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A great honor

by Rosa Salter Rodriguez, The Journal Gazette, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Photos by Clint Keller | The Journal Gazette
Temporary monks are ordained during a local ceremony July 5 led by Ashin Kaw Vida, right, of Fremont, Calif. The day also marked the grand opening of the Dhammarekkhita Monastery’s Thila Withawdani Sima Hall.

Former Fort Wayne resident Nelintun Yeelin is standing in the entryway of one of Fort Wayne's newest religious buildings.

He watches through a window as nearly three dozen men in rust-colored robes, their heads shaved, sit cross-legged in straight rows on the floor of the next room.

One of Theravada Buddhism's sacred rites is unfolding there – an ordination ceremony that will make the participants monks – at least for a time.

Yeelin, 33, is reminiscing.

"I used to be a temporary monk," says the Purdue engineering graduate who lives in Mishawaka.

"I lived for six or seven years as a novice and studied Buddhism. And I was a monk for nine days in 2000. It is a great honor."

And for young men like him, a son of Burmese Buddhist parents, a great duty.

"For the mother and father, it is a wish for a lifetime to have your son become a monk," says Dr. Khynne Swe Myint, a Burmese pediatric anesthesiologist who traveled from Springfield, Ill., for the ceremony.

"We believe it bars the gates of hell for us (parents)," she says.

The formal opening of the Thila Withawdani Sima Hall at Dhammarekkhita Monastery, 8133 Hartzell Road, was underpinned with that kind of solemnity.

But the daylong event July 5 also was a joyous occasion for members of the region's Burmese Buddhist community – the culmination of a yearslong dream of creating a sacred place where they can safely re-create their religion and culture.

A sima, or ordination hall, is the setting for nearly all religious ceremonies on the Buddhist calendar. And it's necessary for ordaining monks and nuns, who are central to the community.

Monks are the way the teachings of the Buddha are passed down, says Dr. Khin Mar Oo, an internist from Auburn.

She is president of Fort Wayne's Society of Theravada Buddha Sasana, which built the sima, one of perhaps a half-dozen free-standing simas in the United States.

"The monks are always respected, and they have the utmost respect from us," Oo says.

Unlike in Christianity, where monks profess vows for life, temporary monkhood is common in Theravada Buddhism in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Men can become monks for as few as three days to a week, or they can continue for several months or a year at a time. There is no shame in leaving temporary monkhood after the agreed-upon time has passed.

When men become temporary monks, they must follow more of the Buddha’s precepts for living than are required for ordinary people but far fewer than those whose lifetime is devoted to monkhood.

But even temporary monks gain spiritual advancement in this lifetime and are accorded merits that accrue for themselves – and their parents – in the next life.

Lay Buddhists in the Theravada tradition promise not to kill, steal, lie, commit sexual immorality or indulge in substances such as alcohol or drugs that would cloud the mind and judgment.

Among the promises by monks: Not to eat after noon to be more conscientious in their practice of meditation. Monks also abstain from perfumes and luxuries, such as soft seats and bedding.

As one advances in monkhood, the promises become more numerous, amounting to more than 200 rules for senior monks, such as the ones who traveled from the U.S. and Canada to officiate at the ordination, Oo says.

Monks also put aside worldly possessions and live only on what others give them. When the temporary monks emerged from the ordination last Saturday, they had only their three robes and a brown ceramic bowl for eating and receiving alms.

But they were greeted by more than 100 people who had set up tables outside and filled them with bottled water, washcloths, pencils, paper and various snacks.

The new monks were served lunch before anyone else, then transported by van to visit area monasteries as part of a procession in honor of Buddha and the new sima.

It's considered meritorious for laypeople to support monks in any of their needs, Oo says, including cleaning and cooking at monasteries and donating money for sacred buildings and celebrations. Such free acts of generosity advance the Buddhist’s spiritual state, as does becoming a monk even for a short while, Yeelin says.

"The monk tries to become a noble human," he explains. "Even for a while, (becoming and living as a monk) is like a taste of (ultimate) happiness."

A temporary monk can take what he learns from meditation and study to become a more moral person in his everyday life, Yeelin says. Long-standing monks have much more status and wisdom, he adds.

"The monks' responsibility is to teach us, teach everyday life to us, how to become a good person. And if someone has some type of trouble in their life, they go to the monks."

That is especially true of the Fort Wayne area's refugees, who are separated from their families, Oo says.

"In Fort Wayne, there are over 4,000 Burmese, and 90 percent are refugees. They left the country in 1988, when there were demonstrations against the government, so most of them were teenagers (when they left).

"After that, they have no way to be in touch with their families, so the monks are like their parents and even at a higher level than their parents," she says.

Locally, monks have taken a major role in social and political leadership among refugees, as they have in Myanmar's recent anti-government demonstrations. Monks also have led charitable efforts in the wake of natural disasters, including the recent Cyclone Nargis.

"It is out of their sympathy to the suffering of the people," Oo says.

A community without monks would be unthinkable, says Soe Thein, former president of the local Theravada. Thein, who helped raise money for the sima beginning in 2005, traveled from his new home in Virginia to witness its opening.

He called it "a blessing. I am very happy," he says.

source: http://www.journalgazette.net/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080712/FEAT04/807120372

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Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammāsambuddhassa.
Buddha sāsana.m cira.m ti.t.thatu.