Sharing, Sharing, Sharing!

Each year we converge here in Burma, bringing donations from all the corners of the world. So in October the ‘MIA Bank’ begins to fill up. And then as the year moves on, we gradually draw down the balance to zero. So yesterday was ‘Zero Day’ for 2019-2020; we joyfully offered what remained (as well as some very generous donations that had come in during the CMMC metta retreat) to Metta Yuwa School near Kyaiaklo Pagoda in Yangon.

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It was a joy to ‘breathe out,’ offering every last kyat of our donations to such a worthy recipient. It seemed so apt to be kneeling beneath the enormous green Buddha in Daw Yuzana’s reception room – under the gaze of this beacon of wisdom and compassion – while remembering all the many donations this year. Each person we give to is making a tangible difference to many lives, and each works endlessly for love and kindness, rather than from a desire to make money. So every one of your donations has been food for the heart, for someone.

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Daw Yuzana was especially grateful, as she has just lost three teachers to a private school that could offer them a much better salary. She is sad to lose them, because they will be very difficult to replace: teachers who have both teaching skills and metta are rare! Both are requirements to work there, with metta being equally important as pedagogical skills

Private schools charge a lot of money and can pay top salaries, so of course free schools such as Daw Yuzana’s will never be able to compete. And as the cost of living here continues to go up, teachers will be increasingly hard to retain.

So as long as we can continue, we will keep doing our part in allowing this flow of metta, beginning now to breathe in, and come October breathing out again…

We happily offer a huge “Thank You” from our side, and are joyfully sharing the abundant merit! Together, we all did a good thing, many good things! By virtue of this, may all beings in all directions that they may have happiness and be free from suffering~

Amya, amya, amya, yudaw mukya ba koun lo, sadhu sadhu sadhu! (Sharing, sharing, sharing ~ may all beings partake of this merit! Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!!)

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Lost and Found

We hear stories all the time when we make offerings at nunneries.
And many of them are familiar — the usual small sad tragedies followed by rescue and happy endings.

But we heard a story when we offered at Sasanaramsi Nunnery that was…well…different. And it has a happy ending.

The nuns all go out on almsround together twice a week into the city. Generally everyone is quite disciplined, walking closely together in single file. But many of these nuns are just kids — and with kids, anything can happen.

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So in this case what happened is that one of the little 7 year-old nuns became separated from the rest and got totally lost. She found a nunnery and went there for help but did not know how to describe where home was, besides “Mingaladon.”

Which is a 41 square-mile township, with hundreds of nunneries.
Within easy walking distance of Chanmyay Myaing Meditation Centre alone — in this little girl’s general neighborhood — there are almost 30 nunneries! (Here is a modified version of an old hand-drawn map I made in 2008, with the pink dots being nunneries in the neighborhood in addition to the eight numbered ones on the map. The bigger red dot is her nunnery.)

Nunnery Map

So since “Mingaladon” didn’t narrow down her address any, of course the kind stranger nuns took the little girl in — while at the same time the Sasanaramsi nuns were desperately searching everywhere for her. Unable to find her they finally went home, downhearted and very worried. They continued to make inquiries everywhere they could think of, and looked for her every time they went out.
For a whole month.

Then one day when all the nuns were out in the city on their almsrounds, just by chance everyone found each other while they were walking in opposite directions down a busy street. It was a very happy reunion, and a lucky ending of what could have been a much more forlorn story. Now the nuns laugh about the experience, but it was clearly trying for everyone involved.

Going out for alms is exhausting, and sometimes it’s a risky business (when it involves crossing busy roads). But while we could never have imagined it, getting lost occasionally happens too.

As does getting found.

Fortunately this is Burma, and she was a nun. So the little girl in the middle of this story didn’t end up sleeping on the street, nor did she meet up with dangerous strangers. She was offered shelter and kindness, and taken in by other nuns as one of the family.

And then miraculously, she found her way home.

‘Happily ever after’ is a myth. But sometimes even ‘happily for now’ is a wondrous thing.

Sadhammaramsi (1)

Young nuns returning from almsrounds, safe and sound

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These are a Few of Our Favorite Things…

Here is a post with a minimum of words!

As we prepare to go to Upper Myanmar to continue to make offerings up there, those of us who are taking photos have chosen our favorite ones from the last week or so to share with you — some impressions from our days of offering here in Yangon.
Enjoy!

Greg’s favorites:

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Virañani’s favorites:

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Ariya’s favorites:

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High and Dry

The work that Burmese nuns do is wonderful, inspiring, sometimes surprising, and always a source of joy. Yesterday we went up to the village of Nwe Kwe, to a group of nunneries that we have been supporting for a decade.

In the last 5 years or so, these nuns have had to deal with repeated knee-deep flooding during the rainy season, because nearby construction has blocked the natural drainage of the land. Here are some screenshots from videos they showed us of some to the flooding this year:

Mitigation of the flooding proved to be impossible, so all but three of the nunneries have sold their land and houses to the nearby factory (whose fill is causing the flooding!), and bought higher plots of land in the same neighborhood. Though that meant they had to start from scratch, everyone agreed that it is so much better to be living in a construction site and free of flooding than to be in a place that floods all the time. One said with a huge smile, “Now we are free of the water!” It is an immense relief.

So after years of modifying the structures they already had, the nuns have gone back to square one. Some important things have been salvaged from the old places, but without any sentimentality; more tangible is the potential and excitement that comes with a new dwelling. One by one, the head nuns proudly showed us around, delighted and amused by our surprised responses to see what they have managed to do in such a short period of time.

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It will take years for the nuns to completely finish building, because they have to raise the money as they go. No-one complains, though. Yes, they are living in construction sites, but the transformation is totally worth it.

The most amazing change is at Aye Mya Yaungkyi Nunnery. Where before two nuns lived together in a dark and cramped little house, now there are two buildings each with two stories on a much larger piece of property — and 11 young nuns. For years they made do with what they had, and it was far from ideal. Now everything is new and they will be able to train the many new young nuns in wonderful conditions.

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We will be putting up more posts over the next few days as our workload settles down. There is much to share — because your donations are touching many people! For now here are more photos of the Nwe Kwe nuns, high and dry at last!

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For These Nuns, It’s a Happy New Year

We wish you a Happy New Year~

And a successful one — may all your endeavors and aspirations be easily accomplished, just like those of the young nuns from Sayanagonyee Nunnery. Six took an oral and written exam in Pali Grammar, and six passed, some with distinction.

It’s a wonderful start to the year!

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What Can $100 Do?

Yesterday I walked down the Shwe Oo Min Road, to meet a crowd of generous friends who wanted to pass their donations to us. Mats and Magdalena, bringing their personal offering and the bountiful gifts from the Sangha in Sweden; Lai Fun, coming with two fat envelopes from donors from Malaysia; and a small crowd of Czech yogis who had heard what we do and wanted to add their own gracious metta donation to the mix – it was a joyful gathering for the last Friday of the year.
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There were stories to tell and questions to answer – and one question in particular has been rolling around in my mind all morning: “Can you tell us what $100 can do?” In the moment yesterday I could only give a fraction of an answer, so I set out to track down better numbers, although this list is far form a complete one.

So here is a sampling of how far $100 goes:

Salaries
• 1 Elementary School teacher at a monastic School: 2 months’ salary
• 1 High School teacher at a monastic School: 1.25 months’ salary
• 1 Skilled construction worker (crew foreman): 25 days’ salary
• 1 Skilled construction worker (carpenter): 17 days’ salary

One school with 15 teachers and partial government support has to find over 5 times that $100 each and every month to cover all their salary expenses.

Education and Healthcare:
• 43 GP Consultations or 18 Specialist consultations
• All the medicines for one clinic day at the Aye Metta Ayu Dana Clinic
• Essential tutoring for 10th Standard university entrance exams: 1.5 – 3 months for one student, depending on quality of the tutor.
• One third to one fifth of a year’s tuition for a non-professional university course, and tuition for only 1-2 months of professional studies (medicine or engineering).

Food
• Rice: 3.26 30-viss bags
• Oil: 25 10-viss tins
• Dry beans: 50 viss
• Leafy Greens: 42.8 bunches
• Meat: 15-21.4 viss
(A viss is a largely obsolete imperial measurement that equals 1.63 kilograms or 3.6 pounds. One nunnery with 80 people goes through one 30-viss bag of rice per day!)

Land and Construction Materials
• Land: 16.1 Square feet or 1.44 Square meters of land next to one of the nunneries.
• Buildings: .003 of the cost of a contractor-built one-story nunnery
• Raw materials — Sand: 250 bags; Bricks: 136.36 bricks
• Rental: 3 months’ rental of a basic worker or student hostel

Electricity: 2.3 months (for a nunnery of 26 people)

Monastic stuff:
• Robes for a teen or adult nun: 6.6 complete sets
• Flowers for the monastery shrine: 50 bunches
• Packets of Candles: 300 ~ almost a year’s-worth of light!

So that $100 you donated? Sometimes it seems like a little, but even very expensive things like houses can — and have — come together. Even one $100 will do a LOT, And mamy of them? That is a lot more.

Of course, what it does doesn’t just stop with the nunnery or school or student who we are directly supporting. It ripples through the community to the teacher’s family or her landlord; to the vendors who sell food, flowers, or fabric at the market — and ultimately down the line to all the people who grew or produced the food, flowers, or fabric as well as their families and employees. That donation we offer spreads, touching people we will never know.

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Endless Benevolence

We usually translate the Pali word metta as ‘loving-kindness,’ but it can equally be rendered as ‘well-wishing,’ or ‘benevolence.’ Whatever word you use, the way it manifests is the same — kind and caring wishes and actions toward living beings. Your metta is what we channel in making our offerings, year after year.

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The boundless generosity of that metta can be beautifully astonishing. Yesterday night I received a Viber message from a Malaysian donor who has been collecting donations for the nunnery schools. She had already offered a big collection from her Malaysian community a month ago, but her message told me more had come in. It was an astonishing amount, from many people — I was momentarily speechless. So I will joyfully go to Shwe Oo Min to receive it, along with another big collection from Swedish friends, who every year for several years have done the same thing.

A lot of a little is a lot.
These two donations alone could pay about 108 teacher salaries for one month – and this is only a beginning since there have been so many other donors over the year. The metta really adds up! The generosity of heart that causes someone to offer, say, 20 Euro, joins a stream of energy of other donations, until our safe here is full and we can support to many people. So teachers can feed their families, students can learn, and the nuns who run the schools and monasteries can sleep at night — not to mention the many other people who receive out donations. So the benefits are many and far-reaching.
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that!

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It also brings joy to us — and we hope you, too.
In the Dhammapada, a beloved early Buddhist collection of verses, it says,
“Having done something meritorious,
Repeat it,
Wish for it:
Merit piled up brings happiness.”
(DhP 118, Tr. Gil Fronsdal, Shambhala Publications 2005)

The world is messy right now and there sometimes feels like there is little we can do to alleviate the suffering on account of that. But wait. There is, and all of us together are doing it. So in this holiday season may your happiness pile up, reflecting on the boundlessness of heart that allows us, altogether, to share what we have with our brothers and sisters!

May you hear the echos of the “Sadhu, sadhu, Sadhu!” that acknowledge the merit of the offerings, as well as the metta blessings that are coming to you wherever you might be every single day from those this metta has touched.

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Gifts of Life

I was reminded the other day about Christmas. Which was funny, because I had forgotten all about it. Here at the monastery, it’s easy to do that — we live entirely outside of that cultural and religious bubble. But I also remember very well how this can be a stressful and frenetic time of year. And so I offer a story of giving – because it can be a wonderful relief from the pressure of the consumerist version of Christmas to reflect on what you have already given.

We offer for many things. And among all those, what perhaps most directly alleviates suffering are gifts of healthcare. Besides the hospital that I wrote about in an earlier post, Metta In Action has been supporting the Aye Metta Ayu Dana medical clinic at Chanmyay Myaing Monastery for over a decade. And the clinic has momentum: every Saturday, every Sunday, the place is full of people getting general medical care or dental care. There are the Grannies who come every week for their ongoing medicines; the worried parents with an ill child; nuns from down the road, the youngster whose baby tooth needs extraction, or an elder with a toothache. Here, all manner of humanity are being served, and in many ways, thanks to the generosity of the many donors (including we at MIA) who fund the endless work that the clinic does so well.

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The roughly 40 medical and 110 dental patients who come to the clinic every week only have to pay a nominal sum for a patient record book — the rest is free of charge. But as anywhere, medical and dental care are relatively expensive here. So the monastery has to pay the equivalent of about 600 USD every month just to keep the medical and dental clinic going. There are local donors, but the sums they offer are nominal. So Sayadaw relies on foreign donations to give the clinic a fiscal boost when it’s needed.

Aye Metta Ayu Dana Clinic Expenses

The dentists, doctors, and nurses are mostly volunteers, but the medicines they prescribe and use are over half of the monthly expenses. The most expensive are the essential dental anesthetics, which are very hard to source.

When there are foreign donors, these costs are easier to meet, but Ma Thwet in the CMMC office told me that right now there are not so many donors as usual. So Metta In Action donations become necessary to fill the gaps and defray expenses.

The clinic is not the only thing that Sayadaw U Indaka does at Chanmyay Myaing Monastery to contribute to community health. Last week, I noticed a big banner over the side gate, next to the medical clinic building. I didn’t pay any attention, assuming it was an announcement for a wedding or some other big noisy gala that sometimes happens around here. But last Sunday morning I noticed there was a forest of slippers outside the big Sima Hall next to the clinic, and the ground floor was chock full of people.

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It turned out that the banner was announcing something wonderful – and very popular! This was another kind of celebration of life: the twelfth annual blood drive at Chanmyay Myaing monastery, supported also by our very generous neighbors at the Silvery Pearl Dairy. Roughly 20 staff from the National Blood Center had trundled up in an enormous bus and set up an efficient and busy clinic — with staff distributing forms; techs, nurses, and a doctor doing intake; a long queue of donors waiting; and dozens of beds already at mid-morning filled to capacity with people giving blood.

I was astonished by the number of people waiting their turn. Clearly, the dana economy does not only apply to money in Myanmar! Many of the people living near the monastery work in the factories down the road, and many struggle to make ends meet. But there everybody was on a day off work, some dressed in jeans, others in their ‘Sunday-going-to-meeting’ longyi, to make this vital offering for unknowable recipients. The crowd was predominantly young rather than middle aged, and there were certainly no elders there. Here there is an age limit of 55 years of age — which for me was very disappointing!

After talking to the right people and getting a waiver on the age limit, I made my own donation — and learned afterwards that there was a gift for us all, offered by the sponsor: a take-out box of fried vermicelli, and a little bag with swag — a gaudy hot pink towel festooned with embroidered teddy bears, a bottle of water, a single-serve container of milk from the dairy, and an egg! And I wondered if the free meal and the goodies were part of what was drawing the crowd.

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By early afternoon the drive was winding down and I came back to find out how it had gone. The staff said they were very happy and surprised how popular it was this year – in just four hours, 160 people had made a donation! Since one pint of blood can save up to three lives, that makes over 450 lives saved. Many of those lives saved will be kids: the Children’s Hospital in Yangon is the biggest user of donated blood here.

So all this together is made possible directly or indirectly by the contributions from many generous donors — maybe yours! When we do metta meditation we repeat “May you be well and happy” over and over – but these medical activities truly take it to the level of action! “May you be well,” literally becomes the lifeblood of the community when it is translated into medicines, and care, actual blood, and vital community support.

So how far does your Metta In Action dana go? Of course we can’t quantify that, but we do know that right now down the road somewhere a baby, or young woman, or grandfather is healthy and free of pain because of it. And that’s good enough for us!

So season’s greetings from Mingaladon! May the memory of your generosity bring joy this holiday season and beyond.

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Stories from the Road

A blast form the past: Ariya coming down Shwe Oo Min Road, January 2012

As Marjo and I were walking down the Shwe Oo Min Road a few weeks ago, I found myself wondering just how many times we had gone down this same street in the last decade, on our way to offer dana somewhere. We’ve spent ten years-plus walking or riding up and down this road [above, Ariya on her way to a donation 2011-12] — noticing changes, certainly, but perhaps still not completely absorbing the enormity of the transformation that is happening around us. But scrolling through our photo archives the other day, I was struck by the drama of some of the side-by side comparisons — parts of the neighborhood are hardly recognizable as compared to what they were a decade ago, even though we still perceive it as ‘the same neighborhood. Little by little (but inexorably) the village is becoming a city.

Nowhere is this change as dramatic as the lane giving access to Mingaladon Nunnery. I will never forget the first time I went there right after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. There was a stream to cross to get to the little dirt path that led to her nunnery, and the bridge had been destroyed. So to get there, I had to inch my way over a rickety span only as wide as a couple pieces of bamboo. When I asked what they needed, the only thing Sayalay Daw Obhasi mentioned was a new bridge — she shyly told me that the pieces of bamboo were “a little difficult.” (“Yeah, no kidding, difficult. Just a little,” I thought, half way across on the way back home.) So we offered dana for a nice new wooden footbridge, which lasted several years — until 2012, when it was replaced by a big a concrete one.

Then serious change began, as you can see from the following slideshow of photos taken from about the same place. In the last photo, the stream flows from right to left, behind the chain link fence, under the concrete road and the pile of sand.

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First someone offered a big Christian school. Then the little farm disappeared, along with its chickens and the gigantic hogs (and sometimes piglets) lounging in their little hut next to the path. Now in its place is a huge vocational training centre with several huge multi-story buildings and a concrete yard. And farther down the wide concrete road, there is now a big water bottling factory clattering away next to the Mingalagonwei Nunnery. The patchwork of fields that was here, with their lettuces, peppers, and jasmine plants is long gone, replaced by apartments, houses, and rental shanties.

The vocational centre has spawned its own mini-boom. Outside the main gate onto Shwe Oo Min Road, now there’s a string of small shops facing U Tejaniya’s meditation cente, and men lounge on their motorcycles taxis, chewing betel nut and waiting for a fare. The road to Mingaladon Nunnery is busy with the buzz and beep of motorcycle traffic, the quiet lane a distant memory.

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On the other side of the neighborhood, the long “Dusty Road” we used to enjoy  complaining about got paved, too. And the same story repeated itself there, though the changes are a less dramatic. Each time I go by, I treasure the sight of one of the few lettuce fields that remains, knowing it won’t last much longer before being submerged under the tide of buildings and human activity.

It’s easy for us to get wistful, remembering the ‘good old days.’  But people have to live somewhere, and there will always be other people who scramble to make money on that. And livelihoods are important, as are safe roads. Commerce and transportation have always followed population — and so the city expands. This is the way it is: time only goes forward, and more urbanization here is inevitable.

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Though we are pragmatic and know that, we also do not forget that urbanization can be stressful for the very people creating it, in ways that are hard to see. Outer, visible changes to a neighborhood are one thing. But the pain felt in being carried along by this wave of growth is much harder to discern. For the fortunate few there are opportunity, and wealth. But for most here, life is a story of a series of small accommodations: little by little adjusting to steadily higher costs and deteriorating living conditions as the neighborhood gets progressively dirtier, more crowded, and less safe.

People’s lives here are changing day to day, in ways that we as outsiders can’t possibly know. Each person we meet inhabits a single pixel of the big picture — the picture of what those small accommodations are, and what the cumulative burden of them is. Taken together, the many stories we hear give us a sense of the whole — and they are not always easy to witness.

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Again and again we hear stories of desperation, limited opportunities, and the economic confusion or victimization that come from not knowing how to navigate in the scramble of a newly opened and competitive economy. many of these stories point to a widespread social dislocation that has come with new values, new technology, and eroding safety nets of family and community. And the momentum of this suffering is only increasing.

We can’t stop that. But we can buffer the impact of these changes a little by supporting education — especially for girls. So we are dedicated to that; it is a big part of what we do. Each of the nunnery schools we support was founded as a direct response to steadily growing need in the neighborhood to access to basic education. There were no free monastic schools around here when we started offering donations to nuns in 2008. Now there are four within an hour’s walking distance of each other, altogether educating thousands of kids.

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Education at monastic schools is genuinely free — unlike the ‘fake free’ of government schools, where families have to pay for uniforms, books, supplies, teacher’s ‘presents,’ electricity, etcetera. All those little requests amount to a lot, more than many people can afford. But fortunately, education at monastic schools is a viable alternative here, and a  good education. These schools give the kids a firm foundation for the lives they will be leading — whatever those are — at no cost to the family.

Metta In Action donations played a large part in the founding of each of these four neighborhood schools, and each year we contribute vital operating funds to keep them going – as well as supporting four other monastic schools farther away. So while we can’t stop growth and change, nor the challenges of them, at least we know that these kids will have the essential tools to face what that change brings.

And who knows what gifts they will bring to the world!

 

 

 

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Being Family

When Marjo and I offered your dana to Daw Yuzana for the Metta Ywa Nunnery and School in early December, she gave me the wonderful gift of a bolt of cotton fabric that had come from Bodh Gaya. So I asked the nuns at Sasanasukhacari Laputta Nunnery to sew it for me, as they always say that they want to offer robes – and I know them to be very skilled at crafting the sometimes fiddly blouses that we have to wear as part of the nun’s robes.

After less than a fortnight, today Daw Uttama came to my room with three beautiful sets of robes that Daw Uttara had made. She told me that since I had no iron, to please feel free to give them the robes to press when I wash them, and they would be very happy to do that. Embarrassed — ‘Ana deh’ we say in Burmese — I laughed and objected, “But the Laputta nuns are not my servants.”

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She laughed and patiently explained to me that they are not my servants, that is true, but we are all family. So please do not be embarrassed! Now that her parents have both died, she said the meaning of family has changed and her heart is much wider than before. And from that place of wideness, she feels all of us are family – so just as she cares directly for her the children in her nunnery, we care for her – and she wanted to reciprocate.

I will probably not take her up on that kind offer (though for the sake of neatness I likely should). But her mentioning family opened the door for questions that I had about the lay children at the Laputta Nunnery. So we sat on my floor and talked, with a Burmese-English / English-Burmese dictionary going back and forth between us: so who are these children, and what are their stories?

One girl (upper left photo in the group above, first from right), studying for her 10th Standard Examination, came from Laputta (in the Irrawaddy Delta) and has lived there as a nun since “Nargis time’ when she was a child. Two years ago she decided to disrobe but still stays there as a laywoman, as part of the community, in order that she can study. I asked Daw Uttama, ” So, is she now also a helper [as well as studying]?” But no. There is no need for her to work any more than before or even to be a nun; the point is just to support her however is needed until she’s done with her studies.  We might be surprised at the generosity of that support, but this kind of generosity — with no strings attached — is not unusual here. In fact it is totally unremarkable. That’s what family does.

The two younger lay kids, a boy in 3rd Standard and a girl in Kindergarten, are family: they are Daw Uttama’s nephew and niece, the children of her younger brother. And his family’s story of challenge is both sad and incredibly common in Burma. The family – like so many in our neighborhood – is desperately poor. He and his wife live down the road in a pop-up shantytown that began to appear several years ago under a big power line on the edge of town and has only gotten more crowded. He works in construction, and in fact has helped a lot with the nunnery. But about five years ago he developed liver trouble (likely hepatitis from bad water) and since then has not been able to work regularly. His wife has neither skills nor education, but in order to support the family, she had to start selling things in the market from a bamboo tray she carries on her head.

While doing it’s impossible to take care of the kids, especially not their infant daughter. So Maung Aung Boun Pyit and Ma Kwin Yati Laing came to the nuns, for shelter, an education, and loving support as long as they need it. She has been here since she was months old and is the darling of the nunnery, everyone’s little sister. And he is everyone’s brother.

Lay kids living in a nunnery are often blood family, but this not always the case. At other nunneries, we have met those who had been abandoned or orphaned – brought there by villagers. Or sometimes the kids are found by nuns themselves when they are out and about on their alms rounds. Being abandoned or alone at home with mortally ill parents are dire and unimaginable scenarios for us. But sadly, here they are not unheard of — signs of just how on the brink of desperation people can be, and why the nunneries are such essential safety nets. Young lives literally depend on them.

And now more than ever, all the nunneries need our support. Inflation is rampant. Daw Uttama told me that now they have to spend 65,000 Kyat (about 50 USD) each month just for electricity. They conserve as much as they can, but the price is just going up and up. Digging through my old notes, I read that just 2 years ago a month’s electricity was only 15,000 Kyat, and that was a ‘high’ bill. Recently there has been huge increase — and describing the impact of that, Daw Uttama smiled and said, “Oh it is such a headache! Each month we have to find so much to pay them.”

But the bills do get paid. And all the girls — and boys — are safe.                                               It is no small thing, family.

Chanmyavati (12)

 

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