A Sample of Modern Burmese Buddhist Poetry

     Many years ago in Rangoon I came across a little yellow booklet which poetically describes a Burmese man's experiences as a newly ordained monk (probably a temporary one) at a monastery/meditation center in Burma, alias Myanmar. The booklet appeared to be privately printed and published, and had no copyright information that I can remember. What it contained moved and inspired me, because it conveys the feel of being a newly ordained monk—the idealism, the gratitude, the reverence for the profundity of Dhamma—better than anything else I have ever read. Even the nervousness of the postulant waiting outside the congregation hall before his ordination ceremony is suggested by the verse beginning "jasmine and gardenia drench the walk," and the very next verse contains a poetic rendering of part of the upasampadā kammavācā, the formal act of ordination, chanted in Pali at the creation of every bhikkhu since ancient times. (There is also some Buddhist symbolism in that jasmine verse, with the 31 steps this way and the 31 steps the other way, representing, I suspect, the transmigration, life after life, eon after eon, through the 31 planes of existence.)

     I'm not nearly so starry-eyed as I was at my ordination, although I feel that I am wiser and more content as a result of having lived a monk’s life. Still, I liked the little booklet and transcribed its contents into a notebook, and I think it's good enough to share with you who are reading this.

     I don't know who U Win Pe is, although, like very many Burmese laypeople, he obviously knows his Buddhism: the following lines are embellished with plenty of philosophical allusions and symbols that a beginner in Dhamma may not notice. I don't know who he is, but I am grateful to him. Here is what he wrote:

The Yellow Robe: A Travel Diary

by U Win Pe

     Self did not make me, nor self nor any other. Yet the notion of Self or self or some other made me. And with a body and mind caused this body and mind which will cause another body and mind so long as there remains the notion.

                                        from the ambulatory I can see

                                             beyond the tops of mango

                                                  doorian and mangosteen

                                                       the shoulder of a hill

                                   in the morning it is dim with ground mist

                                        in the afternoon it is blurred with haze

                                        walking beside the jasmine bush

                                                  the mynahs do not heed me

                                   they cluck and whistle and flutter and hop

                                             and one flying in low from somewhere

                                                  alights with a whirr of wings

                                             tea-dust swirl in the cup

                                        dark brown specks in amber liquid

                                             slowly drop to the bottom

                                                  there they stay

     Travelling the round of births of Samsara. Treading the Eightfold Path. Winning the Stream. Metaphors of Wayfaring. Incessant movement, there is no standing still. For one is not doing nothing at any time, one is always doing. And to do is to impel. So one goes -- going on or getting out.

                                   jasmine and gardenia drench the walk

                                        with their delicate flavours

                                   I take 31 steps up this way

                                        and 31 steps down that way

                                   and 31 steps this way again

                                   let the assembly, revered brothers, hear me

                                        to whatever venerable it seems good

                                             let him remain silent

                                        to whomsoever it does not seem good

                                                  let him speak

                                             to the assembly it seems good

                                                  silent it remains

                                                       take it so

                                                            head shaven

                                   carrying only the eight requisites

                                        the heavy robe somehow seems light

                                             as I take the first steps slowly

                                                  from the Ordination Hall

                                                       onto the path

                                   salted boiled peas and plain hot tea

                                        to help this body get out of

                                   the low round table seating five

                                        body, sensation, and so on

                                   a small cloud passes quickly across

                                        the sky in the refectory window

                                        a round face in an aged head

                                   a low voice beneath soft words

                                        standing beside the coconut palm

                                             talking of pain and the end of pain


     The life lived without awareness is the tainted life: tainted with wanting, tainted with not wanting, tainted with not knowing about the notion of Self and self. Awareness should be of each doing every moment. Mindfulness is the watching and warding of awareness.

                                        4a.m. the stream of breath

                                             216 cycles per minute

                                   in-breathing, out-breathing, in-breathing

                                             watching the touch

                                        aware of sensation as it is

                                             airflow at the nostril tip

                                        the morning is noisy with birdtalk

                                   koels, jays, mynahs, sparrows, bulbuls

                                        I follow each song and twitter

                                   not koel shout, jay song, sparrow twitter

                                        but each note as it falls upon my ear

                                        the wind rises in the afternoon

                                   it ruffles the topmost branches of

                                                  the doorian

                                        then it shakes it thoroughly

                                   raises a flurry in the almond tree

                                        flutters the window curtain

                                                  and comes to me

                                             9p.m. mindful of sensation

                                   when sensation is full with mind

                                        and mind is full with sensation

                                   the bright green world beneath the waves

                                                  at Set-se beach

                                   the sea is permeated with one taste

     Colours seen with the eyes closed are brighter than colours seen with open eyes. Brighter than these are the colours seen when the mind is brought to a point. But colours, lights, and images are distractions.

                                        mango tree, sky, monastery wall

                                             sun brings out the green

                                                  the blue, the white

                                        and sunlight all bright yellow

                                   on monk's robe hanging out to dry

                                   lights are a curtain hiding Light

                                        lights are a turn-off to delight

                                             lights are bright colours

                                                  not hot but cool

                                        lights are a pleasant quiet pool

                                   lights do not light the way to ardour

                                        lights are a curtain hiding Light

     The end of the world is not reached by travelling. Within this fathom-length body with its sense-impressions, thoughts and pains, is the world, the making of the world, the ceasing and the way to the ceasing.

                                             inside this cell

                                        sleeping, sitting, walking

                                        reading, thinking, praying


                                             better to look

                                             inside this body

                                   several fields west of the monastery wall

                                        one under paddy, one under melon

                                                       one under peas

                                   a speckled bull grazes there during the day

                                        this body my grazing-ground

                                        it goes from field to field

                                             feeding indiscriminately

                                             on straw, duckwort, poisonweed

                                             browsing here or lying there

                                   chased by men with sticks in the field beside the road

                                   pelted by boys with stones in the water-meadow

                                        rope it with in- and out-breathing

                                             tie it to the hitch-post pain

     No pain, no gain. This banal expression describes what is so but we would take it metaphorically. There is no path that has no pain. Pain is the stumbling-block or the stepping-stone.

                                             the aching inner muscle of the thigh is pain

                                   the thin thread of sharpness along the bone is pain

                                             the burning hands is pain

                                   pain is the general tone of discomfort

                                                       only pain is

                                   or that which we have named pain

                                   it is not the hardness of the floor plank

                                        which hurts

                                   it is the softness of my foot

                                        pain is not in the wind

                                   it is in the bones the bands

                                        pain is in the mind

                                   discomfort from sitting too long on the floor

                                        the bother of setting out in the sun

                                             to retrieve the robe

                                        vexation from holding the book too long

                                   displeasure from thinking about the task to be done

                                        pain from the meditation exercise

                                        unease is the common element

     We err by naming that which is itself. We err by clothing the world in concepts. Knowing happens in time present and not by reaching before and after. Knowing happens in its own way.

                                   I say this robe this mat this razor

                                        this alms bowl

                                   this water-strainer this needle and thread

                                        this over-robe

                                   but pain is

                                   a jay sits daily on the almond tree

                                        it whistles several phrases

                                   whom is it telling all that to

                                   how to watch the pain in my ankle

                                        as it is without saying

                                   in present pain is birdsong and jasmine

                                   in present pain is the cup of hot tea

                                   in present pain is the wind in the afternoon

                                   in present pain is the shoulder of the hill

                                   in present pain is the path through the orchard

                                   in present pain the cup of tea is smashed

                                        drawing water

                                   the well is wide and shallow

                                   I draw a bucketful and put it in the tub

                                   another bucketful and put it in the tub

                                        14 buckets and the tub is filled

                                        getting to know is not filling a tub

     Joy does not come through pleasure, joy comes through pain. Agitation accompanies pleasure. The way to stillness accompanies pain. The end of pleasure is dissatisfaction. The end of pain is joy. Then comes whatever has to come in its own way.

                                        a set of sharp knives

                                   turning and turning in the ball

                                             of my ankle five days now


                                        it went away this morning


                                        this flesh hung on these bones

                                             and knit with nerves

                                        I have seen shredded

                                             and dropping

                                        like great cliffs falling

                                        flesh is not solid

                                        sunbursts burn at every pore

                                             no arms no thighs no legs

                                        only the play of electricity

                                             vanishing in small flashes

                                             the monk on my left

                                        the coming does not make him glad

                                                  is the monk on my right

                                        the going does not make him sad

                                        gruel is food, boiled peas is food

                                                  hot tea is food

                                             pain comes and goes, joy comes and goes

                                        sun in the morning, stars and moon at night


                                        novices planting a jackfruit tree

                                             9 years before the first fruit

                                        they laugh and quarrel and banter

                                   to them the world is trees and food and walking

                                        the world is trees and food and walking

     One sets out to arrive. One fares as one should. Arrival is in accordance with its own nature and in its own way. One sets out and goes on faring.

                                             not a garden of roses and junipers

                                                  nor a valley of lilies

                                             not a palace with cool drinks in the windows

                                                  nor a moon and a finger pointing

                                                  not the path through an orchard

                                                       to the shoulder of a hill

                                                  but a journey across hot sands

                                                            to a river

                                             a small cloud moves in the southern sky

                                   the morning breeze carries a wetness of river water

                                                       namo Buddhassa


"Washing the Bowl"


  1. Wow thank you so much for translating. This was wonderful to read.

    1. I didn't translate it. Apparently it was originally composed in English. But yeah, it is nice.

    2. Man, this is incredibly beautiful. The expanse in these lines can be felt.

  2. Very much appreciated. I wonder what made you give that to us now ... It shows a part of you not known before.


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