Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner: Nirvana’s Horizon—Discovering the Soul of the Golden Land as a Buddhist Monk in MyanmarApril 24th, 2017
By Kevin Dimetres
He was seeking a new level of travel.
The reflection in the mirror was virtually unrecognizable; the spelling of my name remained obscure; what might happen next had become a perpetual mystery. Before I could make sense of it all, Burgundy-robed monks whisked me away, up a dusty spiral staircase, to their secluded 5th floor rooftop. With endearing fervor, the monks excitedly pulled out their smartphones, gathered around me as a group, and began snapping selfies, with me, against the backdrop of the Yangon skyline. Had I stumbled down the rabbit hole, only to arrive in Myanmar? I peered over the ledge to the chaos of once-familiar city life below; I became as dizzy as the moment was surreal.
I saw none of this coming, yet it was all going exactly as planned.
~ ~ ~
No guidebooks, no tour agencies, no beaten path; I promised myself this trip would be original. Long removed from my days as a wide-eyed tourist, and beyond my adventures as a gritty backpacker, I sought a new level of travel. I needed to find something real, something pure. Determined to bond with the local culture at its most intimate level, my goal was to connect with the cultural fabric and spiritual pulse of a land as distinctive and unique as any on earth. Armed with nothing more than kindness and a smile—the Buddha’s preferred weapons of choice—I hit the streets and began to explore. Myanmar beckoned.
~ ~ ~
I arrived in Yangon with a single backpack and an open mind. Sweltering heat consumes the city during the heart of the summer monsoon season. The downtown air was thick; the traffic frenzied. Decrepit buildings from the golden age of generations past wore their faded exteriors proudly, like battle scars earned fighting a silent war alongside the hopes and dreams of the Myanmar people. But behind those crumbling walls and cracked windows, the people smiled—endless, infinite smiles. Beneath the surface lay something beautiful and inspiring. I was intoxicated with wonder; the spirit of the Myanmar people was unlike anything I had ever come across.
Golden Buddhist pagodas pierced the sky amidst a backdrop of urban decay, symbolically reflecting the country’s shining optimism throughout its tumultuous political past. I browsed the street vendors, perusing the black market antiques, knock-off soccer jerseys, and countless varieties of Buddha statues. An old man with leathered skin and heavy eyes sat in a small plastic chair behind a table selling longyis, the traditional sarong worn by the men of Myanmar. These long, skirt-type garments did not contain pockets or belt holes, yet were as ubiquitous as they were comfortable. I had to have one.
His eyes lit up as he presented me with an indescribably warm and heartfelt smile to accompany my new longyi. Those distinctive Myanmar smiles—heart-meltingly genuine, slightly bashful, and with a hint of laughter—were beyond infectious.
I wore my longyi with sandals and a T-shirt—typical Myanmar attire—but blend in, I certainly did not. Standing a relatively towering 6’2” with seemingly more hair on my face and forearms than many locals had on their head, the stares of onlooker’s were palpable. Adults would greet me with a handshake and a smile, enthusiastically speaking whatever English they could muster. A man with pepper-grey hair and an animated demeanor rushed across a street to approach me and eagerly presented a faded, creased business card; above a local Yangon address the words “English Teacher” were written in large, bold letters. He introduced himself as Thein, and upon learning of my American heritage he asked me to volunteer at his English class the following day. I thought about it for a moment, and became more excited by the second. I had been seeking a way to connect with the people, and the chance had found me. Perfect.
~ ~ ~
The classroom was located on a the 3rd floor of a battered building in the heart of 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?”
The opportunity was tantalizing. Theravada Buddhism plays such a fascinatingly prominent role in everyday life in Myanmar; golden Buddhist pagodas are ubiquitous, while Buddhist monks walk the streets at sunrise for their daily alms. There was something alluring about the Myanmar people- their unparalleled happiness and tranquility seemed to be a direct result of their Buddhist faith. I was eager to learn more, and became ecstatic at the prospect of such a cultural exchange.
Without a moment of hesitation, I excitedly said “Yes!” before he could finish his sentence.
The basic concepts of Buddhism were somewhat familiar to me—I confess to being an avid listener of Alan Watts—however I knew very little about its practical application in everyday life. Beyond my love affair with Chinese martial arts movies and musical references from the Wu-Tang Clan, I had never seen Buddhism in action. Above all, I was fascinated by the lives of Buddhist monks. How does one become a monk, and what do their daily lives entail? Would these seemingly spiritual savants, on their individual path to enlightenment, be willing to share an anecdote of wisdom with a foreigner such as myself?
I had no further plans beyond that moment. The thrill of the unknown lay ahead.
~ ~ ~
The monastery was located in an enduring building situated in an unfamiliar neighborhood north of downtown Yangon. The five-story building was built in a “U” shape, with an open courtyard in the center and an attached building on the side which acted as the bhikkhu’s private quarters. I arrived with a few English language activity books, a stack of notecards, spiral bound notebooks, and a few boxes of pencils which I had purchased at a market near the English school. I created a playlist of my favorite music to share—I was guardedly hopeful that Buddhist monks might enjoy Bob Marley and Wu-Tang- as well as pictures of my family and friends back in the States. As always, I kept a box of playing cards and a tennis ball ready; games and activities are a phenomenal way to bond with people, especially when language barriers exist. In reality, I had no idea what to expect, and deep down, I kind of liked it that way. I was ready to embrace anything that crossed my path.
Metaphorically speaking, you could hear the record come to a screeching halt when I entered the monastery. The older monks enthusiastically chatted amongst themselves at the sight of my presence, while the novice monks were in a state of curious hysteria. I gave everyone a wave as I shouted “Minglaba, nay kung la?” which, according to my Myanmar language app meant “Hello, how are you?”
The monks waved back while they roared with lighthearted laughter at my clumsy attempt to speak the language, and I continued to wave while I tried to I soak it all in.
Dahmapalla introduced me to a monk named Zaw; he was in his early twenties, spoke a little English, and would act as my unofficial guide for the day. Zaw came from a small village in the countryside about four hours away, and had committed to life as a Buddhist monk at the tender age of nine. He had a brother and two sisters whom he had last spoken with a year earlier during their visit to Yangon. He had seen other Americans before, but I was the first that he had the chance to meet personally, and he was equally as excited to be speaking with me as I was with him.
As I settled in, I was greeted by a cheerful monk named Sai. Sai was a part-time monk; sometimes he would stay at the monastery for a week or two living a devout monastic lifestyle, then return to his home life in the city. I was unaware that Buddhist monks could float freely between the two lifestyle dynamics, but as I came to later understand, the degree to which one embraces a Buddhist way of life is ultimately up to the individual. It’s a spiritual approach to life open to anyone in any capacity- even as a part-time Buddhist monk.
Sai knew how to say two simple words in English, and he couldn’t wait to try them on me. He clutched an empty mug and extended his hand in my direction.
“Hello! Hello… Coffee? Coffee!”
I was surprised by the gesture, but I gladly accepted.
I nodded my head, returned the smile, and enthusiastically said “Yes!”
Sai mimicked my body language, nodded his head, and responded “Yes. Yes? Yes!”
He now understood a third English word, and he couldn’t have been happier.
The oldest monk, whose name was Kyin, introduced himself to me as I drank coffee with Sai. Kyin sported impossibly dark navy-blue eyes and was immensely proud of the fact that he was nearing his 70th birthday. He attributed his long life to his affinity for meditating up to 6 hours a day. He spoke a small amount of English, which he had crafted during his previous career as a businessman prior to becoming a monk. He had lived in the monastery for only a few years, and he had a family living in another part of the city. He planned to remain a monk for the rest of his days, and professed that he was as happy now as he had ever been in his entire life.
Zaw took me to a local café for dinner a few blocks from the monastery. He recommended a spicy curry dish and sat with me while I ate, however he could not eat himself, as the monks typically did not eat after midday.
Once we returned, I spent the rest of the afternoon playing chinlone- a traditional game visually similar to hacky-sack played with a woven rattan ball amid a circle of people- in the courtyard with the novice monks.
As the sun was setting, I was summoned to meet with Dahmapalla in his private quarters.
~ ~ ~
I sat on the floor across from Dahmapalla, my legs crossed awkwardly in a feeble attempt at the lotus position. A few other elder monks, all wearing burgundy robes with burnt-orange ties around their waist, stood around us. Images of the Buddha and framed pictures of the monastery’s former bhikkhu’s adorned the walls. My eyes beamed with anticipation, as I was as curious as I was excited-a philosophical conversation with a Buddhist master in a Buddhist temple had remained near the top of my travel bucket list for years.
“You happy here? Everything okay?” He asked me in a relaxed, caring manner. I assured him that I was content and gracious for his hospitality.
“So…You want learn Buddhism. Yes? You like Myanmar and Buddha knowledge, yes?”
I nodded eagerly, unsure about where the conversation was headed.
“Okay, okay…what you want to know? You teach English, I teach Buddhism,” he exclaimed in a jovial tone.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to say; I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
“Well,” I stammered, trying my best to articulate my thoughts clearly but not sure where to begin, “Everything…I want to know everything about Buddhism…I want to see life through your eyes.”
“Oh! Well…Okay, okay,” he responded in an amused manner with a Cheshire-cat grin, “You have to be monk first to know everything for Buddhism.”
“Yes, I know, I know,” I said sheepishly while nodding my head. “I just want to learn…Anything… Everything. I seek knowledge.”
I knew not whether his previous comment was a question or an answer.
Dahmapalla spoke with the other monks in their native tongue. A round of smiles and head nodding ensued.
“Okay, good! You like Buddhism. You want Buddha knowledge, I give you knowledge. As a monk. But first we give you robe and cut hair. Tomorrow. After English class. Very good. Okay, okay.”
Did I just agree to become a Buddhist monk?
Overwhelmed, I tried to wrap my head around the moment—this was beyond my wildest dreams or expectations. Thoughts collided at every angle, from the benign (what about my hair?) to the substantial (will I have to be a monk forever?). Part of me felt a sliver of guilt; am I worthy of such a privilege? As much as I wanted to learn about Buddhism firsthand, I did not want to disrespect the monastery with any type of disingenuous cultural tourism. On the flip side of that coin, part of me was stunned with excitement; as an anthropological enthusiast, the chance to experience the world from an entirely new perspective made me feel as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. A flurry of emotions was subdued by a clear sense of the moment.
Deep down, I just knew.
I had traveled halfway around the world, inexplicably found myself in a Buddhist monastery surrounded by burgundy-robed Buddhist monks, with the opportunity to become a monk myself and learn firsthand about Buddhist culture and philosophies from the spiritual heart of Myanmar. I had wanted to experience something original, and the universe had presented me with the opportunity. What was I supposed to do, back out now?
Traveling is not a spectator sport; I had to go all in.
~ ~ ~
My ordination ceremony took place the following day. First, my head and beard were shaved completely. A younger monk-in-training, the same young gentleman who also served as the monastery’s cook, used soap, water, and a box of single-blade razors to remove all of the hair from my head. The novice monks were speechless with awe, as I’m not sure they had seen a bearded foreigner with a freshly shaved, shiny head. I shaved my face with an ever-growing audience of curious monks; it was the first clean shave that I had had in five years.
Wearing my longyi and a white T-shirt, I returned to the bhikkhu’s quarters, where I knelt before Dahmapalla and bowed three times as a sign of respect. Repeating after Dahmapalla, I recited a passage known as the Three Refuges, which is a formal request for ordination. He then placed my robes in between us, and I proceeded to recite the Ten Precepts-rules which guide Theravada Buddhist monk’s behavior, such as abstaining from harming life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from the use of intoxicants, amongst others. Lastly, I requested that Dahmapalla be my Preceptor, or spiritual guide. He then handed me my very own burgundy robe, alms bowl, and prayer beads. Finally, I was given my Buddhist name—Teelahwontay.
My fellow monks—the Sangha—helped me put on my robes. I observed my new appearance in the mirror; words cannot describe the emotions I felt as I saw an unfamiliar figure looking back at me. They proceeded to take me to the 5th story roof of the monastery for a celebratory view of the Shwedagon Pagoda and downtown Yangon. Kyin waved his hand in my direction and shouted “Teelahwontay!” before snapping a picture; I had officially arrived in Wonderland.
For a precious moment, time stood still.
~ ~ ~
Zaw and a few other monks took me for a walk through downtown Yangon to the Shwedagon Pagoda the day after my ordination. The stares from locals and tourists alike were unforgettable; I felt like I was half rock star, half albino zoo animal due to all the attention directed my way. Despite the unusualness of the situation, the Myanmar people were extraordinarily gracious, acknowledging me with inquisitive eyes and proud smiles. Many came to greet me, asking personal questions about myself, philosophical questions about life, and expressing their joy in sharing Buddhism with the world.
Once again, I found myself unable to stop smiling.
We met at 5am every morning, gathered in a single file line, and walked barefoot through Yangon to receive steamed rice from volunteers. Many of the monks meditated for a half hour before leaving for breakfast; however a few monks hit the snooze button until they absolutely had to get up to get in line for rice on time. I began to learn that we really weren’t that different from each other after all. We ate together at the monastery, usually followed by a round of meditation or leisure time.
Each floor of the monastery appeared to be a large open room, and each floor served a different purpose. The 4th floor was essentially a dormitory for the older monks; despite my title of “novice monk,” I was assigned a spot on the floor and given a mat, pillow, and mosquito net. A few of the older monks slept in modest beds; their only possessions generally being their robes, a few books, and perhaps a cell phone.
We met again as a group for lunch, which usually consisted of rice, boiled vegetables, and chicken or pork. Eating meat was optional; some monks did but most did not. No food was allowed after noon, however an older monk with lively eyes and a toothless grin named Htun would sneak steamed pork rolls into the monastery for me every night because he didn’t want me to suffer from hunger. I politely attempted to decline, preferring to embrace the full experience of monastic Buddhist life, but he insisted that I not go to bed hungry. In essence, that’s how these Buddhists like to do things- unwavering kindness and compassion above all- even if it meant breaking holy rules in holy places. I could dig that.
~ ~ ~
The emotional changeover from American traveler to Buddhist monk was remarkably effortless. Levels of stress began to melt away like a block of ice. With a greater emphasis on mindfulness, I uncovered the ability to truly live in the moment. The concept of simply living took on a new, rewarding meaning. Even the sun seemed to shine brighter, the flowers smelled sweeter, and I just couldn’t stop smiling.
Attempting to sleep on the hardwood floors of the monastery was quite an experiment; amusingly enough, this may have been the greatest challenge I faced throughout my journey to Asia. When I imagined all of the comforting indulgences that I missed from my life back home- drive-thru combo meals from Freddie’s Steakburgers, Seinfeld reruns, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, etc. - what stood out most was a comfortable mattress and cushy pillows. Apparently, I still have a ways to go before reaching enlightenment and achieving nirvana.
Inevitably, I knew this journey would eventually come to an end. In Myanmar, that meant 28 days after the date of arrival until my American Visas expired. I packed away my robe and prayer beads. I dug up my wallet from the depths of my backpack; my passport indicated that my name was Kevin Dimetres, and I had a signature to match. With my plane ticket in hand, I donned a knock-off Myanmar soccer jersey, cargo shorts, and Nike trekking sneakers. The time had come to kiss the Golden Land of Myanmar—and my moment as a Buddhist monk—goodbye.
~ ~ ~
I arrived in Singapore with a sense of shock and awe at the modern world. The sensory overload seemed so unnecessary; the modern comforts so trivial. Part of me wondered if I had returned from the rabbit hole; another part of me contemplated if I had it all backwards, living in Wonderland my entire life.
Life seemed like a high-stakes game of high-speed hamster wheel Olympics. The hubbub of everyday life was one brash, flamboyant distraction with a cherry on top and a commercial jingle to boot.
All I could do was smile.
Prior to this moment, I wasn’t sure how my Buddhist tutelage would carry over into the “real world.” Despite my hesitations, I realized that I was more apt to handle the cultural terrain of our modern society than ever. I had developed an arsenal of emotional tools to combat the unnecessary stressors found in any environment. I was no longer compelled to seek happiness externally; I could easily find it within. Everything else is just background noise.
~ ~ ~
Growing up as part of the Catholic Church, I chose “Lawrence” as my confirmation name, inspired by my youthful admiration of the Boston Celtics legendary Larry Bird. I couldn’t help but contemplate the spiritual integrity of double-dipping religious identities; nevertheless, part of me will always remain Lawrence. People continue to ask me about my religion today—am I a Buddhist, Christian, etc.?—but I’ve never been one for labels. The short answer remains the same—each religion has positive elements which we can apply to our own lives, and a greater understanding of each religion can lead to greater spiritual peace and social harmony for all mankind. We are all people, it’s our world, and we’re all in this life together. Labels should not divide us, nor should beliefs define us. The human experience is so much deeper than that; beauty can be found everywhere and within every person, and it’s limitless.
Life has a funny way of giving you what you ask for. I wanted to learn about Buddhism, Dahmapalla wanted to teach me, the opportunity presented itself, and the rest is history. I am no longer a Buddhist monk, but part of me will always be Teelahwontay, and I still can’t stop smiling.
Kindness and compassion above all. I can dig that.
As an educator working with underprivileged and at-risk students in the Washington, D.C. area, Kevin Dimetres strives to visit some place new each year. He revels in the opportunity to connect with the local people at the most intimate level, embracing the spiritual essence and cultural fabric of each destination. He works as a bartender as a side job to fund his travels, saving all of his side money in a glass jar until he embarks on his next adventure, diving in headfirst at his newest destination and spending it all while living it up.