An 83-year-old Burmese monk considered to be one of the most important living Buddhist masters was in Washington last week.
Although not yet well known here, Taungpulu Tawya Kaba Aye Sayadaw is venerated in his native Burma where Buddhism has been practiced for centuries.
The highlight of his Washington visit, financed and organized by members of the Burmese community here, was the novice ordination last Sunday of 15-year-old Saw Aungwin Pe of Arlington. The ceremony took place at the Washington Buddhist Vihara on 16th Street NW, the temple serving Asian and American Buddhists throughout the area.
Saw's father, Aung Pe, who came to this country from Burma in 1968, said the family had always hoped their son to be ordained, but "when we heard Taungpulu was coming to Washington we finalized the arrangements because we realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Sunday was a big day not only for the Pe family but for the Vihara. It was the first novice ordination ever held at the temple, and the main shrine room was filled with those who had come to witness the event. The spillover crowd stood in the halls, craning for a glimpse of Taungpulu and the age-old ceremony of ordination.
Aung Pe said his son, a student at Thomas Jefferson Intermediate School in Arlington, was reluctant to have his head shave - a traditional part of the ceremon - but "I explained to him that it was necessary ... in order to get rid of the significance of the body" and to fully understand the meaning of Buddhism.
In the time of Buddha, 2,600 years ago, the ceremony marked a young man's entrance into the religious life, bringing great honor and social status to his family. In recent times, it has become largely a symbolic ceremony yet festive occasion similar to the Christian confirmation or Jewish bar mitzah. It acknowledges an individual's increased ability to learn and to assume added religious responsibility.
Taungpulu's visit to Washington comes in the middle of a trip that began in August and has included stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Barre, Mass. He has conducted more than 30 novice ordinations and has lectured on meditation as it is practiced among the monks of the forest ascetic traditions of Theravada Buddhism.
Unlike some, Taungpulu stresses that Buddhism is taught only as a means for attaining enlightenment, not as an end in itself. It was the appeal of his approach for six American students who visited Taungpulu in his Upper Burma monastery last year that resulted in his trip to the United States.
"My students were so impressed with him," said Dr. Rina Sircar, "that they wanted to bring him to the United States.
Although he practices totally all the vinaya or rules of Buddhism and is complete in his knowledge, his methods are really very simple and rather nonreligious," she said.
The essence of his teachings, she explained, is to take the goal of Buddhism, which is enlightenment or the awakening to reality, and "apply it to one's everyday life."
Taungpulu entered the monastery at the age of 4 and had never left his cave-like room there, where he mediatates continually in near total darkness and sleeps in a sitting position, until this trip to the United States. Asked why he wore dark glasses during Sunday's ordination ceremony, one of his fellow monks replied that "the light hurts his eyes."
As one member of the Vihara, where Taungpulu has been living and lecturing for the past week, put it: "He didn't go around drumming up business, you know. He is the real thing. A living saint."