Dirty Hands in Myanmar

By Joey Deschenes

Part of me wanted to stay away to protest what I heard in the news about atrocities committed by Buddhists against a Muslim minority group. But my longing for adventure and the opportunity to see a place filled with Buddhist art and culture proved too strong, spurring me to travel to Myanmar.

I was joining my wife Alba in a small group of dental professionals on a charitable mission to provide treatment to underserved people in the poor Southeast Asian country. However I was incredibly conflicted.  According to news reports, Myanmar’s Rakhine state was the scene of much violence and so-called ethnic cleansing committed by the country’s military. I was to serve as an x-ray assistant for four days in a monastery in Chin State, home of the Chin people and a famous Buddhist monk called Pom Pom.

My wife had traveled there before, providing dental care at the Chin monastery, so I already heard many things about Pom Pom. There were incredible stories about how he never sleeps, can see into the future, and that, wherever he goes, people kneel before him, touching their foreheads to the ground four times before standing up. I don’t believe in magic, but these stories intrigued me and I looked forward to meeting him.  Just like with my original feelings before flying to Myanmar, I already had conflicted feelings about this man, whose support allowed us to go to Chin State.

As a Buddhist myself, I have for a few years closely followed news about horrific events in Rakhine State and about Muslims called Rohingya.  Ever since my political awakening in 2001, which lead to my anti-war sentiments at the start of the Iraq invasion, I’ve been outspoken about militaries that commit violence against the poor and vulnerable, whether they are my country’s own or another country’s. That is why it has pained me knowing that Buddhism, a religion that has given me so much solace, could in some way promote genocide.

When I first heard about the situation in Rakhine State, some of the first things I saw were videos of Buddhist monks, with shaved heads, robes and meditation beads, encouraging violence and using profanity so vulgar in describing the Rohingya that even translators seemed ashamed to translate their words.  As I looked at photos of my wife’s first trip to Myanmar, I immediately realized that Monk Pom Pom looked just like those same violent monks.

After a long flight and a day and night in Yangon, our team flew to Bagan, then took a seven-hour bumpy van ride to the monastery.  I admit, upon our arrival, I was caught up in a mystical vibe.  The entire town greeted us with traditional music and costumes, tiny monks and little pink robed nuns assisted in the ceremonies. People I had never met before shook my hand and thanked me for coming to help the poor people of the region.

Then we met the man, the myth and the legend, Monk Pom Pom, who came out to greet us, placing traditional scarves on the dentists traveling in our group. I’ll never forget that image.  For the next four days the monastery would be our home.  This was something I always wanted to experience.

Soon I realized the difficulties of monastery life. I came to wonder why so many westerners, myself included, romanticized Buddhist monasteries. For instance, we shared one bathroom with a porcelain hole in the ground and our shower was a bucket of water. Although the food was tasty, it was full of rice that was hard to digest.  Nights were freezing, especially for me, a California native. This was the reality of the people we had come to serve.

The pink robed nuns in particular made a strong impression on me. As I found in Chin State, the life of young monks and nuns was not the life of people who experienced a spiritual awakening, then decided to dedicate themselves to Buddhism with the goal of becoming bodhisattvas.  Rather, the children of the monastery were orphans and foster children.  Some were there as runaways, having escaped abusive homes.  Many of them also had sicknesses that for some reason were not treated despite monetary donations collected daily by the monks.  I wondered why more was not done for these kids, while the head monk seemed to have so much, including a jeep.  While most of my day was spent physically taking x-rays, mentally I was trying to comprehend this situation.

Once during our stay, we were summoned to Monk Pom Pom’s quarters. He always had wonderful things to say to us through a translator. He was incredibly appreciative and he showered us with gifts.  Upon hearing that I was Buddhist, he gave me an amazing golden Buddha to take home to Berkeley.  I was touched by his kindness. But still, many questions filled my head—about the untreated sick, about the head monk’s material possessions, and about the ethnic violence I had heard about. What was I afraid of? Why not ask questions even if it made people uncomfortable? Maybe I could inspire change.

 But I asked no such questions. I thought maybe they would have been lost in translation, or maybe would have caused more harm than good.  After all, if we were never invited again, how would these people get their teeth fixed?

During a ceremony, a young man translated Monk Pom Pom as he read from sutras. The translator struggled, but one of the lines stuck with me.  To paraphrase: “Although a man may wash his hands, the actions he commits with them will still dirty his face.”  From where I was, Monk Pom Pom’s face appeared calm and peaceful, the image of a stereotypical monk romanticized by westerners.

That day, we still had much work to do, so I took the water that was before me and poured it into a tin cup. I just let my thoughts go and moved on.

We left Chin State the following morning, then went on to enjoy an electric scooter ride among the pagodas of Bagan. We also rode long boats at Lake Inle.  I made new friends, saw amazing sights, meditated, and generally felt that as a Buddhist, I experienced the dharma that Myanmar offered me.

I have been home for a while now and have returned to my regular daily life. I go to work teaching high schooI and I walk my dog. Still, I am troubled by the continuing news reports about ethnic cleansing and violence back in Myanmar. I wonder if there was anything I could have said or done on behalf of the Rohingya. I wonder if I could have said anything on behalf of the young monks and pink robed nuns.

I revisit the words chanted by monk Pom Pom and I wonder when was the last time I washed my own hands. I wonder what actions appear on my face and what others can see.  I wonder what actions of mine have created the reality in which I find myself.

Joey Deschenes is a member of the Berkeley temple.

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