Myanmar is a country today sought by many, eager to witness change, forge new alliances, and urge on the seedlings of development. There are rays of hope shining everywhere on the potential for growth and prosperity. It is heart-warming to see the veil of restrictions lifting on a backwards age of oppressive military rule and agrarian poverty. The hopeful masses are cautious in expecting “too much too soon” in this nation of gentle people scarred by longtime ethnic rivalries, stringent dictatorships, and kingdoms of gloried pasts.
Throughout these historical challenges, the heart of the Buddhist teachings beats on in ordinary people. They try to find ways to navigate the changing times. As a visitor to Myanmar, it is an opportunity to witness “living Buddhism” in the gentle courteous manner in which most of the population conduct their daily lives. The historical threads of care and cooperation between lay and monastic community are woven together as if time has not advanced from the distant past. There is a reverence in honoring the Buddhist teachings, and appreciation is expressed in their practice.
Travelers to the interior district of Inle Lake will discover beautiful panoramas of open water, tranquil fishing scenes, and clusters of stilted-homes nestled along the lakeside edges. Ranges of low mountains rise along two horizons framing this idyllic valley. Monasteries and temples dot the landscape as spiritual anchors of comfort, education, and reminders of cherished traditions from the Buddha’s time. There is a languid quality to the pace and calm descends upon the inquisitive tourist.
In a local town, there are two Chinese sisters who own and manage a clean and tidy hotel. They are respected businesswomen in their community, and particularly because they support a nearby monastery. This dedication stems from their deep belief in the Triple Gem, and in their devoted kindness and generosity, meals are provided every day for this local sangha of resident monks. The sentiment flowing from their hearts is also shared with any hotel guests that wish to learn more about the Buddhist practice of dana, or offering of alms. The dana of food is to honor the symbolic nourishment of life itself.
When the Buddha almost expired in his ascetic practice; it was a single grain of rice from Sujata that began to bring him back to life again. Without that nourishment, he would not have revived to continue his path to reach enlightenment. The gift of food, the value of sustenance, is the foundation for life in order to learn and grow in this samsaric realm. This primordial practice of dana is offered by these Burmese sisters who honor the symbiotic relationship between monks and lay supporters.
Near Inle Lake the pre-dawn mood was quiet – that time when the air is gray and first stirrings of life are rousing all around. Dogs stretch, cooking smoke curls, steam rises, and voices are hushed in early morning chill. There was an unhurried peace as tables were organized, boxes arranged, team-worked planned, and offerings counted… 200 monks were anticipated that day. The dana included warm curry rice from the hotel kitchen, dry goods from the local stockist, and fruit from the Friday market vendors. Sleepy hotel guests whispered softly and anticipated the solemn parade of crimson robes.
And then they came, quietly walking and approaching from around the corner down the lane. Single file, heads bent down, and alms bowls ready in humble respect to receive their offerings. Some of the young ones peeked around, shy smiles on their curious faces, eyes wide to see some foreign donors. The teams worked in whispered tones and efficient order to place the food gently and lovingly into their alms containers: cooked food, dried food, packaged supplies, odd candy treats for later… all calm, all quiet in a sort of hushed reverence for the task at hand. There were 200 to feed that day. And that is just one day. Tomorrow will be another day, and the next, another. Every day, gifts are made. The repetition becomes a timeless quality.
During the month of June, with help from numerous families, the hotel sisters lead a special mission of feeding masses. Thousands of monks and nuns travel to this regional town to sit their annual exams, supported by the local community. The residents host the tradition to feed and shelter these monastic students during the important time in their education. The efforts and accomplishments are shared in the hearts of all involved. For hotel guests in that unusual time, the Chinese sisters will share the experience and illuminate the Buddhist rituals for the uninitiated traveller. They are generous and kind in their attention to service. In spirit and demeanor, they are the sisters of giving.
In Myanmar, with its active Theravada traditions, there is a strong sense of ‘living Buddhism’ in the daily life of many citizens. Gentle courtesies and devotional practices are normal components of their daily routines. The giving and receiving of dana is an essential relationship between monastic members and their lay supporters. Food is the dana, the offering, the nourishment. Without it, there would be no life. For a visitor to Inle Lake, the chance to participate in alms is a touching way to understand the special appreciation for Buddhist tradition.