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#10 Electric Fields

- Ordinary and Non-Ordinary States in a Burmese Monastery -

A kind local, with a smile for everybody, who regularly cycled into Pa Auk to donate and help the monks

Accidental Tourism

In late 2018, I was still in Melbourne when my Australian working-holiday visa expired. I was ordered by an unsympathetic Boarder Control to leave the country. Having to make my mind up in a hurry about where where to go, and not knowing how long it would take before a new visa could be processed, allowing my return to Oz, I decided my hard-earned Aussie dollars would go much further in Asia than in New Zealand. I flew to Kuala Lumpur and spent a couple of weeks on tourist routes in Malaysia and Thailand before, sick of the commercialism, I flew to Myanmar, relatively untouched by tourism.

I adored my 28 days on the Myanmar tourist visa, and I was keen to prolong my time there. The ordinary Myanmar people were kind and humble and couldn't do enough for you. I hoped to learn from the way they were, or that their striking kindness would somehow rub off on me by osmosis. Meanwhile, I discovered that I could extend my stay in Myanmar through a ‘Meditation Visa’, a visa designed for foreigners like myself who wanted to dive deeper into meditation in this devoutly Buddhist country. So I secured one of Myanmar’s 70-day meditation visas and joined life in the recommended 'Pa Auk Monastery' in the south-east with a thousand monks.


When the British left Burma in 1948 it was re-titled Myanmar. Despite it's full name, The Republic of the Union of Myanmar has been dictated over since by the military junta. As you might expect in a country issuing meditation visas, and in a country where the word conscription only applies to the obligatory trials of boys for the monkhood, it is Buddhism that reigns supreme as the other major influencer in Myanmar. In the on-going battle for Burmese hearts and minds, the army general’s know they’ve got to keep the monks sweet. The monastery grounds of Pa Auk (which included an old rubber tree plantation from the British colonial days), was being rented by the local military battalion (in Mawlamyine, South East Myanmar) to the monks next door.

Bleeding Rubber: acres of these rubber trees lined the mile-long driveway to the monastery at Pa Auk

Levels of the Game

In the monastery sphere at Pa Auk, the upper echelons of enlightenment were said to be found among a handful of the longest-term resident monks. Some of my fellow foreign meditators (a.k.a: ‘yogis’) predicted the monks’ levels of attainment. Was the 80-year old abbot at Pa Auk an ‘Arahat’, they wondered aloud; just one level below full-blown enlightenment? Was the infamous Osho of India, disgraced in the news, actually enlightened, despite racking up thirty Rolls Royces and more charges of sexual assault? And implicit in the conversation: did the more experienced yogis and drug-assisted psychonauts among us have minds akin to green, blue, brown and black belts? Wiser by degrees?

"The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao"

- Lao Tzu, the Tao Te Ching

Through my eyes, several monks I encountered at Pa Auk seemed genuinely peaceful. The few that could speak English revealed their varying personalities, but beyond personality, I couldn’t tell for sure what life was like between their ears. And of course, the monastery housed some genuine fools and goofballs too. Maybe some of the goofballs were enlightened? Again, no way of knowing for sure. But that didn’t stop some of the yogis from concluding one way or the other. The more absorbed they were in the ins and outs of Theravada Buddhism, the more labyrinths their conversation created. Dead-end abstraction. Religion’s well-intentioned and meticulously-formed ideas; voicing over the subtle non-verbal messages of the heart.

Kuti Life

Our living quarters were shacks called ‘kutis’; one solitary meditator - be he yogi or monk - per 4x4m kuti. Two kutis to my right lived Kyle, a twenty-four year old from Perth. Two kutis to my left, my other best monastery friend, Johannesberger Repo from Finland, would soon move in from a make-shift dorm room in one of the monk's main accommodation blocks. 'Jo’berg' had made clear his intention to ‘repossess’ a kuti once one of the traveling monks had vacated. When that particular kuti did become available, he went about making his new ‘house’ a home. A full mattress replaced the standard monk-issue 3mm-thick sleeping mat, new air-conditioners were acquired to sit out the worst of next year’s seasonal monsoon, curtains went up to minimise the distracting light. An array of online-order teas were boiled for the invitational ‘tea ceremonies’. In the first cynical draft of my Pa Auk poem, Jo'burger lived up to his surname as ‘The Repo Man’.

Johannesberger Repo (a.k.a.: Johannes; a.k.a.: Jo'burger; a.k.a.: 'The Repo Man'), feeding the monastery dogs


Written while absorbed in an unmindful poetic mania during my final ten days at Pa Auk, my finished poem was still replete with in-house yogi gags, teasings of my two friends, and irreverent pokes at those ‘highest’ and ‘lowest’ in the monastery ‘hierarchy’. Ultimately titled ‘Disenchanted’, the main theme of the poem related to facing the powerful forces of inertia maintaining our conditioning. This force was represented by a dragon.

At the beginning of the poem, a classic dragon of the west greedily hoards his dungeon gold. He is protected from men and isolated in his abandoned castle. The dragon's transformation is not given cause in the poem, but it’s happening reflected the internal journey of our monastery stay, the accumulation of meditation (at it’s best) allowing us to see our own conditioned ways more clearly. The poem’s initial verses hold many enchantments that would best be let go of. What the dragon eventually loses in gold and armour, he gains in his process of unravelling.


Many lessons came between meditation sessions at Pa Auk. Kyle and Jo’burger exemplified compassion for the vulnerable there, both of them often stopping to chat to the local resident with full-blown autism. Sometimes, they would buy him some food or share theirs with him. I generally ignored this young man, as he openly searched the monastery bins for food and played hop-scotch on imaginary squares. I nicknamed him ‘Asberger’ in my poem.

Jo'burger would regularly buy raw chicken and eggs outside the mile-long monastery driveway to feed a small family of stray dogs living in the monastery grounds. He adopted one of the family’s pups into his kuti, showing me photos months after I’d left of ‘Pallero’ and his fur coat, pristine compared to the hundred dogs who remained uncared for. One dog cared for out of a hundred; one dog more than none.

Taking a leaf from my friend's book, I employed some latent drawing talent to make Christmas cards for the sixteen foreign yogis. The upright spines of Santa Claus and a monk showed on the card front as they meditated together on a cliff-edged mountain top. It felt kind to acknowledge the day for the yogis, away from their families, and I felt a delight (not telling the yogis I’d left them) in seeing their pleasantly surprised faces as they opened their cards at the breakfast table after morning meditation on Christmas day.