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DASSK's Letter from Burma


(This is the third in a yearlong series of letters, the Japanese translation of which appears in the MAINICHI SHIMBUN the same day.)

Mainichi Daily News, Sunday, December 10, 1995



     It was noon when we entered the three-mile radius around the hill of Thamanya that comes under the fatherly care of the /Hsayadaw/.  The air hung warm and still and groups of monks, women ascetics and little novices were working on the road, the ends of their robes draped over their shaven heads, their faces well-rounded and cheerful.  We passed clusters of huts and small bungalows smothered in a tangle of greenery and at last came up through a bazaar to the foot of the hill where there were some brick buildings and a number of cars.  It was not too crowded.  Soon, after the full moon of /Thidingyut/, the place would be bustling with thousands of pilgrims from all over the country.  We had deliberately chosen to come at a time when we could listen quietly to the /Hsayadaw/ and absorb the spirit of this unusual domain of loving kindness and peace founded on the edge of lands where violence had held sway for decades.
     The /Hsayadaw/ divides his time between two monastic residences, one at the foot of the hill and one near the summit.  He received us in the audience chamber of the residence at the foot of the hill.  I was about to describe the /Hsaydaw/ as tall and well-built, then my eyes fell on his photograph and it occurred to me that he was not physically as large as the image impressed on my mind, that in fact he was somewhat frail.  Perhaps it was the aura of protective strength around him that made him seem bigger than he actually was.  There is a Burmese saying: *Ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree.*  The /Hsayadaw/ is as a strong, upright tree spreading out stout branches thickly covered with leaves and laden with fruit, offering shelter and sustenance to all who come under his shade.
     On and around the hill which was barely inhabited little more than a decade ago there now live over 400 monks and between 200 and 300 women ascetics, all cared for by the /Hsayadaw/.  In addition everybody who comes to the hill can eat flavorsome vegetarian meals without any payment.  Many of the villagers who live within the domain come daily for their food.  On holidays when pilgrims flood in, more than 60 sacks of rice have to be cooked and almost a whole drum of oil goes into the curries.  The /Hsayadaw/ is very particular about using only peanut oil in the interest of the health of his hordes of visitors.
     There is a large shed in which 20 men cook rice in giant steamers made of concrete.  In the kitchen, appetizing-looking curries bubble and simmer in huge wok-shaped vessels; the spoons, carved out of wood, are larger than shovels and the spatulas used for stirring are as big as rowing boat oars.  Not far from the kitchen some people are engaged in making meat substitute from a type of yam.  It is not difficult to be a vegetarian at Thamanya: the food, cooked with generosity and care, is both wholesome and delicious.  The day or our arrival we had two lunches, one specially prepared for us and one in the pilgrims' dining hall.  The second lunch consisted of just a few dishes but these were not inferior in taste to the banquet-like meal we had first eaten and replete as we were, we found it no hardship to do justice to the food of the pilgrims.
     But food is not primarily what the /Hsayadaw/ provides for those who come within his ken.
     The first question he asked me after we had made our obeisances was whether I had come to him because I wanted to get rich.  No, I replied, I was not interested in getting rich.  He went on to explain the greatest treasure to be gained was that of nirvana.  How naive I was to have imagined that the /Hsayadaw/ would have been referring to material riches.  He spoke in parables to teach us the fundamental principles of Buddhism.  But there was nothing affected about him and his deeply spiritual nature did not exclude a sense of humor.
     The /Hsayadaw/ seldom leaves Thamanya but he displays astonishing knowledge of all that is going on throughout the country.  He combines with traditional Buddhist values a forward-looking attitude, prepared to make use of modern technology in the best interests of those who have come under his care.  There are a number of strong, useful cars in Thamanya in which the /Hsayadaw/'s active young monk assistants go dashing around the domain checking on the road construction projects.
     The /Hsayadaw/ himself also goes out everyday (driven in a Pajero donated by one of his devotees, vastly superior to our borrowed vehicle) to encourage the workers and to give them snack, /pan/ (a preparation of betel leaf, lime and areca nuts) and /cheroots/.  The sight of his serene face and the tangible proof of his concern for them seems to spur on the workers to greater efforts.
     Whenever the /Hsayadaw/ goes through his domain people sink down on their knees on the roadside and make obeisance, their faces bright with joy.  Young and old alike run out of their homes as soon as they spot his car coming, anxious not to miss the opportunity of receiving his blessing.