The Mummified Monk

The Mummified Monk

Michael J Setter


During the late 1980’s I made several trips to Burma (Myanmar). For political reasons travel in Burma was very restricted at that time and I was fortunate to receive a business visa (number 00003, as I recall) in April of 1987. My good fortune substantially increased when I met Aye Myint Aye (names have been changed to protect Burmese from political persecution). We traveled together from Yangon to Bagan and Mandalay by hired car. Aye Myint Aye acted as my translator and guide. Since one of the purposes of my trip was to acquire religious artifacts for Adi Da Samraj, I brought quite a bit of money with me. These funds were converted to Burmese kyats, a very unusual currency eccentrically denominated in units of nines and tens (in order to mitigate some negative astrological influences afflicting a prominent military leader). When the conversion was complete (a process taking more than a day to accomplish), I was handed a medium sized suitcase. Full of money, it was recommended that I employ someone (my driver) full time to carry it and to count the money for me whenever a transaction took place. It was assumed (quite correctly) that I could not learn to count kyats properly during the two weeks I was to spend in Burma. Because the men accompanying me were so transparently honest, I gave them my trust without hesitation.

I was invited to participate in the Burmese version of a fundraiser benefiting the Shwesandaw Monastery complex near Prome, north of Yangon. Upon arrival I joined a large group of Burmese receiving instruction from the head abbot. A radiantly healthy, very large man in his eighties, as soon as he saw me enter, I was ushered forward. I prostrated before him and he patted me kindly on the head several times. He then proceeded to give me basic instruction in lay Buddhist practice which was translated for me by Aye Myint Aye. Then he gave me some fruit and continued with questions and answers from the assembly. After some time had elapsed, and perhaps because he noticed that I was able to sit comfortably in siddhasana for more than an hour, he invited me to stay at the monastery and described the ideal conditions of residence there. Though I respectfully declined, he invited me to participate in the annual ceremony held the following morning.

We arrived before sunrise and in pitch darkness I quickly realized that there were thousands of people lining both sides of a long, covered walkway leading to the main meditation hall. I was given money fans (a traditional arrangement of folded notes attached to a stick, which resemble a fan) and a recycled rice sack in which to receive donations.

A procession led by senior monks and lay patrons left the hall and descended the walkway.

Musicians played enthusiastically, gongs were struck constantly, people bowed reverently and, in an amazing display of self-sacrifice, gave everything they could to support the Sangha. The devout laity placed money, jewelry and rice in my bag in such quantity that I had to empty it several times before we reached the end of the ceremony. And almost everyone in the procession carried a large alms bag. The local inhabitants had very little contact with westerners and were quite surprised to see me in this role. I stood half a foot or more taller than any of the several thousand others, had blue eyes, blond hair, a large nose, big feet and much body hair. As I passed through the assembly in line with orange robed monks and other important supporters of the temple, I realized I had been given a respected place in line and an honorable function to fulfill. Young girls who stood respectfully, heads bowed in the presence of the monks would look up at me and gently touch the hair on my arms, some even kissed me as I passed, (not amorously, but reverentially, respectfully and no doubt in some cases inquisitively). As I followed the procession further and further from its origin more and more people began to touch me, and otherwise remark about my appearance there. When the procession started, donations consisted primarily of bundled notes, as we continued, I received more coins and toward the end mostly rice. It was clear that the line of those making offerings was organized according to custom and tradition, by economic and social status. When we reached our destination, the site of a new pagoda, the head monks briefly expressed their gratitude and everyone left. A middle- aged and extremely energetic monk of Chinese ancestry then showed me around the monastery.

I was stunned. A midst the grinding poverty of a nation plundered by its own government, these people continued to create a virtual paradise for those who wished to practice Buddhism. There were lush banana and fruit orchards, well-tended gardens, comfortable accommodations for the residents, a well-constructed large rectangular tank brimming with golden koi, all set in extensive grounds. Populated by many erudite, respected and genuinely disciplined monks, it was quiet, unpolluted and deeply, completely green. Nothing remotely similar exists in the West. All our wealth has failed to match the generosity of a few thousand farmers who continue to enjoy living as if it were the nineteenth century in modern Burma.

We reached Bagan late on a sweltering summer afternoon. Stretched over the vast dusty plain were hundreds of ancient stone pagodas. A pervasive orange-brown glow bathed everything in serene and timeless innocence. Without question, this is one of the world’s great historical sites. My friend and guide (a devout Buddhist) took me to visit many pagodas over the next few days. Some we toured, simply enjoying the magnificent architecture and artistry inspired a thousand years ago by Theravadin Buddhism, at other sacred places we meditated. I remember one pagoda in particular. Restored by UNESCO, the ceiling of this small holy site was covered with colorful paintings. Simply sitting there was to receive Grace. In choosing this small site from perhaps a thousand others, I don’t know whether the United Nations was moved by its spiritual quality or its historical significance; nevertheless, they are to be praised for having restored one of the world’s most precious holy sights without degrading its spiritual potency.

A modest village near Bagan had become the center of Burmese lacquerware manufacture. Lacquerware is produced in the traditional way by hand, using natural materials. Young girls engrave intricate colorful designs into shiny black lacquer, decorating a variety of household articles in minute detail. Simple tables, chests, cups, plates, and containers are made into beautiful and durable pieces of art. Aye Myint Aye introduced me to the owner of a large lacquerware business. He employed 20 or so people and produced quality work. I was invited to lunch in his home, part of a large compound which included his production facilities. The owner told me that when digging a foundation for the first lacquerware manufacturing building, workers uncovered an ancient stone turtle. It now occupied a kind of shrine in the compound’s entryway; honored with local flowers, it appeared very old indeed. He said that since the turtle’s auspicious discovery business had prospered far beyond his expectations. After a brief tour of the compound, we began the most elaborate and enjoyable vegetarian feast I have ever experienced. I was offered innumerable dishes of sophisticated variety (in taste, preparation and presentation). They complemented each other elegantly as to the sequence in which they were served, as well as temperature, color, texture and flavor. This was a meal equal to the great cuisines of the French or Chinese and would have befitted an emporer. One remarkable aspect of the meal was the origin of ingredients. Average daily temperatures in Bagan in summer were well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, it was arid, undeveloped and sparsely populated. Telephone numbers for the entire region consisted of two digits (no prefix or area code necessary). There was no electricity, no radio, no newspaper and no running water. Yet I ate an amazing variety of fresh vegetables that few produce stores in the United States could rival. The group of more than 20 Burmese diners, children and adults, were healthy, vigorous, attractive people, cheerful and gentle with each other and polite and curious with their guest. The isolationist politics of Burma’s military dictatorship (one of the most inhumane and cruel on earth) had spared these people from exposure to western civilization, and thus they still enjoyed the simple grandeur of traditional Buddhist religious culture. Materialistic, scientific, pseudo-egalitarian Americanism has nothing to offer the Burmese, it is a poverty they do not understand.

The next morning my search for a suitable gift to offer my Guru was well rewarded. I was able to purchase a set of old lacquer furniture adorned with exquisitely engraved sacred images derived from the Theravadin Buddhist tradition. In addition, I contracted with the “Turtle” lacquerware factory to purchase many items of their best quality.

Leaving Bagan, we traveled to Mingyun, on the road to Mandalay. Here I was taken to a small Buddhist complex with a famous Pagoda. This modest structure housed the remains of a renowned local monk who had died some 50 years earlier. His body was observed to spontaneously mummify, an extraordinary (though not unprecedented in the annals of Buddhism) considering local climactic conditions. The pagoda’s roof was covered with thousands of birds, all sitting calmly in the blazing sun. Inside the structure the monk’s body rested in an elaborately gilded open lacquerware coffin. I was invited by the presiding monk, an elderly man with thick glasses, to place some paper kyats upon the mummy’s chest. He assured me that if I did so, I would, in the near future, receive many times the amount in return. He opened the monk’s robe indicating a proper place for the offering and told me that I should go ahead and touch the body, since it would assist the efficacy of my offering. I played along with this ritual, all the while sensing a tangible spiritual influence radiated by this farmer monk’s incorruptible corpse. It is said that there have been many instances of spontaneous mummification among the Buddhist monks of Burma.

Proceeding in the car toward our final destination in Mandalay, Aye Myint Aye explained that his mother had acted as principal secretary for Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate whose struggle for Burmese freedom might be compared to Mahatma Gandhi’s campaign to remove the British from India. His mother was presently incarcerated in the notorious Insein prison because of her ties with Aung San Suu Kyi. Aye Myint Aye told me that his mother, a highly educated woman, had written a book about the indigenous music and puppetry traditions of Burma, but that the government would not allow it to be published. I offered to have the book published in the United States, but he said that he would undoubtedly also be arrested if the government discovered the book had been printed. It seemed incredulous to me and I asked what reason the ruling military could have for preventing a book about puppets from reaching the public. He explained that their actions were intended to destroy freedom and opportunity, and thus demoralize, and had nothing to do with the book. He further explained that the Burmese military had learned such tactics from the Chinese, their mentors and partners in human oppression.

May all Be Blessed!