Sunday, September 30, 2007


Burma 3: Pagan

by Larry Geller

From the Timeline of Buddhism, probably not completely up-to-date, you can get a flavor of the repression of the monasteries in Burma, and also of the critical role they have played in the struggle for freedom in that country:

# 1965: The Burmese government arrested over 700 monks for in Hmawbi, near Rangoon, for refusing to accept government rule.

# 1974: In Burma, during demonstrations at U Thant's funeral, 600 monks were arrested and several bayoneted by government forces.

# 1976: Following a demonstration in Burma, the government sought to discredit the critical monk La Ba by claiming that he was a cannibal and a murderer.

# 1978: In Burma, more monks and novices were arrested, disrobed and imprisoned by the government. Monasteries were closed and property seized. The critical monk U Nayaka was arrested and died, the government claiming it was suicide.

# 1980: Burmese military government asserts authority over the sangha, violence against monks continues through the decade.

# 1990, August 27: Over 7000 monks met in Mandalay in Burma to call for a boycott of the military. They refused to accept alms from military families or perform services for them. The military government seized monasteries and arrested hundreds of monks, including senior monks U Sumangala and U Yewata. The monks faced long-term imprisonment, and all boycotting monks were disrobed. Some monks were tortured during interrogation.

From the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii today:

Reminder: Candlelight Vigil to support brothers and sisters in Burma, Sunday, September 30th, 7 pm, Magic Island, Ewa side. Bring your own candle.

Burma: Stop the Bloodshed - Update

Dear Interfaith Friends,

The worst is happening - over the last few days, Burma's generals have unleashed terror on the peaceful monks and protesters – shooting and beating many to death, and taking others away to torture chambers where at this moment they must be enduring the unbearable.

We can stop this horror. Burma's powerful sponsor China can halt the killing, if it believes that its international reputation and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing depend on it. To convince the Chinese government, Avaaz is launching a major global and Asian ad campaign on Tuesday that will deliver our message and the number of signers. Our petition has exploded to over 200,000 signers in just 72 hours, but we need 1 million voices to be the global roar that will get China's attention. If every one of us forwards this email to just 20 friends, we'll reach our target in the next 72 hours. Please sign the petition at the link below -if you haven't already- and forward this email to everyone you care about:

The petition will also be delivered to the UN Secretary-General, and we will broadcast the news of our effort over radio to Burma's people, telling them not to lose hope, that the world is with them.

The Burmese people are showing incredible courage in the face of horror. The fate of many brave and good people is in our hands, we must help them – and we have hours, not days, to do it. Please sign the petition and forward this email to at least 20 friends right now.

Nanette and I arrived in Pagan. We knew the drill: one of us finds a guide with a vehicle while the other checks in with the local police. Everyone arriving by air had to register, on each stop. We found a guide and a jeep. If I recall correctly, that was one of only two cars available in Pagan. We lucked out. The jeep was started with a crank in the front. Cool. Off we went, first stop was to drop off our bags at the hotel where we were to stay.

In Rangoon we had to stay at the government hotel, but after that we chose local. We wanted to be sure that the money we spent went into local hands rather than into government coffers. Pulling up in front, the jeep stopped immediately (gotta conserve every bit of gasoline). I grabbed our itinerary sheet and went inside.

Since I worked for a company in Japan we had the use of a travel agent, who had actually sent the faxes, made the airline reservations, printed our tickets, and so forth. By now, though, we were used to the disconnect that this trip was different. So it was no surprise that the hotel, a small family-run place, had no record of our reservation. What we came to understand is that the arrangements had been confirmed by Burma's airline, Union of Burma Airways, but that since they had no way to communicate anything back home, they just confirmed anything and everything to the travel agents. Yup, no matter what you asked them for, they confirmed it. Airline reservation? Confirmed. Hotel? Confirmed. That's what it said on my piece of paper, neatly printed for my convenience by the computer.

The hotel didn't have a room for us. But not to worry, they asked the driver to take us to another place where we were likely to find a room. And they suggested in the future that we write to ask for a reservation. There was no guarantee that the mail would go through, but if it did, and if their reply made it back to us, we'd know we had connected. We did find a room, and of course everyone was very kind and helpful. I have to add that the kindness was not what tourists experience in a typical hotel, where the staff hopes for tips and takes care of you because it is their job. The people were genuinely kind and helpful.

I think it was at this point that we were joined by a young boy. So the four of us, our guide, a man of about our age, the boy, and the two of us set out. We did have a few objectives, and we had time to explore and learn and meet people for this leg of the journey. The guidebook explained why we had picked up a young companion. At some point, it said, he would try to sell us some rubies, where were mined nearby. Of course, they would be glass. The real rubies all go to the government. Buying (real) rubies was supposed to be a good deal in Burma, if one knew beforehand what they were worth so as to avoid being taken in the government stores.

There was one thing we wanted to do without fail: we wanted to be on top of the Shwesandaw Paya (temple) at sunset. There is an outside staircase--a long but worthwhile climb. Thatbyinnyu Pahto (temple) (bottom picture) is taller, but the top levels are not allowed for tourists. Besides, one can see Thatbyinnyu Pahto, which is the highest in the plain, from the other. 

We also wanted to see Burmese lacquer being made and to spend some time just walking around.

There are about 3,000 pagodas left in Pagan out of a max of around 13,000. We were there before the 1975 earthquake that toppled many of them, so our memories are precious to us. The military government has been "renovating" the area without regard to historical accuracy or significance, so I shudder to think of the damage that has been done since our visit, by nature and by man (if one can call them men).

The pagodas are very different from those in Rangoon. While most of the decorations are long gone, having eroded down to the bricks over time, some can still be found. The decorations were principally ceramic tile.

Many of the temples and Pagodas at Pagan are decorated with glazed earthenware tiles in varying shades of green and blue-green, white and yellow-brown. These are Jataka tiles which are Buddhist “birth tiles” depicting the various birth stories of the Buddha. Glazed carved stone-tiles were also found. A common Burmese motif seems to be the lotus flower which is found in stone-tiles as well as decorating Burmese ceramics. [from The History of Ceramic Pottery in Myanmar (Burma)]


The famous lacquerware is often built up in layers on an armature of horsetail hair, so that bowls are flexible in the hand in contrast to the rigid Japanese lacquerware we were more familiar with. We learned that some was made for tourists and that the paint would rub off. In fact, that's the test--our handy guidbook instructed us to bring a piece of cloth for the rubbing test.

The design of fine Burmese laquerware is made by applying layer on layer and scratching through the layers to reveal the color below. Then the next layer is added, and so on. There may be gold leaf (as opposed to cheap paint for the tourist items), and the lacquer is cured in underground storage. We did buy some pieces. The amount of hand work is impressive.

We were also interested in the giant torpedo-shaped cigars many of the adults smoked. In Burma, even the children smoke, generally small jagged cheroots. We had a friend back in Japan who cultivated fine cigars and wouldn't it be cool to bring him one. While we saw them everywhere in Pagan, we had never seen them for sale. Our guide explained that they were made by the women. Later he took us to the home of a woman who wove intricate baskets. She also made the cigars. He asked, and she put aside her work for a moment and took at a beautifully made basket with leaves and other things in it, and deftly folded some of them into one of the giant cigars. There did not seem to be a translation of what the leaves inside were... and we were wondering if Japanese customs would confiscate them and lock me away forever on our return. But we were young then, and lived dangerously... we offered a couple of packs of State 555 cigarettes which the guidebook assured us was the best thing to bring with us when visiting Burma. Speaking with her, through our guide, was a high point of the trip. And fortunately, Japanese customs just waved us through, or I suppose I wouldn't be writing this today.

Towards dusk we headed back to the pagodas and climbed the outside brick stairway. The four of us sat on an open terrace and watched a spectacular sunset evolve. The guide on one side, Nanette, then me and the young boy next to me. It was getting dark and getting gorgeous. Finally, the boy reached into his pocket and pulled out a white cloth. He unfolded it and showed it to me. Inside were some rubies. He asked if I would like to buy some rubies. I said, "They're glass, aren't they?" "Yes," he said, and folded the cloth back over them and returned it to his pocket.

The four of us watched the rest of one of the most beautiful sunsets in the universe in silence, then climbed down the ancient and irregular brick stairs in the twilight.


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