Tales of the Pandemic

Lockdown with the monks at Myanmar’s Pa-Auk monastery

As much of the world struggles with enforced isolation to stem the spread of Covid-19, there is one group who are better prepared than most to weather this storm. Buddhist monk Bhante Subhūti gives an insight into how his monastery near Mandalay is coping with this not-so-slow pace of life

Bhante Bhikkhu Subhūti
May 4, 2020

Bhante Bhikkhu Subhūti is a Buddhist monk who currently resides at Pa-Auk Forest Monastery in Pyin Oo Lwin, some 50km from Mandalay in Myanmar. He officially now has 13 “rains” (years of seniority), but has the combined total experience of 19 years practicing. You can visit his website here. While the Globe takes the utmost care to publish accurate information, by the nature of these first-hand accounts we are unable to independently verify the accuracy of the details contained within them.


The world has has begun to know about Covid-19 and unfortunately, some countries know it better than others. As a monk, I try to stay away from basic web internet except one day per week, but I still hear what goes on and as of writing Myanmar has 155 cases and six deaths. The number grows slowly in the beginning as you all might know and it is uncertain what will become of the virus in weeks to come.

After there were a few cases listed in Myanmar in late March, the monastery had a group meeting with everyone wearing masks and spaced apart as much as was possible.

You can see the picture below. In this meeting, they seemed to cover all the basics for social distancing and cutting the monastery off from the outside. Extra precautions are necessary since we live in a communal environment.

Social distancing is in full effect in the monastery, even when eating. Photos: Bhante Subhūti

If nothing were done early on, we could easily find out that the whole monastery was infected with our teacher, Ven. Pa-Auk Sayadawgyi carrying the highest risk of dying.

Not only is it easy to spread in our monastery, but we attract many foreigners who obviously travel to get here. Of course, arriving travellers were cancelled back in mid-January or early February since Asia knew about this virus earlier. At the meeting, several things were mentioned and wearing masks during our food collection time was a priority. At that time there was a partial shutdown with two people who were allowed to leave the monastery twice per week to collect supplies.

After some time, as the cases grew, we were put on full lock-down in early April. Gloves became required for our food collection and it was decided that nobody … and I mean nobody can leave or enter the monastery. Below are a list of rules.

They recently built a gate with a lock, but I have never seen it because I rarely leave the monastery anyways. I’ve been out of the monastery twice for a total of four hours since November, 2019! So lockdowns don’t really change my life that much.

A sign about social distancing. Photo: Bhante Subhūti

The space rule is in effect and followed quite well for 200+ monks who are still here and a pātimokkha recitation was cancelled. I was scheduled for April 7 (and somewhat prepared) to chant this lengthy list of rules. Now, I no longer need to prepare for this duty, but I need to stay prepared for the next time the pātimokkha gets rescheduled.

We need to be extra careful because the symptoms do not appear until after some length of time of being infectious. Because of that, the spacing and the masks can help prevent the spread of the disease.

So many of us are eager to help out. When the monk came back of quarantine, I told him to use my help before asking other monks and I qualified that request with, ‘even Corona virus … ask me first’

Only until now has there been some positive press about how masks can help prevent the spread of infections to others even with no symptoms. There are no shortages of masks in this monastery and 2000 more were distributed on this recent full moon day. Since we are a meditation monastery and we should develop concentration, I sometimes joke and say that we are now allowed to “space out”.

One problem with all of these preventative measures is that one can become paranoid about germs and the spread of the disease. When someone coughs in the eating hall, many heads turn in that direction. “Did he cover his mouth?” Many will look. And if someone sneezes …. many are quick to look and the word corona comes to many minds!

To prevent that type of unwholesome mind from arising, I went to the chief admin monk and the monk-doctor (who is a real MD) and requested them to ask me to be the first volunteer if someone gets sick.

One of the food drops for two weeks. Photo: Bhante Subhūti

By doing this, I know I might get close contact with someone who is actually sick rather than worrying about someone who has a slight cough (which happens from normal circumstances). I reflect on this and I become happy.

But I’m not the only one who does this. Recently a monk from Canada got sick. It is not Corona, but he has to go on quarantine until he is better. I wanted to take food to his kuti (hut), but I was too slow to jump up and volunteer. The monk who brings the food to him said to me, “You snooze you lose!”, when I tried to get his duty.

Sometimes we fight over the oddest things, like in this post. So many of us are eager to help out. When the monk came back of quarantine, I told him to use my help before asking other monks and I qualified that request with, “even Corona virus … ask me first.” His eyebrows slowly raised up above his mask with surprise.

Sometimes I joke and say that I am a Metta-Jihad. Metta means loving-kindness. Compassion is another one of the four brahmavihārās. The Pāḷi word for compassion is karuṇā and someone recently sent me this picture. While I don’t want any of you to put yourself at risk, I still hope you can spread loving-kindness and compassion (karuṇā) in your meditations or by picking up the phone and calling a loved one.

Spread karuna (loving-kindness and compassion) virus.

Our life at the monastery has not changed much besides the food. With fresh food deliveries only once every two weeks, variety and quality has changed, but we surely get enough.

We have large stores of beans and rice to last for a very long time. I have reflected on the food and, well, if I got this type of food everyday while I was in Kaua’i, I would have been totally “set up.” So we are all good. We are a meditation centre and as the saying goes, “The monastery walls are not to keep people in, but to keep people out.” That is really true now!

There is not much more for us to worry about and I still have not felt the need to go see this new gate they built a few months ago. I’m sure I am not alone and perhaps the ones who see the gate are those who are leaving and not coming back until all of this is finished. Anyone is free to leave anytime they wish.

The once consistent floating population has started to sink from about 540 to about 440. If someone wants to leave, even for a week or so, they can not come back.

If we have medical needs, there are a few monastics who are doctors too. I recently went to the clinic to get some medicine for “frozen shoulder” which typically comes at age 50 and came to me five months early. Now I am doing yoga as treatment and practicing with the Indian monk to help with this problem. He is helping several monks with various problems. Hopefully, there will be no medical cases where one needs to see an outside doctor. If so, it is uncertain if one can come back.

However, we still have our meditation teacher, our kuties, and our food. The life here is really the same, in fact, with the pātimokkha and all dhamma gatherings cancelled our schedules are more monotonous and the daily life is more or less the same day repeated over and over again. Monotonous is good for a monasteries!

Have you ever seen Ground Hog Day? I wrote a chapter about that in a book called Going For Broke. So we get more time for meditation and “doing nothing.” That is our specialty. If anyone should be able to cope or even go unaffected by the lockdowns, it should be vinaya meditation monks at a meditation centre.

The pandemic has brought to life many things that we have read about in the Ancient Buddhist Texts. Not only are there mentions of widespread diseases like in The Ratana Sutta, but yikes, it also mentions widespread famine. I hope we don’t get to see that!

However, we know that there is a sense of urgency and that old age, sickness and death are always looming over our heads. Never the less, it is our full-time profession to think like this. We are at the best place for these times. We are at the best place for any time. I feel sad for the rest of the world which is not prepared for this type of reclusive life. I call my parents more frequently to give them contact and support and I have also made some videos on walking meditation and loving-kindness with them in mind.

The spread of the virus in Myanmar is fairly tame, but as we know from experience with the other countries, the virus can get unleashed and out of control very quickly. With only four respirators in the country, things can get bad very quickly.

The lockdown continues.


This story was also published on Insight Myanmar, a podcast and blog dedicated to Buddhism and Buddhist practice. It also forms part of the Globe’s Tales of the Pandemic series, a collection of personal essays from across Southeast Asia called published each Monday covering different aspects of life during this unprecedented time in human history. All of these Covid-19 stories can be found here. If you’d like to contribute a personal essay of your own, please email your story of roughly 1,000 words to a.mccready@globemediaasia.com.



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