NANSHE, Mandalay, Myanmar — Barefooted and beamingly, the students line up for their morning assembly – the novice monks and thilashins walk briskly into line – they have just finished their daily round of alms collecting and will soon be off into their classrooms alongside fellow classmates. I gaze wide-eyed at their quintessentially pink and saffron robes as they run up the stairs alongside hundreds of other children wearing their customary dark green longyis and crisp white shirts.
Over 6,000 children from different backgrounds attend this peculiar monastery school in Northeastern Mandalay founded in 1993 by Ven: U Nayaka B.Sc & Ven: U Jawtika B.Sc. The school’s aim is to provide free healthcare and education (from kindergarten through high school) to over 6,000 students as well as act as a home to over 1,000 children, including novice monks, orphans, and natives to mountain hill tribes.
The public education in Myanmar is in crisis – the teachers are often untrained and most families find themselves unable to afford to send their children to school. Monasteries still retain their traditional role as providers of education and health care for the population, often becoming the only option available to receive a good education free of charge.
At break time, I spot thilashins and hill tribe children playing cards together – there is no segregation and that’s something that I have never seen before. I look towards the opposite side of the crumbling green building to see students enjoying a daring football match with the novice monks.
Lately, I feel really heavy – I have been carrying the weight of a million thoughts and to-dos, as if I have been going through the motions of a restless life without really feeling it. As I walk past a few more students amidst the adobe classrooms on my way to the unpainted four-storey building that is my temporary residence, I am greeted with smiles and sweet “hellos” from the students. Suddenly the chaos in my head ceases.
The day I arrived here, I made my way to the monastery on a public taxi. The thirty-minute drive took me through devastated communities struck by heavy rains. Houses like sinking ships filled with forgotten tarnished tales and generations lost. The now houseless residents sitting river-sided under made-up tents staring wistfully at the barely-to-be-seen tin rooftops of their long gone homes lost to poor infrastructure make me realize the smallness of my problems.
In the evening we chat with Tony, a 19-year-old novice who will soon advance and become a monk (when he turns 20). He speaks to us in a broken English and tries to teach us some Burmese. I laugh when I realize how wonderful it is to be able to have a casual conversation with people from such different backgrounds. I used to read about Buddhist monks in geography books when I was in primary school and it all seemed so distant. Yet here I am a decade later, hanging out with one like it is nothing.
Buddhism feels different here than in other countries. This was made most noticeable when realizing how much respect there is towards monks. These “sons of Buddha”, as they are regarded as by the Burmese, have historically been leaders of protests, including that against the British colonization and later on, military dictatorship. In fact, in 2007, there was a revolution called the “Saffron Revolution” – the name coming from the color of the robes worn by Burmese monks – triggered by the government removing subsidies on the price of fuel. Monks here are seen as historical heroes, having led resistance to the junta, spreading pro-democracy and slowly bringing peace into their country.