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.”


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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