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Friday, 01 January 2016

Nirvana’s Horizon: Discovering the Soul of the Golden Land as a Buddhist Monk in Myanmar - Page 2

Written by Kevin Dimetres
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The classroom was located on a the 3rd floor of a battered building in the heart downtown Yangon, a few yards away from a row of street vendors serving the best mohinga soup in the city. Most of the class time was spent answering simple questions and speaking English in a conversational style.  The topics of discussion generally centered on the following concepts: life in Myanmar; life in America; politics; religion; and why I’m not yet married.  A few students implied that should I choose to stay in Yangon, I would no longer have that problem.  All I could do was laugh.  The generosity of the local people is unmatched; it is easy to fall in love with Myanmar.

In the front row of the class sat a Buddhist monk with an affable demeanor and an inquisitive glare.  He sat quietly, maintaining eye contact while he processed his thoughts.  He was one of about 40 students, a few of whom were also monks.  He let the younger students speak first, before finally raising his hand.

“What is the cost of happiness?” the monk stated with a sly smile and a glimmer in his eye.  “We all want to be happy, yes?  But… what are we willing to pay for happiness?  What would you pay for happiness?”

The context of the question figuratively smacked me across my face.  A Buddhist monk and I engaging in a philosophical debate; this was the kind of thrill I was hoping to encounter.  

The look in his eyes told me he wasn’t concerned with my response; he had just wanted to plant the seed for reflection. I giggled with delight, gave him a nod, and joked with the class about how the cost of my plane ticket to Myanmar had been worth every penny.  The conversation evolved into a discussion about Buddhism and religion, and I found it remarkable how easily perspectives were exchanged without any sense of ego or grandeur. The Myanmar people have an extraordinary capacity to discuss religion and politics in a constructive manner, and I was thrilled with the chance to continue our conversations during the following class.

A burly, energetic monk wearing a bright orange robe stood by the classroom doorway as he awaited my arrival the following day.  He was the bhikkhu (head monk in charge) of a local Theravada Buddhist monastery, and he called himself Dahmapalla.  I’m not sure exactly how he came to know of me, but he was excited to meet an American English teacher from Washington, D.C. He spoke a modicum of English draped in a heavy Myanmar accent.  We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and the topic of my religious beliefs inevitably came up.  I simply stated that positive elements can be found in each religion, and a greater understanding of all religious philosophies would lead to better spiritual health and a more harmonious world. As I spoke of my desire to learn more about Buddhism during my journey to Asia, Dahmapalla silently nodded his head before presenting me with a unique opportunity.

“Come to monastery,” he said proudly with his thick accent, “Teach monks English, stay for free.  You learn Buddhism, monks learn English.  Sleep there, free, no money, very good…okay, okay?”

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Last modified on Tuesday, 05 January 2016

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