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Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2005 12:59 pm

Meet the monk

Springfield becomes new outpost for disciple of Burmese Buddhist master

What Gunasiri misses most about Myanmar since moving to Springfield in August is the distinct Buddhist presence that pervades the country. Landing at the airport, Guna says, a traveler to Myanmar can practically “smell the Buddhist atmosphere. When you enter the city, you see a big huge pagoda with golden shining light. You see many, many monks walking on the street.” Guna has come to Springfield to spread the teachings of Burmese Buddhist master Chanmyay Sayadaw and to preside over a private meditation house furnished by a group of the master’s students living in the Midwest. The Springfield house is the first outpost in the United States for Chanmyay Sayadaw, who has six meditation centers in Myanmar (formerly Burma), and five in other countries. As the house’s lone resident monk, Guna must do without the spiritual uplift he was accustomed to receiving in his monastery from fellow monks and the Burmese people, who are remarkably devoted to their monks. The Burmese consider it an honor to feed monks going door to door seeking alms, says Guna, and they have funded an entire hospital for the monks’ medical care in Yangoon (Rangoon). Guna’s fond childhood memories of lines of brown-robed monks “silently, nobly” making their morning alms rounds among the populace in Burma drew him back there in 1996 to become ordained as a monk. At the time, he was married with two children, working in the office of a steamship company in New York City. Born in China, Guna speaks three languages: Chinese, Burmese, and English. In 1955, at age 10, he fled China to Burma with his three sisters to escape persecution by the communist government. His family belonged to the landlord class, which was under constant threat of government beatings and executions. Guna remembers seeing people, kneeling at public executions, being shot to death after accusers berated them for purported misdeeds. Because Guna’s family was shunned in their village, they could not get help farming their land. His father, who had escaped the country in the early 1950s, worked in Burma for several years to finance his family’s passage to freedom. A month before he arranged for two guides to lead them out, Guna’s mother died. The children were escorted alone on a harrowing three-day trek to Burma, including several nerve-racking hours at the border as they waited for an opening to slip past the guards. Once reunited with his father, Guna remained in Burma until leaving for maritime college in Taiwan. Despite three years of travel to ports on five continents after Guna graduated, his dreams of seeing the world remained unfulfilled because of the demands of his job as deck officer. He took an office job at his company in Taiwan, married, and started his family. In 1981 he came to the United States to get his master’s degree from the State University of New York Maritime College. Afterward, he was hired by a steamship company in New York City. Oddly enough, he was first exposed to Buddhist teachings in the United States. He studied the northern form of Buddhism known as Mahayana, both Chinese and Tibetan versions, with various teachers. After 13 years of practice, he was spending all of his spare time meditating, even during vacations, and had decided to become a monk. Although it would require a vow of celibacy, he had no intention of giving up his marriage. When he went to Myanmar for his ordination, he encountered for the first time a meditation technique called vipassana, which is practiced within Theravada, the southern form of Buddhism. “I felt my mind was calm and purified very, very much, to a large degree, even much greater than so many years of practicing Mahayana,” says Guna. “I thought, ‘Oh, this method is so beautiful, so effective.’ I became fully convinced that this practice can purify people’s minds and help people seeking peace achieve their goal.” So rather than taking the final step to becoming a Mahayana monk, Guna became a Theravada monk. In 1998, he returned to the United States to work for two years to put his daughters through college. When they graduated, he decided to return permanently to the monastery in Myanmar, at which point his wife requested a divorce. “I agreed and signed the paper for it,” Guna says. “It is not reasonable for me to be a monk for life and still ask her to keep the marriage. I choose my life; I must give her the freedom to choose hers.”
Guna remains on good terms with his family. He visited his ex-wife and daughters in New Jersey just before coming to Springfield, the first opportunity he’s had to see them in the past five years. But he clearly prefers his current life as a monk to his former life. He speaks passionately about his mission to reach as many people as possible to show them how to achieve “real peace, real calm” by satisfying spiritual needs rather than material cravings. “Suffering is a common problem facing all human beings,” he says. “No one likes suffering. If you don’t like suffering, then you need to practice vipassana.”
Vipassana meditation involves mentally noting physical sensations, thoughts, and other objects of attention as a way of stilling the mind. Guna hopes to teach this technique, or dhamma, as he calls it, in area schools, prisons, and community groups in addition to holding weekly meditation sessions for students. “Buddha asked his disciples to go alone, each in one direction, to spread the dhamma, bravely, for the benefit of all beings,” says Guna. “So I come here alone; I follow Buddha’s advice. This is a place without Buddhist atmosphere, but I’ve got to bravely face it, and then, day by day, hopefully the people will learn the dhamma. That’s the only way people can purify their minds and achieve real peace. It can change their lives.”
Gunasiri leads meditation sessions 6-8 p.m. each Sunday at Unity Church, 417 E. Cordelia St., 217-523-5897. He will give vipassana instruction to beginners in one-day retreats, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., on Oct. 29 and Dec. 10 at Unity Church. Buddhist master Chanmyay Sayadaw will lead a seven-day meditation retreat in Springfield May 9-15. Donations only are accepted for all events. For more information, contact Susan Schroeder at 217-793-5363.
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