Dialogue with Buddhists in Myanmar

Dialogue with Buddhists in Myanmar

Kathleen Geaney, Columban Sister, Myanmar

myanmarBefore coming to Myanmar I had shared with our own sisters and the bishop my desire to be in some way involved in dialogue of life and interfaith dialogue. This desire was deeply rooted in my past experience in Marawi in the Philippines and in Handsworth in Birmingham, England.

Coming into a predominantly Buddhist country my hope was that I could somehow be in relationship with the Buddhist community. In order to follow this desire Margaret Murphy and I moved from Myitkyina to Mandalay which is the center of Burmese and Buddhist culture. Later we were joined by Theresa Kim.

Our ministry began with trying to build friendships. We lived for three months in a Buddhist monastery in Sagaying and studied Buddhism in Sitagu International Buddhist Academy. This was an invaluable time for building relationships and friends made at that time continue until today.

I started to spend time each week with Buddhist nuns, living with them and sharing their life. Coming out of my past experience in Mindanao and the vision of Bishop Tudtud of Marawi Prelature that dialogue of life requires; immersion, contemplation and education. I find inspiration in Bishop Tudtud’s insistence on immersion and the importance of presence. It is about being in solidarity with the joys and hopes, the grief’s and anxieties of the people of one’s time specially those who are economically poor. For me this is rooted in the life of Jesus- The Word became flesh and lived among us– and in the daily invitation of the people who welcome us into their lives.

I find that spending time living with the thilashin (nuns) enables all of this. I share their life getting involved in whatever happens when I am there. Since they are studying in university I teach them some English. They teach me meditation and so much more. At this stage we have become good friends and they feel quite at home visiting our house in the cathedral compound and sharing our lives.

Aloysius Pieris SJ speaks to me when he wonders if interreligious dialogue in Asia is being practiced “on mountain tops by a privileged and holy remnant of scholars and mystics while the masses are left in the valleys to dialogue with malnutrition disease and lack of land”.

As we entered more into the lives of the people it became evident that the main concerns of the women especially were survival concerns how to provide food and other necessities for their families, how to educate their children. This led me to start a small interfaith women’s group here in Mandalay which in turn grew into a small micro finance project. A significant number of women lead families have been helped and with the loans provided have established small business projects such a selling noodles ginger bananas etc. one woman bought a cow!!! This group continues to grow.

Myanmar Monastery Mandalay
Life at the local monastery school Mandalay

Another small project has developed in a monastery school which is situated on the riverside in Mandalay. This is one of the poorest areas of the city with many people living in small huts on the river bank and eking out a living mostly in loading and unloading cargo from the boats which come down the Irrawady. The monastery welcomes these people and they share their food with the children. The monk’s food comes from their daily alms round. They receive mostly rice from the people so there is a need to supplement this with some protein. As a small contribution to this we have what we call an egg a week project. This has developed into working with the monks to enable the children to go to school. Some of the women from that area have joined our women’s group.

I have two companions. Margaret Murphy teaches English and a Buddhist monastery school and also gives seminars on Ecology and also has a nutrition program in a Buddhist orphanage. Theresa runs a kindergarten for children affected or infected by HIV/aids. All of this enables us to be present with the people in the joys and sorrows of daily life. We try to create a space for relating rather than debating, to develop some practical skills and enhancing attitudes for dialogue. We also try to get a taste of the different faith traditions from the inside by meeting people from the different traditions and visiting their places of worship. We are now blessed with a wide network of friends. Myanmar has such a rich environment of diversity as it is home to many different ethnic groups, different races and different languages and cultures.

Buddhist Monks visiting a Christmas crib in Mandalay
Buddhist Monks visiting a Christmas crib in Mandalay

‘Contemplation’ is very relevant in our Buddhist context where even trishaw drivers will often engage in a conversation about meditation. Phan in his book: ‘Being Religious Inter-religiously’ says that the first act of our Christian God-talk in Asia is not to talk but: “ to be silent, not to preach but to listen, not to teach but to learn.”. Here in Myanmar we experience that we are all pilgrims in search of the Divine. When we encounter the Divine within and around us the divisive fences and walls begin to collapse and we live in hope that every sort of discrimination and prejudice can be overcome.

I find myself reflecting and just giving thanks for the many small yet grace filled moments that fill my life here.

  • Moments of wonder when a young Buddhist monk points at the Baby Jesus in the crib and asks “Who is He.” And I think this is the question that remains through all the ages.
  • Moments of gentleness when a small child in a poor area by the riverside, slips his hand into mine and walks along with me in utter trust and simplicity.
  • Moments of hope when Margaret, Theresa and I invite our friends from different faiths for a Christmas celebration and Muslims, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists share a meal joyfully together. The Hindu Prabu (priest) says next year let us all welcome the birth of Jesus by speaking of what it means from the perspective of our own tradition.
  • Moments of privilege when I sit and listen to people’s inner search for God, life, commitment and hope.
  • Moments of pain when there isn’t enough to go around- not enough understanding to make sense of it all and prejudice and suspicion grow between different ethnic and religious groups and our friends especially now, our Muslim friends, live in fear.
  • Moments of gratitude and joy for all the friends who walk the road with us in so many different way and let us walk with them.