Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Encounters in a Forgotten Country: Burma

Ton Kraayenvanger, May 2013; Pat Macpherson, Dhr. Seven (eds.), Wisdom Quarterly
See Part 2/11

Burma has a new name -- Myanmar -- given to it by dictators. Its size is more than five times that of England, and almost twice as big as Germany. The Theravada Buddhist country is dotted with pagodas, stupas (sacred reliquaries), and monasteries.
Former glorious empire in 1580
Burma has a deeply-rooted Buddhist culture and many distinct ethnic groups. Walking through its Buddhist culture is intrusive -- even overwhelming. If the term were not condescending, one could probably say that it is the country's main attraction.

The former capital of Rangoon is not known for its architecture. There are some striking cottages built by the British. They are far from beautiful but quite out of place. Yet, former colonial Rangoon is worth seeing. It is immediately noticeable that the city is not as dirty as many other Asian metropolises.
Largest Buddha statues in Asia in Burma (WQ)
One will not be blown off the pavement by public karaoke machines and runaway scooters. It is pleasing that it is less dirty and less noisy. The center is populated by traders who use a large part on the sidewalk and the Madurodam terraces. Here one can drink green tea or eat deep fried snacks of indefinable origin. 
Every compassionate Buddhist resists the killing of living beings, but it seems to be no obstacle to eating the murdered remains of animals for many. 

Burma's dictator, Gen. Than Shwe
One looks around in wonder. There is trade in everything. Many places offer printed tee-shirts and laminated photographs of The Lady, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her famous father for sale. This was unthinkable before due to police state crackdowns by the military junta led by Gen. Than Shwe. (See Patricia Arquette in Beyond Rangoon).
Suu Kyi finally free, in the White House
There are even DVDs for sale of "The Lady," a film about the life of Suu Kyi, now a member of Parliament. Its lead actress, Michelle Yeoh, was expelled less than a year ago. Apparently, people are more daring now that a sham civilian government is in power. The dictators still pull the strings from their secretive new capital, Naypyidaw.

Recent history of regards Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, is known as a freedom fighter. In the West, he enjoys a reputation as a freedom fighter that helped liberate the nation from colonial slavery. But for many Britons, who were ousted, he was a war criminal.
Shwedagon Pagoda (Farnesina/flickr)
Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon has some of the most important Buddhist structures on Earth short of the larger structures in Afghanistan (Mes Aynak, Bamiyan), Indonesia (Borobudur, a UNESCO site), and Cambodia (Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Mount Kulen, Mahendra Parvata). 

The Shwedagon complex is situated on a high hill. Golden and well lit, Shwedagon shines and sparkles from afar. Entering the sacred sanctuary, as in many places in the country, is only allowed barefoot.
During the colonial period, British occupiers emphasized their superiority by blatantly disregarding this tribute and keeping their footwear on. This must have cut deep wounds in the Buddhist psyche. Today one dare not try such an offense or risk being immediately called to order.

The steps up are quite a climb. Only once one has reached the top, gasping for breath, does the stupa become overwhelming, particularly in the bright morning sun. It is blindingly brilliant. Bring sunglasses. For all that glitters is gold here.
Buddhist nuns in pink (AFP)
Everywhere there are people -- walking quietly, sitting on the marble ground, meditating -- others talking with one other in hushed tones. People are busy making offerings or libations of water on Buddha statues. Visiting a pagoda is an integral part of daily life.

This pagoda is a place to pay tribute to the highest aspiration (enlightenment and nirvana), individually or with a loved one, a friend, or relatives, as well as to gain ordinary happiness. People are very devout, sometimes briefly for their visit, sometimes for a long time after.

Simultaneously, the pagoda is a place to stroll around and chat. In brief, it is a place for worship as well as a social place, serene and relaxed. The city center is small enough for a pleasant walk in what was once the wealthiest country in Southeast Asia before being plundered by the British. 

No comments: