I just came back from Myanmar (Burma), which, now that it has freed opposition political leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, allowed her a role in the government, and opened its doors to tourists, is a magnet for adventurous travelers who want to explore the little-known destination.
I traveled with ElderTreks (www.ElderTreks.com), which prepared a varied, well-organized, highly instructive l8-day itinerary for a group of l6 people over 50. There wasn’t a lot of trekking, but we did climb up a mountain to visit ethnic tribes, we rode in horse-drawn carriages, trishaws (one person sits on a cushion and a local propels him forward by pedaling a bike), long boats, a luxury barge, planes, trains, and a ferry. Our guide, whose nickname is Turin, has never been outside of Myanmar, and yet he speaks English like an American, and refers to American films, Beverly Hills mansions and John Denver. He taught us how to ask a local in Burmese if she or he had a good sleep, enjoyed a meal, or simply how she or he was faring. I learned to ask for a bathroom, say hello, and smile as I said, “beautiful, beautiful.”
In another post, I’ll tell you about the country and the wondrous sites, but right now, I want to talk about peace. There are 60,000,000 inhabitants in Myanmar, and half a million of them are monks. Everywhere we went, we saw monks in cranberry-hued robes, barefoot, proffering their begging bowls. They only eat two meals a day, and the last one commences at about 10:30 a.m. How they go without comestibles for the rest of the day and night is beyond me, but they do it, and they are highly regarded and respected by the locals. Each young man in the country spends time as a temporary monk—it can just be for a week—so he experiences the humility of barefootedness, hunger, and begging for rice. He also learns about Theravada Buddhism, which is the spiritual pulse of the country.
In a noisy, busy, indoor market that sprawled across five buildings and numerous streets in Mandalay, I heard a droning sound that was piped in by loud speakers. At first I thought it was some form of propaganda, but a vendor who spoke a little English explained that it was the chanting of monks. “It make us calm,” he said. Those four words stopped me in my tracks. I tried to imagine chanting on the floor of the Stock Exchange, or in Wal-Mart. I imagined what it would be like if spiritual sounds floated through shopping malls. “It would make us calm, or at least calmer,” I said to the vendor. I am not sure he understood me, but he smiled.
Everywhere we went, we visited pagodas and temples, and I bowed my head in acknowledgement at monks and pink-robed nuns and gazed at thousands of gilded Buddhas.
I asked a monk, who also spoke a bit of English, what the greatest advantage of his practice was. “Inside peace,” he answered.
I peppered Turin with questions about the essence of Theravada Buddhism. He told me the four main precepts of the Buddhist philosophy, and I have been haunted by two of them ever since.
The first is that life is suffering. There is illness, pain, loss, death, and every kind of misery imaginable. The second is that there is only one way to stop suffering: it is to give up all desire. That means you don’t want a better job, more money, a finer meal, more friends, a different body. You don’t WANT anything. When you stop wanting, you stop suffering.
I have only begun to understand what that means. It involves not wanting to stop suffering, which will lead to the suffering stopping. It does not mean you have to disengage from the world, or stop enjoying yourself. It suggests that you have to be okay with where things are at right now.
You earn merit by doing good in the world—you give rice to monks, you help people, you act like a good person. This will give you a leg up when you reincarnate in your next life.
And for this life? Stop wanting. Stop desiring. Stop needing anything. Accept that life is suffering.
And, if Buddha was right, and what I learned in Myanmar is true, peace will follow.
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Photos by Paul Ross.
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us