John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

. (page 10 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

ing the lower celestial regions, whose assault was power-
less against the Bawdisat shielded by the panoply of
purity and of good deeds, who would have looked upon
death as but an entering upon the path leading onwards
to Neikban. During the last of the periods he under-
went the temptation of the daughters of the Mdn Nat,
but successfully withstood their alluring blandishments.
Having duly passed through the necessary stages of
meditation, good works, trials and temptations, the
Bawdisat finally attained the Buddhahood, as Gaudama,
the perfection of wisdom.

From Gaya he set forth as an itinerant religious
reformer, preaching the greatest of crusades that was
to attack Brahminism and caste, and laying the firm
foundations of the new religious philosophy which is
now more or less strictly adhered to by over one quarter
of the human race. A little to the north of Benares, in a
deer park known as the Migadawan forest, he enunciated
the famous " Law of the Wheel " or manifestation of the
four sublime and transcendent truths, and drew together
the small body of disciples, forming the original "excel-
lent assembly" {Paramat Thinga), who were afterwards
to be the teachers spreading his doctrines far and wide.
It is impossible not to notice that Gaudama's method of
procedure closely resembles that subsequently adopted
by Christ, the great Jewish reformer, who founded the
latest and noblest of religions. But one essential point
of difference is equally clear : for, while Christ is stated
to have bestowed upon his apostles the supernatural
gifts of prophecy and of the power to forgive sins,
Gaudama first subjected his disciples to severe discipline
and then simply conferred on them the power of admit-
ting to the assembly [Tkinga) such converts as they
might think worthy of this distinction.

In this new religious philosophy the social divisions
of caste were broken down and iornored. This was one
of Its main features, and indeed that which must have
appealed with intense strength to the lower castes like



the Sudra, who were not even deemed worthy of being
allowed to read the sacred books. From Benares sixty
high-born men of the Kshatriya or fighting caste joined
him as converts, while hundreds of Brahmins flocked to
him from the metaphysical schools, eager to enrol them-
selves as members of the new religion and the latest
advance in philosophy. But another social revolution
was at the same time accomplished by the Sakya-Muni,
as Gaudama was now generally called ; for he aimed at
the abolition of the severe restrictions placed upon the
personal liberty of women, and founded a female religious
order into which his aunt and foster-mother, Patzapati,
was enrolled along with 500 maidens of noble birth.

It will thus be seen that Gaudama was much more
than a reformer, for he became the founder of an entirely
new religious philosophy. He shook himself free from
Brahminism by proclaiming universal equality in opposi-
tion to caste differences. He acknowledged no supreme
being or beings as the rulers of the universe, but declared
man to be ultimately the master of his own destiny, and
prayers, sacrifices, and gifts to priests to be of them-
selves of no avail. In founding a new religious philoso-
phy on these lines, he at the same time sowed the seeds
of a social revolution whose fruits have been reaped by
hundreds of millions of human beings during the last
twenty-five centuries. It is thus that the women of
Burma enjoy, like those of Japan, entire immunity from
the prison-like restrictions of women in India, and that
they occupy a position as free and untrammelled as in
any of the western nations which have advanced furthest
in the direction of civilization and humanity.

For five and forty years the Sakya-Muni wandered as
a mendicant with his disciples, all clad in yellow robes,
teaching his new doctrines and making converts through-
out northern India. The only change that gradually
crept into his doctrine was that he realized how vows of
absolute poverty became impracticable. Therefore he
modified his teaching so as to permit of gifts of monas-
teries, sacred buildings, and land being accepted from
pious laymen for the use of the religious body.

Finally, at the age of ninety years, the Sakya-Muni,



Gaudama the Buddha, having spent more than half of
his long- hfe in endeavouring to point out to human
beings the way of happiness and the path leading to
emancipation from all evils, prepared to depart from this
state of existence. Calling to him his favourite disciple,
Ananda, he said, " I am weary and wish to lie down.
Place a couch quickly between two Sal trees, and turn its
head towards the north." Reclining thus, his soul passed
away from his body and attained the perfect deliverance
and the complete emancipation of Neikban. Hence
Buddhists regard the north as the most excellent quarter
of the heavens. Gaudama's body was cremated, and its
ashes were distributed among the rulers of the places
where his teaching had been most cordially received.
Ten stupas or monumental topes were erected over
these remains, at different places throughout Behar and
Tirhut. About twenty years later the relics were all
collected and enshrined near the capital of Behar,
whence, about the year 250 B.C., they were distributed
throughout India. Of these Burma appears to have
obtained more than the lion's share ; for there are now
in Burma alone, according to the legends connected with
the various much venerated pagodas, far more relics
than originally existed.

Some idea of the original scope and object of
Buddhism may perhaps best be gained by two quota-
tions from Bigandet's Life or Legend of Gaudama (1880,
vol. i. page 1 1 1). At the time of his having attained the
perfect knowledge of a Buddha, Gaudama meditated on
the best use to which this should be put. In this medi-
tation his thoughts pursued the following train : —

The knowledge of the law and of the four great truths which I
alone possess is very hard to be had. The law is deep : it is difficult
to know and understand it : it is very sublime, and can be compre-
hended only by the means of earnest meditation. It is sweet, filling
the soul with joy, and accessible only to the wise. Now all beings are
sunk very low by the influence of the five great passions ; they cannot
free themselves from their baneful operation, which is the source of all
mutability. But tlie law of mutability is the opposite of the law of
Neikban or rest. This law is hard to be understood. If I ever preach
that law, beings will not be able to understand me, and from my preach-
ing there will result but a useless fatigue ;ind unprofitable weariness.



Buddha thus remained almost disinclined to undertake the great duty of
preaching the law. The great Brahma, observing what was taking place
in Buddha's soul, cried out, " Alas ! all mankind are doomed to be lost.
He who deserves to be worshipped by all beings now feels no disposi-
tion to announce the law to them." He instantly lelt his seat, and hav-
ing repaired to the presence of Paya (i.e. Gaudama), his cloak over his
shoulders with the extremity hanging backward, he bent his knee, lifted
up his joined hands to the forehead before the sage, and said to him :
" Most illustrious Buddha, who art adorned with the six glories, do
condescend to preach the most excellent law ; the number of those
buried under the weight of filth and passions is comparatively small ;
if they do not listen to the law there will be no great loss. But there is
an immense number of beings who will understand the law. In this
world there are beings who are moderately given up to the gratification
of sensual appetites ; and there are also a great many who are following
heretical opinions to whom the knowledge of truth is necessary, and
who will easily come to it. Lay now open the way that will lead to the
perfection of Areyas : ^ those perfections are the gates of Neikban."
Thus he entreated Buddha. The Brahma had been, in the time of
Buddha Kathaba, a Rahan (i.e. one of the sacred order of priests),
under the name of Thabaka, and was transferred to the first seat of
Brahma for the duration of the world.

The first great public occasion on which Gaudama is
recorded to have enunciated his doctrines is the celebrated
" Sermon on the Mount " near the village of Gayathitha,
where, accompanied by a thousand followers, he ascended
to the top of a hill and addressed his disciples as fol-
lows {ibid, page 147): —

" Beloved Beikkus (i.e. mendicants), all that is to be met with in the
three abodes of men, Nat, and Brahma is like a burning flame. But
why is it so.? Because the eyes are a burning flame ; the objects per-
ceived by the eyes, the view of those objects, the feeling created by that
view, are all like a burning flame. The sensations produced by the
eyes cause a succession of pleasant and painful feelings, but these are
likewise a burning flame. What are the causes productive of such a
burning ? It is the fire of concupiscence, of anger, of ignorance, of
birth, of death, of old age, and of anxiety. Again, the ear is a burn-
ing flame : the sounds, the perception of the sounds, the sensations pro-
duced by the sounds, are all a burning flame, which is fed by the fire of
concupiscence, anger, ignorance, birth, old age, death, anxiety, tears,
affliction, and trouble. Again, the sense of smelling is a burning flame :
the odours, the perception of odours, the sensation produced by odours,
are all a burning flame : the pleasure and pain resulting therefrom are

^ An Areya is one who has become independent of the common laws
of transmigratory existence and will attain Neikban or annihilation at the
end of the present life.



but a burning flame, fed by concupiscence, anger, ignorance, birth, old
age, death, disquietude, tears, affliction, and sorrows. Again, the taste
is a burning flame : tlie objects tasted, the perception of those objects,
the sensations produced by them, are all a burning flame, kept up by the
fire of concupiscence, anger, ignorance, birth, old age, death, anxiety,
tears, affliction, and sorrow. Again, the sense of feeling, the objects
felt, the perception of those objects, the sensations produced by them,
are a burning flame ; the pleasure and pain resulting therefrom are but
a burning flame, fostered by concupiscence, anger, ignorance, birth, old
age, death, anxiety, tears, affliction, and sorrow. Again, the heart is a
burning flame, as well as all the objects perceived by it and the sensa-
tions produced in it ; the pleasure and pain caused by the heart are also
a burning flame, kept up by the fire of concupiscence, anger, ignorance,
birth, old age, death, disquietude, tears, affliction and sorrow. Beloved
Beikkus, they who understand the doctrine I have preached, and see
through it, are full of wisdom and deserve to be called my disciples.
They are displeased with the senses, the objects of the senses, matter,
pleasure and pain, as well as with all the affections of the heart. They
become free from concupiscence, and therefore exempt from passions.
They have acquired the true wisdom that leads to perfection ; they are
delivered at once from the miseries of another birth. Having practised
the most excellent works, nothing more remains to be performed by
them. They want no more the guidance of the sixteen laws, for they
have reached far beyond them." Having thus spoken, Buddha remained
silent. His hearers felt themselves wholly disentangled from the
trammels of passions, and disengaged from all affections to material
objects; and they who had been but Rahan became Rahanda.^

In this discourse to the voluntary mendicants [Beikku)
who were his disciples, the leading principle in the
Buddhistic religious philosophy, the unsubstantiality and
unreality of everything in this world, was tersely laid
down. From the three evil principles — evil desire,
anger, and ignorance — flow all the other passions or
demerits ; and of these three ignorance is the worst,
as it is the fountain head from which the other two

1 That is to say, the Rahan or simple priest or ascetic, //'/. " perfect,"
was advanced to become a Rahanda or Areya of the highest order, who
has attained the fourth of the paths leading to Neikban. The Rahanda
or Rahat possessed the five great powers of working miracles, of hear-
ing all sounds, of knowing the thoughts of other beings, of knowing
what births were received in other ages, and of knowing what births
will be received by any being in future ages. But all Rahanda do not
possess these gifts in equal degree, though all attain Neikban on their
death. The Rahanda may feel bodily pain, but knows no mental
anguish or sorrow. All those who have not attained the state of a Rahat
are subject to the influence of the three evil principles — evil desire,
anger, and ignorance.



spring. Hence ignorance is the root of all moral
disorders. Truth being hidden from the eyes of ordinary
mortals by the thick mists of the three evil principles,
man fails to discern right from wrong, attaches an undue
importance to material objects, and fans the flameof passion
by like or dislike of mere illusions. The power of these
main demeritorious influences is increased by such second-
ary or incidental circumstances as birth, sorrow, anxiety,
old age, and death. But these arise solely from the in-
fluence of demerits, and the law of merits and demerits is
propounded as the solution of the question relating
to the attainment of freedom from the fires of evil
influences. Any one born into the state of existence
of a man must consequently gravitate towards perfection
by means of acquiring merit. Otherwise he must, owing
to his imperfections and demerits, be born again to
succeeding existences, so as to allow him opportunities of
acquiring merit by the practice of virtue. Those who
have obtained virtue lose all pleasure in passion, and
material objects become indifferent to them. Hence,
when old age and death come, the causes of existence
are removed, and the next step places the individual
beyond the influence of the power of attraction fettering
all human beings in the vortex of existences. It carries
him towards the centre of perfection, and brings him
on one of the four paths leading to complete rest,
emancipation, and deliverance from influences of any
sort (Neikdan).

Such is a brief outline of the religious philosophy
taught by Gaudama. It was the exposition of the
eternal law [Tard), which, existing like truth from all
time to all time, had nevertheless become obliterated
from the minds of men, through abuses and neglect, since
the days of a former Buddha. By means of his perfect
knowledge and omniscience, however, Gaudama was
enabled to reformulate it, and to preach it to men for
their guidance in escaping from the effects of the evil
influences operating to prevent them from the attainment
of Neikban. The enunciation of this law would be a
code of the very highest morality but for the damning
fact that the good works inculcated are to be done from



purely selfish motives and do not spring from charitable
impulses or from sympathy with suffering humanity.

It was enunciated in a more popular and less philo-
sophical form than that adopted in addressing the
Beikku or disciples when one of the spirits [Nat)
came at ni'j^htfall and entreated Gaudama to issue
instructions that would assist men to understand many
points of the law hitherto obscured to them. Gaudama's
words were as follows (Bigandet, op. cit. p. 123) : —

Young Nat, here are the most excellent things men and Nats ought
to attend to, in order to capacitate themselves for the state of Neikban:
to shun the company of the foolish ; to be always with the wise ; to
proffer homage to those who are deserving of it ; to remain in a place
becoming one's condition ; to have always with one's self the influence
of former good works ; steadily to maintain a perfect behaviour ; to be
delighted to hear and see much, in order to increase knowledge ; to
study all that is not sinful ; to apply one's self to acquire the knowledge
of Wini (rules for conduct, of priests especially). Let every one's con-
versation be regulated by righteous principles ; let every one minister to
the wants of his father and mother \ provide all the necessaries for his
wife and children ; perform no action under the evil influence of temp-
tation ; bestow alms ; observe the precepts of the law ; assist one's
relatives and friends ; perform no actions but such as are exempt from
sin ; be ever diligent in such avoiding, and abstain from intoxicating
drink. Let no one be remiss in the practice of the law of merits. Let
every one bear respect to all men ; be ever humble ; be easily satisfied
and content ; gratefully acknowledge favours ; listen to the preaching of
the law in its proper time; be patient ; delight in good conversation;
visit the religious from time to time; converse on religious subjects;
cultivate the virtue of mortification (i.e. self denial) ; practise works of
virtue; pay attention always to the four great truths; keep the eyes
fixed on Neikban. Finally, let one in the middle of the eight afflictions
of this world be, like the Rahanda, firm, without disquietude, fearless,
with a perfect composure. O young Nat, whoever observes these
perfect laws shall never be overcome by the enemies of the good : he
shall enjoy the peace of Areyas.

Here, within these thirty-three terse precepts, is an
epitome of almost all the moral virtues, in the form of
an address which is several centuries older than anything
relating to Christianity.

Burmese Buddhism has retained to a considerable
extent the primitive simplicity of Gaudama's precepts
first taught on the banks of the Ganges more than five
and a half centuries before the dawn of the Christian
era. The teachings of Gaudama were meant not only



for men, but also for the spirits {Nat) inhabiting the
inferior celestial regions, and for the mightier spirits
{Brahma) abiding in the higher celestial regions, all
three of which classes are included in the category of
human beings. It is easy to understand that a religion
or religious philosophy of this sort, distinctly recognizing
spirits {Nat), and angels {Brahma), would appeal
strongly to and find ready acceptance with the half-
civilized Mongolian tribes dwelling to the north of the
birthplace of Buddhism, whose sole religious beliefs
consisted in a kind of geniolatry or spirit worship such
as still forms the religion of many different tribes occupy-
ing the mountainous tracts of eastern and north-eastern

When Buddhism was introduced into Burma about
the year 240 b.c. it was but little subjected to deterior-
ating and corrupting influences. It was mainly, no
doubt, due to the geographical position of Burma,
though perhaps partly also favoured by political causes,
that it remained uncorrupted and unaltered by influences
which tinged the original doctrines with Hindu myths in
Nipal, and with ancestral worship in China : but it is
equally certain that its recognition of Nat and Brahma
enabled the new religion to supplant or overlie the
primitive belief in spirits.

The very ease, however, wherewith the new religion
adapted itself to procure the conversion of the races
with which it came in contact, and at the same time the
great tolerance of Buddhism itself, served to keep alive,
as something far more than the smouldering ashes of a
half-dead fire, the belief in spirits and in the efficacy of
offering and sacrifice with a view to the propitiation of
the unseen inhabitants of the earth, the air, and the
waters surrounding the earth. Hence even now, in the
Burma of to-day, the Burmese Buddhist is distinctly
imbued with a more or less definite belief in the power
of spirits, which pure relic of geniolatry has for centuries
been co-existent with the belief in the Nat and the Brah-
ma of pure Buddhism. It is impossible to draw any hard
and fast line separating these two beliefs in the minds of
the Burmese, and more particularly among the vast



majority forming the rural and agricultural population.
But, just as, if you scratch a Russian, it is said you will
find a Tartar, so also, if you could look into the inner-
most recesses of the ordinary Burman mind, you would
find a vast number of Burmese Buddhists to be in
reality practically little else than spirit worshippers.
This does not mean to imply that Buddhism is, in
Burma, a mere veneer superlying a foundation of geni-
olatry ; but the fact seems indisputable that the founda-
tions of belief are much more frequently primitive spirit
worship than the true Buddhism or religious philosophy
founded by Gaudama. Hence, when the Census Report
of 1 89 1 tells us that there are nearly 7,000,000 Buddhists
in Burma, or over nine-tenths of the total population, the
figures must be understood as simply including all those
who choose to call themselves Buddhists. A Burman,
who may be at heart a spirit worshipper, would be
ashamed to admit himself to be this ; it is much more
convenient and respectable to call himself a Buddhist.
Can we blame him for being pharisaically conventional ?
Spirit worship is in Burma a despised religion still pro-
fessed only by less than 1 70,000 persons, or little over
one-fiftieth of the total population, who are almost
entirely wild jungle tribes. But while it has gradually
given way to Buddhism nominally, as a matter of fact
the primitive Nat worship or geniolatry usually remains
the true cult of the rural population.

Nat worship is, curiously enough, still one of the
prevailing forms of belief at Thaton, in Tenasserim,
originally and for centuries the stronghold of Buddhism.
Enshrined in a temple there is the image of the Nat
Popo or "grandfather," who is said to have been asked
to become the guardian spirit of Thaton by the two
missionaries who introduced Buddhism here in the
third century. Along with him in the temple, but en-
shrined in other chambers, are the images of two other
spirits subordinate to Popo. An annual festival is held
in honour of these Nat. So too at Taungbyun, near
Mandalay, a Nat-pwe is held in July or August of each
year in honour of two spirits whose images are enshrined



Among a people possessing the characteristics of the
Burmese, it might not have been matter of surprise if,
after having for over two thousand years erected count-
less brazen and marble images to Gaudama, they had
changed the primitive form of Buddhism by elevating
Gaudama to the rank of a god. Such is, however,
emphatically not the case. Gaudama still remains what
he declared himself to be, a man and not a god.
Honour of every sort is shown to his memory ; millions
of images of him have been wrought in wood, in brass,
and in marble ; he is the central figure in all the old
religious plays, and throughout the ancient writings ; but
he never has been raised to the status of eodhead. If
you ask a Burman to what religion he belongs, he will
invariably reply in words which mean, " / venerate the
doctrine of the Buddha " {Buddabdthd kogme the). No
Burman would ever think of saying, " / worship the

The success which attended Gaudama's efforts to
establish throughout Tirhut and Behar a new and pure
religion caused imitators to strike out independent paths
for themselves. Moreover, the austerity with which he
enforced the life of poverty and self-denial was occasion-
ally found irksome and unnecessarily severe by some of
the disciples. Hence, even during Gaudama's lifetime,
heretical priests {Parabdik) appeared as false teachers
endeavouring to spread a new doctrine that there is
no future world, and that all human beings at death
become resolved into the four primary elements — earth,
air, fire, and water. On the death of Gaudama schisms
and dissensions even crept into the Assembly {Thinga)
into which the disciples [Beikht) had been formed
during his lifetime ; and it was found desirable to call
together a council to settle all points of controversy.
This first Buddhist council or synod {Thinga Yana)
was held in 543 B.C., sixty-one days after the death of
Gaudama. It was attended by 500 " religious " of the
Assembly. It deliberated for seven months, and gave
rulings publicly and authoritatively. It was at this