Friday, August 24, 2012

Mini Monks in Myanmar

Earlier this year my wife and I had the good fortune to visit Myanmar (aka Burma) for about three weeks.  I emphasize "good fortune" because it was one of our best travel experiences ever -- warm, friendly and welcoming people, surprisingly good food, rich history, exotic culture, astonishingly beautiful Buddhist monuments and archeological sites.  "Good fortune" too in that geopolitical shifts suddenly allowed us to make the trip before mass tourism takes its inevitable toll.

We've wanted to travel there for years but didn't want to support the corrupt and repressive military regime that seized power in 1962.  This is the government that caused international condemnation in 2007 when it refused humanitarian aid after a horrific typhoon hit the southern provinces leading to an estimated 180,000 deaths from disease and starvation.  It also held the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the last 20 years, despite the fact that in 1990 she resoundingly won the first election held after the military takeover. Recently however the military has introduced significant political, social, and economic reforms that have led to an improvement in relations with the U.S., giving us the opportunity we've been waiting for.

Of Myanmar's 56 million population, about 500,000 are in the military.  A fairly large army is needed because this is one of many countries in the world where order and stability come from the barrel of a gun.  But there are also about 300,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar, a striking spiritual counterweight to raw physical force. Their orange robes and shaved heads make them stand out everywhere, adding to the exotic atmosphere that emphasizes to a Western visitor that "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."  There are also about 20,000 Buddhist nuns who also shave their heads but wear pink robes instead of orange.

The country is 89% Buddhist, a large portion of whom are fairly devout. Christians and Muslims are a tiny minority, about 4% each, with the remainder being mostly Hindu. There are very few Jewish citizens. This is a different variety of Buddhism than the type we saw in Bhutan (see my blog Bummin' With Buddha in Bhutan) though the basic tenets are the same. As was the case in Bhutan, Buddhism incorporated earlier religious beliefs rather than attempting to supplant them. In Myanmar this involves belief in Nats, spirits who inhabit objects and places and who have the power to protect those who worship them.  Monks seem to tolerate this but do not promote Nat worship. In the 11th century the monastic order cleverly declared that the most powerful of Nats had historically paid homage to Buddha, thus making all Nats subordinate to Buddhism. Despite this rather obvious self-serving maneuver, I found Buddhist practice in Myanmar much more agreeable than in Bhutan, where the monastic order seems to actively encourage and benefit from decidedly non-Buddhist beliefs in magic, superstition and demons.

The sight of thousands of monks and nuns is certainly novel to most Western visitors who have at best a rudimentary understanding of Buddhism.  Even more striking is that many of these monks and nuns are children as young as ten years old. This is very hard for someone raised in the deist religions of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam to grasp. For us clerical robes usually signify a consecrated spiritual leader dedicated to transmitting received knowledge to the laity -- definitely not something a 10-year old is capable of doing. Somewhat closer to the Buddhist concept are cloistered monastic orders in which monks and nuns dedicate themselves to a contemplative life rather than service to the larger community. But in Western religions children would not likely be candidates for such an order.

So what are these mini monks and mini nuns doing and why are they doing it?  The answer is a bit different for males and females.  In Myanmar (as in neighboring Buddhist countries Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) all Buddhist males are expected to become members of the monastic order twice during their lives -- once as novices between the ages of 10 and 20, and again as an ordained monk sometime after age 20.  These are usually temporary associations, though about 15% become permanent.  For girls there is no requirement to become a nun, but joining the order offers an attractive means for social advancement, especially for those of low economic status.

The novices reside in a monastery or convent and follow the daily monastic routine which involves secular and religious education as well as meditative practice.  For Buddhists meditation is the primary means of progressing toward the goal of enlightenment and thereby achieving Nirvana, the complete absence of suffering and unhappiness.  Meditation is not prayer or worship in the sense of deist religions but rather a way to gain control over one's mind and emotions, to develop insight into the nature of suffering and unhappiness, and to achieve a deeper understanding of life. I suspect that younger novices might have difficulty with some of the more complex issues but they still benefit in both the short and long term from acquiring the self-control and discipline needed for meditative practice. Thinking back to my own youth I am certain this would have been time better spent for me than the semi-delinquent and angst-ridden things I actually did.

For us the chance to interact with these mini-monks and nuns was one of the highlights of the trip.  Like many children of that age they were very curious about us and eager to practice their English. We had many enjoyable encounters with them but one special time for me was at the beginning of the trip in Yangon, when we paid an evening visit to the famous Shwedagon Paya, one of the largest Buddhist monuments in the world.  Local people gather on the terrace below the central stupa in the evening to socialize and pay homage to Buddha.  I broke away from our tour group and found a quiet place to sit and observe the scene. I was soon approached by three novices 14-15 years old who politely initiated a conversation about politics, religion, and social norms.  This is a situation where my years of world travel caused a cautionary alarm to sound in my head at the beginning but it was clearly unfounded. They were delighted to learn I was an American, and even more pleased to learn I was a teacher (educators in Myanmar are highly revered).  But in this case I was the one who learned the most -- I saw first-hand the disciplined thinking, openness to ideas, skillful concentration and emotional control that are very likely attributable at least in part to being mini-monks.

I have no illusions that Buddhism in Myanmar has avoided the kinds of gaps between principle and practice that are characteristic of other religions. History has shown that when religions become institutionalized they often transform from spiritual philosophies to social organizations focused on power, status, dominance and self-preservation.  Self-righteous violence against others, exploitative accumulation of wealth, sexual misconduct of spiritual leaders, and ruthless suppression of dissent are the frequent result. A glaring example in Myanmar is the long-standing conflict between two ethnic/religious groups in the northwest: Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.  As reported by the BBC, recent violence erupted in late May when a Buddhist woman was raped and murdered by three Muslims. A Buddhist mob later killed 10 Muslims in retaliation, though they were unconnected with the earlier incident. In the violence that has followed about 80,000 people have been displaced and thousands of homes destroyed.

All religions are characterized by such disconnects between behavior and belief, including Buddhism, and my travels have frequently brought me face-to-face with their historical remnants around the world.  Although Buddhism is clearly not immune to this shortcoming, the historical record seems rather more negative for the major deist religions.  I am unaware of any Buddhist equivalents equal in scale to crusades, holocausts, jihads, or inquisitions.

Maybe these mini monks are on to something.


SimoneStan said...

I find it interesting that in some Buddhist nations (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka for example) with the largest number of monks will also have large armies. It seems to be sort of a split personality of gentle Buddhist spiritual nature on one side with large militaristic classes in control of political and/or economic side.

RandyPhillips said...

I briefly visited Myanmar in 1972 and have longed to go back ever since. Your description and lovely photos bring it all back in focus. In many ways I doubt that it has changed very much. I did find that seeing young monks and nuns in Thailand and Myanmar was heartwarming. The fact that it was compulsory and that it would be followed up by a stint in the army a bit later (at least in Thailand at the time) to be an eyeopener for me. The idea of America requiring a monastic experience prior to joining the army boggles the mind (mine at least.) It is a bit like travel in India. You get the sense that spiritual coin of the realm is as important as real coin. And that people have set stages to their life devoted to spiritual endeavors - and are given the time and support by family and society to follow through on them. A lovely piece, a real pleasure to read!

PaddleDoc said...

Thanks for the travel insights. Nicely done! I wonder if there's an app for American kids to practice meditation!

Coleen Hanna said...

My nine-year-old granddaughter spent a month with us in July. I would have been happy with even 5 minutes of mini-monk behavior.