Meeting a Monk in Burma
Two things struck me immediately after arriving in Burma.
The first was that there were saffron-robed monks everywhere, with their freshly shaven heads and calming dispositions — but here it wasn’t exclusively elderly men with weathered sandals and kind eyes who were donning the robes. Here there were monks of every age, size, and gender, even small children and women brightly clothed in pink and orange.
Then there was the thanaka — a pale, whitish-yellow paste that covered many Burmese faces, in designs as simple as a circle or as delicate as a leaf.
The only other thing that was as ubiquitous as thanaka and monks in this foreign land was the smiles — so wide and welcoming that you almost didn’t notice what else a person was wearing.
It wasn’t too long before my visit that I hardly knew where to find Burma (otherwise known as Myanmar) on a map. The country had been closed to most of the rest of the world for the handful of decades that I’d been alive. Mystery surrounded any discussion of the place, in part due to its isolation and in part due to the controversy over its military leadership. Still, after Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit in recognition of recent reforms, international sanctions were lifted and the country slowly began opening up to tourism.
It was with much curiosity and some apprehension that I decided to go. I wanted to see the controversial place for myself, but I wondered: Would I be able to go beyond appearances? Though Burma was open for me to enter, would it remain closed to me as a visitor?
A Chance Meeting
Five days after I entered the country, I was in Mandalay. Climbing Mandalay Hill, I saw neither monks nor thanaka. In fact, I saw no faces at all. As I trekked higher, I could hear my breath shorten. I took wide strides to match the distance between the steps that had been carved into the hillside. Gone was the dusty chaos of the capital city of Yangon. I was alone with nothing but my own breath and the expansive views, fitting as I paused to read a sign written in English about meditation.
As I squinted to read the sign’s small text, focusing intently to understand the broken English translation, I heard footsteps. A series of feet approached: first, the paws of a lazy dog who proceeded to plop himself down on a nearby bench; next, a young boy of no more than five, dressed in bright blue and scurrying after the dog, with thanaka paste smeared thickly on his plump, grinning face.
Behind the child walked a young man, a monk staring contemplatively, with his hands clasped behind his back. He stood up quite straight, his gaze inquisitive. He strolled over to me. I went back to reading the sign.
“Where are you from?” he asked me, with a calmness that somehow startled me.
“Oh, I’m American,” I replied.
“Ohhhh, America. Your President just visited my country. That made me happy.” He spoke slowly and simply.
Unsure whether he wanted to engage in conversation or not, I half-smiled at him, head turned to the side. I knew that discussing anything remotely political can get Burmese citizens in trouble, even jailed. And anything more than passing words seemed to break the solemnity of this quiet place.
What he asked next really took me off guard: “Do you want to come have tea with me in my monastery?”
I squinted again. This time, I was thinking, I’m alone. A strange man has approached me. There is no one else in sight, apart from this now sleeping dog and small child.
In any other place, I likely would have politely declined. Yet never in my travels had I experienced such kindness as I had felt in the first five days in Burma. I decided I had more to lose by not following him.
He walked slowly away, and I felt the sun on my back as I followed after his shadow cast onto the warm concrete. I was still apprehensive, but less out of fear and more out of respect. We continued walking up the hill, until I heard him halt.
“Let’s have some ice cream!” he squealed with excitement.
The puzzled look on my face quickly changed to a wide grin when I saw the esteemed monk licking a fuchsia-colored ice cream cone. This was a monk who ate ice cream.
We sat on a bench and looked out onto a sea of green trees, dotted with the white and gold of what looked like hundreds of Buddhist temples in the expanse of Mandalay. He told me that strawberry was his favorite flavor, then added that it was the only flavor he could get on the hill. He wanted to know what kind of ice cream we had in America.
We wandered the walkways winding up and down the hill. I looked up at the wooden beams of the walkways that wound to the temple, weathered by time and wind. I stopped and wondered: Should I keep following him? The view of him in dark red robes walking ahead, and beyond him the covered walkway lined with benches covered with Burmese text, looked like a photograph I had seen as a young child in the pages of a National Geographic. I kept on walking.
Tea and Thanaka
“We’re almost to my monastery,” he said, ducking as he crawled through a small doorway, holding the creaky wooden door open for me.
Around the corner I could see small puffs of smoke from a low-lit open fire. The tiny flames danced around a very old black tea kettle. The monastery wasn’t as I had imagined; it wasn’t a grand hall with a dozen monks sitting cross-legged and meditating. It was simply a modest home.
Steps scurried into the doorless dwelling, away from my line of sight. Apparently I wasn’t the only one apprehensive about this visit.
“You must sit with me in my monastery, have some tea and Burmese snacks,” he said. I happily agreed, removed my shoes and climbed the steps up to a wooden ledge that functioned as a porch.
“That is my sister,” he said, pointing to the woman who was now adding water to the black tea kettle on the flames. “I live here with her and her son, who is also a monk.”
“You wear longyi, like Burmese lady,” the monk said, pointing to my clothes. His sister smiled ever wider at me. “Do you like it?”
“Yes, it’s very beautiful and also comfortable,” I said.
The sister extended her arm gracefully, insisting that I sit on the woven mat that covered the porch. I sat admiring the simplicity of the thatched roof and patterned walls. I knew we weren’t far from the hill, but the dirt, the trees, and the fresh air that surrounded us made me feel miles away.
Before I knew it, I had several small plates of crunchy fried beans and fermented vegetables in front of me, and warm tea in my hand. I waited for my monk friend to eat first, but he appeared to be playing on his cell phone. This was a monk who ate ice cream and had a cell phone.
I reached inside my bag for some of the water I carried with me. The monk twisted his head inquisitively, looking at my water bottle.
“Can I see?” he asked, pointing to the bright red container resembling a thick plastic bag. When traveling I kept a reusable bottle that was flexible enough to be rolled into a small wad when empty. On the side was written the brand name, which I saw the monk examining.
“Plat-y-pus? What is this word?” He whipped out an English dictionary, and looked as if he had just discovered the most fascinating thing he’d ever seen.
“I’ve never seen this word before. What is it?” He pointed again to my water bottle.
“It’s for carrying water when I travel,” I replied, stating the obvious.
“But it says here that it’s an animal of some kind?” he asked, passing me the English dictionary.
“Oh, yes! A platypus is a peculiar animal. It has a mouth kind of like a duck.”
“You have seen this animal before?” he asked.
“Oh, yes, but only in a zoo.”
“I think you have seen a lot of things,” he said, his voice trailing off.
I turned to see the eyeballs in the doorway again, disappearing the moment I noticed them. The woman walked out toward us, still smiling. She pointed to the bracelet around my wrist.
“My sister doesn’t speak English,” he stated, “but she likes your jade. She thinks you must be in Burma for a long time.”
I laughed nervously. “Not very long, no.”
“I think you should stay a long time, help me practice my English!” he exclaimed. I crunched on a few more of the snacks, looking up at the woman again.
“Will you tell her I very much like her…uhh…” I stumbled, signaling to the pale yellow designs on her cheeks. “Very beautiful.”
She smiled, giggling this time, running into the house.
“That is thanaka. It is important in our culture. Good for the skin.” He took a sip of tea. “See, I teach you Burmese words, too.” He smiled and his head nodded down to the screen of his cell phone once more.
I felt a cool hand touch my arm. The woman smiled and signaled for me to follow her into the house. She gestured for me to sit on another woven mat, a colorful one this time.
I watched as she picked up what resembled a small section of a tree branch from the corner of the room. She poured a small amount of water on a dark stone slab and began to rotate the pale object at its center. Dipping her fingers into a paste, she approached me with a giddy excitement.
The thanaka was cool to the touch. She rubbed it into gently into my cheeks, using her fingers to make small strokes of what I hoped was a design. She looked into my eyes with slight apprehension, seeking what I could only guess was approval to keep going.
I flashed an exaggerated smile and nodded excessively. I could feel the warmth of her smile, beaming with pride. Here in this small home, the home of a monk and his sibling’s family, unfolded an afternoon so vastly different from any I could have imagined, yet so blissfully inviting. Curiosity had helped these two worlds collide, but trust and kindness allowed for them to converse.
I was here seeking simplicity, peace of mind. The monk I met — though he seemed to embody those qualities I thought I might find — was seeking something different altogether. He thirsted for information, expression, connectedness. While he seemed almost eager to catch up, I felt comforted by the sense that time moved slowly here in Burma, perhaps even stood still sometimes.
I could have stayed the rest of the day, maybe even the week, but at the thought of time, I remembered I had left a driver waiting for me.
“I have to get back,” I said, trying to match the beauty of their smiles. As I got up to leave, I saw the same curious pair of eyes staring at me. The eyes belonged to the younger monk, nephew of my monk friend, and he stood standing with a few others. They couldn’t have been more than ten years old. Together they looked at me the same way the monk had looked at the word ‘platypus.’ I realized we were equally fascinated with each other’s worlds.
Walking away from the monastery, I found myself taking it all in: the charred black tea kettle still on the fire, the woman washing plates in brightly colored plastic tubs, the boys sitting in their robes with their feet energetically dangling off the platform, the monk seated — not in meditation, but poring over a book.
There is a true difference between what we see first with our eyes and what we go on to experience deeply with our lives. Burma was indeed open to the wide world, in every sense of the word.
Walking away, sensing the flowery aroma of the now-dry thanaka still on my face, I smiled as widely as the faces that had greeted me just a few short hours ago.