U Chit Phay is a 78 year old man of the Danu ethnicity. He’s been a small man his whole life, and age and recent ill-health has shrunken and wizened him even further. He wears the traditional Danu turban rolled up and wrapped around his head as well as a simple longyi, a Burmese sarong tied in the middle.
U Chit Phay is an important patriarch in the village of Sin Leh, located some forty miles from Kalaw in Shan State. He has eleven living children and many grandchildren and even great grandchildren. In a few days is the culmination of Buddhist lent on the Harvest Moon, so many of his relatives, both close and distant, visit to pay him respect.
Each day we are living in Sin Leh about twenty visitors on average come to visit U Chit Phay. The guests eat and talk, then give him gifts. The visit culminates with U Chit Phay sitting crosslegged on the ground in front of the family’s Buddhist shrine with his guests sitting facing him. U Chit Phay recites a blessing. Then the guests bend, bow, and pray thrice towards him and the Buddha. They then stand up, say their goodbyes, and make their way through the rain and mud back to their homes.
Ten days ago we set off in the morning from Kalaw with our trekking guide, Ko Harri, an Indian Sikh who’s ancestors have lived in Burma (now called Myanmar) for four generations. We hike into the verdant hills and valleys of this part of western Shan State, the largest state in Myanmar. Much of the upside-down horseshoe that surrounds the Burmese heartland is ethnically diverse. And this part of Shan State is no exception. There are the majority Shan— who are related to the Thai, Lao, and the Dai of southern Yunnan Province in China and speak a similar language— as well as the Pa’o, Danu, and Pa-Laung people.
In the afternoon we crest a hill and see the first glimpse of the valley which will be our home for the next twelve days. Golden hti umbrellas top the many pagodas in the valley. They shimmer and sparkle against the background of emerald rice fields and the mud and clay of the valley. Thunderstorms move across the sky and the streams, pools, and puddles left by the departing monsoons make the sun play hide-and-go-seek. The pagodas shimmer in playful mimicry.
U Chit Phay welcomes us into his home and serves us tea and snacks. He smokes and sometimes chews beetle nut (paan) so he doesn’t have many teeth left. He is subtle and subdued, like the other villagers living here. It is rare to see a big smile or belly laugh here, nor outward showing of any strong emotions. Nor are there many big personalities or characters or chatterboxes or rapscallions. You need to watch closely or you’ll miss the understated gestures that are the only clues to a person’s personality and mood.
Myanmar is a poor country, and Sin Leh is a poor village in a poor country. The house we live in is made of wood, bamboo slats, and a few structural concrete blocks. It has three rooms, with two closet-like living spaces subdivide off from them. We four instructors sleep in the main room, underneath the Buddhist shrine which, along with the kitchen, is the heart and soul of family life. Every night, after U Chit Phay lights a candle and prays to the Lord Buddha, we make our beds on the floor and at the start of each day when the rooster living beneath the floorboards under the house starts to crow we put our beds away.
The room becomes even smaller in consideration of the taboos of the shrine. You can’t point your feet anywhere toward the shrine. Nor can you lean against it. And with about twenty people coming in and out of the small ten foot by ten foot space that we occupy, we must keep all our things packed in our bags stashed in a corner of the room.
Recently the village higher up the hill installed a hydroelectric generator in a small stream, and with a smattering of small solar panels, the village can have two or three fifteen-watt lights on per home. There are about seventy families in Sin Leh. It gets very dark at night and people go to bed early, usually by 19:30 or 20:00.
Each night U Chit Phay, after praying to Lord Buddha, sits with us on the floor underneath the shrine. He smokes beedis (called cheroots in Myanmar) and drinks tea. One night I’m reading and through Siang, our Myanmar in-country instructor, he communicates to me that he is worried that I’m bored. I assure him that I’m not; that I’m enjoying the break that homestays give us instructors on a full-on three month course. He continues to be worried that I’m bored. So I put my book away and we talk.
I ask him which of his eleven children he likes the best. He demurs and says he can’t pick favorites because it would make the others jealous. I ask him what wisdom he would like to pass down after seventy-eight years on this planet and he tells me to do good things, have kind thoughts, and live correctly. I ask him what young people today are doing wrong. He responds that they are doing nothing wrong.
I think I’m looking for some complex truths. Some ancient wisdom handed-down generation to generation. But U Chit Phay isn’t playing ball.
One time Sam asks Ko Harri to translate to U Chit Phay that he is the man. U Chit Phay responds that he doesn’t know about all that. All he knows is that his hair is thinning and white, he doesn’t have many teeth left, he shuffles slowly, and can’t see very well. But the one thing he can do is share his experiences.
I ask him why he isn’t the chief of the village then.
“Too much work,” he says.
“Really?” I ask.
“Yes. You have to have motorcycle to be chief.”
“Because you have to go to the monthly chiefs’ meeting in Kalaw. And you have to go out and visit homes to mediate problems. Too much work.”
Most people in the village want U Chit Phay to be chief, but he won’t do it. So the current chief brings all the issues to U Chit Phay’s house to discuss. That way U Chit Phay’s voice is present and heard. It’s a compromise. And it seems to work.
We are sitting on a slanted field on top of a hill overlooking Sin Leh. Sam and Ian are digging a hole to make a campfire. Lexi is using my phone to read out the news to the rest of the group. A dark cloud over Sin Leh in the distance opens up and the daily rains begin. Drizzle hits us first and, then, big, fat drops start to fall on us. We make a dash up the hill for the safety of the monastery.
We sit on the steps outside the monastery waiting out the rain. Some teenage boys continue to brave the rain for their love of playing chin lone, a game like volleyball but played with a small wicker ball with feet and head like in soccer. The rain doesn’t seem like it’ll be stopping anytime soon. The abbot of this Buddhist monastery sees us sitting on his steps and welcomes us inside.
We take off our soaking shoes and rain jackets and trickle inside, sitting in a circle cross-legged on the floor in front of a statute of Siddhartha Gautama. Above the Buddha is a mural showing him giving his first turning of the Wheel of Dharma to his first five students— wandering holy men and ascetics that he had previously studied meditation with for six years— at Deer Park in Saranath, near Varanasi in northern India.
While we chat, the abbot prepares tea and snacks for us. Another iteration of the endless cycle of giving and receiving snacks which makes up life here thus begins. The abbot was offered these snacks that he in turn offers to us, and at the end of our visit we offer him yet more snacks that he will pass on to the next group of pilgrims. Thus, the culture encourages the habit of constantly giving and receiving and practicing gratitude and thankfulness.
As the intensity of the storm increases, and the pounding of the heavy rain on the tin roof seemingly nears a crescendo, the abbot gives us a blessing. In Danu dialect, which is similar to Burmese, he wishes that we fully realize impermanence, that all things change and come to an end, and that attachment is the source of our suffering. He wishes that we act with compassion and loving-kindness for all living things, practice kind thoughts, and live life correctly. And, finally, he wishes that we experience good things, meet with success and happiness in this iteration of the turning of the wheel of life.
Then he tells us the story of an old man from the village who recently had sickness in his abdomen. A group of six men carried him in a liter down the path to the nearest road, but the only local truck, which was was built in China in the early 1980s, wouldn’t start. That man, who was unable to get to the clinic in Kalaw to get the treatment that he needed, died while waiting for that truck to start.
When he heard of that incident, the abbot worked to gather enough donations to purchase a second-hand car to act as an ambulance for the local community. Eventually he scrapped enough together to buy a cheap car, and for some time he took pregnant women to the hospital to give birth and managed emergency evacuations for the villagers as needed. But the car is broken down now and he is once again trying to scrape together enough money to get it fixed up. In the meantime there is the ever-present danger that a person will require emergency medical treatment and wont be able to get to a clinic to receive it.
The monk has a big smile and chuckles as he serves us. Living in this place, it feels like we have all the time in the world. That life moves slow and there’s nothing stopping us from sitting in a monastery for three hours, chatting with a Buddhist monk, waiting out a slow moving thunderstorm, the last of the year’s quickly vanishing monsoons.
The mud. It’s everywhere. The monsoons may have mostly departed, but it still rains once or twice a day. They have left behind a soggy landscape, seemingly more water than dry land. We regularly step in a sucking mixture of mud, clay, and water buffalo poop up to our calves or knees, which occasionally leaves us searching shoulder deep in the muck for a lost flip-flop.
We try hard to step cleverly to remain clean. The ground outside the front door of U Chit Phay’s house is a marsh, and a short trip to the outhouse is quite a splishy-splashy affair. To get clean we take a bucket shower while wearing our longyis. It is an unusual experience, bathing publicly, even with a piece of cloth covering your private bits. And it’s not easy. At one point in the process, you must hold up your longyi by biting it in your mouth to leave both hands free to clean the below-the-belt parts.
U Chit Phay doesn’t know anything about the electoral college system, nuclear weapons in North Korea, or the Magna Carta. He can’t work a laptop nor has he ever traveled outside his extended community. Within his community he is respected and knowledgeable; outside it he would be largely helpless in the world that we call the “modern” or the “real” world.
I know about these things, these so-called “real world” things. U Chit Phay and I are on different life paths. But my hope is that these paths will lead us to a similar destination. A destination that is as simple as the words of advice that U Chit Phay gives to me: Do good things. Have kind thoughts. Live correctly.
While we fret about stepping in muck— being attached to being clean— U Chit Phay accepts that being dirty is impermanent. That only by getting dirty will you ever be able to get clean. And what’s the big deal anyway? Without effort the mud will simply wash away in the rain or by wading through a stream along the way. Or if you must, go take a bucket shower in your longyi.
As I write this sentence, U Chit Phay finishes his prayers to the Buddha and puts away his prayer beads. He smiles at me. Then he stands up and shuffles over to sit beside me on the ground. I kid you not, he looks at me type this exact sentence in real time, shrugs his shoulders a bit in confusion, with a subtle little silly smile on his face: confused at what I’m doing. Why I work so hard to discover complex wisdom when it really is so simple. Then he shuffles back to lay down at the base of the shrine to take a little snooze.
On our final night in Sin Leh our students invite their host mothers over for a final ceremony at U Chit Phay’s house. The eight mothers sit in a line on either side of U Chit Phay at the base of the shrine and the instructors and ten students sit cross-legged on the ground facing them. We offer them bowls of snacks and sundries and we recite an ancient Buddhist Pali prayer asking for forgiveness for anything that we did or said or even thought wrong that might have caused them suffering. Then we bend, bow, and pray thrice towards our gracious hosts and the Lord Buddha.
U Chit Phay then recites a blessing to us. Afterwards we bow thrice more times. A somewhat awkward silence deepens. What do we do now? Then a mother cracks a joke about the time a female student’s longyi slipped off while taking her first bucket shower. Molly’s mother asks her not to leave, or at least to come visit again next year. She asks Molly if she can visit her in America, but she worries whether there will be enough rice there to feed her.
There are smiles and laughter, farewells and admonitions to visit again exchanged between these two lines of people sitting on the ground cross-legged facing one another. U Chit Phay sits with them, all of them underneath the Lord Buddha. They are two lines of people who follow very different life paths. One line comes from money and privilege in America, full of possibility and choice, firmly planted in the so-called modern, real world. The other line is poorer and lives a simple life growing rice and other crops, living to the best of their ability in the Buddhist way. Two lines, two paths. But, we can still hope that they have just one shared destination:
Do good things. Have kind thoughts. Live correctly.