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Residing at Nan Oo Taik Monastery

By | 10/24/2023

Residing at Nan Oo Taik Monastery1

[8] Back after an overnight break at Shwebo, the pagoda spire shines clearly from a kilometre away, a citadel. A burgeoning of the heart:

blue wispy moon
white ibises
alight and fall silent

[9] Lemsip brings relief before sitting, coffee after! Despite a head cold and running nose, there is surprising brightness in the body, even if at times it wobbles uncertainly, drearily:

start again, the body
next the body
concerns neither

Through breakfast, the moon slides among the uppermost branches of the trees, illuminating the awakening ibises, adjusting themselves before launching into the air. They have little comprehension of how they appear to us as we watch them.

radiant ibises
unlacing tamarinds

How elegant they are in departure, in contrast to the stumpy egrets, who hunch their smaller bodies before propelling steadfastly upward and outward—two quite different birds who engage with life in the sky. We meditate like this, the dancer and the engineer, turn by turn.

[10] I walk with Kwau Soe to the patipatti compound, where shortly An Yuan Shwe joins us, swathed in three sweaters, complaining of the cold. A devotee, he wants to memorialise the room in which U Ba Khin had resided when he ordained under Webu—also to establish a library, restore the wooden roof, and have the building dedicated to Vipassana meditation practice. The dilapidated building at the rear, where a visiting Minister of Railways used to stay during regular short visits to serve Webu, is another structure An Shwe has an eye on.

We enter a nearby two-storey building and climb the stairs to where female students will stay during the upcoming commemoration course. In the bare room, pieces of paper, sequentially numbered, are stuck on the floor where beds will be placed. Other signs, on which is written ‘Ariyo tuõi bhave’ (Nobility in silence), are pinned to timber posts. Mind you, it is right now an admonishment that makes little sense to a lone pigeon that is trapped and wanting desperately to escape the room. It scuttles, panicked, colliding against the closed wooden shutter, as it seeks the same open air the ibises and egret were released into earlier in the morning. We open the shutter and let it escape.

[11] From the crumbling pool ledge, Kwau Soe plucks a small tortoise, head withdrawn, legs flailing—a reminder for me of the panicked pigeon. When returned to the murky water, head jutting and legs scrambling, the tortoise promptly disappears beneath the surface. Its sky. Further along, we spy an old-style gnat altar atop a pedestal (‘2005’ is the inscription), with a couple of trays decked in foliage placed before it. Kwau Soe explains how the monks, in Webu’s day, would sneak outside at night and surreptitiously approach the nearby platform raised on wooden poles, where they’d stand dumbstruck watching the monk’s physical form elevate in meditation through large portions of the night. His body would hover, utterly composed. Clearly a feat beyond the dear tortoise’s—or dear pigeon’s—or my—capability!

Clearly also... beyond the capability of Webu’s wrecked vehicle, brought here to the west side of the monastery for restoration. The old Valiant Plymouth had been used to transport Sayadaw over the local roads, mostly dirt with occasional clumps of stone, impossible in the rains. A devotee has had it towed back from neighbouring Kin-Oo village. But it’s in poor shape: faded blue paint, rusted hubcaps, gashed tyres, no steering wheel—fully gutted, it lacks even upholstery or an engine! Together we push it into the specially constructed garage and then wander back to view Webu’s private residence, alongside his meditation hut.

[12] On approaching the residence, I am informed of recent break-ins, resulting in smashed and emptied donation boxes. However, once inside, to our surprise, we are greeted by a local woman who is arranging fresh smelling bouquets into vases scattered around the place:

entering the hallowed abode
wavy perfume—
an elderly devotee arranges flowers

Indeed, the story goes that on one particular night, on hearing movements within his rooms, Webu rises and promptly removes the clock from the wall. Smiling, he offers it to the young intruder, who declines the offer and quietly leaves.

Adorning the walls are numerous photographs of the much-honoured Sayadaw, invariably attended to by a phalanx of monks and lay folk. He is depicted stepping over the loosened, spread hair of several women, who have prostrated themselves before him as he walks, unshakeably serene.

Another group of photographs tracks him through his final hours of life, sitting before an extravagant meal prepared by his devotees. After taking a final difficult walk to the toilet, on his return he collapses onto the floor. Supported—borne—to the wooden dais situated in the corner of the room, where he sleeps, he loses consciousness, dying in the arms of the present sayadaw (at the pariyatti monastery) and another, equally composed, elderly monk.

[13] An 83-year-old retired Indian nuclear physicist has arrived to be ordained. He sits down on a wooden seat alongside the trough regularly used by the young monks to wash their robes and their own bodies. A remaining thin halo of grey hair is shaved from his head. Deft, short strokes, the lathered hair is flicked down in clumps onto the wet concrete. Next, he is led to the dining room, where the novice ceremony takes place that will precede full ordination in the sima hall. Pali is recited. Fresh robes are passed by assistants to the preceptor and immediately returned, then donned by the old man, part manikin part fidgeter, with the help of a young novice pair. They are adept at handling the harvest of cloth.

[14] In the sima hall, giving his ordination talk, an animated sayadaw delights in comparing his advanced age, that of the new novice, and that of the parinibbana Buddha, all men of 80 plus years. Pointing to his upper lip, he reiterates Webu’s exhortation to maintain attention here throughout the day… and night!

old new bhante-ji
head of coconut shell
awash in cloth—prostrates

An eager village musician prematurely sounds his instrument—quickly shushed, he looks abashed.

After the brief commotion, we foreign guests are requested to leave the hall. Another 30 minutes pass, before we hear the authentic sounds of clashing cymbals and drums, the latter awkwardly strapped to the musician’s shoulders, with remnants of red chord somehow entangled in his robes. Art Blakey would blush!

[15] In the dilapidated teak monastery building, Sayadaw sidles from his chair onto the floor to receive delivery of the relics, displayed under a glass dome. Set on top of the dome is a miniature carved pagoda, made of the same black wood used in the pedestal, which is studded with flecks of ivory. Inside the glass, a lotus flower that has been carved from ivory supports a small container within which are displayed about a dozen mustard-seed-sized bone fragments, set out on a purple cloth. Each petal on the lotus has an individual shape, the one nearest the relics extending perpendicularly in a lavish style.

In turn, each visitor has a white cloth placed on top of their head, while another one of us present suspends the relic-holder above the cloth and head for a couple of minutes, during which metta is given. Following, Sayadaw invites requests. ‘Snow’ unscrews a couple of narrow metallic tubes into which cotton wool is squeezed along with a single sliver of bone fragment, which will accompany her on her return to Yangon. Oops, fingers clumsy—

Sayadaw scrambles
miniscule bone relics—
cats, medicines, newspapers, scatter

We assist this extraordinarily fluster-free sayadaw as he searches on all fours— infusing comedy into the drama—until, to all of our relief, the relics are recovered. What would be the alternative?

[16] Karen and I, walking out on another beautiful still evening, are greeted by brightly faced young women leaving a day’s work at the village factory. Giggling, they wave their glinting lunch tiffins. Children at gate entrances to their houses also call and gesture in eagerness. Sunlight shines through the dust that is stirred

up by labouring oxcarts as they return from the fields and zippy, impatient motorcycles. Perhaps counter-intuitively, everything here feels to me richly homely—this must be what community is?

rust, fire
cart-spun dust; children
awhirl, faces lit

[17] Rain begins to spatter as we stroll to breakfast. Yesterday’s airborne dust quickly turns to mush. Meanwhile, Indian bhante-ji departs, seasonal routines reestablish:

Kauw Soe gathers berries
for kids to thread onto necklaces—
platform devas gaze away
departing bhante-ji
—puppies abandoned—
notches in the bamboo—
a birth-marked face—
one after one—uppermost branches, snared—
green, small fruits—

Returning to Webu’s hut, I sit alone. I close the shutters due to the chill. Outside, I hear a chanting voice that I recognise belongs to one of the pink-robed nuns as she wipes the gargantuan Mahamuni statue. I picture the figure’s large black pupils wildly dancing in the whites of its eyes. Return, observe the breath, I return. Outside, there is a disturbance caused by a flurried brushing of the earth yard and a pair of chattering voices. The diligent groundsmen are oblivious to the heartfelt endeavour in the silent hut, I sigh:

a hundred strokes,
a thousand, sweeping

Each day I am drawn here. From time to time the entire body brightens like the flickering dust as it spreads on the village lanes. One moment a myriad things the next a single one, undifferentiated. Even the words roll about in themselves:

sweeping strokes

To not rely on self-urgency is a marvelous thing. The best serves, here in the hut, insensible to matters distant. One learns that travel is unnecessary.

[18] U Mandala arrives the following morning to take breakfast. Before touching his food, he lifts his head: ‘Burmese people—is very poor. It hurts in my heart’.

[19] Walking past the school, Karen and I notice the corpse of a dog that has been dumped in the ditch beside the main path:

eyes & mouth, hind legs

Gazing up, in the sky we see a v formation of flying ibises. A trailing bird moves from one vector to the other, realigning repeatedly. The children, paused at their top-spinning in the yard, gape upward, mouths automatically reciting.

[20] The wide spread of green weed covering the lake is receding, due to the cooler weather. Lilies appear. A black drongo lands on the same branch of the bodhi tree that it had landed on yesterday, skimming the water surface to get there. Swallows zag & swoop in the process of feeding—

smooth stone dropped
in water

Tasselled pods hang, small flowers poking from under the leaves. Ne Mg walks by with the youngest novice, at knee-height, grand-nephew to U Mandala, to watch the older novices play at cane ball. Some in sports shoes, most barefoot.

A couple of workmen chisel clumps of bark from the piquant-smelling thanakha, felled by our friend Jamie in order to clear a view from the new pagoda across the small lake. Evening exposes a patchwork of cut logs with luminescent yellow woodgrain and a sweet scent.

[21] Another evening stroll, this time a few kilometres as far as crossroads bridge. Three women are collecting donations for a monastic project (one of several in the vicinity). They rattle tin trays filled with stones at the motorcycles and vehicles as they speed through dispersing clouds of dust. In the roadside shack, with an open book of suttas on the rough sawn table where he sits, an elder village Burman, eyes set wide on a face that converges to a single triangular point at the chin, intones into a dangling microphone. The voice ricochets through nearby speakers, riven with static. Despite a lack of teeth, his recital lifts and subsides unfalteringly. From time to time, a male companion leans across to strike a small bronze gong that dangles from an overhead rafter. Our modest dana brings us in return a few hardboiled sweets: in this community, to give is to safeguard one’s future benefit—in this case, literally as well as spiritually!

[22] Andrew departs and Humbert arrives. Nervously settling in, he tells us he is here to take robes. The next day, his shorn hair drops, as did bhante-ji’s, onto the wet concrete beside the washing trough:

lake weed
recedes, scalp hair—Agganana
lathered clumps, tumble

[23] Shortly after, the annual novice ceremony sees the entire village dress up, men in white jackets and fresh lungyis, young women in especially colourful makeup, their eyelashes looping attractively, gold or pink outfits. In the fairground, a makeshift palace façade adorns the newly-erected stage on which the band performs. Among the children, some boys brandish plastic toys or guns, other children sip enthusiastically from plastic cups through straws, or lick at ice-creams. A girl beside me shows off a wristwatch: the digits 9:27 shine out.

Under the monastery’s profuse red flowering tree, older novices gather to witness the long procession slowly perambulating on the far side of the harvest field. One cheeky lad fills his hand with the pulp of a fallen flower and throws it at his fellows. Shoving, followed by back-slapping, uproarious laughter.

[24] On request, Om Pyee delivers a hammer and saw. I nail mosquito nets in place at the bathroom windows. At the edge of the lake, three crouching children clutch small plastic containers and beside them is a broken bowl of crockery. From the bowl they transfer tiny black objects (less than ½ cm in diameter) into one of the containers. Coming closer, I see the small black objects are snails, asymmetrically writhing. One child lifts a hand to high-five with me. They are immediately reabsorbed and I continue on my way.

I settle into my sit, sensitively aware that the birds outside pursue a daily imperative of their own, oblivious to my preoccupations and much else.

At dusk the ibises cluck and groan, weighing on the branches until gradually everything becomes silent.

Come morning, at half-light, they rouse themselves and peel off, singly or in small groups, arching over their shoulders as they lurch away. Upper branches in the trees shudder. The departing birds collapse into their own wings, quickly stabilise, and continue westward. A bitten arrives lakeside, where it remains poised motionless for what seems an interminable duration, until some small unsuspecting creature is suddenly snapped up, and the bitten moves on.

Outside, the same two workmen, one wearing a brimmed hat, continue to chip away at the thanakha bark. Chips fall (mostly) on the prepared sacking and, on completion, the entire debris, including straggly upper branches, is removed from the water. Meanwhile, the lake responds to increasing warmth by revealing more water surface under the diminishing weed cover:

half lake, inside my body
chipping thanakha

Sitting is this, without insisting to pull everything together, a continual shaping and letting go. Perception brightens, an allure. Until that too fades.

John Geraets


Date: 12/22/2023

Simply lovely John, the imagery so fluid and vivid. Thanks for sharing!

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