A temporary monk
In March 2017, when I went back to Myanmar to visit my mother, I heard that Shin-hong, a good friend of mine, was going to be a monk in a place where I had never been. The temple was situated in a remote village called Aungda in the Magway region in central Myanmar. It is about ten kilometres away from Natmauk, the birthplace of General Aung San, who is considered the father of modern-day Myanmar.
Shin-hong and I drove for a whole day, passing the arid mountains and rivers before finally reaching the village and the new temple.
Surrounded by a bamboo fence, the temple was built with straw and mud and had a corrugated iron roof.
For decades, the villagers longed to have a temple in the village so those who had returned from the gold mines as well as those who were about to leave home would have a place to pray.
As soon as we arrived, the young abbot went on a trip, so Shin-hong, who became a monk on that day, suddenly had to stand in as abbot.
Shin-hong, a man from the city who came to seek peace in the countryside, had no choice but to offer consultation to the villagers.
Before the villagers started leaving for the gold mines and bringing back scooters manufactured in China, they were poor but self-sufficient; everything they had, including clothes and food, was found locally.
Nowadays, many people have gone to work in the gold mines or in China. Just as in countless villages around the world, those who remain in Aungda are the elderly and the children. There was also a madman who returned from the gold mine. Running in the dried-up fields, the madman held an MP3 player in his hand and kept playing a song called ‘I Want to Borrow a Scooter to Take My Girlfriend on a Date.’ (Midi Z)
Conversation with Midi Z: “I don’t understand why women are more pious than men”
Dorothee Wenner: The main character of your film, your friend Shin-hong, suffers from insomnia. To find relief, he becomes a Buddhist monk in a monastery for fourteen days. Please give us some background: is that kind of thing, that kind of therapy, considered normal in Myanmar? Under what other circumstances do people decide to spend time in monasteries?
Midi Z: Myanmar has a population of fifty-six million, and ninety percent of Burmese are Buddhists. In Burmese culture, becoming a monk is part of the coming-of-age tradition for boys. Girls can become nuns, but only very few girls go through it as part of the coming-of-age ritual. As a result of this tradition, it is very common for men to become monks. There are two types of monks in Myanmar: those who become monks for life and those who live as monks for a certain period, ranging from a week or two to a month or two, and after that, they return to lay life.
In addition to the traditional custom, men become monks for all kinds of other reasons; some want to get closer to the Buddha, while some regard it as charity or a contribution to society, and of course, some just want to seek peace and quiet in life.
Shin-hong was also advised to eat an apple each day. This ‘additional treatment’ idea came from a fortune-teller. So I suspect this is not a Buddhist tradition; it sounds rather superstitious to me. If so, how can these two spheres of spirituality co-exist so peacefully?
No, bringing fourteen apples with you and eating one each day isn’t a Buddhist tradition; it is just one of numerous superstitions. As I mentioned earlier, many people hold a very positive attitude towards being a monk. Suffering from insomnia, Shin-hong became a monk as a way of seeking peace and quiet since it was really quiet in the countryside, or as a treatment for insomnia. The advice that the fortune-teller gave him, to eat one apple a day, was just something extra to do during that period. In any case, for those who believe in fortune-telling, eating an apple a day for fourteen days seems harmless. According to my understanding, those who truly follow the Buddhist teachings would neither care about any rituals nor believe in superstitions. Nevertheless, as a result of all sorts of interpretations in different sects, various rituals are formed and performed.
Eating an apple a day is how that particular fortune-teller interprets the situation; for Shin-hong, eating fourteen apples is fine with him, and if he does follow the advice, he may have better luck in the future. Moreover, becoming a monk is regarded as a good deed. Thus, for many people, those harmless superstitions can co-exist in harmony with their religious beliefs.
The journey led you to the remote village of Aungda. How was it decided that Shin-hong would go to that very place, quite far from Mandalay, where he lives? How did the monks initially react when you approached them with the idea of making this film? Were you confronted with any conditions, reservations, or difficulties while shooting?
Shin-hong lives in Mandalay, and it takes seven hours to drive from there to Aungda. The distance isn’t actually that great, but the roads are winding and in a poor condition. It was the place that the fortune-teller said he should go to, and since Shin-hong wanted to go to a quiet temple, he followed that advice.
When I started filming, I told everyone that I was going to record Shin-hong’s life as a monk. Everyone, including the village chief, the abbot and the monks, were happy to be filmed and so the shooting went smoothly. We didn’t encounter any difficulties. It was a remote village and people were friendly and kind.
I couldn’t believe my eyes seeing the generous donations offered when the novice monk went out for the welcoming procession. What made these obviously rather poor people give offerings that seem to be more than they can afford? To put it differently: what is the economic or financial role of a monastery in a little village like Aungda? Aside from the spiritual rewards, what do villagers expect on a social level from supporting monks in a monastery?
In Myanmar, it doesn’t matter how remote or poor a village is, there is always at least one temple in the area. The poorer and more remote a village is, the more important is the role of the temple. Generally speaking, the temple holds a crucial position in the village. The abbot is the spiritual leader of the villagers; he acts as the judge whenever there is a dispute between villagers and a mentor for every aspect of their lives. Moreover, he calls and hosts the religious gatherings. By participating in these events, the villagers are spiritually comforted. For many people, especially the poor, making donations to the Buddha is a good deed, and if they do good deeds, they will be rewarded either in this or the next life, and this is the basis of their beliefs.
There are around two hundred families in Aungda, and the average daily income for each household is three US dollars. Before the nearby gold mines were open, ninety percent of the villagers were farmers, who struggled to make ends meet. Nonetheless, no matter how poor they are, they’re always incredibly generous when it comes to making donations to the monks. All the temples and monasteries in Myanmar rely on alms collected from the believers, and it doesn’t matter how poor the local residents are, the monks can always collect enough alms to survive.
The villagers instantly embraced Shin-hong as an authority; they seek his advice in worldly matters. Were you surprised about this behaviour, or did you expect it?
Shin-hong had the initiation ceremony on the day we arrived in Aungda, and the next day, the abbot left for a trip, so Shin-hong stood in as abbot. The villagers knew that Shin-hong came from a big city, so they naturally wanted to hear his opinions on various matters. I didn’t expect this at all. In my imagination, I thought that Shin-hong would go to a quiet village, where he would chant the scriptures and meditate, following an elderly monk’s guidance. I couldn’t believe that no one had ever taught Shin-hong how to be a monk, yet overnight, he became the spiritual leader in Aungda.
Please elaborate on your visual concept and your idea of following your protagonist on long, uninterrupted walks. And what motivated you to temporarily leave your protagonist in one sequence in order to film the women fetching water?
This is a rather unexpected and accidental film. In March 2017, I went back to Myanmar to see my mother. It was a coincidence that Shin-hong was about to become a monk, and I went with him as a tourist. I took an SLR camera and some simple recording equipment with me. Every day, I aimed the camera at Shin-hong, documenting him and the temple where he lived as a monk. But by the second day, I decided to include other people in the film, like those women in the village, because I was curious as to why far more women take offerings to the monks than men. What I don’t understand is why women are more pious than men.
Lastly, may I ask if Shin-hong was cured of his insomnia in the end?
Yes. No, Shin-hong still suffers from insomnia, even after spending fourteen days in the temple. Being a monk turns out to be very different from what he had expected.
(Interview: Dorothee Wenner, January 2018)