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Semester at Sea: A look into the life of a Buddhist monk in Mandalay

Monk_Photo Courtesy of Semester at Sea
Spring 2016 Semester at Sea students Paula Pecorella, left, and Allison Romanski, right, talk to Buddhist monk Ven Nandaka, center, also known as Unan, about the influence technology has on his teachings. PHOTO COURTESY OF SEMESTER AT SEA

Over 500 students representing universities across the globe set sail on the MV World Odyssey this January for the Spring 2016 Semester at Sea program. Their floating campus will take them around the world to 15 cities in 11 different countries in just over 100 days. Among these world travelers is Paula Pecorella of Stony Brook University, who will serve as a correspondent for The Statesman this semester.

It is extremely unusual for a lifelong Buddhist monk to use Facebook, carry a cell phone or board a luxury cruise liner traveling the world. But for Burmese monk Ven Nandaka, who goes by Unan, taking part in these Western experiences first hand helps him teach his students in a country that has long been isolated from the rest of the world.

In 2011, when Unan was appointed to an administrative position at the Sein Yadanar Monastery in Mandalay where he lives, a donor gifted him a cellphone in order for him to keep contact with outsiders visiting the monastery. Since then, he has created a Facebook account and an email address in an effort to spread information and teach his students about the power of technology.

“As a rule, Buddhist monks are really inappropriate to be keeping a cellphone and keeping a computer. It’s for high class people,” Unan said. “But times are changing nowadays. If we couldn’t follow the time, we will still be behind the time, and we don’t want to stay behind.”

Traditional Buddhist monks take a vow of poverty and view material possessions as poison to the peaceful mind. Unan, however, said he sees information technology as a gateway for the people of Myanmar to become educated and access higher knowledge. In a country where the poverty rate is over 30 percent and a majority of the population outside urban areas live in makeshift houses held together by wooden stakes and banana leaves, the Internet and technology remain foreign to most.

“When I get here, I learn how you use Internet. You use Internet very usefully but it’s very, very opposite in my country,” Unan said. “My people, my students, they don’t know yet how to use Internet. They use Internet just for entertainment really. They have never visited an educational website. They have never known how to find a source. They have never learned the Internet is really a knowledge library.”

Unan, now 38, was young when the Burmese government lifted its sanctions and began to allow tourism. When he was 12 years old, his master presented him with the choice to learn either English or astrology. The choice seemed obvious to Unan. Today, he realizes how easy it could be to teach Myanmar’s people English with the proper technology and Internet speed.

“Nowadays, English language is an important role more than other languages,” Unan said. “If you want to learn English, you don’t need to go to class. You can just install many sources in your phone.”

And while it may be true that English classes are not necessary, it has not stopped the symbiotic relationship that Unan has formed with many of his students in which he teaches them English and they teach him how to use technology.

“I didn’t really know how to use Facebook. I had to learn a lot,” he said. “As a monk, it’s really far away from IT, but now I know how to take pictures and how to post on Facebook and how to write my opinions and how to comment.”

Just five years after he got his cellphone, Unan has hundreds of friends on Facebook, and it has allowed him to stay in touch with people around the world. Jeff Whittall, a friend of Unan’s and the MV World Odyssey’s ship doctor, reflected on the impact technology has had on their friendship.

“Before he was on the Internet or on Facebook, we would send one letter a year to him in Mandalay and then we would get one letter back,” Whittall said. “And then when we knew we were coming back to Myanmar in 2015, we were able to communicate much quicker. Trying to direct someone to the port we are going to be at last minute would have been much more difficult [without Facebook Messenger], but when we came up the river last year, he was sitting there waiting for us.”

While the adaptation to technology and Facebook has proved beneficial in Unan’s life, not all of his students can understand the magnitude of technology’s implications. He said he worries that distractions will poison their purity if they do not learn how to use technology appropriately.

“Don’t waste your precious time just using Facebook because this high technology is not for entertainment,” Unan said he tells his students. “The aim of high technology is to give you higher knowledge, higher education. If you are just enjoying it, listening to music, using it to chit chat, you are a slave of technology.”

In his teachings, he urges students to follow his lead and says that the 21st century is a “knowledge age,” with people’s knowledge currently at its prime. He also acknowledges that the Internet is still very slow and out of reach for many people living in more remote areas in Myanmar today, but he remains optimistic about the future.

“When we have good Internet, if we know how to use information technology very systematically, we can know how to use the Internet as our knowledge bank,” Unan said. “To wake up the whole country, I need time. I need to create more environments like this. This is my goal.”

Correction: March 9, 2016

A previous version of this story erroneously reported the last name of the MV World Odyssey’s ship doctor. His name is Jeff Whittall, not Jeff Funk.

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