self improvement

New Year’s Resolutions & Revelations in a Traffic Circle Temple

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I’ve taken off my shoes and socks at the base of a traffic circle in Yangon. As far as I know it’s the holiest of all roundabouts in the world: the Sule Pagoda. It’s not as big or famous as the giant Shwedagon, but there’s something intriguing about the way the Sule Pagoda exists literally at the center of city life here, not apart from it.

Monks walking in lanes of traffic outside Sule.
Monks walking in lanes of traffic outside Sule.







Shops surround the pagoda's ground floor
Secular shops surround the pagoda’s ground floor

Inside you can still hear the honking horns and revving engines of Yangon’s 2.5 million residents circling the temple. But the fumes from the belching busses and bumper-to-bumper taxis gradually succumb to the scent of burning incense and strings of flowering jasmine.

Not being a practicing Buddhist, I’m not expecting any revelations. I’m mindful only of the soles of my tender feet stepping on tiles seared by Yangon’s mid-day sun. Instead, I stumble upon a New Year’s resolution. It practically jumps out at me, by virtue of being the only text written in English. It’s on a list I figure is a rough translation of the Noble Eightfold Path. My stomach rumbles, on que, as I read about eating in moderation.

Every year around this time I make lists that inevitably include a certain number of pounds to lose or food to eliminate from my diet. Maybe it’s the melodic chanting of the women on prayer mats all around me but it occurs to me that my resolution obsession could use moderation.

recycled candle holders
recycled candle holders

This little hand-painted list with questionable grammar is actually a sign that I’ve been approaching New Year’s resolutions selfishly. Instead of resolving to cut back on calories to make myself look better next year, I could consider food as a resource the whole world needs to share. Calories are a gift of life-sustaining energy and like all gifts, not to be hoarded by one person. It’ll be tough, shifting this focus from self-absorption to self-realization. I’m not the meditative type and I’ll need all the help I can get.

Luckily the Sule Pagoda has that covered. I hand over some crumpled khat banknotes in exchange for a packet of gold leaf and stand in line for what looks like a miniature ski lift in the shape of a swan. But when it’s my turn, the lady in charge of sending the little swan gondola up a cable to the gilded pagoda grabs my hand. She wants me to crank the handle myself. I’m already sweaty and feeling conspicuously pale and clumsy in this land of slender women half my size but there’s no time like the present to start shedding those calories. In moderation of course.