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Teaching the Youth Dhamma: New Approaches in Myanmar
Contemporary Buddhism in Myanmar provides much scope for academic research, with significant changes occurring throughout the country. Yin Kyay Lein Mar courses (Buddhist ethics training courses for young Buddhists) have been organized in both urban and rural areas. Buddhist guidance literature presented in youth-friendly approaches has become noticeably abundant and widely read since the early 1990s.The young monk writers also include philosophical reflections on life, and discussions of current issues in young people’s personal, social and emotional lives apart from some instruction on meditation techniques. Many monks today make use of new media, especially the Internet to propagate (Theravada) Buddhism as well as to reach people - especially young people - far and wide. There is a new kind of film, known as Dhamma movies with social and political messages, on DVDs and You Tube. The websites of the monk participants in my study have markedly improved, with news of religious and social activities led by the monks, and these activities have been widely supported by communities, including young people. These changes indicate that the social engagement of Theravada Buddhist monks and the young people’s interest in the monks’ teaching and social projects have reached a new height.
This fieldwork-based research aims to explore the new approaches to teaching youth Dhamma (the Buddha’s teachings, doctrine, truth, law) through Yin Kyay Lein Mar courses and Buddhist guidance literature, the reasons for monks’ choice of teaching methods, and the reasons for the popularity of these innovative teaching programs in Yangon, Myanmar. The study will also provide new perspectives on the role of these evangelical and socially active Buddhist monks as reflected in the lives and experiences of ordinary youth in urban Myanmar against a backdrop of the official revival of ba-ka schools (monastic schools) in new satellite towns around Yangon and other cities in the early 1990s and the growing demand for ba-ka schools.
While investigating young Buddhists’ voluntary involvement in religious and social activities led by the ‘new breed of monks’, I have gained new insights into urban youth’s social awareness intertwined with modernity amid the country’s dire need of basic infrastructure such as hospital and schools. The social engagement of monks creates a public sphere for young people. The growth of Buddhism-based “civil society organizations” is marked. This has compelled me to expand my study, particularly in the direction of Buddhist social engagement among young people.
Some Dhamma talks during the Buddhist ethics training courses were also aimed at helping the youth tackle relationship problems with family, especially with parents, and with friends and teachers. The immediate aim of such talks is cohesion at the family level, and consequently how to cope with power relations at the community level. This study will discuss how these approaches have been applied to encourage living in harmony with others in society without creating conflict. This is all the more interesting now that we can see the monks’ effort to further direct their teaching obviously towards social integration on a broader scale.
However, the monks’ efforts to use innovative approaches are not without controversy. Questions and doubts about the monks have arisen from time to time, usually concerning their failure to strictly adhere to the monastic rules for monks. Still, their noble cause as well as their contribution to society is well recognized by many.
Drawing on Emile Durkheim’s view on religion as an integrative force in human society, the proposed study will test the functionalist theory of religion.
A reasonable number of studies have been done on Myanmar’s current economic, social and political problems with a focus on democracy, human rights, narcotics issues and ethnic issues, but “equally significant issues relevant to the physical and spiritual well-being of Myanmar inhabitants remain relatively obscured and unarticulated” (Tin 2007: 172-173). Myanmar is one of the most under-studied countries in the world because of the junta’s repression, and most of the studies are done from the outside – not based on fieldwork. My particular positioning, as a Burmese who can conduct low-key fieldwork in my home town, allows me to make a unique and particular contribution. Knowledge as to how the people, especially the youth deal with personal, social and emotional problems will make the overall picture of contemporary Burmese society clearer.
Amid such problems, the charismatic monks in the proposed study are helping the young to gain spiritual strength for the individual as well as to become better family and community members. My research will provide original insights into the social contribution of the monks and how their contribution is perceived by the youthful audience, trainees, their families and senior monks. Since Buddhists comprise 89% of the population of Myanmar, this is a significant contribution to knowledge of Burmese society and of social change in Myanmar.
A further significance of the proposed study is that what I am examining is part of a worldwide movement of “desecularisation” or even “sacralisation” of the world, and an important aspect of this movement is the deployment of electronic and other new media. This is certainly the case with Islamisation in Indonesia (e.g. Eickelman & Anderson 2003). Similarly, the use of new media has become noticeable in evangelical Christianity and Buddhism.