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Socially Engaged Buddhist Monk Tackles Plastic Waste in Myanmar

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Sayadaw U Ottamasara holds a PET bottle filled with discarded plastic bags at Thabarwa Centre. Photo by Shew Paw Mya Tin. From swissinfo.ch
Sayadaw U Ottamasara holds a PET bottle filled with discarded plastic bags at Thabarwa Centre. Photo by Shew Paw Mya Tin. From swissinfo.ch

The respected Buddhist monk and meditation teacher Sayadaw U Ottamasara has earned renown in his native Myanmar for his socially engaged programs and humanitarian outreach organizations, with a focus on care for the poor, needy, and aged. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the world and altered daily life for millions of people, Sayadaw Ottamasara has also turned his attention to addressing the growing scourge of plastic waste.

The monk was moved to take action after witnessing growing piles of discarded PET* bottles, bags, and other plastics during his daily early morning alms round to collect food donations from the local community around Thabarwa Centre, his monastery, meditation center, and base for a variety of outreach programs.

“More plastic waste was being dumped on the street during the pandemic,” Sayadaw Ottamasara told the Reuters news agency.

The public response to Sayadaw Ottamasara’s recycling drive has been overwhelming, according to a recent report by Reuters, and Sayadaw Ottamasara’s team of volunteers now receive ‘donations’ of several thousand PET bottles daily.

The efforts of Sayadaw Ottamasara and his monastics and volunteers are much needed; an estimated 2,500 tonnes of trash is discarded each day in the former capital Yangon alone, much of it simply dumped or burned. Waste recycling by the municipal authorities is sporadic at best, but largely non-existent.

“If we [the meditation center] ask for donations, people will keep them clean,” said Sayadaw Ottamasara. “Then we can use these plastic bottles as food containers and it not only saves money, but also tackles the plastic waste issue.” (Reuters)

At the sprawling Thabarwa Centre, which is spread across some 3.6 hectares, new recycling workshops are processing the seemingly endless supply of plastic waste. Sayadaw Ottamasara estimates that some 200,000 PET bottles—two tonnes of discarded plastic—have been recycled in the three months since the program began, representing, he says, a saving of some US$10,000.

Sayadaw U Ottamasara. From thabarwa.org
Sayadaw U Ottamasara. From thabarwa.org

The volunteers processing the waste are nothing if not innovative, finding a range of uses for the recycled or up-cycled plastics—plastic bottles have been repurposed to make sunshades, and the team has even used old care tires reinforced with waste plastic and sealed with cement as a building material.

Sayadaw Ottamasara, 50, set up Thabarwa Centre in Thanlyin Township, on the outskirts of Yangon, in 2008 to teach meditation. He quickly realized that there was a need to provide permanent homes for some of the elderly yogis, as lay meditators are known in Myanmar, who had been abandoned by their families. As more people arrived at the center, Sayadaw Ottamasara decided to develop Thabarwa into a home for the needy.** In addition to monks and volunteers, the center now houses some 3,000 vulnerable residents, including the aged and chronically ill.

After acquiring more land, with the help of donors, Sayadaw Ottamasara expanded his reach with two new centers in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Region, and nearly a dozen meditation centers across the country. He has also established the 73-hectare Saytanar (mercy) Village, which houses some 500 vulnerable families near the Thabarwa Animal Shelter, Sayadaw Ottamasara’s sanctuary for stray dogs and other animals.***

“Ever since I came to realize that practicing meditation or contemplating the truth is vital for everybody, every circumstance, every time and place, I accepted everyone who came seeking refuge in Thabarwa Centre,” said Sayadaw Ottamasara. (Thabarwa Centre)

Myanmar is a predominantly Theravada Buddhist country, with 88 per cent of the population of 51.5 million people identifying as Buddhists, according to census data for 2014. Christians, folk religions, and Muslims make up the bulk of the remainder. Buddhist monks, venerated throughout Burmese society, are estimated to number around 500,000, along with some 75,000 Buddhist nuns in the Southeast Asian country.

* Polyethylene terephthalate

** Thabarwa Centre — A Refuge for the Homeless in Myanmar (Buddhistdoor Global)

*** Myanmar Animal Shelter Uses Buddhist Chants to Soothe Stray Dogs (Buddhistdoor Global)

See more

Thabarwa Centre
Thabarwa Sayadaw U Ottamasara (Facebook)
Myanmar’s upcycling monk leads push to cut plastic waste (Reuters)
Myanmar’s upcycling monk leads push to cut plastic waste (SWI)
Aged care homes during COVID-19 (Myanmar Times)

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