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Buddhist monk Ashin Gunissara, who now lives in Baldwin Park, was born in the village of Taw Ku Gyi in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

The Irrawaddy Delta is the lowest expanse of land located in south western Myanmar where cultivation of rice and fishing communities thrive in a vast area of rivers and streams.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

The Irrawaddy Delta is the lowest expanse of land in southwestern Myanmar. Fishing communities thrive in a vast area of rivers and streams.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

In Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta region, rice is the major item of commerce. But cotton and other local commodities also make their way to local markets and Yangon for export.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Ashin Gunissara was born into a poor family in Myanmar. He couldn't afford to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor, but trained to become a novice monk at Ma Soe Yein Monastery in the village of Taw Ku Gyi.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Ashin Sanda Zawti is a longtime friend and teacher of Ashin Guinissara. The two grew up together at the Ma Soe Yein Monastery in Myanmar. Sanda Zawti said Guinissara "was brighter and more clever than the rest of the boys."

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Ma Soe Yein Monastery, or the "No Worry Monastery," is located in the tiny village of Taw Ku Gyi in Myanmarâ's Irrawaddy Delta.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

At Myanmar's Ma Soe Yein Monastery, subjects such as English, science and mathematics are taught to more than 300 students.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

A child reviews a lesson at Ma Soe Yein Monastery in Taw Ku Gyi, Myanmar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

The Ma Soe Yein Monastery in Taw Ku Gyi, Myanmar, offers children a free education to pursue their dreams. Donors such as Ashin Gunissara, who became a novice monk at the monastery, help cover the students' expenses.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Children at the Ma Soe Yein Monastery in Taw Ku Gyi, Myanmar, wear thanaka, a natural sunscreen made from the bark of a tree.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Ma Soe Yein Monastery in Taw Ku Gyi, Myanmar, has an enrollment of 300 children, including some from distant villages who are housed, clothed and fed.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Students at at Ma Soe Yein Monastery in Taw Ku Gyi, Myanmar, line up to wash their hands before a lunch of rice and vegetables. The cost of schooling and meals is subsidized by donors and the government of Myanmar.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Monasteries are establishments of social welfare in Myanmar, taking in orphans and the less fortunate.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Ashin Gunissara, a Buddhist monk who founded Dhammajoti Meditation Center in Baldwin Park, works with people from all walks of life: refugees, immigrants of several ethnicities of Burma, and Americans of color.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

USC student Robert Win Maw Min, 20, center, recently checked in for a three-day stay at the Dhammajoti Meditation Center in Baldwin Park. His head is shaven by Ashin U Uttama as part of the experience. Flanking the young man are his parents, Dr. Tin A Than, left and Dr. Sanda Win.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Buddhist monk Ashin Gunissara shaves the head of Filbert Win Min Aung, a freshman at Arcadia High School, as the 13-year-old begins a three-day stay at the Dhammajoti Meditation Center in Baldwin Park.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Buddhist monk Ashin Gunissara shaves the head of Filbert Win Min Aung, 13, at the Dhammajoti Meditation Center in Baldwin Park. The shaving of the head symbolizes giving up vanity.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Buddhist monk Ashin Gunissara, left, works with people from all walks of life at the Dhammajoti Meditation Center in Baldwin Park.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

"Shaving my head gives up vanity and becoming a monk shows respect to my parents and giving thanks for bringing me on this earth," said Filbert Win Min Aung, in foreground, a freshman at Arcadia High School.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

Through the teachings of Buddha, Ashin Gunissara, left, aims to continue his quest to help others cultivate understanding. As a monk, he is a teacher, counselor and spiritual mentor.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Gail Fisher / For The Times

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From a village in Myanmar to a meditation center in Baldwin Park: The path of a Buddhist monk

Gail Fisher for the Los Angeles Times

Ashin Gunissara was born in Taw Ku Gyi, a tiny village in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta. His parents were poor farmers and did not have the means to send him to school, so his dream of becoming a doctor never became a reality. Instead, he took a different path — a path into Buddha’s teachings. Monasteries are establishments of social welfare in Myanmar, taking in orphans and the less fortunate. So instead of a diet of English, science and mathematics, he studied the Burmese language and Pali, the holy language of Theravada Buddhism, at Ma Soe Yein Monastery and became a novice monk. Gunissara describes his education as: “A philosophy of breath and vision, reason and logic, and a way to inner calm that is conducive to happiness.” It was these values that led him into social services and serving others — “the Buddhist way of life,” he calls it.

His country, Burma, officially known as Myanmar, is bordered by China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India. An overwhelming majority 90% of the country’s people practice Buddhism. In Myanmar, the monastic system is a revolving door. People shave their heads, go into monasteries or nunneries for temporary periods of time to carefully observe their thoughts, their breathing, their feelings and their subconscious by means of meditation. This “monk initiation,” common in Myanmar, is not the norm in the United States. But, with the influx of Asians living in California, such three to nine day retreats have become more common in Buddhist meditation centers.

Through hard work and perseverance, Gunissara arrived in the United States in 1996. With a strong work ethic, discipline and motivation, he learned English, graduated from college and established the Dhammajoti Meditation Center in Baldwin Park. Social work was the avenue he chose to pursue, and with help from the community, and donors at home and abroad, he was able to build a school in the village of his youth at the Ma Soe Yein Monastery. This was his way of giving back to those who had generously helped him throughout his life — a school where English, mathematics, history and science could be taught to the poorest of the poor, many of whom are orphans. The school has an enrollment of 300 children, including some from distant villages who are housed, clothed and fed. It offers a free education for all to pursue their dreams. He feels strongly that a monk is a human being who walks a path to help others, and so he puts that belief into practice.

One recent evening, Dr. Tin A Than and his two sons, Robert Win Maw Min and Filbert Win Min Aung, all of Arcadia, came to Gunissara’s Dhammajoti Meditation Center for a retreat, where they would shave their heads, replace their clothes with robes and spend the next three days in seclusion following the rules and practices of a monk. Gunissara often assists such devotees — many of whom are refugees, immigrants of several ethnicities of Burma, and Americans of color — on their spiritual journeys.

The father and his two sons had experienced this initiation in Myanmar six years earlier, but the brothers were much younger. Filbert, barely able to remember his experience, was only 7 years-old at the time and Robert was just 13. They wanted to rediscover “mindfulness, inner peace and patience,” said Robert, who is now a student at USC.

Filbert, a freshman at Arcadia High School, explained: “Shaving my head gives up vanity and becoming a monk shows respect to my parents and giving thanks for bringing me on this Earth.”

All three men enthusiastically embraced their journey, struggled at times to keep their robes in place, and respectfully listened to the teachings of Buddha. At the end of the first evening, the boys felt refreshed, and according to Robert: “I feel more American than Burmese, [but] this helps me understand my culture, embracing the whole total of my identity and getting in touch with who I am.”

So through the teachings of Buddha, Gunissara aims to continue his quest to help others cultivate understanding. As a monk, he is a teacher, counselor and spiritual mentor. No barriers stop him from helping those in need. And, through these lessons he has learned, in a personal statement he wrote: “Everything we do is by choice and has good and bad results. That we are responsible for our own happiness and suffering. And, this understanding is a source of self-reliance, hope and courage to face life.”

 

2 Comments

  1. August 27, 2016, 10:17 am

    Such a tender piece. Reading it inspired me, not to mention the peace of mind it instilled in me.

    By: Gawsa1999@gmail.com
  2. August 28, 2016, 6:35 am

    More on Buddhism locally, please, LA Times.

    By: craigbhill@gmail.com

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