Friday, March 20, 2015

Freedom Rock

How is it that a precariously balanced rock has become the symbol of stability for the spiritual life of the Burmese?  Whatever the reason, the number of devotees here was incredible, many having come in family groups, with those unable to secure free lodging now camped all across the grounds, tucking into simple meals as the sun receded to the west.

I'd set off when that same sun was just making its way into the morning.  After three days, I had been happy to be leaving Yangon behind.  I had grown somewhat bored with the city's run-down look.  To be fair, if my memory were better, I'm sure I'd recall a similar city-on-the-grow look to Saigon during my autumn 1997 visit, and the forest of cranes that had defined Shanghai earlier that spring.

It was the traffic though that really fueled my exodus.  I didn't mind sitting still, provided it was on the cool concrete floor of a temple.  I'd already had that privilege during a half-day meditation course the day before, one of the few people still sitting upright during the heat of late morning.  I had followed the fall of my breaths while everyone else in the monastery had fallen into sleep in the cool of the concrete buildings scattered across campus.

So it was that my hired vehicle added to the morning gridlock as it crawled toward the outskirts of the city.  Once free, I enjoyed the film entitled Rural Asia.  It was the latest in a series of films I'd viewed many times before, but it always had a new cast and a slightly different mise-en-scene.  Tall palm trees and huts of bamboo thatch.  The pendulous movement of hips wrapped in longyi, a garment that seems to slow time.  The animals moved even more slowly: the dogs completely still in the dust; boney white bullocks grazing lazily in the dust.  Further on, a cow herd drove his animals on into a slow, bucolic stampede. Not much faster were the vehicles.  A tall truck piled high with musicians and their instruments made its way to the next stop on the temple festival circuit.   Young girls sat sidesaddle atop motorbikes, demure in their fresh flowery longyi, hands making light contact with the waist of their boyfriends. Small pick-ups  packed their cargo beds with passengers.  One vehicle contained only monks, their bobbing bald heads finding a nice parallel in the watermelons for sale in the makeshift stands that lined the road for dozens of miles.  The vendors were without exception women, chosen perhaps to flirt with the male bus and truck drivers into making a sale.  Most of these women were hard at sleep beneath woven fronds that formed roof and wall, a necessary escape from the heat of the day.  Beyond the stalls, watermelon deemed unworthy of sale were left to rot and bleach white in the sun. And beyond further still, the golden chedi of Bago rose out of the dusty plain, and after a quick visit, receded again. 

At the base of the hills leading to Mt. Kyaiktiyo I took a journey of another type.  I was herded into a old dump truck of sorts, whose bed had been fitted with long benches onto which about 50 of us sat.  Once aboard, the driver raced as fast as he could toward the top of the mountain, as if he was in a race with gravity itself.  Our truck was a near loser, for a number of times the gears wouldn't catch, and after emitting a series of harsh metallic sputters, something would engage and we'd continue speeding along, our bodies whipped back and forth on the turns, praying that we wouldn't meet another of these vehicles moving downhill with gravity as an ally. It was a white-knuckle ride for sure, but that seemed okay, as this mountain Kyaiktiyo was a pilgrimage site, and in Asia, white is the symbol for purity.  Then again, in Asia, white is also the symbol for death.

When the truck came to its final and complete stop, I headed down to my hotel, finding a simple room that was clean and offered a great view of lesser peaks rolling off toward the Andaman sea.   It reminded me somewhat of my temple digs atop Taiwan's Shihtoushan, except for the French food and the nice Australia wine.  I'd return to these later, and set off to discover how well the famed rock could compete with the gold of the setting sun.  

I joined the flow of pilgrims through the simple hilltop town, which consisted of a dozen or so shops, and perhaps the same number of small hotels.  In Burma, I was finding it difficult to tell rich from poor, since most people seemed to favor the same style of clothing of simple shirts or blouses over longyi.  The majority of those around me looked like tourists off on a pleasant holiday. Nowhere were the usual cripples, beggars, or pariah dogs that tend to form a sort of society around similar holy sites across the world.   There were a few exceptions to these generalizations, mainly in the Kayin women with their simple black silk garments and colorful scarves folded atop their heads.  There were also a pair of curious well-heeled parties who came through separated by gender, the men in the lead, of course, accompanied by a dozen bodyguards who aggressively told us to clear the way.  I was later told that the VIPs were high ranking members of the Thai government.  As their women came past, a Burmese acquaintance suddenly leaned in to scold them for wearing socks,  a pretty brash act considering the armed guards flanking them.   Then again, my acquaintance was the daughter of a Burmese military officer.      

I did my duty of pressing small sheets of flattened gold onto the stone, atop the narrow rock shelf that was the Rock's perch.  Being tall, I stuck my gold high up on the rock, where I expect it to stay for all eternity, or at least until the rainy season.  As it was, small flecks fluttered away in the evening breeze.  It was only men who accompanied me in this act, with the women left to kneel and pray on the clifftop behind. Again, I was moved by the sight of the devotion, the hands of the old women pressed together in prayer, and entire families sitting quietly in meditation, as if oblivious to the thousands milling around them.  I saw no holy men but for some Thai monks patiently taking turns to be photographed.  There were also the obligatory young people wandering around in small groups, finding a glimpse of the opposite sex to be far more uplifting than that of an ancient holy boulder.  A number of these younger people took photos of me on the sly, which I found amusing since I had been doing the same with the monks and the hilltribe women.  If I caught someone in the act of shooting me, I'd quickly go up to them and throw my arm over their shoulder for a proper pose.  One family even had me lift up their small children. I appeared to be one of the few foreigners around, but for a handful of Italians, and one poor woman nursing a painful spider bite.  The perils of a barefoot culture. 

The warm spiritual vibe here was beginning to lull me into a sense of peace, as it always does.  Faith of this caliber never fails to move me, devotion completely devoid of any separation from daily life.  The institutionalized zen and commercialized yoga that I occupied myself with for two decades felt quite hollow at times like this.  And it is the search for similar scenes that drives me far and wide, walking ridiculous distances, or putting myself through punishing discomfort in order to seek the holy within the mundane.  But why is it is that I've never been moved by the same sort of faith found in my own Catholic tradition?   I've been told by high-level teachers from both East and West that doubt is important in spirituality, a sentiment that suits my somewhat non-conformist character.  But now, perhaps I am finding that faith is simply a synonym for maturity, a weary acceptance of life in whatever form it takes.  

On the turntable:  "Mali"
On the nighttable:  W. Sometset Maugham, "The Gentleman in the Parlour"

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