Shortly before leaving Burma at the end of my first visit, I left the retreat centre for a day, to shop for gifts to take home. I took a taxi divested of any soft furnishings except the seat, into the city centre, and spent a very happy few hours with a friend traipsing around colourful streets and covered markets and eating pizza for lunch, our first Western style food in months.
When returning to the centre that evening, we bumped into the teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, and spilled out our abundance of retreat energy joy.
“Yangon is beautiful” I gushed.
Sayadaw had a good laugh at that one. “It’s not Yangon that is beautiful” he said. “It’s your mind”.
Yangon is a fascinating city, with stunning ancient stupas and Colonial elegance sitting alongside each other. Street stalls with friendly and curious vendors sell heaps of colourful fabrics or exotic fruits. Yangon is also a city of broken paving stones, foul-smelling rubbish heaps decaying in the heat of the tropical sun, and mangy dogs with starving pups. Buildings are black from pollution and when I look carefully, the poverty is visible in every glance.
Yes, Yangon is beautiful, but it is also ugly. How it is perceived depends on the quality of the mind perceiving and experiencing it, but we forget this. It takes constant reminders to bear this perspective in mind. We automatically re-set to prioritizing the objects of experience, rather than the mind that is knowing all these sense experiences.
We land on objects as if they were a life buoy in the middle of the ocean, rather than with the lightest touch that allows us to rest with the mind. We think the sense objects are our salvation, that they will rescue us from all the dis-ease of our lives. Just another sunset, or fine wine, or step up the career ladder will sooth the angst of the moment. Another stroke, hug or movie-night will reassure us that the unsettledness and uncertainty we feel hovering on the edge of consciousness is just an illusion. Resting with sense objects, rather than the mind knowing them, allows us to keep the nature of our lives at bay.
To stay with awareness, with the knowing quality, is a kind of renunciation; it puts the grasping onto sights and sounds, tastes, touches and smells into their rightful place within the play of experience.
Occasionally this addiction to the senses can be felt in awareness with the force of an insight, and when we feel it, we naturally want to rest with awareness. And from awareness we see the addiction that we take to be normal proper life, is anything but.