Myanmar: Reflection on a Peaceful Journey – Tống Mai

Nov 9, 2017 (TM)

This is not a travel story, but rather a reflection on a journey that I’d like to call a journey to peace.

I was born and grew up in the shadow of a war that ripped our country in two. As far as I can remember, when memory began to take root, peace was a concept uncertain and distant in an ancient city that was hung over and disturbed by the sound of cannon mixed with the sound of temple bells at night. War was not far from home. That is Hue, the city in Central Vietnam where childhood memory turned into immense graveyards, haunted by gruesome images of mass graves of thousands of innocents died during the war.

Peace since then existed only in prayers at night.

Why this journey … Why until now?

It all began with a painting. Twenty years ago, I painted a portrait of a young monk with his head turning back.  It did not occur to me at that time why a backward glance from a little monk. Not until years later when the painting was hung in my living room did I began to look at those eyes and noticed their sadness. It dawned on me that those eyes were the reflection of my eyes and oh, how profusely they were filled with sadness from a childhood lost in war and mourning.  From then on, I began to dream of a peaceful place where there are temples, souls at peace, eyes that do not look back … a place like home, but without reminiscence of war. Peace and temples. The two concepts prompted me to think of Myanmar, a place in my waking dream and imagination have all those traces.

And such began my journey.

Myanmar is a land of Buddhism with 90% of the population Buddhist. There are thousands of Buddhist temples and pagodas throughout the country. I was blessed to be able to see what I’d come for: little monks, peaceful pastoral, sunrises and sunsets, light and darkness. The memories of the journey I took home with me are laden with the scent of incense, and on the wing of the incense is the tranquil quietness of mind.

Now come with me to this tranquil land of beauty and peace.

The first sight that caught my eyes was the little monks and little nuns on their alms-round. I’d spent many days looking for these little angels since I first set foot in Myanmar. Encountering them is a blessing. One morning in Mandalay,  I ran after them, camera in my hand, hoping to catch a few shots of them, but they moved swiftly as if avoiding being photographed. Before daybreak, these little angels often set out early carrying their alms bowls going from one house to another to receive food offerings. They seem to be mostly 5 to 10 years of age. The little monks wear red robes and the little nuns pink robes. After the alms-rounds, they go back to their  monastery to take their meals before noon. Seeking alms is a Buddhist practice from thousands of years. It is meant to teach humility, patience and courage to endure whatever life offers, be it happiness or misery, luckiness or misfortune, like the bikshus must accept whatever kind of food offered to them.

 

Young Nuns on Alms-round – Mandalay

Young Monk Seeking Alms – Yangon

Monastery Meal – Mandalay

Yangon is the most developed like any other cities in transition to modernity, while Mandalay and Bagan are still idyllic and less trodden. Bagan has more than 2,000 temples and pagodas built in the 12th or 13th century. On the vast land of the Archeological Zone are temples after temples spanning miles and miles mysteriously in the morning mist. The countryside looks like a fairy land with wide dirt roads, shrouded with acarcia trees, and the sight of carts slowly pulled by cows and buffalos is a familiar sight.  It reminded me of my homeland where ones had to share roads with cows and buffalos coming home from rice fields. It was a feeling almost lyrical and tender to be in this place which brought back in time memory of an era where life was simple and undisturbed by modernity – an era that I love to call “Thuở Quế Trầm” –  era of Cinnamon and Incense.

 

Country Road – Bagan

Temple Ruins Archeological Zone – Bagan

Ananda Temple – Bagan

Then came the sunsets on Mandalay where you could feel the immense sadness of the scenery and of your heart as the light of the day retreated.

Here is another sunset on Ubein Bridge in Mandalay.  Ubein is the oldest and longest bridge in the world, spanning 1.2 kilometers across Lake Taungthaman. That evening, I rented a boat to the middle of the lake to wait for the sun to come down, the feeling was incredibly overwhelming when the red and enormous sun descending slowly, draping the shadow of the pedestrians on the bridge. There were so many people around, a very crowded sight, but I did not hear a sound, no, not at all as everything was moving in silence: the sun and the shadows on the bridge. It could be that the stillness and the inner peace drown out the noise outside

Then came another sunset on Mandalay Hill.  The red sun cast its rays to the valley and the temples above with such exquisite beauty. And here is Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda), 210 kilometers from Yangon. Golden Rock is a round pagoda pasted with solid gold leaves by the Buddhist devotees, and is a popular pilgrimage and tourist attraction. It sits on top of the Kyaiktiyo hill 1,100 meters above sea level. In the distance, it looks like a round gold rock perched nonchalantly on the edge of the mountain.

 

Ubein Bridge – Mandalay

The road to dawn is through dusk, there’s no day without its night – Sunset on Mandalay Hill

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (Golden Rock) – Mon State

 

Please stay on with me for a few moment as I’d like to show what behind the photographs below.

While sunsets in Mandalay gave a saddening feeling of something fading away, sunrise in Bagan was the birth of life. The last morning of my stay  in Bagan, I came to the Archeological Preservation Zone very early when it was still dark to wait for the sunrise. On top of Shwesandaw Temple, I could see the entire plain of over 2,000 temple ruins below.  The feeling of being there in the middle of temples after temples in an vast field was heavenly as the sun rose majestically above the tallest temples and hundreds of hot air balloons carrying tourists were released into the morning sky to greet a new day. It was clear to me that my heart remained still and I was in a state of mind where I could touch the whole universe around me with the tip of my finger. Never in my life could I feel the magical connection and one with the universe as in that moment.

 

I’ve never stopped waiting  …

Waiting for the light to come – Dhammayangyi Temple

For behind darkness is light, behind sunset is sunrise – Dhammayangyi Temple

 

And such:

I have known the silence of suntset,
The silence of darkness when the light of day retreats.

I’ve never stopped waiting …
Waiting for light to come.
For behind darkness is light, behind sunset is sunrise;
The road to dawn is through dusk;
There’s no day without its night
There’s joy behind sorrow and laughters behind tears.

Those thoughts are not so foreign, but when actually experienced the transition of night into day, of sunset to sunrise, of darkness to light did I  profoundly realize that no one is left in uncertainty and sorrow forever.

With this note, I am closing the journey with the candles at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. These candles were burned by the pilgrims and one of them was mine. I knew I was not alone, my candle together with those of others will light up the passage to peace for today and tomorrow.

And with the light of the candles in this photo, I wish for peace for all.

 

Lighting for peace at Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon

 

Tống Mai
Virginia – Nov 9, 2017
(English version of: Miến Điện và Lòng Ta Se Sẽ Câu Kinh Bình Yên)

 

 

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