Wednesday, 5 August 2015


A shrine at the Teknaf Buddhist Temple.

When the garden’s silence meets the quiet of dawn, U Nanda Loka, 50, begins his prayer of meditation and whispers. At 5.30 a.m. for half an hour he will seek blessings for all the people of the world, just as he has done every day for the past twelve months since he first took up the post of sole monk at the roughly 200-year-old Teknaf Buddhist temple.

While the temple grounds are largish the congregation is small. There are only 14 Rakhine families remaining in Teknaf town, joined by the handful of other Buddhists who have moved there for work.

“There should be at least one monk,” says 19-year-old Mong Swui Thing, a Marma teenager from Ramu sent by his father, a farmer, to take advantage of the temple’s tranquillity in preparing for school exams. He aspires to a government job eventually.

Buddha's footprint at the Teknaf temple.

Due to the small size of the community adjustments have been made. Where in a larger location it is customary for monks to walk through morning markets carrying pots into which people place food, all that the monks will eat for that day, in Teknaf the fourteen families organise to supply the provisions for the monk and temple staff on a rotation basis.

“The issue is continuity,” says temple visitor Aung Kyaw Tha, “Temple goers are few but it doesn’t matter; we want our religion to stay.”

Gautama Buddha said if there is a quiet place it has its own happiness, explains Tha. “Alone or with people, in town or village, no matter where, one has to keep Buddha’s teachings in mind in order to live peacefully.”

A smaller temple in the garden complex. Note the distinctive Rakhine style roof.

The temple complex which consists of a main building raised on stilts in Rakhine tradition, together with a smaller temple to one side and a golden stupa featuring a footprint of Buddha towards the back, is tucked away from the road, barely visible.

Once its grounds were larger still but roadside portions were progressively sold as many of Teknaf’s Rakhines moved to Myanmar in the 1990s.

Tea shop talk says the then-majority Rakhine community was favoured in the British era. There are tales of how the few Bengalis in earlier times used to take off their sandals to carry them underarm while passing a Rakhine shop in the bazaar, as a sign of respect. It was considered improper for a Bengali to wear a wristwatch or open an umbrella in front of a Rakhine house, people say.

The temple was undoubtedly busier then.

U Nanda Loka, the sole monk at the Teknaf temple.

Such talk of political history stands in contrast to the views of the monk. When asked to speak of other religious communities he says, “Of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam I have no knowledge. I don’t understand. I only do what Buddhism says.”

Mong Swui Thing, a Marma youth sent to the temple by his father to study.
Central to his beliefs is the importance of avoiding any form of envy or jealousy; one reason why it cannot be fruitful to consider how others practice religion. This tenet does not mean, however, neglecting concern for non-Buddhists. “Everyone in the world I will bless,” says the monk.

Similarly when I was foolish enough to ask the monk his favourite food he struggled to answer. When the goal is to seek enlightenment away from one’s physical being and the physical world, the question makes no sense. “What is given, I like,” he says, “My preference is nothing.”

By tradition monks eat only one plate of rice, without looking up to see what others are eating while they complete a meal. A second serving is to risk gluttony; to see what others eat risks envy. Moreover at Teknaf Buddhist temple the monk will eat nothing after lunch at midday, until the next morning’s breakfast.

The stupa at Teknaf Buddhist Temple complex.

U Nanda Loka says he first became a monk after his parents died when he was 16 years old. “I didn’t like regular life anymore,” he says. With his two sisters married he moved to the temple.

Secondary temple at Teknaf complex.
Being a monk is not inherently a permanent position but one that lasts “as many days as it makes you happy,” though most commonly it is for life.

In describing Buddhism, the monk refers to five principal tenets: don’t kill because life is sacred; don’t take what isn’t yours; treat women respectfully; don’t lie and; don’t use alcohol or drugs, including stimulants such as betel leaf. “To explain more than these basic beliefs,” says the monk, “is to embark upon an ocean of knowledge.”

The latter part of each morning is spent reading texts, completing bath and lunch and retiring for half an hour’s rest. In the afternoon is more prayer while it is common in the evenings for people to arrive at the temple to seek the monk’s advice.

The pattern of each day is simplicity repeated right up until it meets once more the quiet of dawn. These are traditions followed in temples around the world, right back to the 4th – 6th century BCE, the time of Gautama Buddha. The Teknaf Buddhist temple is but a footnote in a far greater story of continuity.

Teknaf Buddhist temple, said to be over two hundred years old. The main building.

This article is published in The Daily Star, here: A Prayer for Continuity

1 comment:

  1. The daily life of a Buddhist monk seems to be a routine of simplicity and austerity but also to be there for others who need advice.