John Nisbet.

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

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or deed, exhort the men and women of the world to
renounce its sins and temptations or to cling steadfastly
to the better life. They merely read mechanically the
scriptures containing the enunciation of the eternal law,
and leave it to the men and women to devote themselves
to works of merit or demerit as they may choose. In
addition to repeating the five great precepts for lay life,
and the principal tenets of the religious philosophy of
Gaudama, the Pongyi recites periods in praise of the

^ Should these fields of meditation not suffice, he may lead his
thoughts into such special channels as the five greatest sins bringing
immediate retribution — killing a father, killing a mother, killing a
Rahanda about to become a Buddh, raising a blister on a Buddh
(whose life cannot be taken), and making a schism in the Assembly;
the five great deeds of renunciation — surrendering one's children,
property, life, wife, and one's own volition ; the three ways of putting
away sin — momentarily, temporarily, and entirely ; and many others.



venerable Buddha and dwells feelingly on the great
fnerit obtained by almsgiving. Sometimes, it is true,
the Pongyi is called to the chamber of the rich. In this
case, however, it is not to soothe the suffering sinner and
to lead his thoughts into a religious channel that he is
(Called, but merely because — a remnant of the geniolatry
underlying Burmese Buddhism — the sick man hopes
that the repetition of the pious formulae will perhaps help
to drive away the evil spirits causing his sickness. Here
the patter of the priest is but the incantation which, it is
hoped, will break the spell cast by the spirits. When
asked to go on such an errand of mercy, the Pongyi will
say, " If circumstances allow, I will come." If any
definite promise were made, one of the priestly rules
would be violated.

The Pongyi does not assume the yellow robe for the
purpose of visiting and preaching to the sick or minister-
ing to the spiritual wants of those who are saddened with
sorrow or suffering from sin. This cold, cynical, atheistic
religious philosophy is essentially different from the
sympathetic charity of Christianity, calling aloud, " Come
unto me, all ye that labour and are weary, and I will give
you rest." The layman becomes a Pongyi simply and
solely in order to save himself in the next state of
.existence by the acquisition of religious merit during this
life. He neither cares, nor pretends to care, about any
other person's hereafter except his own. He has no
cure of souls. He feels no call either to reason with
those who disregard the law or to rebuke those who
habitually transgress it. By dedicating himself to the
religious life he simply intends to walk more thoroughly
in the true path of the eternal law, so as to obviate the
chance of his rebirth as a brute animal in the next state
of existence. By becoming a religious mendicant the
Rahan merely transforms himself into an object upon
which the religiously inclined layman can shower alms
and pile up for himself merit in the shape of good works
\Kutho\ whose good influence {Kan) will affect his own
future destiny.

Works of religious merit are various in description,
including everything that may be of use to the public or



to the priesthood ; but naturally, from the influence of
the latter, the works of merit are chiefly for the benefit
of the religious. Whoever supplies the Pareikkayd or
eight requisites for the ordination of a probationer be-
comes a Rahantagd, whoever founds a monastery be-
comes a Kyatingtagd, whoever builds a pagoda becomes
a Paydtagd, and so on. The highest honour in this
respect is the title of Pyissi-le-ba Dayaga to him who pro-
vides the four gifts of a monastery, a priest's robes, food,
and medicine. One of the most useful of these customs is
that of building bridges across streams and rest-houses
(Zaydt, from Sdyat, "a place of eating ") near monasteries,
pagodas, or alongside of the permanent roads or paths.
These rest-houses are all raised above the ground and
consist of a long open verandah leading into a somewhat
higher but low-roofed chamber either unwalled or else
closed on three sides. Many of them, in Upper Burma
especially, are beautifully ornamented with carved wood-
work all round the eaves and along the roof- tree.

Apparently tree planting has never in Burma been
considered a work of religious merit as it was in Northern
India even as early as the time of Asoka, according to
the inscriptions on his monoliths dating from the middle
of the third century b. c. But this probably was because,
except in the dry central zone of Upper Burma, all the
rough clearances for cart tracks or paths supplying the
place of roads ran, for the most part, through tree jungle
giving ample shade and shelter. One form of religious
merit particularly agreeable to the weary wayfarer is the
erection here and there of wooden stands [Yeozin) upon
which pots of drinking water are placed to quench the
thirst of the passer-by.

Consecrated property is divided into three classes —
that belonging to monks of a particular locality, that
belonging to Rahan and laymen alike, and that belonging
to a Buddha and Rahan alike.

It is unfortunate, however, that merit for himself is
not obtainable by any one who carries out repairs to a
monastery or rest-house. Whatever merit is thereby
acquirable goes to the account of the original builder.
Hence, if a son or daughter carry out repairs to an

VOL. II. 145 L


edifice built by their father or mother, it would imply
that the life account of the latter was lacking- in merit.
The consequence of this is that after the lifetime of the
builders the monasteries or rest-houses are very often
allowed to fall into disrepair, and to become ruins
harbouring snakes and other noxious animals. More-
over, there is now a distinct tendency on the part of
men accumulatinsj savinofs to hoard or invest them in
place of spending them in works of this sort. Under
Burmese rule, to be known or suspected of having
wealth meant oppression and squeezing ; whereas under
British rule the Burman knows now that what he has he
holds without fear of receiving special attention from
those set in authority over him, except as regards the
collection of income tax. It was not without good
reason that the Burman included the governing classes
among the five kinds of enemies — rulers, water, fire,
thieves, and wind. This greater security of life and
property under British government must contribute
towards the gradual lessening of the hold of Buddhism
on the people at large. It certainly has done so in
Rangoon, where wealthy Burmans may now be seen
driving about in carriage-and-pair with an ostentation
which they dared not have ventured on under Burmese
rule. In Moulmein, on the other hand, two builders of
pagodas, one male and one female, have recently been
rushing headlong to pecuniary ruin in the desire of each
to acquire illustrious merit for themselves by outshining
the other in the dimensions and magnificence of the
pagodas built by them.

The mere giving of gifts is not in itself held to
be indiscriminately meritorious, for a distinction is
made between the gifts of the righteous man and
those of the wicked. Further distinctions obtain, such
as whether one makes gifts of articles superior, or equal,
or inferior to what one uses one's self, whether the
gifts are made freely or grudgingly, or whether they are
made in a spirit of faith and with due respect to the

The Pongyi has always been treated with the profound-
est veneration by every one, from the king downwards.



It is considered a sign of extreme rudeness if any Bur-
man passes a '' religious " without stooping in an attitude
of respect. This veneration is shown to him after death
as well as during life ; and the obsequies of a priest
{Pongyi by an) always constitute a great festival through-
out the whole countryside.

The strong hold which the /'(^'w^jz undoubtedly possesses
over his co-religionists in Burma arises mainly from the
two facts that his life is, save only in most exceptional
cases, one of purity, and that for century after century
the monastery has, until comparatively recently, been the
only seminary in which the arts of reading, writing, and
elementary arithmetic have been taught. Residence in
the monastery is no life of mere mock modesty cloaking
debauchery and sensuality. It is, even allowing for the
relaxation that now exists from the primitive austerities,
still a life of self-denial and continence. The custom of
sending young boys to wear the yellow robe for a time
and to live in the monastery has fostered a spirit of
respectful deference and veneration which never becomes
completely lost in later years ; for the cleanness and the
purity of a Pongyis life are very different from the
sensuality of the Brahmin priest of India, who bullies
his co-relieionists and domineers over them.

The reliofious ceremonies connected with admission
into the Assembly vary according as the postulant is an
acolyte {Shin or Maung Skin) of tender years or a pro-
bationer (Upazin) who has reached the prescribed
twentieth year of age.

Before a boy becomes a Skin, about the time of attain-
ing the age of puberty, he is duly instructed in such
matters as how he shall address his religious superiors,
how he must dress and eat, what duties he must perform,
etc. There is a separate ordinance {Skin-kyin Wut) de-
tailing all these regulations. On the day fixed for this
auspicious event the lad is decked out in whatever finery
his parents possess or can borrow. Then he is seated on a
pony, and with a golden umbrella borne aloft over his
head for this one occasion — an honour otherwise reserved
for royalty, or for those only who are thus favoured by
royal prerogative — he is led circuitously through the



streets of the town or village to the monastery. This is
the greatest festival in a Burman's life, for in the fun and
jollification of his own obsequies he can obviously take no
active part in propria forma. After preliminary beating of
a small drum [Paluktuk) the merry minstrelsy strikes up
and heads the procession wending its way slowly to the
monastery. It is accompanied by a gay escort of friends
and relatives, attired in gorgeous array and bearing gifts
of every possible description, from eggs, fruit, betel boxes,
bowls, and the like, to lamps, clocks, and even long arm-
chairs. The greatest ostentation possible to the means
of the parents is observed in order to mark the honour
the lad is entitled to in thus turning his back upon the
pomps and vanities of life, and seeking the seclusion of a
monastery. Human nature is, however, much the same
all the world over, and an imposing Shinpyu procession
is regarded in Burma very much in the same light as " a
fine wedding " in England.

On arrival at the monastery^ the Pongyi is found
seated along with his monks and probationers, the
faces of all being protected by their large fans from the
disquieting influence of the eyes of the fair sex. Here
the lad is stripped of his finery, while extracts are read
from the sacred books. When his gay apparel has been
replaced by a spotless piece of new white cotton, his long
hair is cut off and handed to his mother or sister, to be
offered up at any shrine or perchance to be used as a
switch to supplement scanty locks. The tonsure is then
applied, the lad meanwhile bending his head over a white
cloth held at the corners by four of the elder male members
of the family stock to which he belongs. His shaven
head is next smeared with saffron and washed with a
preparation of the fruit of the soap acacia [Alodecca trilo-
bata). Then he is bathed from head to foot, a rich
waist cloth is wrapped round his loins, and he is ready
to approach the Pongyi with the request to be admitted
into the monastery. Kneeling down in an attitude of
respectful obeisance he repeats the prescribed formula

* In Lower Burma the ceremony often takes place in a temporary
erection {Mandat) in front of the parents' house, but the proper cere-
mony is as above described.



for permission to become a probationer for the priesthood.
The eight requisites for a monk, having previously been
provided by the parents or relatives, are handed to him
by the Pongyi, and this constitutes admission to the

Wearing the three yellow garments forming the monk-
ish robe, he next morning takes part in the procession
making the daily morning round for the alms of food
upon which the religious body is enjoined to subsist.
But, as a matter of fact, meals of the ordinary kind are
often sent from his late worldly home for his special use.

In addition to practising reading, writing, and elemen-
tary arithmetic, the young lad is supposed to apply him-
self diligently to the study of the sacred books, and also
to minister to the wants of the monks. Thus he brings
forward their meals and a supply of water at the proper
times, places their betel boxes in a convenient position,
and performs many similar menial duties. He also
accompanies them whenever they may have occasion to
go abroad. During his residence in the monastery he
must observe all the ten precepts binding on a monk,
and not merely the five duties incumbent on the laity.

For at least seven days the acolyte must remain in the
monastery, at the end of which time he may, with the
consent of his parents, return again to the world ; but it
is considered much more becoming in a young lad to
remain so long as to include at Least one Lent ( Wa).
This period may be, and very often is, extended to two
or three years. Throughout such time he may visit his
parents, provided that he is never absent from the
monastery between sunset and sunrise. During this
period he not unfrequently becomes imbued with the
desire for the life religious, or else feels the easy, lazy,
and highly respected status of a monk not at all a bad
substitute for the harder life of a layman. If the latter
have more pleasures, it has also greater hardships and
greater temptations to works of demerit ; hence the
chance of becoming a dog or a cat, a snake or a worm,
in the next state of existence is most easily and effectu-
ally circumvented by adhering to the placid monotony of
life in the monastery. In this case the acolyte pays more



attention to the reading of the sacred books, and to the
studies of the duties, rules, and obligations of the priest-
hood, and thus he becomes a probationer for 7?«/^««-ship.

The ordination ceremony {Theikka-tin), by means of
which a probationer is admitted into the Assembly, can
only take place in a chapel ( Tliein) measuring not less than
twelve cubits in length, exclusive of the portion where
the probationer awaits ordination. Here the chapter
assembled must number at least five monks in jungle
places or small villages, and not less than ten in towns.
The senior priest present is constituted the president
{Upazin), while another Pongyi undertakes the duty of
"ordination teacher" [Kainmawd Sayd),\\\\o reads the
ordination service [Kaminawd), addresses to the candi-
date the ceremonial questions prescribed in the latter,
and thereafter presents the novice to the chapter for
admission into the Assembly. The book containing the
ordination service of the Burmese priesthood is written
in the Pali character either on the palm leaf, or else on
old waist cloths worn by the king, on metal, or on ivory.
As no one was permitted to wear the old silk waist cloths
of the king, they were lacquered first in black and then
in red, till they became as flexible as thin whalebone,
when they were cut into strips of about eighteen or
twenty inches long by four and a half inches broad, and
on this ground of smooth bright red lacquer the square
Pali text was written with black varnish, an exudation
from the Thitsi tree {Mela7iorrhoea tcsitatd). Such are
still not difficult to obtain, but those on ivory are rare
and valuable.

This prescribed ritual interrogates the probationer as
to his freedom from hereditary congenital diseases, such
as leprosy and scrofula, as to his being legitimate and a
freeman, and as to his being twenty years of age and
provided with the eight requisites of a priest. It then
proceeds to recite circumstantially the ten precepts to be
observed by the religious, and ends with detailing and
warning him against the four sins unpardonable in a
monk, after which the candidate receives the Upasam-
padd or full admission to the privileges of membership
of the Assembly.



Another ceremony, though one of rare occurrence,
which can only take place in the Thein or chapel, is
that of excommunication or " inverting the almsbowl "
{Thabeikhmauk). No one who has been admitted to the
duties and privileges of the religious can be excommuni-
cated by any individual Pongyi, a chapter of not less than
five Rahan being necessary.

The monk charged with any of the four unpardonable
sins of a priest is cited before the chapter. Standing in
the place where once he stood as a probationer his case
is investigated, portions of the Kammawd are read, the
culprit's robes are taken from him, his almsbowl is
inverted and placed mouth downwards on the ground,
and he is driven forth, an outcast, to become a social
pariah, from whom no priest will knowingly accept alms,
and with whom no layman will willingly have any deal-
ings. Thus banned, the excommunication is notified to
all other Rakan, and all influential laymen in the district,
by means of " letters to avoid " (Kymsa).

True excommunication can only be carried out in the
case of a member of the Assembly, for no one can simul-
taneously be both monk and layman. But a somewhat
similar ceremony, known by the same name, is sometimes
carried out when a Pono^yi in his daily morning round
refuses the offering of any particular layman by inverting
his almsbowl. No monk would dare to do such a thing
without some well-established reason. When this pro-
ceeding is extended to a whole section of a village it is
the most powerful protest that the priesthood can make
against conduct to which they object.

As in the case of our own church, following the ancient
custom prescribed among the Jews, Burmese Buddhism
prescribes that a " day for observing the performance
of religious duties " ( Uboksaimg Ne) shall be set apart
once a week. These duty days are fixed according
to the phases of the moon, being respectively the day of
the change to the new moon, the eighth day of the
waxing moon, the full moon, and the eighth day of the
waning moon. The days of the new and of the full
moon are considered the most important for observance.

On the evening before the dut}^ day the pious laymen



assemble at the rest-house {Zaydt) and there spend the
night in meditative preparation for the communion that
is to be held on the following day. On all other
occasions in life only the five precepts for laymen are
binding, but during the whole time of Udok all the ten
priestly precepts ought to be observed.

The men occupy separate rest-houses from the women
on these occasions of meditation and religious contempla-
tion. One cannot fail to remark that the men and
women who observe these holy days are for the most
part very old people anxious to make sure about hav-
ing a balance of merit standing to the credit of their
life account. Next morning the Pongyi and monks
come to the rest-house, where, seated apart from the
laity and with their large fans placed so as to screen
their eyes from the fatal beauty of women, they read
portions of the sacred books. After the reading of the
law, the rest of the day is spent in the telling of beads,
in repeating religious formulae while prostrated in front
of the pagoda or kneeling devoutly before some shrine
containing an image of Gaudama, and in meditation.
Secular conversation detracts from the merit otherwise
obtainable. The duty day is thus a day of fasting,
prayer, and communion.

The three months reckoning from the full moon of
" the beginning of Lent " ( Waso, June or July), to the full
moon of " the conclusion of religious duties" \Thadingyut,
September or October) constitute the Burmese Lent
{IVa), a season regarded by devout and especially by
elderly Buddhists as a peculiarly sacred season to be spent
in fasting, in regular attendance at pagodas and shrines,
and in careful observance of all the prescribed religious
duties. During this Lenten period a monk staying away
from his monastery for a night loses his religious charac-
ter through breach of monastic vows unless he continues
repeating the prescribed formula for permission. The
pious layman suffering from sickness should, to be
orthodox, request a dispensation {IVaban) from the
duties of Lent.

The esteem in which a Pongyi is held is gauged,
cceteris paribus, by the number of Lents he has kept



uninterruptedly without severing his connexion with the
Assembly and mingling again with the laity. Even a
superior or a bishop will pay respectful homage to a
simple monk whose record in this respect excels his own.

The fixation of Lent during the three months of
summer, and not in spring, most probably has its origin
in the fact that in Maghada (Behar or Nipal), where
Buddhism was founded, these constituted the height of
the rainy season, when the monks keep as much as
possible to their monasteries ; and this would, of course,
give them ample opportunities for studying the law and
repeating it to the pious laymen who might flock there
for instruction.

Without studying their Buddhism, their priesthood,
and their religious observances it is impossible to acquire
any true insight into the Burmese character, as it was,
and as it still is. Their future is, alas ! in some respects
not a pleasant subject of contemplation for those who
love Burma and the Burmese. This "anachronism," as
the Burman has been called by more than one shallow
and superficial observer (who, knowing little or nothing
of the country save what can be read in lightly written
books and supplemented by a fortnight's tour in Burma,
flaunts his experience in print), is unfortunately likely to
be only too soon brought up to date. But the so-called
anachronism is the only possible product of the religious
beliefs and the political and social evolution of Burma in
the past. Since the annexation of Pegu in 1852, however,
— indeed, dating from before the first Burmese War in
1826 — missionary and educational forces have been at
work which cannot be left out of consideration with
regard to the future. Within the last sixteen years
these forces have been vastly augmented by the deporta-
tion of King Thibaw in 1885, the annexation of Upper
Burma in 1866, and the death of the Archbishop of
Mandalay in 1895. Secular schools are bringing a
wider education to young Burmans than could ever
possibly be given to them by the Pongyi\ and much
is now also being done for the education of girls, who
were entirely neglected under the Buddhist philosophy.

But other factors are also working besides education.



The acquisition of wealth is not now one of the greatest
of personal dangers, as it was in the good old palmy
days when the King of Ava was the secular head of the
Buddhist church: and this directlv influences the amount
spent by many wealthy townsmen on special works of
religious merit. Moreover, the population shows a
decided tendency to become very mixed ; and wlierever
there has as yet been any conflict of races, the easy-
going Burman does not assert himself as the fittest to

Slowly but surely the fabric of Buddhism, which has
existed for over two thousand years in Burma, is being
broken down and is crumbling away like so many of the
pagodas and shrines built to commemorate its illustrious
founder, Gaudama, Nothing is likely to intervene and
stop the gradual process of deterioration and decay which
has already begun in various parts of the country.
Though Burma is, and will in course of time more and
more become, the battlefield of Christian missions from
many parts of the world, yet it is impossible to say
in what direction the religious belief of the Burmese will
tend — if they should happen to remain as a distinct
nationality, which seems extremely doubtful.