Thursday, 8 January 2015

"How Do I Extend My Meditation Visa?"

One yogi recently sent us a question asking about the Meditation Visa Following is our answer. For more questions about Dhamma in Burma to be answered on this blog, shoot us an email at burmadhamma(at)gmail.

"Mingalabar, dear ShweLanGaLay,
I am currently in Mandalay with a meditation visa. I would like to extend it. Could you help me and tell me what I need and how I have to proceed? Your help would be very valuable as nor the Minister of Immigration and Population no the embassy could provide any information about that. What kind of letter do I need from the monastery? Do I need to go out of Myanmar? Do I need to go to Yangon or is it possible to do it in Mandalay. Many thanks in advance for your help. Julie"

Religious Visa (also known as Meditation Visa)
** Note that if one is planning to stay overnight at monasteries or meditation centers, it is ideal to procure a Religious or Meditation Visa. Some monasteries and centers do not allow foreigners to stay even one night with unless they come with this specific visa. **

The Religious Visa is also commonly referred to as a “Meditation Visa,” although the visa covers not only those wishing to engage in formal meditation practice but also those interested in studying other aspects of Burmese Buddhism (the stamp one receives in the passport is actually an “R” for “Religious”). Provided by the Department of Promotion and Propagation of the Sāsana, these are often initially valid for up to 90 days. Those who are considering applying for a meditation visa should first consider these important points:

- This visa is only for those with a genuine interest in learning about Burmese Buddhism.
- To apply, one must have a letter from a government-recognized meditation center or monastery that states one is coming to Myanmar for Buddhist reasons, and will be studying or practicing at their site.
- A Tourist or Business visa can not be converted into a meditation visa; if already in the country, you must leave and apply from abroad.

Theoretically, a meditation visa allows the holder to visit Buddhist sites, pagodas, and monasteries throughout the country. However, this is entirely up to the discretion and policy of the sponsoring agency (i.e. the meditation center or monastery that has issued your welcome letter), as they are officially responsible for you for the duration of your visit in the country. Some sites may be more relaxed in their policy and others stricter.

The meditation visa can be extended indefinitely—sometimes for even several decades, in the case of some long-term yogis—and can be done so without having to leave the country, because government servants are mindful that this would interrupt one’s Dhamma practice. The renewal process is done through the Department of Religious Affairs, and must either be completed by going to the office in person (with a Burmese translator if one is not fluent), or by having one’s sponsoring agency complete the procedure on one’s behalf. Extensions for lay people are six months and those in robes can get a full one year. Both presently cost $90 USD, and must be processed at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

As the renewal process can take up to ten weeks, yogis planning to stay longer than three months are advised to begin the renewal procedure soon after they enter the country. It is each yogi’s responsibility to get this done in time or face whatever consequence may come as a result, such as getting the dreaded “overstay” stamp socked into one’s passport. Finally, anyone who plans to extend their Meditation Visa past the initial three months will need to get a Foreign Registration Card (FRC), which must be shown upon leaving the country.

No matter how long one remains in the country, the Meditation Visa is almost always single-entry, meaning that once one leaves the country a new one must be applied for at a Burmese Embassy. In limited cases and for long-term foreign monastics, re-entry and multiple-entry meditation visas may also be available for a higher fee.

Past yogis have reported that the Burmese Embassies in Asia, in particular New Delhi, Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and especially Kuala Lumpur have been said to be slightly faster at granting meditation visas. Meditation visas applied for outside Asia tend to take much longer.

The Meditation Visa itself dates back to 1979, before which only a handful of diplomats and scholars were allowed in on specialized visas. Tourist visas at that time were hard to come by, and even if they were granted, the maximum period was only for seven days! This prompted the great Sayagyi U Ba Khin to lament that he couldn’t impart his Dhamma knowledge in such a short window of time.

Many yogis today swoon over the thought that a meditation visa exists in Myanmar, and hope that this will open the gates for months of Dhamma practice in the Golden Land. The fact that the government provides this opportunity for dedicated meditators is indeed a sign of the nation’s commitment to Dhamma practice at the highest levels. And this is not a new phenomenon—Prime Minister U Nu once offered state funds during the 1950s to any foreigners who wished to come to the country to learn meditation.

However, the process of applying and receiving a Buddhist study visa entails more than simply listing the number of courses you have sat or describing how you follow the Precepts. For this reason, attention to protocol and procedure is important. The expression “once burned, twice shy” is applicable here, as some meditation centers and monasteries have had experiences in the past of sponsoring a visa application or welcoming a foreign yogi to stay on their grounds, only to find he or she was really a backpacker or English teacher in disguise looking for an easy way to remain in the country. Unfortunately, such behavior has led some monasteries to be more hesitant when considering requests for sponsor letters, as past incidents have weakened their trust. The reality is that each yogi’s actions—if they are in line with expectations and acting responsibly and honestly, or not—will impact the decisions that monasteries, lay people, and even government officials make about the Dhamma hopes of countless future yogis.

A Western monk in Myanmar has seen concerning signs of this already. He writes, “This situation has taken place over the past several years in Thailand to the point where a number of monasteries, previously supportive of foreign yogis and the ordination of foreigners, no longer allow such opportunity, and meditation centers have had to impose accommodation and meal fees as many backpackers abused the hospitality and support of the locals. Now, the early signs of this same unfortunate turn of events are beginning to take place in some of the better known meditation centers in Myanmar.”

Concerning visa extensions, he adds that a “Sayadaw may wish to give the yogi the opportunity to continue practice for a long time with the impression that the yogi is sincere in his/her practice, but in some cases once extensions are received, the yogis leave the monastery for travel or use the monastic accommodations simply as free lodging. Some meditation centers now only allow a stay of three months maximum as a result and will not sponsor visa extensions beyond the initial meditation entry visa.”

** It cannot be overstated that those who receive a Meditation Visa should be especially mindful to follow the rules and conditions of the sponsoring monastery, and use it with the right intention, otherwise future yogis may be not able to similarly enjoy the benefits of a meditation visa! **

In the past, some visitors chose to deliberately overstay their 28-day visa period and upon leaving, pay a nominal fine of $3 to $5 USD per day. While this was permitted in the past, it is discouraged nowadays. Having an invalid visa will cause one problems at hotels and monasteries, when booking travel tickets, and when asked to show one’s passport at other times. Additionally, a Burmese souvenir one should not wish for if one has any desire to return to the Golden Land in the future, is an “overstay” stamp in one’s passport!

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