YANGON, Myanmar — A few long, wispy hairs dangled from the chin of the old, brown-robed monk. The skin on his hands was polished like dark parchment. Wearing a brown conical peaked cap, he looked like he was from an earlier age.
Hope for a better life
At mid-afternoon on the day I visited the temple, spiritual reverence filled the air. Streams of pilgrims, both men and women wearing the traditional longyi skirts, supplicated themselves before the golden stupa and the smaller temples and shrines, some of which are believed to house symbolic Nats, or spirits. Families placed mats on the ground and set out steamed chicken, fried bananas and cups of sweet milky brown tea, preparing to spend the day.
The light surrounding the stupa casts a poignant spell. To say the stupa is golden misses it entirely. The air around the stupa is golden. The air seems to sparkle, the brilliance enhanced perhaps by the 1,383 gemstones embedded in the stupa’s surface and especially by the single, radiant 76-carat diamond placed at the top of a diamond-filled orb, which I fancied I could actually see while standing at the exact spot where the old monk had placed me.
“It’s a nice view,” he said, his teeth dark yellow from tea and betel nut. Earlier, the monk had walked me around the temple complex. People paid him reverence and gave him space. Jathei (hermit) monks, a lineage of solitary wanderers, are highly respected for their use of herbs and potions to treat people’s physical and psychological ailments.
Many Jathei monks are homeless, roaming through rural Myanmar. Sometimes they can be spotted at their forest retreats by the small, round huts they build from twigs and large leaves. He said his last retreat was in the forest near Taungbygone, 20 miles north of Mandalay. He’d started walking toward Yangon two months earlier. This would be his last visit to the temple, he said, because he planned to move deeper into the forest.
A few steps removed from the diamond’s sparkle was a shrine to Thanga Min, the king of the Nat spirits. Nat worship is the belief that spirits can exercise a good or evil power over a person or a place, such as homes, trees, hills or lakes. There’s a saying that the Burmese people play it safe: They practice Buddhism for the future life and give gift offerings to Nats for problems in this life. A moment later when I turned back toward the monk, he was gone. I had wanted to ask him more about his life. I searched through the crowd, but he had disappeared.
A country of extremes
From the temple, I hailed a taxi, a 1956 Toyota. I had promised myself a dinner at the Strand Hotel, one of the legendary hotels of the East. The driver, named Htin Swe, was another one of those Myanmar citizens you frequently meet who describe themselves as university students. They are typically in their late 30s or 40s. They explain their studies are incomplete, through no fault of their own. Myanmar universities are usually closed more semesters than they are open, a sign of the fear the ruling military junta has of students and the people. In 1988, the junta, now known as the State Peace and Development Council, gunned down more than 2,000 students, men, women, children and monks during a demonstration in Yangon.
I asked Htin Swe what he studied.
“I am an English major,” he said. “Ahnoma topeeah.”
“Onomatopoeia? ” I said.
“Yes. The Highway Man,” he said. “Fenimore Cooper. American. Shakespeare very different. Robert Frost. Two ways to go.”
Like most of Myanmar’s ordinary citizens, Htin Swe was a poignant mixture of sincerity and arrested development, emblematic of a people and a country with enormous potential that’s been trapped in a time-warp closer to the ’50s than today’s world.
When the concierge swung open the high wooden doors of the Strand Hotel, built in 1901 by two Armenians, the Starkie brothers, I entered a world light years away from everyday Myanmar life. Recently remodeled, the hotel had retained its distinctive colonial-Asian charm and elegance with a shiny, black grand piano dominating the lobby. The natural oak and rattan furniture featured white cushions. In the nearly empty dinning room, leather-bound menus and heavy white parchment paper were stamped with the Burmese lion emblem. Delicate purple flowers sat in crystal vases on each table, and a young woman played a lilting folk melody on a xylophone.
The menu listed barramundi over glass noodles, Myanmar venison, seared Myanmar River prawns in green curry, sesame coated tuna rolls, golden crab cakes, peanut biscuits and more.
Looking through the window at the boulevard that ran parallel to the Irrawaddy River, I saw fenderless trucks sputtering along, belching black smoke, stacked with freshly cut teak trees still oozing oil from their base. Men with bulging calf muscles strained at rickety trishaw pedals, trying to dodge potholes. Students in red skirts and white blouses walked home carrying plastic book satchels.
The stark contrast between the refined Western inner world of the Strand’s elegance and the outside world of daily Yangon street life still seemed very colonial British.
Clearly, Myanmar is a country of extremes — of haves and many have-nots. Average citizens have little money or opportunity and have been repressed for decades. However, the country is slowly opening up to tourists and travel within the country is easier. The feelings you take away from a trip to Myanmar are deep, running an emotional gantlet from awe to sorrow.
As I left the Strand Hotel, I thought of the old monk at the temple. I had tried to take his picture, but he wouldn’t allow it.
“I will remember you,” he said. “You will remember me.”
He was right.
Roy Hamric writes about Southeast Asia for newspapers and magazines.
“The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness.
I feel like I’ve never had a home, you know? I feel related to the country, to this country, and yet I don’t know exactly where I fit in… There’s always this kind of nostalgia for a place, a place where you can reckon with yourself.
I’m inhabiting a life I’m not supposed to be in… and at certain times in my life, I have felt a wrongness. And not a moral wrongness but a sense that this isn’t what I was born to be doing.
Sides are being divided now. It’s very obvious. So if you’re on the other side of the fence, you’re suddenly anti-American. It’s breeding fear of being on the wrong side.
The thing about American writers is that, as a group, they get stuck in the same idea: that we’re a continent and the world falls away after us. And it’s just nonsense.
I’m a great believer in chaos. I don’t believe that you start with a formula and then you fulfill the formula. Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in chaos – we don’t live in a rigorous form.”
– Sam Shepard, writer, died on July 30, 2017 in Midway, Kentucky.
Achan Sumano in the Double-Eye Cave in Thailand, where he has lived for more than 20 years. He practices Buddhism in the tradition of the late Achan Mun and Achan Chaa of the Forest Meditation Center near Ubon, Thailand. Photograph by Roy Hamric
“Viewing TV, reading newspapers, and staying on top of the dramas happening in the world causes a lot of anxiety and frustration to short circuit our ability to respond appropriately to events in our personal lives. In our intimate relationships, more so than any other, there is a need to function with spontaneous penetrating wisdom, with humanity, with love and with compassion. Penetrating wisdom is a critical aspect because it can see through circumstances. Wisdom recognizes the need for compassion beginning with compassion for ourselves. I regard family and intimate relationships as the ground for training ourselves to act and live as whole, kind-hearted human beings. In the family, in marriages and partnerships, we soak up massive amounts of pain from disappointment, frustration, jealousy, misunderstanding, etc. As painful as this is, all of this is needed to cultivate wisdom…” For more, see here.
People can’t explain why they’re so crazy
The two evil birds on their faces
The three poison snakes in their hearts
One or another blocks their way
Making it hard to get hold of things
Lift your hand high and snap your fingers
Homage to the Buddha
– Poem #223 from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, translated from Chinese by Red Pine
A quick rundown on recent reading, just to get the ball rolling again.
In the past three months, I’ve read:
1 Advertisements for Myself by Mailer (for the second or third time), and what can I say, it’s Mailer at his best and his worse. That’s not a negative review, it’s just a reflection of what you get with an original artist who talked out his issues and interests in public to make it real. Someone said Mailer can be good and bad in the same sentence, much less a book, but overall I’m struck by his core artistry which by my lights never left him during his 50-odd year career, including his worse outing in Barbary Shore. He had to get that dialectic, intellectual writing out of his system and he did it in that book. What value does Advertisement’s offer? His fascination with God, Manichaeism, orgasm, a belief that each person is engaged in a spiritual struggle in life, a belief that America is geared to become totalitarian and to engage in wars – it’s all there in bits and pieces which are developed in full later. You get the tone of the times in the ’50s. Mailer was a young bear in a cage and from the 60s on to the end of his career (his death) he broke out and roamed the American times like no one else. He was basically fearless with a huge ego. The story of how his The Naked and the Dead came together is a lesson in itself. Such discipline at such a young age; 25 years old when it was published, one year younger than Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises, and Naked is a much larger, more ambitious work. Mailer’s heros were Hemingway (as the elder) and James Jones, his young contemporary, who he said probably wrote the better war novel and who made Mailer feel inferior as a person. Jones had great magnetism.
2 William Empson by John Haffenden. I completed the 1,700-odd pages of the two–volume biography in about two weeks. Empson, a poet and language/word-lover, is a new love of mine. The first volume is perfect. The second volume is good, but it has a jagged edge in the prose, very poor editing and proofreading that threw me off. For the Oxford Press, it’s a weak show of editing skills, really embarrassing. But Empson’s story is good, compelling, and adventuresome. The private school section is vivid; he was so precocious. People used the word genius when he was still in his teens. At Oxford, his teachers were in awe of him. He taught in Japan, China and later Brittain. His literary criticism is original, and I like his turn of mind and phrasing. Earlier, I read his Seven Types of Ambiguity and On Complex Words. He would have made a good AP writer, so direct and clear – one of the clearest writers I’ve ever read. He had a bohemian, free style of living, a beautiful wife, and he made most English eccentrics look middle-class normal. A line in one his poems: “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.” You have to love his mind. Next on my list are his Selected Letters and Argufying, his essay collection.
3 Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson is a classic of nonfiction reporting, a plunge into the gut and heart of Hemingway, the man, the image, the failure, the tragic hero, the dissembler, and the enduring saint-like writer. I’ve read everything Hemingway wrote, and most of what’s been written about him: fiction,biographies, et al, and this book forged new ground in so many ways – it’s a cliche to say it’s a rounded, fair portrait of the man, but it is. What you don’t know, you don’t need to know; what you know will make you defend him against all possible criticism. If you want to study fame, read the book. It sends a cold chill through your mind. And yet, he wrote well throughout his life, despite unfair pot shots at his later work. Even the posthumous books, the so-called worse books, are far, far better than 90 percent of the serious fiction and nonfiction published. Many critics have a tendency to talk down real talent in order to lift themselves a little higher (in their own mind). I know his books will read even better, stronger as time goes on. They’re specific yet they all carry a large frame of universalism in the language and stories. When his public image fades and people again read the words fresh, they’ll cherish the record he left. At heart, he was a master reporter of his life, both in fiction and nonfiction. Hendrickson’s book is a classic, no question.
4. After the Boat, I re-read Papa by Gregory Hemingway, the wayward son. It surprised me. I couldn’t remember the book from my first read a long time ago. I was prepared for some insights and revelations, but they never came. The writing was commercial and coy, and I felt he wrote the book (if he did write it) without real interest. Read Hendrickson on Gregory Hemingway and you’ll be enthralled by Gregory’s life and the strange dance he and Ernest put together. Of more interest was the book by Gregory’s wife, Valerie Hemingway, Running with the Bulls; it completes the portrait of that wing of the Hemingway family. Strange fruit, but like the Old Man brave and strong each in their own way.
5. Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison. Jim is my kindred spirit poet-novelist-bear-man trail blazer, raw-souled writer. He writes poems as journal jottings. I relish his words. His whimsical cast of mind. This poetry book is right up to the present day, reporting on his illness, his life, his wife (who recently died) and the insults and pleasures of old age. I shudder to think about his life going forward and hope he can hold up and hold on to give us a little more of his heartening, everyday wisdom and brio, his realism: he says, ok, gang, just pay attention and get your work done while observing and living your life as truly as you can.
Galaxies are grand thickets of stars
in which we may hide forever
6 The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Larry, next time you publish a book at least get someone to proofread it before it’s published. Clumsy repetition and typos run through the sentences like stray yearlings. Otherwise, it had some potential but it came up woefully short in the dust. Cardboard characters. Bang, Bang, Blank… It’s best to read it as a big joke – on the reader.
7 Paris Dream Book by Lawrence Osborne. Osborne wrote a wonderful nonfiction book, Bangkok Days, about his life in Bangkok that reads like fiction. Paris is nothing like it. It’s like going through a florid garden of the past and present, Paris as muse, as lover, as sensual friend, as a palpable state of mind with roots and branches coming out of the past and going into the future. There’s no story, or maybe a tiny bit of story (Turkish baths), there’s unfurling fields of description written in a twisted brew with shades of Lawrence Durrell, Oscar Wilde and one hallucinating tour guide. It’s not a travel book. It’s a language-tour book of the streets, buildings and neighborhoods of Paris. Very original, non-repeatable, the work of a young writer intoxicated by language as he responds to his life of the senses.
8 Norman Mailer: A Double Life by Michael Lennon. This is an important book. It captures Mailer’s genius and his swashbuckling approach to life. He would have been a hell of a sea captain when the unknown world was new. An outright genius. Hemingway repressed his sexual nature; Mailer expressed it, lived by it, and strangely it seems not to have inhibited his energy or creativity but only increased it. I loved the description of how he approached his wide body of work, what triggered his demon. Lennon is understanding, because he knew Mailer intimately and it comes through in the steadiness of his prose, its subtle way of capturing Mailer’s thoughts and reasoning at important moments. If you pair up the books by Hemingway and Mailer from the ’20s to the first decade of this century, you have an arresting narrative of the past 100 years. For any would-be writer, you should study their lives and writing as early in your life as you can. Lasting lessons.
9 Graham Greene: A Life in Letters by Richard Greene. This is a selected overview of the decades of Greene’s life, the earliest to the end. He comes across differently from the impressions you get from his books. He’s less angst ridden, less depressed (at least he doesn’t express his depression much, he just mentions it in passing), morbid, selfish and he’s more attentive to his friends and family than you might have expected. You get the feeling that he’s observing himself and his life in the letters – there’s a strange distance here for a book of letters. That may be a key to the man. There are many, many more letters to come, which may change the picture considerably, especially if some letters address his life with his mistresses and his nocturnal jaunts through the brothels and opium dens of Saigon, Cuba, Europe and Africa. This book has none of that, but those other letters must exist unless, of course, his secret nature prevented him from writing such accounts in letters. I doubt it; at least there should be journals with those details at some later date.
10 Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me by Robert Lindsey. I grew up fascinated by Brando and I’ve followed his career and his evolution from farm kid to mythical American presence to Orson Wells-like obsolescence. This book gets us fairly close to who he was and gives us some understanding of how he became what he ended up to be, a failure in his eyes. There’s a connection between Brando and Mailer that’s interesting: where their lives crossed. A key is Brando’s best friend, Wally Cox, or Mr. Peepers, if you remember him from TV. They came out of the same little town and they were young buddies and gave each other some sanity as they lived out their lives in Hollywood. Cox created that Mr. Peepers character as an actor, and he died young of alcoholism.
11. The Rhetoric of Religion by Kenneth Burke. A deep, revealing look at the words in the Bible, the Logos and the language, the specific words that account for the lasting spell of the story, especially Genesis. You see how the story is lashed together by words that are the bedrock of our innermost self. The hallowed words. The book has a strange parallel to the work of William Empson, who was an atheist, but who admired the book and thought it was excellent work as a study of language. Burke is not concerned with theology or religion as subject, only the way the words convey the message that is conveyed. He calls his interest “logology.” It’s a clumsy term, but it provides a description of his approach.
12 The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. In the tradition of his crime noir novels, but set in high-octane Africa. It has the clarity and intensity of his Nobody Moves. He follows two erstwhile adventurers who’ve lost their way, their morals, their sanity almost, and are in the deepest of dark times with a scheme to rip off intelligence agencies and fellow spies and mercenaries with an outright con. Only idiots would believe and do what the do, but they do it with a sense of “this can be done,” a feeling that takes many people over the edge. There are many people walking the streets and living bizarre fantasy lives, crazy, twisted people trying to con crazy, bad people. The writing is beautiful. There are few laughs. Only paralyzing grins.
13 Finding Them Gone by Bill Porter (Red Pine). This is a travel book masterpiece for lovers of Asian poetry. Porter’s prose is light and fine and imbued with a Taoistic topping of pure joy as his days unfold touring the temples, homes and home ground of China’s greatest poets from earliest times to the last century. You get a sense of how it feels to travel in rural and urban China today. The book is a capstone of a great career by a master-layman-practitioner of Zen and Taoism, a follower of Cold Mountain, Stonehouse, and a host of worthies who he has translated and wrote commentaries about, not to mention his translations and commentaries on the core Buddhist sutras and the Tao Te Ching. I’ll write more about this book in a coming post.
Pharadon Phonamnuai on the essence and fun of planting trees in Chiang Mai.