The author, kneeling in front of his Western brother monks, having just disrobed.
The author, kneeling in front of his Western brother monks, having just disrobed.

Tell me, are you Western yogis really interested in nibbana?

The Burmese interpreter’s piercing brown eyes looked into mine as he waited for an answer. U Mya Thaung was a dignified, precise man of seventy-three, with a mischievous smile. He would interpret for the retreat I would be attending. In the sweltering waiting room of the Rangoon airport, Burmese men wearing sarongs looked at me curiously. I, too, was wearing a traditional longyi, but my Voit high-top sneakers stuck out conspicuously beneath the blue-checked material. We waited for the dilapidated 1950s prop plane to refuel for our flight to Mandalay. In response to U Thaung’s question, I mumbled something like “Some of us are and some are not”—but it continued to haunt me throughout my three-week retreat at the fourteenth-century monastery called Kyaswa.

I was one of thirty-three yogis (meditator/practitioners) who would meditate in the vipassana tradition at Kyaswa, ten kilometers downriver from Mandalay, at the third annual Foreign Yogis’ Retreat. Vipassana had been practiced continuously at Kyaswa for the past six centuries, but it had only recently opened to Westerners for three weeks each year. It was here, in the hills of Sagaing, that the Burmese Satipatthana method of insight meditation had its origins. At Kyaswa, perched high atop the limestone cliffs overlooking the Irrawaddy River, I would hear the dhamma spoken by Sayadaw U Lakkhana—a renowned meditation master and disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw, and by Michelle McDonald-Smith, an accomplished vipassana teacher associated with the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

Our plane chugged noisily through the clouds of upper Burma, when someone called out—“There’s Mandalay.” I looked through the airplane window and saw hundreds of bleached-white pagodas with chedis (steeples) pointing up at us like benign missiles.

At last I was in a culture that was brimming with Buddhism: Seven thousand monks and nuns live in the Sagaing region; Burmese calendars number the year 2543, the years since the Buddha’s birth; and on New Year’s Day, instead of fireworks and liquor, caged birds are set free. Even much of written Burmese comes from Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism. This was why I had temporarily left my wife and Santa Fe law practice and traveled halfway around the world to practice meditation in a land where the teachings of the Buddha were vibrantly alive—but was I, indeed, truly interested in nibbana?

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.