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.”