Hiking Alaung Daw Kathapa

Hit the trail at 07:00, and everything started out very nicely. Mostly smooth, mostly non-steep trail, brown monkeys in the trees, and the (auspicious) FIRST SNAKE OF THE YEAR—about 1½ feet long, all emerald green except for a reddish tail-tip, & w/ a head shaped like that of a viper. Whether it was a baby viper or not I don't know. Basking on a flat rock. But,

     He, with the defective belief in lucky signs completely abandoned,

     Rightly he would wander in the world.   (Sammāparibbājanīya Sutta)

—from one of my journals

     Several years ago I wrote an essay called “Finding Alaung Daw Kathapa,” which I published on my now defunct Nippapanca Blog. This essay recounted my momentous first year finding, and living in, a huge cave on the northern edge of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, in Sagaing Division of northwestern Burma/Myanmar. I suppose someday, when I have the time to edit another book, I’ll publish a volume of essays describing my personal experiences as a monk, especially when I was living in Burma. For now I will attempt to describe my second trip to the same huge cave, back around 1998. For five years straight, from 1997 to 2001, I would hike to that cave, or overhanging rock ledge, to escape from the blazing heat of the hot season in central Burma, and to meditate.

     As I recounted in the aforementioned article, which, as I say, may be published in a book someday, the first year a small party of Burmese monks and I took a sampan to a village or small town called Kheh Daung, and then hiked over a ridge of hills to the Patolone Creek valley, and then hiked another ten miles or so through land farmed by hillbillies to find the cave. The second year I decided to go to the center of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park and hike north through the forest to the same place.

     I had a connection, the brother of a monk I knew, who worked at the headquarters of the park in a town called Yin Ma Bin. I was taken to the headquarters where I was allowed to ride on the back of an antique forest service truck to the center of the park, along with some supplies and some village people who ran stalls and shops there.

     I should mention that Alaung Daw Kathapa literally translates into English as “Noble Corpse of Kassapa,” and the story is that venerable Mahā Kassapa, the Buddha’s senior disciple at the time of the Buddha’s death, for reasons of his own, walked all the way to this forest area to die. At the center of the park is a shrine dedicated to the great disciple, and also a kind of magic cave, where his corpse and also a vast treasure are supposed to be hidden. A doctor explained to me once that the magic part of the cave, which appears as a roughly circular impression on the main cave wall, contains the noble corpse and the treasure, and that the depression sometimes opens up spontaneously, revealing the treasure cave within. Even if it opens, though, nothing but insanity and disaster are to be expected of anyone who dares to enter, and so the cave remains a magical mystery of the Burmese people. Later I heard another story, namely that there was a kind of sorcerer/alchemist monk named Kassapa who lived in that area a few hundred years ago, and that, due to the sameness of name, his approximate resting place was attributed to that of the Buddha’s disciple. It seems a more likely story, considering that Mahā Kassapa of the Ganges Valley could have had no compelling reason to walk hundreds of miles into an utter wilderness outside of India to die.

     The doctor who told me the first story, the more miraculous one, which incidentally he believed without any doubt whatsoever—I say this same doctor accompanied me on my first trip to the center of the park. My first night there I slept in a kind of rest shelter or zayat with the good doctor; but the next day I searched around for someplace more suitable for a forest ascetic. Eventually I found a little campsite by a creek, just a ten minute walk to the stalls and shops selling food to tourists. In the morning I would walk to the shops and do my monk alms round thing, then return to the camp and eat.

me eating lunch at my campsite by the creek, in the center of
Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park (taken by the doctor)

     One strange memory I have of that trip to the center of the park was a broken promise that I made to the doctor, a breach of sila for which I made subsequent confession. (Breaking a promise is considered to be a minor form of lying for a monk, and a dukkata offense, less serious than the offense for telling a deliberate, conscious lie.) Ordinarily there is a trail from the center of the park to Kuzeit village, near where my cave was situated; but during the cold season the trail is generally still badly damaged in places by the monsoon floods and are not repaired till a later time than my visit. I was unsure of trying to follow a sometimes invisible trail through a tiger- and leopard-infested forest, as I might get lost, and possibly even dead, so I opted for following Patolone Creek, which passes through the center of the park and flows northwards, right to my cave. So I was at the creek checking out the feasibility of this with the doctor, and told him to go ahead back to his rest shelter as I was going to take a bath there, in the creek. But after he left, I noticed that the water was very cold; and I had also heard about large fish in this creek; and so I chickened out because of a dislike for frigidly cold baths and also fish that might bite off one of my favorite organs.

     After two or three nights at the central, shrine area of the park, I set off alone down Patolone Creek on my way back to my place at Wun Cha Oatmin, or Belly Fall Cave. This was the sort of thing that I never would have done as a backpacker in America in my young adulthood, when I backpacked quite a lot: walking alone, barefoot, with no food other than a few cans of Red Bull, through a tropical forest known to be home to tigers, leopards, occasional wild elephants, wild buffalos, wild boars, bears, and so on. Even in a national park in America, with no really dangerous animals, I was hesitant to leave a trail alone, for fear of breaking my ankle or something out there, and here I was willing to hike around twenty miles barefoot through some of the wildest forest I’ve ever seen in Asia. I’m not sure why I was more fearless at this time, but I suppose the self-image or ego thing of being an ascetic forest monk had something to do with it.

     I wound up spending two nights in the forest along the way. Both times I was very concerned about sleeping on the ground with large tropical wild animals prowling around. I was more concerned about wild boars and bears than I was about tigers, since there are lots more boars and bears than tigers, and thus one is more likely to encounter them, and the few remaining tigers are probably more afraid of humans than I was of them, considering that they are on the brink of extinction in Asia. One night I slept under an easily climbable tree, and on the other I slept on top of a large flat boulder that required some climbing; wild boars, at least, would probably not be able to get me there. I remember I took a human skull in my shoulder bag on that trip, and I set it up face outwards near the most accessible side of the boulder I was on, as a kind of guardian. Even the main security of the average forest camper, the campfire, was not much of an option for me, as building a fire to warm oneself is against the rules of monastic discipline. I suppose I could have fudged by declaring to myself that a fire would be to repel predators more than to keep me warm, but disciplinary scruples had me sitting and meditating in the dark, until it was time to lie down in the dark. Although I subsequently saw some big cat tracks in that park (about the size of the palm of my hand, and I’ve got big hands), I encountered no wild animals on that particular trip larger than barking deer (about the size of a German shepherd dog) and some monkeys.

     I was still very wary though, as you might imagine. In places I’d be wading through tall grass with very limited visibility, during which times I’d consider myself a sitting duck for any nasty large animal. And in a few places I was really concerned for my life, as I was required to walk barefoot over slimy green algae on rock sloping towards a drop-off down to the creek. I would be inching forwards with my heart in my throat as I moved over the slime, trying not to imagine what it would be like to slip off the rock ledge onto rocks at least twelve feet below. But, as you may have guessed, I survived this.

     A few times I was required to cross the creek, as the way would be vertical cliff on the side I was on but walkable on the other side. Usually the creek was wadable, but in one place I had to swim. I didn’t have much gear with me, just my alms bowl and a shoulder bag or two, but trying to carry all this while swimming did not seem optimal. Also I didn’t want all three of my robes to get soaking wet. So I managed to find a clump of bamboo with some dead poles in it, to break off some of the dead poles, and to lash them together with some line, including my belt, to make a kind of raft or float that I could put my stuff on and tow across as I swam. I was still wary of the large biting fish though, and protected my crotch area as best I could while swimming. (There is also a rule of monastic discipline forbidding a monk from swimming for fun, but this was simply to get to the other side of a creek when the side I was on was impassable, and so I swam for the first time in years that trip.)

     Eventually, on the morning of the third day, I think, after fasting the whole day before, I began passing cleared areas along the creek where villagers would plant crops like peanuts—it turns out that peanuts grow really well in the sand of creek banks—and so I knew I was getting close to the villages on the northern border of the park, and also close to my cave. Finally I saw a small group of village men in front of me, apparently on a trip into the national park to chop trees or poach animals, and one of them had been a supporter the previous year. The fellow was overjoyed and left his group to help me back towards the village and my place, carrying some of my stuff. He kept exclaiming, and early on burst out with “You’re the arahant that stayed in the cave last year!” I replied that, well, I stayed in the cave, yes. (There is a very big rule against claiming to be an arahant, or a meditator who has attained psychic powers, when one knows this not to have been the case. But there is an exception when simple hearted people, out of immense respect, say things like “may the arahant come this way please”: the monk can go that way, but of course he cannot say that yes, he is indeed an arahant, because that would entail instantaneous excommunication from the Bhikkhu Sangha for life. Assuming of course that he isn’t really an arahant and he knows that. But even if he IS an arahant or has really attained psychic powers he is not supposed to tell laypeople about it. It’s a lesser offense but still forbidden.)

     I spent the remainder of the cold season in the cave that year, and, as became tradition, I left shortly after the first monsoon rains began to fall. I came back three more times after that, and had several adventures…and the following year I began following the sometimes almost invisible trail instead of following the creek. But I guess that is a topic for another time.


the general area of Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park, with the photo's
width covering about 120 miles or so (the push pin on the far right represents
a cave I lived at in later years



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