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A Tourist's Paradox

While a military junta rules Burma, can you visit this Buddhist nation and still be an ethical yogi?

By Jeff Greenwald

It's easy to see why tourists, most of whom rarely trouble themselves with political concerns, are attracted to such a place. But the issue becomes a little more unsettling with spiritual tourists--Westerners who travel to Burma for meditation retreats and pilgrimages, but whose dollars benefit the junta. "These are precisely the people who should be most respectful of the boycott," insists Burma expert and former Buddhist monk Alan Clements, who lived in Burma for eight years.

Ironically, this undiluted spiritual landscape--which radiates 2,500 years of profound Buddhist practice--is exactly what makes Burma so difficult for such people to resist. "This is the beating heart of Theravada Buddhism--the place that has preserved that tradition better than anywhere else on earth," says Wes Nisker, a politically sensitive Buddhist teacher and writer (The Big Bang, the Buddha, and the Baby Boom, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) with whom I explored the temples of Bagan. "It's also the place that the contemporary Western styles of vipassana meditation come from. So if you really want to study with masters who are still doing the traditional, serious, stripped-down, get-off-the-wheel teaching, the only place they still exist--aside from a few Western teachers doing this in America--is here in Burma."

Nisker, like nearly all the spiritual tourists I spoke with, believes that visiting Burma affirms for the local people the eternal value of their culture and forestalls the negative effects of globalization--a benefit that outweighs the few hundred dollars one might give to the government. "And if we stop coming," he continues, "then all you have are the sightseeing tourists, who are supporting a very different part of the culture and economy."

This view is shared by Mark Lennon, a vipassana practitioner who began his practice with S.N. Goenka in 1972 and recently brought a group of Westerners to a dharma center in Rangoon. Lennon is well aware of the boycott but doubts that isolating Burma will relieve the country’s suffering. "All over Burma, you meet people who know about vipassana--but the practice of meditation among lay people has almost disappeared," he says. "Our idea was to have Western people see the sites particular to our tradition, but we also hoped that by bringing a large group of foreigners to Burma, we would show the Burmese how we value their culture. Even here, people look to America," Lennon explains. "And if Americans are doing vipassana, why not the Burmese? I take Goenkaji’s view that for society to change, the people--in this case, the people running the country--have to change themselves."

The Trouble with Going

The number of tourists entering Burma is clearly on the rise. One late afternoon in Bagan, the terraces of the 13th-century temple Mingalazedi are packed with foreigners zooming in on the setting sun. The morning calm of Inle Lake, in Shan state, is shattered by dozens of outboard motors, as tour groups are ferried to the floating market and "Jumping Cat" monastery. These groups are mainly French and German; Americans and the British are more mindful of the boycott (or less interested in Burma). And for now, the numbers remain modest: While Burma hosted an estimated 200,000 visitors in 2002, neighboring Thailand recorded a staggering 11 million.

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