Coming of the airport in Yangon, Myanmar I was stunned by the number of monk’s walking around in the city. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of theml. During my stay I did all the big sights and discovered many hidden restaurants and laneways. One thing that I kept on seeing were the monks. The Schwedagon pagoda is a massive golden shrine that attracts hundreds of people every day. Not just tourist, but also locals find their way to this pagoda. They come there for prayer, good fortune or just to be a tourist and take photos of this impressive monument.
My fascination with monks at this point was deep and I needed to know more. I found myself watching these people more intently; they look so mysterious, content, and almost holy. I tried to learn more about buddhism and then especially about being a member of the Sangha (monk hood) during my stay in Myanmar.
To become an official member of the Sangha is seen as an ideal for all males, but is often not practical or possible due to the financial status of the family. A man must be 20 years old, must study the rules and precept for novices and have the knowledge of reading and writing to become a monk. There is a time of three months when the new monks are initiated in the order these three months are also called the Buddhist Retreat. Many men who don’t have the opportunity, time or simply don’t want to become a full fledge monk only go on the Buddhist Retreat to engage in a short period of service.
When a man becomes a monk he makes merit for his family. The Thai believe that someone’s merit and goodness determine a person’s level of existence. Having a monk in your family makes you almost an elite of society. However, becoming a member of the Sangha is not easy, you have to live by these 227 rules, there are five basic rules that the ordained monks, and the men staying at the temple during their Buddhist retreat must live by: Refrain from destroying living beings; Refrain from taking what is not given; Refrain from sexual misconduct; Refrain from false speech; and Refrain from taking intoxicants.
For the ordained monk, there are four rules which, if they are broken result in expulsion from the monk hood. These are: Engaging in sexual relations; committing theft; committing murder, and claiming superhuman powers.
One thing that surprised me most is that even an ordained monk may leave at any moment in time if he chooses to lead a normal life just by informing his monastery.
When I was at the Schwedagon Pagoda I was taking photos of my surroundings, as every tourist does here, everything is gold!!! I found these three monks talking very loud and taking photos with their smartphones. Never in my life had I seen any extremely religious person with electronics that advanced. It amazed and confused me at the same time, amazed by the fact that this was possible, and confused because I wondered how they could afford such a phone. Even in western countries you have to pay a significant amount of money for a telephone like that. How can someone with no steady income, afford a phone like that?
When I showed this picture to my friends and family they all had a similar response as I had, they were amazed. Many said that it was because they didn’t think that people with such a strong believe would want to handle electronics that bring more negative than positive in the world. I think that many people that don’t have any knowledge on the monks would be amazed about the fact that monks there have mobile phones and make touristic photos. Is this because we don’t have anything in our western world to compare this to?
On the other hand for Thai and other Buddhist persons I believe that this is seen as normal, since many males go on a Buddhist Retreat and have a normal job before and after their retreat and therefore also the money to buy a telephone.
Many people’s opinions also changed when I told them about the monks and the Buddhist Retreat, they then understood why a monk would have a smartphone. Now looking back I see that my worldview is very small. I form opinions on what I think is correct even though this is not a fact. I know that this is normal and that you cannot know everything and therefore form a right opinion on certain subjects. Right now I definitely have a new perspective on the Buddhist religion. I have a better understanding of what it contains and why people believe what they believe. I recommend others to look into things they don’t understand from other cultures, it will open your eyes to this whole new world!