In this article, I want to share with you some of my experiences of living as a monk in Myanmar during the covid pandemic and the government change that happened recently. I also want to explain why I left Myanmar at the end of 2022 and what I am doing now.
I am an American Buddhist monk who has been living in Myanmar for many years. I was first ordained in 2001 at Pa-Auk Forest Monastery and then later did a resetting ordination in Sri Lanka during 2007. I have spent the majority of my monastic life in Myanmar, learning mostly from Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi but I have also spent 6 years at Na-Uyana, Sri Lanka. Most of my monastic life was spent practicing meditation, but now I am studying at the International Institute of Theravāda (IIT) in Sri Lanka.
No Politics Meant No Danger
First of all, let me clarify that being a monk is independent from the political climate. As monks, we follow the Buddha’s teachings and we do not get involved in politics or worldly affairs. We live by a set of 227 rules called the Pātimokkha that guides our conduct and discipline. We also promise not to harm any living beings and strive to promote Buddhism in ourselves and others. Furthermore, our visa agreement forms put us in contract not to get involved with politics.1I will do my best in this article to keep my promise and politics are something I want to stay out of by my own free will. I also have not voted since maybe 1996. While some monks have spoken out against the government after they leave the country, I don’t think that is appropriate for monks to do.
Therefore, our monastery and residents were not affected by the political situation in Myanmar much. We were aware of what was happening, but we did not take sides nor participate in any protests or movements. We respected the authorities and followed their orders and they did not violate our principles or harm us. We were also welcome to use their military hospital when medical or dental needs arose, and our visas were still being renewed and the government fees were usually gratis for monastics. Our biggest ongoing fear was being told we could no longer stay in Myanmar.
Our biggest ongoing fear was being told we could no longer stay in Myanmar.
Covid 19 and Lockdowns
We were more concerned about the covid pandemic that hit Myanmar hard in 2020 than anything else. We were on strict lockdown during most of the covid times and we were isolated from the outside world. That was good for our meditation practice, but the Covid lockdown was also challenging for our kitchen crew and prevented new foreigners from entering. Our resident population started to drop, but less people meant a better climate for meditation.
We were worried about getting covid because we did not have access to vaccines or proper medical care until 2022 when we got Sinopharm vaccines donated by Chinese devotees. However, we did have some medical MD’s who are monks and also nuns with us at our monastery. Dr. Venerable Rathapala took care of us and the main teacher. He was available in our clinic most days and would give us basic medicines when we needed them. I’m very grateful for his work and the donors who kept our pharmacy fully stocked.
We also had quarantine rules if we had to leave the monastery for any reason and wanted to come back. If you left the monastery gate, even for a day trip, you were confined to your room for 3 weeks. Later, at the end of 2022, quarantine periods dropped to only 1 week. However, the quarantines stopped covid from coming to our monastery during the most dangerous times in 2020 and 2021. Nevertheless, COVID did eventually come. and we were living with it for about one month.
We were fortunate that none of us got seriously ill or died from covid during this time. We also received some support from other monks and lay people who donated food, masks, sanitizers, etc. to us. We were always well supported and always had enough food and other supplies. In some regards, it was one of the safest places to be in Myanmar during those times.
Change in Government
Another challenge that we faced was the change in government and the internet blackout that lasted for a couple of months after the government changed on February 1, 2021. The military took control and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders were detained. The takeover sparked widespread demonstrations and civil disobedience movements that seemed to be tolerated for the first month and then quickly put to an end. After that, the internet was cut off for us and most people in Myanmar during this time.
While no internet can be devastating to regular people and business owners, we are monks and meditators. We quickly realized that not having the internet was good for our meditation, so we quickly adjusted and appreciated our freedom from the internet. We did not miss much because we had teachings and a meditation schedule to keep us occupied. We also had international phone lines and could still keep in contact with our friends and families. Eventually we got a fiber line installed at our monastery which was the only government-legal method. However, by the time it got installed, the mobile internet lines were turned back on again. It was just a little more expensive to keep in touch than before but media isolation was nothing new to me.
I originally came to Myanmar in 2001 when there was a military government led by Senior General Than Shwe. At that time, Myanmar was on the embargo list and there was no US Ambassador in the US Embassy. This was matched with only a handful of countries such as North Korea, Iran, Congo and some other countries. When I first ordained, my father made sure I knew that Myanmar was on the list, and who else was on the list too. It was generally recommended that foreigners not go to Myanmar, but I went anyway. I was on a mission to ordain. As I said before, there were no problems if monks did what monks should be doing; meditation and study.
Three Year Retreat
Tibetan Buddhism is famous for their 3 year retreats. Because we could not really feel safe going anywhere else due to COVID, I stayed at Pa-Auk monastery from November 2019 until December 2022. It was a peaceful place where I could practice meditation without much distraction or disturbance. I learned a lot from my teachers who were also on lockdown too. Because the teachers were unable to travel during COVID times, we were stuck with each other, and that too also increased the good conditions for meditation.
Deciding to Leave
However, I decided to leave Myanmar at the end of 2022 for a different reason than politics or COVID. Instead, I left because I wanted to join a six-year program started by the International Institute of Theravada (IIT). The program was not offered online, and enrollment would be locked for six years (so they claim). I really wanted to spend more time at Pa-Auk, but there was only a small window to join this 6 year program to train monks to be competent and independent monks. Although I might sound competent to regular lay people and I have memorized the Patimokkha, there are still far more things to learn at the most basic standard level.
I am currently doing this program and still living at the International Institute of Theravada monastery. We are quite busy studying many subjects and memorizing many essential lists. Despite the recent economic troubles in Sri Lanka, this monastery is also well supported and very conducive for learning with all of the proper facilities.
A Summary Poem
In Myanmar, I was lighting candles and incense
Amidst the pandemic and different governments
Following Buddha’s teachings with some grace
Living by the rules of Pātimokkha’s space
No politics meant no danger, and that was true
But covid lockdowns could turn things blue
Finding solace within, the meditation’s balm
As the world outside faced a different storm
Quarantine rules kept covid at bay
while donors supported us every day
A shift in government brought an unexpected rain
But for meditators, it was all just a chance to retrain
Tibet or Myanmar it was a three-year retreat
A time to practice, to learn, and to meet
But in the end, I knew that I had to leave
And start anew, for the heart did believe
Living in Sri Lanka, I learned to study more
Gaining knowledge and time to explore
A journey that never stops, until it reaches the end
The end of the Path that never fails to send.
I am happy with my decision to leave Myanmar and join this program because it is part of my personal journey of spiritual growth as a Theravada Buddhist monk. However, the decision to leave had nothing to do with the politics of Myanmar or COVID. I was actually afraid to leave after being isolated and safe for so long.
I hope this article gives you some insight into my life as a monk in Myanmar during COVID and also the government change . If you are interested in learning more about Theravada Buddhism or becoming a monk yourself, you can visit americanmonk.org where you can find more articles, videos, interviews, and resources on these topics.