a pilgrim's progress

On a mild and tender tropical day, at the foot of the lush Mandalay Hill in Upper Myanmar (Burma), I wander amidst the pages of the biggest book in the world. The pages are fashioned from cream and grey-veined marble slabs, the delicately carved ring-shaped script loops across the tablets in graceful figure eights. Immaculately whitewashed pagodas house each of these pages, 729 in all, expanding over five hectares of land in neat rows like peaceful tombs.

The book tells a story of kings and thieves, deities and demons, tragedies and great battles; the hero is victorious and there is a happy ending, but this is no fairy tale. The great battle is that of the mind, and the text is the Tipitaka, the story of Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as the Buddha.

As I stroll through the cobblestone alleyways between the chapters, I see, sitting in lotus posture with erect back and closed eyes, Siddhartha, motionless and oblivious to the outside world.

I could touch his spine through his navel if I wanted to; his rib cage is like a washboard, his skeletal limbs about to splinter, his veins and ligaments protruding, his sunken eyes like hollow birds' nests. But the emaciated saint seems serene with his soft smile and hands gently folded in his lap.

This stone statue depicts the six years of asceticism that Siddhartha practised before his enlightenment. Having forsaken the luxuries of princely life, he set out to free himself from the bondage of flesh and took to ascetic practices that are still popular in India today. For six years, he rarely ate, and covered his body with tree bark or coarse hemp, without bathing or cutting his hair.

And then, as one story goes, Siddhartha was meditating under a tree when he heard a local musician singing. The song was about the art of sitar tuning, how the sitar string will break if it is too tight, and if it is too slack the instrument cannot play.

This touched Siddhartha's meditative mind and he thought: "The foolish ofttimes teach the wise; I strain too much this string of life." Whereupon he abandoned asceticism and strove for the middle way between the extremes of self-gratification and self-mortification. The legend of the Buddha's life epitomizes the essence of his teaching the Middle Path.

The Middle Path - this is what I seek.


We have been on the road for thirty hours because a bridge on the main road collapsed and we had to take a detour. A Rod Stewart hit song with Burmese lyrics resonates throughout the clattering recycled Japanese bus. Our travel permit says that all twelve buses must travel together and when one breaks down, it brings the entire convoy to a halt. So my quest for the Middle Path has led me here, to an unknown road in Myanmar stuck with 500 other pilgrims. We are on a yatra or pilgrimage with our Vipassana meditation teacher, S.N. Goenka. Finding the middle way while attempting to follow an overly optimistic schedule in a developing country led by a military regime is not an easy task.

My journey is tainted with conflict - this land's conflict between politics and devotion, and my own conflicts between reason and emotion, cynicism and romanticism. Nobel peace prize-winner and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has called on the international community to boycott travel to Myanmar, and yet the livelihood of many ordinary people depends on tourism. Also, the locals genuinely appreciate our presence and interest in their culture, and are impressed that so many people have come to their homeland to express their gratitude. My visit is not a political one; it is a spiritual pilgrimage, but as everything is interconnected in this world, there must be a middle path. . .

Michelle Décary is a freelance writer and photographer exploring Asia and its wisdom. She is based at the Vipassana International Academy in India where her time is spent serving, meditating and listening to stories.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life