Buddhist-only compassion on display at Sitagu Sayadaw’s birthday party

Attendees at Sitagu Sayadaw’s birthday celebration in Mandalay on March 2, 2018. Photo: Aye Min Thant
Attendees at Sitagu Sayadaw’s birthday celebration in Mandalay on March 2, 2018. Photo: Aye Min Thant

Thousands of monks, nuns, and members of the public flocked to Sagaing Hill from Feb. 28 to March 2 to celebrate the 81st birthday of Ashin Nyanissara, better known as Sitagu Sayadaw.

There are few monks as well-loved in Myanmar as this sayadaw. Known as the monk who brought clean water to Sagaing Hill, Sitagu Sayadaw has devoted his life to providing Myanmar people with access to material resources such as good infrastructure, healthcare, and education as part of his Buddhist practice. He has built school and hospitals, teaches meditation, and participates in interfaith activities around the world. To many in Myanmar, he is the personification of the best Myanmar Buddhism has to offer.

Sitagu Sayadaw
Sitagu Sayadaw pulls up to his birthday celebration in Mandalay on March 2, 2018. Photo: Aye Min Thant

He was also once the vice chairman of Ma Ba Tha, an extremist Buddhist nationalist group, known for leading a successful legislative push in 2015 to curtail the reproductive freedoms of Myanmar’s Muslim citizens.

Though his affiliation with Ma Ba Tha is not as well-known or widely reported on internationally as that of monks like U Wirathu, he, too, has espoused anti-Muslim, Buddhist-nationalist beliefs. He once stated that “Buddhists are hosts and Muslims are guest, the guests must obey the hosts.” He has supported efforts to enshrine Buddhism as the official religion of Myanmar. Recently, he came under criticism for a sermon he delivered to army officers in Kayin State in Oct. 2017, which contained a parable that, at best, suggests that killing in the defense of Buddhism can be forgiven, and, at worst, that it is acceptable to kill Muslims because they are less than human.

READ: Not all Buddhists agree with Sitagu Sayadaw’s militant message

Despite this, the three days of his birthday celebration were widely and proudly attended. Alms were given to a thousand monks on the first day, a thousand nuns on the second, and a thousand students of the sayadaw on the third. The money, organizational skills, and labor hours necessary for this display of generosity were donated by Sitagu Sayadaw’s many supporters. U Thein Sein, the former President of Myanmar, was also in attendance and paid his respects to Sitagu Sayadaw in a closed-door ceremony. Several companies donated money and volunteered their employees to work the event and put up banners along the alms line with their logos.

Public donations pile up at at Sitagu Sayadaw's birthday celebration
Public donations pile up at at Sitagu Sayadaw’s birthday celebration in Mandalay on March 2, 2018. Photo: Aye Min Thant

Though some Myanmar Buddhists have denounced Sitagu Sayadaw for his anti-Muslim sentiments, he continues to be widely respected in the country. One volunteer, Daw Myint Myint Thein, 66, said of the controversy: “No matter which sayadaw it is, there will be those who support him and those who do not. The majority of people support Sitagu Sayadaw. It is the same as it was during Buddha’s time. There were also people who criticized Buddha.”

In a way, it is easy to see why his supporters defend him. The sayadaw has devoted his life to promoting Buddhism through good works, and he wholeheartedly engages in projects that help improve the lives of his fellow citizens. His involvement in Ma Ba Tha and association with monks clearly engaging in hate-speech even makes a certain sort of sense when you consider that when this organization and these monks were not inciting anti-Muslim sentiments and actions, they were donating money to Cyclone Nargis victims, organizing volunteers, and genuinely working to improve the lives of (some) Myanmar people. Though it may be expressed in hateful or violent ways sometimes, there is a consistent commitment to the “protection of race and religion.”

Monks gather alms at Sitagu Sayadaw's birthday celebration
Monks gather alms at Sitagu Sayadaw’s birthday celebration in Mandalay on March 2, 2018. Photo: Aye Min Thant

Sitagu Sayadaw, from his actions to his sermons to personal interactions people have had with him, seems to be absolutely sincere in his desire to help the Myanmar people. It is unfortunate that his political beliefs do not allow him to see non-Buddhists as an inherent part of Myanmar. Ironically, Buddhist-nationalism is limiting his ability to feel loving-kindness towards all beings. By tacitly endorsing violence toward religious minorities and explicitly endorsing a religious hierarchy in Myanmar, Sitagu Sayadaw limits his own practice of Buddhism.

One can only imagine how much more good he could do, as charismatic a speaker and educator as he is, were he to take up the cause of promoting an equitable, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious Myanmar society.

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