Heavy, as if the light had a mass, the sun rays beat the facades of the buildings in downtown Yangon and promise to crumble the architectural legacy of colonial times. Hundreds of 19th century structures sprinkled with mould, with trees growing from shattered windows or dressed in a thin tropical layer of vegetation bring a spirit of decadence. Somewhere, in an unnamed neighbourhood of the city, we walk the streets of the bizarre urban labyrinth. It is late morning and a few drops of sweat have already began their dance of inconvenience on our faces. Barefoot, we walk slowly on the broken asphalt, awkwardly trying to avoid the traps of accumulated filth that threaten to catch us in their spongy grab. Keeping silent company to a group of monks and nuns, ceremoniously clad in their monastic attires, we all make our way through Yangon surrounded by crowds of devotees.
Morning alms rounds with the monks
With begging bowls in their stretched hands, the monks stroll emotionless while lay people present their offerings. Some prostrate on the floor touching the monks feet, other bow and whisper words of respect, many fill the bowls with food, some hand in money and a few, too busy with their own duties, tie a contribution to a rope that hangs down from windows and balconies. None seems to be indifferent. A variety of home-made meals accumulate in the alms bowls and buckets and when full they are poured into a bigger container carried by a car that drives slowly behind. Rice, beans, curries, boxes of fruits and vegetables, insintence or medical supplies; from the poor families through the market vendors to the well-off, everybody donates an offering. Perfectly organized, the Buddhist procession carries on and on, marching behind the loud call of a bell.
The red-robed monks walk stone-faced with their ceremonial bowls, the nuns and careful lay assistants observe attentively and rush to empty the bowls in bigger containers stored in the car behind and others beat a drum and collect the offerings in money. This is the daily alms round, a ritual performed each and every day by the Sangha (monastic community). ‘What you take part in today is a very important rite. – somebody explains to us – It is amongst the pillars of Theravada Buddhism. The monks give the laymen the opportunity to do a good deed and create a good karma’. Pindabat (alms collections) is thought to have been practiced first by the historical Buddha, we learn. Since then, individually or in groups, the ordained wander cities and villages to participate in the wheel of kind acts. The monks have to walk barefoot in order to show and learn humility. Their faces should always stay deprived of the slightest hints of emotion. In that way the alms collectors create a feeling of impersonality around the gift, which in turn would allegedly add value to it because it would strip it off the show and leave it just as it has to be – an impartial act of good will. At the end of the alms collection, the monks return to their monastery and share the meal. All different offerings are supposedly mixed in the same bowl because monks should not favour one flavour over another just like their stomach would not once the meal is consumed. Step by step, offering by offering we learn more about the faith and practices of the Burmese people. Slightly confused we try to understand the aesthetics of a moral code seen through the eyes of yet another religious teaching.
An endless chain of good deeds
Just before noon the drums of the alms collection begin to fade. A bucket of cold water washes the city dirt off our feet. Shoes on and we all jump into the trailer of a small truck. Squashed like sardines, everybody finds a place and no one seems to mind the discomfort. Tired but with an air of satisfaction the monks and nuns get ready for another phase of the monastic daily routine. A nun with a pale face, suffering with the chills of fever makes an effort to smile. We wonder why she had forced herself to join the alms collection instead of resting in her room. ‘She did a good deed’ – someone explains – ‘Alms rounds are beneficial for everyone. For those that give and for those that give them a chance to give. Now, she will get better much faster.’ Maybe, the placebo of kind doing has much stronger effects than our skeptical minds can comprehend right there and then. From the devoted embrace of the crowds of Yangonese pedestrians we jump straight into the mad traffic of the city. Motorbikes, cars, buses, bicycles, trucks, everybody swirls in an organic mess of horns and breaks and gas exhaust. Only the mighty current of Irrawaddy flows calmly. Under a gigantic bridge, it pulls tones of water towards the Ocean, indifferent to the world around and in stark contrast with the pulse of Yangon.
At lunch we are back to the outskirts of Yangon just on time for a meal, and share a varied choice of donated food with the monks and nuns, happily treating our palates to the joys of home-made dishes. While waiting for our Indian visas we are staying in a place called ThaBarWa meditation center – a peculiar hybrid between a monastery and a social center. ThaBarWa is run by a former businessman, now affectionately known as Sayadaw (Teacher), who left behind material life, abandoned his work and put on a monastic robe to help others and multiply the acts of kindness stretching infinitely on the imaginary web of life. The place is open for both religious and secular people, where the former could focus on the teachings of Budha and the latter can learn how to practice Dhamma. Meditation is seen as a panacea, a possible cure for any suffering and a paramount teaching of moral conduct. Destitute, poor and marginalized laymen along with monks and nuns flock around Sayadaw looking for support and a place to live.‘Good deeds naturally bring more good deeds’, explains his view the founder of ThaBarWa, certainly echoing an opinion that seems universal in Myanmar. In his case that philosophy is supported by the daily donations he receives and then redistributes. Financial contributions, land, building materials, volunteers running school programmes, ThaBarWa feels like a grand-scale alms collection system and its story only reiterates the importance of religion in the country. Genuinely confused, we observe the bizarre surrounding we have suddenly dipped into. Dusty streets, piles of rubbish, ditches of dirty water, poverty stricken people living in ramshackle huts or crammed in big halls and sleeping on the floor, sick animals roaming around….The center certainly faces countless challenges, requiring a torrent of ‘good deeds’. Unwritten hierarchies giving certain privileges to some but normalised by social understandings bring an additional strange twist to our foreign eyes. And as optimistic as it might be to see a basic welfare system being created organically from the rubbles of misfortune, we can’t help wondering whether the practice of Dhamma alone can sort most of the immediate problems threatening to plague the place. But probably that is all because we tend to see ThaBarWa more like a local form of a social center while, it is rather a meditation retreat incidentally taking on social issues, with the hope that meditation and wholesome actions can slowly save the world. One part of us wishes to hold on to that thought. Whatever the case we are stamped with vivid impressions to chew on for months or years to come.
Walking down the Street of Great Merit
In ThaBarWa we spend our time conversing with people. Italian, American and Malaysian nuns, Korean and French monks, German, Czech and Russian helpers, Burmese meditators, travellers just passing by, rich, poor, educated and illiterate locals, ThaBarWa needs anybody who needs it. Meditation and chants mix up with religious myths and Buddhist thought, Burmese words, cooking pots, barefoot walks, strange encounters, questions, dubious answers and more chanting and dogs. In a place for humans built by humans everything is possible and might happen at any moment.
But still, ironically, it is not a person that wrote the major lines of our story there. After a long day in Yangon investigating the tricks of getting Indian visas in the easiest way, we hang out of a crowded bus. It pants under the weight of innumerable passengers and tries to shed off those piled at its open doors with fingers clutched onto anything that seems stable. Couple of hours later, miraculously there has been no major accident, and the bus reaches its last stop and drops us at the end of the city. There we need to walk through a long street packed with food stalls and people celebrating a week long Buddhist festival. Intense smells and loud noises merge into a cacophonic unity, with shapes and colours blurred by clouds of smoke and dust. Few km down the way our tired feet finally turn into a sandy narrow road with a wooden sign reading “Street of Great Merit”. It’s already dark but the meditation center is just around the corner. And as we pass by the embers of the extinguished little fire where a smiling lady squatting on the floor sells pancakes during the day, a group of kids pops out of the shadows and pushes a tiny, soft, grey and warm ball into our hands. ‘A dead rat!’ – shouts Marta annoyed with the prank. But the dead rat meows defenseless. It is a few days old kitten with eyes still murky and unseeing. ‘Where did you get that from? Where is the mother?’ – we ask but we won’t find a definite answer to any of the questions however hard we try. Neither we find her real mother nor anybody who is willing to adopt her. The little grey ball will have to swap her mother’s warm breasts for a plastic syringe. Fragile but tough enough, she is ready to meow and fight for her place under the sun. The change of ‘milk carrier’ won’t dishearten her and in absence of better options we take turns to feed the kitten overnight, sleeping just as little as parents of a newborn baby. ‘To follow our precepts we need to detach, instead of getting attached’ – explains one of the nuns in ThaBarWa, tactfully observing we are not fully awake during alms-rounds time. In Shwedagon Pagoda (the most famous Buddhist temple in Yangon), we pass by a glass box with a statue of Buddha where many cats live. ‘You can leave the little kitten here. She will be happy with Buddha. Thats her best bet!’ – somebody gives a compassionate opinion. ‘Do not suffer. Orphan kittens always die. I have seen it with my eyes’ – advises us a woman who is famous in the center for her large family of cats.
Yet the kitten lives and grows by the hour and learns how to travel in the crowded city buses of Yangon, along the streets we share with barefoot monks. Baptized in complicated road affairs since baby, she will travel far. Much farther than Shwedagon Pagoda and the glass box full of cats keeping company to Buddha. Together, step by step and meow by meow we will try to cross Myanmar. And each and every one of us through his own eyes will see an old world full of wonders. This is how the story of Burma the cat begins, along with our first faint steps into Myanmar.