After classes in Phaung Daw Oo Monastic Education High School, Sai Kham and Max walk more than a thousand steps up the Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset. Aside from observing the setting sun and the steady horizon and the roving clouds, they also wait for foreigners and happily mingle with them to practice their English. One fateful day, Reina and I had a spontaneous and enlightening encounter with these two Burmese novices.
Mandalay was our next destination after Yangon. The day was dedicated to a relaxed stroll around temples and monasteries around the area.
But as the afternoon heat blasted, our bodies pined for rest and food. Joro returned to the hostel to sleep. Reina and I stopped by a small store and ordered chips and iced coffee in can. Sitting nearby was a young local with a battered dictionary in hand who randomly asked us questions about where we came from and where we plan to roam around. Talking to a stranger will always feel odd, the alertness instinctively coming alive. But sheer kindness and curiosity also transcends, turning the danger of talking to strangers into a friendly and meaningful conversation.
We consulted our map, looked far out the temples on the mountain, and decided to reach Mandalay Hill before sunset. We had several stops on the way, always concluding that we were already at the peak but deceived in the end. We stuck with our determination and continued the long and sweaty walk. Gladly, we were greeted with Burmese scriptures, golden Buddhas, panoramic views, Burmese of all ages, travelers of all nationalities, colorful markets, smiling monks (male and female). Yet the ultimate success in finishing our pilgrimage to the top of Mandalay Hill was the beginning of friendship and the wisdom on meeting and conversing with two Burmese novices.
His name is Sai Kham. He is 17 years old. He belongs to the Shan people and has a traditional tattoo for the protection of his body. He wakes up at 5AM and starts his morning routine by washing his face. He then collects food together with other novices and eats breakfast afterwards. Some of them go to school in the morning. As for Sai Kham, he attends school in the afternoon and spends the first hours of his day studying English with the guide of books.
His name is Max. He is 14 years old and belongs to the Wa people. When he was younger, his mother passed away because of tuberculosis. As he was speaking, there is the unmistakable presence of lightness in his voice and peace in his eyes. Pointing to a university in Mandalay, he conveyed that he dreams of teaching when he grows up. He loves playing and watching football. He also reads books about Buddhism during his free time.
Both of their families are not able to provide for their studies so they were sent to school far from their homes. They started living in the monastery at a very young age. They will then decide in the future if they want to continue as monks.
The sun finally broke out of the gloom and illuminated its golden glow. We were standing on the edge of the hill, side by side, exchanging questions and answers in between. I felt how joyful it was to be impromptu in our excursion. And it was made profound by encountering these boys and taking a peek on how they live their lives.
Part of their custom is not eating dinner nor any solid food in the afternoon. However they are allowed to drink tea or coffee. By 6PM, it was time for them to go back to the monastery and begin doing homework until 9 to 10PM. Sometimes when there are no assignments, most of the novices love to play football. They are also allowed to play with phones and surf the Internet until 11PM and go to bed afterwards. According to Sai Kham and Max, they persistently study English in their monastery during weekends.
As for us, it was time to go back to Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse, clean ourselves up, and eat dinner. That fateful day, I wondered how is it to live like a monk. Would I be happier? Would anxiety retreat from its daily attack? It would definitely be simpler, stripping away the decors and layers and thriving with the fundamentals. It would definitely create breathing spaces.
That fateful day, I learned how one must simply do what one has to do, with the resources WE HAVE IN OUR LIVES and quit complaints and excuses. These novices choose to go out there everyday, to visit Mandalay Hill and approach visitors with the desire to learn foreign languages and cultures, to be vulnerable in their acquiring of wisdom, to involve themselves in the magic of interaction with the nature and humans. Of course, there arises the fear that blurs our determination and holds a bit of our enthusiasm. But with the fear also comes the willingness to embrace, to accept it all – EVERYTHING. I learned how one day simply adds up to another and with this knowing implores to honor the progress, the journey of our spirits, the realization of our dreams and aspirations. Success lies on how we make of the space where we are now and where we aspire to be. I learned the beauty of focusing our energy on where we’re truly aligned in heart and mind. From wherever this alignment springs, it will eventually flow in this world, glorious and generous in its praise. I learned to truly understand how less is more, and it is one of the many ways to be the happiest. Life is beautiful, divine. It’s a shame not to celebrate the simplest manifestations.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives… There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. -Annie Dillard, The Writing Life