help: https://insightmyanmar.org/blog/2022/2/14/update-from-ingyinbin . Much Metta to all and thanks to John for the lovely, moving and poetic essay.

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