By Shyamal Sinha
The Mon Buddhist community of Akron, Ohio, recently celebrated the completion of the state’s first authentic pagoda, complete with a Buddhist relic brought from Sri Lanka. The community, predominantly Theravada Buddhists, erected the pagoda over the course of two years as a site for meditation, prayer, and worship. It was completed on the final weekend of August.
The pagoda, or dhatu cetiya, is a traditional shrine in the Theravada Buddhist cultures of South and Southeast Asia, typically covered with a golden outer layer and sacred jewels representing the purity of the goal of Buddhism. The completion ceremony drew together an estimated 300 people from a number of Buddhist and non-Buddhist communities in the area and was demonstrative of the growing Mon community in Akron, as well as representing a new hub in the city for refugees from Southeast Asia.
“We really just want to establish our community here in Akron just so people can see we’re here,” said Htaw Mon, a member of the Akron Mon Community Temple. “This just represents the unity we’re trying to show.” (Akron Beacon Journal)
The ceremony drew people from around the world, including monks from Myanmar, who brought the relic to complete the stupa. Others traveled from around the country to take part in the festivities. After a nearly two-hour ceremony, the work was complete.
The significance of the stupa varied among those present. For some in the Mon community, the crowning of the stupa represented the re-establishment of an ancient tradition, and a symbol of distinction from other Asian refugee communities in the area.
“It reminds me of when we were home,” said Yunmimi Khaing, a 17-year-old girl whose family emigrated from Thailand in 2012. Yunmimi expressed hope that the new stupa would enable her family revive their former practice of visiting a pagoda every week to pray. “This is an honor that it happened here, especially so close to our house,” she added. (Akron Beacon Journal)
Others present on the occasion, such as Mahn and Htaw Mon, expressed hope that the monument would become a focal point where people of all Buddhist traditions could gather to practice and to meditate. “This shows what we can do if we just work together. It feels really, really great for us to build it all on our own,” Htaw Mon said. “I just feel it adds a little culture to the city.” (Akron Beacon Journal)
The Mon are an ethnic group native to Myanmar and Thailand and have practiced and spread Buddhism in the region for centuries. Along with the Karen and Shan peoples of Myanmar, they have always been minorities in the predominantly Bamar country. Despite this status, they are thought to have had a substantial influence on the culture of Myanmar. As historian Thant Myint-U writes in The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge 2004):
The Irrawaddy basin possesses one of the oldest legal traditions in the world and both the earliest legal texts and the emergence of professional jurists may date from as early as the thirteenth century. They in turn may have borrowed from substantially older Mon writings and were ultimately inspired by early Buddhist ideas on ethics and society.
Since Burma’s (now Myanmar) independence from Britain in 1947, the Mon have attempted to assert independence for their people several times, signing a ceasefire with the central government only in 1996. Today the Mon people continue to live primarily in Myanmar’s Mon State as well as in neighboring Thailand, with sizable overseas communities in Australia, Canada, Finland, and the United States.