An avant-garde monastic school

- through Fabrice Groult

Published on

Report in Mandalay, on the benches of the Phaung Daw Oo (PDO) monastic institution, open to the laity and to all religions to heal the wounds of Burma.

They are about fifty, girls and boys aged 12 to 16, seated on wooden benches, diligently writing in a notebook the answers to the questions posed by a geography book open in front of them. In neighboring classes, other teenagers are finishing a math course and then starting a literature lesson. Students like in all high schools in the world. Except that… some have shaved heads and wear the robes of Buddhist novices, pink with auburn scarf for girls, burgundy for boys. The others, the “lay people”, have worn the white shirt and the green longyi of the traditional uniform of Burmese education. There is something else, difficult to grasp, about these small groups of concentrated brains. Any visitor who, wandering the streets of Burma, has passed a school at class time cannot fail to hear, rising from behind the walls, the cacophonous hubbub of dozens of high-pitched voices repeating words or sentences written by teachers on a board. Here, none of these vocal excesses, only polite whispers when two students exchange a comment on one of the questions. We also realize that in several books, Burmese rubs shoulders with English. We are however neither in an international school nor in one of these private establishments which have multiplied in recent years, but indeed in one of the many classes of the Phaung Daw Oo monastic school (PDO) in Mandalay which, with its 9 students (including 200 novices and nuns) and 700 teachers, including several foreign volunteers, is the largest of its kind in the country.

A child-centered holistic approach

Beyond its size, the PDO school is best known for the avant-garde of its teaching. Sitting in an office, his eyes mischievous behind glasses with large black frames, the monk director of the school, the venerable U Nayaka, 73, details the genesis and philosophy of his establishment. “I created the school in 1993 with my brother, the Venerable U Zawtika, we were inspired by establishments developed by Christian missionaries, mainly in the ethnic mountain regions, which offered free general education to children whose parents lived in poverty,” he explains in perfect English. Over the years, school programs have gradually departed from the traditional curriculum. "In Burma, public education is based on repetition and memorization, adds the venerable, this makes students "parrots" who often get good marks in exams, where they are asked to copy what is there. has in the books. Here, we have engaged in a child-centered holistic approach from kindergarten and after primary school, we teach a method based on critical thinking. »

“Here, we welcome children of all religions whose parents are in poverty – many are dependent on drugs – others have been forced to leave their villages because of the ethnic conflicts which continue to tear the country apart. » U Nayaka

Buddhist monastic schools have a tradition in Burma dating back to the 1824th century when King Anawrahta, founder of the first unified kingdom of Bagan, established Theravada Buddhism as the official religion. The teaching was exclusively provided by bonzes both to the children of the countryside and to the heirs to the throne. Even if all the branches were taught there, the teaching monks emphasized the learning in the Pali language of Buddhist scriptures and precepts with the aim of bringing young men to monastic life. A memory of that time, today there is only one word, “kyaung”, to designate both the school and the monastery. This education had at least the merit of making Burma, at the turn of the 1885th and XNUMXth centuries, one of the most literate countries in East Asia. The British colonizer as soon as he entered the country (conquered in three stages between XNUMX and XNUMX), began a profound overhaul of the educational system, "first by introducing more 'temporal' subjects into the monastic program and later by establishing a secular school system that could supply it with local administrators and officials and enable it to "civilize" the Burmese people," writes Jack A. Dougherty, an education specialist at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, in an essay , The effects of the colonial period on education in Burma. From 1962 to 1988, under the reign of dictator Ne Win, monastic schools were banned before being authorized again in 1992.

A school open to all religions

Today there are some 1600 such schools in the country, including a large number in Mandalay, which provide free education according to a government-approved curriculum to about 300 children and adolescents. The profile and history of these students reflect the difficulties that the country, despite coming to power in 000 after half a century of military dictatorship, of a democratically elected civilian government, continues to face. "Here, continues U Nayaka, we welcome children of all religions whose parents are in poverty - many are dependent on drugs - others have been forced to leave their villages because of the ethnic conflicts who continue to tear the country apart. We have a boarding school that accommodates 400 of them, including a hundred orphans, as well as a clinic that welcomes teachers, students and members of the community neighboring the school every day. The teaching of Buddhism, the dhama, is provided on Sundays by volunteers during optional classes.

Su Htet Myat, a 17-year-old girl from Yangon, came to boarding school at the age of 5 with her two brothers and sister. Their mother had died and their father, victim of failing health, had to close his mechanical workshop. Today, she is one of the "old" of the school. “I feel very good there, she smiles, I have lots of friends and I don't miss anything. Adopted by a German couple, she wants to go to Europe to continue her studies. “I would like to learn medicine, but I don't have enough self-confidence, she admits, so I could study to become a teacher and come back to my country. »

Since 2011, the start of four years of transition, Burmese governments have launched ambitious programs in favor of education. The budget of this ministry increased six times between fiscal years 2011-2012 and 2017-2018 to reach 8,8% of state expenditure. A commendable effort, but which according to experts will take many years to materialize. Today, the government provides only 20% of the PDO school budget, the rest comes from foreign donations.

photo of author

Fabrice Groult

Fabrice Groult is an adventurer, photographer and Buddhist who has traveled the world since a young age. After studying Buddhism in India, he embarked on an eighteen-month journey through Asia that took him to the Himalayas, where he discovered his passion for photography. Since then, he has traveled the world capturing images of Buddhist beauty and wisdom. He was a guide for ten years, and is now a journalist with Buddhist News.

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