What a Burmese monk taught me about love and friendship

January 30, 2017
Celinne Da Costa

Little did I know that four days after stepping foot in Myanmar, I would be sitting in the presence of one of the country’s most well-known monks.

In my journey to circumnavigate the world by couch-surfing through my social network, Myanmar has brought me the most serendipitous memories. While this was one of the few countries where I could not find people to host me ahead of time, I somehow ended up spending most of my time with locals.

My host in Inle Lake, one of the most magical places I encountered in Myanmar, was a hotel manager for Golden Island Cottages. But, in just a day’s time, he became so much more: not only was he my guide for the next few days, he was also a born-and-raised local, a well-known former cow smuggler for Thailand, and an ex-guerilla freedom fighter against the oppressive, socialist, and military Burmese government of the 1980s. Lastly, he was a good friend of U Tha Wona, a dedicated monk who has refuged hundreds of children during the chaotic civil war period in Myanmar, which left over a million orphaned and abandoned.

You can imagine my awe when I found myself sitting in U Tha Wona’s living room at Phaya Taung Monastery, about two hours from the touristic area of Inle Lake. After sitting with this monk for a few hours and soaking in his calm, soothing, and inspired presence, I shyly asked if I could interview him. He said yes.

traveller and monk sitting together in Myanmar

Our traveller meets with U Tha Wona, a monk in Myanmar | Photo courtesy of Celinne Da Costa

I share with you what I learned about love and friendship from a Buddhist monk:

What does friendship mean to you?

U Tha Wona: Friendship is composed of three elements: hospitality, trust, and helping one another.

By hospitality, I mean that true friends should share everything they have. If I can give to my friend, then I will. But it extends deeper than that… if I cannot give to my friend and he is in need, then I will find another way through which I can give.

The next element, trust, is about developing a genuine affection for your friend. Some “friendships” contain hostility or even hate. In real friendships, however, people love one another and from that, arises trust. You trust that the other will want your happiness.

The last element is help. Friendships must cultivate an attitude of kindness towards the other person. If your friend is hungry, you should give them something to eat. If they fall, you should help them up. Friends must always be a relationship of kindness.

What is healthy love between two partners?

U Tha Wona: A long-lasting relationship also is composed of three key elements: promise, understanding, and faith.

When you are in a relationship, you have made a promise to each other. When you promise someone something, you should uphold it, because it is sacred and should be honored as such.

You must also have a strong understanding of one another. That means that although you may have bad days, you both understand that this does not change your good character. It’s important to naturally understand what the other person needs, whether that’s space or comfort.

Lastly, it’s crucial to have faith in one other. Faith means living your life in truth, and knowing that everything the other person does is also done in truth. You are both living a life that is true to yourselves and to others, and you believe that your partner is doing the same. Faith in your partner is what creates a healthy love.

children training as monks in Myanmar

The child monks of Myanmar | Photo by Celinne Da Costa

What is human connection to you? What ingredients need to be there?

U Tha Wona: I am a Buddhist man and a monk. To me, there is no difference if the person who approaches me is a man, woman, ill, ugly, or whatever it may be.

To have a strong human connection, you need to have a good attitude and a good mind.

In my monastery, we do not practice status classification. What I mean is, how someone looks like won’t determine my opinion or willingness to help. I will not make any assumptions of whether a person is good or bad based on appearance. Every person who comes here is welcomed equally and treated the same. I will provide what I can to whomever I can. I do not care about skin color or religion. The only class I believe in is humans.

I believe that every person is our relative, in this life or a previous one. The main ingredients to strong human connection are politeness, recognition of sameness, and not having doubt. The first is obvious: be polite to everyone. Then, recognize that each and every one of us is, at our core, human. Lastly, never make instant assumptions about someone you meet, because doubt damages trust.

What is your dream?

U Tha Wona: My dream is to do good things every day. I want to have good moral discipline, to do good work (especially with charity), and share my knowledge with other people as much as I can. I particularly want to do that with the children at the monastery, so they can become educated, polite people who will love peace and want to share that love.

I believe that my life is too short, and that’s why my dream is to do good things every single day. I don’t know what will happen the next.

What is your personal oasis, the place where you go for refuge and peace?

U Tha Wona: I’m an ordinary monk. I’m not special or supernatural. But I try to get peace of mind in the love that I’ve passed on in the past 59 years. I try to have it every minute of every day, but it’s not automatic.

But, I haven’t yet reached total peace of mind. All I can do is be aware of it. I know and understand my mind — when I’m angry, I know I’m angry. When I’m happy, I know I’m happy.

My personal oasis, then, is myself. There is no special physical place. Every day, in the morning, I go to the pagoda to try to catch that peace of mind and control my mind. I remind myself that one day I will die, and everything will be left behind. All that will remain is the kindness and love I’ve spread in this world. This, I think, gives me the ultimate peace of mind.