What a joy to lead a trip with our Board Chair Hal Nathan across Burma for the Foundation Partners Asia. It has been a moving and demanding and fulfilling journey. We were a group of 15 dedicated supporters and dharma practitioners, all gracious and very engaged travelers. Much of the time we visited inspiring Partners Asia projects and met with dozens of courageous and dedicated leaders, teachers and nurses running rural village projects, women’s empowerment, HIV clinics, leadership and conflict trainings, orphanages, etc. In the North, our amazing staff director Snow took us to meet meet a powerful nun who cured herself of metastatic cancer using herbs and a year of intense healing meditation now runs a center, built by Partners Asia, to bring peace of mind and shelter to battered women, lost children, and the homeless and mental ill. Her strength and faith inspires all who come to her. And another wonderful nun we visited who runs a spotless school and orphanage Partners Asia has supported explained that after her extensive Buddhist studies, she feels most honored to use the Dharma to serve others……as a bodhisattva practice. The 200 joyful children there knocked us over with smiles and songs and love. The founding nun said her deepest wish is to develop the qualities of the Buddha, the Paramis of patience, generosity, compassion, dedication, virtue, wisdom, and to teach all those who come to her to do the same. When the conditions of our life are difficult, she explained, these qualities of the Buddha can be truly trained and developed.
We also visited the magical Shwedagon, the vast and most cherished stupa in Burma, overflowing with devoted pilgrims and prayers. And we saw meditation masters and monasteries, including those of Mahasi Sayadaw and U Tejaniya Sayadaw. Everywhere we went, the Dharma teachings, just like at Spirit Rock, were mindfulness and lovingkindness. Some also focused attention on practicing virtue, others on maintaining a spacious mindfulness in daily life, others taught ways to combine lovingkindness and equanimity. All these temples felt like oasis of peace when we entered, and even more so when we sat and practiced there.
Then in a boat out on the Irrawaddy river we saw some Irrawaddy fresh water dolphins and my partner Trudy longed to jump in the river and join in for a swim, but alas the mermaid in Trudy has to wait to return to the California seas. Our group traveled to the ancient city of Bagan and wandered among the 3000 temples and Stupas, and we learned now impermanent even nations and capitals can be….new Kings and dynasties would move the whole capital to Burma another site and another part of the nation. The military dictators did this to create a huge new surreal capital at Nay Pyi Taw only 5 years ago. Now they are beginning to let the civilian government begin to run the country……which is both a blessing and a work in process.
All along as we traveled, Trudy and I gave Dharma teachings about resting the heart in compassion as the waves of the world, with it’s beauty and troubles rise and fall around us. And all around us was both bravery and promise as Burma opens up, and faces the long standing problems of poverty, lack of education, limited health care, and no clear rule of law. Nation building is a long process, and patience and the bodhisattva work of planting good seeds for the long term is critical. Partners Asia is right there on the ground empowering many of the best of the Burmese for the long haul.
But the short term needs are pressing. Although currently somewhat peaceful, there is also palpable tension, and it is still a volatile and dangerous time for Burma. There is economic injustice and frequent hardship. In particular, the growing spread of hate speech and prejudice against the 5% population of Muslims could quickly get worse. After 50 years of military dictatorship, the fear is great, and internalized in most everyone. So anti Muslim propaganda spreads easily.
There are also many working to stop this. We have been able to meet and learn from a whole succession of courageous activists….some from the Gen 88, like Zin Mar Aung who spent 11 years in prison, Aung Zaw who publishes the Irrawaddy www.irrawaddy.org or Wai Wai Lwin who is working to empower women and help villagers resist predatory development. There were brave journalists, educators and activists leading trainings and projects for tolerance, empowerment and justice. Our key staff director Kaung Nyunt is among them. We were then able to speak with Aung San Suu Kyi and hear the long term vision of wise development for Burma she carries with immense dignity, grace, courage and vision in the midst of all the problems. Asking how best to support Burma, she encouraged us to talk with those misguidedly promoting fear and violence, the “other side.” I was able to do a bit of teaching to groups involved in the conflict and meet key Masters / Sayadaws….to listen to their needs and fears and try to encourage them to follow the respect and non violent teachings of the Buddha. In the trainings I gave, there were also wonderful teachers and monks and activists who continue to stand up for justice and tolerance, but still these are in the minority. We also connected with a number of other folks working to influence both Burmese and US policy, reporting from the most troubled areas of Rakhine State and Rohingya camps. But the common lack of education and ignorance makes most people easy prey for demagogues. The Muslim leaders we met with are scared and even the taxi drivers now mostly say Muslims are bad people. But hopefully this situation can be changed.
For in the midst of it all, the gracious Burmese people have an amazing resilience, dignity and nobility. And they have been steeped in centuries of Dharma. This make the situation hopeful.
This resilience is possible for you as well. Whatever your circumstances, having dignity and the practice of mindfulness and lovingkindness can transform your life into a path of understanding and love. Whether Burma or the west, we share the same humanity and share the same possibility of developing the qualities of the Buddha.
The world needs this wisdom and love more than ever. Through our own practice each of us can add seeds of goodness to our family, our community and the earth.
In this way, we share the true pilgrimage of the spirit wherever we are.