By Brandon Ba
Founded in May 1940 by U Ba Aye, the Jivitadana Dispensary in Yangon, Myanmar became the first free health organization established by Myanmar’s own citizens (Thabye Khin 1999, 26). The dispensary aimed to provide healthcare to those in need regardless of background (Thabye Khin 1999, 26; Jivitadana Sangha Hospital 2016). The site was initially built on monastic land, and the rest house was converted for the purposes of the dispensary. Medical supplies and drugs were collected, along with funds from many prominent Myanmar officials to support the operation of the dispensary. The small dispensary functioned on the donations of individuals and free services provided by medical professionals (Thabye Khin 1999, 26).
U Ba Aye was inspired by the story of “the monk with dysentery” (kucchivikara-vatthu), which appears in the Theravāda Buddhist monastic disciplinary code (Vinaya) (trans. Jones 2017, 7-9). In this story, the Buddha, with the help of his primary attendant, Ānanda, cares for and tends to an ill monk. Following this incident, the Buddha emphasizes to the monastic order (sangha) the importance of caring for the sick. This story laid the framework for many Buddhists around the world to engage in charitable medical work, and was also U Ba Aye’s motivation.
The Japanese occupation of Myanmar in World War II brought about several challenges, but the dispensary weathered these by strategically hiding medical equipment in the pagodas nearby. Following Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948, the dispensary flourished as a ten-bed hospital. It was reconstructed in 1952 at its current location with money from donors (Jivitadana Sangha Hospital 2016).
The institution was renamed Jivitadana Sangha Hospital in 1972 (Thabye Khin 1999, 27). The facility continued to expand with the help of more donations (Jivitadana Sangha Hospital 2016). Following additions in 1987 and 1994, the hospital could house up to 100 monks and 50 nuns and provide specialized care. The hospital’s expansion has continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been renovations to better treat monks infected with COVID-19 and plans to construct a new wing (San Htoo Aung 2020). Today, the hospital can treat over 170 monks and includes greater specialized care with an intensive care unit.
The hospital offers surgical care specializing in eyes, urology, orthopedics, and ear, nose, and throat (ENT) (Jivitadana Sangha Hospital 2016). Dentures, hearing aids, and other examinations are also provided. There is no cost for medical care, medicines, or basic necessities in the hospital, or transportation for monks and nuns. The hospital prioritizes treatment for monks and nuns, but lay people are infrequently accepted as in-patient and treated at no cost for minor illnesses. In cases where lay people require more comprehensive treatment, they pay only for medicinal costs or operation/examination fees unless they have demonstrated financial need.
Google Street View
- Jones, Dhivan Thomas. 2017. “The Healing Potential of the Awakening Factors in Early Buddhist Discourse.” In Buddhism and Medicine: An Anthology of Premodern Sources, edited by Pierce Salguero, 7-9. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Thabye Khin. 1999. “The Jivitadana Sangha Hospital.” Myanmar Perspectives 4, no. 2: 24-28.
- “Jivitadana Sangha Hospital” Jivitadana Sangha Hospital, 2016. http://www.jivitahospital.org/english/index.html
- San Htoo Aung. 2020. “COVID-19 Renovation Works at Jivitadana Sangha Hospital Almost Complete.” Eleven Media Group Co., Ltd. October 16, 2020. https://elevenmyanmar.com/news/covid-19-renovation-works-at-jivitadana-sangha-hospital-almost-complete.
 In 1989, military officials decided to change the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar following the defeat of pro-democracy protests the year prior. Throughout this paper, I will use Myanmar to maintain consistency with contemporary convention.