When I went back to Myanmar back in November last year to take up an eight month writing residency, I decided to dedicate myself to upgrading my language skills. Friends asked me why I wanted to improve my Burmese. So I told them that the main reason — other than the important matter of being able to order the very tastiest things on tea-shop menus — was that I wanted to talk with wizards.
My reply was not entirely flippant. Myanmar has a fascinating tradition of esoteric Buddhist practices. In Loikaw two years ago before at the Taung Kwe pagoda, I stumbled across a Buddhist hermit. But my Burmese was too poor, and I was too unsure of myself, to talk to him. This seemed a shame. I badly wanted to know what he was up to. But there was no way of knowing. So I decided that second time round in Myanmar, I should work on my skills. Then, when I next stumbled across a hermit, a wizard, a soothsayer or the like, I would be properly prepared.
Studying Burmese is not an easy task. But over those eight months — thanks to hours and hours of labour, and the help of my excellent teacher Sayama Thu Thu — I made some progress. Tea-shop menus no longer held any fear. Taxi negotiations became almost entirely unproblematic. I went to the market and chatted with the aunties who sold mangoes, potatoes, eggs and water spinach. All this was useful and satisfying. But I was not sure how I would get on with wizards.
Then, on my last weekend in Yangon, I found myself by happy accident at the remarkable Maha Hsay Wingaba (Great Medicinal Maze) Pagoda in the Yangon suburb of Insein.
I went to the pagoda with my Wind&Bones collaborator Hannah Stevens, and our friend Bochen Han. The temple complex was built in the 1950s by the Karen Buddhist monk and wizard (weikza-do) U Thuriya. The Maha Hsay Wingaba Pagoda is a fascinating place. Not only does it have uniquely eccentric architecture, it is also home to many cats and dogs, and the site of a fiendishly difficult maze open to worshippers on special festival days. The maze (it is a maze rather than a labyrinth, so it is designed to confound and baffle) was said to take a couple of hours to complete, and reportedly has a magical purificatory function, hence the name of the temple. And, stranger than that, the pagoda complex was also said to house the uncorrupted body of U Thuriya.
We spent an hour or so looking round the temple. The maze was closed, and we didn’t find U Thuriya, but it was interesting all the same. Then just as we were about to leave, a monk came up to say hello. He said he would take us to meet U Thuriya. He led us up a flight of stairs to a small shrine room. And there, in a glass case, was the unembalmed, miraculously preserved body of the deceased wizard, his face gilded with fine gold leaf. The caretaker, a friendly Karen woman, beamed in welcome as we came in.
I wasn’t quite sure how to conduct myself. It is hard to know what to do when in the presence of the mortal remains of an immortal wizard-saint. When I’m in religious buildings, a kind of residual Anglican piety seems to kick in automatically (I blame my clergymen ancestors): I walk with a slight frown, I fold my hands thoughtfully, I tilt my head and nod. But the caretaker cajoled me out of my seriousness. ‘Just relax,’ she said as we circumambulated U Thuriya’s body. ‘Don’t worry.’
The monk also chipped in, switching briefly to English. ‘Be happy,’ he said, and he smiled.
The monk was a generous and solicitous host. After visiting U Thuriya, he showed us around the rest of the complex. Every so often, he switched to English and reminded us,’ Be happy!’
As we chatted in Burmese—about the temple, about where we had all come from, about what we were doing in Burma, and about whether any of us had any experience of meditation—I realised that I had, more or less, attained my goal. It was only at one remove, the wizard being deceased, and it was at the most basic of levels. But there I was, on my last weekend in Myanmar, communing with a bona fide Burmese wizard and his disciples. Job done, at least for the time being.
I left Myanmar a few days afterwards and flew to Greece. And now I’ve packed away my Burmese books for a while. Until October, I’ll be here in Thessaloniki working on my next book, Hello Stranger (due out in 2020 from Granta). Nevertheless, whilst I’m here in Greece, I’m planning to keep on working on my Burmese, because I’m sure I’ll find myself back there before too long. Not only do I have so many good friends there, but it is hard to keep away from a place where a Sunday outing can turn into a lesson in wizardry.
If you want to find out more about the pagoda, there’s a great article in Frontier from a couple of years ago. Have a read here.
You can also read more about the Buddhist wizard or weikza-do tradition in the excellent Champions of Buddhism: Weikza Cults in Contemporary Burma by Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière, Guillaume Rozenberg and Alicia Turner (NUS Press 2014).
Originally posted at http://www.willbuckingham.com on June 9, 2019. This version is very lightly edited.