Zen Road
Zen Road
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Genmai goes to Myanmar

by John Stevens, a canadian Zen monk in Burma


[Portrait photo of John Stevens]
During my visits to the monasteries the subject of food was often discussed and many times I was asked about the alimentation in our temple. So the next year as I was returning to Myanmar I got the idea of putting together a traveling cooking show on the subject of genmai, a centuries-old Zen Buddhist breakfast served after the morning ceremony following zazen. Myanmar is a welcoming country, but they do have a tendency to be wary and somewhat skeptical of foreigners’ intentions – especially if these visitors are addressing groups or congregations of locals. But then, what could be more innocuous than some guy talking about vegetable soup?


I didn’t know Master Deshimaru personally, but ever since I read his kusens in The Voice of The Valley in 1979 I have been a student of his teaching. He was a maverick, a trailblazer and an ambassador of Zen, and to those who knew him it was sledgehammer-obvious that Taisen Deshimaru was the genuine article, a true Zen master. When he saw that “the essence of Zen in Japan was lost” (his own words), he left his homeland and brought the teachings of Mushotoku Hishiryo Zen to the West and established them in France. He set out from Japan by himself: no props, no transmission certificates, no nothing, just his kesa. “Zazen is religion before religion,” he told his disciples. He had a mission and the courage and resolve to fulfill it, and the more I studied him the more he grew to be my hero.


So, a few years ago I decided that I would like to do something that involved Zen and traveling. By this time I had had several years of zazen practice myself and so I felt that I was capable of going somewhere and attempting something. I decided “somewhere” would be Myanmar (formerly called Burma), which at the time was a remote Theravadan Buddhist country that had only recently opened its borders; and as far as what I would do when I got there, I thought I should spend a little time getting to know the place before I started hatching any plans.




[People gathered round a simple well]

When I arrived in Myanmar I soon discovered that there was no presence of Mahayana Buddhism at all, only Theravadan, and that the zafu I had brought with me on the plane was likely to end up being the only one out there. My first task was to research Myanmar’s history and find out why there wasn’t any Mahayana. The areas of India in which the Buddha lived were not far from the Burmese border, so it is possible that Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples did at some time set foot in the country.


The most popular legend accorded to the Buddha and believed by most Burmese today is that two local merchants from the Burmese Mons tribe had traveled to India to find the Buddha, and, after meeting him, were given eight hairs of his head which they took back home and enshrined in the Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. Fact or myth, what can truthfully be said is that Buddhism arrived in Burma not once but many times and from several other countries and schools, including those from India, Sri Lanka, Tibet and China.


For hundreds of years both Mahayana and Theravadan Buddhism thrived in Burma together until the middle of the 11th century, when the king named Anarwratha decided to officially adopt Buddhism as the country’s religion – but under the condition that it be represented by only one school. Since Burma was predominately Theravadan at the time, and the king’s closest advisors were Theravadan monks, understandably Theravadan Buddhism prevailed. To ensure that there would be no future problems, Mahayana was deemed as heresy and abolished.


Now, almost a thousand years later, little has changed regarding Mahayana’s reinstatement. But good fortune seemed to be with me from the beginning, as no sooner had I arrived than I was befriended by a truly exceptional young man who would from then on become my assistant, translator and friend. His name is Maung Maung Gyi. In the Burmese language, Maung means “mister” or “brother,” and Gyi means “great.” So translated into English he would be called “Mister Great Brother,” a name which I soon realized suited him to a T. I started to call him Maung for short. To get a feeling for my new surroundings I took on the role of spiritual tourist and had Maung take me around to several monasteries where I met and talked with the abbots and monks. At each monastery there were always a few monks who spoke reasonably good English, so communication was not a problem and no matter where we went, we were always well received.


I was questioned a lot about what life was like in a Mahayana temple. What did we do? What did we study? What did we chant? What kind of meditation did we practice? The question I liked answering the most was, “What are your goals?” In the Soto Zen lineage that Deshimaru brought West, mushotoku is the bedrock. It means “no object, no goal.” So when someone asked me a question concerning our goals, without hesitation I answered, “We don’t have any.” My reply was almost always greeted with curious glances and creased foreheads, as if they were not quite sure that they had heard me correctly. “No goals?… hmm… interesting… What’s that about?”



[Photo of exuberant school children, some wearing monk's robes]

Walk around any town in Myanmar and you hear chanting. Most of the time it’s coming over a loudspeaker from the local pagoda; but other times it can be heard coming from a school or even a house. Theravadan monks learn all the sutras and precepts by heart and chant them daily in Pali. Myanmar is 89 percent Buddhist, and religious education begins at an early age.


There is no conscription for young men as far as military service is concerned, but all Buddhist children must at some point shave their heads and enter a monastery for six weeks to six months. Here, he or she becomes a novice and lives a monastic life while learning the sutras of the Buddha. Twice a month during the full and new moons the monks and novices go to the main hall and chant the sutras and precepts together. Theravadan Buddhists are dedicated to studying and committing the Pali Canon (Tripitaka) to memory and following the teachings of the Buddha to the letter. Since the Buddha was adamant that no one was to leave the confines of the sangha during the rainy season, during this time of the year in the larger monasteries of Myanmar there may be over a thousand monks and novices chanting together. On one of my return visits I made a recording of their full-moon chanting, which I later had copied onto CDs and brought back to sell in the Paris Zen Boutique; but nobody from our sangha seemed very interested in listening to them. I got much the same reaction when I introduced the Hannya Shingyo out there: when I played the Burmese a recording of it, it was met with polite indifference.



[Photo of the distant golden pagodas of Bagan seen across a corn field]

During my first years in Myanmar I got so used to visiting the Theravadan monasteries that it wasn’t long before I felt right at home. In Zen temples such as the Gendronnière in the Loire Valley of France, solely the monks, nuns, bodhisattvas and beginning practitioners carry out the upkeep and daily running of the temple. This is called samu, and it is an integral part of the practice. In Myanmar as well, the monks and nuns perform manual labor and other tasks; but a great deal of the responsibility for the running and upkeep of the monasteries is allocated to laymen who donate their time and services to the Dharma and in return receive all-important “merit” for their efforts. For example, the gathering of food and the preparation of meals in the Theravadan monasteries is one of the laymen’s responsibilities. And so as not to put any undue pressure on them, the monks, nuns and novices do not choose what they are going to eat but rather accept whatever the laymen have managed to come up with on that day – which almost always consists of a mixture of rice and vegetables with chicken or pork. There is one well known monastery in the south of the country and a few others which are strictly vegetarian, but anywhere else you travel, you can expect to be fed whatever has been gathered up on that particular day.


During my visits to the monasteries the subject of food was often discussed and many times I was asked about the alimentation in our temple. So the next year as I was returning to Myanmar I got the idea of putting together a traveling cooking show on the subject of genmai, a centuries-old Zen Buddhist breakfast served after the morning ceremony following zazen. Myanmar is a welcoming country, but they do have a tendency to be wary and somewhat skeptical of foreigners’ intentions – especially if these visitors are addressing groups or congregations of locals. But then, what could be more innocuous than some guy talking about vegetable soup? I could sense though that just standing there making genmai and talking about it was not going to come across as particularly captivating. So to spice things up I recruited a Shan tribal dance troupe and orchestra that I arranged to have come onstage from time to time during the show and entertain the audience while the genmai was cooking. This worked well. The inaugural show was in Bagan, the city of 2000 temples, so called because it actually does have more than 2000 temples.


[Photo of a traditional dancer in colourful costume, in the background the author cooking rice soup]

It seemed an appropriate place to start out, as it was here, centuries ago, that king Anawratha had given Mahayana Buddhism the royal boot in the first place. Towards the show’s end, when the genmai was almost ready, I gave a talk on Zen, and with Maung’s help did a demonstration of zazen, gassho, sampai and the kyosaku. Afterwards, the audience was invited to come up onstage and try some genmai.


Not only was this road show fun to do, it also turned out to be an effective icebreaker in that it allowed the locals to see what I was there for and what I was about. Everyone who came seemed to enjoy the show, plus they got to taste a nutritious Buddhist temple breakfast which, thanks mainly to the whole-grain rice, gomasio and tamari sauce I had brought out with me, was a new treat for them. After the tasting, I answered questions on genmai, the posture and of course “that stick” (the kyosaku). The Myanmar government representatives who were in attendance showed a keen interest in this cooking show, and were happy to take home some copies of the recipe.



Anyone who is planning on traveling to Myanmar or anywhere in Southeast Asia should bear in mind that when discussing particular schools of Buddhism, the words “Theravadan” and “Hinayana” do not mean the same thing. It is surprising how many people think that they do, and this is a mistake. Theravadan Buddhism came into existence around 200 BCE, more than five hundred years before the word “Hinayana” was even conceived. When the schism which created the Mahayana (“greater-vehicle”) school and separated it from the eighteen Hinayana (“lesser-vehicle”) Buddhist sects took place during the 2nd century in India, Theravadan Buddhism had already long since migrated south to Sri Lanka and had established itself in Burma as well. I point this out because Theravadan Buddhists consider the term “Hinayana” pejorative, since its literal translation may be taken to mean “inferior.” Non-duality is the marrow of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine; and though arrogance may not be considered one of the three poisons (ignorance, greed and hatred), it is undeniably the mistress to each of them. For these reasons, many feel that it was hypocritical for certain members of the Second Buddhist Council to have declared that their particular school was a “greater” one while the other schools were “lesser.”


More recently, another council looked into this matter once again. In 1950 at its inaugural meeting in Columbo, the World Fellowship of Buddhists unanimously decided that the term “Hinayana” should be dropped completely when referring to Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, i.e. Theravadan Buddhist countries. That being the case, and since all of the original 18 Hinayana Buddhist sects have long since died out, the word “Hinayana” now really only applies to a concept, rather than to any particular school or schools of Buddhism.


Thanks to funds that have been generated over the last two years by the sale of Myanmar goods and handicrafts in the Paris Zen Boutique, the Gendronnière and elsewhere in the Loire Valley, some of the rural areas of Myanmar have received donations (fuse) of water wells, water pumps, generators, school supplies and a new school.




[Photo of the author leading zazen with a small group on a city rooftop]

The last few years have also seen the start of a zazen group, which practices each morning in a rooftop garden. The group is made up of Maung and three other college graduate rickshaw drivers and myself. We have become known in the local teashop near the dojo as “the Mahayana monk and the gang of four.” Zazens are as we have them at home, about the same length, with kinhin. Kusens deal primarily with the posture, and the ceremonies consist of chanting the Kesa Sutra and/or the Four Bodhisattva Vows followed by sampai. As for the “gang”: they are naturals at not moving during zazen, and in samu they concentrate only on what they are doing without any unnecessary talking.


Since it started there have been a couple of comings and goings in the group, but on the whole it has stayed the same. For now, there are no really earth-shattering plans for the future, other than to return to Myanmar and continue with the schools, the wells and zazen. I consider myself very lucky to be able to go back there each year. Myanmar is a country that possesses a great spiritual wealth bestowed on a populace made up of 135 tribes who are resolute in their faith and the practice of Buddhism.