Rice Banks

Helping others comes naturally to villagers in Shwe Na Gwin, Myanmar. They are not rich in money, but very rich in heart.

The village of Shwe Na Gwin, in the town of Taikkyi, is more than three hours by car northwest of Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. The village is far off the beaten path, the road leading to it unpaved and uneven. On good days, vehicles stir up dust as they bump along the road, but during the monsoon season, the road is often so muddy that cars and trucks can’t use it. During that time, traveling on foot is your only option, but even that is difficult. Your rain boots often get so stuck in the mud that it takes some effort to free them. Furthermore, to get into or out of the village, you have to traverse a section of railroad track under which runs a rushing river.

Despite the time and hassle to get to the village, Tzu Chi volunteers visit Shwe Na Gwin every month. What keeps them coming back time and again? It is that they have been moved by U San Thein, a farmer there. Though he is not the head of his village, he has been successful in convincing more than a hundred families there to join the “rice bank” campaign he started there. The campaign has even reached many other villages.

People push their vehicle across a railroad track on their way to the village of Shwe Na Gwin. It is not an easy journey to travel to the village.

Fifty rice banks

In August 2015, more than 800,000 acres of farmland north of Yangon was submerged in floods. The towns of Taikkyi and Hmawbi were especially hard hit.

After the waters receded, some farmers immediately reseeded their rice paddies. But then a second flood hit soon after in the same month, wiping out their latest efforts as well. Many farmers ran out of rice seeds.

Tzu Chi volunteers began in September 2015 to distribute rice seeds to farmers in those two towns to help out. In December they arrived at the village of Shwe Na Gwin.

Tzu Chi volunteers invited U Thein Tun, a farmer from the town of Thanlyin, to speak at a rice distribution event in Shwe Na Gwin. He shared with the gathered farmers about how people in his village received rice seeds from Tzu Chi in 2010, and how afterwards he had started saving rice every day in a container to help the needy. He also shared how, out of compassion for all living creatures, he insisted on not using pesticides or chemical fertilizers and how he talked to and blessed his rice paddy every day. Though his approach to farming had resulted in some ups and downs in harvests, he had managed to rise out of poverty. He had even trained to be a certified Tzu Chi volunteer.

That’s when farmer U San Thein first heard about the idea of saving a handful of rice in a container—a rice bank—each day. U Thein Tun’s talk struck a chord in him. He wanted to follow in his footsteps. So, after receiving rice seeds from Tzu Chi, he asked volunteers for 50 plastic containers to be used as rice banks. Not knowing why he had asked for so many, the volunteers only gave him ten.

When Tzu Chi volunteers returned to Shwe Na Gwin a few months later for another visit, they discovered that U San Thein had already recruited 90 families to participate in a rice bank initiative he had started. After he had used up the ten plastic containers he had received from Tzu Chi, he had purchased extra containers on his own to give out.

Later, more farmers joined his campaign, even ones from other villages. Nearly 400 families in Shwe Na Gwin and 12 other villages are currently saving rice to help the needy.

“That’s the result of U San Thein’s tireless efforts,” said Ong Gaik Chin (王綺楨), a volunteer from Malaysia. Since May 2015, she has been traveling between Malaysia and Myanmar to give support and care to local volunteers.

More than 700 people took part in a Tzu Chi Buddha Day ceremony held in May 2018 in Shwe Na Gwin. Some of the participants, such as the four people in the front row with blue-capped containers, also brought their rice banks to donate.

Ong said that U San Thein had visited one village after another on foot, under the scorching sun, to promote his initiative. After several months of doing this, he had lost a lot of weight and even fell ill when the rainy season arrived. He was in bed for almost a month before fully recovering.

Ong highly commended U San Thein and his predecessor U Thein Tun. “They are both very down-to-earth, sincere, and honest farmers.”

Ong said that U Thein Tun has stayed true to his pledge to save rice for the needy, even when he would have no rice left for his own next meal if he put some in his bank. U Thein Tun has inspired U San Thein to work hard to promote rice banks. They are both firm in their commitment to helping others. 

By saving rice every day and inspiring others to do the same, the two farmers are demonstrating the spirit of the early members of Tzu Chi. Many people know how the foundation got its start: To help the needy, Master Cheng Yen asked the 30 housewives who followed her to each drop 50 Taiwanese cents (about 1.2 U.S. cents) of their grocery money in a bamboo coin bank each day. Why add to the coin bank every day instead of just putting in 15 dollars a month? The Master wanted every person to show their compassion and think of helping others every day, not just once a month. As the message of “Even 50 cents can save people” spread, more and more people joined, eventually leading Tzu Chi to what it is today. This shows how small but regular contributions, when added up, can help a lot of people. Even small trickles of water coming together can become mighty rivers.

Tzu Chi volunteers visit the home of Ko Myo Lwin (left), a spinal injury sufferer.

Cultivation is…

Besides actively promoting rice banks amongst his fellow farmers, U San Thein also started training to become a certified Tzu Chi volunteer. The training included conducting home visits to the needy. While he willingly attended other training events, U San Thein was hesitant to take part in these home visits. He was concerned that they would take up too much time for his sitting meditation. He was a highly disciplined cultivator who took his spiritual practice very seriously. Every year during the Buddhist Lent, from July to September, he cultivated himself in a temple through meditation.

It was great that he was serious about his own spiritual cultivation, but Tzu Chi volunteers reminded him that meditation isn’t the only way to cultivate oneself—one can also do that by applying the Buddha’s teachings in daily life and helping others, just as Master Cheng Yen teaches her followers to do. U San Thein pondered the wisdom of those words and seemed to agree. But his mind wasn’t fully convinced until something happened in his village.

Just around that time, a fellow villager, Ko Myo Lwin, was at work cutting down trees when one of them fell on him. The accident left the young man paralyzed in his lower body. He was rushed to a hospital nearby, but the doctor could not treat him. He suggested that he be transferred to a larger hospital in Yangon.

Ko Myo Lwin’s wife, Thein Thein, sold all her jewelry to pay for the trip and the treatment at a Yangon hospital. After surgery, they went home. But by the time Ko Myo Lwin was scheduled to return to the hospital for a follow-up visit, the family had run out of money. 

U San Thein started a fundraiser for Ko Myo Lwin that brought in 45,000 kyat (US$32). They used that money to send the young man to the hospital for the return visit, but that was hardly a long-term solution. He would need to return to the hospital regularly for more follow-up visits. U San Thein decided to ask Tzu Chi for help.

Ma Aye San cooks in her kitchen, lighted with power generated by a solar panel which she received from Tzu Chi.

Tzu Chi stepped in at that point and began giving Ko Myo Lwin and his family monthly financial aid for living and medical expenses. Volunteers also visited the family frequently.

One day when Aye Nandar Aung (郭寶鈺) and her fellow volunteers visited Ko Myo Lwin’s home, they found him groaning in pain because of a bedsore on his back. The volunteers immediately asked Dr. Yin Yin Aye (陳界漢), a member of the Tzu Chi International Medical Association, to check on the patient. The doctor decided that a trip out of the village to obtain treatment was necessary, so the volunteers enlisted the help of local villagers to take Ko Myo Lwin to the hospital.

U San Thein found two strong young men and a woman in the village to help Ko Myo Lwin and his wife, Thein Thein, on the trip. Ko Myo Lwin was carefully lifted out of his recliner and put on a stretcher. A cloth had been put on the stretcher as a cushion to lessen his pain on the bumpy road.

Two volunteers from Yangon, Mi Mi Hlaing
(陳秀寶) and Zin Zin Aung (王棉棉), had arrived the day before the trip to help out and to record the trip. They had spent the night at U San Thein’s home and had therefore been able to observe how considerate their host was.

“He woke up very early the day of the trip,” Mi Mi Hlaing recalled, “and his wife had gotten up even earlier to prepare boxed meals for Ko Myo Lwin, his wife, and the three villagers.” The volunteer later learned why U San Thein had asked that female villager to take the trip: It was so that she could share Thien Thien’s burden of carrying heavy objects, such as the meal boxes and Ko Myo Lwin’s recliner.

While Ko Myo Lwin was receiving treatment at a hospital in Yangon, Koay Chiew Poh (郭濟緣), CEO of Tzu Chi Malaysia, asked U San Thein to help fix up Ko Myo Lwin’s well-worn house. U San Thein worked with a group of Tzu Chi collegiate volunteers on the project. He taught them techniques to repair nipa palm roofs and bamboo floors.

After the hospital treatment had concluded, Ko Myo Lwin and his wife returned to find their home much improved. They were overjoyed. Tzu Chi also financed the purchase of some goods so that the couple could start a grocery business at home and support themselves.

U San Thein witnessed and personally participated in the things that the volunteers did for the couple. That gave him an appreciation of what helping others really meant. “My Buddhist belief before had me focused on improving and cultivating myself,” U San Thein said. “Now I understand that in addition to personal cultivation, we should also give as much as we can to society. That is the right path to take.”

U Thein Tun, a farmer from the town of Thanlyin, saves rice every day in a container to help the needy.

Light dispels darkness

After visiting Shwe Na Gwin regularly for some time to collect the rice from the rice bank campaign and to help local needy people, Tzu Chi volunteers started holding training courses in the village for those who wanted to join the foundation and become volunteers. The classes were at first held in open air, in the shade of trees. Since outdoor classes had their disadvantages, Malaysian volunteers eventually proposed erecting a prefabricated house in the village to serve as a classroom.

U San Thein offered an empty tract beside his home as the building site, and local and Malaysian volunteers began to build in earnest. During the construction process, however, the Malaysian volunteers found out to their surprise that the entire village had no electricity—electrification had not yet reached the area. They decided that after they finished the house, they would start a fundraiser in Malaysia to buy solar panels for Shwe Na Gwin and other Burmese villages that participated in the rice bank campaign.

Koay Chiew Poh, CEO of Tzu Chi Malaysia, came up with a fundraising idea. It is customary for Malaysian Chinese to light lights in temples on Tomb-Sweeping Day to remember their ancestors. Giving a slight twist to that custom, Koay pitched a fundraising idea to potential donors: Instead of lighting lights in temples for their ancestors, wouldn’t it be even better to put lights in Burmese villages so that villagers could see at night? Wouldn’t doing so be an even worthier tribute to their ancestors?

Koay’s pitch won over many entrepreneurs who not only donated money but also spread the word to enlist more donors. Hong Hai Siew
(方海壽) was one example. He went to Myanmar no fewer than 40 times to help with relief work after it was savaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Those experiences endeared him to the place and motivated him to work harder to convince people to donate. He alone recruited more than 300 donors.

During March and April 2018, right around the Burmese New Year Festival, Tzu Chi volunteers from Malaysia held three distributions of solar panel sets for nine villages in Myanmar. A total of 400 sets were given out, each containing a solar panel, a battery, and two lights. Recipient families were elated.

The lighting kits cost 65,000 kyat (US$45) each—a modest sum for Malaysians but a substantial amount for the Burmese recipients. A typical Burmese villager needs to work 20 days to earn that amount of money. 

Following U Thein Tun’s inspiration, U San Thein has so far recruited farmers in 13 villages to join a rice bank initiative.

 Ma Aye San of Shwe Na Gwin village was among the first to receive a kit. Her family of five used to burn through two candles a night at a monthly cost of more than 3,000 kyat (US$2), enough to feed her family for three days. Now, with the lighting kit, she can save that money for something else. She said that she used to get up at four in the morning to cook—in the dark—for her husband before he went out to work. Now she no longer needs to do that. She just moves one of the lights to the kitchen, and then she has plenty of light to cook with ease.

Ha Ha Nwe, a seamstress, has to work at times at night in order to complete rush orders. On such occasions, she used to use candles for light before switching to battery-powered illumination. That was better than candles, but the batteries did not last long and so were not very handy. Now with the new lighting kit, she no longer needs to worry about illumination. As long as she leaves the solar panel under the sun during the day, the power keeps her lighted long into the night.

Volunteers visited other villagers to see how the solar panel sets were helping them. Some recipients said that now their children can study at night without needing to use candles. Others said that they no longer need to go to Okkan, a neighboring town, just to recharge their cell phones; with the solar panel, they can charge their phones at home to their hearts’ content. A farmer in the village of Thae Gone mentioned a surprising benefit: “Since we have illumination at night, snakes shun our home. Now they don’t dare to come in.”

A common place people use one of the solar lights is their Buddhist shrine at home. Many people often hang the other light outside their homes. When asked why, their replies are surprisingly uniform. They say that the light outside their homes can help make the streets a little brighter at night so that people on the road can see their way better. This can help prevent pedestrians from tripping and falling and scooter riders from having accidents.

As such small acts of kindness demonstrate, many Burmese are really kind at heart. It’s no wonder U San Thein has been able to recruit so many farmers to join the rice bank initiative.

By April 2018, U San Thein’s recruitment efforts had brought nine villages to support the rice bank initiative. By June, 13 villages were on board. Collectively, the nearly 400 participating families saved and donated 25 barrels of rice in May 2018 alone. A barrel holds about 23.5 kilograms (52 pounds) of rice.

Given more time, there is no telling how many more people will join the effort and how large the rice bank initiative will grow. 


Tzu Chi volunteers distributed lighting kits to 400 farming families right around the Burmese New Year Festival in 2018. Each kit contained a solar panel, a battery, and two lights.


September 2018