Volunteering at a Meditation Center in Myanmar


Now typically when I think of "meditation center" the image that fills my mind is a small, tranquil place where a few monks live to practice meditation. Probably surrounded by nature. Immaculately clean. Very "Zen". No disruptions, phones, or chaos. Yoga pants. It's an idea so far away from what The Thabarwa Center is it's almost laughable. Thabarwa may not be the stereotypical version of a meditation center; it's so much more.

Thabarwa was founded by the monk Sayadaw Ottamathara in 2008 in Thanlyin, Myanmar. The center was created with the intent of giving the old, sick, and homeless a place of peace where they could find accommodation, food, education, and the opportunity to meditate. It’s a place people come to live and to die- a place where they can meditate peacefully and happily, do good deeds, and to find a deep sense of community. It's a home for all.

Although monks live here and meditation is practiced, Thabarwa is more like a large village. More than 3,400 people call ThaBarWa home and it runs completely on donations. It's chaotic. It's loving. It's filled with Myanmar people from different corners of the country, and a large building which hosts foreign volunteers.

From the eyes of a westerner, the living conditions seem so harsh. Stray dogs angrily attack each other at night, the air smells funny, mosquitos suck your blood dry at night, and everything seems so chaotic. When you get here, it's obvious to see what this center is lacking. Little do you realize how little these minor flaws are in comparison to how much much this center will completely change you, your spirit, and view on humanity. The kindness, goodness, and love the residents here share with you had me questioning my own life in the USA. Through meeting the residents, walking with monks on their alms rounds, the small yet meaningful moments I shared with the residents that shook me awake- through my short but deep time here, life was... given an new richness.

The basic premise of being a part of the community here is to do good deeds and to spend your time meditating when you can. I see how these two basic premesis create a communal, non-centralist way of living, rooted in gratitude. It's a mindset that creates abundance and contentness.

The residents have this ingrained in the way they interact with the world, and volunteers come from across the globe hoping to help out in any way they can, which is in return, one of the greatest gifts you can possibly get from the center. Volunteers learn about the philosophy around the center, and they give what they can which might be English lessons, washing patients, gardening, physiotherapy sessions, or taking patients on wheelchairs to the nearby Pagodas. You're not even required to do any of this, but it's encouraged.

I too had the intent of helping once I got to the center, but it was soon clear that what I received from this community was unfathomably higher than what I could ever give. The patients who lived here brought so much clarity to me about what it meant to be a part of something bigger than yourself. The smallest things made me realize how much power there is in community. Once I waited outside of a rice-washing station a resident came up to me and gave me his only instant coffee mix as a simple act of generosity I remember to this day. The Tea Man (more on him in a bit) who was severely physically disabled showed my new croatian friend and me the pagodas nearby.

While taking photos, the faces of so many of these residents lit up; without being able to speak the same language, they asked me to wait so they could be photographed with the ones they loved; a grandma with a small puppy. A mother with her disabled son. The little girl on the left side of the photo (below) followed me around the center while I documented the residents, posing with anyone who would let her.

Alms rounds was particularly interesting. Early in the morning, monks are taken to nearby villages and cities collecting alms. They walk barefoot through said villages or cities while a man or woman calls out a signal from in front of the group the monks are lined up in, letting them know that the monks are almost there. They walk out of their homes with cooked food for the monks to collect and then the food is brought back to the center. In return, those who give food to the monks receive a blessing.

Thabarwa is such a difficult place to explain because it is a place that must be felt and seen with your own eyes. When I try explaining this place to my friends in the west, they often get confused about why things aren't more orderly. But how can you express to a person that things don't have to be in order to be good or life-changing? How can I express that there is so much value in life when a community of people shows you there is more to life than money? That there is more joy in a life than creating a life that looks good, instead, to create a life that FEELS good? How can you tell someone that you finally had an experience where what an entire community of people who had so "little", have everything because they choose to live a life filled with joy?

This is what Thabarwa gives you. I saw a wealth of love, connection, and community I had never seen in my life back in the west. The amount of love I saw in this community had me questioning what we’re trying to strive for in western society. What are we trying to fulfill by trying to climb up the ladder of success when we’re bringing so much anxiety and restlessness in our lives by doing so? What joy is it to have nice things just to enjoy them by ourselves? And why are we still so disillusioned by what brings us happy?

A patient who lived across the street from the building where the volunteers slept at night was nicknamed the "Tea Man.” He was a smiling man who you could count on to be sitting outside of his home with a tea kettle and a few cookies at practically any hour of the day. The magic of the Tea Man is that he didn’t present himself with what he didn’t have- in fact, it was just the opposite. He would wake up early in the morning and do his 5:00am meditation and shortly after walk to get hot water so he could make piping hot tea and invite passersby to sit with him. This whole process took him especially long because of his physical disabilities, but they never defined his situation. Even though it took 10 times as long, he walked up the several flights of stairs for the morning meditation.

After the meditation one morning, we went together after the morning meditation to fill his thermos together taking slow and steady steps. Smiling in the dark, slowly hobbling towards the hot water with the thermos in hand, probably talking to me about how much good meditation does on your mind. Although the Tea Man didn’t speak much English, and the extent of my Burmese was "mingalaba" (the Myanmar greeting translating to you will be blessed) he had would always respond someone who asked him how he was doing in the same way. He smiled and would reply, “I am happy.”

click here to donate or learn more about the thabarwa meditation center