Monday, March 4, 2013

Retreats in Myanmar (Burma)

I just returned from a month (February) in Myanmar.  In addition to travelling around for sight-seeing (Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan), I "sampled" two retreat centers, the Mahasi Center in Yangon and the Shwe Oo Min Center outside of Yangon.  I only stayed a week at each, which is the minimum period allowed.

Both meditation centers provide lodging and food without cost.  They rely entirely on donations.  Both are training centers for monks and nuns.  It is possible to ordain as a monastic while there (temporary ordination is common in Myanmar), but I presume that one would have to stay for at least a month to do so.  At the Mahasi Center foreigners (monastics and lay persons) stay in separate quarters, but they are mixed at the Shwe Oo Min Center.  At the Mahasi Center everyone eats in the same dining hall, although in different sections.  There is greater integration in the lodgings at the Shwe Oo Min Center, but monks are segregated for meals there.

Both centers have similar schedules for doing alternating sitting and walking meditation, although the Mahasi Center tags on a later session in the evening.  Wake-up is at 3:30 AM at both.  Neither center enforced the schedules (except for meals), and it was possible to follow one's own schedule for sitting and walking.  Rituals were at a minimum at both.  The expectation at the Mahasi Center is that one observe "noble silence," although there were occasions when one could engage in conversation with a willing participant.  At the Shwe Oo Min Center "noble silence" was observed in the meditation hall and during meals, but there were few restraints on conversation outside of that.  "Talking meditation" and what I would call "noble chatter" were practiced freely.    

At the Mahasi Center you are given a single room, but at the Shwe Oo Min Center you share a room with another yogi.  As it happened, the yogi with whom I shared a room there was a great guy who had meditated at that center over a long period, and we had many good conversations.

Although the Mahasi Center is in Yangon and the Shwe Oo Min Center is a "forest retreat" center in a semi-rural area, the Mahasi Center was much quieter.  The level of noise in Myanmar was quite a surprise to me.  The Burmese seem to tolerate loud speakers blaring out music, commercial messages, chanting, calls to prayer and religious talks during much of the day and even during the night.  The Shwe Oo Min Center is surrounded by monasteries and nunneries, and they seem to see it as their mission to let everyone in the vicinity know what they are up to.  I stayed at a monastery close to the Shwe Oo Min Center the first few nights I was in Myanmar so I was somewhat prepared, but, I must confess, I never really got used to so much racket.  The Burmese seem to just laugh it off.  One is almost forced to do "sound meditation" to observe one's reactions to all the noise.

The other factor that I found difficult to deal with was the heat.  I was prepared for it to be hot, but  I thought that February was not going to be as hot as it turned out to be.  The meditation hall at the Mahasi Center was air-conditioned for part of the day, and there were fans in the sleeping quarters, but there were just ceiling fans in the meditation hall at the Shwe Oo Min Center and no fans in the sleeping quarters.  When temperatures approached 40 C in the midday, I wimped out and tried to find a cool spot.  The only real relief was taking cold showers during the day.

Another disappointment for me was the level of interaction there was with the teacher, especially at the Mahasi Center.  I had an initial meeting with Sayadaw U Jatila, who is a very senior Monk at the Mahasi Center in charge of training foreigners.  He insisted I listen to a garbled tape of Mahasi instructions even though I said I had heard it many times previously.  While I was there, I had two interviews in groups.  He spoke basic English.  He gave good advice, but it was not particularly tailored to the individual.  His one dhamma talk was taped and was a repetition of a chapter from his book.  It was an exposition of a sutta.  We all had to sit through while the passages were read in other languages (Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese).

There was only one scheduled group interview with Sayadaw U Tejaniya at the Shwe Oo Min Center.  However, he was quite accessible otherwise, and I was able to ask questions of him at other times.  His English is relatively good, and he seemed to grasp one's level of practice.  I witnessed his interactions with others, and he was very tolerant and kind.

The practice taught at the Mahasi Center is, as one would expect, entirely orthodox Mahasi practice.  The practice of Sayadaw Tejaniya is much more free-wheeling.  There is considerable emphasis in the Mahasi technique on concentration, whereas in his teaching, awareness is more the emphasized.  Effort is energetic in the Mahasi techique, whereas in his teaching, persistence is emphasized.  In the Mahasi technique, one moves over time from a body-centered focus to a more open focus, whereas in his teaching, one begins with an open focus.  In future posts, I will provide a more detailed analysis of the two techniques.

Overall, both centers offer a good setting for practice, but you have to be self-disciplined when there is not a lot of externally imposed structure.  If I returned, I would go earlier, probably in November when it is cooler.  Having seen a lot of sights, I would not need to travel around quite as much, and I could stay for a longer period of time in a retreat center to get the maximum benefit out of my stay.  I would probably continue my sampling in the hope of finding a setting most conducive to my practice.

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