Sue Yint, Buddhist Monk and Poet

By Petr Lom & Khin Aung Aye 24 November 2017

Sue Yint (b. 1974) is a Buddhist monk and a poet.  A combination that has an ancient pedigree in Myanmar, where some of the most famous poets in the countries were Buddhist monks.

How did you become a monk?

I was born in Sagaing Division, Thazin Town. My mother passed away when I was six. I went to a monastic school. I became a novice monk when I was thirteen. It’s not usual for kids that age to enter a monastery as a novice. It was a fun experience. We were forty novices in the monastery in my hometown.

I then continued straight on into monkhood – without returning to lay life after being a novice as many do – at the age of fifteen. I am over forty now.

And poetry?

At the age of fifteen, I started writing some religious poems, then sonnets in the classical style. Around 1997, modernism arrived here. At first, I could not transition to the modern style easily. Rhymes were still stubbornly stuck in my head and I even thought modernism is not even poetry. I slowly learned to accept modern forms of poetry and started writing them myself at age seventeen. But I was not published back then yet.

How did you decide you wanted to be a monk forever?

I didn’t – I just transitioned into monkhood and the years passed by as I continued to study. There were times I was tempted to quit. But I thought: what am I going to do as an occupation since I have no skill other than literature? How am I going to support a family if I get married? So, I decided to just enjoy this simple life with my literature and studies. I am used to a simple monastic life, free of trouble. I don’t want to deal with a new environment and new experiences.

What is the biggest difficulty of being a monk?

I don’t find it difficult. I have ready access to the four basic necessities: a robe to wear, meals to eat, a place to stay, and medicine. There are plenty of donors for our monastery. So I am contented, teaching and writing.

A monk’s life is stoic, full of strict codes to follow. A poet’s life is full of feeling and inspiration. How do you balance these two seemingly opposite disciplines?

A poet works his mind. A monk controls his mind. But even a poet or a layman needs to control his mind to a certain extent. He must, for example, avoid as many bad things as possible. But it is impossible to avoid every single small bad thing.

Inspiration can lead to fantasy and that is against the monk’s code. How do you deal with that?

Sometimes, I’d get lost in romantic fantasies while composing poems about love. But I write them in a third person point of view, not in a first person point of view. Although I am a monk, I am also still human. So I do have human fantasy. But I think of the poetic inspiration as very minor transgression.

Layman poets can unleash their fantasies as much as they want. But you must always rein them in to not become excessive. Of course, I am not as free as a layman poet. But I take that limitation of freedom as a healthy challenge.

A monk cuts himself off from worldly things. Yet you still busy yourself with these very things as a poet. It is not easy dealing with these two values. Yet even Buddha himself composed his sermons as poetry, with strict adherence to composition and diction.

So you are not a monk who only reads religious scripture?

No. If I did that, I would be a scholar. To become a poet, I have to read outside literature that gets me to think, and gives me inspiration.

One of your poems is called “Attachment”. Can you explain the title?

Attachment – Than Yaw Zin – is a string attached to yourself and a particular subject. It’s a form of bondage. If you can cut that bondage, you will become free. But if you become entangled in that web of attachment, you will never be free. You must cut yourself free from these things. They are basically strings you’ve attached to yourself.

That is the Buddhist concept – freeing oneself from attachment. But it is universally applicable to all human beings regardless of religion.

Last words?

I wish all my readers and viewers of this film to be healthy in mind and body. May you all reach the state of ever-lasting truth.

Authors’ Note: These interviews are excerpted from Burma Storybook, a poetry and photography book inspired by the documentary film of the same name, produced by Corinne van Egeraat and directed by Petr Lom. 

The English language hardcover edition of the book is for sale at Hla Day, Innwa Bookstore, Myanmar Book Center and the Strand Hotel.

A Burmese language-only paperback edition of the book is for sale through Yangon Book Plaza.

There will be a Free Open Air Screening of the Burma Storybook documentary film (82 min.) in Mahabandoola Park in Yangon on November 25 at 6 p.m.From Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, you can visit the interactive Burma Storybook Photo Exhibit at the Tourism Burma Building.

For more information: www.burmastorybook.com