Meeting a Monk in Myanmar

By Laura Kaye Chamberlain

Earlier this year, sangha member Laura Chamberlain moved across the world to Myanmar, where she currently works and lives. She shared some of her experiences and thoughts on Buddhism and her Path with us in this article.

My first Sunday in Myanmar, I talked with a monk.

(I must say, this hasn’t happened since.)

Shwedagon Pagoda

It was late evening; still warm and humid, but pretty pleasant. I was sitting on the tiled ledge of a platform in the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, facing an enormous statue of the Buddha, surrounded by hundreds—thousands?—of other likenesses, and doing my best to somehow sit with my feet pointed at precisely none of them.

In my new Myanmar-style matching top and long wrapped skirt, that meant numb feet tucked underneath me or very careful fabric placement with my legs criss-crossed.

Shortly after I sat down, the local man to my right struck up a conversation. A few exchanges into it, we were having some translation difficulties… namely, he knew probably 50 words of English, and of Myanmar, I knew a whopping total of 5.

Sitting silently to our left was the robed monk I had surreptitiously chosen to sit near. When the local man and I were really struggling to understand each other, he looked to the monk—who had definitely been listening, and seemed genuinely pleased to join in.

I’m going to be honest, inside I was basically fangirling.

I’d read that some monks (‘Pone-Pone’, as they’re affectionately called here) like to practice their English with foreigners at Shwedagon Pagoda. I was also aware it would be entirely inappropriate for me to start such a conversation.

Ko Aung Mo asked me to take his photo before he left. He’s super friendly! It’s standard here to have a serious expression in photos.

We all began with the usual chat — “Where you come from?” “United States!” “OhhhHhhHh” — and some 30 minutes later, after the local man had to excuse himself to get back to work (he delivers water jugs, a vital service here where the tap water is not safe to drink), I was deep in conversation with ‘Guru Suria.’

He could tell I was eager to receive teachings, and only appeared mildly disappointed when I answered what type of path I’d studied thus far. “Tibetan,” I answered nervously.


Here in Myanmar, Theravada Buddhism (as I’ve now fully come to call it, without the diminishing undertone of ‘Hinayana’) is unquestionably the Path. In a country where nearly 90% of the population is Buddhist, that’s a lot of foot traffic!

“But,” I said carefully, and with more hope for his validation than I care to admit, “I believe it’s All One. There are differences, but we are all pointing to One Truth.”

“Yes,” he agreed with a smile. “That’s true.” We held a moment of quiet sacred connection.

* * *


The woman’s sharp voice to my left made me sit up straight as a ruler. I knew almost immediately what she meant.

Guru Suria and I had been talking for quite some time now, and my feet, hips, and legs were not happy about the sitting position I’d chosen for the first half hour. I’d finally relented to their demands, switching to a cross-legged position and doing my best to cover all skin with the various flaps of fabric. But my focus had gone back to Guru, and I didn’t notice when the layers shifted.

There are explicit rules when entering pagodas: no bare shoulders, knees, or—Buddha forbid!—blinding white quadriceps of a foreign woman.


Cheeks on fire, I quickly reshuffled. Guru looked confused, and there was a quick exchange between them in Myanmar, the woman’s voice still terse and scolding. (I should point out, this is almost the only negative interaction I’ve had with a local person in nearly 4 months here! Definitely the exception.)

The ‘Enforcer’ looked pointedly again at me. I was flushed with what can only be described as womanly embarrassment and shame.

“Sorry-ba” I said (there is literally no word for sorry in Myanmar). “Che-zu-ti-ma-re!” (Thank you!)

She was barely satisfied, but stepped back a bit—though clearly without leaving, ready to prevent another Leg-gate. I felt deeply self-conscious.

The monk laughed, clearly unconcerned. This was incredibly relieving.

Actually, he’d been shifting throughout our conversation to sit quite close, even leaning in. I had been worried how that would look, and I wondered now if it had played any part in the Enforcer’s displeasure.

* * *

After several teachings, including the traditional Myanmar meditation technique of focusing attention on the space between one’s nose and mouth as the breath flows, I was feeling peaceful and present, awed at this new environment and grateful for this connection.

Though still not enlightened. Darn.

Guru Suria had to catch his bus back—his monastery is some distance from the city, and from what I gleaned, this had been a day trip for his order. And my legs, tucked carefully to one side, were in absolute agreement that it was time to get going.

Guru asked for a donation for his monastery, if I’d found benefit in his relaying of the teachings and could contribute. Though I’ll admit this gave me pause, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Right. It’s sort of his job. I gratefully offered some of my Myanmar ‘kyat’.

Guru Suria invited me to visit his monastery, which we discovered together isn’t even on the map. In what was clearly full of visual irony to the passersby, the monk sat hunched over my iPhone for a long time (looking for his monastery on Google Maps) while I gazed in contemplation at the Buddha.

Once he found it, I dropped a pin. We thanked each other for the talk, and parted ways. I left with a little less cash, a little more peace, and a monk’s phone number.

* * *

Despite my relatively heartening first interaction, my time here has dissolved the illusions I’d held about bhikkhus. I’ve seen monks in shopping malls, monks with smartphones, monks taking selfies. Selfies!

Once, in a lovely Alley Garden designed by the organization I’m here with, I saw a visiting Thai monk walking with a few members of his sangha, wearing AirPods and smoking a cigarette.

You read that correctly.

(My local coworker there told me that Thai monks are somewhat famous for having ‘fakes’ amongst them. But what, other than internal devotion, separates a ‘true’ monk from a ‘fake’ one?)

And, I’ve learned that there are actually no ordained Buddhist nuns in Myanmar. This is due to a break in the lineage, and the necessity for a bhikkhunī to be ordained by both the bhikkhu and bhikkhunī sangha. There has been talk from the Dalai Lama and others to allow this rite of passage to be conducted by a bhikkhunī from the Mahayana order; but although a few of these ceremonies have taken place, none are recognized as legitimate by most Theravada practitioners, and certainly not in Myanmar.

There are, however, thilashin here who live as nuns in every sense—except being recognized and treated as such. A few have begun to question the way of things, but as of now, there is no path for the women of Myanmar to become bhikkhunis.

* * *

While my eyes have been opened to many of the flaws of Buddhism and its practitioners, I have not lost enthusiasm for the path. When I am surrounded by depictions of the Buddha, when my taxi driver chants as we speed down the road, when I look out my window and see a breathtaking pagoda—I am invited to remember what is basically good and true about the Dharma and its effect on my own small life.

For now, I focus on the Theravada path. Day by day I deepen my understanding and clearsightedness. I cherish the compassion of this largely Buddhist culture, the civil society here that is stepping up to support its most vulnerable in these particularly tenuous times. There is a collective spirit of unquestioned generosity that is beautiful and uplifting.

No one place, no one practitioner, no one path is truly ‘perfect’. How can it be, when it is perceived as separate? Yet these imperfect fingers point the way to the beautiful, empty truth. And I intend to follow where they lead.

After all, I’m new here. I’m not afraid to ask for directions.

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