Buddhism in the Time of Termites

Sometime ago, I made an ill-fated attempt at a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat in India. I lasted 24 hours and then returned home to my adopted city of Rangoon.
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Sometime ago, I made an ill-fated attempt at a 10-day silent Buddhist retreat in India. I lasted 24 hours and then returned home to my adopted city of Rangoon.

Of course, I embroidered my story about life on the retreat as I told it to friends about it: It made a fine anecdote about my failure to shut up for 24 hours. A good friend was, some days later, interviewing one of the most senior and revered Burmese scholars of Buddhism. She told him about my stay at the retreat. This man of great enlightenment was alarmed and concerned at my inability to stick out just 10 days of deep contemplation and summoned me to discuss my obviously appalling attitude toward myself.

So off we went, the following Saturday, my friend and I and for breakfast at The Enlightened One's house. He lived on a large plot of land in a leafy colonial part of Rangoon. A beautiful garden full of ancient trees surrounded a house of seemingly unyielding solidness at the end of a long circular driveway.

Once inside we were greeted with the site of a huge -- and noisy -- termite mound. It rose up from the floor in a corner of the huge lounge room. It was more than five feet high and just as wide. Festive pennants and Buddhist prayer flags adorned the mound, which had been fenced off from the otherwise perfectly normal sitting room.

Enlightened One told us that he would never harm the termites, as Buddhists believe all living things are holy. He had personally requested the termites to respect his space. His petitions had apparently failed, so he had sought counsel from the most senior Buddhists in Burma. They had told him of a simple prayer and ritual he could do which would welcome and honor the termites but also stop them munching the house down. This he had done, and apparently the termites had obeyed the request, according to our host. Now, they just stayed all cozy in their mound and minded their own business, content to know their very existence was honored.

He took us on a house tour. As we walked up to the Enlightened One's loft area, which was his dedicated prayer room, the wooden stairs felt decidedly fragile. They cracked beneath my feet and felt like they would give way any moment. My hand on the hollow sounding bannister indicated that perhaps the termites hadn't been entirely sticking to their part of the agreement. I suspected the house was being eaten away. I stayed silent out of respect for the holiness of all living things.

I'm not quite sure how it started, but once in the huge and beautiful prayer room, I got into a somewhat head-scratching discussion with the Enlightened One about men and women.

For anyone who has spent any time in Burma, the news of the inequality of women will cause no surprise. The logic would be laughable if it wasn't so infuriatingly sickening. I couldn't even begin to list the silly mores, rituals and rites that many men go through to avoid being contaminated by the filth of unclean women (and this means all women, not just ones who are menstruating of have fallen a few pegs down the moral ladder).

I asked Enlightened One about this and its place in Buddhism. His response was as brief as it was dismissive. Women just had to accept they were inferior, he said. Even if a man is corrupt or criminal and a woman is devout and saintly, put them side by side and the man is always going to be ahead.

Fifteen minutes later, back downstairs at breakfast, we could hear chewing sounds. The sentient and blessed termites in the next room seemed to be having their morning meal, as we sat down for ours -- a vegetarian spread at a huge table in the dining room.

The argument about women had not created a great atmosphere so I attempted to make nice by a light round of small talk. The Enlightened One became charming once again and expressed his concern at my failure at the Indian Buddhist retreat and urged me to look deeply inside myself for the answers to why I had not lasted the distance.

The chat seemed to be going well. Our frisson upstairs had been almost forgotten. I flattered the Enlightened One and asked him how he would solve the problem of some Buddhist's prejudice against Muslims.

"I would not solve it. They are filthy, dirty and useless," he said. "These Muslims have no use being here. You wouldn't understand how unclean and unpure they are."

This time I was not going to fight. I was almost speechless. We finished breakfast quickly and said our thanks and our farewells.

As we waved goodbye, we watched the Enlightened One turn back into in his lovely colonial house, slowly being eaten to the ground by those most precious of living things, termites.

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