musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Buddhism’

Buddha Bonanza

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If you spend any amount of time as a tourist in Myanmar, you’ll visit a mind-numbing number of pagodas, temples, and monasteries. For many Westerners, it can all seem like an endless Buddhist blur after a short while, tempting some cynical visitors to remark that “they all look alike.” Another huge pagoda with a gleaming golden stupa? Uh, that’s nice. You go right ahead. I’ll just wait here in the horse cart.

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If you venture inside any of those sacred Buddhist sites, you are going to see a lot of Buddha figures. It’s like a Buddha bonanza! And unlike the endless parade of pagodas, the shrines to the Buddha don’t all look the same at all. I marvel at the variety of Buddha figures that I’ve seen during my trips to Myanmar. They come in all shapes and sizes, and in different poses and different styles. Standing Buddha, Reclining Buddha, Disco Buddha, Umbrella Buddha, Forest Buddha; there’s a Buddha for all occasions.

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Here are a few of the Buddha images that captured my eye during my most recent trip. These shots were taken in a variety of locations in and around Mandalay, Taunggyi, and Kakku.

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Rains Retreat

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Tomorrow marks Khao Phansa, another Buddhist holiday in Thailand. As with most Buddhist events, this day is also observed under different names in other Southeast Asian countries. Khao Phansa marks the start of the annual “Rains Retreat”, a period when Buddhist monks are — supposedly — confined to their monasteries and cannot venture out into public. This period has also been dubbed “Buddhist Lent” due to the fact that monks must abstain from habits such as eating meat and smoking (yes, it may shock many Westerners, but some monks in this region can often be seen smoking cigarettes and chewing betel nut). I would assume that karaoke is a no-no also.

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In Thailand the shocking behavior of one famous monk has been in the news all month. Actually, the offending fellow has now been defrocked and is no longer a monk. He was visiting France when the scandal broke and now is supposedly in the USA. I believe his passport has been revoked and there is also a warrant out for his arrest. Why is this man wanted? Something to do with embezzling money from donations to his monastery, not paying taxes on his fleet of luxury automobiles (yes, he had about a dozen, with more on order!), and fathering a child with a 14-year-old girl. Anything else I missed? Sounds like a great guy. Then there is the radical monk in Myanmar who has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned businesses, and has been blamed for stirring up locals and causing some of the violence that’s plagued the country this year. Needless to say, this monk’s comments have created a storm of controversy, enough to put him on the cover of Time magazine.

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But I’d prefer to leave those assholes out of the equation and concentrate on the good aspects of Buddhism, as exemplified by some of the monks I know in Myanmar’s Shan State. In today’s post there are some photos of the novice monks (and a few of their teachers) from the monasteries at Shwe Yan Pyay and Tat Ein. If observing Khao Phansa means having to refrain from playing football or watching matches on TV, these youngsters are going to have a tough couple of months ahead of them.

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90th Street Sorrow

The untimely death of young Aung Phyo Zaw in Mandalay last week really shook me. When tragedies like his drowning happen, one feels helpless. What can you do to help the family members and friends who are grieving? It’s especially frustrating when they are in Mandalay and I’m in Bangkok and I can’t physically be there to pay my respects.

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Nevertheless, I wanted to do something, felt like I needed to do something. I feel a real solidarity with the people I’ve met on 90th Street in Mandalay. They treat me like family and I want to reciprocate whenever possible. I sent e-mails to two of closest friends in Yangon, Ma Thanegi and Win Thuya, and also sought the advice of Zin Maung Maung, my Burmese tutor in Bangkok. I asked them all for details on the Myanmar custom for dealing with death, and what would be appropriate for me to do in this case. I also expressed concern for the two other boys who had been swimming with Aung Phyo Zaw and what could be done to help or console them. I received these suggestions:

“You can send money saying please may you share in the merit of giving a Soon Kyway meal to the monks. They will be doing that anyway, and your contribution will be convenient for them.

“The Buddhist belief is that it’s karma from past lives and that nobody escapes the time of their death when it arrives. Tell them that accidents happen. It’s such a tragedy, but is karma. With these beliefs, Burmese Buddhists can deal with trauma.”

“In Burmese custom, we invite some monks at home and do some good donation for him on 7th day. So, if you want please give some money to use for the donation and offering for monk.”

I decided to donate some money for the Soon Kyway ceremony, which was held on the 29th at the family’s home in Mandalay. I asked my friend Walter, who is teaching at a school in Mandalay, to take the money down to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street and give to him or ask for Khin Nwe Lwin, if she was around. I have no idea what sort of turnout that they have for this type of ceremony, nor what the vibe is like. I doubt it’s some sort of festive wake in the vein of what you see in New Orleans. But I’d like to think that it wasn’t all sorrow and tears, that the people gathered together last Saturday on 90th Street remembered Aung Phyo Zaw and his shy smile and the good times that they enjoyed with him.

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So today, in remembrance of Aung Phyo Zaw , I’m posting photos of some of the people from 90th Street; the neighbors, the children, his friends, my friends.

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Gay in the NBA: Play It, Don’t Pray It

The big news in the world of sports today was the coming out announcement by professional basketball player Jason Collins. He is the first “active” male player (as opposed to someone that retired and later announced that they were gay) in US professional sports to proclaim their homosexuality.

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Collins should be congratulated for taking this bold step. I hope this is only the beginning and it will embolden many other gay athletes to make similar announcements. Actually, real progress will be made when such proclamations aren’t even necessary, and cause nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. Of course, a lot of the value of having announced that he’s gay will be negated if Collins never plays in an NBA game again. At the age of 34, Collins is a veteran backup, a role player who plays less than 10 minutes per game, nearing the end of his playing career. He’s not a star, he’s not even a starter. With his current contract having expired, he is a free agent (after playing for both Boston and Washington this year) and there are no guarantees that he’ll be signed by a team for next season. But by all accounts he is a valuable “big man”, a Center with defensive prowess, as opposed to one that can score lots of points, and he still has some value as a player, so hopefully we’ll see him on the court later this year.

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Collins’ surprising statement drew positive reaction and support from current NBA players such as Kobe Bryant, Baron Davis, Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor, Kenneth Faried (current owner of the NBA’s best hairstyle!), Steve Nash, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, and even Metta World Peace (the controversial player formerly known as Ron Artest). There were also supportive statements from non-athletes such as Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama.  But you can bet that there are many people in the NBA and professional sports who are uncomfortable with, if not angered by, Jason Collins’ announcement. Most of the homophobes will be reticent to voice opinions at this time, but I did notice a few negative comments about Collins, not surprisingly made by the masters of intolerance, those of the Christian faith. Mark Jackson, an ex-player and current coach of the Golden State Warriors said: “As a Christian man, I have beliefs of what’s right and what’s wrong. That being said, I know Jason Collins, I know his family and I’m certainly praying for them at this time.”

He’ll pray for them? How loony is that? And he makes the typical and ludicrous Christian judgment of equating homosexuality with sin. Hey Mark Jackson; you are a moron! And yet another idiot, this one an ESPN NBA writer named Chris Broussard, said: “Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex between heterosexuals, if you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I do not think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian.”

And people like this are given voices in the mass media? Are these people scary or what? Can you say: Cro-mag? Their faith dictates that they must believe this way? Sorry, but that’s just nothing but ignorance in my opinion. Comments like those only reinforce my long-standing belief that most Christians — along with any other religious zealots, whether they are Muslims, Hindus, or Jews — are clueless, dangerous characters that need to carted off and dumped on a remote island somewhere, far away from the rest of intelligent civilization.

Seriously, why is it that so many of us continue to tolerate the religious extremists in our midst, especially their absurd dangerous, fairy tale beliefs?  We can roll our eyes and call these people nutcases, but when they continue to be given a voice in the media and are able influence politicians and lawmakers, and as a result affect our lives, it’s time we woke up and took some action.

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A group of sports writers on one website were discussing Collins’s coming out and the impact it will have on his career. One writer wondered if Collins would have difficulty with his teammates. Some thought that it won’t be a big issue, but others suspect there will indeed be some players who are either uncomfortable with being in the locker room with a gay player or who will remain outwardly hostile to homosexuals. Part of that hate, hostility and violence is ingrained in American culture and its warped “Christian values”. Here in Southeast Asia, where the tolerant tenets of Buddhism (more of a philosophy than a religion, some would say) affect the behavior of the people, being gay is not much of an issue at all. In public schools, for example, if a student is gay or lesbian, they might — at the very worst — be playfully teased by their classmates, but without any nastiness vindictiveness. Mai Pen Rai, they would say here in Thailand. But at a school in the United States you can bet that there would be a definite element of cruelty at play, if not something much worse. Remind me again of the suicide statistics for gay youth in the USA? And you can thank those “gentle” God-fearing Christians for the continuing existence of such hate and cruelty.

Thinking about the Jason Collins story and the nasty cloud of religion that hovers over so many issues, I thought of the possible repercussions from an even bigger news event. What if a major candidate for political office in the USA declared: “I am not a Christian, nor do I have religious beliefs of any kind. I remain an atheist.” Now THAT would truly rock some boats. But just like Jason Collins’ announcement, it’s time for someone to step forward and shout it out!

Cycling Awareness

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I’m in Mandalay this week, cycling around town as usual, visiting friends, bumping into others whom I haven’t seen in years, or meeting new locals. But riding a bicycle — or any type of vehicle — in this town requires vigilance and awareness. You have to be very, very careful on these chaotic streets. Because there are very few traffic lights, and nothing in the way of stop signs, traffic flows constantly, and when you are approaching an intersection, it’s necessary to slow down, look both ways, and look again. Chaos may even be an understatement when describing the streets of Mandalay.

Besides interesting new sights and the friendly locals, I tend to get philosophical when I’m riding around town and seeing all the humanity and development — or lack of it — around me. Despite the boom in construction, there is still a lot of poverty, as well as people who are not benefiting from the upsurge in tourism. Prices for food and other daily staples aren’t getting any cheaper and renting a building, or even a small one-room apartment or house is also getting more expensive. But these people are nothing if not resilient and their attitude remains relatively cheerful and upbeat. Passing one poor neighborhood this morning I noticed a trio of children doing somersaults on some old carpet scraps that had been dumped by the side of the road. Yes, even when they have nothing, kids like this find a way to enjoy themselves.

I keep thinking about the things that we as human beings — especially anyone who has the financial means to do something — can do to alleviate poverty and lessen the gap between the dirt poor and the filthy rich. And it frustrates me and angers me because I don’t have any good answers for that, and I don’t see enough people making an effort to do anything about social and economic problems like these.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep peddling around this wild and wonderful city, and keep ruminating and hoping for enlightenment of some sort.

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Shwedagon Unplugged

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Wi-fi is now available at Yangon’s sacred Shwedagon Pagoda? Say, it isn’t so, Soe Moe! But according to a somewhat tardy news bulletin that I stumbled upon last week, the news is true. Here is an excerpt from one online article that I read:

Tourists visiting Shwedagon Pagoda will be provided with free Wi-Fi access as of 15 August, Mizzima reported, citing a member of pagoda board of trustee. The official said Crystal Shine Company offered the board to provide free Wi-Fi service—30 minutes per head—to foreigners on 1 July. “Wi-Fi password will be provided to foreigners visiting once they have paid five FECs or dollars as usual at foreign guest counter at southern arch,” U Win Kyaing, head of BOT office, was quoted as saying by Mizzima. The service at the most famous pagoda in Myanmar is currently destined for the tourists and its service period will be extended later. Signboards will be erected on the pagoda precinct to let the visitors know the Wi-Fi access is available from 4 am to 10 pm.

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I’ve mentioned this latest wi-fi news to other friends, both Westerners who have visited Yangon and natives of Myanmar, and everyone’s puzzled reaction runs along the lines of: What’s the point of offering wi-fi at a pagoda? Why are they doing this? Why indeed. Why do tourists need to access wi-fi while visiting the country’s most hallowed pagoda? They can’t wait till they get back to their hotel or an internet café? To me, offering wi-fi at Shwedagon borders on sacrilege. Yet the local authorities seem to have no qualms about initiating this so-called “service.” I have visions (okay, nightmares) of laptop-toting tourists sprawled on the grounds of Shwedagon (which is actually more than one famous pagoda, but a large complex of shrines and pagodas, including that famous “big one”), tapping away on their keyboards, oblivious to the worshippers around them. This is just … wrong.

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And it’s also yet another disturbing sign of the increasing sense of entitlement that seems to have become the norm nowadays amongst the tech-savvy generation. These youngsters have practically grown-up online and feel like they need to be — and are entitled to be — connected around the clock, no matter where they wander. I was shocked to see a “Wi-Fi available” sign at a teashop in Myanmar last year, but this Shwedagon sighting it an outrage of a different magnitude. It seems to me that there needs to be a line drawn at some point, leaving some places — such as Shwedagon — off limits to such electronic distractions.

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I remain puzzled at the plethora of businesses and even non-commercial entities that now offer free wi-fi to their customers or the general public. Why? Do they really think these weasels are going to spend more money because wi-fi is being offered? Everything I’ve noticed says that the opposite is happening. I see this new generation of freeloaders and slackers and I don’t see any of them spending any money whatsoever … except to buy the latest shiny new gadget. From free downloads and Google searches to various phone apps and Skype, people nowadays want instant information and instant access, and they don’t want to pay for any of it. It’s what they now expect. And that’s quite sad.

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Wi-fi at Shwedagon? It’s the end of the world as we know it.

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Mandalay Monastery

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One of the more interesting aspects of visiting Mandalay, at least for me, is discovering the plethora of monasteries scattered around the city. The southwest part of town, in particular, is chockablock with peaceful monasteries of various sizes; from the sprawling Ma Soe Yein (which also houses a Buddhist university) complex to much smaller ones, many of them located on lovely tree-shaded streets.

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Over on the north end of 90th Street, heading toward the central business district, I stumbled upon a mid-size monastery (about 100 monks in residence) about two years ago. This monastery is primarily populated by young novice monks. Some of these youngsters have come from other parts of the country (during one visit, the kids were delighted to point out the sole monk from Shan State) and some are orphans. Living and studying at monasteries like this one assures them of both an education and at least one good meal every day.

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Somewhere in my notes I’ve got the name of this monastery on 90th Street written down, but I can’t find it amidst the debris in my backpack. In any case, I make it a point to stop by there each time I’m town. I’ll take some photos of the monks during their midday break and return a day or two later with prints to give everyone. And yes, even novice monks can get very excited about having a photo of themselves!

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