Putting Compassion into Action
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Wednesday, July 17, 2024


Putting Compassion into Action



Do Burmese people really understand the meaning of compassion? Not according to a prominent Buddhist monk who has taken a leading role in Cyclone Nargis relief efforts

MAE SOT, Thailand — “HOW did you feel when you heard that people were homeless, that monks had lost their monasteries and had nowhere to stay? Over 130,000 people were killed and 2.4 million suffered badly. How did you feel?”

The monk who asked these questions paused and looked at his audience of around 3,000 people at the Tawya Burmese monastery in the Thai border town of Mae Sot, opposite Myawaddy.

A patient is comforted by Sitagu Sayadaw in a clinic in the Irrawaddy delta.
He continued: “If you felt concerned and afraid for them, that’s good. It means you have compassion.”

But before anyone could take too much satisfaction in that thought, he added: “That’s good, but it’s not good enough.”

The speaker was Dr Ashin Nyanissara—better known as Sitagu Sayadaw [abbot]—one of Burma’s most respected monks. He was in Mae Sot in late June to give a dhamma talk on compassion—and to ask the local Burmese community, estimated to be tens of thousands strong, to support relief efforts in the Irrawaddy delta, where millions still struggle in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. 

Since the cyclone struck on May 2-3, Sitagu Sayadaw has been rallying his followers to come to the assistance of their compatriots in the delta and the former capital, Rangoon, which also suffered substantial damage.

His message was simple: Compassion is important, but it doesn’t amount to much unless it is accompanied by action.

“If you lack compassion, you will be an irresponsible person,” the 71-year-old abbot told his attentive audience, who were seated both inside the monastery’s main building and outside on the ground.

“But compassion in mind and in words alone won’t help the refugees in the cyclone-affected area,” he added. “Such compassion won’t bring food to people in need.”

Back in Burma, he has been busy practicing what he preaches. Soon after the cyclone hit, the Sitagu International Buddhist Missionary Center, founded by the abbot in 1980, began transporting relief supplies to affected towns and villages in the Irrawaddy delta by road and on boats.

“We visited villages from Bogalay to Amar. Then we crossed the river to Ka Don Ka Ni,” he said during an interview, pointing to a map of the area in a back issue of The Irrawaddy. “After that we went back to Bogalay, visiting villages on the other side of the river.”

What he witnessed in the disaster area affected him profoundly and moved him to take further action. “When I saw my own people and monks suffering terribly, I felt like my heart was being stabbed by hundreds of needles,” he said.

Less than a week after the disaster, the Sitagu International Buddhist Missionary Center established emergency relief centers and clinics in Ka Don Ka Ni, Amar, Set San and Kunthi Chaung, which were among the worst-hit villages in the delta.

Over the following month, it also donated aid to 1,344 monasteries in the region. Each monastery received metal sheets for repairing roofs and between 100,000 and 1 million kyat (US $85-850) in cash, according to a detailed list of expenditures compiled by the missionary center.

The center also donated cash and various necessities, including food, medicine, clothing, mosquito nets and cooking utensils, to refugees in 900 villages in six townships. More than 300 trucks were used to distribute the supplies. 

With funds supplied by domestic and international donors, the center also provided $150,000 in cash and medical equipment—from operation beds to ultrasound and ECG machines—to three government hospitals.

One local NGO worker returning from Bogalay attested to the help that refugees had received from Sitagu Sayadaw and to their respect for the abbot. He also contrasted the commitment of the missionary monks with the contribution of others who have taken part in the relief effort.

“Volunteers can rarely be seen two months after the cyclone,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The only force left is the monks.”

Although the authorities have forced many refugees to leave the monasteries that provided them with food and shelter in the weeks after the cyclone, the monks have continued to play a major role in distributing aid.

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