We thought that after seven months travelling in South East Asia we got used to the local attitude toward life. We were wrong. Two weeks at Thabarwa Meditation Center in Myanmar showed us clearly how those values considered crucial in Europe are deeply inside us.
The day at Thabarwa starts at 6 am with breakfast, although before there is one hour of recommended meditation. Breakfast consists of rice and dry fish. Always. Sometimes an additional piece of cake and a very sweet coffee. After breakfast it is time for good deeds and meditation, the two key activities.
Do good deeds without limits. Your limit is the most important. I want people to know it. I want you to accept doing good deeds without limit. Whether you are young or poor, sick or healthy, that is not important. I understand like this and I decided to teach people to understand like this. I teach to change. To change our own intelligence. This way, time after time, people here do not emphasize the difference between rich and poor, sick and healthy, having mental problems or not. In this way we can do good deeds all the time, without limits.
The problem with good deeds, at least for westerners, is that their effect doesn’t really matter. Important is the intention. Little is cared whether the task you decide to do ends with a success. It’s important that you did everything to achieve it. That you want to do something good. What matters is mindfulness and detachment. You cannot be attached to anything, even to the results of you own work.
You should understand to do only. To use only. To experience only. Neither rejection, nor attention. I want people to understand the truth of doing only, using only, knowing only, experiencing only. But most of the people are grasping. They are attached to something or someone, time and place, limited time and place. As a meditation teacher I have to correct the mistakes of people and meditators. That’s why I have to teach to do only, use only, know only, experience only.
Consequence of such an attitude is often ineffective work, from our European point of view. One of the examples is building a compost bin, a task in which Andrea decided to take part. One morning, during three hours, the only thing he managed to do with his team was to dig three holes and cover three holes. Why? After many days of negotiations they managed finally to decide where the bin should be placed. After making sure several times that the place was good (the previous two were not), they started to dig the holes for a board which would explain the inhabitants how composting works. When they came to the third hole, one guy showed up saying the place was not proper. They spent the next hour trying to find somebody who could take the final decision about the place. It was not good. So they covered back the three holes and that’s how the morning voluntary work was over.
Now there are many people in this center. Many visitors also. Many activities here. We are free here, in this place. Everyone is free to do, to think. Doing something is not difficult here. You are free just to do, you are free to speak what is right, what is wrong. You can do what is good, what is bad. Everyone is free. In this situation it is easy to understand doing only. No control. No control over activities. If you do good, you will have good results. If you do bad, you will get bad results. In most of the places or in most meditation centers or in the society you are not free, you cannot do what you like. You cannot do what you want. You need to be careful, to be something. There is no freedom with attachment. Attachment to do something, to say something. Doing only means you don’t need to think about what you are doing or what the others are doing, just do only, just experience only.
Anna, to deal with this uneasy situation of facing her own effectiveness, or rather ineffectiveness, most of the mornings followed the monks on arguably the only activity which for sure made sense – alms rounds. Buddhist monks every morning collect food. A monk cannot cook, he also doesn’t have his own money. He depends on food and money donated by other people. Usually monks go with their bowls along the streets, from one house to another, in complete silence giving people the chance to do good deeds. Giving food to monks is definitely helping to get good karma. Normally monks collect food for themselves, or for the temple. After their own breakfast, they share the food with other people. At Thabarwa, monks collect food for over 2.000 people, who live in the center. Every morning a few trucks with several monks and volunteers reach Yangon. And with a lot of boxes, bags, and containers. After more or less one hour they arrive at the city center. Everybody gets out leaving shoes inside: whoever participates in the alms, being monk, donor or volunteer, has to be barefoot. Two people stay in the truck to organize the collected food. Monks walk in line and volunteers share duties. Some people carry bags in which they will collect processed food: cookies, drinks, tea, fruits. Most of the food, though, it’s already cooked. The people from Yangon wait in front of their houses with a bowl of rice and other dishes. The monk has to touch and accept all gifts before passing them over to the volunteers. A volunteer, necessarily man, is responsible for holding a silver container for cash donations. Two volunteers just take food from the monk. Next two people carry plastic boxes. When they are full, they run to the truck which follows the column. Full boxes are checked in and empty ones are handed out. In the middle of the column, in a line, there are monks, wrapped in their burgundy robes. They all have their own bowls, where people can put food, mainly rice. When there is too much rice, a person among the volunteers collects it. It’s cooked rice. For uncooked rice there is a separate bag. Beside that, there are two-three more people who just care that there are enough volunteers in each position, they run between the column and the truck and collect money thrown from the window, which is a common practice. Sometimes instead of food people offer glasses of water or cola, which at 40°C is a real godsend. All the procession lasts about 1,5h. Everything happens in complete silence. After work, volunteers get fresh juice and usually also something among the collected goods: maybe a banana, some snack or instant drinks. The rest goes to the kitchen, it will be lunch for the day. We come back at about 11.30, straight to the canteen. Buddhist monks shouldn’t eat after noon, so the meal is organized before midday. Things to choose are many, one big mixture of tastes, literally; similar dishes are mixed together creating a colorful mess. The lucky ones can get real tidbits, people give to monks what they have best. Being a monk is not an easy task. You can become a monk for a while, then stop and then be again. Theoretically, monks should not only avoid eating after midday, but also stimulants, entertainment and much more. However, you can easily meet here monks having a cigarette or a snack in the afternoon. As much as other inhabitants of the center, they can also behave as they want.
Most people can learn from their own experience. In this place you are free to do everything. We support anyone to do all types of good deeds without limit. That’s why many people can understand the cause and effect of doing good deeds. Besides, they can also understand the cause and effect of doing evil things. Many people will do what is wrong and this way they catch problems in their life, in this way they can understand, find themselves, and also others can understand from them. This is happening all the time here. Good and bad results are happening all the time here. This way people here come to understand the cause and effect. In this way their mind and their life change. They become real meditators.
Afternoon means meditation and Buddhist class. The afternoon meditation is unusual, the breathing meditation, different from the others during the day. It’s quite surprising, most meditation centers practice one particular technique of meditation, while here people are encouraged to try many to avoid getting attached to one. Mindfulness and detachment. The Buddhist class was one of the most interesting parts of the day. Led by a nun from Virginia, it provides answers to many questions. Thanks to the fact of coming from the Western world, she was able to respond to many of our doubts, which people from Myanmar may not understand. We had endless discussions about the basis of Buddhism, but also why monks eat meat, if being detached conflicts with being human, how to make decisions in life and what to do with this idea of effectiveness. Meditation and Buddhist class are only for those who want, as everything else. No one asks you anything, no one expects anything from you. You can meditate, you are not obliged to. You can do good deeds, you don’t have to. You can spend all your day laying on your bed (mat rather, although in 40°C and no air conditioning nor fan it’s quite challenging).
We had a constant fight between the need for effectiveness, which we fed by writing down previous stories and interviews and general work on Exchange the world project, and the will of supporting this place, yet being aware that supporting means something different than we are used to. Surprisingly though, the center is functioning properly. As simple as that. Thousands of people get food and a minimum of care, every day at the gate new people arrive, elder, poor, with disabilities, dying. Most of the buildings are full of them. At 4 pm there is the wheelchair round, when volunteers take for a walk people who are not able to walk themselves. Often it is their only hour outside the bed. A moment for chatting with owners of small shops, for forbidden cigarettes, for trying to establish a contact (beside the language barrier). It’s quite a physical job, pushing the wheelchair in an uneven road full of stones and sand, in relentless heat. And it’s a work on ourselves, overcoming the uneasy feeling for old age, difference, illness. In Europe we tend to hide old age and diseases, here you can see them on every step. The walk should last one hour, it often took two. We finished just before dinner, prepared only for us, foreign volunteers. Monks don’t eat dinner, and other people if they do, they have it at their places. At the beginning the center consisted of just a few buildings, with time people from the nearby village shared their land so today it’s difficult to say what belongs to Thabarwa and what is private. Everything is mixed: houses, makeshift bars, barracks for sick people, acupuncture center, canteens, bamboo hats - which can be built here for 100$ - landfills, statues, temples, packs of stray dogs which also can come here and stay as long as they want. So they stay. Every day there are more of them, as well as people.
If we are not doing like this people in the society may not have the chance to support us. In this way they can learn about doing good deeds without limit. The more we do like this, the more people will have a chance to support us, they can understand the power of doing only. Sooner or later, in this way, many people can get benefit by using the truth of doing only, using only, experiencing only, knowing only. Because of the power of that truth this place changed a lot. The people here also changed. Life of the people here also changed. This is cause and effect. Anyone can do like this and anyone can get this kind of experience of good result. Seeing is believing. How many people can see the benefit of doing only, using only, experiencing only.
The evening is time for meditation and informal meetings with people from the center. It’s a time when everything slows down, and little by little gets silent. At about 7 pm it’s already dark. Lights switch on, if there is electricity. We take a cold shower, if there is water. There are a lot of discussions, exchange of thoughts, sometimes walking in search of silence and peace. Only one evening looked differently. The one we met with Sayadaw U Ottamasara, the founder of Thabarwa center, who visited it for just two days.
In the beginning of my mindhood I didn’t have my own meditation center. I had to go around the city, from house to house, from pagoda to pagoda, to make teaching about mindfulness and detachment. Because I’m satisfied with the practice of mindfulness and detachment, the people who listen to my teaching and practice as I guided, they also feel better in their mind. You can feel the power of a striven and pure mind by listening to my teaching. And this way I can help the people to be free from mental problems. If they are listening to my teaching or if they are practicing as I guide, their mind will not be their enemy. If they don’t listen to my teaching, their mind, their own mind will be their real enemy. They will face problems of their own mind.
Today Sayadaw U Ottamasara is a real guru. Only making an appointment for the interview required 2h waiting in line. He appointed the meeting for 9 pm. He showed up after 10. Next half an hour he was doing other things. Finally he invited us for the interview. He sat on a bench, between pillows, medicines and a cup of tea, higher than anybody else. Around the bench, on the floor, we sat together with several nuns, some of them falling asleep after a long day. We asked the first question. Silence. After three minutes, very slowly, the guru started to talk.
Before I meditated, I was not satisfied with anything, anyone. The problem was in the mind. But I didn’t know that… that truth. At that time I was not practicing mindfulness and detachment. As a student I paid attention to my school lessons. As a businessman I paid attention to my job, buying and selling, the price of goods. I never paid attention to my mind. As a young man I was educated, I had intelligence, I had my own business but I was not satisfied with my own life and with my own abilities. That’s the reason I accepted the invitation for a meditation retreat. And then I started my life as a meditator. As a meditator my life, my body, my mind are the objects of being mindful. I tend to realize about the mind, of the present mind. The presence of mindfulness and detachment make me understand my own mind.
Mindfulness and detachment. Doing only, experiencing only. All his teaching could be squeezed in three sentences. The answers from the 1,5 hour interview that evening as well as the speech he gave next morning, when together with other foreign volunteers we had the honor of having breakfast with him. But there is something in his words which makes thousands of people follow him. Not only in that center close to Yangon, there are more than 80 similar places in all Myanmar. Places, where you can just come, be only and stay even forever.
Sayadaw U Ottamasara – Founder of Thabarwa.