This is the third post about Phayartaung, in Myanmar, a place where smiles come easily and life has a especial taste, of old days, fresh air and love.
The history of Phayartaung Monastery is the story of Phom Phomgyi, the head master of the monastery. And his life is a history of devotion to provide education to the less privileged people from his country.
He is a well-built man in his 60s with a calm but strong voice. It is hard to see him in his house, he is always working on the several projects and construction sites around the monastery or receiving villagers from far away or monks from other monasteries. Phomgiy speaks few words in English, and as I don’t understand any Pao language or Burmese, so our communication had always to rely on a middle woman or man. Despite the language barrier, you can tell, without doubt, that he is a wise man with many stories that enchant his listeners.
His background is not so different from many of the children he helps today. He is from a very poor family and has lost his mother when he was 15 months old. For him, it was hard to get an education, due to the lack of schools near his house, so he was sent to a monastery where he could go further with his studies.
“There was nothing in the villages where I came from. No schools, no education – just poverty and illiteracy. My villagers had never even seen a house with a proper roof. I felt I had to do something to help my people in the little villages so that they did not remain so backward and to open up their minds so they became enlightened. It is like the footprint of a cow in a puddle; the frog sits in this little puddle and thinks it’s his kingdom. There is a whole world outside but my people did not even know it existed.” (Dada, 2012)
He realized how life in the city is different from the life in the rural area and how education and books can provide a broader understanding of the world. So, he came to a conclusion that the best way to help his people was through education. And since then this has been the main purpose of his life.
This was not an easy task to achieve, since Myanmar experienced violent armed conflicts at that time. He was once labeled anti-communist for his ideas and advices to the villagers to keep themselves away from political discussions. PhomGiy has even faced death threats, and had to step down, but nothing could get between him and his dream to provide education to the forgotten children of this remote area and his belief that education can transform his country. His attitudes and advices made the villagers trust him more and more and he began to be seen as a leader by the community.
In 1986 the works for a primary school began. It took him 5 years to collect 4 thousand dollars and set up an open structure with a roof to receive 60 children. In another 5 years they managed to build the walls around the structure and the number of children had risen to 200. They came from villages far away, so they had to work to provide also bed and food. The children kept coming and today, the school facilities are provided by the government and the monastery provides accommodation and food to more than a thousand children.
I was fortunate enough to be at Phayartaung Monastery during the celebrations of Phom Phomgiy birthday. It was incredible. On the day before the great day, people from far and nearby came before dawn to help prepare food and decorations for all guests. When the day finally came, everybody woke up even earlier to light candles in the pagoda and make sure everything looked beautiful. Outside, a painel with pictures from the old days of the monastery. Opposite to it poems written by the students. The guests came in their beautiful ethnic clothes. During the party all children received presents – simple gifts, but everybody received something. They could play, sing, dance. Parents came to visit their sons and daughters. More than a celebration of the man, it was a celebration of the work of a man who dedicated his life to promote education and who believes that education can transform his country.
Phomgyi succeeded. He has created an oasis of happiness in a harsh and remote area in Myanmar. A safe space where children can go, study, learn and be happy. A place that holds hope for a better future for his country.
In the next chapter: The village of Phayartaung.
Note: If you want to know more about Phomgyi life, Phayartaung monastery, Myanmar struggles, tales of spies involving monks and alms bowls, words of enlightenment and get to know a story of beautiful encounters that transcend religion and languages, I encourage you to read Children of the Revolution, beautifully written by Feroze Dada. And what is better, the profits from the book help the children of the monastery.
Quotes and data from: Dada, Feroze 2012. Children of the Revolution. Kindle edition.
For more pictures of Phayartaung Monastery check my album on Flickr.