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Authored by Megan Wang & Zach Montes
As Aung Koe, a Burmese-English translator and co-founder, enters the monastery the first thing he does is perform a five-point veneration, a bow, to the statue of Buddha and then to the monk sitting in an armchair to the side of the statue. He worked as a lawyer for the government in Burma for ten years before joining the opposition in the 1988 uprising. He could not survive in Burma after that, as the government had his name and information and would have persecuted him and his family, and so he fled to Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and eventually Minnesota in November 1994. “As soon as I got off of the airplane, I grabbed the snow. I’d never seen it, I loved it.” He did not know anything about Minnesota or St. Paul or Minneapolis before moving here, but the war relief organization sponsored him to come to Minnesota as a refugee where his family joined him later on.
According to Koe, in 1994 there were only five or so Burmese families in the Twin Cities, but in the late ‘90s more and more Burmese people moved to Minnesota. They did not have their own Burmese monastery or temple, so they rented Lao, Thai, and Cambodian monasteries for worship and rituals; “But they don’t speak our language and their English is also not so good,” Koe said. These difficulties as well as a growing demand from the Burmese population led him to set up a monastery, which he did in April of 2004 with the help of Ashin Nyanissara. Nyanissara is one of the most prominent monks in Burma and the founder of the Sitagu Missionary Association, which works together with the Theravada Dhamma Society of America (TDSA) to build monasteries and temples in the Burmese Theravada Buddhist tradition all around the world. Nyanissara has helped Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in selecting monks, laying out blueprints for future expansions, and financially contributing amounts of up to $100,000.
One of the difficulties that Koe and his fellow co-founders experienced was discord as to what kind of monk to bring to the monastery. Koe describes the Twin Cities Burmese population as having “So many different kinds of ethnic groups, even though they have one belief in Buddhism.” The Burmese population includes Chin, Kachin, and Karen ethnic groups, each of which speak their own dialect and have their own traditions. Although they each wanted monks from their own ethnic groups, it was sure that they wanted it to be distinctly Theravada.
Koe said, “My idea is pure Theravada Buddhism, I wanted to start because there [was] no Theravada buddhism here yet.”
Eventually, a monk was agreed upon with blessings from Nyanissara, and he moved to Minnesota from Fort Wayne, Indiana in 2004. At the time, Koe offered his own home as a residence for the monk. While this is not unheard of for monks in America, such a thing would rarely happen in Burma because in Theravada Buddhism monks are to refrain from living a householder’s life. 1 It is just one of many adaptations to Theravada Buddhism that Burmese immigrants have had to make. Soon thereafter, though, the monk chose the current home in 2006 for its proximity to the Twin Cities as well as its proximity to Koe. The monk resettled there, and as membership grew, they added a Dhamma hall and parking space in 2010 where they could hold larger services. Ashin Tikkha and Aniruddha arrived three years ago and have been the resident monks at Sitagu Dhamma Vihara since. In Pali, “Sitagu” is the name of their parent organization, “Dhamma” is the teachings of Buddha, and “Vihara” means monastery.
Joseph Cheah, Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), 97.↩
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