High marks for monastic school


It’s 4.30am and the morning is off to a beautiful start. The weather on this day was cool and pleasant, serene, quiet and peaceful.  Although most people in the neighbourhood were still in bed, the little monastery that doubles up as a monastic school was already awake and bustling with young novices, staff and helpers performing their tasks and duties. 

Thanks to the monastic education, the people of Myanmar had acquired literacy even before the Rosetta Stone era. (Staff/The Myanmar Times)Thanks to the monastic education, the people of Myanmar had acquired literacy even before the Rosetta Stone era. (Staff/The Myanmar Times)

The young monks and novices were already in the large zayat (open structure used for social and religious events), sitting rows upon rows in the half knee-bent posture with their hands clasped in prayer.  The high abbot, deputies and others were chanting the ceremonial morning mantras and prayers. The voices, in unison, sounded pleasant and soothing. 

After a short while, the morning prayers ended with everyone reciting holy verses and spreading metta (Buddhist virtue of loving kindness) to all living beings at the ten strata of the universe, ranging from the celestial abodes to the human world, as well as to the animal and insect worlds and to those paying penance in the lower abodes.

After the prayer session, there was a five-minute silence when everyone sat cross-legged, with straight and erect backs and eyes closed, concentrating in breathing in and out –  a basic preliminary exercise that is part of meditation.

At the end of the prayers and the breathing meditation exercise, the group stood up and dispersed to their respective classes for lessons, some reciting loudly their lesson and some quietly taking notes.

Breakfast is at 5.30am.  The novices and young monks started queuing and walked slowly, silently in single file towards the dining hall.  At the entrance of the dining hall, two helpers scooped steaming rice on plates or alms bowl.

Prayer of thanks

The gravy to go with the rice was placed on a small round table set for four to five persons.  When everyone was at their places, the group clasped their hands together in prayer and recited two verses. 

One verse was to remind them to be grateful and give metta to the teachers and to the benefactors and helpers at the monastery and the second verse was to remind them of the purpose of taking the meal, which is to achieve knowledge and wisdom.

During the meal, the dining hall was quiet and still.

After breakfast, there is about half an hour of leisure and rest where the children and novices take strolls or play in the monastery grounds.  This is followed by a session of light duty where children clear up litter or sweep the compound.

Lessons begin at 8am and end at 3pm, with an hour’s break for lunch in between. However, for the young monks and novices, 8:30am signals the time that they have to go out to the neighbourhood and begin collecting alms and food for their lunch.

The classes range from kindergarten to standard eight when students sit for the government examination.  On passing the standard eight exams, they have to continue their education at other schools that have ninth and tenth standards.

Monastic education has had a rather long and turbulent history. It played a dominant role during the era when Myanmar kings ruled the land.

The high priests and high abbots were very learned and wise, in both Buddhist scriptures and Myanmar literature. They were strict disciplinarians and were able to train, guide and produce renowned scholars and intellectuals from among their pupils.

Vital role

The Honorable Maharsi Sayadaw, Honorable Withotedaryone Yaw Sayadaw, who passed the Tripitaka highest examination, was among the outstanding intellects who owed their brilliance and scholarship to the monastic system of education.

It was thanks to the monastic education that the people of Myanmar acquired literacy even before the Rosetta Stone era as evidenced by the discovery of numerous stone and bell inscriptions, palm leaves and parabaiks — which are the ancient manuscripts found throughout the country.

Monastic education has endured and survived the turbulent times under the British colonial period.  It faced competition as Christian missionary schools began sprouting all over the country, especially in the hilly parts of the northern and eastern regions as well as in the delta area.

After the country gained independence, monastic education once again received attention and was supported and subsidised in part during the parliamentary period. 

But when the socialist government subsequently came into power, monastic education was ignored and rejected. However, during former president U Thein Sein’s tenure, monastic education was revived and encouraged.

The government recognized the importance and role that monastic education plays in the education of the community, especially among the lower income group in rural areas and hilly regions where many ethnic minorities live.

In March 1993, the Aung Myay Thukha monastery was selected and invited to meet local education officials to help establish a local monastic school in Yangon.

The school first opened with 45 students, mostly from poor families who could not afford full tuition fees.  Word spread fast and many children at other monasteries started moving to the Aung Myay Thukha school.

As expected, these young children were mostly from ethnic minority families and were from single-parent families or orphans. 

The majority of them were mostly Pa-O, followed by the Palaung, Shan, Kayin and Naga ethnic races.  It is interesting to note that although they came from different ethnic families, these children were all cheerful and lovable, full of enthusiasm and energetic. They were a happy lot and appreciated what was being done for them at the school.

A long journey

News of how the high abbot of the school was struggling to keep things going to ensure that the disadvantaged children received an education spread quickly. Offers started pouring in from people who volunteered their time to teach the students.  Donations in cash and kind as well as meals also started coming in to the school.

Meanwhile, the number of students started increasing, reaching around 450. There is now a newly built double storey brick building to accommodate several classrooms which was donated by a prominent cardiac physician. Another building was recently constructed, this time the main donor was a retired lady obstetrician-gynecologist.

Aung Myay Thukha monastic school has come a long way. Starting with just a few old benches and study tables, it has flourished to become a fully established middle eighth standard monastic high school.

The academic achievement of the students also reflects the high standards of education at the school as many receive high marks in the government eighth standard examination regularly.    

Four students from ethnic minority families, who continued their studies in state schools, passed their matriculation with high marks.

One student from a Naga family even qualified to enter the dental institute. 

A visitor to the monastic school will be impressed by the excellent and successful work which the school committee and the local community have put in. 

But, the work is far from finished. There is still a lot to be done for the children and the school.

Source: Myanmar Times