“Come with Me. I have to show you something.” My Conversation with a Burmese Monk

Walking barefoot on wet marbled floors of the Shwedagon Pagoda, I tried to serenely be present and absorb the glittering beauty that is the Shwedagon Pagoda while sheepishly snapping photos like any other tourist. I inched around the main pagodas, and watched as people came to burn incense, say their prayers, and quietly find peace, at least for a few minutes. I watched young couples, holding hands and flirtatiously passing their time. Groups of girlfriends sat on steps, chatting away.

I stood still, looking up at the blue evening sky, punctuated by heavy clouds, and focusing on the tip of the 368-foot tall spire. This is SO much gold, I thought. Pretty different from the churches I attended, growing up.

“Do you see the diamond?”

Someone with a heavy accent interrupted my thoughts. I turned to where the voice was coming from, pretty sure that the question was not meant for me. But there he was, a middle-aged Buddhist monk, medium build, wrapped in a reddish-brownish monastic robe, looking at me and waiting for a response.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Diamond?”

“Come with me. I need to show you something.” Without looking back at me, this monk took off, expecting me to trail behind him and await his instructions. A sense of familiarity, a feeling that usually does not describe the first two minutes of a first meeting between two strangers, shrouded my and the monk’s bond. I obediently followed, and put my feet on an unmarked spot that the monk pointed to on the ground. He instructed me to stand in that very specific spot and then look up. I saw a huge glittery white mark at the top of the spire. It’s a 76 carat diamond that can be seen from only specific angles from the ground level, he told me. When he sensed that the novelty of the giant diamond wore off on me, he beckoned with his head for me to follow him, and took off again. I followed him, and just as expected, he had another hard-to-find element of the Pagoda to show me. This happened repeatedly.

There were no introductions made between us, no skepticism, no ambivalence, nor suspected ulterior motives that marred this special moment for me. I asked questions about this history of the pagoda, his relationship to the pagoda, his daily routine as a Buddhist monk, and what he thought about my country, the United States. It was time for me to meet up with my group again, so when I pressed my hands together and said thank you, he smiled, pressed his hands together as well, and we parted.

To this day, I don’t know his name, nor does he know mine. All I have is a photo that we took together that captures the fact that despite the different worlds in which we live — a Korean American twenty-something girl, and a Buddhist monk who was raised in a Burmese monastery — we could instantly connect on the common grounds that we have a shared humanity. No questions asked, no introductions needed.

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