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May 25th, 2012
12:11 PM ET

As Myanmar opens up, spiritual tourists journey in

By Paula Hancocks, CNN

Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) – How’s this for a vacation schedule? Get up at 3 a.m., put off sleep till 11 p.m., and spend almost the whole day alone, in silence.

It’s a typical day for a foreign tourist at the Mahasi meditation center here.

Founded by the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, the center opens its doors not only to Burmese residents but also to foreign visitors wishing to learn Buddhist meditation techniques.

One recent visitor is a 23-year-old American Christian named Kym Cole. She said that doing up to 10 hours of meditation every day was difficult but it yielded unique rewards: “It feels like a different world but in a good way.”

Cole is among the thousands who are taking the opportunity to experience what was once one of the most isolated countries in the world as the nation institutes reforms and opens up to outsiders.

Myanmar does not keep statistics on spiritual tourists, but tourism to the country generally has doubled in the past four years. And more meditation centers here are catering to foreigners, capitalizing on their swelling numbers.

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Myanmar, also known as Burma, is overwhelmingly Buddhist and much of society revolves around its hundreds of thousands of monks. Temples and pagodas define the landscape.

It is believed that well over 10,000 temples have been built in the ancient city of Bagan alone. More 2,000 survive today. Some Burmese boys learn to read and write at their local monastery, and many go for Buddhist education at some point in their childhood.

Cole recently finished a three-month internship with the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia and said she wanted to clear her mind. And she wanted to experience spiritual tourism in Myanmar before the country changes too much as it opens up to the outside world.

“Tourism can alter a country greatly and one of the attractions to me was this notion of a country lost in time and that was removed from westernization and globalization,” she said.

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Cole avoided the country during the brutal, decades-long rule of the military junta because she thought “my presence would have been supporting that government.”

High-profile opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who assumed her new seat in Myanmar’s parliament earlier this month, had long cautioned that tourism would provide support to the regime that kept her under house arrest for much of the past two decades.

But a new civilian government was sworn in last year. Although it is still heavily influenced by the military, Suu Kyi is free has stopped discouraging tourism.

One of the head monks at the Mahasi center, Asain Veluriya, said the center’s meditation techniques are popular in the United States and Europe - his tradition has 50 branches worldwide - but these days he sees more foreigners coming to Myanmar for a first-hand experience.

And he said there doesn’t have to necessarily be anything spiritual about it.

“Personal meditation is not only for Buddhists but also for everyone,” he said. “By practicing meditation we can become a happy person, we can create a happy life, a meaningful life.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Buddhism • Myanmar

soundoff (66 Responses)
  1. At death atheists believe

    Atheists hate it when people of faith say they are right yet they also claim to be right?

    May 27, 2012 at 7:24 pm |
  2. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer really changes things

    May 27, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      May 29, 2012 at 11:14 am |
  3. fsmgroupie

    show me the money and you can sit in silence for ten hours on my floor too.

    May 27, 2012 at 2:07 am |
  4. Beardie

    The monk said, "Vipassana meditation," but the caption reads, "Personal meditation."

    May 26, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
  5. Reality

    Buddhism- ( ONLY FOR THE NEW MEMBERS OF THIS BLOG)

    "Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow."

    "However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.):"

    Archaeological discoveries have proved, beyond a doubt, his historical character, but apart from the legends we know very little about the circu-mstances of his life. e.g. Buddha by one legend was supposedly talking when he came out of his mother's womb.

    "Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the vir-gin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving dis-course about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries."

    But to be fair:

    • There was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • There was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2

    May 26, 2012 at 8:12 am |
    • Surya Das

      "Hinduism fails as a religion".. R u in drugs? If today's world you do yoga, or medication then it is hinduism. This is world's oldest religion and most purest religion. We never force anyone convert into Hinduism, if we do so then whold world would be hindus only. You are a person with half knowledge, did you ever visit Bali, Indonesia? Go and let me know which caste do they belongs to?

      Don't ever try to talk non-sense about the greatest religion on earth. If you count hindu religion subsidiaries like Budhism, Sikhism, Jainism then we will be counted almost 35% of world population. Jai Hind

      May 26, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Investigate deeper in to Hinduism

      @ reality, please look in to the fact that the Moghuls failed to convert all to Islam, the Europeans failed to change them into Christians, ask your self why???, was Hinduism already a higher form of spirituality. Concepts such as being a vegan were un heard of as the other religions could not extend compassion to animals, while Hinduism extended it to humans and animals.

      May 26, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • Reality

      "John Hick, a noted British philosopher of religion, estimates that 95 percent of the people of the world owe their religious affiliation to an accident (the randomness) of birth. The faith of the vast majority of believers depends upon where they were born and when. Those born in Saudi Arabia will almost certainly be Moslems, and those born and raised in India will for the most part be Hindus. Nevertheless, the religion of millions of people can sometimes change abruptly in the face of major political and social upheavals. In the middle of the sixth century ce, virtually all the people of the Near East and Northern Africa, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt were Christian. By the end of the following century, the people in these lands were largely Moslem, as a result of the militant spread of Islam.

      The Situation Today

      Barring military conquest, conversion to a faith other than that of one’s birth is rare. Some Jews, Moslems, and Hindus do convert to Christianity, but not often. Similarly, it is not common for Christians to become Moslems or Jews. Most people are satisfied that their own faith is the true one or at least good enough to satisfy their religious and emotional needs. Had St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas been born in Mecca at the start of the present century, the chances are that they would not have been Christians but loyal followers of the prophet Mohammed. “ J. Somerville

      It is very disturbing that religious narrow- mindedness and/or intolerance and/or violence and/or hatred continues unabated due to randomness of birth. Maybe, just maybe if this fact would be published on the first page of every newspaper every day, that we would finally realize the significant stupidity of all religions.

      May 26, 2012 at 1:12 pm |
    • Reality

      http://www.adherents.com/Religions_By_Adherents.html

      Religion………………………… Adherents

      Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

      Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

      Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion

      Hinduism 900 million
      Chinese traditional religion 394 million
      Buddhism 376 million
      Animist religions 300 million
      African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
      Sikhism 23 million
      Juche 19 million
      Spiritism 15 million

      Judaism…………………………………….. 14 million

      Baha'i 7 million
      Jainism 4.2 million
      Shinto 4 million
      Cao Dai 4 million
      Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
      Tenrikyo 2 million
      Neo-Paganism 1 million
      Unitarian Universalism 800,000
      Rastafari Movement 600,000

      May 26, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    May 26, 2012 at 7:16 am |
    • Adrian

      You're funny.

      May 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
    • just sayin

      And absolutely right. God bless

      May 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Wrath of Crom

      Nope.
      Absolutely wrong. No statistical evidence to prove it, in fact the exact opposite. Prayer is a pipe dream.

      May 27, 2012 at 11:50 am |
    • Jesus

      ~Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!

      May 29, 2012 at 11:15 am |
  7. Sayalay Bhaddamanika

    Yes, practicing meditation is to contribute to peace in the world.
    There are many meditation retreat opportunities in Burma as it is one of the best products of the country. There is already people from foreign countries visited Burma for meditation purposes but there will be more in the future. The genuine teachings of the Buddha both in theoretical and practical are flourishing in Burma with majority of peaceful minded-Burmese citizens willing to help the meditation centers and at the traditional Buddhist monasteries in the whole country. I think now is the right time to boost up the spiritual tourism by catering the needs of tourists who come to the country only for religious purposes in terms of meditation visas, study visas, etc. and as well as necessary infrastructures which are different from the recreational tourism. Good luck to all my fellow citizens.

    May 26, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • rochdoc

      The problem is that 90 % of people cannot live like yogies . So this turns out to be 90 % working for religions 10%

      May 26, 2012 at 11:05 pm |
  8. mingma sherpa

    yes, meditaiton is something worth doing. It can help us bring mental peace and build up patience. It is for everyone.

    May 26, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  9. Ye Htun Soe

    I think it is a good new not only for Myanmar but also for all tourists who is seeking the reasons and the answers to questions of Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where will we have to go after this life? What does peace really mean? How can we achieve this absolute truth, and well being with any attachments to material world? What is enlightenment? Can it be really achieved in this very life? You all will know the answer with competence after you learn "Vipasana Mediation" for only a relatively short period in your life. Please, any person from any religions, just taste it, whether it is true or fault on your own. But take care real "Vipasana mediation".

    May 26, 2012 at 1:47 am |
  10. costadosol

    In today's world of tatoos,rap and rage.This is a blessing every parent should send their kids to a life time experience like this.
    Introduce them to more intelligent world, a world of peace,even if it is a one off.

    May 26, 2012 at 1:22 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.