There is a banner above the gateway of Parahita Monastery, in the Bago region of Myanmar, which reads “Maha Pyinnya Beikman – Youth Development Centre and Monastic Education School.” At this monastery, there are no glistening pagodas or ornately decorated shrines. Instead, in a shrine hall, there are sleeping mats and steel boxes with stacks of books on top of them. “The boys here are sitting their matriculation examinations this year,” explains Venerable Dr. Ashin Aggasara, the chief abbot. “They need a quiet place to study at night. It is too crowded and disturbing to study in the other building with all the young ones.” Out in the scorching sun, some boys are spreading rice out to dry. “We are preparing for the rainy season. We cannot take things for granted. Here there is no room for laziness even on a Sunday. There is much work to be done,” he adds, pointing to a group of children collecting firewood. “It is important these children learn from a young age to take care of themselves and of each other. That way they can grow up to be socially responsible people.”
Such living conditions may seem harsh compared to those of children from affluent backgrounds, but relatively speaking, the children at Parahita Monastery are better off than many others in Myanmar. Though strict in discipline, Ven. Aggasara does his best to provide for the children’s needs. Most of all, he wants every child to be educated. “In this country, we have enough huge pagodas and temples. What we really need are proper schools for our children and skills training for our youth. Education is the most important investment because it will determine the future of our people and our country. Without education, these children have no future.”
Parahita Monastery was set up in 2007 with support from Firefly Mission, a Buddhist charity in Singapore, and land in Shwegyin township, Bago (a four-hour drive from Yangon), offered by some devotees. Under Ven. Aggasara, the monastery operates a training school for monks in Bago, a home for 200 children (orphans, abandoned children, and children from broken families), a vocational training center, a preschool, and Baka School, which was built in 2001. Most children from the home attend Baka School, which is roughly a 10-minute drive from the monastery. Although classified as a “monastic school,” Baka School is not actually a school for the training of monks. Rather, this term refers to a school established and managed by monks and administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Such schools adopt the public school curriculum and, like Baka School, may receive government accreditation. In addition, monastic schools often teach Buddhist practices, such as morning chants and meditation, and transmit Buddhist teachings and values. This may include studying Buddhist history and philosophy, and having tenets such as the ten paramitas or “perfections” woven into classes.
Baka School offers classes from Grade 1 to 9. There are about 500 children of different ethnic and religious backgrounds, mainly from poor families in nearby villages. In Myanmar, where more than 80 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, monastic schools fill a significant gap in the education sector. For the poor and disadvantaged in remote areas who have no access to or cannot afford to go to public schools, monastic schools are often the only source of education, providing free tuition and textbooks. Some monastic schools also double as orphanages, and offer accommodation and meals.
Since the institution of a quasi-democratic government in 2011, Myanmar has undergone a dramatic transformation. Yet, despite the SUVs and five-star hotels in Yangon, the scars of decades of oppression and misery are still very evident, with much of the country in abject poverty and a failing education system with dilapidated buildings and facilities, and an outdated curriculum. As Myanmar transitions to a new economy, reforms in the education sector have come into focus, mainly because a strong workforce, especially in the scientific, engineering, and managerial fields, is essential to meet the challenges of economic growth and technological development. Demands for an increase in the national budget’s allocation to education from the current 4.4 per cent can be heard daily on the streets. President Thein Sein has stated his firm intention to make education a national priority, and the government is seeking advice from international NGOs and foreign experts on how to shape new policies and strategies for the education sector. Foreign businesses, too, have been eager to tap the potent profitability of this emerging market. The number of private high schools, with tuition fees far beyond the means of an average Myanmar household, has quadrupled since 2012, with more than 200 licenses issued, mainly in Yangon.
Monastic schools have received some attention. In 2013, for the first time in history, the government pledged 3 billion kyat (US$3.3 million) in financial support to monastic schools across the country, primarily as assistance towards teachers’ salaries. However, much more needs to be done. According to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, there are 1,597 monastic schools in Myanmar, with about 6,000 teachers and more than 260,000 students, making them significant stakeholders in the education sector. Most of the schools have received little government support, relying on donations, community support, and a small amount of income generation to stay viable. Facilities are very basic. With weak management and a shortage of materials and teachers, the proportion of students who remain in school five years after enrolment is low, at 50 per cent.
There is no doubt that Myanmar needs educational reforms, but as Ven. Aggasara cautions, “An education system that is only geared towards preparing the students for a market-driven economy is very dangerous. We may land up with a generation which is only motivated by making profits, selfish, self-centered, and uncaring. This is totally inconsistent with our Buddhist principles. Monastic schools must be considered as key players in the education sector. It is an important part of our Buddhist tradition. Without monastic schools, many poor children will end up on the streets, be exploited, take drugs, and eventually drop out of society.”
Indeed, the tradition of monastic schools in Myanmar dates back as early as the 11th century. They play a significant role in the protection of the rich Buddhist heritage on which Myanmar prides itself. Historically, the village monastery served as an education center for the community, a close relationship demonstrated by the fact that the Burmese word “kyaung” is used to refer to both school and monastery. Monastic schools are an integral part of the communities in which they are located, engaging in cultural as well as religious activities. By practicing dana (generosity) and supporting the monastic schools, villagers, who offer what they can, generally in kind, are able to generate merit and practice the important Buddhist idea of “parahita,” which involves giving for the benefit and welfare of others.
In a country where more than 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist, it is regrettable that Buddhism is not a subject in the public school curriculum. Buddhist values, such as generosity and loving-kindness, imparted through the monastic schools can help to promote a better understanding and appreciation of the common history and aspirations that have pervaded the country and the people for centuries. At a time when the world is rocked by religious and ethnic conflicts, the Buddha’s teachings of non-violence, compassion, generosity, tolerance, and respect for other religions may be just what is needed to foster better social integration, intercommunal dialogue, unity, and peace. After all, a teaching that is aimed at lifting humankind to the highest spiritual consciousness can only be good for all!
All photographs are by the author.