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Family Cruise: Paul on Reverence

YANGON, Myanmar – I'm sitting cross-legged in a monastery on a wooden floor that smells of feet and thinking this is the last place I'll find enlightenment.

A monk named Ven Varasami leads the guided meditation and instructs us to close our eyes.

"Concentrate on dee belly," Ven says, his voice sounding like E.T.'s. "Focus on your breath. Feel the rising, rising. Feel the falling, falling."

My mind wanders, thinking of all I've witnessed since I came to Myanmar: the dirty beggar children scuttling up to my thighs, pulling at my shirt and pouting for change; the frenzied downtown market selling everything from piles of women's underwear to sautéed crickets; and the soldiers of the junta patrolling the temples with automatic weapons.

"If you feel pain, focus on the pain," Ven says. "Den back to rising, falling. If you hear a sound, focus on the sound. Den back to rising, falling."

Like my father, I wrestled with the proximity of Myanmar's golden temples to the city's slums. As impressive as their offerings were, the gods did not seem to be listening. Reverence should bring heaven to earth. Sections of Myanmar looked like hell.

"If you wander, focus on dee belly. Rising, falling," Ven says.

It begins to rain. Heavy drops rattle the windows of the meditation room. Thunder claps. Shutters shake. My stomach rises and falls, rises and falls.

My head begins to clear. Like a flower slowly opening, the petals push distractions from the edges of my mind. Relaxation sets in. The storm outside no longer sounds threatening.

I'm awakened by the soft voice of Ven saying, "Terty minute. Terty minute."

It's been a half hour? Holy Buddha! I am refreshed, focused, and sorry to return to reality.

I asked Ven earlier if he had found peace, living as a Buddhist monk for 30 years.

"Peace is the freedom from anger and the freedom from fear. Yes, I have peace," he said.

I asked him why, if monks are so peaceful, they never smile in photographs.

"You do not have to smile to be happy," he said.

In a country that's so poor and oppressed, I wondered why more people weren't sullen. Perhaps it's because 87 percent of the population is Buddhist, and men are required to live in a monastery twice in their lives. With so much focus on the inner being, the outside world is a mere picture show.

Ven feels freedom from fear in a country ruled by it. He lives on the rice he collects from neighbors, finding sustenance in spirituality. He is far happier than anyone I've met on the cruise ship, and he owns only a robe, a rice bowl, and a pair of sandals.

Would the people of Myanmar really benefit from my father's handout? Would a ruby or a patch of gold make that much of a difference?

I'm skeptical. If one does not need a smile to be happy, one does not need money to feel rich. That's a philosophy I can both revere and respect.

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