Witnessing Raw Beauty, Trials, and Life: Reflections on the Thabarwa Meditation Shelter in Yangon

The past few days I have been working and staying at a meditation shelter in Myanmar, a decision I made a while back when planning my entire trip around Thailand, Myanmar, and Japan.

The past few days and nights have not been easy.

It is difficult to communicate, or untangle these thoughts, on a society that is developing, an environment so different than my home, in which individuals live by standards and norms that I have become used to, yet still remain completely, and obviously foreign to.

In summary, the meditation center, known as the Thabarwa Dhamma Center, is a miraculous hub of raw human compassion, and universal love.

The center takes in anyone and everyone, of all backgrounds, beliefs, and previous actions, who seek shelter, food, medicine, health, Buddhist education, or simply a home to call home.

It is comprised of many monks, nuns, residents (both families, those disabled, those chronically ill, those without anywhere else to go, and those studying or working there by choice), and volunteers (such as myself).

There is no finance involved, no business, and no company interest. The grand scheme is to help others, to offer the self for good deeds.

It is a place for giving, for loving, and for dedicating one’s life to the world in which they live.

The monks, residents (who are able to help), and volunteers wake up each morning at 5:30AM or earlier, to disperse into neighboring cities and villages on a religious and traditional operation known as “alms”.

It is essentially a form of donation collecting. Residents from villages and cities, both poor and better-off, donate to the center in any way they can: money, rice, leftover food, packaged food, educational materials, and so forth.

The center sustains itself based solely on donations, feeding, caring for, and housing over 300 individuals, who seek the basic human needs of shelter, care, and company.

Myanmar is a developing country, with extreme poverty in several regions. Having formed a non-militaristic government in the recent years, it has a long ways to go in the development of infrastructure, welfare, and societal equality.

There is a lot here that can seem strikingly foreign to the Western world, in the base appearance of material aesthetic and quality of living, and scarce evidence of modern technology, medicine, and education.

But the people here are smart, caring, and loving. They are a resounding example of the best parts of Eastern philosophy.

And in part, that is why it is so hard to exist here, in a temporary position to serve and aid as much as possible, when the reality of my life does not match the one I attempt to understand.

When the people I see deserve so much, but live in what those – who are so detached from the suffering world – call “poverty”.

As a foreigner who knows that he will return to the comforts, leisures, and conveniences of his everyday life, I feel a bit broken. But also inspired.

I think and write none of this to pity the people I encountered.

I think and write none of this to write meaning for myself from the stories of the lives of those I observed, those I talked to, and those I worked with.

I do not travel for the sake of self-discovery, and I did not visit this center to learn something for myself.

I simply feel the need to experience, in order to develop a response to the various parts of our world, and the various aspects of our reality. Because I know that if I do not venture out, become a part of a place and a people I may otherwise never consider, I will never be able to live in this world as genuinely as I wish.

And you must genuinely know the world in order to have a positive influence on it.

When I arrived to the center, I signed my information into a little booklet, and received a pillow and a sheet.

The accommodation was simple, housed in a small room with a variety of other volunteers from around the world.

A sheet and a pillow on the marble ground with a mosquito net. It was a leap of difference from the hostels I was accustomed to, but nothing different from what I expected. There was one bathroom, sometimes with running water, sometimes without. Showers were blessings, the running water a miracle that you had better made use of when given the chance, and clean floors beneath your feet a faded and forgotten memory.

I knew exactly what to expect, what I signed up for, and why I was there. But it took some effort to absorb my surroundings.

To eat a mixture of donated food from hundreds of different houses. To see a windowless house for tuberculosis patients, a broken-down room for the terminally ill. To see mountains of trash, whiff in rancid odors, and find myself adjusting to environments and discomforts that I might otherwise wince at, judge, or label with negative impressions.

It was uncomfortable at first. But real.

To recognize that humanity has a spectrum, large and wide, that many of us fail to see, remember, or consider, each day and each month as the years pass by.

Because, although we may live lives that appear whole – our daily distractions, motivations, dreams and triumphs that fill our minds and the capacity of the perceived worlds in which we live – there is always more that we miss.

Just as how joy exists beyond the horizons of sorrow, how comfort exists beyond the moments of discordance.

There is a part of the world that is less accurately understood by lives painted with privilege, a reality less perceived by the American dream, the European quaintness, or the excitement of politics.

This part of the world may seem dark, unattended to, and may be difficult in of itself to approach. But it is there.

It is poverty. It is sickness. It is homelessness.

It deserves to be recognized and needs to be approached.

But rarely is this the case, because it is that which we tell ourselves to fight for only when we manage to briefly remember the thought. An “I will”, “I want to”.

This center, however, was an “I can”, “I am”.

After meeting the other volunteers and learning my way around the center (or rather small village) I was recruited by a few young nuns to help with the Sunday alms round. After entertaining the youngest nuns (only kids) whilst waiting for the whole congregation, we all gathered on the bus and rode to downtown Yangon.

My Australian friend and I were given two buckets, he was to collect the money and I was to collect the packaged food. We walked, in a line with the nuns, for around 3 and half hours in the pouring rain – each block, each corner, each alleyway of the downtown area.

And we did this again, with the monks, at 6:00AM the next morning, both times collecting everything the people offered, for the sake of the center and everyone that it provides for.

To witness acts of complete offering by both those who gave and those who collected, were moments of realization and remembrance that giving is a core feature of a good life.

These realizations that were true and obvious shook my soul, and lightened my heart.

It is the selfless lives that encourage a collective progression towards a more comfortable world for all. It is the actions of giving that provide a movement in the right direction for the darkest parts of humanity.

And it was all there, in total authenticity and effect, by those who had little to nothing, and those who asked solely for the sake of others.

And in that moment, I was a part of it.

Without the money to give the biggest donation. Without the influence to reach the largest amount of people. It reminded me that we can all be a part of it. And we all should be a part of it.

I know that the majority of us want to. So what stops us?

No matter how well we think, how mindful we are or how compassionate we perceive upon the world, there is more that we can do.

We can offer ourselves, amongst our busy dreams and day-to-day goals. We can prioritize the world as much as the individual, those we do not know as much as those we know by name.

If we can exercise every day, brush our teeth every day, and complete a general daily schedule, we can surely give every day, in small and big ways both.

My brief time at the center will always remain with me: eternal inspiration to remember what humanity is, how I am lucky to be accustomed to only a part of it, and how it is a universal responsibility to work towards a better world for all.

At times I wanted to leave as soon as I could, to reach a working shower, a clean room, or a less mosquito-infested or impoverished area. But these moments were brief, and faded amongst the learning and fulfillment that often accompanies confronting the uncomfortable.

The fellow volunteers that I met, from Australia, Holland, France, Spain, and beyond, were genuinely good people. Open minds, good thoughts, warm hearts, capable of conversations and actions that made me want to stay as long as I could after the first night I spent.

The local residents, nuns, and monks who I worked alongside and learned from – in meditation and in classes on Buddhist philosophy – unlocked a train of thought that I am encouraged to keep running.

Thoughts on giving, wholesomely and selflessly.

Thoughts on considering, that which is not always apparent.

And thoughts on living, a life promoting the sustainable good of this world and the people in it as a unified whole.


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Moments made of people and places, brilliant and ordinary. ↹ Planet Earth, Milky Way

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