The origins of the meditation and mindfulness movement that have swept the world can be traced back to 19th and 20th century Burma (Myanmar). And still today in the 21st century, the Buddha's teachings of liberation animate a contemporary generation of Dhamma seekers in this small Southeast Asian country. In this podcast series, we will be holding in-depth discussions with a wide range of practitioners-- foreigners and local Burmese, lifelong monastics to lay practitioners, and including authors, scholars, meditators, teachers, pilgrims, and more--to highlight the depth and diversity of Buddhist practice to be found in the Golden Land and explore how the Dhamma has been put into practice by those seriously on the Path.
Whatever It Takes
Thaw Htet is juggling a lot these days: a donation platform, running two free medical clinics, and supplying defense teams. On top of this, he’s also created two anti-military Facebook pages that have gone viral in the Burmese online community.
What is all the more remarkable is that Thaw Htet was once barely able to even take care of himself, as he survived two suicide attempts and a later fear that he had contracted HIV. The latter led him to begin a serious meditation practice, which provided real insight. He notes: “I was holding too much onto myself, like onto my body, and on the privileges and happiness that I gained from doing something. Because all those are temporary.”
Thaw Htet draws equal inspiration from both the Buddha as he does Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Combining this no-nonsense American business advice with the Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness and ethics have certainly given him a broad palate to draw on when deciding on his plan of action since the coup. And yet, Thaw Htet does not see himself as belonging to an organized religion. “I prefer to identify or define myself as a person, who will take any kind of good ways of teaching from any kind of religions.”
Interestingly, Thaw Htet did not always hold such a progressive attitude, and vulnerably recalls the superiority with which he once held Buddhism, along with his Bamar identity—a view that he notes was encouraged and reinforced by the military regime. For him, now is very much the time to strike out towards a new future. “For the first time in Myanmar history, all of us are united. Like Kayin, Kachin, like all the ethnic groups! We are talking to each other right now,” he comments.
Like many other Burmese, Thaw Htet is particularly troubled by military spies infiltrating local communities. He notes that the presence of a spy in Thilon village brought about a full-blown siege of the small community, causing the 3,000 inhabitants to flee into the forest. This news was especially distressing to meditators, as this is the home of Thilon monastery, the site where the 19th century meditation master, Thilon Sayadaw, became one of the forerunners of the mindfulness movement, creating the lineage that was eventually handed down to Mahasi Sayadaw.
Act with Courage, Pray with Faith
Doh Say’s life work has been leading to this moment. He became involved with the Free Burma Rangers through his longtime friendship with David Eubank, the founder of the group. The Rangers are a humanitarian service group dedicated to supporting the country’ ethnic minorities in their long-running struggle against the depredations and brutality of the military.
Doh Say has spent over 20 years training leaders of the country’s various ethnic groups in this work. Today, however, his training camps are filling up not with representatives from the neighboring tribes, as is usual, but with Bamar youths arriving from the cities, who have decided to willingly face danger and discomfort in order to learn the skills necessary to support the undoing of the military terror organization.
Doh Say has grown spiritually through his relationship with the Free Burma Rangers, noting that previously, “I didn’t really know God and Jesus.” Developing a deeper faith in God eventually challenged him to move beyond his comfort zone. He admits that certain missions terrified him from the outset, given the danger and hardship he would endure, but his faith and prayer carried him through. Forgiving an enemy that has inflicted decades of terror on local communities is no easy thing. And yet, despite all this, the Free Burma Rangers still encourage defections and welcome soldiers who abandon their post.
Towards the end of the interview, David Eubank joins us, and offers up a range of stories. He first shares what Doh Say’s modesty precludes him from mentioning, noting the “many times” his own children’s lives were saved by his friend. He then talks about accepting a soldier who defected into their community, and was welcomed and forgiven despite admitting to the most heinous of crimes: murdering a pregnant woman. David closes by recalling an incident where he accidentally ran into General Aung Min, and how he invited his adversary, a Buddhist, to join him in a Christian prayer.
As for Doh Say, he wants to “send a message” to all communities to embrace forgiveness. This is not an easy task, and he knows it: “It’s difficult [to forgive], especially those whose relatives or sisters, brothers, or mother got killed. But this is one of the ways to have a long-lasting solution for our country.”
Gratitude and Growth
This is the third episode in our ongoing series “Love Letters to Myanmar.” Our recent run of longform interviews has tried to realistically portray the terror and suffering that so many Burmese people have been facing during this four-month long siege, since the military initiated their coup on February 1. As critical as it is to tell these stories, we feel it is important that this platform not reflect a one-dimensional view, just airing stories of pain and carnage. So this current series is meant to remind us of just how much the Golden Land has offered those who were fortunate enough to have visited or lived there, and to help us remember the country during its better days, to appreciate and celebrate Burmese culture and community.
Today’s first guest is Johanna, a young German college student who went to Myanmar as part of her college internship, and so fell in love with the country that she ended up going back, staying on during the pandemic and even after the coup, while virtually attending university back in Germany. Next up is Sue Mark, who arrived in Myanmar in 2008 in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, and decided to stay on to support the country’s nascent democratic reforms. And lastly, we check in with Keshav Mohta, an Indian currently living in Peru who traveled to Myanmar in 2010, and speaks fondly of the strong sense of spirituality he felt while interacting with different communities there.
In addition to the guests, there are other special sound features on this episode, including: samples from the protest anthem “Doh Ayay,” (meaning “Our Cause”); the reading of a poem penned by Khet Thi, a Monywa-based poet was recently arrested and tortured to death in prison; several tracks of defection messages produced by Operation Hannoi Hannah, which makes audio files that Burmese protesters download and broadcast to soldiers through hidden speakers; and finally, scattered throughout this current episode, ambient sounds from some of the protests in Myanmar, courageously recorded at ground level by Thar Nge.
If you are moved by the stories you hear today, or the on-going plight of the Burmese people, please consider making a donation on our Better Burma website!
Beaten but not Broken
When Jonathan fell to the ground, the only thing he could think to do was to somehow shield his head from the blows and kicks coming from all directions, his reflexes automatically kicking in as he tried to protect himself from a murderous regime, whose soldiers are not above beating people to death in the streets in broad daylight. Jonathan’s “crime” was peacefully protesting against the military coup.
He was eventually taken to notorious Insein Prison—a name infamous for the decades of torture and death that have occurred within its walls. He was placed in a large, windowless cell with a capacity for about 100 people. And yet, he was one of the more fortunate ones, by far. After he had been arrested, soldiers began to employ more extreme forms of violence against protestors, and in prison he saw some fellow prisoners emerge from interrogation sessions bloodied and beaten to a pulp. Fortunately, this type of punishment was never meted out to him personally, and his eventual 3-year sentence ended up being commuted to less than a month.
Reflecting on his experience, one of Jonathan’s insights center on the power of unity. He notes that the Tatmadaw has always ruled by creating division and distrust among the different ethnic and religious groups, but like in prison where he developed deep friendships with people of different backgrounds, he realized that if the Burmese population became more unified, it would help defeat the “divide and conquer” tactics of the military.
Jonathan also reflected on his own Buddhist background. Today he is trying to get back to the roots of the practice, recalling the value of his time as a monk, and returning to the basic teachings of mindfulness which he finds refreshes him while stabilizing his mind.
Up In Flames
Nothing had ever prepared Bhikkhu Mokkhita for this--his monastery set afire, his name appearing on a blacklist and becoming the focus on a manhunt. Somehow, he made it through the numerous police checkpoints on the road to Yangon, and found a way to pass undetected through the enhanced airport security blocking entry into a waiting MAI flight. Back home now in Germany, Bhikkhu Mokkhita is left sorting out the trauma of his harrowing escape, and dealing with the fear of so many friends left there and now at risk.
Bhikkhu Mokkhita has deep roots with the Golden Land. After taking many vipassana courses in the S.N. Goenka tradition, he decided to travel to Burma to look for monastic teachers; eventually he left his marriage and medical career to ordain at Pa Auk monastery. Some years later, to repay the generosity of Burmese teachers and supporters, he collected donations from friends back home to build water wells, toilets, and school buildings at monasteries. This led to the establishment of his Muditā Foundation, which found its apex in Nyaungshwe under the growing reforms of the democratically elected government: a holistic living and education center which taught Buddhist meditation, yoga, computer and other skills, and provided free enrollment to anyone who wished to attend.
But his dream was literally set on fire. Bhikkhu Mokkhita suspects the blaze was started by someone connected to the military, as this gave them free reign to then accuse and arrest anyone they wanted for the arson. To make matters worse, Bhikkhu Mokkhita suspects the Sayadaw of the monastery as being complicit in the attack, perhaps covetous of all that those donations had come to acquire. The fact that a monk may well have been involved in the partial destruction and eventual takeover of the monastic school was devastating for Bhikkhu Mokkhita to process.
He feels that the monastic response to the military coup needs to be held under greater scrutiny. From his own perspective as an ordained Buddhist monk, he believes there should be “a sense of responsibility of sharing these democratic values of freedom.” However in his opinion, this ethical stand is not being taken as strongly as he would like to see on behalf of the Saṅgha.
No Magical Thinking
Ni Ni has been planning for a revolution for as long as she can remember… just not this one.
She had expected her fight to be about gender equality. But she says, “Now, I am fighting back about basic human rights and justice! I feel angry just thinking about this. It is unfair, I actually cannot believe that I have to fight this in 2021.” Although Ni Ni (not her real name) had grown up hearing her parents’ stories about the “bad old days,” for her that was all ancient history, not something that could ever rear its ugly head again to affect the lives of she and her friends.
It really hit home for her on February 28th. Three engineering friends joined her in the morning for a day of protests when the military opened fire. One friend grabbed her hand and pulled her away, although Ni Ni couldn’t run fast enough due to a heart condition. Eventually, along with other protesters, they found shelter in a stranger’s home. while soldiers taunted them from outside for several more hours of torment. Eighteen students were shot dead that day, and over 100 abducted and taken to prison.
The terror of facing such violence shook Ni Ni to her core. She began staying at home, learning as much as she could about revolution, gradually becoming fixated on the concept of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which could shut down the economy and prevent the military from effectively running a state. Ni Ni began pouring all her energy into this, collecting donations and channeling them to those civil servants refusing to work.
Ni Ni recognizes that they are now in the fight for their lives, and being led by the younger generation. As the military is arresting hundreds of teenagers—even children—and torturing and sexually assaulting those they have thrown in prison, she knows the days are dark and likely to get darker still.