My last days of 2013 were spent in the land of thousand pagodas, Myanmar. I flew in with little expectations and no itinerary, met up with my Hawai’i pal Nancy who flew in from New Zealand and we headed out immediately from Yangon to Sagaing in central Myanmar, 10 hours away right outside of Mandalay. We had made plans to meet up with Ukkamsa, a monk who did his masters in Hawaii the same time as we did, and thought we would spend a couple of days at his monastery to reorient and then take off by ourselves.

As in turned out, Ukkamsa stayed and traveled and guided us through most of our time in Myanmar. I could never have imagined such a perfect trip. We spent time sight seeing in Sagaing and Mandalay – the 2 major religious centers of the country, visited Bagan – the old kingdom capital littered with thousands of temples, crossed the mountain into Shan state, stayed at Ukkamsa’s mom’s in his native village, did some light hiking, took a boat around Inle lake, then went back to Yangon where we partied with tens of thousands at a downtown public concert.

Along the way, we talked about sustainability with student monks and nuns. We asked young people about their dating life, and what they do on dates. (Many go to temples rather than cinemas because it’s easier to get permission from parents.) We discussed the point of Buddhism and the concept of being areligious. It is a deeply spiritual land, and people are confused when I told them I was born Buddhist but am no longer one.

It was curious to see, and at times even unsettling to me how religious people are. Every Buddhist boy without exception becomes a novice at a local monastery. (The child can quit whenever he wants. If he stays until his 20 years old, he becomes a monk). Monks are spiritual leaders, and in many cases social services providers. They run free monastic schools, and sometimes even hospitals. The people are deeply reverent to their monks. They step out of their slippers when offering food to monks. They hold their hands together in front of their chest in prayer position when talking, or even just walking by. When Ukkamsa enters a home, everyone including his own mom comes out to shiko 3 times (prostration). He doesn’t ever have to do anything. Someone is always ready to go fetch his belongings, bring him food, pour him tea. It was too much cognitive dissonance because to me, he is a peer. I talk with him as an equal. We discuss and argue. We joke and tease.

Ukkamsa and I had seen each other many times at our dorm in, but we never actually talked. I was very withdrawn from the social scene there and was friends with few. As it turned out, we really clicked and I was so impressed with his personality, knowledge, and achievements that I regretted not trying harder to get to know people back  in Hawaii. Ukkamsa comes from a small village called Rough Water a few miles outside of Taunggyi, the capitol of Shan state. To this day, there is still no electricity lines there. Houses rely on small solar panels to run a couple of small lights at night. He was a novice at his village before he left for a monastery in Kalaw a few hours east of Taunggyi where he stayed for 6 years. At 20, he became a monk and asked his parents to send him to Mandalay, the center of Buddhist learning, to study for his 3 tests, all very difficult. Many take years to finish, some never finish. He studied hard and passed them in 3 years. He came back to Kalaw to teach for one year, and started to learn English, practicing mainly with tourists who walked into the monastery by chance while sightseeing the town. He then applied and got accepted to Sitagu, an international academy well-known and well-respected for its socially engaged Buddhism. From there, he went on to do a masters in philosophy in India, and later a masters in library studies in the US.

Ukkamsa is so easy going (I teased him with nicknames like the lazy monk, the sleepy monk, the monk in crocs) and yet he has big dreams. He wanted to become a monk so that he wouldn’t have to farm, and now he sees his monkhood as a kind of work. He is opening a big monastic school outside of Kalaw. He constantly connects with people about his project. “If I just wanted to attain nirvana, then I only needed to pray and meditate, I don’t need to do any of this,” he explained. While we were touring the playground of his friend’s school, admiring the little novices bursting in energy in their games of soccer and chinlone, he said: “If I had had this kind of opportunity when I was growing up, you wouldn’t even see me here now,” meaning he would have achieved even much much more. For a long time, I haven’t met anyone with such grounded ambition, someone who works hard for his goal but not overzealous. So Ukkamsa, when you run for president 10 or 20 years from now on, I’m coming back to work on your campaign and on the website ukkamsaforpresident.com.

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