John Nisbet.

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

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perfervid zeal displayed previous to the ordination cere-
monial. Among the latter it is sometimes even resorted
to twice a day. But it is no longer the conscientious
and austere practice which it was intended to be when the
third great Council of the Assembly drew up the Bidagai



in the time of King Asoka (243 B.C.). The prescriptions
of the second section of these Buddhistic scriptures ( Wini)
originally ordained that when any Rahan had been guilty
of violating, either by commission or omission, any of the
227 rules contained in the Patimauk, he was to go to
his Pongyi and, kneeling before him, confess the fault.
On occasions when the monks were assembled in the
chapel {Thein) set apart for certain religious ceremonies,
the confession was to be made there ; and all sins, great
or small, were to be unreservedly confessed without con-
cealment or extenuation. The Pongyi was thereupon to
impose a penance, prescribing the number of times dur-
ing the ensuing night that portions of the sacred writings
and pious formulae were to be repeated, and the penitent
was to promise to refrain from transgressing the rules in

No man can simultaneously belong both to the laity
{Lawka) and to the Assembly {Tkinga). He who is not
of the latter must be of the former. The monk has,
however, this advantage over the layman that, whereas
admission to the Assembly always entails a certain
amount of delay and ceremonial, the Pongyi or Rahan
may at once re-enter the world by simply doffing his
yellow robe and quitting the monastery. The rule of
the Romish Church, once a priest always a priest, does

1 The manner in which confession is now made has thus been
described by the late Bishop Bigandet {Life of Gaudama^ 1880, vol.
ii. p. 284) : —

"This extraordinary practice is observed now, one would say, pro
for7na. The penitent approaches his superior, kneels down before him,
and, having his hands raised to his forehead, says : 'Venerable superior,
I do confess here all the sins that I may be guilty of, and beg pardon
for the same.' He enters upon no detailed enumeration of his tres-
passes, nor does he specify anything respecting their nature and the
circumstances attending them. The superior remains satisfied by telling
him: 'Well, take care lest you break the regulations of your profession ;
thenceforward endeavour to observe them with fidelity.' He dismisses
him without inflicting any penance on him. Thus an institution, so
well calculated to put a restraint and a check upon human passions, so
well fitted to prevent man from occasionally breaking commands given
to him, or at least from slipping into the dangerous habit of doing it,
is now, by the want of fervour and energy in the hands of that body,
reduced to be no more than an useless and ridiculous ceremony, a mere
shadow of what is actually prescribed by the IVini."



not obtain in the Buddhist T/nnj^a. Abbot, monk, pro-
bationer, and acolyte can each of them cast aside his
beggar's robe and "depart as a man" (Lictwet) by
merely leaving the monastery and returning to mix with
the world. A monk can even do this and afterwards
enter again into the Assembly by undergoing the ordi-
nation ceremony. Most monks rejoin the world for a
time ; those who do not are held in special reverence
and respect. Hence, when the impulse towards any of
the four unpardonable sins of the priesthood begins to
make itself felt as uncontrollable, the monk can obviate
the shame, disgrace, and penalties that would otherwise
unfailingly await him by quitting the irksome restraints
of the monastery and returning to the world of men. So
long, however, as he remains one of the Assembly he
is vowed to poverty ; he can possess no property ; ^ he
subsists on unsolicited alms collected during each morn-
ing's progress from door to door; he may not accept or
even touch gifts of gold, silver, or precious stones ; he
dresses in a robe theoretically or nominally consisting of
rags and dyed in the yellow colour indicative of sorrow
and humility; and he dedicates himself to a life of chastity,
self-denial, and self-effacement. Poverty, humility, con-
tinence, and self-denial are, indeed, the four cardinal
virtues embodied in the ten religious duties of the priest-
hood {DatJia Thila) already enumerated. His deportment
should always be, though in practice it is not, such as to
indicate humility and utter indifference to all worldly
things ; for it is only thus that he can exhibit the
unconcern he should feel towards the showy and shadowy
unrealities of this life of transitoriness and unsubstan-
tiality. Hence downcast eyes and lowly gait habitu-
ally mark the progress of a procession of priests and

^ One does occasionally come across cases in which priests own pro-
perty, but they are very rare indeed. They are a distinct infringement
of the religious law and a violation of the vow of poverty. I have now,
however, before me a petition in which a priest in the Prome district
asked me in 1896 for a free grant of thirty teak trees growing upon land
owned by him, and for which he regularly paid the Government land-
revenue demand.



For the sake of humility it is prescribed that the
monk shall shave off all the hair with which nature has
adorned or protected his body; hence complete tonsure is
applied to every member of the Assembly, as also to all
the probationers and acolytes who wear the yellow robe of
poverty. When making their morning rounds from door
to door in order to collect alms of food from their lay
supporters, or when walking abroad for other purposes,
it is prescribed — a prescription now so little heeded as
to be almost habitually disregarded — that they must go
barefooted save in the case of sickness or infirmity, when
plain light sandals of a certain size, shape, and colour
may be worn. At all times when he goes abroad from
his monastery the Pongyi is allowed to bear in his hand,
with the long handle resting on his forearm, a large palm-
leaf fan [Awaita, Tarapat) with which he can shade
himself from the heat of the sun or screen from his
vision the sight of improper or undesirable objects, such
as the face of a woman. Nowadays, however, it is
usual to meet the wayfaring priest shod in stout sandals
and carrying, in place of the fan, one of the ordinary paper
umbrellas of the country. But the Pongyi s umbrella
is never coloured with any sort of paint. The oil and
varnish, with which the paper is manipulated to render
it waterproof, make it diaphanous and yellow, the colour
suitable for those wearing the robe of the Assembly.
Disregarded though these and various similar prescriptions
habitually are, yet it is only fair to say that many of the
more conscientious of the Pongyi do adhere with scrupu-
lous attention to the performance of the religious injunc-
tions. Such priests are usually to be found living a life
of comparative seclusion near small villages situated in
forest tracts, where cultivation is sparse and the cultiva-
tors themselves are not over well endowed with this
world's goods.

In order to weaken and uproot the cleaving to existence
and the hankering after worldly possessions, the practice
of the following thirteen classes of austerities {Dutin-se-
thon-ba) is enjoined on all members of the Assembly :
(i) To reject all garments save those of the meanest
description; (2) to possess a robe consisting of only three



garments or pieces of cloth ; (3) to eat no food save that
which has been given as ahns and under certain restric-
tions ; {4) to halt before all houses alike when carrying
round the almsbowl each morning for alms of food ;
(5) to remain in one seat while eating until the repast be
finished ; (6) to eat only from one vessel ; (7) to cease
eating when certain prescribed things occur ; (8) to reside
without the town or village ; (9) to reside at the foot of a
tree ; (10) to reside in an open space ; (11) to reside in a
cemetery ; (12) to take any seat that may be offered ; and
(13) to refrain from lying down under any circumstances.
Only two of the above thirteen austerities that may be
practised by monks are prescribed for lay devotees in-
dulging in temporary meditation in the precincts of a
monastery ; eight may be observed by nuns, and twelve
by probationers. Needless to say, all thirteen are never
now carried out by even the most devout of Pongyi.

The extremest austerities {Mawneya, " the remaining
tired, fatigued ") are so severe that during the time of a
Buddh only one person can be foimd capable of practising
them, as their performance involves the total eschewment
of sleep. They are admittedly so trying that even the
most enthusiastically religious monk cannot practise them
for longer than twelve years. He who practises them
for seven years is only entitled to be considered moder-
ately zealous. The least enthusiastic member of the
Assembly should, however, be able to perform them in
their entirety for seven days, but the number who test
their powers even in this least enthusiastic manner is
probably limited in the narrowest degree. It is only by
means of such austerities, and by the profoundest medi-
tation and religious contemplation, that the monk can
become replete with the six kinds of extraordinary
wisdom ^ [Abinyan) and the eight kinds of extraordinary
attainments (Thanmtadat), without which he can never
attain the Buddhahood.

As the possession of property of any sort is essentially
opposed to a life of self-denial and self-effacement, abso-

^ These are (i) seeing like a Nat, (2) hearing Hke a Nat, (3) creative
power, (4) knowledge of the thoughts of others, (5) freedom from
passion, and (6) knowledge of our past states of existence.



lute poverty was one of the conditions imposed by the
founder of Buddhism upon all his disciples who desired
to enter the Assembly. Hence, immediately previous to
the probationer being ordained and permitted to attain
the status of a Rakan, some pious relative or friend sup-
plies him with the eight articles required in the life of
poverty upon which he is about to embark. These requi-
sites include the three garments forming the priestly robe
{Thingan, Siwaran), the girdle worn round the loins
[Kdban)y the round mendicant's bowl {Tkabeik, Pattwa)
in which alms of food are received during each morning's
round, a small hatchet or adze (Pegok), a needle (At),
and a strainer (Yesit) for filtering his drinking-water.
The first four are private requisites {Aiwin-le-ba), while
the remaining four are public requisites {Apyin-le-ba).
In addition to these eight essentials the priestly fan
{Awana, Tarapat), made with a somewhat S-shaped
wooden handle, so as to be borne on the arm or rested
on the shoulder, and other articles to a total number of
sixty, may be owned by the monk, but they are all things
of no intrinsic value, and not such as can possibly excite
cupidity or encourage avarice.

The priestly robe {Thmgan) consists of the three gar-
ments which alone the Rakan is permitted to own, viz.
the loose skirt {Thinbaing), reaching from the waist to
the heels, and fastened round the loins with a leathern
girdle [Kdban) ; the rectangular bodice (Kowut), cover-
ing the shoulders and breast, and extending down to
below the knee ; and the rectangular cloak [Dugok),
which, folded many times, is thrown over the left
shoulder as a cloak, or else may be used to sit upon in
default of any proper seat. The Thingan is dyed yellow
with the wood of the Jack-fruit tree (Artocarpus integri-
folia), and ought, strictly as prescribed, to be made only
of rags picked up here and there and sewn together into
a robe. Though often entirely disregarded, this prescrip-
tion is usually nominally observed by the yellow silk or
cotton (and generally the former), which is received from
a pious layman, being rent into squares and then stitched
together. In one of the corners of each garment the
Pongyi makes three ceremonial holes [Kapa beindu), in



the form of the mathematical abbreviation for " there-
fore " (.-.), to indicate the "three precious gems" —
Buddha, the Law, and the Assembly. Every priestly
formula begins with the expression of the profoundest
veneration towards these three gems.

The presentation of new religious robes to a monk
takes place in the sacred period {Kadein), falling about
our month of October ( Tazaungjnon). The cloth pre-
sented by the pious layman is received in the chapel
{TJiein) by a chapter consisting of at least five monks,
and the question is then put asking who stands most in
need of a robe. This formula is generally disregarded,
the piece of silk or cotton being handed to the Rahan
engaged in reading extracts from the sacred writings.
After this the assembled monks, assisted by the laymen
present, tear the cloth into squares, make the three gar-
ments forming the robe, and then dye it yellow, the
whole operation being performed in the space of one
day. The most highly esteemed kind of robe is one
{Matho-thingan) woven entirely within the period of the
night of the full moon of Tazau?igm6n.

No Rahan is permitted by the rules of the order to
ask for anything, but this injunction is nowadays very
often ignored. Seldom a month went past without my
receiving requests, either orally or in writing, from some
Pongyi asking for a free grant of some valuable kind of
timber for making a large canoe, or for repairing his
monastery, or such purpose. If it be pointed out to him
that this is hardly the right thing for him to do, he
merely goes off and gets a layman to petition for him.
Even before accepting any gift or offering [Dd7ia, Akdt)
respectfully made by a layman the ceremonial question
must be put, " Is it lawful V This ceremony is likewise
observed in such petty matters as when food or water
is brought to the Pongyi by the acolytes acting as postu-
lants on such occasions. Indeed, any infraction of this
ceremonial is considered a sin requiring confession and

The monastery, where the monks and others who wear
the yellow robe live under the supervision of the superior,
was in the primitive days of Buddhism merely a hut or



shed built beneath the shade and shelter of trees as a
fitting abode for recluse mendicants. As time went on,
laymen anxious to gain religious merit vied with each
other in founding commodious monasteries of imposing
dimensions, often with enormous posts of teak, richly
carved both inside and outside, and sometimes adorned
with gold and coarse precious stones. By far the finest
monasteries that have been built within the last half
century are those which were to be seen in Mandalay
previous to the incendiary fires of April, 1892, which
unfortunately destroyed many of the finest of them,
thereby inflicting on Burmese art a loss which can
never again be repaired. With the breaking up of the
Court of Ava in 1885, and the death of the last recog-
nized archbishop in 1895, Burmese Buddhism has in fact
received the greatest shocks it has ever encountered,
and it may now almost be said to have no longer any
great central stronghold. Though duly recognized as
the national religion, it is no longer specially supported
or encouraged by the vState.

In the monastery early rising is invariably the order of
the day. On getting up about daylight the Po^o-yi cleans his
mouth and rinses it with water, washes his face and hands,
and repeats the prescribed formulae. A sin is committed
by any priest who does not "eat" a toothstick regularly
on rising every day before dawn, and before performing
the prescribed ablutions. He then sallies forth about
half-past seven o'clock, accompanied by monks, proba-
tioners, acolytes, and a few of the small schoolboys, to
make the daily round for alms of food, thus allowing
pious laymen to have an opportunity of acquiring reli-
gious merit by giving a cupful of boiled rice, vegetables,
and fruit to the mendicant followers of the Buddha. The
rice or food thus bestowed is called Sun, and " the accept-
ance of food " {Sunkanthe) is the term used for the daily
morning perambulation.

The monkish procession moves slowly along in Indian
file, "following in the manner of priests" i^Thingazin).
On entering the village it is not lawful for any of the
religious to look more than six feet (four cubits) in front
of him, and the almsgiver should remain at a distance of



three feet when handing the dole of food. When offer-
ings of food or other gifts are brought by laymen to the
monastery they should remain at a distance of six yards
(twelve cubits) from the Pongyi. As the procession
passes each house in turn it halts momentarily to allow
the inmates an opportunity of placing a cupful of rice in
the almsbowl ( Thabeik), supported in front of the chest
by a band slung over the neck. As the almsgiver
approaches, bearing the rice in a lacquered basket {Sun-
daung) made for this purpose, each monk raises the tin
lid of the almsbowl (a modern innovation on its primi-
tive simplicity), allows a cupful to fall into it, and then,
without any word of thanks or of recognition, passes
forward and halts again for a moment before the next
house. Should this opportunity of acquiring religious
merit not be taken advantage of by the laity, it is the
plainest of plain hints to any Pongyi that he is not
approved of, and that he had better go elsewhere or
doff his yellow robe and become once more a man. For
the collection of the food of the remaining inmates of the
monastery two of the " little sons of the Kyaung" bear
a larger uncovered almsbowl of suitable dimensions, into
which food is cast in similar manner. During the rainy
season, in all places where it is impossible to collect the
alms-rice by foot, the Potigyi makes his daily round in a
long canoe [Laung) similar to a racing skiff.

Having made the daily morning round of the village,
or of his own particular quarter of the town near which
the Pongyi resides, the procession files back about half-
past eight o'clock to the monastery to partake of the two
meals per diem allowed to the Rakan. These are the
morning repast [Manetsun), partaken of about 9 a.m.,
and the midday meal {Nesun), which must be eaten
before the hour of noon.

In taking any meal the layman is said to " eat rice" ;
but when the Pongyi eats, the term employed (Sunpon-
pethe) literally means that he "gives glory to the alms-
food." It being not for his own gratification that he
collects food, but merely to allow the laity to have the
opportunity of acquiring merit by a good act, he is only
a means towards the attainment of a desirable end. The



alms of rice thus glorified are, however, in the vast
majority of cases not the "olla podrida" borne back
from the morning round. These are usually given to
the small boys, and what remains after they have
satisfied their appetites is thrown out to the pariah dogs
with which the precincts of every monastery abound.
Tit-bits are generally supplied by the supporter of the
monastery {Kyaungtagd) and by other admirers, being
carried to the monastery in a flat tray [Byal) protected
by a pagoda-shaped cover (Ok). Both tray and cover
are made only of teakwood, and are lacquered in red.
As a matter of fact, the self-denying yellow-robed
Buddhist mendicant usually fares on the best of food,
obtaining the finest of rice, selected condiments, the best
of seasonable fruit, and dainty sweetmeats. He lives on
the fat of the land, like the Friar of Order Grey in days
of yore. I have seen a Pongyi in Upper Burma break-
fasting at 7 a.m. on rice with no fewer than eight dishes
of curry and condiments, while two begging-bowls stood
on stands near him for the sake of appearance.

Eating is accompanied by various ceremonies. The
food to be partaken of is placed in a "duty bowl"
( Wutkwet), which is brought forward by an acolyte to
where the monks are seated. The latter are forbidden
to eat their food with relish. They are simply to regard
the process in precisely the same light as the stoker
regards the coaling of an engine's furnace. Each mouth-
ful taken is to be small, and it is to be thoroughly
masticated and swallowed before another is conveyed by
hand to the mouth. At the principal or forenoon meal
he is to take no more food than simply suffices to carry
him on until next morning's breakfast. To curb any
tendency towards eating for eating's sake, he is directed
to reflect on the injunction that food is to be taken to
support life and not for the indulgence of carnal appetite.
Strictly speaking, the diet should be only of rice,
vegetables, and fruits : but now the use of fish and flesh
has crept in, like various other laxities among the
priestly observances. It is true that the taking of life is
a sin, and one of the worst of demerits ; but the partaking
of flesh thus obtained does not constitute anything like



an abetment of the sin. Gorging and gluttony are,
however, not chargeable to the priesthood. The monks
are as a rule men of spare habit and more or less ascetic
appearance ; and this would hardly be the case if,
with their life of bodily inactivity, they were at the
same time classifiable as hearty eaters. Although the
partaking of solid food on any day after noon is
prohibited, yet four articles may be used when necessary
to ward off the pangs of hunger — oil, honey, molasses,
and butter.

Abstinence from intoxicants of all sorts, the fifth of the
acts forbidden in the ten precepts incumbent on a priest,
is rigidly and scrupulously observed. But, as a refresh-
ing light stimulant is not especially forbidden in the holy
writings, the chewing of a quid consisting of a piece of
betel-nut of the Areca palm and a leaf of the betel-vine
{Chavica detle), flavoured with a tiny bit of tobacco
and a touch of lime, is largely indulged in, and smoking
also to a less extent. Like the feeding-bowl, the betel
box [Kojiif) is always brought forward by an acolyte,
and placed near the Pongyi. When not either sleeping,
eating, or engaged in repeating religious precepts,
priests and monks may be said to be almost always
chewing betel.

The dangers of a life of ease of this sort have been
duly foreseen and provided for, and the Rahan is
enjoined to tell on the beads of his rosary, at least one
hundred and twenty times a day, the four meditations
concerning the requisites of food, clothing, abode, and
medicine : — " I eat this rice to maintain life and not to
satisfy appetite ; I wear this robe to hide my nakedness,
and not from vanity ; I live in this monastery to be
protected from wind and weather, and not from vanity ;
I drink medicine to keep my health, and enable me to
perform my religious duties." They are likewise
ordered to repeat daily the forty great subjects of
meditation which are detailed in condensed form in the
forty sections of the meditative rite [Bdwand).

When not otherwise engaged, the Rahan can bring^
his mind into a contemplative mood by muttering the
formula, " Aneissa, Dokka, Anatta : Letkafid-tkon-da,''



leading his thoughts to the contemplation of " transitori-
ness, misery, unsubstantiality : the three unrealities " of
the present state of existence — and surely a wide and
profitable field of contemplation for all, whether professed
Buddhists or not.^

The monks usually give themselves up to this sort of
contemplation in a recumbent position after the midday
meal, and soon meditate aloud with the heavy, regular,
nasal intonation of snoring.

The rosary {Seikpadi : "beads for counting") used
by monks, nuns, and laymen consists of io8 beads,
representing the nine times twelve different kinds of
living animals subject to the eternal law enunciated by
Gaudama. The beads may be made of bone, of horn,
of the hardened gum of the Zi tree [Zizypkiis jujuba),
of cocoanut shell, or of imitations of precious stones.

Viewed as a whole, there can be no doubt that, even
among such a lazy and indolent nation as the Burmese
certainly are, the life of a priest or monk is regarded
by many as rather an easy and pleasant way of getting a
living. They are not priests or monks in the Anglican
or the Roman Catholic sense of the word, nor are they
ministers of religion in the Scottish meaning of the
term. They read the law to the laity on the four holy
days of each month. But they do not, either by word