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Student Perspective: Monks in Myanmar

At the Stubonminga Buddhist Monastery Orphanage we came into a room filled with about fifty silent young boys dressed in saffron robes, sitting upright in well-organized rows, all silently watching us.

Not until I found out I’d be traveling to Myanmar on the Spring 2014 voyage did I think about the conversations I had during my freshman year with my friend Okka, an exchange student I met from Myanmar. I had spent time with Okka hearing all about his life at home and his hope for the country’s future despite the many challenges facing Myanmar.

I contacted Okka, but to my dismay, discovered that he was in Europe and wouldn’t be back in Myanmar for several months. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see him, but he sent me the contact information of one of his friends who was willing to show me around. Okka’s friend Thint worked out some plans for showing my friend Jennifer Thompson from Stanford University and me around Yangon. One of our most memorable stops was the Stubonminga Buddhist Monastery Orphanage, where Thint volunteered regularly.

Over the course of the next few days, through talking to Thint and observing daily life in Myanmar, I learned about the key role that monks play in Myanmar society. Poverty is a very real problem in Myanmar and it turns out that much of the care for the needy falls into the hands of the monks, such as the care for the orphans like those we visited at Stubonminga. In turn, the people provide food for the monks, and occasionally shelter and medical treatment.¬†As we passed a group of monks who were laughing and waving to us, Thint told me, ‚ÄúMonks have nothing, but they don’t need anything or want anything, so they are so happy and they never worry.‚Äù Their jovial spirit was contagious.

In Myanmar, the monks, constituting five hundred thousand people, nearly one percent of the population, literally own nothing, and are, in fact, happy. I felt that seeing the monks who walk the streets in their red robes is a daily reminder for the people that happiness and fulfillment are not found through materialism. And for me as a student it was a good reminder that serving is far more rewarding than being served.

Thint explained to Jennifer and me how he volunteers every Sunday at the orphanage to teach the students basic English words and phrases. His mother also visits regularly and washes their clothes. He explained that there is a culture of volunteering in Yangon, but these days, it’s becoming harder and harder to find youth, like himself, that care to volunteer.
After a formal introduction we were able to visit the students in an informal setting. Shaven heads leaned together in groups around a card game I couldn’t identify. When I got closer to one group, five of them exuberantly hollered out, giving each other pats on the back while one boy lifted a deck of colorful cards. The assumed winner of the match stood up and showed me his fist full of Pok√©mon cards, which I played with and collected when I was a boy their age. Who would have thought I’d find such commonality in a scene that seemed so foreign only minutes before.
Around the room, boys were scattered playing Pokémon cards, but also some other games. From a distance, I watched two boys place small cards in their palm, and then quickly raise and flip their hands until they were perpendicular to the floor, and then clap them together before the cards could fall off. They then slowly pulled their hands apart, letting the two cards fall to the ground. One exclaimed something in Burmese while clenching his fist and I could tell the results were in his favor.
Everyday between 5:00 AM and 12:00 PM, the orphans are sent out by the monks to collect food from designated houses and shops. Each boy holds his food in one of the lacquerware bowls pictured above.
¬†When I asked him why he liked volunteering at the orphanage, Thint Replied, “‚ÄúI love seeing the kids’ smiles.‚Äù
The kids loved gathering around Jennifer’s camera and seeing pictures of themselves. I thought that perhaps they hadn‚Äôt touched a digital camera before, because they were so delighted when they put their hands and the Pok√©mon cards under the camera and saw them on the screen.
  • Culture
  • Service

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