The Mist of Mandalay
A Western Buddhist’s Moral Struggle with his Spiritual Home
(Because of the uncertain consequences of many of these views in Burma, most proper names and locations in this essay have been avoided or altered.)
Khin Mya Swe started her descent down the winding brick paths of the monastery back into the village. The four of us who remained were sitting on the porch of Mark’s kuti, looking over the brownish, now bluish, haze settling over the Irrawaddy river valley. The coolness of evening birdsong began to rise in the forest as two golden butterflies danced in the space between us. U Aung Nang had arrived late. We had so much more to go over than our time would ever permit so we sat together quietly for a few moments, fully abiding in our strange circumstance.
People here have not really learned to think independently, Aung Nang started and paused, Something like that. Take this young woman who just left. She is so grateful to Mark, she would do anything he asked. A troubled look flashed in his eyes. Really, it is very dangerous. It is the same with the Sayadaws, he expanded, referring to the revered Buddhist leaders of Burma, Many people will believe anything their Sayadaw says and will do anything he asks. And it is the same with Daw Suu, referring to the political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, People here, common people, they are very loyal. It is really a very big problem.
My mind feebly tried to peer out of the groove that understood things like gratitude and loyalty as inherently good. I had never considered Mark and Khin Mya Swe’s friendship outside of the inspiring frame in which it was repeatedly told. Years ago, while working on a construction project in Upper Burma — just a few steps from where we were gathered — she encountered him as a layman, practicing walking meditation as a yogi on these same brick paths each morning. She was so moved by this white man, the likes of which she had never before seen, practicing in her native tradition that she offered him a Coca Cola — something that would have cost this laboring teenage girl over a week’s wages. From that moment of generosity, Mark was moved to collaborate with his teacher, a local Sayadaw, to started a meditation retreat for foreigners in these beautiful hills of Upper Burma, something that has been of great benefit to many people, including myself, for over 20 years.
In addition to the retreat, every year we provided aid to schools, nunneries, the hospital, and over the years had built roads, developed an acupuncture training program, supported the work of local midwives, provided TB and HIV care, and supported individuals in unique positions of need. In years of extreme circumstance we would open up our funding to support other causes: helping get aid to victims of cylcone Nargis, smuggle video equipment into the country during the Saffron Revolution, and now were meeting with U Aung Nang to find ways of supporting the desperate situation of the Rohingya community in the distant Rakhine State. Loyalty, gratitude, and generosity were the primary causal forces that any of us were even there. It was hard — intellectually and emotionally — to see a sinister side to it all.
But U Aung Nang reflected back to us the burdens of history and culture that also formed the unyielding knots that bound it all together. In a society that was for so many years deprived of a functioning state, it was the Sayadaws who maintained roads, built schools and hospitals, provided access to water and electricity to countless villages across the country. In a society that already honored these men as living echoes of the Buddha, peoples’ devotion, in many cases, is absolute. And yes, for Aung San Suu Kyi, the state councilor who for so many years the symbol of noble resistance to the military junta, the Burmese peoples’ dedication was equally engulfing.
For a moment a notion of the social mechanics by which the recent violence perpetrated by the Burmese military and everyday Buddhist civilians on the Rohingya people could happen flashed through the fog of my mind. In that gasp of relief from bewilderment, I acquiesced, finally, OK, I accepted as the night chill climbed from the river, the gratitude of the desperate could be more dangerous than their rage. It was incongruent but I had to be open to new ways of understanding the atrocities that were the immediate forces that had gathered us together.
On August 25, 2017, militant forces based in the Rohingya Muslim community, attacked police outposts in Rakhine state, Western Burma. The Burmese government — the military wing of it, at least — responded by unleashing a campaign of unrestrained violence through Rohingya communities and organizing civilian support: murdering and raping, burning villages and forcing an exodus of 700,000 people to flood across the border into Bangladesh. There were also confirmed reports of isolated incidents of Rakhine and Hindu victims of Rohingya violence. This is also where what is known, or at least known in a shared way, disintegrates into the realms of “fake news,” rumor, and racist conspiracy. The strife between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma or what is now also called Myanmar has a distant starting point, a long lineage that has unfurled convulsively from the spinning momentum of ages of empires strengthening and collapsing, arising and passing out of the cauldron of history. Depending on where you start, one group or another appears to be the victim or perpetrator, but in this moment it is clear: the state dominated by ethnic Burmese are the powerful mainstream oppressors while the Rohingya feebly survive on the impoverished, powerless margins of society.
Before leaving, American friends pressed me on the wisdom — and morality — of visiting Burma during this time. Though the villages burn in a distant province, is the whole country not permeated with the stench of genocide? What of your soul… and your lungs?
Burma, but more specifically the Monastery and surrounding village I have come to know so well after 10 years of coming, has become a spiritual home for me. While most of my intensive meditation practice has been in the West, nowhere there have I developed a sense of spiritual home within my own tradition — and as a person who values periods of silence and seclusion, there is very little cultural support for me there. In Burma, on the other hand, even as a non-Asian, latino-white, Western American Buddhist I have experienced profound nourishment in expressions of the Buddha’s dispensation rooted in culture and community in a way that will take the West a few more centuries to even approximate — if we don’t destroy it first. As a person who values the struggle of quiet seclusion and strives to realize my own liberation from greed, hatred, and ignorance I cannot adequately express what it is like to spend time in a culture that also values these things and longs to realize them. There is a baseline of value and unspoken understanding of the worthiness and beauty of the endeavor toward enlightenment which is rarely found in any broad way in the west outside of certain circles and enclaves.
Yet if this place is my spiritual home, and I feel as indebted to the tradition as I do, how could I abandon this place to the fires of ignorance and violence without first trying to use these alliances to leverage, or force, the transformation of views? And in a place so fraught with complexity, entangled in histories of colonialism and dictatorship with over 50 armed ethnic groups fighting the Burmese government in the world’s longest civil war, how do I hope to even try understand the Rohingya crisis in relation to these many other crises, and find a point of leverage to have a positive impact?
While I wanted to understand the views of Burmese people in general, it is very specific relationships I felt most beholden to. I was consumed by a need to know the views of the Burmese people that I know and engage them in conversation about it. My ability to stay involved in the country seemed dependent upon my ability to stay connected to the people I know and care about — and who care about me — there. But how can I stay committed and connected to — or even love — people whose views might be so abhorrent? Can I hold the possibility of evil tenderly in my heart with the friends I feel so dedicated to? Ultimately I knew it depended as much as my capacity for compassion and care as on my ability to stay connected to the roots of evil in my own heart.
The basic mechanism of my Buddhist meditation practice is the ability to stay in vigorous connection with even the most hostile forces of the mind in order to ultimately uproot them through understanding. If I believed in the transformative power of insight, trying my best to stay in relationship was a necessary ingredient of the process of change. I could not banish these people — or this place — from love any more than I could banish, with the knowledge of my own profound and persistent entanglements, myself from it. I felt the need to step closer in and take responsibility for creating the conditions of transformation in the only way I know works — investigation, patience, love, and courage.
Chinese are not like the Muslims, a Burmese friend began explaining to me one dry afternoon in my room at the monastery. Chinese have interest in economics, in development. Muslims want to create problems, control land. The Bengalis want to create the Islamic State, ISIS.
But the Chinese who come are rich, I generalized as I pushed back. They just want to expand their business. The Chinese government basically wants to colonize Burma. The Rohingya, people who many here refer to as “Bengali” and have lived without citizenship in Rakhine state for centuries, are poor. They want a better life for themselves. They are a totally different kind of immigrant. I said this though I knew they were not actually immigrants. Even after many generations of being here they are not allowed to leave Rakhine State. They cannot vote. Have no legal recourse. Would he know this word, “recourse”? In those conditions, of course they become angry. ISIS maybe gives them a way to feel strong, hopeful. If the Myanmar government provided food, shelter, education, opportunity, form they would probably not turn to ISIS. They would be content. His English was quite good but I was not sure whether the ground of our shared language or of our friendship were firm enough to hold the tension.
Yes, he nodded, poverty is the big problem.
Right. I couldn’t stop myself. All people want the basic opportunity for work, health, feeling good — and want the best for their children. Every country that has more resources than its neighbor will have immigrants that seek better opportunities. Many local people will not like. But that is just the way it is — everywhere. Buddha said, “metta, karuna,” my friend nodded as he joined in with me, “mudita, upekkha,” as we recited the divine abodes of lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, that no being should be outside of our care — Muslim, Christian, bad, good.
Yes, he affirmed — or acquiesced, if trying to avoid further berating.
Many problems, he agreed, and very complicated, his voice was burdened by the depths of that truth in a way I could only try to appreciate. The military destroyed our country. We both were silent for a few moments.
As he was leaving, I noticed my copy of Lenin’s “On the Unity of the Proletariat and Peasant Masses” I had picked up in Rangoon and had by the door. I thought about showing it to him but wondered, why threaten the camaraderie we were enjoying? We had gotten pretty far — better not push it. Let’s call it a day, I said, using his favorite English aphorism, and he chuckled as he walked away.
I encountered the book of Lenin’s a week before as I wandered among the dozens of street-side bookstalls in downtown Yangon and picked up a few musty English-language editions published in Moscow. Feeling encouraged, I entered one bookshop that seemed to have political titles in Burmese and asked if they had any books by Karl Marx printed in Burmese script. As I wrote his name in Roman characters on a piece of paper, the owner acted as if he didn’t recognize the words, but the tone of his speech became tense as he called out to summon his colleagues. I realized I should exit quickly — and take the piece of paper with me. The Communist Party is the only political party still banned in Myanmar, a place where the newfound democracy is revealed each day to be more veneer, or venereal. I squeezed my eyes in self-admonishment for acting so carelessly.
I wove my way into a neighborhood of streets all dedicated to very specific wares — one street where all the stores sell eyeglasses or watches, another where all the shops sold ropes, another for plumbing, one for gems like rubies, jade, and amber, and yet another for painting supplies. I kept my eye out for the handful of mosques I knew I would encounter along those bustling pathways. Life among the mosques seemed vibrant, normal — though I had no reference point to compare it with. I entered the gate of Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque and was invited by an elderly man to sit and chat on a bench outside. Built in the early 1860s, it is the oldest mosque in Burma. Unfamiliar with Muslim protocol, I decided not to enter the building, evidently relieving my host. We talked to the limits of his English and sat a bit in silence looking around. I made a small donation in the glass box and as I left was warmly greeted by a man my own age, Asalamaylekum — which sparked an unexpected happiness in me, Yes, I said enthusiastically, Salekumsalam.
Across the street from the only synagogue in Burma I met a group of Muslim men drinking tea on the steps of a plumbing shop. One was visiting from L.A., relaxed and obviously glad to be back home. About the synagogue he just said, No, there are basically no Jews left in Burma. They mostly fled after the Japanese invaded. I think they only have services once or twice a year, something I later confirmed in my guidebook.
Fear of political conversation had permeated Burmese society for years and my American colleagues and I had a strict practice of only engaging in it if local people brought up the topics, and even then very carefully. We knew anyone could get into the darkest of troubles from uncalculated speech — ourselves included — since countless people served as spies and informants. Times have changed in some ways but this hesitation is hard to shake. Still uncertain about the safety of public conversation about anti-muslim sentiment in the country, and still tense from the episode at the bookshop, I passed the opportunity to engage this English-speaking Burmese-Muslim-American more deeply, a decision I regretted immediately.
On Independence Day I stumbled upon a festive community in another Muslim and Hindu neighborhood filled with people playing games in the streets. Children scraping their knees in their chalk-lined soccer court, teens playing “sharks and minnows,” and a multigenerational game of musical chairs were all crammed beside each other for several festive blocks. I had read of raids in some of these places led by nationalist Buddhist monks, accusing people of harboring Rohingya people. Nothing of the kind was evident during my visit to these streets and was moved to see the resilience humans can show in the face of persecution, and the celebration of nationhood from a people commonly referred to as kalar — an offensive term for dark-skinned Muslim and Hindu “foreigners” — by many Burmese.
Until now, my orientation toward Burma had always been with Buddhism at the center. It was the home of my lineage and for several years I was almost giddy to find a culture that lived and breathed in the air of the Buddha’s Dhamma and wanted to deepen my absorption in it. Now the air seemed toxic: From the horrible congestion of the city to the putridity that seemed to permeate the Buddhist religious culture. Most of monastics I encountered on the streets had lips dripping blood red from chewing betel nut and moved with a general air of religious degeneracy. They were driving mopeds and cars, cajoling people for donations outside of restaurants, and everywhere I looked they were handling money — all things expressly forbidden by their monastic vows.
It is common in my tradition to talk about the long-predicted evaporation of the Buddha’s teaching, or sãsana. When I’m home in the west I have the not-infrequent sense that I am contributing to it. But in Burma, in the place where it just recently seemed most impervious to decline, I felt I was witnessing it crumble in front of me. As the real and fantasy promises of greater economic opportunity in the cities arise, more and more people are moving in from the burdensome rice-fields in the countryside for a dependable day’s wage, and fewer and fewer find the baseline security of the monastic sangha to be a compelling option.
In Rangoon I encountered slick coffee shops with wifi and croissants, microbrew beer, Uber-like services — things entirely inconceivable to me even a few years earlier. The feudal economy that supported the monastic reality for centuries is dramatically combusting under the conflagration of crony capitalism, and it is not at all clear how the new social relations will function to support the religious system.
The chauze paya or Jade Pagoda is a giant Buddhist shrine on the outskirts of Mandalay. Comprised entirely of jade, it is a stunning example of the economic undercurrents of contemporary Burmese Buddhism. The pagoda is not associated with any monastery or nunnery, but rather stands in the center of the construction of an enormous gemstone bazaar, condominium development, and high-end retail shops.
Nearly $31 billion in jade is extracted each year in Burma, mostly in Kachin State, representing about 48 per cent of Myanmar’s GDP (and 46 times the government expenditure on healthcare). But because only $2.2 billion is officially reported as revenue, taxes on this income provides but trifling support to the state charged with the wellbeing of this impoverished country. Most of the jade is sold on the black market in China, while the profits fill the private coffers of military generals, drug dealers, and fuel both sides of the ethnic conflicts in the region. The Jade Pagoda is an altar of devotion — not to Buddhism, but to capital run wild.
It is in this context that my view of the Burmese people in general, whom I had long considered to be the innocent victims of 60 years of military dictatorship, now seemed to be the perpetrators or defenders of revolting atrocities against Rohingya. It was impossible to reconcile this with my memory of the people and the place and impossible also to know if the people had changed or if the changing social conditions had kindled latent tendencies that, in different light, had once seemed innocuous, even enchanting. It was, of course, entirely possible that despite my energetic attempts at abstaining from exoticism, my own view had been mystified by an enthrallment that led me to see kindly — if not clearly — for so long.
This irreconcilability between what I once believed and what I now saw also pertained to Aung Suu Kyi, who after years of house arrest was now the de facto leader of the country and had offered not even decorative concern for the atrocities she continues to deny ever happened in Rakhine State. Had she changed and become a monster or had the light just shifted? Were her gifts of fierce stubbornness, independence, determination, seen as heroic under years of house arrest, now proving to be essentially autocratic in the new dynamic she found herself in?
When I arrived up north, the sky was so clear that even from the village the far-off hills of the Shan Plateau seemed strikingly immediate in their quiet clarity. The air was piercingly fresh and I felt my body relax from releasing a tension I had not fully been aware I was holding from the smog of Yangon. But as we lurched deeper into the dry season a clotted air pervaded and the discomfort of sore throats, bloody noses, asthma and the occasional bloody cough became the norm. Across the river, a mysterious brown haze began to hang over Mandalay with meatier persistence. Walking through the hills each day, I could see the cloud slowly plod its way to our side of the river.
What is all this smoke? I asked a nun who had recently joined our teaching team as we climbed the steep steps above the meditation hall.
Yes, see out in the distance? Now you cannot even see Shan State. Is it smoke? Dust? Haze? She gave me a blank stare of non-understanding. Maybe something we call “smog?”
No, she seemed surprised at my string of questions, it is mist. Mist from the river.
My face soured skeptically, perhaps too strongly for our dawning acquaintance, Mist? That brown cloud? I don’t think so… I had seen beautiful mist rise from the river basin on some cool winter mornings. But this was not that.
Really? she asked with genuine interest, but our conversation was interrupted by matters closer at hand.
A few days later on a trip to run errands in town I was driving alongside the Irrawaddy river and noted the now persistent thick brown cloud obscuring our vision of Mandalay. Accompanied by the same friend with whom I had discussed the Chinese and Rohingya, I asked him, What is this cloud? Smoke? Dust?
Yes, smoke. From the fields.
From rice paddies? Right. Mystery solved. I knew farmers in the Thailand burned their paddies in the winter but didn’t realize they also did it here.
But ten minutes later, across the river, I was completely awestruck by how thick the smoke had become, how vast an expanse it seemed to smother.
The smoke is unbelievable! How do you say “smoke” in Burmese?
Migo. He said, But this is not smoke. It is mist.
I was sure we were looking at the exact same impenetrable dark cloud as across the river.
But you just said it was smoke. He didn’t respond. Mist? I don’t think so. Maybe smoke. Migo. Or Dust. Someone told me dust blows in from the Gobi desert. Or maybe smog?
Like from cars and motorbikes and factories.
Ah yes. No, it is mist. My insistence hadn’t moved him.
But mist is like water-vapor, moisture. If it was mist we wouldn’t be getting bloody noses, coughing all the time.
And that was it. The conversation evaded by affirmation. I asked if we could roll up the windows and turn on the aircon.
According to the World Health Organization, 22,000 deaths per year in Myanmar can be attributed to air pollution which in its urban centers is as bad as the worst cities of China and India. Near Mandalay the median number of 140 PM10 and 78 PM2.5 airborne particles puts it in the spectrum of “extremely unsafe” but the information does not seem widely known. During my visit, three other Burmese friends — two of them medical doctors — also casually identified the brown cloud as mist: Mist from the river.
For the first hours after sunrise, the birds outside my room at the monastery are alight with sound and flutter. Familiar sparrows tend to their nest outside my door and test the boundaries of safety in their proximity to me. Other birds, seemingly black shining blends of starlings and hummingbirds flit through the trees. A grackle type-of-thing hunts moths on the wing. As these birds fade into the forest, the sounds of crows and parrots dominate the soundscape as squirrels jump assuredly from trees to power-lines and finally scamper along the metal roofs in search of piles of left-over rice that is put out for them on perches throughout the courtyard. The sounds of young novice monks chanting Buddhist texts in an ancient language they don’t understand — and wont for many years — can be heard in the lower part of the monastery.
Our team was looking forward to visiting the abbot of a nearby monastery — a Sayadaw friend of ours who we loved for his gentle temperament supported by the spacious seclusion of his simple monastery. As we walked past the dusty and vibrant village our surroundings began to get more quiet. Giant plumeria trees overwhelmed the street, crisscrossed every thirty feet by ancient stone walkways, leading to quiet hillside monasteries and nunneries. Feral chickens scratched noisily in the dried leaves of the forest floor. Old abandoned wells stayed dark in the forest as the sounds of barking deer occasionally pierced below the canopy.
A story is told of two brothers who, seeking enlightenment, each began to live and practice in limestone caves on opposite sides of a valley. They promised one another that should either of them attain the goal, they would hang a lantern outside their cave as inspiration to their brother on the distant hillside. After many years, one brother finally attained that state for which householders have left home strived toward for ages. He immediately remembered his commitment to inform his brother and got up to prepare the signal. But just as he lit his lamp outside his cave he saw across the valley that his brother’s lamp had also sprung to life, and so each of their happiness was doubled. The story is shared as a powerful and mysterious lesson in the individual and shared nature of the path to enlightenment. The monastery we were visiting was said to be the home to the second cave.
Sayadaw led us into his new reception area, built at the behest of a recent donor. As he took his seat in front of the altar, we prostrated three times, as per custom, and began our translated conversation with the usual questions about his health, the state of the monastery, and other visitors. He commented that there were very few visitors this year, and was curious as to why. I suggested that his experience had been echoed throughout my travels and most hotel owners I had spoken with believed it was because of “the events” in Rakhine state. He nodded, admitting that several of his western guests had brought it up with him and pressed him on the issue. He seemed to think these foreigners believed that the violence was nearby — and that this was their greatest concern — but he tried to assure them that it was all happening very far away.
At least that is what our translator inferred. She then began to speak with him directly and animatedly, and he responded at length after which she engaged him further. This went on for a while before it became clear that she had forgotten or was not planning on translating for us. We asked her urgently what they had spoken about. Oh, she said, we are just talking about those problems. You see, foreigners don’t really understand what is going on.
Mark tried to be politic, Yes, there are very old historic tensions between the Arakanese and the Rohingya as well as the Burmese and the British. It is all very complex.
Yes, but of course really these Bengalis are the cause of all the trouble, the translator replied.
The westerners in the room looked half-frozen half-thawed by the painful inevitability of this moment, uncertain about how to address it in front of a revered monk. In the awkward pause, I looked at the clock and realized incongruously that I was about to be late for lunch. Not my lunch, but I needed to get back to our monastery to read the lunch donation dedication for the yogis and lead them in their mealtime chant. I chimed in hurriedly, I cannot believe that after 60 years of military dictatorship by the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known, people here are so ready to believe this story and blame the Rohingya.
She responded with full awareness. Yes, I know. But this time I am with the Tatmadaw. It is the foreign press who is believing false stories.
I was shocked. Not so much by her attitude toward Muslims — she had expressed generally prejudiced sentiments toward them before — but that anyone in the country could so eagerly place their faith back in the group that had had a boot firmly on their heads for so many decades. And most importantly this elderly woman was not simply “our translator” but a person with whom over ten years I had spent countless hours sharing stories of childhood and life and for whom I had grown a deep affection for. For years we had called each other dawdaw, auntie, and tule, nephew, and I cared for her as if she was like my own blood relative.
Dawdaw, how can you trust these people who destroyed your country, brought your country to ruin, forced you out for so long? I could feel the anger — and grief — growing in my voice, You trust these same people more than these poor hundreds of thousands of Muslims, raped and murdered, forced out of their homes and villages? I said with my arm on her shoulder and attempting to suppress a murderous smile on my face, trying as hard as I could to stay connected while not denying my outrage, remembering to be on my best behavior in front of our monastic host, and all the while conscious that I was at this point already late for running out the door.
Yes, she said enthusiastically — also smiling, if perhaps a bit forcefully through a fear I had instilled in her. You see, Muslims can have many wives and so they have six children with this wife, and nine children with this one, and so on and so on. Soon they will overtake the Buddhists.
Aghast and in a hurry, I could not answer and excused myself in the midst of a crescendo of tension that I had helped build in the room. I bowed again to Sayadaw, and handed Marie and Mark their envelopes of donations, dana, for him, but decided to hold mine back. Every year I gave a donation to him, it was instinct. But I couldn’t yet do it, not with that feeling in the air, with the unresolved tension of where we each stood on these vital matters. I tried to be polite but I knew my abruptness felt violent and that I was leaving in the wake of explosive energy only barely contained.
I cursed to myself all the way back. Our conversations with Sayadaw had always been so easy, so peaceful and inspiring. It was a refuge. Now, I had brought this tension into the atmosphere and the dynamic was strained. During the discussion that had just unfolded the monastics in the room had withdrawn, seemingly in shock. Had I exploded the friendship? I felt ashamed and yet doubtless. It was the strange tension between my respect for the tradition, for elders, and for culture and what I frequently experienced throughout my life while traveling abroad as what I could not help but feel was my ultimately American value of truth over reverence, honesty over obedience. As ugly as the Trumpian manifestations of it could be, and as much sought to reject and distance myself from it, over and over again I encountered it in my own heart — and indeed at times also saw the value in it.
But did I need to know what Sayadaw thought about the Rohingya in order to be friends with him? In order to love him? To value his spiritual perspective? To offer him dana? Since I no longer had faith in our translator’s ability to make a clean and thorough exchange of ideas, how could I even imagine such a conversation to sort out these tangled threads?
And what of my relationship to this woman, our translator, for whom I held so much tenderness in my heart, who I took the time to care for and learn from over all these years? What role could she have with us from here on out if we could not have a meaningful conversation about these dire matters — even now that they could be had in public?
I returned to our monastery in a blur of anger and confusion. I had walked faster than I planned and arrived well before the yogis descended for lunch. My Burmese colleagues in the kitchen were sitting around a table pealing and dicing some long green vegetable I did not recognize. I sat down to their side and tried to gather myself.
Around the work table, they began talking to each other, pointing at my skin. When they noticed my attention was drawn, one of the assistant cooks pointed to my skin and enunciated slowly, pude, and looked to see if I understood.
White I nodded — not about to try to explore the nuance of my racial identity with them. Another member of the staff added, Pude hlade. White is beautiful. I tilted my head and shrugged, trying to convey a whatever.
She pointed to her own arm, hniet.
Black, I offered.
Yes, she replied in English, black.
Hniet hlade I said as quickly as I could — trying to pre-empt the skewed self-image based on skin-tone I knew was about to be invoked.
No, she said, quivering her open palm Hniet mahlabu — black is ugly, not beautiful.
Yes, I insisted, hlade, and pointed to all of their arms, all different shades of brown and gold. Alon hlade, all beautiful, I said, then joked, Pude mahlabu and tried to pantomime myself sitting in the sun to get darker and more beautiful. They laughed, getting the joke, and chatted amongst themselves.
I’d been through nearly this exact same routine with them every year and normally this would have been the end of it. But I felt so shaken from my time at the other monastery that I began to act out as best I could the beauty of all skin colors, Jesse tengajen, my friends, and pointing to all the colors that matched actual human skin tones I could see around me, trying to explain that my friends were of all these colors. Alon hlade. Myanma hlade. Kachin hlade, Chin hlade, Karen hlade, trying to remember as many of the 135 different ethnic groups in Burma I could but without the time to gather my mind, Rohingya hlade. Christian, Mulsim, Hindu, Buddha, hlade, A surprising emotionality quaked in my chest that I could hear in my voice Alon, all, pointing to my heart and drawing my hands outward metta… karuna… they joined in, mudita… upekkha. They explained to each other what they understood I meant and nodded to each other and smiled in approval. I wasn’t intending to sermonize but I had gotten worked up trying to express something so fundamental with so few words to do it. And I hadn’t convinced them — they simply agreed.
The assistant cook locked me in his eyes, Jesse, he said and put his thumb up, Okey.
As hokey as this kind of exchange may seem to outside eyes, it was incredibly moving for me. I could not take this expression and experience of shared worthiness for granted. I felt like it was the only thing holding me together. The sense of connection didn’t require agreement on history or analysis and its basic, pre-linguistic quality was a relief.
In other moments our lack of shared language was stifling, even degrading, as our interactions maintained a kind of infantilism discrepant from the complexity of our appreciation of each other, sometimes seemingly trying to re-submerge us into semi-colonial roles at every turn. It was something I tried to undermine as often as I could. Not being able to speak Burmese has provided me with a way to engage my coworkers as their student, and this felt important. But without equal — or almost any — footing on a shared language, nuances were always out of reach and I felt the prison of my limited facility with the language harden ever more fiercely.
A single difference in view about a past event could turn loved-ones into suspected enemies and here to be a suspected enemy was just as bad as a proven one so relationships sometimes felt like they were as sharp as a knife, as narrow as a blade of grass. I needed an anchor and was desperately relieved that I had gotten it.
But a stable moment in these relationships coincided with uncertainty in others. Every year I gave dana to our monastic friends in the village. Their commitment to ethical precepts and their own contagious generosity were enough to inspire me to contribute to their livelihood and in my way support the ongoing benefit of the sasana. Dana, generosity, is the life blood of the tradition and it was a critical, if largely ceremonial, aspect of our bond. But how could I support these monastics if in dark corners of their teaching might hide the insidious support for hatred that was being espoused so broadly? I felt protective of the simplicity of our connections and wasn’t sure I even wanted to bring that level of maturity and honesty to bear on them. Could these relationships take the strain? If not, what kind of friendship were they? Without proper translation it was impossible to even consider engaging them about it.
So much of what I value about these monastic teachers is their commitment to seclusion and the powerful lessons they have learned from not being so deeply engaged in the world. I was also ambivalent about the degree to which I wanted to hold them accountable to my expectation of social maturity. How could I fairly demand both the wisdom of renunciation and the wordiness of society?
As I lay down that night, I had the overwhelming sensation of being buried under a huge pile of bricks, laying beneath a giant crumbling stupa, the weight smothering me to sleep.
I woke with the words of Lenin in my head, Unity cannot be granted. It must be won. Something like that. I was struck by how resonant Lenin’s words against nationalism were with the Buddha’s suspicion of identity-view as the scaffolding of delusion.
…one who has adopted the standpoint of nationalism naturally arrives at the desire to erect a Chinese Wall around his nationality… he is unembarrassed even by the fact that it would mean building separate walls in each city, in each little town and village, unembarrassed even by the fact that by his tactics of division and dismemberment he is reducing to nil the great call for the rallying and unity of the proletarians of all nations, all races and all languages.
~ VI Lenin, Iskra No 46, August 15 1903
But, unlike Lenin, Buddha’s greatest call is not one that aims for a more expansive identification, not a “greater self” that includes all people — or all workers — but the destruction of self-ness and self-ing entirely. Because nationalism is dependent upon identity-view and constantly reinforces it, Buddhist nationalism should be an oxymoron. Yet throughout history it arises again and again. Sitagu Sayadaw, one of the most revered mainstream religious leaders in Burma, gave a speech last fall to army officers in which he retold an ancient story in which fully enlightened, arahant, monks told a king that he had no bad karma from having killed millions of Muslims because they were not fully human,
“From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men… Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts.”
Sayadaw then spoke directly to the members of the military,
Do not worry. No matter how much you have to fight, how much you have to shoot them, just remember what was being said earlier. There are only one and a half beings that can be regarded as human beings. The persons who cannot be called human beings are not important.
and went on,
It’s about unity, right? There must be unity between the King and its people as well as the unity between the Army and Sangha (the Monks). The Four of them also have to be united. It’s like the four legs of a chair. They all have to support the country.
Sitagu Sayadaw’s framework mirrors the tendency in all genocidal societies to dehumanize groups of people as animals or influences that must be eradicated rather than humans that should to be respected, listened to, and cared for — never mind given a seat at the table. In Burma, this also takes the shape of using the otherwise internal spiritual tactics of “suppressing,” “uprooting,” or “destroying” mental “defilements,” “taints,” or “cankers” as metaphors for social response to perceived negative forces in the country, such as the Rohingya or “foreign influences.” Use of these kinds of socio-buddhist metaphors is an old tactic of the military junta and are once again being successfully employed in the post-election era. The effect has been that in a great deal of public discourse groups of human beings are considered as symbols of that which needs uprooting more than they are considered actual human beings.
This longing for unity, for oneness, for pride and faith in their country, for a sense of belonging and solidarity after generations of internal alienation and fracturing, is something for which many Burmese seem desperately thirsty and, like all people, in order to quench it are too often willing to ignore vast spectrums of the truth — and expel vast numbers from its folds.
The fixation on unity does have its metaphorical reflection in the Buddhist approach to concentration. Unification of the attention with the object of attention (like the breath) has the ability to temporarily suppress the uglier effluents of the mind and is necessary to give the mind a platform for insight. But without mindfulness, concentration does not lead to wisdom. It is merely repressive. The enforced bliss of concentration can actually be addictive, leading toward the compulsion toward more and more of it rather than a more honest engagement with reality. It is akin to a Leninist approach to Buddhism — unity in the name of liberation but with the ultimate effect of subjugation.
If we are going to scale up spiritual tactics to the level of society, then we must recognize that without the social quality of mindfulness there is no motivation toward wisdom and the system tends toward more and more investment in control, in unity by force. It seems then that building relationships of honesty, care, and genuine interest, especially across lines of social difference, is the closest we can come to something that might be called a “social mindfulness,” the mechanism that would uproot the prejudices and delusions within a society that propagate suffering and thereby loosen the need for social control based on enforced unity. And what is this social dimension of mindfulness other than mechanisms of investigative interest that are patient and receptive, seeking to understand rather than control and judge?
When we apply mindfulness to any phenomenon it is revealed to be constantly changing, undependable, impersonal. So the more we are rooted in the reality of phenomena instead of our ideas about them, the more our mind becomes disenchanted and slowly releases what it encounters from expectation, from hope. This release is the peace of the Buddha’s path, of vipassana or insight meditation, and is rarely what people expect in terms of enlightenment. It is not the bliss of endless satisfaction but the relief of eternal dispassion.
In this process most people come to realize that they often don’t really want to be free, they just want things to be the way they want them to be. So they gravitate toward the tools concentration. This is as true for a society as for an individual. Mindfulness can feel destabilizing — because reality is unstable — but it is the only way to achieve the deeper promise of peace through freedom. Because mindfulness is a source of equanimity within the unstable, it is the greatest threat to the forces of homogeneity which are found within the same root-structure of tradition. The two primary drivers of Buddhist insight, while both necessary, are also at odds with one-another in a fundamental way and it takes a great deal of spiritual maturity for the strength of wisdom to survive over the enchantment of control. It is a stage of insight that very few have the stomach to make it past. And in this way even a predominantly Buddhist society grows to be more devoted to the fantasy of itself than to its reality.
In vipassana practice, when the wilderness of experience becomes overwhelming we are trained to bring the attention back to an anchor — a relatively neutral or even slightly pleasant place of experience, like the breath, which we train the attention to be concurrent, building the force and safety of concentration. We come to depend on this anchor for stability but ultimately the anchor must also be investigated. And, over time, we must have the courage to accept that this thing we have depended on for safe harbor is also unstable, unpredictable, ephemeral, entirely incapable of producing lasting satisfaction. This insight includes the recognition that everyone we know, no matter how much we love them or rely upon them, are also subject to change, to get sick, to die, disappoint. The mind will do everything it can to avoid this truth and try to cling to its anchors.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been an anchor for the Burmese people for so long that it is almost impossible to ask people to see her clearly, as entirely human — a fallible, complex, or even corrupt one. No matter how wickedly the dictatorship acted, no matter how hopeless the despair, no matter how black the darkness, Aung San Suu Kyi never faltered, never failed, never backed down. When we have invested so much hope in a person we often develop a profound defense against disappointment in them and so lose our ability to see what is before us. Very few are really strong enough to bear the betrayal of a saint. And when our abused mother is released from her prison of house-arrest, our deepest urge may not be to kill those who constrainer her but rather to hope that they create the fantasy home for which we always longed. And so this putrid cloud of inhumanity that has pervaded the country seems instead to many Burmese to be a cleansing mist of purification.
Yet sometimes genuine insight is unavoidable. U Aung Nang, the long-exiled activist from the Generation 88 community with whom we met at Mark’s kuti said that upon returning home, he and his colleagues were crippled by the sense of having been betrayed by the National League for Democracy. These activists arrived ready to work for the future of the country and never had a single phone call returned. It has taken them many months to recover from this unreciprocated loyalty and begin to build a movement network outside of the NLD — one that we were there to help fund, an inspired grass-roots uprising that could build a culture of diversity and social inclusion across the country.
We were happy to meet with him and to be able to offer what strategic and financial support we could to this work and are excited about our continued endeavoring to deepen the impact of these efforts. But it is a steep mountain and it is still impossible to see how wide the boundaries of unity will grow — to see also whether the unity that comes from inclusiveness rather than the unity that comes from enforcement can be fostered.
Months after returning home, I came upon a Reuters essay — written by journalists now condemned to 7 years of imprisonment for their investigation — that showed the first conclusive proof that atrocities were committed against the Rohingya and were coordinated among civilians by the Burmese military,
A medical assistant at the Inn Din village clinic, Aung Myat Tun, 20, said he took part in several raids. “Muslim houses were easy to burn because of the thatched roofs. You just light the edge of the roof,” he said. “The village elders put monks’ robes on the end of sticks to make the torches and soaked them with kerosene. We couldn’t bring phones. The police said they will shoot and kill us if they see any of us taking photos.”
I sent it to a Burmese friend and colleague as confirmation of my perspective that we continue to jostle over. She simply replied, “fake.”
While this village in Burma has been my spiritual home, my anchor, upon investigation it has proven to be just as undependable as any other place, and my relationships here subject to the same influences as anywhere. It is a matter of maturity, of growing up and letting go of whatever projection I had on a place, however vigorously I tried to resist that tendency, and seeing it for what it truly is — with all its uniqueness, essentially the same as everywhere else. With Burmese friends on Facebook, some who may even read this essay, the friendships are no longer confined to a secluded and distinct part of my life. It is integral and the costs and challenges of this integration are not hidden to me. Burma is no longer a refuge because it is real.
I got myself out of the monastery one afternoon to wander for a bit in the hills. Crumbling stone walls bordered ancient paths laid with bricks on which the makers’ long fingerprints could still be clearly seen. As I walked along path made by hundreds of thousands of anonymous but still present hands I felt intimately supported and I knew it was intentional. That time of year the forest is dry and the sunlight filters through the falling leaves that rustle with the warm breeze. The sounds of the river, the barges and motorized longboats are just faint distant echoes from far below. Half-wild monastery dogs meet me on the path and feign disinterest. Small spirit-dwellings where visitors offer flowers, incense, or food are tucked away under sacred trees. Ceramic crocks greet monks or nuns traveling on foot as a free offering of water to quench their thirst. Dusty broken ones with long severing cracks lie tossed on the ground beside them.
Monasteries with inspired donors leave old buildings to disintegrate while new structures are haughtily built beside them. I stopped at the new pagoda built in honor of Sayadaw from a monastery down in the valley who I used to know who was believed by many in the area to be a fully enlightened arahant. We would regularly visit him until he passed away a few years ago at 98. He had an inspiring and penetrating quality of being both very light, laughing a lot, while also being very serious and clear. He was the happiest person I have ever met. Visiting him felt like the opposite of sitting next to a nuclear reactor. The space around him seemed so clear, the energy of his presence so refreshing and permeating, I found myself wanting simply to hang out with him but also being blown out by his energy after only a short while.
He asked me once why I didn’t come to practice more in Burma. I explained that I also had work and teaching responsibilities, trying to help others. First you must become an arahant, then you can truly help others, he said without hesitation or harshness but with a force that recognized the traces of resistance to the notion in my mind.
In my experience, in places where a person has become enlightened a unique sensation of what I can only describe as cleanness continues to pervade the air for a long period of time. Visiting his tomb I was reminded of this and felt wrapped in the relief of his awakening. I am typically skeptical of being compelled by a vibe, but I felt so drained from my perseverations that just sitting on the ground in the shade of his marble reliquary, I found myself wanted to plug into that tomb and charge there forever.
Everyone must ultimately work for their own unbinding, but for a few moments I needed the juice from someone else. After a half an hour of drinking from this fountain of non-resistance, dusk approaching, I composed myself enough to head back down to the monastery.
As I descended the staircase beside the Dhamma hall and heard the gentle sounds of our yogis chanting the metta chant,
Uddhaṁ yāva bhavaggā ca ~ As far as the highest plane of existence
Adho yāva avīcito ~ To as far down as the lowest plane
Samantā cakkavālesu ~ In the entire universe
Ye sattā pathavī-carā ~ Whatever beings that move on earth
Abyāpajjhā niverā ca ~ May they be relieved and gentle-hearted
Niddukkhā ca nupaddavā ~ Free from suffering and misfortune
Sometimes I wish western yogis would chant with more conviction but that night the hushed careful tones seemed to soften my own mind as I stopped to listen in the dark. How fortunate these yogis are to have 3 weeks of silence — the seclusion, protection, and encouragement for this terribly difficult practice of engaging reality face to face, without distraction, without mitigation. How courageous.
In a rare moment of rest during the final days of the retreat, I asked our translator if she thought she would be able to come back next year. She admitted she was not sure. There were good reasons why not: our new monastic teachers now both spoke English quite well and the trip has become more challenging as she has gotten older. But this had been true the past year and she still came because of the connection, the feeling of goodwill and shared purpose. Now I could tell this was threatened, if not entirely dissipated, and without it there may not be enough reason for her to put in the effort to go through the tension again. I could feel her unease around me, around all of us, as a chasm grew between our views of the world outside of the Dhamma. In Burma a “water-drop connection” is the name for the profound sense of affection you might experience for someone you just met, referring to our only momentary separation over lifetimes of connection. I don’t think they have a word for the deepening sense of separation that can come from knowing someone more closely.
Traditionally in Burma, as in the West, admonishment is only supposed to go in one direction: from the elder to the younger, from the monastic to the laity, from the parent to the child. And we were operating in the world very much dedicated to tradition. In the post-modern West we are so often encouraged speak up and call out misbehavior or misguided thinking, regardless of social position, which is easier to do when you are not invested in your enemy’s friendship. Even among peers, how far do any of us really want to strain a connection for the sake of rightness? If it breaks and we lose any footing to engage, to persuade, or learn — or to love, what have we gained outside of a moment of personal righteousness? And yet without this level of honesty, what are we protecting?
With our translator, where I pushed had broken. I could not deny it. And in this case there was much to lose, and not just for me. As much as these relationships were my own they were also institutional, had been sparked and tended long before me, and in that sense were not mine to break. We promoted the retreat as a fusion experience between east and west, but this year it felt more like fission.
I had come back to Burma to see if my relationships could handle the strain of more honesty, more depth, more reality, but found numerous obstacles to that deepening and, more importantly, challenges about the assumptions on which that aspiration was based.
I had affixed myself to the notion that relationships were the fundamental leverage-point of change. But I also knew very well that we cannot always stay in close connection with the most harmful parts of our minds, our communities, our families, our countries, or world. There are times when staying in close proximity only serves to exacerbate dynamics, solidify positions, and inspire dialectical combustions that are more fruitfully avoided. There are times where our friendship can provide permission for atrocity. Abusive and oppressive dynamics must often be stopped or distanced from in order to create the baseline of protected conditions under which growth can happen, otherwise we will be physically or mentally harmed — succumbing to and reproducing the violence we are trying to uproot. Sometimes the distances required are far and long, spanning humblingly long epochs before contact can safely be made again.
Sometimes the distance needed is not physical but in the patterns of language that we use and avoid. While lack of shared language is at times for me an obstacle to greater depth of engagement, I cannot honestly say that with the myriad people in my life having shared language made coming to agreement any more likely than cleaving more deeply to a greater disagreement. How sincere is a relationship anyhow if it is being wielded primarily to push an agenda? Is that an action of mindfulness or of control? Either way, not all relationships can be held to the same standard. Some are ready for rigorous clarity, some are the fields where the soil of trust and kindness are nurtured, even if the seeds of honesty and agreement are never planted.
Kindness and patience and love actually can be cultivated beyond conditions — beyond language — and thankfully so because when challenging conditions arise, we have this baseline of love to hold the tensions that do arise. In this way it is possible that in the obscure, the undefined, the untranslated we can abide in some more essential, or at least equally necessary, truth.
On one of our final days we went back to our friend’s monastery for his lunch offering to us. Our translator did not join us. Instead, a new member of our team, a Burmese nun, offered to translate. We smoothed over our past tensions with the Sayadaw as one of our teachers apologized to him for the strain that had been created but also reiterated why we cared so much about the plight of the Rohingya. He seemed to understand and appreciate the sentiment of care and we quickly moved on to other matters.
I accepted that it was basically impossible for me to not offer him, or my other monastic friends, dana. Unable to communicate, money was the only bulwark against the realms of uncertainty that could threaten to unbind our kinship over the following year. Of all the places in my life where I might have imagined this would be the case, it would never have been Burma, with these monastic friends with whom money felt so buoyantly outside of the realm of capitalist exchange. But I realized these were not the post-capitalist relationships about which I might have fantasized, they were pre-feudal, and I could see no other way outside of money to affirm the security of our connections. I gave all the dana I planned to give to all the monastics I knew without ever testing any of them on the anvil of the Rohingya issue. It might not have felt healthy, but it felt better than breaking the bonds entirely. Knowing that I would return the following year helped me place the friendships within a broader timeframe of possibility.
For all my fretting, most of my relationships in the village were never confronted with the issue of the Rohingya. Mostly the reasons were mundane, not unlike home: I was too busy with work responsibilities and life to put most them in the firing line of rigorous honesty. We had yogis with diarrhea, others with constipation, our cook was stealing money from us, we had nuns who wouldn’t talk to one another, we had thousands of dollars to distribute to our local aid programs, had staff to pay, money to change, ceremonies to attend, and all the normal daily chaos of trying to manage a contemplative circus such as ours. Our cares can compile to the point that they obscure their own foundation.
As these other dramas unfolded I liked to think that our engagements strengthened my friendships enough to perhaps bear the strain of interrogation next year. For the time being I also chose to stay in the comfort of the unclear, the undefined: in the protective mist of delusion.