Friday, 7 June 2019

Renovations at Webu Monastery: Update

The following is sent by one of the volunteers organizing the dana collection and renovation:

"Hi, to those who gave Dana for the refurbishment of the Dhamma Hall at Webu Sayadaw monastery which was built for him which is different from the monastery he was ordained in which is next door. The annual 10day course for local Burmese meditators in March was very successful and the meditators were very grateful for the big effort all the foreign mediators made to raise the money and organise to get the hall ready for the course, future projects like fixing up accommodations and kitchen may be going ahead in the future, the reason outside Dana was needed for the upkeep of facilities at Ingynbin is because the monastery was built by rich local meditators from all over Burma at the time of Webu Sayadaw and currently its a very isolated area dominated by farmland and very poor farmers. The Annual 10day course is held in March April every year for locals and it’s in the hottest time of the year"


Friday, 10 May 2019

'Virtual Orientalism', a book review






Carl Stimson, a vipassana meditator who has been in and out of Myanmar for the last ten years, offers this review of Jane Naomi Iwamura's book "Virtual Orientalism".

For meditators and Buddhist converts who come from Western, Judeo-Christian backgrounds, encountering the Buddha’s teachings can seem like a thrilling voyage into a foreign land filled with mind-expanding concepts and magical aesthetics. We give ourselves up to practices—both mental and physical—that seem utterly strange to the communities we came from. We often use words like “transformative” or “life-changing” to describe the impact Buddhism has had on our lives.

However, we less frequently consider the changes being wrought in the opposite direction. How do the values and perceptions we bring to the table shape how we understand, describe, and practice the Buddha’s teachings? Even more rarely do we admit to distorting the Buddha’s teachings to fit our ingrained values and cultural preferences to create narratives that reinforce our self-image and further our interests.

“Virtual Orientalism” (2011) by Jane Naomi Iwamura shines a light on how Westerners have been doing precisely this in the mass media for nearly a century, if not longer. The term “Orientalism,” coined by Edward Said in his eponymous 1978 book, is used to refer to Western depictions of Asian/Eastern life, culture and thought, usually in a patronizing manner, even if it does not superficially appear so. While Orientalism takes many forms—“the inscrutable Oriental, evil Fu Manchus…Dragon Ladies”—Iwamura focuses on a distinctly religious form, what she calls the “Oriental Monk.” Her definition is as follows:

“The term Oriental Monk is…meant to cover a wide range of religious figures (gurus, bhikkhus, sages, swamis, sifus, healers, masters) from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Tibetan). Although the range of individual figures points to a heterogeneous field of encounter, all of them are subjected to a homogeneous representational effect [that blunts] the distinctiveness of particular pers
ons and figures. Indeed, the recognition of any Eastern spiri­tual guide, real or fictional, is predicated on his conformity to general features…: his spiritual commitment, his calm demeanor, his Asian face, his manner of dress, and—most obviously—his peculiar gendered character.” 


The three figures Iwamura focuses on are the legendary Zen teacher and author D.T. Suzuki, the famed Indian guru Maharishi Mahesh, and the hero Kwai Chang Caine from the TV series “Kung Fu.” In great detail, she guides the reader through depictions of the first two in the contemporary popular press, and describes how the third fits into her conceptual framework. She skillfully shows how writers and photographers tended to fit these men into stereotypical slots, no matter if the depiction was positive or negative. The Oriental Monk is either offering a ground-breaking spiritual paradigm that fills a gaping void in society, or is selling a bill of goods that is at best leading young people astray and at worst bilking them out of their (or their parents’) hard-earned cash. The Oriental Monk is always calm and enigmatic, but this is either a sign of great peace and inner strength, or evidence of an effeminate culture that lacks the dynamism of the West.

Because I was only glancingly familiar with them, the chapters on Maharishi and Caine felt more like academic case studies, interesting but distant. The section on Suzuki, on the other hand, cut closer to the bone. For those who grew up with little exposure to Asian cultures or religions, myself included, indulging in Orientalist tropes is almost unavoidable, particularly in the early stages of the encounter. Iwamura describes the intense focus Suzuki’s external appearance received in the American press. Authors used words such as “ferocious,” “angry demons,” “exotic butterflies” to describe, of all things, his eyebrows. His “eye slits” (is he wearing a mask?) get compared to tadpoles. His clothing also receives unusual treatment. While many photographs of Suzuki had him in traditional Japanese robes, in fact he apparently appeared in public mostly in a sports jacket and slacks. In photos of Suzuki online he does not appear terribly distinctive, or only in the way that all faces are distinctive. It is easy to see that the authors of the day used his face as a canvas upon which to paint their own image of Zen and Asia which he represented. Still I must admit, his eyebrows were quite bushy.

The treatment of a regular Japanese face as an object of extreme exoticism and profound insight reminded me of a realization I had long ago about how many Westerners approach Asian religions. I was raised Protestant. Nothing too religious, nothing too exciting, just a plain, pillar-of-the-community kind of neighborhood church that was long a staple of American life. Though I had a hard time seeing it, I was surrounded by the strange and magical: astounding Biblical tales, bloody Christ on his cross, odd ceremonies involving quasi-cannibalism, decorated evergreens, and painted eggs. Yet to me these were humdrum: that boring book with stories I had heard a thousand times, just another statue of Jesus, and the cozy rituals of Communion, Christmas, and Easter.

When I arrived in Asia, I was understandably awed by its religions: towering gold pagodas in Myanmar, gods of wind and thunder guarding temple gates in Japan, hypnotizing chanting by Tibetan monks. One day, however, I realized I had been seeing everything through the eyes of a foreigner. If I had been born in these societies, I might look at these objects with the familiarity and indifference with which I had seen the trappings of Christianity. To a local, golden pagodas and fire god statues might not receive any more notice than I had given my church’s steeple and stained glass windows. Would the chanting of monks cease to be transcendent and instead sound like a pastor’s droning sermon? And when I had this realization, the whole project—the exploration of Eastern spirituality—seemed absurd, ironic. Here were all these Westerners who were fed up with the superficiality and rigidity of the organized religions of their homeland, running headlong into the arms of organized religions in other lands. It would be one thing if we were all running away from superficiality and rigidity toward depth and tolerance, yet the reality was that Asian organized religions played a very similar role in their home societies: that of conservative bastions of tradition and authority.

Of course, this insight was only a partial truth. Depth and tolerance can be found in Buddhism and other Asian religions (as it can in Western religions), but the more interesting journey comes when one decides to evaluate and compare spiritual traditions on their own terms, not as merely the stale traditions one grew up with versus the shiny new objects one encountered in the exotic East. There are important philosophical and other differences between Buddhism and Christianity, ones that have a profound impact on how one exists in and approaches the world. Deciding to pursue one path and not the other (or neither) is one of the most important forks one will come to in life.

In some ways, I feel this is the journey out of Orientalism. One initially sees the East only heavily overlaid by the conditioning of culture and background, yet with long exposure and sincere exploration, the scales will gradually fall from one’s eyes to reveal, if not ultimate truth, then at least a less biased perception. But similar to what happens in Buddhist practice, there is a danger of mistaking an early insight for the final one. The roots of Orientalism can be deep and insidious, remaining even after the worst of it is removed. 




One of my biggest disappointments with Iwamura’s book was that it focused almost exclusively on Orientalist depictions by people with only a superficial understanding of Asian cultures and religions, such as reporters for popular magazines and Hollywood screenwriters. This is not a fault of the book, since these are the author’s stated subjects. Still, she does mention a few Westerners who are serious students, including Gary Snyder and Alan Watts in the section on Zen, and she makes a number of brief statements of dazzling perceptivity that are unfortunately not followed up on. One such quote is, “[T]he particular way in which Americans write themselves into [Oriental Monk narratives] is not a benign, nonideological act; rather, it con­structs a modernized cultural patriarchy in which Anglo-Americans reimagine themselves as the protectors, innovators, and guardians of Asian religions and culture and wrest the authority to define these traditions from others.” This sentence landed in my gut like a heavy book hitting a table. I have never intentionally supported a “cultural patriarchy” or consciously done anything to “wrest the authority” away from anyone. Still, I felt these words applied in some sense to attitudes I have harbored and maybe still do. Indeed, my praise of “The Broken Buddha” in a previous post could easily be interpreted as cheerleading for yet another Anglo-American reimagining himself as a protector, innovator, and guardian, this time of Theravada Buddhism.

Another quote describes David Carradine’s attitude toward playing a Shaolin monk on TV. Even though the actor admits he “couldn’t get interested in Eastern mysticism or any of those things,” he expresses a desire to portray the character in a “pure” way. Iwamura notes, “The ideal of which Carradine speaks seemed to rely on conveying an authen­ticity based on his own beliefs and values. Kwai Chang Caine and his Shaolin background became a convenient vehicle through which this ideal could be achieved.” This very concisely describes a dilemma Westerners walk right into when getting involved in Buddhism. Many of us are dissatisfied with the values and practices of the societies we grew up in, and have vague notions of finding replacements that are somehow more fulfilling and meaningful. Buddhism provides an avenue that checks many of the boxes we seek: instead of empty materialism it offers satisfaction with simplicity, instead of mindless efficiency and frenetic activity it values contemplation and stillness, instead of slavish adherence to tradition it encourages you to know yourself. These are important concerns, and the Buddha’s teachings provide a path for resolving them. However, there is much more to Buddhism, some of which challenges the values that many Westerners bring to the table. If one simply keeps to the values one arrived with and dismisses everything that does not align as backward superstition or archaic tradition, what was the meaning in adopting a foreign religion in the first place? One might as well have just remained a counterculture Westerner. At very least, Carradine can be praised for not engaging in this type of disingenuousness. 




The combination of the above two attitudes—an inflated sense that one knows Buddhism’s “true essence” and the facile dressing of one’s own values in a Buddhist costume—is particularly pernicious. This tends to manifest as an archetype the West had been exporting since Columbus: the arrogant foreigner who thinks he or she knows better than the benighted natives. And I certainly do not want to be that guy. Yet, and this is another area Iwamura does not address, there also needs to be space for legitimate critiques of how Buddhism is actually being practiced and for honest exploration of which values should be kept and which should be jettisoned. Dismissing the critiques of Theravada in “The Broken Buddha” as mere Orientalism would be foolish, though making or discussing these critiques without an understanding of the sordid history of Orientalism is just looking for trouble.

Overall Iwamura is a good writer and the book moves along at a good pace, helped by its brevity at less than 170 pages. The biggest drawbacks in my view were a tendency to lapse into stultifying and sometimes virtually meaningless academia-speak and a habit of stating what felt like subjective opinions as objective fact. Thankfully both of these occur infrequently enough so as not to ruin the book. A text about how Orientalism manifests among serious students of Buddhism would have been more pertinent to my own journey, but even with her focus on pop culture depictions and non-Buddhist figures, Iwamura’s book helped tear another rent in the veil.

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Broken Buddha, and its implications in Myanmar





Carl Stimson, a vipassana meditator who has been in and out of Myanmar for the last ten years, offers this review of Shravasti Dhammika's book The Broken Buddha. 


Having been a meditator in a Theravada-associated tradition for many years, an enthusiastic reader of books by Theravada monks and teachers, and an infrequent visitor to Southeast Asia for Dhamma purposes, I have long seen this religion as the most faithful representative of the Buddha’s teachings. Yet, a number of important aspects of Theravada have remained sources of discomfort and skepticism. In a ferocious way, The Broken Buddha puts this sticky dilemma into sharp relief. That is, are the problems with Theravada merely blights on an essentially noble enterprise, or is the enterprise itself corrupt?

The book is the work of Shravasti Dhammika, an Australia-born man who ordained as a Theravada monk in 1976. It was published in 2008, though as he states in the preface, most of it was written several years earlier and he only decided to publish after an “unauthorized draft” appeared online. I am unsure how much the official version differs from this draft, but the text retains a rough feel. At less than 80 pages, it is somewhere between long essay and short book, and is at turns angry, funny, cutting, astounding, and, unfortunately, sometimes poorly researched. For some, Bhante Dhammika’s casual relationship with facts and tendency toward generalization may limit their ability to take the thrust of his arguments seriously. I understand these concerns, and agree the content of this book should be taken with a grain of salt, but nevertheless I believe the framing of his thesis in such a comprehensive and unsparing way shines a light on important issues in a way that is both fresh and challenging.

Bhante Dhammika’s critiques of Theravada appear to fall into four main categories: problems with rules, wasteful giving, negativity/self-centeredness, and the poor treatment of women. Much of his argument can be summed up as follows, “Theravadins see the Buddha’s words through the lens of [the] commentaries’ turgid and often fantastic pedantry rather than allowing them to speak for themselves.” The Commentaries he refers to are those authored by Buddhaghosa in the 5th century, as well as later sub-commentaries. He argues that Theravada has taken simple and uncomplicated guidelines for lay and monastic conduct laid down by the Buddha and turned them into suffocating rules that are either taken to extreme, ignored completely, or broken using sneaky loopholes and tricks of logic, and that Commentarial interpretation is often found when one seeks the root of a problem.

He gives many examples from his long years in robes to illustrate these tendencies. Many of the most absurd and humorous of these involve the Vinaya. For instance, “handling money” (in Pali, ‘gold and silver’) is often the focus of criticism. To illustrate how this rule is taken to the extreme, he recalls being approached by an anguished monk who needs to “confess” to a severe infraction. His supposed crime? The gold filling in one of his teeth that his mouth and tongue have been in constant contact with, making him guilty of handling money not just once or twice, but almost constantly since the moment he became a monk. To state the obvious, this is surely not what the Buddha had in mind when he laid down that part of the Vinaya. Of course, many Theravada monks in Southeast Asia go to the other extreme and have no compunction about handling money. A friend of mine has described his disgust at meeting a monk collecting fees at a ticket gate to a Buddhist site in Myanmar. When scolded for breaking Vinaya so obviously and at a sacred site no less, the monk scolded my friend back for having the nerve to talk to a monastic in such a way. Other monks use a more wink-wink approach, insisting monetary donations be given in envelopes, ensuring the recipient is not technically touching any of the cash. And of course the practice of having a lay person manage a monk’s finances is widespread. These monks may keep their hands completely clean from the touch of banknotes, but still exercise full control over how donations given to them are used. The author is not critical of monks who handle money, indeed he admits to having done so himself in certain circumstances, his point being that a balanced approach is needed, one that avoids unnecessary anxiety over running afoul of extreme interpretations but is also intellectually honest enough to admit when the spirit of the law is being broken.

When an isolated issue is examined as in the above paragraph, it can be easy to argue back that such problems cannot be ascribed to Theravada itself. If monks choose to skirt or break the rules, or take them to extremes, it should be laid at the feet of individual monks, or possibly at the feet of certain Sangha leaders who encourage such behavior. However, the benefit of this book is its presentation of a myriad of issues in a never-ending onslaught, backed up by anecdote after anecdote, cultural practice after cultural practice, which are not only clearly ridiculous, shameful, or harmful when examined with simple common sense, but, through quotes from the Suttas, are shown to be out of step with or even against the Buddha’s actual teachings.

The first category—the slavish adherence to or disregard for Vinaya—may be the easiest to dismiss as having nothing to do with “true” Theravada. Indeed, there is so much variation among Theravada monks it is difficult to make a unified critique. Burmese monks stick to rules that Thai ones ignore, and vice versa. Sri Lankan monks interpret a rule one way, Cambodian ones another. And even within countries, one sect will do one thing and others will take different approaches. Aren’t these cultural or personal differences, not problems with the foundation of the religion? Yet, the author makes a compelling case that (a) when Theravada goes too far, it is often because it is following the minute stipulations given in the commentaries rather than the simpler guidelines given by the Buddha, and (b) Theravada has a strong tendency to value tradition and culture over the Buddha’s teachings, even in the face of clear scriptural evidence.

The second category—wasteful giving—is something I believe many Western Buddhists struggle with when encountering Theravada in its native setting. Why are monks given far more food than they can eat in countries that are so poor (and even without poverty, isn’t that still wasteful)? Why are there so many pagodas and temples dripping with gold, and why do even more continue to be built? Why do monasteries always seem to have so many empty unused buildings, often falling into disrepair? Why are monks constantly being given robes when they are only supposed to own a few, and what happens to these extra robes? The answers to these questions vary. The most nuanced answer, which simultaneously disarms the critic and paints the practice in a positive light, is that lay Theravadins give out of a desire to support the Sangha and perform wholesome deeds, thus making merit that will help them karmically in the current life and lives to come. Monks, for their part, have no real choice in the matter. They live at the mercy of lay supporters, and besides, denying an opportunity to make merit to someone with a sincere desire to give would be unseemly if not wrong. For many years, I mostly accepted this answer. It seemed to cover all the bases—one couldn’t blame the lay people because their desire to give was pure and founded in solid Buddhist logic, and one couldn’t blame the monks because they are simply vessels for the lay public’s generosity—and remaining critical made me feel somewhat culturally insensitive. Nevertheless, when I saw monks being given bowls and bowls full of food, or gazed upon golden pagoda after golden pagoda in the midst of wretched bamboo huts, I still sometimes wondered, “Shouldn’t there be a better way?”

According to Bhante Dhammika, there absolutely should be. Again, the thrust of his argument is devastatingly simple. The amount and type of giving that occurs in Theravada is wasteful and it is so because Theravada not only teaches that giving to monks is the highest form of giving, but has almost nothing to say on giving to others types of people, such as the poor or sick. He cites a number of books by Theravada authorities and teachers that describe “charity” only in terms of giving to monks, one of which contains a chart laying out the different degrees of merit that are gained by giving to different categories. The poor are placed nearly at the bottom, only above animals, while the merit gained by giving to monks who have reached some level of attainment is described as “immeasurable.” Theravadins are not stupid—when presented with such clear cost-benefit figures, who would want to waste their dana on the poor and needy when there are monks around?

The generosity of Southeast Asian Buddhists is often described in glowing terms, in many ways rightly so. There is something incredibly beautiful about the widespread practice of giving frequently and sincerely out of one’s hard-earned money to support those engaged in the ultimate spiritual endeavor. However, while outsiders may have much to learn seeing this form of giving in action, those practicing it should also recognize the enormous inefficiencies and vast areas of neglect the current system comprises. And finally, these critiques do not mean to say that giving or charity aimed at non-monastics is nonexistent in Theravadin societies, only that there is an strong, and in the author’s opinion unhealthy, tendency to focus on giving to the Sangha.

The third category—self-centeredness—was something I had not thought of before and caused a dramatic shift in my understanding of how well Theravada puts the Buddha’s teachings into practice. The typical explanation of the difference between Theravada and Mahayana goes that the former sticks only to what was taught by Gotama the Buddha, while the latter adds teachings from other “buddhas” and spiritual figures. To the faithful, this lends Theravada an air of purity, which by implication means Mahayana teachings are somehow “polluted.” Leave it to Bhante Dhammika to burst this bubble. His fascinating contention is that Theravada has a pronounced negative and selfish tendency that ignores many things the Buddha taught. To quote the monk at length:

“Theravada certainly has a marked negative outlook, negativity being the tendency to consider only the bad, the ugly or the deficient side of things…When we look at Theravadin discourse on virtue we see this same tendency. The first chapter of the Visuddhimagga, that great compendium of Theravada, is entitled ‘A Description of Virtue’ and is the longest and most detailed analysis of morality in all traditional Theravadin literature. According to Buddhaghosa the function of virtue is to stop bad actions and to avoid blame and its ‘proximate causes’ are remorse and shame. Starting off on this negative note he proceeds in the same manner for a full fifty eight dry-as-dust pages in the English translation. There is hardly any mention of actually doing anything one would normally think of as being virtuous. Virtue is defined and described, its proximate causes and kammic effects are discussed in detail, but in the final analysis it is presented entirely as the avoiding of bad rather than the actual doing of anything good.”

But wait, one might ask, weren’t you just criticizing Theravada for an excess of giving? Even if wasteful, isn’t this the opposite of a “negative and selfish tendency”? To allow the author to respond, “The impact that one’s behavior, whether good or bad, has on others is of little importance in Theravada. A Theravadin [will] refrain from hurting others, not because he cares about them but so that he can avoid bad karma and if he does good it is not because it helps others but for the personal advantages he derive from it.” This may be overly harsh, but he makes a convincing case that the emphasis on avoiding bad and garnering merit for one’s own sake has deleterious effects; i.e., too little attention is paid to the proactive doing of good, and when a good deed is performed, how it will affect the recipient is given too little consideration. He contends that when the Buddha’s words are examined, a balance of both negative (not harming others) and positive (actively helping others) is found, and praises Mahayana for its teachings on the positive aspects of virtue. Indeed, it is easy to see that if gaining merit is one’s primary consideration, things like whether a monk already has enough food or whether one’s dana would be better used outside the monkhood can easily slip lower on one’s mental priority list. He is particularly hard on monks, who he criticizes for simply being vessels for service and dana who take little concrete action that directly benefits others, apart from a few active teachers.

The fourth category—Theravada’s poor treatment of women—is sadly the area I needed the least amount of convincing, despite being aware of the cultural and doctrinal arguments for why one should accept things like the banning of women around the Mahamuni statue in Mandalay or the lack of a bhikkhuni order in many areas. Bhante Dhammika’s section on ‘A Woman’s Place’ is short but only because the argument is clear. After a brief litany of the myriad ugly and shameful ways women are treated Theravada, he delivers the verdict:

“Theravadin apologists say that these and numerous other embarrassing ideas and practices are the result of misunderstanding and superstition and are not ‘real Theravada.’ But with monks having such pervasive influence and teaching ‘real Theravada’ for so many centuries one can only wonder how such superstitions have managed to survive. The truth is that the monks do teach such things and where they do not they have never bothered to teach against them.” 


Besides for an unnecessary and clearly wrong assertation that Islam is more inclusive of women than Theravada, there seems to be little to take issue with in the author’s arguments. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for treating women as second-class members of a religion, and anyone interested in spreading Theravada outside its native lands would be well advised to leave these practices behind.

To end his book, Bhante Dhammika provides a short outline of how a Buddhist organization or religion could be shaped in a way that avoids the above pitfalls. Overall his ideas are good, though they feel quite “pie in the sky,” which he half-acknowledges. One might argue that his ideas would make monks and nuns more worldly than the Buddha intended. This is perhaps true, though the counterargument is that the vast majority of Theravada monks are currently coming nowhere close to living up to the contemplative example set by the Buddha, and that rather than moving away from that, the implementation of Bhante Dhammika’s ideas would represent a significant step in that very direction. Nonetheless, this part of the book feels merely theoretical compared to the raw reality described in its main sections.

Does The Broken Buddha provide a definitive answer to the question given at the outset of this review? Is Theravada noble or corrupt? To this spiritual traveler, the question remains up in the air. I am sensitive to the idea that no religion or organization is practiced in its ideal form, and that many wholesome acts and much sincere Dhamma practice happen under the Theravada umbrella. However, going forward I feel I will be less willing to excuse away its defects and more willing to see mistaken or harmful practices for what they are. At the same time, I hope I can retain an open mind and remember it often takes deep investigation and long familiarity to see into the depths of phenomena.

I heartily encourage others to read the entire book, which is available for free online (www.bhantedhammika.net/the-broken-buddha).

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Photo-story of the Alaṅkāra Exam in Thaton

The following excerpt is shared by a German novice in Myanmar:

From January 23rd-25th, the annual Alaṅkāra exam was held in Thaton, which had over 3000 applicants. Another monastery nearby took responsibilty for a large amount of monks and nuns, while our Sayadaw Ñāṅavaṃsa of Mahābhoga and his supporter group arranged to host 1000 monks and nuns for the exam. Over 100 of them were to stay in our monastery, so we started already one month ago to set up the monastery for the event. Many repairs building projects were done and all available rooms were checked, cleaned and stocked up with necessary items to accomodate the students.

It was a lot of work and wouldn’t have been possible without the many helping hands, and especially, without Sayadaw’s ongoing efforts in giving us the right attitude and motivation for the work. We were afterall supporting the sāsana by supporting the future generation of Dhamma teachers in their efforts of parriyatti learning. Any difficulties and discomforts were to be faced with this understanding, that we are having this rare chance to support the sāsana and to develop our pāramis and kusala.

When the days of the exam finally came, it got very busy: early in the morning breakfast had to be prepared for the 100+ guest and resident monastics and for 100 volunteer helpers. After that, lunch for 1000+ monks plus volunteer helpers had to be prepared, with small individual tables and mats arranged in 4 different Dhamma halls. All those meals had to be put on the tables and be offered to the sangha, the student monks and novices had to be directed for a smooth procedure of moving hundreds of monks in and out a hall, then all the dishes had to be removed and the tables washed for the exam just 1hour later, the dishes had to be washed and everything cleaned up. Then the exam papers distributed, and the monks and nuns eventually write the exam, some of which wrote up to 5 hours continuously. After that again prepare the tables wish the dishes for the breakfast and lunch of the next day. This routine went for 3 days, and luckily every day it got progressively smoother and easier, with the tasks being understood and coordinated more effectively.

I am very happy for having been able to help at this event in my home monastery, and honestly I have to say that in the beginning when I heard that there will be 1000 monks and nuns writing an exam for 3 days in our otherwise quiet and peaceful forest monastery, I was at first quite shocked and averse to the idea. It was Sayadaw who was able to give us the right understanding of how much value selfless service has, and how great of a chance it was for us to host this exam in our monastery.

When I saw the monks and nuns in our monastery studying diligently, I could see that all the efforts went into a good purpose.

I share the merits of my works with all beings and hope someone can feel inspired by this story.

Below I share some photos of the exam days.

Many dishes to prepare, many vegetables to cook     




On the first day, after the exam started, Venerable Sayadaw Candādhika, a renowned scholar and writer honored the students and helpers with a visit and a little motivational talk.

local supporters preparing lunch

From left to right: Sayadaw Ñāṇavaṃsa, the abbot of our monastery; Sayadaw Candādhika; respresentative of the Alaṅkāra examination commitee





a laminated tag informs in Myanmar “it has been made allowable, venerable sir”, meaning that it has being offered to the saṅgha so that the guest monks can eat the food without having to worry about their purity in vinaya because of the food not being offered to them personally

meanwhile the monks are studying diligently

lay attendants make sure that everyone has enough to fill the stomach and to support a 5-hour-long exam in the afternoon



human chain of helpers sends 1000 plates through the monastery to the different halls    

one of the halls, being set up for lunch

the monks eating their meal before noon

lunch plates are being assembled for each monk


Exam time. Bags and phones stay outside – no cheating

boxes with fruits for each monk

local helpers washing over thousand plates, bowls, cups, spoons, etc. and rushing to finish before 12:30 when the exam starts, so that there won’t be noise disturbing the monks’ and nuns’ concentration at the exam


Neatly set Sayalay (nun) slippers