Bangkok

It broke my heart a little to leave Yangon, Myanmar and its tumbledown tranquality behind. The mood is entirely different in Bangkok and it took me a while to adjust to the different spirit of life here.

In aboriginal culture it’s believed that after a journey it takes a while for the spirit to catch up with the body and that was definately my feeling today exploring Bangkok.

I was seeing beautiful places and amazing sights and yet, with no ostensible cause, feeling a bit disconnected and disengaged from them.

I started with a visit to Ko Ratanakosin. It’s the oldest part of the city and home to numerous temples, palaces, museums and markets. Far too many to explore in a single day. Here are a few pictures.

Next, I wandered over to the golden mount which affords some beautiful sights and a panoromic view of the city from the top.

The story of the vultures is interesting. Apparently it was customary leave bodies out for vultures prior to crematation. In the 19th centurt, during a particularly bad cholera outbreak, the bodies were piled high on the golden mount creating a gruesome spectacle as the vultures feasted. This attracted the attention of monks who were drawn to the spectacle as a bracing meditation on impermanence. Now that confounds our cultural expectation of what meditation is doesn’t it!

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Next I took some time to venture off the main path and explore some smaller and delightful alleys and markets as I wandered in the general direction of Wat Phra Kaew and the royal palace. Life and commerce spilling over eternally. The atmosphere was very positive and friendly and I started to feel more in tune with the place (coffee helped!).

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Wat Phra Kaew is the religious enclosure that forms part of the grand palace and is one of Bangkok’s biggest tourist magnets. Beautiful but very crowded. It was a real jostle to get into the ordination hall that houses the emerald Buddha – an important icon of Thai national identity. Originally made in Northern Thailand out of pure jade (and not emerald) in the 15th century. It was carried off to Laos in the 16th century before being returned to Chaing Mai, Northern Thailand by prince Setthathirath who united the thrown of Lao and Lang Zang, an ancient kingdom in Northern Thailand with Chaing Mai as capital. It was subsequently taken to Bangkok in the late 18th century by the forces of the then Siamese military after putting down an insurrection in the North. It has remained in Bangkok as Siam morphed into Thailand, artfully dodging colonisation in the 19th and 20th centuries, unlike its neighbours in the region. I will write more on history and politics later. But back to the emerald Buddha…

It sits there shimmering in the beautiful temple as devout Thai’s pray and tourists jostle in a formidable throng.  Photography is forbidden in the hall so I’ve no photo of the inside, but here is the exterior.

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The rest of Wat Phra Kaew is full of beautiful buildings but most are closed to the public. Very pretty.  Here are some photos.

The rest of the buildings in the royal palace are mostly off-limits to tourists but look lovely from the outside. Here are some photos. The palace is spacious and impressive.

It’s all very pretty but to be honest I just wasn’t feeling it. I don’t if it was the throng of tourists, the sweltering heat or tourist fatigue but I just didn’t feel much connection here.

Afterwards I crossed the road and entered a small shrine and simply sat down for a few minutes. I watched the people come in sit, pray and take photographs. It was lovely just to sit there, observe and be part of a more ordinary place and I left connected and balanced again. Here’s a photo.

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If I was feeling more in the mood , I could have gone to Wat Pho with its reclining Buddha, mother of pearl inlay and stone giants but I wasn’t.

A good lunch, a read of my book and it was time to move on. A night bus to Ranong, where I will stay for one night before a few days on the island of Ko Chang ( off the Andaman coast, not to be confused with its more famous Eastern namesake) lie ahead. Best, Alan

 

 

 

Metta meditation (lovingkindness/friendliness)

Sitting here in the beautiful Yangon evening and reflecting further on the time spent in the monastery.

Metta meditation loosely translates as lovingkindness meditation from the Pali, but there is no totally satisfactory translation as is often the case with these Pali terms. Another possible translation could be “friendliness meditation” and there is also a connotation with sunlight in the Pali meaning also.

I spent most of the first five days and also some time towards the end of the retreat doing this meditation in preference to the mindfulness practices.

It is considered a good balance with mindfulness practice and is similarly rooted in Buddhist scripture.

The idea is to cultivate a strong feeling of well wishing towards both ourselves and others. It is remarkably simple in concept. We simply repeat simple phrases in the mind such as – may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be peaceful; or thinking of another person – may you be happy, healthy, peaceful etc. Being more general – may all be healthy, happy, peaceful etc.

We do our best to focus on the meaning of the words allowing concentration to develop naturally and, over time, this feeling of well wishing gets stronger although with ups and downs as mood, energy and concentration fluctuate.

It is considered a good balance with mindfullness practice; contributing to  calmness, concentration and a general friendliness towards ourselves and others which is so neccessary both in the practice and in life.

There is nothing extraordinary about this mindstate. Indeed it is the natural, ordinary impulse of the mind when fear, anxiety or confusion are absent from the mind.

This practice is especially helpful for dealing with anxiety as this well-wishing mind displaces worry and anxiety in the mind.

I use it with my daughter when putting her to bed at night when she tends to be a little anxious and always marvel at the power and simplicity of the practice. We simply take turns picking out people and wishing them peace, happiness, health, sometimes being a bit playful with the wishes – ” may grandpa pat be especially happy on saturday” for example! We finish by wishing well to all beings everywhere.

It was lovely to do it in the retreat center with the cacophony of life breaking incessantly into the mind visually and especially aurally. Birds, cows, pigs, lizards, car horns, the endles drone of traffic; all ultimately the sounds of life doing its thing. It also desolves the sense of self by orienting us outwards, making us more aware of the smallness of the personal “I” in the greater scheme of things.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures  and a recording of some chanting, all from the monastery. As ever, feel free to comment and share

 

 

Long hot afternoons and the disappearing self – report from a Buddhist monastery

I had the privilege of spending 18 days in a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. ( Chanmyaymyaing retreat center, mingaladon township.)

It was wonderful to be part of the rhythm of life there. Every day was in the same rhythm. Up at 4, breakfast at 530, work from 630 to 730, lunch at 1030, juice drink at 5, chanting at 6 and return to room at 9. Apart from that we were encouraged to fill the day with meditation; standing, walking and sitting. No books, phones or entertainment. No conversation apart from meditation guidance. Even the meals were a time of mindful practice. We eat slowly and carefully, as a ritual.

Lunch was always a big ritual. Visitors and locals would often visit and stand prayerfully as monks, nuns and lay practitioners walked slowly into the dining area. Eating was in silence; mindful and calm.

The foreign meditators followed a slightly different schedule with a little less chanting then the Burmese. We also had our own meditation hall and were guided by Sister Viranani, an American nun who guided with skill and care. Indeed, although we were encouraged to meditate as much as possible, we all followed our own rhythm; walking and sitting according to our own rhythm. I took rests after lunch and juice and needed to sleep a little at those times in the early part of the retreat.

Chanting would drift up from the Burmese hall at 6 am and 3 pm. Every day had the same rhythm with the same glorious sunshine, hot afternoons and cool evenings. Over time, a different concept of time becomes apparent. Every day is more of a re-day then a new day. It brought to mind how in Irish we say athbhlian ( re-year) as oppose to blian nua ( new year). Our conception of time moving relentlessly forward with interesting things to look forward to is challenged. We just do the day again ! Rhythm and routine holding the practice together.

The other quality which holds everything together here is devotion. Here, of course, meditation is an aspect of religious practice. It isn’t primarily something you do to get a bit happier or more balanced. It’s goal and orientation is spiritual. To move beyond our attachments.

It’s not so easy ! The mind wants entertainment. In the midst of a long afternoon the following little poem came to me.

“Entranced by longing

The hot afternoon, immortal sits.”

And peace comes with the disappearing self. Sounds happen, thoughts happen, the breath happens. Mind and object. We relax deeply in such moments. No ownership of experience.

The evenings were beautiful although my mind was often quite tired at this stage. Watching the monks walk in the cool evenings was especially inspiring. Such peace and dedication in every step. If you will forgive me another little poem…

“Evening. A monks prayerful step.

The world we’re given is enough”

All of this of course will be hard for people to square with the news reports of attrocities in the north of the country. I suppose ultimately any religion can poison the spirit when it becomes dogmatic and/or tribal. Dharma (teaching, nature, truth) not dogma is the way.

The monastery sits right in the heart of life. It is in the middle of a farming village. Life there appeared simple. These people have nothing but their community and their monastery. It is their pride and joy. And the oppertunity to practice is offered freely to anyone although, of course, it is customary to offer donation.

It was a beautiful center with lovely comfortable rooms, very nice mediation areas and lovely trees and plants.  But it was next to a busy road ! Any illusion of outer tranquilty quickly dispelled by honking horns; not to mention the constant sounds of cows, pigs, chickens, cockerals and occasional construction work.  The villagers also love playing Burmese pop music through speakers on fairly frequent occasions. So aurally it was far from ideal ! But the Buddha never promised us a rose garden.

Some pictures…

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This was our meditation halls. Those are mosquito nets hanging.

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Shrine in meditation hall ( above)

Accomodation (above)

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The problem with “Mindfulness”

Ive wanted to write about mindfulness for a while now. I want to talk about how it is being portrayed in the West as a therapeutic intervention for everything from chronic stress to depression, anxiety, severe pain, addiction and many more.

I’ve always bridled at the movement a little although my rational mind has always argued that it is good that meditation techniques are coming to the West.

But being in a deeply Buddhist culture in Myanmar has helped me gain some clarity. What the mindfulness movement has done is taken mindfulness out of the cultural context in which it belongs and presented it as a therapy. It has presented it devoid of both the philosophical and psychological teachings of which it forms a central component. Mindfulness ultimately is a tool to help us understand the nature of life. Although it has healing properties, it doesn’t mean much by itself. It is trite to just say “be in the present”. For a start, from the philosophical perspective of Buddhism we should be free of attachment to both the past, the future but also the present.

Then we can be happy and relaxed.

The Buddhist psychology and philosophy is extremely rich and subtle. It is also far older than Western psychology which is still in its infancy. But Western psychology is aiming to bring mindfulness under its auspices, developing theories around it and studying it. It is ligitimate to ask questions about cultural appropriation.

Just as pharmaceutical companies isolate and take out the active chemical ingredient in traditional medicines, so psychologists and other professionals do something similar with mindfulness.

The end result is that mindfulness is over simplified at times to an almost comical degree.

We should be more humble on the West and respect the full context in which mindfulness belongs. This doesn’t mean one must become a Buddhist to practice mindfullness ( far from it !) but the rich teachings and overall context need to be engaged with and respected.

Anyway here’s a pretty lake !

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Kandwagyi lake in Yongon. Off to the monastery later. Thanks for reading.! It’s been lovely to see so many people reading. Please feel free to share and give me feedback and perspective in the comments section. Best wishes and see you in the new year.

A beautiful day in Yangon

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I had a beautiful day today. My mind was cool, calm and happy as I explored the markets and some of the sights.

I went to the markets first. Bogyoke market is a colonial era market set in what is now a tumble down concrete square but with many beautiful shops selling crafts, clothes and jewellery. The sheer scale was exciting to me. So many stalls and goods!

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Next I went to Theingyi Zei market, an older,  more claustraphobic ( if your that way inclined) market described by the Lonely Planet as “a proper Burmese bazaar” . Again the scale of it was thrilling in its way.

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And then I went to “Junction City” a modern day temple of commerce with awful music but some rather nice interior decoration and a Christmas tree.

The future….perhaps. Air conditioned, clean and spacious. How could you possibly argue with that? 20171214_145310.jpg

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And then there were the temples. Sule Pagoda sits in the middle of a am er ( how can I put this?) a roundabout.

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Yes thats right -a roundabout. Rimmed with shops, the inside is rather nice and costs three dollars to enter.  After ordering me to take off my shoes a middle aged lady shoved flowers in hand ( for the Buddha) and charging the equivelent of a dollar. I can’t argue (or even bargain) with middle aged Burmese women ( you learn something new every day I guess!).

Nice enough overall but nothing compared with the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was absolutely stunning. About a 40 minute walk from town I first noticed it here after rounding the bend

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The approach across busy streets requires the usual game of dodge the cars but after that……absolute heaven.

On entering the approach is deceptive and lined with stalls ( ssssh don’t tell Jesus) and there is three flights of stairs as you approach the entrance proper. Then its ten dollers in but totally worth it. I really had no idea of the beauty ahead of me and was grousing inwardly about having to pay!

But then, I was in this beautiful place. Everyone was barefoot and the atmosphere was one of quiet joy.

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Absolutely gorgeous. This is the orient of my dreams. Hundreds of temples, statues and pagodas set in a concentric ring with a gold gilded stupa in the middle 99 meters high. Originally built to a height of 18 meters in the 6-8th centuries, it was raised to 40 meters in the 15th century and brought to its current majestic splendour in the late 18th century.

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In a philistine act the British occupied it in the Anglo-Burmese war of 1824 resulting in vandalism and  pillage and  they and dug a tunnel under the stupa to see if it could store gunpowder. They occupied it again from 1852-1929 following the second Anglo-Burmese war. The Portugese also tried to make off with a bell tower in 1605. He wanted to melt the bell down to make canons but it fell into the river in transit. The same thing happened when the British tried to make off with a bell in the 19th century.

But somehow the stupa survived the Europeans.

Later in the 20th century it became a focal point for both nationalism and later for pro democracy demonstrations also. It is a strong symbol of Myanmar and loved by the people.

It was very special to be there. There were many people, both monks and lay people praying and chanting. I had a very pleasant meditation myself there also.

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And tomorrow I will go to the monastery until the new year. I hope to do one more post before then. Thanks for reading!

Airports

I spent most of today in airports and airplanes as I flew from Phnom Penh to Yangon. There was a long stop over and my flight to Mandalay was cancelled so ended up flying to Yangon in the end. I’m just in the door of my pleasant hostel in downtown Yangon. I already love Myanmar ( Burma).

But I want to talk about airports. Truth is I love them for no good reason. There is always a faint optimistic buzz in the air. The wonder of flight. Hope. Movement. The going away or the coming home. The promise of newness. We are all itinerants at heart. Im convinced of it. Its in our nature to move around, to seek out fresh pastures and oppertunities. Nothing shakes us up like a good journey. Ive even read that new places promotes the growth of new neural pathways as our brains learn to navigate a new environment.

Of course there is global warming to contend with and Ive no answer for that corundrum but surely world peace, cultural exchange and understanding are promoted by travel. Perhaps quality over quantity is the key.

Airports embody our age like nothing else. Utilitarian, bustling, clean, functional. There is no room for art or artiface. Shops, restaurants, cafes, off duty. Sometimes entire shopping malls. Ecumenical prayer room ( maybe). And its a divine consumerism because we are on our way somewhere better ! What could be more enjoyable ? Movement. No need to think or introspect. Wifi. Coffee. And I love it too.

So my plan has been interrupted by a flight cancellation but maybe it’s no bad thing. Mandalay has possibly inspired the worst poem ever written in any case. Read it here.

http://www.arctracer.com/poems/Mandalay.html

Awful stuff Im sure you’ll agree. I read Orwell’s Burmese days earlier in the trip which gives a great insight into colonial era Myanmar (Burma). You would feel as sorry for the poor English expats administering the firms as the Burmese after reading it.

So now I have the dilemma of taking two overnight buses and going up to the amazing temples of Bagan for a two days or going to the monastery earlier than planned. Ill keep you posted. Thanks for reading. Here is the sunset which I caught at the airport on arrival into Myanmar.

 

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“Isn’t it awfull far from home some people live!”

 

I thought I’d combine a book review with a continuation of my travelogue.

I’m in what is to me something of a nowhere town. Kompong Thom is a small town on the road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s main cities and tourist destinations. I can’t complain. I choose it deliberately to see small town Cambodian life. But I do feel out of place. I feel the cultural difference here more then elsewhere. So I am grateful to have some books for company.

So far I’ve had Orwell ( Burmese days), Hesse ( Siddartha) and Eamon Kelly’s (Ireland’s Master Storyteller) to keep me company and its the later I want to talk about. He has been great company keeping a friendly upbeat tone, giving belly laughs galore and reminding me of home.

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The quotation above “isnt it awful far from home some people live” is from a story of his about a Cork labourer on his way to a job out the country. It says all you need to know about the famous Cork mentality!

He gives wonderful insight into Ireland’s past but also perhaps giving me a window into farming,  village life here too.

Driving out the countryside today I got to see some of that farming life. Cows wandering, people working in the fields etc.

I imagine much of it is relatable. Eamon Kelly is writting mostly about that rural Irish farming life of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. He is talking with humour, love and honesty about his own people, elevating them and describing the complex heirarchies, social relations and folk customs of his people. He does throw in a few fantastical stories but he generally sticks to simple humorous happenings. Like all the best art, it is ultimately a celebration of life, but he does not at all turn a blind eye to the difficult lives of the servants and labourers.

It is part social history, part fantasy and gives a wonderful insight into, if not a simpler time, certainly a time with less distractions and more home grown entertainment!

He reminds me not to be glib or hold simplistic views on life here. To me I’m in a bit of a nowhere town but of course it’s not. The streets are full of life, kids  playing, stall holders, romance. For two days, there was Buddhist chanting broadcast on amplifiers across the town. I’m told it was a funeral. Imagine that!

In a way I envy the village life that is still here. In the Western world we are getting more atomised all the time. But we all need a village. I think it is a basic need.

But I don’t wish to romantisise or idealise the life here either. The majority of people are poor and have little and I don’t know what the internal dynamics are like and if there is much social cohesion. I would love to hear a Cambodian Eamon Kelly poking fun at returned immigrants, Buddhist monks, labourers, business owners, courting couples etc.!

Then I’d have a handle on the place.

Anyway here are some pictures from today. It was another beautiful sunny morning and I was off again on a tuk tuk to visit Sambor Prei Kuk, some temple ruins in the forest. They are pre angkoran Hindu temples and build in the 7th and 8th centuries. There are about a hundred of these towers dotted throughout the forest. As ever it was a beautiful morning and it was lovely to be in the forest. The drive was also a great chance to see some rural life also.

Here are some pictures..