Meeting The Monks Of Myanmar

myanmar monks

Meeting The Monks Of Myanmar. Photo via Peter Hershey/Unsplash.

By Katie Foote

It isn’t hard to see why Myanmar is known as the most religious Buddhist country in the world. When traveling through the country, the Buddhist influence is impossible to miss.  As I explored Myanmar, I saw monks and nuns in high proportions nearly everywhere.  Myanmar Monks could be spotted walking barefoot around villages to collect offerings for breakfast and lunch, taking selfies along the road, and chatting to travelers at major tourist attractions.

myanmar monks

Monks taking photos at U-Bein Bridge, Mandalay. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

People in Myanmar practice Theravada Buddhism, a more austere school of Buddhism practiced in several Southeast Asian countries. Myanmar’s Buddhist ties are so strong, the culture of the country is almost synonymous with its religion.

Almost all major holidays have a Buddhist connection. Take, for example, the Burmese New Year, Thingyan, also known as the Water Festival. It has origins in Hinduism but it is also a time when families celebrate their sons going to the Buddhist monastery for a short time.  This special right of passage is known as shinbyu.

Burmese parents believe it’s their duty to send their sons to the monastery at least twice in their lives. Once their sons reach an age of seven or older, boys can participate in this procession and ceremony where royal attire is exchanged with the clothes of an ascetic to commemorate Gautama Buddha.

myanmar monks

Monks with umbrellas at Mandalay Royal Palace. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Young Myanmar Monks

Once at the monastery, or kyaung, students immerse themselves in the teachings of the Buddha. The monks live a highly regulated life full of meditation and self-control. Novice monks between the age of 10 and 20 known as samanera are eased into monastic life, starting out with “only” ten rules.

As the developing monks progress, the number of rules they follow increases. Novice monks always have a choice to leave the monastery at any time. They usually stay a few weeks or months during their initial visit, then enter the monastery a second time in their life around the age of 20. When fully ordained, they must keep the full 227 precepts of monastic rules. Many children from poorer families and orphans spend most of their lives in the monastery, where they are supported with food and an education.

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myanmar monks

Monk with collection bowl and umbrella in procession hall, Bagan. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Meeting the Monks of Myanmar

One of my favorite parts of traveling around Myanmar was watching and interacting with monks.

myanmar monks

Monks in training at a rural school near Kalaw. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Although fully ordained monks adhere to a strict schedule and highly regulated lifestyle, young novices enjoy a fairy light-hearted life. While hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, I saw monks intermingling with “normal” students.  I watched as the tied up their robes to play football and playfully pushing these classmates to teeter on the edge of a ledge. The young Myanmar Monks can watch TV, play video games and have as much fun as any kid.

myanmar monks

Monks getting their robes ready for afternoon offerings. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

While monks are allowed to be playful, they still don’t have an easy life.  Novice monks wake up at 4:30 AM to clean themselves with cold water. After, they fold their robes very strategically before walking around the village to ask for offerings to bring back to the monastery for breakfast. Often these monks visit the same homes each day, creating a bond between monks and villagers.

Sharing food with monks gives the locals the chance of doing the deed of dhana, which allows them to acquire merit for future reincarnation. Novice monks still study a lot, and conform to the traditions of the monastery, which involve not eating after noon to clear the mind for evening meditation.

myanmar monks

Monk in the procession hall. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

I asked a Burmese friend about his experiences at the monastery, where he went twice for two weeks each.  “Too many rules,” he joked. “I got hungry.  But even though I couldn’t live that way, I developed an appreciation for the way they live.  I definitely put more food in the offering bowl after that.”

myanmar monks

Monks looking for offerings near Bagan. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Choosing Their Own Path

When monks grow older they get the opportunity to go to a bigger city or religious center with thousands of other novices or maintain a more quiet and meditative life in a small monastery. In addition to learning Pali to gain access to the Buddhist scriptures, they also learn English, mathematics and physics at the bigger schools.

myanmar monks

Monks outside of Scwegadon Pagoda, Yangon.

Some of these monks purposefully go to tourist attractions to practice their English with tourists, so I was easily able to find them during dusk and Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and on Mandalay Hill.

Chatting with these students was the perfect way to pass time until sunset, and I was amazed how open-minded they were. Many of the students commented that life at the monastery kept them very busy, between collecting offerings, meditating, and keeping up with the ambitious coursework.

Some knew they didn’t want to remain monks forever, while I spoke to one who remarked, “I like my life at the monastery now and plan to stay for awhile. I can never predict what will happen in 20 years but with Buddhism, that’s OK. I’m free to return to life outside the monastery whenever I chose.”

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Older monk reading near Bagan. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

Meeting A Master Monk

Thanks to Luminous Journeys, a tour company for trips around Myanmar, I was also able to meet a master monk at a monastery in Bagan. He shared his life story with me, describing how he joined the monastery at the age of 14. After spending nine years learning the advantages and disadvantages of the monastic life, he fully committed to the lifestyle at the age of 25.

Outside the monastery, he noticed how much time and energy people devote to working and gaining money, but never reaching a state of peace. Bagan believed Buddhism was the best way to find fulfillment, devoting his life to spreading Buddha’s story throughout the country.

After becoming fully ordained, he spent 18 years at the University of the Buddha. Here he took many courses and passed a series of exams so he could manage a monastery. According to Bagan, obeying 227 rules requires much self control.

“I can’t eat when I want to eat. I don’t have much free time but if there weren’t so many rules, anyone could be a monk,” he joked. This being said, he feels being a master of the monastery fulfills his life calling and sees value in the sacrifices makes.

myanmar monks

Monks with binoculars at Mandalay Hill. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

My Take On Myanmar Monks

Overall, I was impressed that the youth of Myanmar have this incredible opportunity to learn about themselves and the world. Buddhism recognizes the importance of impermanence and allows people to explore what path is right for them at the moment. While the monks spend some of their time relatively isolated at the university, they also interact with the outside world.  Monks collect offerings twice a day in the villages and chat with tourists to improve their English.

If their path involves monastic life, monks are supported and valued by society.  Furthermore, they still have the option to return to a “normal” existence at any time. This leads to a seamless integration of Buddhist values into everyday life in a natural way that provides a moral compass for the country.

Certainly, if you travel to Myanmar, don’t pass up an opportunity to talk to these wise, worldly individuals.

Have you had the chance to interact with the Myanmar monks? Please share your experience in the comments below. 

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Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she travels the world any chance she can get. After four years of semi-nomadic life as she finished her PhD, she's recently moved to Auckland, New Zealand. Despite beginning a more traditional life, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes to swim, do yoga and hike (or "tramp" as they say in New Zealand). Check out Katie's blog to follow her adventures around the world.

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