I Was a Volunteer Teacher for 200+ Buddhist Monks
When I started my journey through Asia, I had two things on my list: spend as much time as possible in Japan and live among Buddhist monks in Myanmar.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I let go of the first dream but took a lot out of the second one.
I arrived in Myanmar in February 2020, with a precise plan for all the 28 days I was about to spend exploring the country.
But a quick scroll on Couchsurfing landed me an unforgettable experience that was not part of my plan. Yet, it ended up being the highlight of my trip.
Arriving in Yangon
I checked in at a hostel in downtown Yangon, on a Friday evening, and was planning to be on my own until Monday. That’s when my real adventure was about to begin: living in a Buddhist center, with 2 nuns, for 2 weeks. No internet access, no contact with the outside world.
But on Saturday morning, I scrolled for a few minutes on Couchsurfing, to see if there are some travelers around. Since those were the last days when I could socialize, before handing my phone and laptop over to the Buddhist nuns, I thought I might as well spend them in good company.
It did not take long until I came across Alice’s profile, an Australian working as an English teacher at a primary school in Yangon.
Her profile read two things that caught my eye:
- On weekends, she volunteers at a monastery, which also works as a language center.
- Those who are interested can join her on Sundays and teach for a day.
So I texted to ask if there was still a free spot and she replied in less than an hour. Because the monastery is a one-hour drive from the city, there’s a car that comes to pick her up so she offered to host me the night before.
Eight hours later, I had packed my bags, checked out of the hostel, and was enjoying a glass of wine in Alice’s living room. We talked for about 2 hours while waiting for Chloe, a 30-year old French woman who was also traveling solo around South-East Asia.
After one month spent in Vietnam, she landed in Yangon that Saturday evening. Her first stop: Alice’s place. Her second one: the Buddhist monastery.
A Sunday Spent at the Monastery
It was about 3 a.m. when we went to sleep, but at 8 a.m., we were already in the van, on the way to the monastery.
We made two stops along the way. The first one was to pick up another two volunteers, Sasha from Russia and Sofia from Italy. The second one was to pick up four Buddhist monks from the university where they are studying — International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University, the university almost all monks in Yangon want to be a part of.
The young Buddhist monks were curious about us. We had tons of questions about them.
About half an hour later, we arrived at the monastery. But before heading to the classes, we all got to meet Chris and Emma, two Americans who were working there full time, volunteering as English teachers.
Emma was getting ready to leave the monastery in a few days, after staying there for a full year, but Chris had no such plans. He has been volunteering there for over 7 years, flying back home every few months, to spend some time with his family.
And I can see why.
Even before I stepped into the classroom, I knew I wanted to come back, and I even made a promise I will come to teach full time in June, when the next semester was supposed to begin.
But then the coronavirus pandemic came.
The borders closed, and I no longer had control over my promise. Which I never had in the first place.
If there’s one thing we should all learn from everything that has happened lately is that we should live one moment at a time. Not even one day at a time. We don’t know what the next hour will bring, how can we know anything about tomorrow?
But that’s a story for another time. Now let’s go back to the monastery outside Yangon.
After a short meeting, Alice and the long-term teachers had decided what would be the best approach for the day. And it looked like this:
- about 220 students split into 6 groups, based on their level of English
- 2 groups of volunteer teachers
- 2 classes held simultaneously
- a 10-minute break between classes
Now, it’s true that we had planned for the classes to last for one hour and we had prepared some books and lessons to go over. But it’s also true it went nothing like that.
For the first class, we took our shoes off, walked in front of the classroom, and saw about 30 young Buddhist monks with bright eyes and big smiles. We introduced ourselves, then Alice took over with a simple question:
“Would you rather do some grammar exercises and read from the book I brought for today or talk freely with Larisa and Chloe?”
The answer was loud and clear:
“Talk freely”, said the students laughing.
In less than ten seconds, almost all of them raised their hands. They had questions. We had some, too.
The conversations were easy and an hour felt like 5 minutes. Most of the questions were about how they can improve their level of English. And we all gave them our best tips. Except for Alice, we are all non-native speakers, so we had a long list of tips&tricks.
The young Buddhist monks were also curious about us so they asked about our traditions, religion, and lifestyle.
But make no mistake. There were lots of questions I had no answer to.
“What’s your purpose in life?” was one of them. I still don’t have a concise and simple answer to it. Maybe I don’t have to. Or do I?
Back to our story, though.
After half an hour, Alice would put the ball in our court. It was time for us to ask the questions. We too were curious about their traditions, their religion, and their lifestyle.
At the end of every class, there was no white space left on the board.
On the right side, the young Buddhist monks would write titles of books they recommend, among foods we should try and places we should see in Myanmar. On the left side, Chloe and I would write some words in Romanian and French, but also the ones in English that they did not understand.
When Alice would say the class is over, nobody wanted to leave. We stayed talking for at least 15–20 minutes more, every time. And even when most of the students would leave the classroom, there were always some that would stick around.
And those are the ones that also asked me if I would like to help them to practice their English in writing, too. So now, six months later, we still chat on Facebook.
We ended up leaving the monastery at 5 p.m. The classes finished at around 2 p.m., but there was so much left to talk about. So we gathered in smaller groups, and this time, they did most of the talking.
We went over the fundamentals of Buddhism, what’s the process of becoming a monk, how they spend their days, and how they plan to use their wisdom.
When we said goodbye to Chris and Emma, they thanked us for everything we have done that day. But I feel like I took much more out of it.
We are the ones who should be thankful. And we are.
Volunteering in Myanmar
All the monks I’ve met that Sunday have the same goal: to be accepted at the International Theravāda Buddhist Missionary University. And everybody puts the effort into it. In fact, the Abbot of the monastery is strict about their schedule. He does his best to seek out foreigners who are willing to come and stay at the monastery for at least one semester.
In return, he asks the young monks to be committed. So he only has one rule: if a student fails three tests, he has to leave the language center. There is a high competition to get into that University, and there are just a few spots every year. So he wants to help the ones that are serious about their studies.
That’s why there’s always at least one teacher who lives at the monastery and has classes during the week. There are a few one-room buildings, with private bathrooms, where the volunteers stay.
Breakfast is served at 6.30 in the morning and lunch at 11.30. While the monks do not have dinner, they would happily provide something in the evening too.
As a teacher there, you also get access to lots of books and materials on Buddhism. But most of all, you have the opportunity to live among Buddhist monks and learn from them.
You may give a lot, by teaching them English, but what you get in return is priceless.
While Myanmar may feel far away at the moment, it’s one of the best places to learn more about Buddhism.
If you want to teach or study at a monastery or Buddhist language center in Myanmar, you have to obtain a recommendation letter from the Abbot and then apply for a meditation visa for 90 days.
While I couldn’t continue my travels because of the pandemic, I have no regrets. My plan was to travel around Asia for about two years, but at the moment, safety comes first.
So I’m back in Romania, working on new and exciting projects. I’m also happy to hear that the monastery was able to adapt to the current situation and they now have online classes.
My friend Alice is already testing a few platforms to teach English online and I might join her.
I couldn’t keep my promise to go back to Myanmar in June and become a full-time teacher, but now I can have some online classes with the young Buddhist monks that taught me so much.
And this is by far one of the highlights of this year.