Tuesday, December 04, 2007

"Blood made the sandals slippery"

Returning to Burma last month after the military crackdown, Canadian monk U Vamsarakkhita listened to the stories told by his friends and fellow monks and was moved to write a poem, "Then Came the Night," (printed below) which he read to the Little Bang sangha during the second of two talks in Bangkok last month.

Vamsa is a meditation teacher in the Mahasi Vipassana tradition. In his talks he gave a unified view of "The Teachings of the Buddha" common to all branches of the practice, and presented "Ten New Age Myths" that make the path to enlightenment more difficult.

What would lead a six-foot-three-inch basketball player from Vancouver to ordain as a monk in Burma? While at college on a sports scholarship, Sean Pritchard took up Transcendental Meditation (TM) to help him relax before games. After marriage and a career as a financial planner, his work with charities brought him to Asia. He knew of Buddhism from the writings of Alan Watts and the teaching of Ruth Denison. Traveling in Burma in 1991, he met Chanmyay Sayadaw U Janaka, chief abbot of Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Centre in Yangon and a student of the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, famed Vipassana meditation teacher. U Vamsa, who thought he might become a monk in his sixties, decided to put on robes much earlier, and he has practiced and traveled as an assistant with U Janaka since 1994. Now 54, U Vamsa leads meditation retreats at the Dhammodaya meditation centre just outside Bangkok, and will travel next year to the United States.

Vamsa listed three points that all versions of Buddhism have in common: the importance of a simple life, an understanding of the law of cause and effect, and practices to purify the mind. An honest life requires that "one do only wholesome things and avoid that which is unwholesome." To explain cause and effect, Vamsa quoted Ruth Denison: "Karma means you don't get away with nothing, darling." Purification involves meditation which unclogs the mind of "defilements" -- the fruit of green, anger and ignorance. "Vipassana leads to understanding phenomena as they are, mental and physical, to see that things are impermanent, unsatisfying and impersonal."

The Canadian monk said that he grew up longing to be like his namesake, Sean Connery, in the James Bond movies. "That's the way we were taught to be a man, never living in the moment, always living a virtual daydream." In meditation, he learned to "use the body to ground the mind in the present, to notice thinking but not the content." Meditation helps to break down the process of the self, "to lose the stickiness of 'me, mine, I'." Purifying the mind is "not an intellectual process, not done with reason," he said. It is not a theory, not faith-based, but an experience.

In his second talk, U Vamsa listed "Ten New Age Myths" that are unhelpful:

1. "We are already enlightened."
2. "All this is an illusion."
3. "If it is not easy, it is not the path."
4. "Abundance and entitlement are ample requisites for attainment."
5. "One can indulge, think, serve, chant, et al, one’s way to enlightenment."
6. "Instant ‘enlightenment’ is possible."
7. "‘The Secret’ is the ‘Power of Now’."
8. "Piano, surfing, sport, skiing is my meditation."
9. "‘It’s not my fault, it’s my Karma’" (which leads to 'idiot compassion')
10. "We are all one."

Each of these is a stumbling block on the road to Nibanna, he said. There is no way to avoid: living a simple, honest wholesome life; understanding the law of karma, and purifying the mind. The fruit of this practice is Enlightenment.

Then Came the Night

A crowd, a glorious crowd, came in peace

Led by the ones in maroon and golden robes

Hope was alive; Freedom’s sweet taste was nearer than ever

The heavy sweaty air, scented with frangipani, pressed and blew the people and the palm leaves,

And the whole world watched in a breathless secret silence

Now was the time for movement and space

The stern to become free and pliant

To breathe again the nourishment, to stretch and grow,

To break from the smothering web of fear

Oh watching world, Are you here with us now?

Then the soldiers came, countrymen in green

Well-fed, strong, made cruel and proud, steeled to pain

Fashioned by an outside worldly power guarded in its own sheath of terror

They stood watching, sizing, seizing; seething

Oh watching world, you say how restrained and cool they are!

As one, the crowd jeered and pleaded and wept

You green headed pigs; Who fights us, your brothers and sisters?

But the soldiers were orphans; unloved, twisted and deaf to the pleas

Fed and clothed and loyal only to their comrades in arms

And the world saw the shields and AK’s and hardened bamboo clubs

Then in a flash, like a spring trap snapping

AK’s sprayed their lethal spit, acrid tear gas plumed

Cries of pain and surprise from those stung and hurt

Running and running; blood made the sandals slippery

They fluttered off like broken tires; the world saw them scattered, red, piled in dirt.

Then beating and chasing and running; crowd splayed apart.

Hard bamboo clubs smashing into bodies and bones

Heads pop-popping and gurgling like watermelons thudding onto a road of red

Orphans beating brother, sister, thami, Ulay, Daw Daw*

And the world watched and hoped that only eleven were dead

Then came the bleak and heavy night, and hooded brothers

Slid like snakes into the holiest of holy places

And smashed and robbed and tore dark red robes from the backs of monks

Then crushed heads and bodies against a red brick wailing wall

A watching world sighed and went back to sleep

Statesmen belched the useless vomit of outrage and indignity

Then clumsy and mute, in secret relief, agreed to nothing

And the blood dried on Sule Pagoda Road

The gleaming Shwedagon wept its gold leaf tears to the wind

And the Golden Land of Burma was golden no more.


Oh watching world, when your black-hooded ones

With shields and spray and armored with guns

Stop you from crossing this line or that slew

Or crush your homes and snatch your children from your neck

Who, oh who, will be watching out for you?

U Vamsarakkhita (aka Sean Pritchard) copyrighted

*(daughter, uncle, auntie)

No comments: