Travel

It’s not always easy to quiet the mind, even under the venerable direction of a monk in a Buddhist temple. By Cindy MacDonald.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar

A monk within the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Yangon, Myanmar.
Credit: CINDY MACDONALD

The spires of Myanmar’s most sacred site reach like dozens of golden fingers towards the heavens. Towering above all else is the Shwedagon Pagoda’s glistering central dome, or stupa, reputedly enshrining four hairs of the Buddha and bedecked in thousands of precious gemstones.

We are here to circumnavigate this structure and take part in a candle-lighting ceremony at twilight. But beforehand we will meet a monk who will guide us through a lesson in meditation.

The monk sits before us on a well-padded carver chair, a giant black fan like an oversized ping-pong paddle in his left hand and a pretty floral glass filled with cool clear water on a low golden-valance-enshrouded bench in front of his seat. Like kids on a classroom floor, we await his wise words.

He greets us soberly but gently, then explains the ideal position for Burmese meditation. Men should sit with their legs crossed, the tops of both feet resting on the floor, and women should sit with both legs curled to one side. If that proves too difficult, the women can assume the same position as the men. We must place our hands, palms facing upwards, one on top of the other in our laps, and try to elongate our spine and open our chest.

Our spiritual guide begins his instruction by explaining that the key to entering a meditative state lies in maintaining calm and rhythmic breathing. I’m immediately distracted as the monk gesticulates, causing his robe to gape slightly, exposing his right nipple. Is it intrinsically wrong to be distracted by a celibate monk’s nipple, I ask myself, knowing the answer can be only yes. Not that it’s a sexy Cristiano Ronaldo I-just-scored-a-goal-and-ripped-my-shirt-off kind of nipple. No, fortunately our monk is of the middle-aged and cuddly variety, very much with the figure of the Laughing Buddha best known in China or Japan. Seamlessly, the monk readjusts his robe and continues. We must focus on our own chest rising and falling with each deep inhalation and release of breath. If we do this our minds will clear and our bodies will relax.

Rising, falling, the monk repeats. Rising, falling…

Very soon I realise that while my chest may be happily rising and falling, my legs are abominably uncomfortable. Less than a minute after assuming my ladylike meditation position, I shift to the men’s pose with legs crossed in front. Blessed relief.

We must now close our eyes and empty our minds, ready to set sail on a five-minute journey of blissful meditation.

The monk explains that if distracting thoughts creep unbidden into our minds, we must recognise and acknowledge those thoughts and then return to our “primary object”: rising, falling, rising, falling…

The first unbidden thought that enters my head is that this may be the most protracted five minutes of my life. While my legs feel better for their shift, my back is beginning to thrum with dull torment.

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

In mellifluous tones, the monk explains that we may hear distracting sounds while meditating and we must recognise them. Hearing, hearing, hearing, he says, but then we must return to our primary object:

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

I focus on my breathing, then immediately recall Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. In it, Gilbert had the devil’s own job quieting her mind while trying to master meditation in an ashram in India.

No wonder Gilbert is front of mind. I’ve got her novel The Signature of All Things sitting pristine and unopened on the bedside table in my cabin back aboard the Coral Discoverer. I really should start reading it. Not that I’ve had much of a chance. Hang on, listen to the monk.

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

Why haven’t I started reading it? It’s a big book and if I don’t hurry up and begin I’ll never get through it before we hit Singapore. I need to return it to S. It’s so nice of her to lend it to me when she hasn’t even read it herself. Hope it’s good. How’s Liz Gilbert doing anyway? Haven’t heard a thing since she announced she’s in love with her dying best friend. Ah, crap. Got to get back to my primary object. Rhythmic breathing. Yes, that’s it.

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

Her husband seemed nice, at least he did when Javier Bardem played him in the movie. I wonder how he’s coping with the split? Dammit. Come on…

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

The monk explains that other senses such as smells may distract us while we’re meditating. We must acknowledge them – stinking, stinking, stinking – then return to our primary object:

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

Stinking is a funny way to describe all smells. Love it. Must remember that one. Why didn’t I record this lesson? I’ve got my iPhone with me. Too late now, you idiot. Maybe this would make a good story for the paper. Don’t think about work, you’re on holiday. Anyway, you didn’t record it. I wonder if anyone else did. Nah, doesn’t matter. I’ve got to try to do this meditating thing.

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

God, this is uncomfortable. How can it possibly be relaxing? People really do this for pleasure? How much longer? Damn. With my palms facing up I won’t be able to read my watch. What a sneaky trick.

The monk instructs that we might feel things while we’re meditating and we must recognise them – touching, touching, touching – but then–

Yes, I get it.

Rising, falling, rising, falling…

He then tells us that we can also reach a meditative state while walking in everyday life. Just concentrate on the movement of your feet, he says. As you step, focus on how your foot is rising, moving, falling.

Rising, moving, falling… Rising, moving, falling…

Gee, you’d have to be walking slowly. How long would it take me to get to the office if I did that? Hey, it’s New Year’s Eve. Wonder if there’ll be fireworks in Yangon? I guess so. What percentage of the Burmese gross national product would one lot of Sydney Harbour fireworks be worth? Swimming’s kind of meditative. Wonder if I can make it work for me when I’m swimming? Hope the beaches are nice in southern Myanmar. And the snorkelling. Wonder if we’ll see any clownfish? Would there even be clownfish in southern Myanmar?

Rising, moving, falling… Rising, moving, falling…

We must be getting close to five minutes now. Shouldn’t really open my eyes. Maybe just a crack. I wonder how the others are going? Yes, thank Buddha, he’s winding up the session. Hope he can’t see me squinting at him. No nipple showing now.

As the monk brings the lesson to a close and his floor-bound charges squirm and flex, I turn my mind to thoughts of wandering the pagoda, knowing my first task is to pay homage, as the locals do, to the planetary post that represents the day of the week on which I was born. At Thursday Corner I will offer water to the Buddha, make a prayer and a wish and look for my animal symbol – a mouse. From there I’ll view the pagoda in the traditional clockwise direction, watching daylight ebb and the candle flames dance.

We open our eyes and nod and smile our appreciation to the beatific monk while releasing our legs from their crossed incarceration. I stand gingerly and set out to find my corner, at a meditative pace.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Monk and stupa". Subscribe here.

Cindy MacDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s deputy editor.