Saffron Revolution Monk U Pyinya Zawta in the Bay Area

Tempel Smith, Kenneth Wong, U Pyinya Zawta, Hozan Alan Senauke

Over this last weekend Clear View Project hosted senior Saffron Revolution monk U Pyinya Zawta in the Bay Area. U Pyinya Zawta is the Executive Director in Exile of the All Burma Monks’ Alliance ABMA).  He was a leader of Burma’s Saffron Revolution. Arriving in the United States with refugee status in 2008, he and several exiled monks created a monastery in Utica, New York.  In August 2010 he moved to Brooklyn, and with two fellow monks, U Gawsita & U Agga, formed the Metta Parami Monastery, where he continues to live, serve the community, and organize.

In a whirlwind visit UPZ met Friday with a class at UC Berkeley, with the staff and friends of the Metta Center — a resource project for nonviolent direct action — and with Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s executive director Sarah Weintraub, and with David Hartsough of Peaceworkers USA. On Saturday he gave an inspiring dharma talk at Berkeley Zen Center.  Sunday Pyinya Zawta, Tempel Smith, and I led a daylong retreat for about forty practitioners at Spirit Rock Meditation Center titled “Dhamma & Society: Working from the Inside Out in Burma and the U.S.”

The integration Pyinya Zawta’s dhamma training and his experience as a social activist makes for a powerful story. From the time of Burma’s 1988 Democracy uprising, UPZ, then a 30-year-old monk, was a voice for ordinary Burmese.  For speaking out, he spent ten years in the regime’s prisons between 1900 and 2004.  In prison he learned first how to practice meditation to deal with his own afflictive emotions.  Then he spent years teaching meditation to others within the prison walls, so they might survive and even grow.   On his release in 2004, U Pinya Zawta was a founder of Maggin monastery in Rangoon, where monks welcomed HIV-positive patients into a community of care and meditation.

Early in the Saffron Revolution, Maggin was targeted by the junta.  Its monks were arrested and the doors closed.  Only by chance did Pyinya Zawta happen to be away when the regime’s thugs arrived. Within a month he had escaped — with the help of supporters and various disguises — to Mae Sot, on the Thai-Burma border, after learning that his family had been arrested.  Shortly, he was able to resettle in the U.S. and begin his wok with ABMA in exile.

ABMA’s mission in the West is:

• To maintain our support for the assistance network for monks, both inside and outside of Burma

• To promote democracy inside Burma, especially in order to defend and preserve the religious and cultural foundations of the nation

• To fulfill the customary role of Burmese monks by distributing reading material and sponsoring meetings and discussions (dhamma talks) on Buddhist beliefs, practices and education

• To maintain and update the database of targeted and refugee monks.  We have compiled a list of monks under threat, and we will continue to monitor and document information about them from inside Burma.

• To support and expand the existing educational programs for both monks and needy families inside Burma.  We are trying to procure assistance for educational facilities, schools and training programs for the monks and needy families inside Burma.

While it is sometimes hard these days to know how activists and practitioners in the West can support the liberation movement in Burma (aside for financial support for political prisoners and general material relief, it is necessary to keep our hearts open and our minds informed.  This purpose was accomplished simply by U Pyinya Zawta’s settled presence and vivid experience.  Listening to him, we can all feel connected to the people of Burma.  And we can be grateful for the dhamma they have shared with us for many years. Their was a generous heart response to his presence.  We collected more than $3000 to support the ABMA and its work.

108 bows to U Pyinya Zawta, to Kenneth Wong for incredible/credible translating, Margaret Howe of Clear View, to the Berkeley Zen Cetner Community, and to the staff of Spirit Rock.

For information on ABMA, see: AllBurmaMonks

For donations to monks & nuns in prison and in exile see: Clear View–Adopt-a-Monk

 — Alan Senauke

About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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