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Dr. Ashin Nyanissara (Sitagu Sayadaw)
The nearest western equivalent of the status of Dr. Ashin Nyanissara, or Sitagu Sayadaw, in Burma is that of a celebrity. Bhikkhu Cintita describes a dhamma talk given by the monk in Burma to be similar to a rock concert, with crowds of people reaching numbers up to 10,000. The first time Cintita met Nyanissara, his “first impression was that he was holding court, given how many people visit and pay respects to the Sayadaw.” Constantly traveling both in Burma and abroad, he is famous for his charismatic yet perceptive dhamma talks, “much like a traveling Christian preacher,” Cintita notes. As Cintita initially spoke about the figure of Sitagu Sayadaw, he painted a picture of a generous and compassionate benefactor, dedicating his talent as a gifted speaker with a “profound knowledge of dhamma and meditation” to charitable works as he uses the events he holds as fundraisers for one of the many organizations he has founded. Some of the organizations include the work of hospital construction (so far 26 have been built), disaster relief, water donation projects, and construction of Burmese Theravada monasteries abroad.
Even though Cintita spent 13 months in Burma learning from and eventually being ordained by Nyanissara, he remarked that he did not really get to know him until the Sayadaw came to visit Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, TX. He ascribed this to the fact that while in Austin, Nyanissara received an incredibly small number of visitors compared to back in Burma, and often used the time he spent in America as downtime. This humble monk was shockingly ordinary to Cintita, although he did have an extraordinary sense of humor. “[Sayadaw] has a very quick mind,” Cintita states, “he always understands my jokes, and is a fantastic story-teller!”
During one of Nyanissara’s stays in America, many of the other monks had duties that called them away from the monastery, leaving Cintita alone with the Sayadaw for a period of three weeks; a very rare thing. It was then that Cintita started learning information he would later make use of as he now is writing a biography of Nyanissara’s life; a feat Cintita notes has not been accomplished in English.
Cintita recalls a story of when the Sayadaw was hospitalized while still a young monk. Nyanissara noted how the hospital he was taken to in Burma was Catholic, and began to reflect on why there were no Buddhist hospitals. “Buddhism has often been criticized as a passive religion that teaches kindness, compassion and generosity, but does not have charitable, large-scale public works that Christians are well known for,” Cintita explains. “Some Sri Lankan monks have argued that Buddhism has been historically active in education and government, as monks gabe advice to kings, until colonialism saw the monastics as a threat.” Cintita explains that during the time the western powers colonized South and Southeast Asia, they perceived the monastic Buddhist Sangha, at the time over 500,000 monks strong in Burma, to be threatening. They subsequently disenfranchised the public works, separating the religion from the state and building Christian schools and starting a long tradition of Christian charity in these countries.
However, sitting in a Catholic hospital sick as a young monk, Nyanissara looked at Christian charity as an example with an impetus to begin building Buddhist hospitals, start organizations for Buddhist disaster relief, and begin universities sponsored by Buddhism to educate the population. This is the central idea behind socially engaged Buddhism, according to Cintita. In Cintita’s eyes, there is a “tendency in religions to be afraid of each other and the influence another religion has [on your community], but once together they are better able to help each other too.” “Buddhism, Cintita states, has helped Christianity to revive a contemplative life centering on prayer and meditation in the Catholic Church.”
Cintita also explains that the life of Dr. Ashin Nyanissara is shrouded in mystery due to the delicate nature of the Sayadaw’s relationship with the Burmese government. A military junta for the past 50 years, the conservative government violently suppressed a student revolt in 1988, which Cintita states was more of a student protest. “Nyanissara, about 50 years old at the time and already well known for public speaking, gave a radio address, which was recorded and spread around and almost everybody in Burma heard it.” In it, he addressed the historical responsibilities of kings quoting a lot of Buddhist scriptures, a subtle critique of the military junta. However, the government recognized it for what it was and exiled the Sayadaw from the state of Burma. Cintita explains that if the government were to have just thrown a prominent monk such as Nyanissara in jail at this point, there would have been too large of an uprising from the population to be worth it.
However, such was the stature of Sitagu Sayadaw that he was able to negotiate a deal with the government to allow him back into Burma. The government, however, would only allow this if the monk disrobed, which would effectually take away his status and prominence as a Buddhist authority. Once aware of this negotiation, an elder, more prominent monk who Cintita has yet to identify pledged to disrobe if Nyanissara was forced too. So great was the public backlash to the government that Sayadaw was allowed to return to Burma without disrobing, so long as he did not publicly discredit the regime.
He then spent the following decades developing his charity organizations both in Burma and abroad without being hindered by the Burmese government. Cintita believes that outside of the public eye, the Sayadaw must be doing a lot of skillful political balancing to be able to keep the military generals from sanctioning him. The first time Cintita went to Burma, he was “expecting a Gestapo like treatment in Yangon” where the military were searching everyone in customs and checkpoints were backed up. Sure enough, when his plane landed, that was what he found. However, once recognized by the military authorities at the airport as being a part of the Sayadaw’s entourage, they were waved through without a hindrance. “Sitagu” was the name of the original monastery where Nyanissara was an abbot located in the Sagain Hills near Mandalay, and Cintita explains that in Burma nicknames are more common than using birth names. Thus, the name of Sitagu has followed Sayadaw and been attached to most of his organizations. The name of Sitagu is so widely recognized that during rest of his 13 months in the country, whenever driving in a car marked “Sitagu,” Cintita would be waved through military checkpoints without being stopped.
Much of this information is only just being released now that Aung San Suu Kyi, “the daughter of Burma’s George Washington” and political ally and friend of Nyanissara, is leading the parliament and the government is becoming more relaxed. However, the political stability is tenuous being that the military generals still have a lot of power and a coup is possible at any point in time.
Considering the Sayadaw’s status in Burma, his relationship with the government and political leaders, his location at the forefront of socially engaged Buddhism, and his affable nature as a monk, it is not difficult to see why this prominent figure is revered by so many.1
Bhikkhu Cintita (Sitagu Buddha Vihara Monk), in discussion with the author, June 5th, 2016 ↩