The Burmese Way to Buddhism

By Wahyuana

RANGOON — “Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu (good, good, good),” the maroon-robed monk with shaven head chants softly as he receives the offerings with a bow, not looking at the alms giver. It is early morning in the former Burmese capital and Ain Daw Bar Tha is in the middle of the daily alms ritual for Buddhist monks.

He puts the 50 kyats someone has given him in the black thabaik (alms bowl), which holds offerings from other houses. By 9:00 a.m., Ain Daw Bar Tha has visited 12 families and collected 600 kyats (about half a dollar) in alms. This will buy him a bowl of rice, curry, and a mango for lunch, which he must have by 11:00 a.m., the last meal of the day for Buddhist monks. The remaining money will be used to buy food for the next morning or donated to his monastery.

Ain Daw Bar Tha later takes a bus to his monastery or kyaung in Mya Thein Tan on the outskirts of Rangoon, where he lives and has been studying Buddhism for six years. He does not pay for the trip. Public transport is free for monks (hpongyi) as their presence is considered auspicious for the journey, says Aung San Myint, who drives an express bus between Rangon and the northern city of Mandalay.

Life may be harsh in Burma, one of the poorest nations in Southeast Asia, but Buddhism remains alive and well in the country that has 90 percent of its people identifying themselves as Theravada Buddhists. Islam and Christianity, meanwhile, each claim four percent of Burmese as among their believers, while Hindus and animists each make up one percent of the country’s population.

Yet while the sight of monks receiving alms signals the continued presence of Buddhism in a country that is better known for its authoritarian rulers, how it is being done these days also shows that the faith – or at least how it is practised – has undergone some changes to adjust to the times.

Money instead of food

The alms ritual is one of the most important practices in Theravada Buddhism. Ashin Mahinda, senior monk of Mandalay’s Mahagandhayone monastery, explains that giving and receiving alms spiritually links the layperson and the monk. It is one of 227 rituals prescribed for monks in the Vinaya, the third part of the Buddhist Tipitaka scripture. Buddhist nuns (thilashin) have to observe 311 Vinaya rituals.

Traditionally, Buddhist monks must receive alms only in the form of food and other basic needs such as robes, paper, umbrellas, simple sandals, soup bowls, and fans. They must walk to seek alms and not use other means of transportation.

“However, many people in Yangon have changed alms from food to money,” says senior monk Ashin Zagara, abbott of the Chauk Htat Kye monastery in Rangoon. “This is allowed as long as the money is not a large amount.”

“Modern developments require adjustment in religious rituals to make them more practical,” adds the abbott, who also edits the country’s popular Buddhist monthly Damma Yeik.

For instance, here in Rangoon, many families no longer cook at home, preferring to buy their meals instead from the numerous street stalls selling food.

“We don’t have kitchens anymore,” says trader U Saw Sein Kar, noting that many families it the cities now live in small apartments. “Therefore, food has been substituted by money for alms-giving.”

U Saw Sein Kar himself gives 200 kyats every morning in alms to monks, but never fails to greet them by pressing together the palms of his upraised hands in the traditional gesture of respect.

His business’s earnings put his family in the middle-class level in Burma, but he says he finds it more practical to give money as alms instead of food as prescribed by the religion. There are times when up to 10 monks come to his house, especially on Sundays. “I give to as many as I can,” he says. “As a Buddhist, it is my duty to give alms to the monks.”

U Aung Kyaw Win, meanwhile, gives 100 to 200 kyats each to about 40 monks and nuns every day. The owner of the Beauty Land Hotel here, he says this makes him feel secure and comfortable in his daily life and earns him positive karma for life after death.

But some religious leaders criticise the practice of giving money as alms to monks. “Food for alms cannot be substituted with money,” says one senior monk belonging to Mandalay’s Mahagandhayone monastery, the biggest in Burma.  “Money is like power. It will create ego. The monk should be able to get rid of his ego.”

Mandalay is Burma’s second largest city and is estimated to have half the country’s Buddhist monk population. The cold Sagaing hill in south Mandalay alone is home to about 10,000 monks and 4,000 nuns who live in hundreds of monasteries. Many monasteries in Mandalay forbid their monks from accepting money as alms.

Revised monastery curricula

It is not only in alms-giving ritual, however, that Buddhism in Burma is seeing changes. Some monasteries, for instance, have started teaching English and computer skills aside from the traditional subjects.

The Alo Daw Pyi Kyaung monastery in Nyang U in Bagan, Burma’s 1,000-year-old important Buddhist religious centre that is about about 400 km north of Rangoon, is among those that have added English to their curricula. Monastery abbot U Pandita, who obtained a masters’ degree in Buddhism from Narendra University in India, says, though, that the main subjects of instruction remain the three basic Tipitaka scriptures: Sutta Pitaka, the Buddhist philosophy of Abidhama Pitaka and disciplinary regulations of Vinaya Pitaka.  The monastery also teaches Pali and meditation.

The Buddhist monastery is an important centre of education in Burma, especially for rural people. Here, village youth learn to read and write not only Pali (the original language of the Buddhist sermon) but also Burman, the national language. Usually, novice monks do not pay a fee for living and studying in the monastery.

Traditionally, every Buddhist boy has to become a novice monk (samanera) for at least a month. In Burma, young men become novices before marriage, and at around 20 years of age. Becoming a novice monk or living in a monastery for some time is believed to make a boy into an upright and responsible man who will live a happy life. (Should a young man choose to devote his life to monkhood, he must do so before reaching 20 years of age, and must remain unmarried.)

Many urban parents, however, now send their children to monasteries for religious study for only a week or two during school holidays. U Saw Kein Kar, for example, wants his children to learn the hotel-and-tourism business, which is growing in Burma. Hence, some monasteries are beefing up their curriculum to encourage more parents to send their children to study under the monks’ tutelage.

Positive and negative trends

But Rangoon-based senior journalist Thiha Saw sees another emerging trend that could be good for Buddhism. He says Burma’s economic difficulties have increased the appeal of the monkhood for rural youth.

“Currently, rural youngsters in (Burma) have only two dreams: to become a soldier or a monk,” he says. “Becoming a soldier gives entry to a circle of unlimited power, even though rural youth can only hold low ranks. Becoming a monk means assurance of getting life’s basic necessities and influence as a respected man in the village.”

The number of girls becoming nuns has almost doubled in the last decade as well, observes Thiha Saw. “This is the only choice for teenage girls in rural areas to ensure basic life necessities and a safe environment,” he explains.

Then again, there are also those who are turning to the monasteries for mere monetary gain. Pedicab driver Moe Moe, for example, often visits an old monastery in Bago, north of Rangoon, to consult a monk who predicts winning lottery numbers. “His guesses are often correct,” says Moe Moe, 38,  who usually makes sure he has some fruits, food, and money for the monk.

Gambling is illegal in Myanmar. But it is practised nevertheless, with one of the popular bets involving guessing the last two digits of the closing stock exchange figures in Bangkok that are later confirmed on satellite television news.  Says a social commentator here: “Low-class people take pleasure in gambling. Although illegal, government officers do not care about it. This is a way to keep people from thinking critically about politics.”

Moe Moe also argues, “The five principles (of Buddhism) do not prohibit gambling.” Indeed, the five basic things Buddhists are supposed to avoid are killing, stealing, committing adultery, lying, and drinking alcohol.

For sure, though, while religious leaders frown on how they have made adjustments in the way they practise their faith, many Burmese maintain that they are fervent believers who still do what their religion asks of them.

Hotel owner U Aung Kyaw Win, for intance, often meditates, and in a monastery at that. Every Tuesday, the day of his birth, he also visits Burma’s biggest and most important pagoda, the Shwedagon, not far from his house. Every Buddhist in the country cherishes the dream of visiting the majestic 2,500-year-old pagoda at least once. Unfortunately, few Burmese who live outside the capital can afford to visit Shwedagon.

Then there is trader U Saw Sein Kar, who prays twice a day at home before a shrine made of religious symbols kept in a small box. A bunch of ngwer flowers decorates his front door as a good luck symbol. A bouquet of tha bye is kept in his living room for good fortune, along with jasmine flowers that not only spreads fragrance, but also brings inner peace – albeit perhaps not to the country’s military rulers. Considered auspicious by locals, the jasmine is the trademark flower of Nobel Peace Laureate and Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who always wears one in her hair.

Wahyuana is a freelance journalist based in Jakarta. He contributes to Jakarta Post.

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