The American Scholar

The Lady and the Monk

Aung San Suu Kyi represents the country’s isolation and suffering, its endurance and grace and beauty and grit.

MY FRIEND MYINT TUN had passed away at 47 the previous spring, after a failed heart operation, so my son and I decided to return to Burma, where Myint lived, to join his widow and three children in Mandalay for the anniversary of his death. We would go to the cemetery, stand at the mouth of the crematorium, leave a small stone or two on his grave. It would be a pilgrimage, a journey that would allow us to honor Myint’s memory, but also an opportunity to re-enter the monkhood, which Myint had first invited us to join. We felt a need to keep alive the seed he had planted within us.

Here in Burma, the or monkhood, is as fluid as it is pervasive. You would be hard-pressed to find a Buddhist in the country who has not been a member at some point in life, as monk or novice or nun. Although I had been to Burma some 10 times and spent more than a year here in all, I worried that my ties to the country were not as real or deep as I imagined. I feared that my explorations might turn out to have been nothing more than an extended lark, my friendships more utilitarian and less essential than I supposed. In essence, I felt I might always be nothing but a tourist here, condemned

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