2015
06.19

About the largest pagoda to be and its current state.  An excursion to Mingun across the Ayeyarwady River.   A visit of Ma Soe Yein Kyaung Monastery, the birthplace of the 969 movement.  Meet Ananda, the teacher-monk. About monks and great monks.

Ok, it’s not the Tower or Babel but it might well have been the Myanmar version of it:  The unfinished pagoda of Mingun.  Somebody tried to chew off a bit more than the gods liked and got punished.  Perhaps, that’s why there are so many ethnic groups in Myanmar and so many different languages?  Oh, but that presupposes that there is a god in Buddhism.  Oh well…  I guess, not.

In any case, in 1838, the earth rumbled and tumbled down the foundation of the biggest pagoda ever intended.  Cracks zig-zagging down like thunderbolts can be seen on all four sides of this massive brick mound.  The largest chitons ever constructed faired no better and their butts today look like huge cannon balls dropped in an overgrown garden.  Only when you take the time to walk around a small rarely trodden path do you get a sense that those cannon balls are the rear of two giant chitons, dog-dragon cross breeds, which flank the entrance to every temple and pagoda and prominently are featured on most bills of the Myanmar currency.  Sometimes they look like little puppies, other times they are quite formidable guardian figures.  These two would have been roaring across the river and most likely would have been visible for miles alongside the massive pagoda behind them.

The more the merrier, the bigger the better – you have found your match!  The pagodas built since in this little riverside community, have been of average size.  But one object still almost holds the record:  The largest un-cracked bell in Myanmar, the second largest in the world (I guess, the largest bell record is held by Russia?)

The unfinished pagoda is climbable but the sun was beating and a large red warning sign reminded tourists that for their own safety, climbing is not recommended for every visitor.   Sounded like the sign was made for me…  I am sure the view would have been spectacular, but I forfeited the visit.  Instead, I enjoyed a cup of “Myanmar tea” which is very much of the Indian milk-tea variety with lots of sugar; practically a meal – while waiting for the return ferry.

The ferry ride was almost an hour long, a pleasant river excursion taking tourists from Myanmar proper to Mingun.  During high season this ferry is full and going more frequently.  Now, there is a 9 AM ferry out and a 12:30 PM ferry back and it only goes if the ferry owner feels that he is making a profit, that means 6 people minimum.  We were 8.  It’s a take it or leave it deal which does not allow for lingering or un-timed exploration.  I could have spent a couple more hours exploring…

On the other side, my taxi driver was ready to roll.  I had given him a task today:  I wanted to go to the monastery where the leader of the religious-political movement 969 came from  and I wanted to purchase one of the 969 stickers which used to be quite popular for a while but which I had not seen anywhere.  He delivered!

Ma Soe Yein Kyaung is another one of those large teaching monasteries like the one I had visited for the lunch lineup yesterday.  This one seems to be notorious for its pronounced, if not radical political views.  Not surprisingly therefore, the leader of the 969 movement, Ashin Wirathu, came from here.    He moved to Sittwe and has been radicalizing Buddhist monks for better or worse over the last few years and leading them in the infamous 2012 anti-Muslim riots.

This monastery is huge and obviously quite prosperous.  Dorms and buildings looking more like fancy tourist hotels, are lining a central avenue.  The river is nearby.  There are lecture halls, dining areas, a kitchen, a library, even a clock tower.  Outside the library there is a small kiosk which indicated that I was in the right place.  A collection of riot posters and wanted signs referencing Ashin Wirathu had been reproduced on plastic banners and displayed on the kiosk.

Inside the library I approached a young monk explaining to him that I was a teacher who was collecting teaching material “show and tell”, so to speak.  I wondered if he had a 696 sticker for sale.  He seemed amused by this request but took off, indicating for me to wait.  Shortly after he returned with a small sticker.  But by now I had spotted a bigger one on the wall that also had some writing on…  I did not want to be greedy, but I pointed to that one.  Once again he disappeared.  It took him a bit longer, but with the large sticker in hand and a big smile on his face he returned:  No charge.  Present for me.  🙂

I walked around between the buildings for a while stumbling on a monk sitting on his bed reading behind the ground floor window.  When he saw me he greeted me in English and we started a short conversation.  That was Ananda.  At age 32 and after 7 years as a novice he has become an ordained monk for life about 5 years ago.  He likes monastic life.  He loves to read and he loves to teach novices.  We talked about “great” monks and I discovered something unexpected:  If you have not been identified as a “great” monk by the age of 27, you will never be a great monk!  Ananda, in other words, had missed the boat.  But he was content with that.  I would have thought that age and wisdom accounts for something but apparently not.

Perhaps, that is why Ashin Wirathu is so successful?  He must be considered to be a great monk by his peers or he would not have assembled the following he does.  All over Myanmar you see posters with monks’ faces. First, I thought they were some kind of election poster. But then I was told that these are announcements for speeches by various great monks who either come to the area on speaking tours or who are associated with local monasteries and regularly give speeches to the local population, almost like sermons.  To me this smelled just a little bit of personal cults…  But then, who can argue with the idea of great teachers and great teachings?  As long as the appreciation of great teaching does not get out of hand and morphs into blind following, there is nothing wrong.  The beauty of Buddhism as it was conceived is precisely that the Buddha never preached, but always taught; a significant difference!  This thought served as a good reminder for me that I was here, precisely because of one of the great teachers in my life:  Professor Virginia Kane.

To the great teachers in this world!  Good night.