Recently, I have been getting a few messages wishing me safety and wellbeing with the current news floating around the world about events in Myanmar. I can assure you that our lives have not changed much even with the pandemic. Yes, we have been locked down for nearly a year or maybe longer, but monastery life is pretty much the monastery life. The only thing that is different is we wear masks around other monks who seem to care about masks and lately that mask population has been less and less. We have been on strict lockdown, so the odds are slim that Covid will come inside. So basically, we wear masks around the teachers and the Admin monks, and also when we get our food. Besides the masks, and the whispers that float around about politics, life is the same, if not better. Why would it be better? We are a monastery and it is best to “stay” in one. The teachers often do lots of traveling during normal times, but now they are stuck here with us. It is always nice to lock down a teacher and it has inspired many monks to continue with meditation.
When we apply for a special meditation visa, the visa form always has a requirement for the applicant to agree to not get involved in politics. That was when Myanmar was an embargo state and it was also the required agreement in 2019 with a “Democratic Myanmar government.” I have always supported peace and loving-kindness. As monks, we try to see cause and effect and recommend loving-kindness to all beings so that love will come back to you. I hope things work themselves out.
We are given this special visa for us to do our work here as monks and to do monk activities. Since the Buddha prohibited “talks of kings”, politics have no place in the monasteries. However, people still whisper here and there. Some have changed their SIM cards to internationally owned carriers rather than the government sponsored ones.
Although what SIM I use is not an issue for me, after watching “The Social Dilemma”, I saw things I didn’t like. I have now started a new routine where I unplug my SIM and pass it to a friend to safeguard for 5 or 6 days at a time. I only have it plugged in for a single 25 hour period each time. Why 25 hours instead of 24? The government has the Internet turned off from 1 AM to 9 AM, so I start at 9:00 AM and then give it back at lunch the next day. This gives me one hour before lunch on the next day to respond to messages or call my folks in the USA. I’ll go about 6 days without the SIM, but I still grab a five or ten minute synchronization by WiFi every few days with a friend.
Even though I have it plugged in for about 25 hours, I still have to follow the meditation schedule. I previously had a self-imposed internet diet to limit and restrict what type of internet I use but I found that I was over-indulging in the “messaging, tech, health and communication” allowances. In short, if you are charging your phone daily, you are wasting a lot of time. Now my battery last for 4 or 5 days. At first I found myself reaching for my phone after meditation or after getting out of bed, but it was useless because the phone couldn’t do much without a SIM. That process was an eye opener. My sleeping-dreams are better and I am more happy. I plan to continue this non-habit while I live here.
With a phone battery that lasts 4 or 5 days, I’ve had extra free time outside of my meditation schedule and have started a process to learn Blender 3D Animation Software. I have written an Abhidhamma book in 2014 and have always dreamed of making small animations on how the mind and body processes work along with other Buddhist principles. I have also written a short animation about a Pixar Lamp that gets enlightened. It is called, “Enlampenment,” which my editor recently helped me to transform into a screenplay. I had hoped finish it in 2023 but I have decided to shelve it for now for ethical reasons. I only want to do more “real” things. There are a lot of other needs too, like animating visual “light” or nimitta based meditation. We will see what happens. So far, I’ve made a ball point pen on my own without any tutorials. It sounds sort of basic until you see it below. The Pixar Lamp excluding the animation stuff was much easier to make. The animation is far from realistic, but as a first time thing and a learning experience… Eh…not so bad…The sounds you hear were taken from my squeaky door. I had fun making it! Originally I had the “P” of Pa-Auk Monastery getting squashed, but I didn’t like the thought of someone doing that with my own name, so I changed things around. The render times were about 5 hours for 220 cycles quality (like you know what that means). I’ll be sending my renders to a friend with a graphics card next time, but I got excited and wanted to see it work, so I spread out the renders over two days.
Below are other things I’ve done with tutorials and lastly the pixar lamp.
Before the lockdown started we had 530 residents. Now there are 304 which is almost half of what it was. Recently, a batch of 18 residents just left. They were mostly Vietnamese and a few more are scheduled to go as well. Although the embassies are recommending that we leave, they always do that and try to make you worry for nothing. I’m waiting for them to close the embassy before I consider leaving. I really don’t believe the residents are leaving because of the political issues now. It is more likely that they used it as an excuse to get the permission to go back to their own countries which was difficult during the earlier days of the pandemic. These days, permission to return back to your own country is being granted more easily and there are planes being arranged by the embassies of the respective countries which were not available before. There were two planes arranged by the USA Embassy which I declined. I’m really glad I didn’t go back to the USA in June, 2020. What a mess America was back then. I think a lot of the residents have had enough of the lockdown and they want a change in life and want to be locked down in their own country, or if they are American, they might be eager for the vaccination scheduling. People have a difficult time doing a 10 day retreat. What more could be said about doing years at a single place?
A little less than a year ago, I wrote about how we were on lockdown. As you now know, once you are on lockdown, everyday becomes the same. Actually, in the monastery life, everyday is the same anyway. Over 20 years ago, I wrote a story about how monastery life was like Groundhog Day. Every single day becomes an everyday thing. Life just seems to constantly repeating itself, and we also often make the same mistakes over too. Growth is gradual, but it does happen. The trick in Buddhism is to grow out of your “self” before you die. Groundhog Day still rings fresh in my head and I am reminded by this every year since February 2nd is also my mother’s Birthday.
Until around September, 2020, the number of new Covid cases were pretty much kept in the single digits. With 60 million people in the country, that is something quite phenomenal and the government should have won an award. On the other hand, the government was boasting that it was because they had a cash based economy without credit cards! I’m not sure where they pulled that reason from, but that was the official explanation. However, in September, the numbers slowly crept up and went has high as 1,600 which was still pretty impressive. The numbers went back down in January to about 500 and recently, now with the new government change, there are no new cases! It reminds me of China’s record too.
The food quality has decreased because long term vegetables were being stockpiled. However, the past month or two has gotten better because all but one of the kitchen staff members left the lockdown ship. For a couple of weeks, the food quality got really bad, but it is now on the upswing and there seems to be a better assortment of boiled and raw vegetables which makes it easier for our kitchen volunteers to “cook.” If I have rice, beans, fruits and something green, I’m a happy camper. So I would say that nutrition has gone up in the past month because of these new changes.
Exodus of Monks:
So as I have said before, there has been quite a few monks and nuns who have left the monastery recently, but all in all our numbers have shrunk nearly in half. The rule has been, “If you leave the country, you cannot come back.” “If you leave the monastery, you need to do 4 weeks quarantine in your meditation hut.” So we have the reverse situation as Hotel California.
“You can checkout anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
The reality is that you can checkout anytime you like but you can never come back (until things change).
As you know locally, many health concerns have been put off due to the pandemic and if you have to spend 4 weeks in quarantine in a small hut, you can imagine putting off health problems is just as true here. Luckily, we have 4 medical doctor monastics with a fully stocked pharmacy. Everyone wants good health, so eager donors who wish the kamma effects of donating medicines to monasteries are easy to find to fill our pharmacy. We also have access to the military hospital when things go wrong, even in times of political unrest with the regular hospitals closed due to the Civil Disobedience Movement.
While pa-auk is famous for long term resident meditators, one or two years is considered long term, don’t you think? Those time frames are coming up. Some have been here for 4 years before the pandemic started too. Sayadaw U Revawata once said, “There is a 10-day course, a 20-day course, a 3 month course. How many years have you been here?” We used to have a rolling average, but now the numbers are guaranteed to go down. Guaranteed. So the population has dropped.
These numbers make me worry about the world sangha which also has a rolling average. We always need new monks to ordain to make up for the ones who disrobe. It is similar to a declining birthrate. The disrobing rate is easily well above the 90% range excluding the temporary monks of Myanmar and Thailand. As I have said before, Ajahn Sumedho has the best average of a 15% retention rate and you must go through 2 years probation before you get counted in that statistic. If Ajahn Sumedho did ordinations just as quick as Myanmar, the disrobing rate might be the same as everyone else. So I would imagine there are far less ordinations than usual in pandemic 2020/2021 times and the population of the world sangha is probably dropping fast too.
All in all, we are safe where we are. We will be one of the last places to go hungry and we are left alone because we don’t cause any trouble. We are considered a great asset to the country and its mission regardless of who is running the country. The military has always been nice to us. About 18 months ago, I took a picture to one day post on my blog. It is a group of army volunteers. Every Saturday and Sunday, they would be there chopping wood for us and doing other duties. When I was at Pa-Auk Mawlamyine, during embargo times (2001-2007), the same was true there too. Nevertheless, Pa-Auk monasteries have a great storehouse of foreigners which can be a potential target and asset if the International world were to get involved. The odds of that happening are very slim. When the embassies shut down and evacuate, I’ll know the warnings are real and I will start to consider a new location.
Update: There is no more internet for the whole country unless there is a wifi connection. There are a couple at the monastery but they are at limited speeds and shared with many. However, as I said before, it is not such a problem. I was already limiting my usage before this started.
I wish you well.