Sandals on the Ground in America

by Bhikkhu Cintita and Dr. Win Bo

The following passages will appear in the forthcoming book, Teacher of the Moon: the Life and Times of Sitagu Sayadaw, by Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore and Dr. Tin Nyunt.

In 1988, Sitagu Sayadaw displeased elements of the military government of Burma by delivering his famous sermon on the responsibilities of kings in response to the brutal government suppression of the 8888 demonstrations. As the political situation worsened again in 1990 he quietly left the country into over two years of self-imposed exile, most of which he spend in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

Not one to spend exile waiting idly around, Sitagu Sayadaw began to explore the possibility of establishing a monastery in the States. In part, he wanted a home-base for his travels to this part of the world and a locus for long-term fund-raising in the West for his growing number of projects in cash-starved Burma. Through discussions with his dear friend in Sagaing Ashin Mahomaha Pandita Sayadaw, he had begun to recognize the value of missionary activities in the West. Not only was there a growing Burmese diaspora, eager for the presence of monk and willing to cooperate in such an endeavor, but there was a growing interest in Buddhism among the ethnic Westerners.

Sitagu Sayadaw’s travels in the early months of 1992 took him to Houston, Texas, from where his sponsors suggested he might also want to visit Austin, the capital of Texas. A Burmese Austinite, Eric Mynn, got a call from Houston asking if could host a Burmese monk from Tennessee and he agreed to put the eminent monk up at his home for a few days. Another Burmese man, U Win Bo, agreed to fit some time into his schedule to act as a tour guide. U Win Bo had, in fact, met Sitagu Sayadaw some months before when he was staying with a Burmese friend in Ohio who decided to drive down to Tennessee to visit the Burmese monk he was told lived there. U Win Bo had been living in the States long enough not to have any notion of how famous this monk had become back in Myanmar.

Austin is a small city in the Texas Hill Country, a beautiful forested semi-arid area, in which many streams flowed into the Colorado River. Sitagu Sayadaw was quite impressed with Austin, for it reminded him of the Sagaing Hills back home. U Win Bo, showing Sitagu Sayadaw the many of beauties of Austin from behind the wheel of his car, mentioned once casually that it would be nice if Austin had a Burmese monastery. Sitagu Sayadaw did not reply, but in fact had already been discussing that very possibility with the Burmese community in Houston, without yet reaching a decision.

Later that year, Sitagu Sayadaw was back in Austin, this time staying at the house of U Win Bo, where he asked to meet with the few Burmese families in Austin as a group. He had clearly been doing his homework, for he proposed setting a non-profit religious organization in Texas to be called the Theravada Dhamma Society of America (TDSA). Discussions ensued around organization and officers were agreed upon for the fledgling society. Sitagu Sayadaw remained in Austin for about a month, hammering out the bylaws, designing a logo and a letterhead and finally overseeing the filing of the papers for incorporation, which was granted on October 15, 1992. This time of residence in Austin also gave Sitagu Sayadaw a chance to familiarize himself with the area that would become the center of his missionary efforts.

Although Sitagu Sayadaw would return to Burma that winter, he would include Austin in his international travels each year for the foreseeable future, each time advancing the development of TDSA one step further, encouraging application for federal tax exempt status, then state tax-exempt status and then to begin searching for a property on which to situate the monastery. He seemed to be better informed about the formal steps necessary than the local officers in these days before easy access to information on the Internet.
Sitagu Sayadaw dedicated the summer of 1995 to TDSA. A house was leased for that period as a residence for Sitagu Sayadaw. He and the local community published a newsletter, explored the area further and began looking for property. They found a wonderful four-acre lot in the town of Bastrop, about thirty miles east of Austin. Bastrop is at a higher elevation than Austin, a bit cooler in the Summer and covered primarily by pine forest, as was the lot in question, a peaceful site on the gentle incline of a hill. Sitagu Sayadaw was very pleased with the site.

It happened that the small Burmese group had stopped at a grocery on their way to view the site in order to procure something to drink, at which a woman was giving children coming and going helium filled balloons, for reasons that remain obscure. Seeing a large Theravada monk in burgundy robes emerge from a car in the parking lot must have momentarily confused her, for she also handed Sitagu Sayadaw a balloon as he passed by. Gratefully accepting the balloon, he carried it back to the car and, after the small party had reached the lot and re-emerged from the car, carried it to a clearing and could be heard ceremonially chanting something in Pali. He then released the balloon. However, the wind carried the balloon past a tree in which the string became entangled, halting the balloon’s ascent. “That’s a bad sign,” he told the others.

Indeed, after Sitagu Sayadaw had returned to Myanmar, U Win Bo returned to the lot in Bastrop and discovered some prohibitive issues. First, it had no electricity, water or phone lines. More importantly, it was under the auspices of a homeowners’ association that imposed strict requirements on what could be build on this lot. Bastrop is in rural Texas, not as cosmopolitan as Austin or Houston, and so he could anticipate great reluctance to accept a Buddhist monastery into their neighborhood.  TDSA would have to look elsewhere for its home.

Texas was in the wild west of the Buddhist world, a land where barely a handful Burmese pioneers from the heartland of the Buddhism on the other side of the globe had settled, determined to build a monastery on its rocky soil. Austin, Texas, in particular, had the ideal demographics for Buddhist missionary work. Studies indicate that American “convert” Buddhists are for the most part well-off financially, liberal or progressive politically and extremely well educated. Austin fits this profile exactly, as the capital city of Texas, the site of one of the biggest university campuses in the country, a major center for the high tech industry and one of the most educated cities in America.

Instrumental in the establishment of a Sitagu presence in Austin was Dr. Tin Than Myint, who worked at the veterans hospital in distant Big Springs, Texas, but who had family connections to Austin and counted as a close disciple of the Sayadaw. After the founding of the Theravada Dhamma Society of America during Sitagu Sayadaw’s visit, Dr. Tin Than Myint would often stop by the house of U Win Bo in Austin on Sundays and the two of them would drive around with a realtor in search of suitable property.

A sixteen-acre lot at 9001 Honeycomb Dr. just southwest of Austin, that they viewed early in 1996, had an old shed for keeping horses, a small rabbit warren, a dilapidated mobile home, as well as a well as a source of water and both phone and electric lines. The lot was covered with oak and cedar trees and thick underbrush, teaming with wildlife, from deer and foxes to wild turkeys and rattlesnakes. Dr. Myint was particularly impressed with the lot and TDSA decided to make an offer. The asking prices was $85,000, TDSA had $50,000 in the bank, but Dr. Myint would loan TDSA an additional $15,000 and the owner would agree to finance the rest. And so the deal was closed.

A work team from the Burmese community started showing up each weekend to make the mobile home habitable, to repair the well, to replace the toilet, carpets and wallpaper, to fix the plumbing and to repair the small decks at the front and rear of the mobile home. The unused shed was demolished and old furniture hauled away. The local community began almost immediately to host festival events on the grounds.

In the summer of 1998, Sitagu Sayadaw organized the sima ceremony for the monastery,. A sima is a consecrated area in which monks can legally perform certain ceremonies, such as the ordination of a new monk. A sima ceremony has to be done strictly by the book and the expert on such ceremony, the famous Burmese missionary monk Ashin Silananda from Daly City, California was asked to lead the ceremony. Eighteen Buddhist monks were invited to Austin for the ceremony, most of them put up in nearby hotels. The sima ground was marked with chalk powder as a rectangular shape and was then subdivided into smaller rectangles. Each monk has to recite pali stanzas to convert it into a block of sima ground. It took two days to conduct the ceremony. After the ceremony, the locations were staked to make sure the sima grounds were properly marked.

And so the Sitagu Buddha Vihara came to be. In the decades to come it would acquire a pagoda (placed directly over the existing sima, thereby avoiding the necessity of a new consecration), a Dhamma hall, a dedicated library building, a reception hall, a dining hall and thirty-six cabins for monks and resident yogis. It would become of thriving center of practice and learning not only for the Burmese community in Texas, but for many Westerners and people from other Buddhist lands.

3 Responses to “Sandals on the Ground in America”

  1. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Reblogged this on News from Sitagu, Austin.

  2. lamb-O Says:

    Dear bhante,

    Sorry for the OT, but I’ve been wondering what happened to the “myth of Buddhist violence” series.

    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      lamb-O, Good question! I did not finish this series out of some dismay at the battle lines some responders insisted on drawing, among which the point of the series was already being lost.

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