Letter From - Autumn 2018

Burma: The Lady and the Monk

By William Lychack | September 4, 2018
In June 2013, Myint led a procession of novitiates, including the author, in the collection of alms in the remote farming village of Padaukone. (Courtesy of the author)

My friend Myint Tun had passed away at 47 the previous spring, after a failed heart operation, so my son and I decided to return to Burma, where Myint lived, to join his widow and three children in Mandalay for the anniversary of his death. We would go to the cemetery, stand at the mouth of the crematorium, leave a small stone or two on his grave. It would be a pilgrimage, a journey that would allow us to honor Myint’s memory, but also an opportunity to re-enter the monkhood, which Myint had first invited us to join. We felt a need to keep alive the seed he had planted within us.

Here in Burma, the sangha, or monkhood, is as fluid as it is pervasive. You would be hard-pressed to find a Buddhist in the country who has not been a member at some point in life, as monk or novice or nun. Although I had been to Burma some 10 times and spent more than a year here in all, I worried that my ties to the country were not as real or deep as I imagined. I feared that my explorations might turn out to have been nothing more than an extended lark, my friendships more utilitarian and less essential than I supposed. In essence, I felt I might always be nothing but a tourist here, condemned to skating on the surface. Hearing these concerns, Myint had suggested that I join the monastery with him. It seemed so obvious, yet I had never even thought it was possible. So of course I wanted to.

This was 2012. Myint and I had known each other for more than a dozen years already, and he was one of my closest friends. Quick to smile, studious-looking in his glasses, he could also affect a stern, almost aloof demeanor, which he used to get us out of trouble with the police and army on more than one occasion. He worked for a tour agency, and we met when he picked me up from the airport in Mandalay on one of my trips. I had no real agenda there, except to climb its famous hill and bicycle the city, and Myint offered to go with me. We tooled around, visiting pagodas, and ended up in a former capital of Burma, Amarapura. We walked the teakwood U Bein Bridge in the twilight, picture-perfect with the monks in their saffron robes and the lime-white stupas in the haze.

If someone had told me I’d be coming back to Burma over the course of 18 years, visiting Myint and learning about Buddhism, I’d have laughed in his face. Yet Myint and I would spend many summers trekking to villages so remote that they couldn’t be found on any map. We’d end up going almost everywhere we were allowed to go, often dragging our wives and kids along, spending weeks in forests, days and nights on buses and trains. The travel was rough, and our families sometimes chose not to accompany us, yet they always encouraged our journeys.

All that time away with him seemed like a generous but vague gift, vague because I could never quite explain why I kept returning to Burma. Was it the country’s aura of spirituality? A sense of going back in time? Perhaps it was merely the strength of the dollar to the kyat. Myint would often joke that I must have been a Burman in a previous life—a Burman or a Brit, he’d say—someone with a great affinity for this place and its people.

All I knew was that I loved everything about being here, including the contradiction of not quite knowing why. It made me want to touch bottom, though, to be the kind of person who dug one well a hundred feet deep, rather than the kind of person who scattered 20 five-foot wells. Maybe my lack of understanding was what kept Burma so alive to me. Maybe all the paradoxes were what I loved. The way the horrors of the military junta had actually preserved the country, saving it from Western influences, for instance. The way Buddhism could lend itself to a ruthless compassion—suffering, or dukkha, being the basis of the religion, the first of its Four Noble Truths.

The summer before Myint died, my son Frederick and I joined him and his son Naytoe in Mandalay. We met up with his friend Yan Naing Htun and his son, James. The boys were about the same age, 10 and 11, and we were in our mid-40s. All of us made our way to the monk supply store at the foot of Mandalay Hill, where we bought robes and bowls and other accoutrements of the monkhood: razor, blanket, needle and thread, sandals.

Myint coached us as we visited caves and temples along the way to the monastery. When we reached it, Myint and his wife, Ma Lin, had arranged a grand novitiation ceremony for the boys. Dressed like princes, carried on ornate sedan chairs, the three boys tossed candy and coins as they went along the dusty procession of loud and dancing crowds. As we arrived, the old teak monastery seemed to float in the dusk, the pillars almost invisible underneath, and when we reached the swept-sand courtyard, we were to leave all of our worldly possessions behind. We were to start our lives over again as Buddhist monks—uzen, in Burmese, bhikkus, in Pali.

At our ordination, we received new names, Myint becoming U Maheinda, U being the honorific, Maheinda meaning the monk who is a great controller of his mind. True to his name, U Maheinda started us through a two-week Buddha boot camp. We learned how to wear robes, how to carry bowls, how to walk and sit and eat and sleep with mindfulness. I became U Sasana, which meant the Great Sharer or Teacher, one’s name being a kind of aspiration. Frederick became Shin Pandita, Shin being the honorific for novices, Pandita coming from Sanskrit, implying studiousness and a potential for wisdom and mastery. Yan’s new name was U Wathawa, the monk who has no craving.

It was the perfect summer. U Maheinda, U Sasana, and U Wathawa, the three of us in the monastery with our boys. We wore our robes and went through the village in the morning with our alms bowls. We played soccer in the afternoons with the young novices, swam in the canal near dusk, the current sweeping us downstream past rice fields and duck farms. In the evenings, we would study and read and rest in the old pagoda with the other monks and novices, listening to the sounds of the generator purring outside, rats scrabbling over the tin roof, the occasional thunk of a ripe mango falling from a tree.

It all seemed like a dream, yet from here on out we could say, with complete honesty, “We once went barefoot through the village single file, collecting alms as the sun came up in the fragrant cool of the morning.” Who could ever take that experience away? No matter what came before, no matter what came after, we would always have this one pure moment—solid, specific, strange. Something we could call, without a hint of apology, transcendent.

Less than a year later, Myint was gone. The idea of returning began to feel like a promise, and I wanted, finally, to become someone who kept his word. I wanted to prove, if only to myself, that Burma meant something. I kept thinking of a Burmese saying that Myint had often repeated to me: “Lose money, and you’ve lost nothing. Lose health, and you’ve lost something. Lose character, and you’ve lost everything.”

I once stood less than an arm’s length from a frail woman passing through a jostling crowd chanting in unison, “Amae Suu, jemma baséy! Amae Suu, jemma baséy!  ” Long life and strong health, they were calling to her, voices loud in the airport terminal. There was a narrow corridor of people pressing in, and Aung San Suu Kyi made her way through them, her path parting a step before her, closing a step behind.

It’s not easy to describe the emotions of the crowd—smiling and crying at the same time, everyone pressing in, calling out to her—the feeling that at any moment this love could so easily crush her. Aung San Suu Kyi means so much to the people of Burma, a whole nation pinning its hope for freedom and democracy on her. After more than six decades under varying degrees of military rule—nearly her entire lifespan—she has come to represent the country’s isolation and suffering more than anything else, its endurance and grace and beauty and grit.

The rest of the world might condemn her reluctance to speak against the tragedy of the Rohingya, the West may call her silence “shameful,” “ignoble,” “damning,” and “cowardly,” but attacks on The Lady, as she is known, seem to inspire only deeper reverence and sympathy for her here in Burma. What choice do people have but to trust her? They overlay their Facebook profiles with flags of the National League for Democracy (her party) and wallpaper reading, “I stand with her.” It’s as if her exile has come full circle: after her many years under house arrest, she and the Burmese people are more alone now than ever.

Her foremost mission is to tame the military and to reach the goal of her father, which was complete independence for the people of Burma. And whereas her father, Major General Aung San (1915–1947), could be cunning and calculating, shifting alliances between the Japanese and the British, the worry has always been that his daughter would remain too pure, too saintly to get up to her elbows in the dirt of governing. The Burmese yearn for someone who can survive whatever traps the military may set. Among the many things her silence seems to communicate to the Burmese, her unwillingness to defend the Rohingya reveals a steely side, a side that can perform a sort of triage for Burma, heartless as that sounds. “Perhaps,” as one of her government spokesmen told Reuters, Daw Suu “has more pressing matters to deal with.”

Nothing should minimize the persecution of the Rohingya, nor should anyone be an apologist for what the United Nations has labeled genocide. The UN has called for the perpetrators to stand trial for crimes against humanity and has publicly admonished The Lady for failing to resign in protest of the military’s actions. But placing moral responsibility on Aung San Suu Kyi presumes an authority she may not have. She might be the elected leader of government—the State Counsellor, or prime minister—but the constitution ensures military control of home affairs, defense, border control, and the police.

All the public condemnation from the outside world, all the boycotts and sanctions: none of this touches the Burmese in any meaningful way. My friends call it the Daddy Voice—superior, paternalistic—as if some pop star knew what was best for Burma. As if revoking her honors mattered. “She never asked for any of these things,” a friend explains. “These things are nothing for The Lady.”

Yet degrading Aung San Suu Kyi in the eyes of the world only elevates the relative position of the generals here. When Buddhism is denigrated, when the idea of democracy is muddied, the military only gains. Everyone knows that some new crisis in some other place will push the country far to the back pages of the world’s attention. The Bonos and Angelinas will fall away, the Malalas and Tutus will move on, even the Dalai Lama, who said that the suffering of the Rohingya “would have inspired Buddha to help”—even he will fade in the distance, while the task of independence will remain close at hand. The Burmese don’t need Aung San Suu Kyi to be Buddha or Mother Teresa. They need her to be tenacious and shrewd, even if that means she must come down off her pedestal, even if she turns out to be morally suspicious.

The note had arrived from Myint’s friend: “Dear U Sasana, did you hear a whisper from Myint? He left us today. Sadly, Yan.”

A year later, my son Frederick and I go from Pittsburgh to New York to Frankfurt to Singapore to Yangon to Mandalay. We walk up Mandalay Hill in the dusky afternoon heat, like it’s a tradition for us, like we’re keeping a promise, like it’s satisfying beyond all words. There are people and food carts and shimmering trees along the slopes and stairways, the city smoky and blue in the distance. There’s a sprinkle of bells in the breeze. There are couples on benches. The light is so sublime and silvery that you wish you could hold on to it and never let it go. You close your eyes and hold your face to the last of the sun and feel the air pour soft as flour on your skin, like it’s grace to be here, sacred just to be present at this moment.

In the morning, we go to the cemetery with Myint’s wife and daughter and sons, his brothers and sister, and Yan. Myint’s is a small headstone in a long, dry field of graves all in a line. In the heat of the afternoon, we take our monastic vows along with the other males present. We have about us the inky smell of new robes, all of us riding in the van to the monastery near Mount Popa. We’ve just started a new trip, but already we’re planning the next one, already promising that this will be what we do together from now on.

At the monastery, we’ll live in strict Shwegen tradition. We’ll wake early and work on our salvation with diligence, just as the Buddha advised. We’ll collect alms and play soccer and swim and study and honor our friendship. Shwegen means “to pan for gold,” and hence we’ll be prospectors. We’ll be sifting for even the smallest of nuggets.

Surely it’s true that, as someone said, if you go to a country for a week, you write a book; go for a month, you write an essay; go for a year, you never write anything. Without a doubt, the more time I spend in Burma, the less authority I feel to judge anything, which may be the point of all these visits. Maybe there is nothing useful to be found in any of it. Like meditation, maybe the task is to arrive at a place beyond judgment, to a point, in a Buddhist sense, where you are so flush up against the moment that there is nothing else, nothing but gratitude and fascination and astonishment for the present, in all its awful contradictions.

This article was updated from the print version on August 31, 2018.

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