There are no churches here, but thousands of ancient temples are everywhere, which explains why I felt drawn from my pre-dawn prayer over to the window. I stood rapt by the sounds of Buddhist monks faintly chanting somewhere not too far in the distance.
It was the first and only morning during my time in Myanmar (formerly Burma) that I’d heard anyone chant. The morning I had plans for a hot air balloon ride over the plains of Bagan, I was lying in bed having my morning meditation, so maybe I was particularly tuned in. I remember feeling grateful. I was halfway into a trip with a group of international travel friends, and was thankful for the peace this trip had bestowed upon me thus far. Last year had been great in many ways, but the last six months of office drama had zapped my spirit. This trip gave me a chance to reboot.
I’d started my trip in Thailand, and I began to regain my peace in Bangkok. I’d gotten a few fantastically inexpensive massages (each equivalent in price to a round of Manhattan drinks) and tasted authentic Thai food, from street vendors and some of Bangkok’s best restaurants. My unwind continued as I fed and rode elephants through a Thai jungle, toured some impressive pagodas (temples) and visited the famous Reclining Buddha. I was definitely starting to unwind.
A few days later, we arrived in Myanmar, and I marveled at how my trip had come full circle. A year earlier, my job had taken me to Dublin, working with a client on an Amnesty International concert honoring Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps the most “famous” political prisoner next to the late Nelson Mandela. Bono and Amnesty International were fêting the former dissident’s election to Burmese Parliament after being jailed as a political prisoner for over 24 years. Now here I was in her country, standing outside her house in Yangon, marveling at the magic that was Myanmar.
“This is Burma… It is quite unlike any place you know about,” said writer Rudyard Kipling, and he was right. Burma is a country deeply steeped in religious and cultural traditions and remains largely unchanged over hundreds (in some ways, thousands) of years. Buddhism is the principal religion, and here monks seamlessly integrate into modern society, while truly embodying the monastic life of service and devotion.
In Burma, your taxi driver greets you wearing longyi, the traditional Burmese skirt-like garb, and some speak through teeth stained red from years of chewing betle nut quid. Here, women hawk their wares at local markets staring at you with faces covered in thanaka, a paste made from tree bark. In Burma, I finally found peace.
The Burmese are a kind and gentle people “happy to now have a dream.” The military ceded limited power to civilians in 2010, creating a quasi democracy which lifted the international trade and tourism embargoes. I mostly looked forward to visiting Bagan, a town in Central Myanmar whose landscape is dotted with over 2,200 remaining Buddhist temples and monasteries. Once the religious and political epicenter of Burma, Bagan’s political and social elite erected over 10,000 temples between the 11th and 13th centuries, each builder trying to out do their neighbor’s temple—proof that keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new.
Balloons over Bagan picked us up that chilly January morning before dawn. We headed to an empty field still damp from morning dew, snapped photos of the pilots and crew as they filled balloons with hot air and steadied the baskets in preparation for our ride. We took off, sailing peacefully over hundreds of temples, interrupted only by the shutter clicks of people’s phones and digital cameras. I stood in awe as we glided over the plains of Bagan, snapping my own photos for posterity. I’d visited a few of these temples the days before and wondered what it was like to worship in those pagodas during ancient times.
For the second time in my trip, suspended a few thousand feet above earth, I heard some chanting. It drew me like a siren, and I knew that once I landed, I was going in search of some monks, any monks. For what, I didn’t know.
We arrived back at our hotel, gathered some fruit from the buffet, and took off with my friend from Rio in search of a monastery. I told her about the chants I’d heard earlier from my room and suggested we go “that way,” positive I could find some monks somewhere near the river.
We walked for a while, guided by my inner GPS, and finally saw something: a yard filled with monks’ robes drying on a line. I’d found a monastery! I approached a group of monks, offered my food, asking, of course, if they spoke English. They went to get their “abbot,” the head instructor at this educational monastery for novices (young monks in training).
What began as me giving alms turned into a tour of the monastery, a mini primer on Theravada Buddhism and insight into their daily lives. I’d never seen such simplicity, contentment and devotion. They live entirely on donations, have no “real” material possessions, yet seem to have a peace beyond comprehension. Suddenly, I felt small yet free.
We were asked to stay for lunch and watch the novice procession. Today was special, , as some people from the community brought, prepared and would serve lunch for the entire monastery. If they have no donors, the monks walk around the community with their alms bowl, subsisting only on what is offered to them. During lunch and into the afternoon—except for a few banished from class for sleeping—the novices (some as young as 10) were as prayerful and devoted as the ordained monks, totally nonplussed by the strangers among them. I couldn’t say the same. I stood stupefied, nearly pinching myself at my experience here with monks in Myanmar.
The next morning, my last in Bagan, I went back to thank Sasana the abbot for his hospitality and bestowing a peace upon me that I didn’t believe was possible. We all shared another meal and he took me on a tour of an 11th century famous pagoda near the monastery. As we walked back, I kept thinking, “Ask and it will be given unto you!” I’d asked for peace and found it, about 90 living, shining examples right there on the grounds of the Lokananda Monastery.
Having a Burmese monk as a Facebook friend is pretty awesome. But the peace I gained over those few days gave me the courage to change my life in ways that I’d been paying a little more than lip service to. And with that newfound peace, I can say firsthand that Rudyard Kipling was spot on!