Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner



By John Meade

Discussion and Interpretation with Burmese Monks
      One of the most memorable experiences that I had in Burma was my visit to a local monastery and nunnery in Yangon.  We arrived at the facility to the welcoming cheers of young children from the surrounding neighborhood.  As we were led into the monastery we passed by dozens of monks going about their daily business.  Everyone seemed very pleased to see us.
     We were brought into a large reception room.  Seated in the room were all of the juvenile monks and nuns.  There were at least two hundred children and young adults waiting for us in the room.  We lined up in front of the stage and one of the older adolescent monks read a short speech welcoming us to their school and home.  A short song by the entire gathering followed.  We introduced ourselves, sang a short song in return, and were then allowed to break off into groups to have a discussion with the monks and nuns.  
     I approached a group of the older male monks and sat down with a friend from the trip.  We began to talk with the monks.  They were the same age as we, shared similar interests, and enjoyed making jokes with us.  We talked about school, homework, and the stress of being in your early twenties, and a multitude of other topics.  It was very easy to speak with them.  There was no tension in the air and they truly seemed to enjoy our company.

     The only real barrier that we faced was the difficulty of understanding each other’s language.  We obviously spoke quite limited Burmese and their English skills were minimal.  We had one of the administrators come over to help translate so that we could have a more stimulating conversation.  With his help we were able learn a great deal from the monks.  I did find it difficult to ask the questions that were really concerning me though.  I wanted to know about their decisions to join the monastery.  I wanted to know how deep their devotion to Buddhism was.  
     I realized after my trip to Burma that I should have been more prepared for my talk with the monks.  Even if they had been hesitant to answer my questions, I could have learned much from their body language after I asked the questions.  Laurie Price points out this fact when she discusses structured observation in chapter, "Carrying Out a Structured Observation" in Doing Cultural Anthropology.  She writes, “Ethnographic observation is particularly important when the subject is one about which participants might not be entirely forthcoming when asked questions about their behavior”.  Although I was able to infer much from their mannerisms, if I ever have the opportunity to speak with Burmese monks again (and I hope I do) I will enter into the discussion much better prepared to ask the tough questions that I want to know.

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