Today is Oct. 2, 2016, my 39th day in Myanmar.
For the first time in decades, I kneeled in a temple and prayed.
I don’t remember the last time I set foot into a religious institution, let alone praying. But in Ananda Pahto, one of the most well-known buddhism temples in Bagan, I uncontrollably prayed.
I grew up atheist. At some point in my late teen/early adulthood, I showed up in churches on Sunday mornings for maybe a handful of times. The habit didn’t stick. I did, however, take multiple humanity classes in college and brushed the surface of various religions. During the same period, I became more devoted to atheism, writing stories and reasoning with religious extremists who yelled harsh comments to students on campus. I’ve had many late night talks about faith and beliefs with this older psychology grad student I worked with, who didn’t seem to be interested in my day-to-day life as much as listening and sharing ideas of goals and god.
The two of us used to have many exchanges resembling this one:
“Without god, how would you explain the force that is bigger than all of us.“
“I believe in causation, that something one does on one side of the globe is linked with and affects things that happen on the other side,” I answered, often unsurely.
For this last day of our three-day Bagan trip, my friend and I hopped onto a scooter and cheerfully headed into Old Bagan, where the iconic Lonely Planet image of hot air balloon rising up crowds of pagodas was taken. The hot air balloon service remains a popular one in Bagan today, but with a cringeworthy price tag of USD$300 and up, it’s too much of a luxury for someone on a tight budget like me.
Luckily, pagodas are pagodas, in sky or not. Instead of hot air balloon, scooter/e-bike rental is a much more economical, stress-free and easier option. Paying 5000-7000 kyats (around $5) gets you an e-bike for the entire day (starting as early as 5 a.m. for sunrise scouting). A good one runs fast, gets you to whichever obscure places you like and if you ever run out of power, your rental store can bring you another fully charged e-bike within minutes.
Our spirit was high, and weather was assumably hot but manageable, so our adventure went on with one temple after another. By mid-afternoon, we arrived at Ananda Pahto. Both of us were sweating our faces off and feeling a little beat at this point. Inside the windowless and breezy meditation room, in front of the golden Buddha who was five times my height, I kneeled by the wall, staring at the Buddha’s open palm and peaceful eyes.
I wasn’t going to pray. I had no prior memory of me praying, ever. I don’t think I knew how.
While I was staring, a group of eight Burmese young boys and girls quietly rushed in. They looked like they were in their early 20s, about my age. Instead of longyis or traditional clothing (which most everyone here wears, men and women, especially in temples. I was wearing one myself), all of them dressed in fashionable, modern clothing: tight jeans, some dresses and one oversized hat. I quickly noticed they are four couples, hand in hand, not shying away from courteous PDAs in this particularly conservative country in the Southeast Asia.
They all kneeled next to me. The girl in hat doffed her accessory. In absolute quietness. they all put their hands together in front of their chests, closed their eyes. Several seconds and possibly a million thoughts later, they held their hands up against their forehands and bowed to the floor. They repeated this process two more times, and just as swiftly as they came in, all eight of them left the meditation room in pairs.
I felt a little numb witnessing this scene. I wasn’t sure if it was the sheer number of the group (the eight of them plus me completely crowded the floor of the small meditation room), or the fact that they looked and dressed just like me, that shocked a small part of me. I felt this strong urge to imitate, not even sure what I was imitating. Before I realized, I’ve turned to look at my friend, who was looking at me as if he knew what I was about to say.
“I want to pray,” I said.
“Go for it.”
So I did. Three times.
The first time I prayed for my parents, hoping they would have good health. I have not seen my father in over a year now. I hope being a newly-turned-50-year-old hasn’t been too harsh on him.
The second time I prayed for safety for my friend and myself on this trip, making back to Yangon alright.
When my forehead touched the floor this time, I was temporarily distracted by a feeling of oddness: neither my muscles nor my brain knew what I was doing. I quickly dragged my mind back.
The third and last time, I prayed for clarity. I asked if I could have a life that is simple, and desires that are not too greedy. I asked if I could know my heart better while facing difficult decisions. I asked not to hurt the people I love.
I asked if that was too much to ask.
And then I bowed one last time, hoping that no one saw me cry.
On the bus back to Yangon, I wondered if what I did was the right way to pray. Then I wondered if there is a supposedly right or wrong way to pray. I wondered if the things I asked are too grand. Maybe they should be a bit more specific? I regretted not giving some donation.
For an atheist, I know this is out of character. But I don’t know what my action meant. I don’t even know what it was. My best guess is it’s a bit of curiosity, mixed with a tiny urge to imitate, and something bigger and stronger that I yet to understand. Maybe one day I will understand. Maybe I won’t.