Photograph by Rudri Bhatt Patel

by Harrison Cowan

I met a young monk at the Shwedagon Pagoda. He came skipping across the courtyard in the midday sun, bare feet dancing lightly over the hot tiles, and approached me at a shrine I was admiring. “Would you like to know how to pray? I can show you.”

U Myint spoke in smooth, confident English and assured me, despite his casual garb, he was a monk. He wore plain clothes; a loose-fitting brown longyi, faded T-shirt, a checkered scarf around his neck, not the long, fire truck-red robes I’d seen the other monks wearing. He was twenty-two years old. He knew all 227 precepts required of an ordained Buddhist monk, or so he said. Today was his day off.

I was skeptical—years living in Asia taught me to be wary of services offered for free—but after an hour spent silently observing worshippers make their slow procession around that glittering, golden spire, I was eager for some company. I relented.

First he led me to the Friday shrine so I could pray for myself. “Same shrine as Obama,” he grinned. Buddha was waiting for us, smiling serenely, draped in garlands of white and yellow flowers. Beneath the statue was a circular stone fountain that had been gilded in gold. Around the edge of the fountain were several silver cups, like buckets at a well. U Myint picked one up.

“21 cups for Buddha, you must always start with him.” We scooped water from the fountain and poured it over the statue. “Then 7 cups for Guinea pig.” He watched me pour water over the toothy idol at our feet. “Three cups for the Gods, and one cup for the plants. All the while, you must wish for peace and good fate.” I followed his instructions and bathed the altar in water.

Drenched now and smelling refreshingly sweet, the shrine glistened in the sunlight, catching the reflection from the gilded towers behind. “Now put your hands like this.” We faced Buddha and bowed three times. In the background the golden pagoda shimmered against an endless blue sky.

Then he led me to Buddha’s footprint so we could pray for my family. We kneeled at the stone. There were more silver cups. “5 cups for each of your family members. Then place your hands like mine.” I poured more water and we bent over the stone, our palms resting on the dais, while he recited a prayer. Sounds flowed fluently from his lips. He chanted softly, inwardly, as if his words were meant only for the two of us. When he finished we faced Buddha’s footprint and bowed five times.

Finally, he brought me into Two Piece Hall and taught me a Sanskrit prayer, two syllables at a time. “It is a prayer for good faith. You must speak it out loud.” We spoke together in a halting, peg-legged heartbeat. When we broke I felt a deep sense of calm permeate through my body.

He then asked for a donation. For the pagoda, he said. I can take it to the donation bin for you. It was so natural a transition—pastor to panhandler in the same breath—that I didn’t register what he was asking at first. The slick salesman had gift-wrapped the package, swiped the card, and prepared my receipt before I had a chance to refuse.

I pulled some kyats from my pocket and held it out to him. He laughed in my face. “This is local money. Do you have any USD? Or Renminbi?” I shook my head. U Myint continued to laugh as he reached over and took my money. “It is OK,” he said. It was clear he pitied me. “The exit is this way.”

I trudged to the west gate towards the stairs that would bring me back down, down to the street. U Myint saw me off with a smile. When I left I refused to turn around. I couldn’t bear for that towering, magnificent spire to look smaller than when I arrived.