Take Off Your Shoes: The Beautiful and the Not-So-Beautiful
In my entire life so far, I have never taken off my shoes in public as much as I did during our two weeks in Myanmar.
In the Bible, removing one’s shoes is a sign of respect, an indicator of a sacred encounter, a movement into a holy place. The most prominent example is found in Exodus 3, when Moses encounters a bush that is on fire, yet not burning up. The Lord called to Moses and spoke his name, and Moses replied, “Here I am.” The Lord then commanded Moses to remove the sandals from his feet, for the place on which he stood was holy ground. With his bare feet in the dirt and sand, Moses received the instructions of a lifetime, the call to lead the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery and into a new land of promise and freedom, and into new relationship with God.
Like the wilderness of at the foot of Mount Horeb, Myanmar is a land filled with holy places and sacred spaces. Deeply rooted in Theravada Buddhism, it is hard to walk a few blocks without finding a temple, pagoda, monastery, a Buddha monument, or another house of religious practice. During our two weeks in this country, we visited these many of places and before crossing the thresholds we always removed our flip-flops and stepped onto dirt, cool marble, or a wooden floor alongside other seekers, visitors, or pilgrims. At first it seemed strange or even unsafe, but soon I realized that not only was everyone else also in their bare feet, but the floors and the ground where were walked were usually very clean, because no one ever tread upon them with dirty shoes.
In addition, I soon recognized that the sensation of walking around a temple or another public place with no shoes actually made me even more fully present and aware of how special and auspicious these religious sites were. When we were walking around the market or eating at a restaurant we could keep our shoes on, but when we arrived at a place where we were asked to remove those sandals, we knew we were entering a place that was different and holy.
One of the most important places that we visited barefoot was the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Completely covered in gold, this is one of the most significant places of Buddhist reverence in the country. Legend has it that this 2,500 year old monument contains relics of 4 previous Buddhas who attained Enlightenment. We arrived at Shwedagon after sunset, because we wanted to see how beautiful the gold shines in the nighttime. We left our shoes in the vans, walked barefoot across the gravel parking lot, into the lobby, and up the elevator to the walkway at the South entrance of the pagoda. We turned the corner and were met with an explosion of sights, sounds, and smells.
The air was warm and dense with the aroma of incense and flowers. Shwedagon towered 326 feet above our heads and at the base of the pagoda we saw row after row of smaller Buddha images with golden coverings. We slowly made our way around the circumference of the pagoda. All around us we could see people of all ages and experiences: monks walking slowly in their saffron robes, parents chasing giggling children, teenagers huddled in small groups and taking pictures, elderly men and women kneeling on the ground in front of the Buddhas. Lining the walkway shone rows of flickering candles, and behind the candles we saw families pouring cups of water over Buddha images, symbolizing their reverence and respect. As we passed a pavilion we heard a group of women chanting prayers in Pali, only to be drowned out by the deep echo of a gong and the twinkling of tiny chimes high above our heads. It was as if each of my senses had been heightened to take in as much of this experience as possible. And all the while, my bare feet padded along the cool, marble floor. Even though I am not Buddhist, I knew that something holy was happening here, for these families and the monks around me. In case I momentarily forgot, my bare feet reminded me.
As the days passed, we visited more sacred sites: a gargantuan marble Buddha measuring 37 feet tall and weighing over 600 tons; a massive reclining Buddha that was more than half the length of a football field from head to toe; the Sule Pagoda near city hall in Yangon, neighboring a mosque and a church. At each of these places we left our flip-flops at the entrance. And this was just in Yangon. During our three days in the Chanmyay Yeiktha Meditation Center, we removed our shoes to enter the building where we meditated, as well as outside of the dining hall along with the other monks and nuns.
Following our meditation retreat, we had a little less than a week left in the country, and we spent our remaining days in two remarkable yet distinct places: beautiful Inle Lake and the ancient city of Bagan. At each place we marveled at both places of worship and the beauty of nature. We removed our shoes at a temple on Inle Lake with four small Buddha statues that have been covered with so much gold over the years that they now resemble four round balls (seriously!). In Bagan, we left our flip-flops at the bottom of the ancient grey and white Shwe San Daw Pagoda and proceeded to climb a series of tiny, steep steps. When our toes reached the top of the pagoda, we were rewarded with a breathtaking panorama of ancient brick pagodas lining the horizon, a view that hasn’t changed much since the height of Bagan’s Pyu Empire in the 9th-13th centuries. In the days that followed, w left our shoes behind as we visited beautiful and architecturally brilliant temples, temples that were believed to be cursed and left to ruin, and pagodas shining along the bank of the Irawaddy River.
While it is true that our feet tread on many holy and mysterious grounds, and while I found many of these experiences to be deeply spiritual and wonder-filled, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I left out one sole-full story. (See what I did there?)
It was our second to last day in Myanmar. That morning it was raining as we drove about an hour away from Bagan to an inactive volcano called Mount Popa. To the southwest of Mount Popa lies Taung Kalat, a volcanic plug that formed from the flowing lava of Popa’s most recent eruption, around 2,500 years ago. Believed to be a place of great spiritual power, a monastery was built at the top of Taung Kalat. The summit has also been an important site for nat, or spirit, worship. It has become a popular pilgrimage site and there are 777 steps that one must climb to reach the top. So despite the fact that it was raining that day, we decided to climb it. When in Myanmar, right?
Our bus traveled to the foot of Taung Kalat and stopped at the bottom of the covered stairway that would take us to the summit. “Just a few things to keep in mind,” our guide told us before we exited the bus. “On your way to the top you will see some monkeys. They hang around this mountain, so just be aware. Don’t get too close to them since they will try to take your cell phone or reach into your purse. Also, just be careful as you walk that you don’t step in monkey urine or poop.” Noted.
The stairs were covered with a tin roof, but because of the rain the steps had still become wet. About a quarter of the way up we were, as usual, asked to remove our shoes, and we continued on our way. However it soon became apparent that this would be no ordinary climb.
Our guide had told us to keep a look out for monkeys. Well, there was not a monkey here and a monkey there. There were monkeys…. everywhere. Hanging from the rafters to our left and our right. Sitting in groups on the stairs watching us. Running along the top of the tin roof above our heads. Climbing down the handrails, sometimes running directly over our hands. And yes, there were cute little babies. But there were also huge, intimidating, heavyset mothers staring at me with such intensity that I purposely avoided making eye contact. We didn’t need to be told to keep a distance, because we instinctively knew that we wanted to. But they were still everywhere.
And there weren’t a few monkey droppings here and there. There was poop…. everywhere. There was urine… everywhere. And add in the rain and the mud… it was hard to tell for sure what was what. Let it suffice to say that it wasn’t a matter of whether you would step in monkey poop, it was more a matter of how much poop were you going to step in. And just in case you forgot…may I remind you that we were all in our bare feet?
At the age of 26 years old, I have been very fortunate to have had many opportunities to travel and experience the world, both in the United States and internationally. I have parasailed in Mexico, I have gotten lost on the streets of Rome, I have survived an attempted burglary in my apartment in Athens, I have eaten alligator in New Orleans, I have drank potent liquor for breakfast in Hungary, I have hitch-hiked for rides on the Greek islands. During this trip alone, I spent 3 days in a Buddhist monastery on silent retreat, I used toilets that were literally holes in the ground with no toilet paper in sight, and I ate some kind of meat during a meal in a poor remote village without knowing exactly what it was. In short, I have done a lot of things that were strange, out of my comfort zone, and made me a little (or very) nervous. But climbing these slippery, feces-filled steps to the top of Taung Kalat in my bare feet with monkeys staring at my every move…this was the most uncomfortable experience I can remember! Cringing with each step, I kept thinking, “The view at the top better be worth it!”
When we reached the temples at the summit, and finally got a good look at the panorama through the rain, I admit that it was a nice view. However, the thought that was the most prominent in my mind was, “But now we have to go back down!”
Remember how I started this post, describing the beauty of walking barefoot in holy places? Remember my last post about Vipassana and mindfulness, recounting the intentionality of walking meditation? …yyeeaahh. I was not very mindful as I climbed up and then back down that monkey mountain. I couldn’t wait for the experience to be over and to have the opportunity to wash off my feet and my legs and my hands… and really just my whole body for good measure.
Or, maybe you could say I was actually being super-mindful, super aware of my surroundings… “lifting, pushing, dropping into poop… lifting, pushing, dropping into poop…”
Either way, this was definitely an experience that pushed me out of my box, way out of my comfort zone. And since then, my personal challenge has become this: in my bare feet, could I still, somehow, find holiness in this adventure? All around us were Myanmar tourists and pilgrims, who were not afraid of the monkeys, who didn’t seem to mind the poop, and who traveled to the summit for a religious experience. Couldn’t I find God in this place too?
I firmly believe that God shows up in the places that we love and inhabit frequently and with familiarity, but that God also arrives in the places we least expect, where we are the most vulnerable and uncomfortable. What we are first asked to do is take off our shoes, feel our toes against the dirt (or the marble, or the wooden floor, or…whatever else happens to be on the ground), maybe get a little uncomfortable, and notice that we are in a special place, and that something holy is happening. All I know is, I will never think of the instructions, “Take off your shoes,” in the same way again.