On November 4th, I left The States for Sri Lanka, Thailand and of course Myanmar which I now consider a home for myself. Shortly after the Buddhist Rainy Season had begun in Kaua’i, the support for inviting a second monk fell through and I was tired of being alone which meant I needed to leave.
Around the same time, in late July or early August, my Lao/American supporter named Thongvanh, sent me brochure with a monk who was leading a “Spiritual Sri Lanka Trip” which included the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura. I looked at the brochure, rolled my eyes and then discouraged him from going because I have seen commercialized tours like this before. Instead, since I was looking to go back to Asia, I told him I would take him on a better more spiritual tour which included visiting living meditation centers and actually meditating too. After he agreed, my ex-monk Nepal friend / supporter from Australia sent Thongvanh the cash for my air tickets and we were ready for take-off.
On November 4th, travel time was around 30 hours to save some money and to avoid a stopover in Kuwait. Instead, we did a 10 hour stopover in Heathrow Airport for our transit to Colombo. On our way to our connecting flight and terminal, I noticed a small little sign about free relax lounge and we quickly went there after a small bite to eat (during allowable times). With over 10 hours in layover world, this was quite nice. I would guess that most travellers did not see this sign because it was empty even though the main waiting area was crowded, noisy and full. Attention to details and over ten hours to find the place paid off.
Once the gate opened to go to Sri Lanka, the special privileges of being a monk started to seep in. First, I was told to wait at the priority seating area in front. Then one of the pilots from the incoming flight asked me if I wanted to wait in a separate area behind the security door, but I kindly declined. Nobody questioned why I asked not to be seated next to a woman and Thongvanh got to ride on my robe-tails the entire trip (which was well deserved). He was my kappiya (helper) and got similar perks that I had. On the plane, the staff were eager to feed me the dinner that was held for me when the first light came, and we were able to jump the Sri Lankan immigration queue on our entry along with gratis visas for the both of us. We were immediately met by the Na-Uyana monastery driver and shuttled to the monastery after a few business stops the other monks in the van had to do.
I had previously spent six years at Na-Uyana from 2007 to 2012. It is a monastery of monasteries and there are 4 or 5 sections in this 6,000 acre monastery (yes, three zeros). The first section is the old section complete with ancient caves. The top of the mountain section is only for monks and is like a meditation center with the food brought daily by jeep. The Kospota side takes about an hour and a half to walk to and there are about 20 monks living there. Kospota side has a separate food donation hall and the monks get food only once at 7 am each day. Another section is called Andagala which has 4 kutis on the side of a mountain which takes about an hour and forty-five minutes to walk to. These monastic residents are secluded and get their food only from the village by going house to house with their alms bowl. All of these (~150) monks come together on the full and new moon days.
After 3 nights we got permission to spend another 3 nights at the study center about 20 minutes away but only 6 kilometers. The roads were a little crazy, but we got there. There, I met a monk whom I recommended Na-Uyana to in 2014. He ordained and is now a resident Pali Language teacher there. We had a few chats and it was nice to see the change from a famous DJ from South Africa to a monk who teaches the Pali Language. This was the “fifth” section of Na-Uyana.
We visited Dambula caves and then went to Anuradhapura to see the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree and Polonnaruwa. We had arranged a kuti in Anuradhapura from the lady who printed, “Going For Broke”. It was nice to finally meet this lady along with her husband.
Thongvanh’s main reason to go to Sri Lanka was to see this tree. It was a special tree and I got special permission to go inside the blocked off area. Only monks can do that and you need special permission to go. The Chief Monk inside was so impressed by my awe and wonder by being inside, that he opened a special drawer and gave me two leaves of the original tree. This tree is the oldest known Bodhi tree in the world and it has golden crutches holding it up. The tree in Bodhgaya, India is actually a transplant from this tree.
After Anuradhapura we went to a general’s bungalow inside an army camp near Polonavara. There we were given the red carpet treatment and served by a General and his 10 other soldiers in full camo. I went from being a beggar in Kaua’i, to royalty overnight.
We stayed there one night and then went to Kandy to the Tooth Relic Pagoda and then to Spring Hill Monastery in the Hantanna Mountains. This last monastery has grown quite a bit and was nice to see, but there are leeches there.. ooh.. although I try to love all beings, I don’t like them when they are on me, but I know a way to flick them off without them getting hurt. After that, we went to go the airport to catch a flight to Thailand. Security was on high alert because the election was just the day before.
Wat Khao Sanamchai
Wat Khao Sanamchai, Hua Hin, Thailand was on the travel list because Thongvanh wants to become a monk one day, and I knew just the place which I wrote about in my Vinaya Comparison Post. As it stands, because Thongvanh speaks Thai and Wat Khao Sanamchai is a Thai Language place, Thongvanh feels most at home at this place and wants to ordain there in the future, if he ever follows through with it. I suggested he ordain there for 2 years and then come to Pa-Auk for the real work.
When we arrived, we got a nice warm welcome by the Cambodian monk who remembered me from my other 2 visits. I’m fairly senior, so many of the monks bowed down to me and gave me a brief massage which is part of the “traditional” way to greet a newly arrived monk. As you can see, I am sitting near the front out of 50 monks. This monastery is a study-only monastery, yet there is a meditation center at the bottom of the hill. However, most of the monks from this monastery go to Pa-Auk if they want to do serious meditation which is the direct practical experience of what they studied. I know about this place from meeting monks when I was in Pa-Auk. There is even a Pa-Auk Meditation Center or two in Thailand.
Our last stop was Myanmar (Burma). I stayed at an old monastery while Thongvanh stayed at a hotel which was required for the eVisa approval. We spent a few days in Yangon and made a huge donation ($3,600) to Shwedagon Pagoda to cover 1 year of lighting. It was nice, but I later learned that they take many 1 year lighting donors (for the same year) it seemed as if we were continualy led to believe that we were the only donors of lighting because of the whiteboard listings of donors. In any case, our names got on the donation whiteboard, and over all I’m okay with it. I wish our names were written on the board the same night so we would not have researched this when we came to visit the following day. Thongvanh is not wealthy, but saves $2 per time he worships Buddha. It will take a couple of years to recover this particular donation. After a few nights, we flew to Bagan for a two day trip.
Bagan is really nice. There are so many Buddha pagodas to see and after some time, all you need to do is close your eyes briefly and Buddha images appear before your closed eyes. Unfortunately, someone got hurt or fell off the second story of one of the pagodas and now nobody is allowed to go upstairs anymore. So if you haven’t been to Bagan yet, you will only be able to see the first floor of any pagoda. Currently, you can get very close to many of the wall paintings. That will likely stop soon, so don’t delay a trip.
On the last day, I was able to meet the person who took a photo of me that went viral on Facebook. He recognized me (as do many Burmese) and I’m known among many as the Bagan monk who does not touch money because of that picture.
Back Home, Pa-Auk Pyin Oo Lwin
Last but not least was our arrival at Pa-Auk, Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo). This will be a topic for another post, but you can see the previous mamyo post here. The last monk meeting had 215 bhikkhus. There are now 530 total people living here.