A beautiful longing: notes from Myanmar

We dance around what we want to say but didn't or couldn't.

On a Sunday, I am surrounded by idols.

The natural cave at Shew Oo Min, in Pindaya, has around 8000 Buddha figures brought here by pilgrims. Walking barefoot through the cave, on a cold wet floor, I glance at the inscriptions. Many of the pilgrims who have brought in Buddha figures or donated paint to renovate the old figures are from far away. The US, Germany, Singapore.

Like with the other Buddha figures I’ve seen on trips to Myanmar—in Bagan, the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, in Mandalay and now in the Shan State—the eyes of the figure are cast down, looking at a point between sky and earth, but not really looking.

Buddha figure. This is from Ayuddhya, Thailand.

“It’s to remind us to control attachment,” Ye Myint tells me. We are perched on top of the Lawka Auk Shaung Pagoda, waiting for the sun to set over Bagan. He knows the caretaker who had the keys, and when I told him I didn’t want to climb the popular Shwesendaw Pagoda with the other tourists; and he took me to this small, lonely paya, or pagoda. From here, with my long zoom lens, I can see the tourists at Shwesendaw to the East in their floppy hats and sunglasses, waiting for the sunset.

Buddhism is founded on the idea that life is suffering, called dukkha. When we become attached to something, we desire it, and the desire most often leads to suffering. “We can’t have everything we want,” Ye Myint pronounces. He looks away, squinting at the tops of the pagodas in the distance. I follow his gaze, but the sun is too bright and hurts. I look away.

Sunset over pagodas, Bagan.

“But it’s human to desire,” I say. I am thinking of dreams I have had in Burma, strange and lengthy streams of images from other lifetimes: a lover’s shoulder in window light, laughter in a faraway conversation I still remember, a day infused with the smell of good bread as I walk through streets in Zagreb. Things I’ve craved but have compartmentalized in little boxes, signed, sealed, made scarce to make way for the present.

“Yes, but the self is not real,” is Ye Myint’s confident reply. He refers to the other Buddhist precept of annata, or non-self. Like Plato’s world of ideas, the Buddha taught that the self in this world is an approximation of reality. In this world, we are air in jars. Imprisoned in glass, we are unable to join to the air around us everywhere, the universe. Only when the self reaches enlightenment or nibbana, will the self become one with the universe, and become real.

We fall silent, retreating into our own thoughts like friends do sometimes. I think of monks who could not keep their eyes down any longer but marched against the military junta in September 2007, and were repressed with force. Which of the monk’s 227 rules says they have to forego freedom?

Abstract of man praying in Mandalay.

I think of the other lives, the ones who are not in the news.

I think of Aung Kin Win, a man I met in the Shan State who has an advanced degree from a famous English university. In crisp English, apologizes about the food he serves for lunch, even though I was the one imposing on his house, resting from the heat. He gives me a cloth serviette and sets my place at the table in precisely a Western manner. A spoon each for both soup and rice, edge of the dish flush with the placemat. We talked for a time, but like my other conversations with Burmese, we danced around the words we wanted to say but didn’t, or couldn’t.

A good friend, whom I had asked to take me to her hometown for Thingyan, the Burmese New Year, when she goes, writes me back a month later, saying no without saying no. “The government discourages Burmese from hosting tourists privately,” she wrote in between news of her sister and other general news, “so the advice is to book a tour to that area.”

Even in our letters, we keep to the edges of reality. Our words are ascetic, dripping with dukkha, anointed with annata.

Spire of Shwe Dagon, Yangon.

Even now, years away from those memories as I write this, I still peer over that edge. And the eyes of what I imagine to be Burma looks back at me, eyes that are large and dark, almost like the water at Inle Lake at dawn. When I look into them I hear the echo of the lone fisherman on Inle Lake singing about absent love, the soft splash of his oar punctuating the long high notes of his song.


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