An Ode to the Golden Land
Why come to BurmA?
"It is astounding to reflect on how the Dhamma has spread so rapidly around the globe, outward from Asia and into regions that until recently had scarcely even heard of the existence of a Buddha in the world. On every continent (save, perhaps, the penguins in Antarctica), meditation practices have taken root. Yet, just a generation ago, those outside Asia who yearned to follow the Buddha’s path had to trek into places of unknown language, culture and customs in search of a qualified teacher and a place to practice (and with visa and health challenges to boot). Now, from corporate boardrooms to maximum security prisons, from Catholic churches to Jewish synagogues, from kindergartens to law schools, from professional sports leagues to political leadership councils, and from summer camps to military training, people of all ages and across all walks of life are introducing mindfulness into their daily lives; in many cases these programs and practices draw directly from the Buddha’s teachings.
In the early days of Western seekers, there was precious little to go on. Figuring out where to go, who to learn under and even how to act was trial by adventure. English writings on the Dhamma were hard to come by. For many, a chance encounter with a single book spurred their entire spiritual quest. But the modern yogi need no longer worry about a scarcity of Dhamma resources. A nearly unlimited (and free) access to Buddhist materials—from podcasts to electronic books to documentaries, covering everything from advanced Abhidhamma theory to guided meditation instructions to personal stories of spiritual development—is now available at the seeker’s fingertips. And for the yogi wishing to find a qualified teacher, suitable practice environment and supportive spiritual community, these can now be found from Springfield, USA, to Springfield, Australia, to Springfield, England. In other words, we no longer need to go to the origin of the practice or lineage, since that very practice has come to us.
Of course, as serious seekers soon realize, meditative practice is ultimately an internal affair. The question then arises that, if all genuine insight is found by “going inside,” and if the resources to navigate these inner routes have become much more plentiful and accessible, why “go outside,” halfway across the world for it, especially when taking into consideration the expense, energy, time, hassle and health risks, besides cultural and linguistic differences? Why schlep all the way to Buddhist Burma when most of the Dhamma-related practices found there can be enjoyed much closer to home?
It may be surprising that one of the more profound responses to this query came from Harold Fielding, a British colonial who in 1898 wrote, in Soul of a People:
'To hear of the Buddha from living lips in this country, which is full of his influence, where the spire of his monastery marks every village, and where every man has at one time or another been his monk, is quite a different thing to reading of him in far countries, under other skies and swayed by other thoughts. To sit in the monastery garden in the dusk, in just such a tropic dusk as he taught in so many years ago, and hear the yellow-robed monk tell of that life, and repeat his teaching of love, and charity, and compassion—eternal love, perfect charity, endless compassion—until the stars come out in the purple sky, and the silver-voiced gongs ring for evening prayers, is a thing never to be forgotten. As you watch the starlight die and the far-off hills fade into the night, as the sounds about you still, and the calm silence of the summer night falls over the whole earth, you know and understand the teacher of the Great Peace as no words can tell you. A sympathy comes to you from the circle of believers, and you believe, too. An influence and an understanding breathes from the nature about you—the same nature that the teacher saw—from the whispering fig-trees and the scented champaks, and the dimly seen statues in the shadows of the shrines, that you can never gain elsewhere. And as the monks tell you the story of that great life, they bring it home to you with reflection and comment, with application to your everyday existence.'
These words written over a century ago explain why a trip halfway across the world is still worth the effort and expense. It is why hundreds of meditators and monastics have selflessly donated so many months (and in some cases, years) to help put together the book that you now hold in your hands.
Ashin Paññobhāsa, an American forest monk who has resided in Myanmar for decades, echoes Fielding’s inspiring words in a more down-to-earth way. He writes, 'One advantage of living in rural Burma, with a semi-ancient, traditional culture and a natural environment very similar to that of the ancient Ganges Valley, is that one can learn more through experience what the suttas (the Buddha’s Discourses) are talking about.'"
 An anecdote from an American aspirant a generation ago provides a window into the context then. As a young man, he found just one Buddhist book in English, by Bhikkhu Bodhi, a fellow American who had ordained in Sri Lanka. So he set off to that country to become a monk. However, while there, happened upon another English book describing the teachings of Ajahn Chah of the Thai Forest Tradition. Now feeling a deep resonance with those words, he disrobed, and changed course for Thailand to re-ordain, and has been in robes ever since. Similarly, some longtime Sayagyi U Goenka meditators and teachers trace their first 10-day retreat a copy they happened upon of The Art of Living, while some dedicated Mahāsi yogis talk of stumbling across the sayadaw’s English writings as a formative experience. Still others went trekking across Southeast Asia to track down teachers from Jack Kornfield’s Living Buddhist Masters. And those from the previous generation had it easy compared to the generation before them, when the Dhamma search first involved months on a boat, and then entering a society where there was no roadmap of any kind to work from!