Buddhism in Myanmar with
monks, novices, nuns and more
There is no doubt that Buddhism in Myanmar is atheistic. The three main articles of the creed are Dokkha, Aneissa, Anatta’all is suffering, all is impermanent, there is no soul or self. According to this creed there can be no God. To the people it is not a case of weighing the evidence and taking one side or the other ; to him there is no question about it : the idea of God is not only not reasonable but it is almost laughable.
That is his attitude in discussion and argument, but in real life he is more vulnerable. For not a few of them tend to put the Buddha in the place of God, while to many belief in spirits is a far more real thing than the absence of a Supreme Being.It would seem that the great majority of people, like Nature, abhor a vacuum, and if there is no God at the heart of reality they look round for someone or something to fill the vacant throne.
Walking around Rangoon or travels around the country everywhere signs of religion are visible ‘the graceful seven-tiered spires of the monasteries, the white pagodas crowning every hill of any prominence, the brown-robed monks with their shaven heads carrying their begging bowls in the early morning while devout women bring their offerings of food.
Buddhist monkwalk with their alms bowls sometimes a group of novices sauntering along the road like idle youths in Europe on a Sunday afternoon, or forgetting their supposed detachment from the world at a football match, or whipping themselves up into excitement at a political meeting.The spiritual and moral force of modern Buddhism has an important place in the life of the people
Monk at Mandalay Mahamuni
This impression will be more strongly confirmed when witnessing any of the great religious festivals, when streams of pilgrims from miles around crowd the pagodas.Joining in holiday spirit, drawn into the lavish hospitality, gazing in wonder at the amazing creations in bamboo, tinsel and paper of mythical creatures and figures, enjoying all the fun of a mediaeval fair.
Most of the pilgrimage is sheer holiday and most of the pilgrims want nothing more, but there is a deeper side, as there was in the shrines and aisles of Canterbury. To see this deeper side you must be humble enough to shed your shoes and stockings and climb bare-foot the well-worn steps to the shrines that cluster around the base of the pagoda.There you will find the more devout, mostly women, as in the Christian churches of the West, kneeling with prayerful hands before an image, asking maybe a husband or child or maybe something more spiritual.
Here are some basics to get an idea.
More Buddhist Monks
Nun in Mandalay
At Mount Popa
Buddhist Nun Shan State
Mural image at a Temple
Mural painting in a Bagan Temple
Perhaps a tired old man, conscious that life is nearly over and that it is high time to pay serious attention to deeper things.
It’s time finding refuge from a difficult, perplexing world in the three unfailing sources of refuge.
If you have an understanding local friend with you he may translate some of the prayers spoken aloud, and you will discover a wide charity in the prayers for all living beings divine and human, and in the generous sharing of the merit gained by the worshipper’s prayer.And next door to this quiet shrine you will find a jostling crowd, lighting candles and offering flowers or gold-leaf at the shrine of one of the eight planets, for everyone knows from the initial letter of his name on what day of the week he was born, and does what he can to secure good luck from the stars. As ever, religion and superstition, closely intertwined. Once again the visitor will be puzzled and find it difficult to evaluate the whole.
Shrine in Kachin State upper Burma
The people are almost entirely Buddhists. They are followers of the great Indian religious teacher who lived in the sixth century before Christ. His clan name was Gaudama, and he was the son of a small rajah in Central India. He and his family were Hindus by religion, brought up in the religion of the Upanishads and of older religious literature and tradition. From an early age Gaudama had been troubled by the amount of suffering he saw around him, suffering connected with birth, disease, old age, death, running the whole span of man’s life. Possibly too he was struck by the contrast between the extravagance and luxury of his court life and the squalor and poverty of the poor who lived in the mud huts around. That grinding poverty of the common people of India is still today the thing that strikes and appalls the visitor from another country or the thinking Indian who loves his fellow men. This consciousness of universal suffering so worked in the mind of the sensitive young yuvaraj that finally he left his father’s court, his wife and new-born child, to try and discover for men a way of release from suffering. To him suffering was the primary evil and he felt an irresistible urge to discover its cause and so show men how to escape from it. His search led him to sit under the leading gurus or teachers of his day, to study the various philosophical schools, to undergo every form of asceticism. But in none of these did he find any answer to his problem, and despairing of outside help he decided to seek his goal by himself and within himself. At last understanding came to him, as he sat in meditation under the Bo tree. From that time on we know him no longer as Gaudama, but as the Enlightened One, the One who knows.
The Four Noble Truths
He summed up his discovery for later disciples in the Four Noble Truths about Suffering. The first was one that he had already recognized, that suffering is general and co-terminus with life. Suffering is involved in birth, sickness, decay, death, sorrow, in separation from the people and things we like, in having to live with people and things we dislike, in not getting what we want : all is suffering.
The second is the origin of suffering. Suffering springs from desire, craving, lust, attachment to people and things.
The third is the truth about the ceasing of suffering : namely, to escape from suffering crush out desire and craving, break all bonds of attachment.
And the fourth is the way to crush desire, by following the eight-fold path of right belief, right aim, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right contemplation.
Now there is no doubt that this is noble teaching of deep insight into human nature, and if put into practice would produce noble character both personal and national. It may not rise to the heights of Christ’s view of suffering as the raw material for spiritual maturity and victory, nor is it so far reaching in its discrimination as Christ’s insistence that evil is the primary thing to be avoided. rather than suffering. But it does get down to the root of much human suffering, and it is emphatically practical in its advice how to eliminate desire.
In practice many Buddhists have held that the he insisted on the elimination of all desire, good as well as bad, and this has tended to make them passive, free from that selfless burning desire to get rid of social evils and to serve their fellow men. This is not seen, for after he had become enlightened, having completely repudiated selfishness and desire in himself and had thus attained Nirvana (Nirvana), he deliberately chose to live on in the world for the salvation of men.
Karma and Merit
We must not forget that the he was a Hindu, a reformer certainly, who perhaps without intending it founded a new religion. Among the doctrines taken over from Hinduism by Buddhists none were more-strongly held than those of karma and transmigration. The emphasis on cause and effect was clearly-seen in the four truths of suffering enunciated by him, and this has been elaborated into a dominant principle in Buddhism. Present suffering is thought to be caused by the demerit or guilt inherited from a former existence, while present happiness is the reward of virtue in former lives. Thus one’s present state is determined by the law of karma, and nothing can prevent the relentless working out of this law. In practice this tends to produce an attitude of fatalism, which discourages Buddhists from making any whole-hearted attempt to overcome misfortune or to indulge in philanthropic work to any great extent. One who is a leper or blind or a cripple is so because of his karma ; it is both mistaken and useless to interfere. The accumulation of guilt has to be worked off until the last farthing is paid, and then there will be no rebirth in the world, but the attainment of Nirvana. To Buddhists the Christian doctrine of forgiveness seems not only impossible but immoral.
Buddhism in Myanmar
and the accumulation of merit. This becomes a main concern to the Buddhist, and in Burma the good deeds most productive of merit are those connected with the support of the Buddhist religion. Thus to build a monastery or pagoda or to feed the monks is looked upon as much more efficacious than building a hospital or feeding the hungry, with the result that monasteries and pagodas are everywhere, but hospitals almost only where government has put up the money or Western missions have been at work.
So the doctrine of karma discourages a courageous attack on social evils or personal misfortunes it is definitely nobler in the Buddhist mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, than to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. But let it be said that in recent years there has been an increase in works of mercy and philanthropy, though the balance is still heavily weighted in favor of the more institutional forms of merit. And all through, the accumulation of merit is far too often the main motive of giving, together -with its advertisement on foundation stones or dedicatory brass plates. But there, in the West, the number of people who feature in subscription lists as ‘Anonymous’ is equally small. Yet it needs to be said that the doctrine of karma looks forward as well as backward, although this is not often emphasized. For as much as the past determines the present, the present is going to determine the future. This should be an incentive to the Buddhist to a life of effort and virtue, so that having bravely overcome the handicap from past existences he may lay a foundation for his next cycle of life.
It might be thought that a belief in karma and a recurring series of lives in the world as animal or man indicated a belief in personality. But this is not so. It is not the same personal entity or soul that is carried on from one life to the other, but only the accumulation of demerit, the character that has been built up ; just as a new candle is lit from one that is about to go out, so the karma is handed on. There is no self, for human existence is thought of as being determined by the five khandhas or groups of body, feeling, perception, mental activity, and consciousness ; when these are combined together in operation life exists, when they disintegrate death takes place. This lack of belief in a continuing personality in man, of a controller of the five khandhas, of a being personally responsible for the past and the fashioner of the future, has not been an incentive to the development of personality or for attempting great achievements. Yet it does witness to the idea that the attainment of ideal character is a matter of long and painful effort, for which one short span of life is not enough.
Even he himself lived through five hundred and fifty lives (and there is a jataka or birth story for each one) before he attained to Buddha hood. Indeed one of the early symbols was that of a wheel, hinting of the long journey to be traveled and the recurring lives to be lived before the perfection of Nirvana can be attained. Mrs. Rhys Davids speaks of man as a wayfarer on the long road of becoming, undergoing change and growth until the process of becoming is complete and man reaches the ideal and so enters his Nirvana.
But the people are seldom logical, even in his religion, and his superstitious belief in the ghosts of the dead suggests that the doctrine of no-personality does not command very deep obedience. For when a member of the household dies the other members of the family will not go to sleep while the corpse is in the house but sit up with neighbors and friends playing games and talking all through the night. Often a notice will be placed on the grave warning the dead person not to return. Even in the more sophisticated circles of government service, when a man dies his name is published in the official gazette and permission is given for him to retire from government service. Once after taking the funeral service of a Christian student who had died, I was approached by his Buddhist school-fellows and asked to put a notice on the grave saying : `Maung Kyaw, take notice that your name has this day been struck off the school register, so please do not return.’ But this may be merely due to the survival of pre-Buddhist animist ideas. A similar thought is seen in the reluctance of Burmans to wake a sleeping person suddenly, lest his spirit or ‘butterfly’ should fail to return in time and so cause his death.
Is There a God?
Just as the philosophy denies the existence of soul or self in man, so it denies
the existence of a Supreme Being, an Ideal Personality, an Eternal God, and it claims that this was the teaching of him. He certainly did not give any definite teaching about God, nor did lie define him as a person. . It is possible that he did not regard the existence of God as provable one way or the other, and so did not regard it as of sufficient practical importance to spend much time on it. He was certainly questioned by disciples as to the existence of a Supreme Being and also as to the existence of the Ego. His reply in each case was noncommittal, and this may suggest that in those days when barren metaphysical argument was so prevalent he did not want to commit himself to an answer which would have been equally distorted by both sides. His conception of God and the human soul may have been so deep as to be well nigh impossible to express in words. The view has been put forward that he was silent on this subject not because his idea of God was too small, but because it was too great and could not be intelligibly expressed, and so he did not wish to restrict himself to a sharp definition of the Deity. A consideration of his spiritual background and environment will give weight to this claim that he was not atheistic. It would be inevitable for one brought up on the Upanishads and earlier religious literature of Hinduism to believe in the existence of Divine Spirit, the source of all our intellectual powers and faculties as well as of all the powers of nature, the great A tman immanent in the lesser, finite atman of each man. To deny this would have been the surest way of arousing the opposition of every thinking religious Indian of his day, and we know that his message attracted many who were sincerely seeking for reality. It is possible that this atheistic development took place after his death and was one of the main reasons for the expulsion of the religion from India. For it is strange that however strong it may be in
Indo-China, Ceylon and China, it has failed completely in the land of its birth.
Shwethalyaung reclining Statue.
He himself did not claim to be divine, he claimed to have found the way of escape from suffering, to show men the road leading to Nirvana ; he was a teacher and a guide, but not a savior. By imitating his example they might become as he was, but it was by their own effort and in their own strength. When near death he is recorded to have said to Ananda : ‘Therefore, 0′ Ananda, be ye lamps unto yourselves. Be ye a refuge to yourselves. Betake yourselves to no external refuge. Hold fast to the Dhamma as a lamp.’ And his last words were : `Decay is inherent in all component things. Work out your salvation with diligence.This lack of belief in a Supreme Being and in an undying personality in men is regarded by many friendly critics as its greatest weakness.
Such a negative faith cannot supply a satisfying purpose for life, nor any real incentive to great achievement. Indeed life in the world is regarded as unfortunate and evil, something to be escaped from. The goal of Nirvana, too, seems negative and unsatisfying, especially to Western minds with their emphasis on activity. It is the most difficult of all Buddhist concepts to understand. Nirvana is at any rate the cessation of selfish desire, emancipation from the three cardinal evils of lawba, dawtha, mantha, ‘lust, ill-will, unreasoning stupidity ; it is the end of suffering, the end of the weary recurring cycles of existence, and so the Buddhist speaks of the Great Peace. It must be something more than the peace of nothingness, but it is difficult to think so without a belief in personality. In one place the Scriptures say : `the ceasing of becoming is Nirvana’ ; you have ceased to change and grow because you have reached the goal, becoming and being are now one, you have become that which you always aspired to be. Is this its meaning ‘
The most positive concept of it has been suggested by a modern follower who compares Nirvana with eternal life as taught by Jesus, and says it is a quality of life possible now, the kind of life he had, free from self-centeredness, lust, This fits in with the possibility of attaining Nirvana while still in the world, and also with the refusal to dogmatize about what happens after his death.
One night a spirit came to the Blessed One and addressed him thus in verse :
Many devas and men have pondered on blessings, Longing for goodly things. 0 tell me Thou the greatest blessing.
The Lord replied :
Not to follow after fools, but to follow after the wise ; The worship of the worshipful, this is the greatest blessing.
To dwell in a pleasant spot, to have done good deeds in former births,
To have set oneself in the right path, ‘this is the greatest blessing
Much learning and much science, and a discipline well learned,
Yea, and a pleasant utterance, ‘this is the greatest blessing.
The support of mother and father, the cherishing of child and wife,
To follow a peaceful livelihood, ‘this is the greatest blessing.
Giving alms, the righteous life, to cherish kith and kin, And to do deeds that bring no blame, ‘this is the greatest blessing.
To cease and to abstain from sin, to shun intoxicants ; And steadfastness in righteousness, ‘this is the greatest blessing.
Reverence, humility, content, and gratitude,
To hear the Law at proper times, ‘this is the greatest blessing.
Patience, the soft answer, the sight of those controlled, And pious talk in season clue, ‘this is the greatest blessing.
Restraint, the holy life, discernment of the Noble Truths, Of one’s own self to know the Goal, this is the greatest blessing.
A heart untouched by worldly things, a heart that is not swayed. By sorrow, a heart passionless, secure, that is the greatest blessing. Invincible on every side, they go who do these things On every side they go to bliss, ‘theirs is the greatest blessing.
To follow this noble life brings merit and helps a man on his long pilgrimage to Nirvana. Perhaps the acquisition of merit has become too dominating a motive for living the highest life, and as has been said earlier the most meritorious deeds are those connected with the institutional side; yet in daily life you will find many a sign of thoughtful charity often along the roadside you will see a tiny miniature house, high on posts like the living houses, built of wood, containing pots of drinking water, daily replenished by some kindly person for the refreshment of thirsty wayfarers ; or in almost every village a zavat or rest house where travelers may spread out their bedding rolls and sleep under cover ; or a village well provided by some villager who loves his fellow men. There are very few homeless orphans in Burma ; if the parents die a kindly neighbor will often adopt the children ; there is a whole section of traditional Buddhist law dealing with the rights of adopted children. Even the pariah dogs and birds are fed.
A word perhaps needs to be said about the absence of any caste or class distinctions in Burma. This is due, I think, to the value and equality of all living beings implicit in the teaching, although in his time caste distinctions in India had not yet hardened into their later rigidity ; they were there, but in their original purpose of practical division of responsibility and labor. Nor do we find the class distinctions so common in the West. Burmans meet one another and people of other races with a delightful absence of caste or class consciousness, with no complexes of superiority or inferiority.
So when the devout Buddhist begins his religious exercises with his homage to the Three Gems, in reverencing the second gem, the Dharma, he has in mind some or all of the above ideas.
In recent years Mrs. Rhys Davids, following up the principles of the higher and textual criticism which have been brought to bear on the Christian Scriptures, has attempted to get back behind received writings and traditions to the original message of the Buddha. To her mind the Dharma is not an external code of teaching but more of an inner principle, an inner light and guide approaching the idea of conscience. She claims that originally this was akin to the idea of Holy Spirit. The handful of Burmese Buddhists who have read her recent books will have nothing to do with this theory, yet strangely enough Mrs. Rhys Davids has some support of an historical basis, in the existence in Burma of a sect of Buddhists who call themselves Paramats, the name apparently meaning followers of the higher way as compared with the Pinyats or adherents of the Law. These Paramats believe in a Divine Wisdom, somewhat akin to the Logos idea of the Stoics, and later of Philo, with which men may enter into communion by purification and meditation. They have no use for monks or pagodas or external symbols ; the highest form of life to them is that of the hermit, who by fasting and prayer seeks to get into mystical relationship with the ultimate reality. Some of these hermits, independently of Christianity, have conic to the conclusion that there must be an Eternal God.
Belief In Spirits
All the indigenous people have come from the mountainous regions of the Tibetan and Chinese borders, pressing down the great river valleys towards the fertile land of the south, where nature is generous and life easy. Before they settled here the people were animists as the hill tribes still are today. They worshipped the spirit of the spring or river, the tree spirit or nat of the great banyan tree, they propitiated the spirits of nature and those responsible for sickness and disease, and they feared the spirits of the dead. Much of this still survives today in spite of the fact that it is the accepted religion of the country.
The word nat may have two meaning, it may refer to the devas, the spiritual beings who inhabit the six Buddhist heavens in which virtuous people are rewarded with happiness after a good life on the earth. These beings display great solicitude for the pious state and welfare of mankind, but you need not bother about them too much for they will not do you any harm.
Secondly, the word nat may refer to the spirits of nature, the spirits of the air, the forest, the water, the household nat, the nat of the village. These are generally, though not always, regarded as malevolent ; they may do you either good or harm, and so they must be propitiated by regular offerings. There is a nat-sin or shrine for the local spirits in each village ; in most homes a cokernut decorated in red cloth is hung up for the guardian nat of the home ; at every big banyan tree there will be a shrine for the tree-spirit at which gold leaf, candles, flowers will be offered. All these spirits are to be feared because of their potentiality for doing harm.
There are also powerful spirits connected with certain localities, the spirits of people who in past generations have met with a violent end and are now believed to roam around the scene of their death seeking whom they may devour. The early legends in Burmese vernacular histories deal largely with this type of nats. Some of the most popular festivals, though centering round the pagodas, are in origin nat festivals. In 1856 at the founding of Mindon’s new capital of Mandalay, pregnant women were buried alive under the posts of the main gates, the idea being that their spirits would haunt the place and do harm to any who came against it with evil intent.
Among the Karens and Kachins animism plays a more powerful part than among the Burmans, but even among the latter the nats are to be reckoned with in everyday life.
Anawrahta, the founder-patron of it, realized how difficult it would be to detach his people from their old beliefs and practices, for in the great Shwe Dagon Pagoda at Bagan, he enshrined images of the thirty-seven nats, saying, ‘If they will not come for the new religion, they must come for the old’. It should be understood that this worship of the spirits is quite contrary ; it is tolerated rather than permitted, its existence side by side is thoroughly illogical.
This belief in spirits is accompanied by a natural faith in omens. There are all kinds of auspicious and inauspicious omens, certain days on which it is unlucky to commence a journey or undertake a new project.
And inevitably there are plenty of experts, who profess to be able to interpret the signs or foretell the auspicious days. These be-din say as, astrologers, ponnas, will for an appropriate fee tell your horoscope or advise you as to lucky days, or tell you the whereabouts of a lost person or piece of property. Superstitious practices, relics of primitive magic, love potions, still survive and are well patronized. The best monks frown on all this, urging their people to protect themselves by reciting the usual religious formula or verses of the Scriptures, against which the wills of the nats etc. are harmless. But superstition and the desire to know the future are so far too strong even for the disapproval of the monks, who have perforce to tolerate what they would fain banish, more about Buddhism in Myanmar