Review of Foreign Volunteering and Meditation at Thabarwa Center in Thanlyin near Yangon, Myanmar (325 Words)

Thabarwa Center (actually a whole village) was founded by Venerable Sayadaw Ashin Ottamasara hosts foreign volunteers who want to do good deeds and/or meditate. I did plenty of both. 

Try to arrive Sunday/Wednesday morning; informational meetings held at noon these days. 

It's April, so I was perpetually sweaty, dirty and a little stinky until that glorious cold shower in the evening before bed. But so is everyone else. Between 5-20 other volunteers each day I was there. 

One of my typical days at Thabarwa. 

4:30 Wake up

5:00-6:30 Yoga (in my room by myself but most others participate in morning meditation)

6:30 - 7:00 Breakfast (rice + stuff)

7:00 - 8:00 Alms Rounds with monks or sweeping/cleaning/work

8:00 - 11:00 Continue chores or socialize with other volunteers 

11:00 Lunch (rice + different stuff)

12:00 - 16:00 Read in Library (the only place with air con) or meditation or do special projects

16:00 - 17:00 Walking with patients in wheelchairs

17:00 - 18:00 Walking meditation around stupas

18:00 Dinner (Vit-C drink mix for me since I'm observing 8 precepts but rice + stuff for everyone else) 

19:00 Basic Buddhism class

20:00 Glorious cold shower followed by a load of sink laundry 

21:30 Lights out, eye mask on, earplugs in

Just relax and go with the flow. You can do as much or as little volunteering and/or meditation as you want. Longer term volunteers can teach English to monks and nuns. I even did a couple graphic design projects for the center. 

Shared accommodation and meals are basic but free. However, I recommend making at least a small donation before you depart like $5 (5,000 kyat) per day. 

Free, filtered water throughout the center. 

Cats and dogs everywhere. 

Keep shoulders, knees & everything in between covered. 

Things to bring: mosquito repellent, dietary/digestive supplement, hand fan, reusable water bottle, hat, handkerchief, nuts & dried fruit (sealed to keep out ants). 

Much Love,

Thailand Temple Time: Part II

GENERAL OBSERVATIONS

The border mountains with Burma

The border mountains with Burma

Thailand is the cleanest Asian country I’ve visited. (Well not counting Singapore which is almost sterile since everything is concrete or indoors.) In the past few countries, there is rubbish everywhere and people tend to put it in piles and burn it from time to time. Bleh - the smell of burning plastic is the worst. But not Thailand - they even have recycling! And I didn’t believe this at first but there are also people that make a living by going through the bright blue garbage bins and taking out anything that is recyclable as well.

Recycling makes me happy! 

Recycling makes me happy! 

I was surprised  that the traffic here is pretty much a parade of pick-up trucks. While waiting at a bus stop one day, I counted and there is literally about one sedan for every 20 trucks. Then at the other extreme lots of people buzz by on motorbikes as well. Maybe it’s just Fang but I just expected mostly motorbikes with some small cars mixed in and even tuk-tuks.

image source: thaizer.com

image source: thaizer.com

There are pictures of the royal family everywhere. On calendars in shops and restaurants, framed in the middle of street medians, on giant billboards. But most of them are not current and show especially the king in his much younger days. Not that I would have any reason to, but I’ve been told on multiple occasions not to insult the king as Thai people are very patriotic and hold their king in high regard.

THE TEMPLE TOUR

I thoroughly enjoyed the little temple tour that was arranged for us on Sunday. Oui, a Thai lay person that runs a canteen at the nearby school and helps out around the temple, drove us around in a truck to three very different temples north of Fang. The first was a traditional Chinese Buddhist temple which is not out of place since there’s a pretty significant population of them in Northern Thailand. It featured the traditional style architecture with the sloping roofs, lots of red and gold, paper lanterns and dragons draped over everything. There was also a ginormous Budai statue, or the Laughing/Fat Buddha that most people recognize in the West because they are always in Chinese restaurants and nail salons. Budai was a Chinese monk who was so well liked and admired that the Chinese consider him a Matrea or Future Buddha. Not the same at all as the original calm, cross-legged, meditating Buddha that lived in India 2500 years ago.

Budai 

Budai 

Chinese temple

Chinese temple

The second stop was an immaculate meditation retreat (open to Thai only) with a golden pagoda that you could see shining amongst the green mountains from far away. As we were driving up the last incline to the entrance, the left and right sides of the road were lined with adorable, lotus-shaped huts that house the resident nuns and guests. The circular temple was gorgeous inside and out and had a series of paintings of the Buddha’s life and legends on the inner walls and a lotus mural carved and painted all along the outer walls. In the center of the temple was a delicate looking glass structure that made me feel like I was looking at a scale model of the Emerald City from Oz. Strategically placed throughout the property was a collection of statues of Buddha, devas and nagas like an outdoor art gallery.

Golden pagoda

Golden pagoda

Mini Emerald City? 

Mini Emerald City? 

After this we stopped at a local restaurant for lunch and I had pad see ew - the closest thing they served to pad thai. It was basically big, flat noodles with veggies. I was craving a salty snack while they prepared my food so I perused the racks of potato chips that they had to offer - and even 90% of these were meat flavored! There was pork, shrimp, chickend and even cuttlefish flavored crackers or chips, along with like two regular potato flavors and one bag of Thai Cheetohs. I ended up skipping the junkfood appetizer.

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Cuttlefish Crackers, anyone?

Our last stop was an impressive, seven level Forest Temple that was about as close to the Burma border as you can get. The mountains to the west form a natural border with Burma and Graham even pointed out a military base in a clearing atop one of the peaks. I was probably way too excited to see a cat which was pretty scraggly looking and was missing an eye, but still… kitty!

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

Forest Temple Meditation Trail

There was an amazing little meditation path the wound through the woods and ended at a giant concrete ‘boat’ overlooking the Me Kok river. The panoramic views of the landscape were incredible from this vantage point. As we walked along the path, Graham told us that some of the older monks can recall the days when wild tigers and elephants used to roam the area but of course they have long since disappeared. The trees would be gone too if it wasn’t protected temple land, and even then some loggers still try to force their way in sometimes.

Wat Thaton

Wat Thaton

This is also the location of Wat Thaton, an impressive, rainbow colored temple that houses a variety of Buddhist relics, so it’s kind of like a museum too. There are even ornamental baby Buddhas outside. We took a break here before heading home and I indulged in ice cream, thai iced milk tea and had a cup of traditional hot tea.

FRIDAY FEELS

So many feels today! I decided to have lunch at the canteen that Oui and his wife manage at the school. Yesterday he invited me there for lunch and said his wife would cook me something vegetarian but I wasn’t feeling great yesterday so I just had toast here instead. Today I walked over at a quarter past 11 and all the monks were heading to lunch as well. Oui wasn’t there but his wife was and she was very cute and very pregnant. She offered me iced thai green tea which is very sweet and loaded with condensed milk. Then she cooked me a simple meal of some sort of greens and sprouts with sauce on a bed of rice. I covertly added my usual handful of peanuts for protein and flavor. (I always do this at alms breakfast as well.)

I sat by myself at the end of a picnic style wooden table. It was just like sitting in a cafeteria back home except the students were all boys with shaved heads, wearing bright orange uniforms. One monk cautiously walked past me and said hello. I responded “hello” enthusiastically and eventually he sat down at the table - as far away from me as possible on the other side, but still. He had pretty good English and I found out he was 18 and his name is Kon. After a few moments, another monk shyly approached, said hello and politely asked permission if he could sit across from me. “Yes, of course!” He was very eager to practice his English and was so honest that he admitted he was nervous to practice with me and that he needs to work on his confidence. I assured him that his English was very good. His name is Long and he is 17. He practices a lot because he wants to study English at University and I don’t blame him. It will definitely open up a lot more opportunities for him. The two boys were in the same class and they have been monks for 5 years.

By this time, it was time for them to go back to class so they excused themselves and I thanked them for talking with me. The temple gets plenty of guests but I doubt most of them interact with the monks so much. I really hope I gave those two kids some confidence after our little chat!

School for Monks

School for Monks

When I was finished with my meal, Oui’s wife offered to refill my tea and I asked her how much for lunch and she insisted it was free. I had a 100 baht note (about $3 USD) in my pocket and tried to hand it to her but she refused until I insisted she take it for the baby (in her tummy). She finally accepted it with a wide grin and I walked away with a smile, myself. It can be a bit intimidating being the totally obvious, odd person out but all the Thai people I’ve met so far are so nice so it really hasn’t been bad at all.

Another English-speaking monk actually added me on Facebook last week which I thought was a bit strange at first but then I thought they are just people that want to make connections like everyone else. I'm pretty sure he's going to University soon and may not even be a monk after that. Who knows? 

Longtail, our resident roadblock

Longtail, our resident roadblock

As of today everyone else is gone, even the coordinator, Graham (but he has a good excuse: he’s getting married.) So it’s just me and Longtail, our resident temple dog who I sometimes prefer to call Roadblock because she is always laying across one of the top stairs so that we have to step over her completely. She rarely moves - I think because the other dogs tend to bully her but she’s got it made and gets her own food and water and far more attention than all the others.

I'll be leaving on a mini bus to Changmai city on Sunday but I'm super thankful for this incredible, unique and inspiring experience. 

Body & Mind : My Last Week in Sri Lanka

So I'm still at the same beach house in Ambalangoda but this last week is all about relaxation and introspection. Two other girls are participating in this week's activities as well; one from Austria and one from Germany. The only things officially on the agenda are a daily morning massage, a short yoga class in the afternoon and then maybe meditation on Friday with a monk at a local temple. I supplemented the mind part on my own by devouring several books during my abundant free time. (I also still helped out with the turtles, too.) 

Full/Blue Moon

Full/Blue Moon

BODY // MASSAGE

My morning ayervedic massages were performed by a small, smiley Sri Lankan lady name Udena. First there is the topless head, scalp and shoulder massage. (Beth, you would slip into a blissful coma and possibly die of complete, tactile nirvana.) I sit in a chair and she pours some herbal, ayervedic oil on my head then works it into my hair and scalp with a sequence of scratches and strokes. Then she braids my oily and slightly thicker hair. For some reason, I find head/scalp massage the most relaxing - it affects the entire rest of my body. After that, I lay down on the padded table for the foot massage. It's very thorough and relaxing with a bit of reflexology-ish pressure point stimulation. (Dad, you would fall asleep and instantly have dreams of walking weightlessly on cotton candy clouds.)

The first time, I thought she was only going to do my head and feet, but she transitioned on to rub down all the parts in between. Arms, hands, thighs, legs and then stomach and chest. It was a bit awkward for me because I've never had a boob-and-tummy massage before but its not bad. Then I flip over and she does the back of my arms & legs, my glutes and finally my back. My muscles are temporarily the consistency of banana pudding and it takes all of my willpower to convince my coarse motor skills to start functioning again. 

At this point I'm covered head to toe in ayervedic massage oil. I looked at the bottle but it's all in Singhale so I can't read a word of it. I asked Udena what was in it and she said simply "herbs." So my last resort was to try to identify it by smell, which is my third failed attempt at deciphering what the oil is made from or what's in it. I can say it smells rich, savory, herb-y and earthy, almost like a mossy forest floor after the rain mixed with wood, mushrooms and maybe some nuts. It honestly smells and feels like I'm being tenderized and marinated in preparation for a large Thanksgiving-style feast. It's not a bad smell but I don't love it either. 

If I could, I would fold her up and put her in my pocket so I can continue to experience her magical massage powers throughout my travels and share them with others. But, I just don't think the rest of the world is ready for the massage equivalent of self-actualization. 

MIND // BOOK CLUB

Walden | Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I finally finished Walden after starting it months ago. This is because 1) I read it very sporadically, and only during my travels, 2) its 373 pages of tiny type and 3) I frequently had to make note of and look up definitions to tons of antiquated and/or SAT-level vocabulary words. 

Basically, it's his adventure in self-reliance and self-reflection while living at a house he built on Walden Pond. There's a ton of satire, great poetic descriptions and narration, philosophy, advice, observations and even some rather prophetic predictions. I'll read it again or possible several more times and more quickly now that I have several words defined in the margins. 

Paper Towns | John Green, 2008

 A roommate of mine left this book so I picked it up and decided to give it a try. I finished it in under 48 hours, not because I found it particularly enthralling but because it's an easy read and I have a lot of free time. 

I was expecting it to be your typical vapid YA novel describing the same old tired high school stereotypes but I was surprised to find I could actually relate to it. Girl is fed up with conventional life (in Florida of all places) and decides to leave everything behind in search of something more substantial. 

A good part of the plot is built around poetry by Walt Whitman: Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass. I coincidentally just finished reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Both men were writers and part of the Transcendentalist movement in America during the nineteenth century. So, a lot of the underlying philosophy overlaps between those two books, despite them being written over 150 years apart. 

I also like the message of trying to see people for who they really are, not what you expect them to be. The irony is, in high school when I would have been the ideal target for this book, I was definitely more of a Q but now several years later, I've definitely transitioned to being more of a Margo. 

TRAVEL TIP #3: BOARDING PASSES MAKE GREAT BOOKMARKS!

The Fault in our Stars | John Green, 2012

There was a small, makeshift library of left-behind books in the corner of the common area. Since I had just finished Paper Towns, a friend suggested I read another book by John Greene called The Fault in our Stars. It's about a couple of star-crossed teenagers with various forms and stages of cancer. Kind of a modern, more maladies version of Romeo and Juiet, sans suicide.

It's a great insight into what it feels like to have a terminal illness and makes you appreciate your own health for sure. I wasn't a fan of the ending, but I think it's referencing the inceptional, fictional book-within-a-book An Imperial Affliction which just ends leaving several questions unanswered. I plan on watching the movie at some point next week in Malaysia when I have more reliable internet. 

I Wonder Why | Thubten Chodron, 1999

Curious to learn more about Buddhism and meditation in anticipation of visiting the temple later that week, I read I Wonder Why, a free publication that I picked up earlier at a temple in Singapore. It concisely and simply answers the questions asked most often about these aforementioned topics. It was written by a Californian turned Buddhist nun who started meditation and visited Nepal in 1975 and was fully ordained in 1986 in Taiwan. Very interesting and makes it easier to comprehend some of the more complex topics, especially since she has the Western perspective and wasn't just born into the culture. 

BODY // YOGA

After the peak heat and humidity of the day had waned slightly, our Yoga teacher Sasantha would arrive around 5 PM via motorbike. He wore white Kundalini-style yoga clothes was trained in and teaches Hatha style.

Along with Om chanting, he would open and close our practice with Ayubowen (Wishing you a long life; Singhale) instead of Namaste. I tried to go in with an open mind, but I felt like this class was way too basic, maybe on par for toddlers or geriatric clients. There were a handful of poses that I recognized but there was also a lot of filler like glorified stretching of feet, hands and fingers and laying down in savasana for several minutes in the middle of the practice, which I have never done before, and really felt like it interrupted the whole flow. But he did mix in a noticeable amount of meditation, which I liked. 

The worst part was the insects. I put on citronella oil but the mosquitos and flies still buzzed around us. I can't think of a worse hell than trying to meditate amongst mosquitos. I'm still grateful for his time and effort and was a nice, relaxing, not-too-sweaty way to end the day. 

I still continued to do my own Vinyasa practice almost every morning alone in the common area of the beach house. Last week, a few German girls took notice and asked if I could teach them. I ended up teaching two short classes (with simple moves that I was confident I could describe and direct) on two different mornings with up to four girls attending each class. 

MIND // TRIP TO THE TEMPLE

On Friday afternoon, I and the two other girls participating in B&MW piled into a tuk tuk to make the journey to the nearby Shailathalaramaya Temple in Karandeniya, built on a hillside about two centuries ago. It's claim to fame is a 35 meter long reclining Buddha statue, the longest of its kind in Southeast Asia.

The temple was particularly packed with people due to it being a holiday related to the full moon called Uposatha Observance Day or Poya Day. (This would explain why both the Post Office and our favorite Ice Cream place were closed on Friday.) So, we were lucky to get an hour, or any time at all really, with a monk there named Somissara. He was an amiable, 24-year old monk that just radiated happiness. The only space left for our meditation was in their narrow little alms room, where lay persons brought all kinds of food offerings for the monks. 

He had great English and gave us his life story in a nutshell, including coming to live at the temple at age 7, how he started meditation and his more recent travels across Europe to teach meditation. He recommended starting with Metta (or Loving Kindness) meditation. The goal of this practice is to cultivate a strong wish for the happiness of all other people and animals. We were instructed to close our eyes for 10 minutes and repeat the mantra I wish for all to be well and happy. I edited this a bit to I wish for _______ to be healthy and happy and made it into a med-lib™ (meditation + mad-lib, get it?!), in which I would fill in the following blank with things like: my parents, my sister, my friends, all beings, etc. (Is it coincidence that when I grabbed my phone to take pictures of the temple directly after the meditation, I noticed a rather happy WhatsApp message from my mom?) 

The time went by pretty quickly and even though my eyes were closed, the darkness faintly seemed like I was moving backwards through a tunnel, passing under sporadic overhead lights. However, I couldn't hold the traditional cross-legged position for the entire time. One of my legs started to go numb so I shifted a few times. I raised this concern to Somissara afterwards, and he said it's normal and totally acceptable to shift your physical position when meditating.

Then he gave us a brief tour of the statue, the temple and the grounds. I really enjoyed and appreciated the time he spent with us and approached to shake his hand, but just as quickly recoiled because I suddenly remembered that we're not supposed to touch or take pictures of the monks out of respect for their holiness. 

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

Reminds me of my grandma's quilted creations

The Moonstone Mine and My Shiny Souvenir

Unrelated to Body & Mind week, my last excursion was to a Moonstone Mine in Meetiyayoda. It was a typical tour-then-try-to-sell-something experience, but while white moonstones are found all over the world, blue moonstones are so rare that they (supposedly) are only found in this single village in Sri Lanka.

Traditionally, the moonstone is known as the Traveler's Stone and is supposed to be especially protective when one travels by night or upon the water when the moon is shining. The blue, or cat's eye, variety is believed to promote clarity, focus, awareness and balances energy. 

Upon hearing this, I decided I needed one immediately so even though I'm not typically a "ring person," I purchased a sterling silver ring set with a small blue moonstone for 10,000 rupee ($75 USD). I'm sure I probably overpaid a bit but it came with a certificate of authenticity and I'm directly supporting the Sri Lankan economy. 

Sifting for stones

Sifting for stones

My blue moonstone

My blue moonstone

The Cat Savior & Spectacular Sunsets

My last and completely unanticipated experience that I need to mention happened Friday night when a group of us were walking towards town for ice cream after dinner at the beach house. We are regularly escorted by Milo and some other street dogs, as we were on this trip, but they suddenly and uncharacteristically broke into a full sprint. I saw why as a small cat scrambled up a tree limb. The cat fell and in what seemed like a nanosecond, it was then in Milo's mouth, being shaken violently. 

What happened next was kind of a blur. I didn't really think - I just reacted and kicked the dog, not hard enough to really hurt it, just enough to startle her. She dropped the cat and I reflexively tried to grab the cat and move it away from the dog but instead felt claws puncturing my flesh. I flinched and spun around to see the cat safely behind me. I stood between Milo and the cat, yelling at Milo to go away, until the cat disappeared to safety. Thankfully the other dogs were gone and Milo eventually retreated as well. (I'm choosing to believe that the cat is totally fine now and eternally grateful for me saving it's life.) 

Only then did I stop to evaluate the damage done to my finger. I had a long, jagged scratch almost the entire length of the inside of my right ring finger - the one with my new moonstone ring on it - that was trickling blood and I was super thankful for another girl in my group that had a first aid kit with her and handed me an alcohol wipe and a band aid. I used them immediately then cleaned the wound more thoroughly and applied Neosporin when I got back to the house. 

Last but not least, I need to share pictures of some spectacular sunsets we got to admire this week! 

A Helping Hand(stand)

So since I've clearly mastered the headstand (and by mastered I mean finally accomplished it by myself for the first time) it's time to take my yoga practice to the next level. 

Supposedly this will be me in a month. Image Source:  Cody App

Supposedly this will be me in a month. Image Source: Cody App

I've been following these famous SoFlo yogis @beachyogagirl (Kerri Verna) and @kinoyoga (Kino MacGregor) on Instagram for a few years now, never giving serious thought to me actually being able to do the incredibly impressive & athletic poses they post on a daily basis. Mostly the handstands and arm balances. And here's why. 

I've struggled with core and arm strength my whole life. Not once have I ever been able to finish a rope climb to the top - or honestly even made it halfway - nor do proper push-ups. I have flimsy noodle arms and I'm pretty sure I was just born without that whole set of lower abs. Even at my peak when I was volleyballing, basketballing, running and hurdling year round, I only ever had a four pack. My stomach was like four aluminum cans stacked in two columns on top of a little soft pillow. That analogy doesn't sound very stable and neither was/is my core. 

So these ladies teamed up with Cody App to offer a 31-day series of videos called Journey to Handstand and I finally broke down and bought it last night. Cody App is kind of like Netflix for workouts. After downloading the iPhone app and exploring it a bit, I want to download Kerri's Active Meditation series and Kino's Strong Meditations series as well because I could definitely need help with these skills as well. I think it's just the curse of being creative that your mind never wants to relax and is thinking of a million ideas a minute. 

So today marks Day 1 of my journey and I'll follow-up with a post on June 5th. I will never be perfect, but practice makes proficient!