Memories of Myanmar
A group of young Buddhist monks walk in rain to collect offerings in the poor neighbourhood of Yangon. Hundreds of orphans and homeless children throughout the country get their Buddhism teaching from these monasteries. (Saeed Khan/afp/getty images)
Returning to Myanmar more than half a century after her father visited the newly-independent Burma as a journalist, Muditha Dias finds a country on the cusp of change where tradition still reigns supreme.
My father used to tell me that to understand Burma you have to understand Buddhism. The words had no impact on me. I was only a child.
In 1950, the first prime minister of Burma, U Nu, requested that the governments of India and Ceylon, where my father lived, loan the country some of Gautama Buddha’s bodily relics for a series of exhibitions to celebrate the resurgence of Buddhism.
Two years before the exhibitions, Britain had granted both Burma and Ceylon independence.
The request to Ceylon was especially portentous because legend has it that two Afghan brothers and disciples of the Buddha, Trapasu and Bhallika, obtained some of the Buddha’s hairs 2,600 years ago and took them to Ceylon and Burma. Of all the Buddha’s bodily relics preserved in various shrines around South East Asia, these hairs are the most revered.
When a delegation consisting of the custodian of the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and other leading Buddhist monks carrying receptacles containing relics set forth from Colombo, my father, then a novice journalist, was selected to follow the delegation and report back. In Rangoon, they were joined by an Indian delegation carrying relics from the famous Buddhist sites of Buddhagaya, Saranath and Sanchi.
For three long months, they travelled through the country exhibiting the relics to enraptured throngs of Buddhist devotees. During this journey my father was impressed by the religious discipline of Burmese Buddhists and observed that if it could be extended to economic activity, Burma was poised to become a prosperous nation.
He had a point: among the newly-independent Asian colonies, Burma had the advantages of natural resources, a well-educated and industrious populace, and stable political institutions.
Upon his return to Ceylon, he took every opportunity to extol the virtues of Burmese Buddhism to anyone who cared to listen. His exhortations largely fell on deaf ears, however; most Sri Lankan Buddhists believed that they alone practiced the purest form of Theravada Buddhism.
Soon after I was born in 1962, my father’s faith in political stability and democracy in Burma was shattered when an army coup orchestrated by General Ne Win toppled the government of U Nu and brought the country under a military dictatorship. Half a century later, this state of affairs continues, albeit in a somewhat relaxed form after decades of international pressure.
My father continued to tell his Burmese stories over the years, including his first sight of Shewedagon Pagoda as his ship entered the Irrawaddy Delta. At first it appeared to be a tiny yellow stupa, but as the ship sailed closer to Yangon, the pagoda grew into a gigantic 100 metre high mountain of gold.
So earlier this year when I visited Burma, or Myanmar as it’s now called, all the stories I was told as a child came flooding back – the dynamic Shwedagon, the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world, is truly magical. The 2,600 year old shrine has a magnetic force, and just as it did when my father saw it 65 years ago, it dominates Yangon’s skyline.
Shewedagon Pagoda IMAGE: SHWEDAGON PAGODA IS BELIEVED TO CONTAIN RELICS OF THE FOUR PREVIOUS BUDDHAS. (JON HARALD SØBY, LICENSED UNDER PUBLIC DOMAIN VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS )
In fact, Yangon has not changed much from the Rangoon my father described. Despite some incomplete construction activity, most buildings are several centuries old and rise only two or three stories above the street. For now, it remains a paradise for connoisseurs of Victorian architecture. Time may be running out, however. Myanmar came out of its time warp two years ago and the country will doubtless change dramatically.
The idea of ‘merit making’ dominates the local religion. To receive merit, Burmese kings built thousands of pagodas, stupas, temples, statues and shrines across the country. However, unfortunately for their subjects, they did very little else. Even today merit making continues, even among the poor, who donate a third of their earnings to temples, in spite of the fact that according to the United Nations Developoment Program – one in four Burmese continues to live below the national poverty line.
Venerable Caritta, a monk from a large Yangon monastery, tells me that the sight of thousands of devotees worshipping, meditating, lighting incense sticks and offering flowers is commonplace all over Myanmar. Almost all Burmese Buddhist households have a shrine to the Buddha.
As I watch monks standing meticulously in line with their bowls, waiting to partake of their afternoon meal, Venerable Caritta told me that he has pledged to lead a life of wholesomeness and self-discipline.
‘The core of Buddhism is vipassana meditation,’ he said. ‘I feel that human beings don’t live in this world any more. Their lives are too hectic, too fast paced. They are not stopping to admire things or to feel things. Their days are like a dream, just passing by. Through vipassana, the mind slows down, and as you say in the west, you can actually stop to smell the roses.
He went on to explain the teachings of the Indian Prince Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha.
‘He gave up a lavish and glamorous lifestyle to attain enlightenment beneath a banyan tree in Varanasi, India. He believed that the life of a human being was full of suffering and the only way to avoid this is to live a wholesome life without yielding to cravings and temptations. Our life is determined by karma.’
Nearly every Burmese boy wants to be like the Buddha. A majority are ordained as monks for a few weeks, months or years. Some stay for life.
I had the privilege of watching an ordination ceremony in a village. The big day started with a colourful procession to the monastery. Dressed in elaborate outfits made of silk and satin and embroidered with gold, as Siddhartha may have dressed before he gave up his worldly possessions, the boys are led on horseback and shielded from the sun by gold umbrellas.
As the boys, some as young as seven years old, are paraded around the neighbourhood, I watched the parents. Many were crying.
One mother told me that she worries about life in the monastery. The children must learn Buddhist verses by heart. There isn’t much room for mistakes.
‘It’s difficult for young children to wake up at dawn for breakfast, eat lunch before noon, and then have no solids for the rest of the day,’ she said.
‘So why send him to such a harsh, disciplined life?’ I asked.
‘For all the merit my family will receive for generations to come,’ she replied.
Families without sons will even seek very poor children or orphans to represent them in the ceremony in order to gain merit.
Buddhism was instrumental in the politics of Myanmar for generations. Buddhist monks were always in the centre of the struggle for independence and were seen by the British as ‘political agitators in robes’.
It was through the political activism of Buddhist monks that secular leadership emerged. Aung San, the undisputed leader of the independence movement, was brought up as a dedicated Buddhist and was educated in a monastery. It was at the Shwedagon Pagoda he finally called for independence.
Burmese Buddist Priests IMAGE: BURMESE BUDDIST PRIESTS (POONGYES) IN RANGOON, BURMA, 1907 (NATIONAL ARCHIVES, UK. FLICKR.COM/THE COMMONS)
After the 1962 military coup established a junta led by General Ne Win, it was the monks, or ‘sons of Buddha’, who spearheaded the resistance. They secretly prepared pamphlets, posters and anti-regime demonstrations. In 2007, during the so-called ‘Saffron Revolution’, the military regime killed hundreds of protesting monks.
Things have changed remarkably since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and entered parliament in 2012, however.
She too upholds the principles of Buddhism. She meditates every day – it’s how she managed to maintain her peace during 20 years of house arrest. She once told an interviewer that ‘the Buddhist values of loving kindness, compassion and patience are essential’ to guiding Myanmar towards democracy.
Will she truly be able to change the country, though?
‘Not without the new progressive President Thein Sein,’ my horse cart driver and guide, Zaw Kyaw explained. ‘He has freed political prisoners, most of whom were monks, he has reopened schools and monasteries and he travels the world with Amay Suu [mother Suu, as the Burmese refer to Suu Kyi].
‘My oldest daughter got married by the time she was 20 because she dropped out of school. Education wasn’t given prominence under the junta. My younger daughter has finished school and is now studying to be a teacher. Under the new regime education and life in general has improved.
‘Four years ago people in my village didn’t even have a telephone, Today a majority of them have mobile phones. Most of them only owned horse carts, today most own scooters. My horse cart is only used by tourists and business is growing because so many tourists have started coming to the country. I am a blessed man with a horse-cart and a scooter.’
On my last day in Myanmar I watch dozens of hot air balloons rise over thousands of temples as the sun rises over Bagan, the country’s ancient capital, and I’m sure that King Anawrahta, the man who brought Buddhism to Myanmar, would hope that his country is entering a new golden age.
My father was right—to understand Burma, you have to understand Buddhism.
Source: Saturday RN