Original Title: Buddhist Monastery in Moulmein
Location: Mawlamyine Myanmar
Photographer: Unknown but from the Ira Wolff Photographic History Collection
The Secret Monastery
Throughout the semester, we have learned about various Southeast Asian countries, cultures, religions, and traditions. Specifically, religion offers a multitude of information in regards to the culture of a specific location. Not only does it directly impact it, but it also offers a unique history of a specific place. It is passed down and practiced through many generations. The image I have chosen frames a Buddhist monastery in Mawlamyine, Myanmar. This image can tell us a lot about the importance of Buddhism specifically in Myanmar, through the intricate and careful design of the monastery itself. After some further research, according to Harvard School of Divinity, “close to 90% of people in Myanmar today are Buddhist,” (Harvard School of Divinity) With most of the population being practicing Buddhists, it explains why there is more emphasis placed on a Buddhist monastery than for example Buddhist monasteries in the United States where Buddhism is a much less practiced religion. In addition to this, the architectural design for most modern Buddhist monasteries in Denver are a lot less detailed. However, this image shows the creativity and design that made the monastery look unique from other buildings.
With almost all of the population in Myanmar practicing Buddhism, the branch that is specifically practiced is called Theravada Buddhism. The followers of this branch of Buddhism aim to “abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify their mind.” (BBC) It is interesting that most of the country follows this religion that places high emphasis on peace and purity, especially after being under “oppressive military junta from 1962-2011,” (Collins) I believe a lot of the people who live in Myanmar turn to Buddhism as a safe haven from the oppression and poverty that swept their country. The Buddhist religion values meditation and virtue, both of which are important for a country that has faced such a troubling past, as recent as less than 20 years ago. Monks are also important, as they practice and preserve the teachings of the Buddha. I would think that this image would specifically resonate with most of the population as they have a connection to Buddhism. In addition to this, the image itself shows the Buddhist values of virtue and peace. Although the image is not the best quality because it is very old, you can see that the area is tended and taken care of properly. You can also see that the location of this monastery is secluded in a peaceful way. This way monks can focus on living in their community and not have to worry about different temptations that the chaotic world may bring. The monastery is a very good sized building which makes sense considering how many people of Myanmar are practicing Buddhists. The more practicing Buddhists, the more monks that need a safe place to lead out their lives and help the lay people. Lay people are those who practice the religion but are not monks. It is important that Buddhist monks have a good relationship with the lay people as they support the monasteries and learn from the monks.
I try to parallel this specific monastery to how the United States has historic cathedrals that have become tourist sites that have gained popularity and are a proxy for learning about other religions and their history. I think if this specific monastery is still around that it would definitely serve as a historical place for Myanmar. Just like in the US, you don’t have to be a practicing Catholic to appreciate the history and architecture of a famous cathedral. Unfortunately the name and location of this specific Buddhist monastery is not noted, however, it seems like it would be important for the people of Myanmar to preserve it at all costs as now especially to those who practice Buddhism, which is most of the country. This image predicts that in the future maybe another more modern or bigger Buddhist monastery will be built so that the land may be preserved for the monks that play an imperative role in the religion. I think this photo has much more significance to local people than the artist or photographer.
I personally believe that this photo was taken by a tourist who may have had a small knowledge of how important Buddhism is in Myanmar. But the photo goes much further than that. While the photographer might have just snapped a photo of a very detailed looking building, for many people this building is a physical sign of religion and a safe place for them to go and connect with other Buddhists. It is also a very important building as it shows some of the administrative pieces of the religion.
This image is much more than what meets the eye. From a first glance, it looks like a photograph of a building but after more research, it has a lot of information regarding religion in Myanmar. In class we discussed the variety of religions that people in Southeast Asia practiced and this highlights one of the most popular religions in Myanmar specifically. This image gives us the opportunity to learn more about a different religion and how it impacts the people and culture of those who practice it.
BBC. “Religions – Buddhism: Theravada Buddhism.” BBC, BBC, 2 Oct. 2002,
Collins, Lauren. “Thailand and Myanmar.” Canvas, 2023.
Harvard School of Divinity. “Buddhism in Myanmar.” Religion and Public Life at Harvard
Divinity School, https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/faq/buddhism-myanmar#:~:text=Close%20to%2090%25%20of%20people,than%20other%20schools%20of%20Buddhism.