Notes on a Burmese Monk

Myanmar Narrative
by Robert Hirschfield Aug 13, 2010
Robert Hirschfield finds a juxtaposition between Burma and India, past and present, East and West, while talking to a monk at the Bodhi Tree.

THEY SIT like saffron pigeons on the stone ledge across from the Bodhi Tree.

If I clap my hands, will they scatter? Or like the good Theravadan monks that they are, will they log the bare fact of hearing in minds polished with the spirituality of perception?

I find myself drawn to one young monk in particular. His lean bodyhas a more inhabited look than those of the older monks.

Noticing me eyeing him, he makes a space for me next to him.

Sunlight bounces off a gold front tooth.

Encounters with monks in Bodh Gaya usually consist of precise little bows and farewells.

“You are from?” he asks. Another staple of the encounter.

“The US.”

“Ah, the US.” He repeats after me, as if it is a brand name he can’t make up his mind about.

“And you?”


I think of severe meditation masters and murderous generals. I think of the silence of the pagoda and the silence of the prisoner.

“How long have you been a monk?”

“Since I was twelve.”

His smiles indicates he knows how hard that is for a Westerner to absorb. The surrender of experience for experiencing.

“Even as a boy, I’d ask myself how is it possible to attain inner peace. In the monastery, I was taught how to meditate, I was taught the suttas.”

“What are you doing in India?”

He laughs. “I am studying Hinduism.”

A woman in a sari is approaching the monks with a pile of ten rupee notes so crisp and clean they look fake. She hands out four tens to each monk. I am thinking maybe she coaxed them out of the air like Sai Baba manifesting ash out of ether.

The Burmese thanks her with a deep wordless bow.

“I am not the first in my family to be a monk, but I am the first to study Hinduism.”

“Why Hinduism?”

“It is the religion the Buddha was born into of course.” He pauses.

Over our heads leaves are rattling around in the wind. The monk clears his throat. “It is also important for us to be open to what others believe.”

A question is kicking in my belly. I try to ignore it. But how do you ignore what is inside of you kicking?

“When Burma rose up against the generals in 2007, where were you?”

“I was. . .” the words come slowly “. . .in the street. My first time in the street over politics.”

“What happened?”

“The soldiers ran after me. No one ever ran after me before wanting to beat me.”

The monk laughs at the thought. I laugh because the monk is laughing, and because this isn’t Burma, and because here in Bodh Gaya only the Bodhi leaves get chased.

Suddenly, he falls silent, closes his eyes. Enough words for the day. I rise and begin slowly to circle the giant Mahabohdi Temple that the tree nuzzles.

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