John Nisbet.

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

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about one per cent, of the capital value of the forests ;
and the work which is being done by the Forest Depart-



ment will not only increase this percentage considerably
in the future, but should also very much enhance the
capital value of these, the greatest and the most remu-
nerative of all the forest estates owned by the Indian


chapter IV


BUDDHISM is second only to Brahminism in
antiquity. Although it now forms the religious
belief, or at any rate the professed religion, of about
four hundred and twenty-five millions of human beings,
yet comparatively little is generally known in Britain
about its true nature and foundations.

When Bishop Titcomb, the first Anglican Bishop of
Rangoon, went out to Burma in 1877 ^^ ^^s anxious
to obtain knowledge at first hand as to the funda-
mental tenets of Buddhism. Seeing a yellow-robed
"religious" performing his devotions at the great golden
pagoda he asked him, through an interpreter, to whom he
was praying, and what he was praying for. The reply
promptly given was, " I am praying to nobody, and for
nothing." That this was the only possible correct answer
must be clear to any one who understands the principles
of the Buddhist philosophic creed.

Burmese Buddhism is an offshoot from the old Aryan
religious system which had its birthplace in or near that
cradle of religion, the Hindu Kush. From this nucleus
sprang all the systems of religion which have supplanted
the fetishism and spirit worship of the primitive tribes
that they came in contact with, and which have radiated
in all directions, impelled by the evolutionary centrifugal
force begotten of the movement of the Aryan tribes
from the localities they originally occupied. Just as in
wavelets produced on the surface of smooth water when
a stone is thrown into it their individual features become
less and less marked and distinct as the ripples extend
far from the central point, so also in all the various



religious systems that have sprung from the old Aryan
centre, close resemblances gradually disappear, while
essential differences of every sort become wider, more
prominent, and more marked, the further they are removed
in time from the period of primitive belief. The Brah-
minism that gave birth to offshoots forming the three
great religions of the present day — Buddhism, Moham-
medanism, and Christianity, which evolved themselves as
the primitive teachings spread eastwards, southwards, and
westwards — has undergone such vast changes during the
process of evolution as to be almost unrecognizable. To
attempt to trace this evolution, even in a comparatively
brief and sketchy form, would here be out of place.

In looking back, however, along the vista of centuries
in the direction of the time when the Rig Veda practi-
cally embodied the original Aryan religion, one cannot
but notice that the religious differences have not been of
gradual growth, as in the processes of evolution in the
animal and the vegetable kingdoms. Nor can one fail to
be struck with the fact that these three great offshoots
from Brahminism have all been produced by violent
convulsions or revolutions causing them to undergo
changes so great as to make each a new religion
not only different from, but also violently antagonistic to,
the religion or religious philosophy from which it is an
offshoot and against which it forms a protest.

In each of these three great branches into which the
main stem of the tree of primitive Aryan religion has
ramified, similar causes have supervened to make the
evolution of these different religions what they now are.
In each of them human nature has asserted itself, and has
been the main cause in moulding^ the religious tenets to
the shape in which they are to-day to be found. In each
of them the religious power, and therewith also the secular
power to a very great extent, was usurped and held
tenaciously and jealously by a priestly sect or caste,
which gradually evolved itself into a tyrannical and
domineering scourge, practically controlling the affairs of
the community, enforcing the observances of religion,
and ultimately also prescribing the rules for the guidance
of social and domestic life.



In that branch of the primitive reHgion which came
down to us through the Jewish race, the evidence of the
Old Testament clearly goes to prove that the priestly
tribe or caste of Levi was strongly leavened with the
tyrannical powers and desires similarly usurped by the
Brahmins in India. As time rolled on abuses naturally
crept in and became so marked as to call forth the oppo-
sition of a reformer. In our own religion this was Jesus
Christ, the greatest of all religious reformers, whose
teaching was an enunciation of the highest physical,
moral, and spiritual purity, and who in his own person
exemplified his doctrines by a life of unparalleled sim-
plicity and beauty. In addition to correcting many other
abuses and deviations from the primitive religion, one
very marked feature of Christ's doctrine was the revival
of the belief in the immortality of the soul, which, judg-
ing from most parts of the Old Testament, seemed to
have been either discarded or else lost sight of.

Similarly, the great reformer Mohammed cleansed
another branch of religion from many of the abuses
that had crept in, and gave it fresh impetus in a new

And again, similar causes produced similar effects with
regard to what was destined to become Buddhism, the
great south-eastern branch of religion, when Gaudama,
the " Buddha," dedicated his life to the overthrow of
Brahminism in Nipal and to the enunciation of a new
philosophy concerning the religious duties of the people.

The influence which developed into Buddhism was
originally an uprising of a young Hindu of the Kshatriya
or fighting caste, a son of the ruler of Magada, a small
principality in the Nipdl terai or marshy jungles to the
south of the Himalaya. It was at first a strong protest
against the tyranny of the Brahmins or priestly caste ;
and it then developed into an offshoot from Brahminism,
just as Christianity was a later offshoot from Judaism.

But Buddhism was a political and social revolution, as
well as a movement towards religious reform. In the
early Vedic period the Kshatriya or fighting man was the
most important caste, but gradually the Brahmins had
succeeded in usurping the premier place and in arrogating



to themselves the sole right of celebrating religious rites
and observances. Finally, this tyranny of the Brahmins,
who claimed to have sprung from the mouth of Brahma,
became unendurable ; and the result was the foundation
of a new religion, or what may perhaps more correctly
be termed a new philosophy, called Buddhism.

Buddhism takes its name from the Pali word " Buddh,"
which means a being having the form of a man but
endowed with wisdom and virtue unequalled throughout
the Sekya universe or world, who is the supreme object
of adoration both during the time of his existence and
after his attainment of emancipation or perfect rest
(Neikban). The Burmese say that twenty-seven known
Buddhs have preceded Gaudama during the present
grand period of time {Mahagat) ; whereas the Cinghalese
maintain that only four Buddhs (Kaukasan, Gawnagun,
Kathaba, and Gaudama) have yet appeared, and that all
traces of the three first named have entirely vanished
from human knowledge. A fifth Buddh, Arimateya, is
yet to come. Buddhs, however, only appear after inter-
vals regularly recurring in a series that has neither
beginning nor end.

Metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls after
the death of the body during the present state of exist-
ence, one of the fundamental doctrines in Buddhism,
was merely incorporated into it by borrowing from the
Hindu religion or philosophy, in which it formed the
agency for purifying the soul from its imperfections and
worldly dross. But the Buddhism of Burma is very
different from the original Buddhistic religion or philo-
sophy as laid down in the Buddhistic scriptures (Bida-
gai), which are contained in three great sections for the
guidance of the laity, of the priests, and of the Nat and
Brahma of the celestial worlds. The original Hindu
idea was altered by the reformers so far as to assert that
when a man died his whole being was dissolved so that
nothing remained but the influence arising from the
works of merit or demerit, his good and bad actions,
throughout this life, and that such good or evil influence
was the determining cause as to a person entering into
the future state of happiness or unhappiness. Thus the



Buddhistic philosophy teaches that the new being is quite
independent of the former, and that it is an entirely new
entity owing its existence to the fundamental principle
of rewards for good and punishment for evil ; but the
Burmese laity undoubtedly hold that after death the soul
migrates and becomes embodied in another being, whose
nature is determined entirely by the influence of the
Kan, the merit or the demerit, accumulated by the
person during his or her present state of existence.
Hence the Buddhism of Burma — or, to speak more
correctly, of the Burmese laity — is practically the main-
tenance of a debit and credit account throusfhout life's
course. So long as one has, on the termination of the
present state of existence, a credit balance in one's favour,
that means promotion to a higher order of beings [Nat)
after death. If the balance be on the debit side, a
descent will have to be made ; hence one may be
plunged into the depths of hell or become such a crea-
ture as a snake, a toad, or any of the lower animals.
From such a position, as punishments are not endless,
opportunity is again given for improving one's position
by reappearing as a man or woman ; and further descent
or re-ascent must be made till, after countless ages,
deliverance or complete emancipation {Neikban) is

Gaudama, the " Buddha," was a man like ourselves.
In nature he was exactly as we are; but he attained the
perfect knowledge, which we lack. He never taught the
idea of any supreme being, and certainly never arrogated
to himself any divine origin or power. On the contrary,
he invariably exhibited himself to his disciples as a
man, like themselves, doomed to die. His doctrines are
atheism pure and simple. Despite efforts made at a
comparatively recent date to raise up the notion of a
supreme being [Adi Buddha), Buddhism is emphatically
an atheistic religious philosophy. And it is the philo-
sophy of extreme pessimism, for one of its fundamental
principles is that life is not worth living, but rather to be
despised — though wilfully taking the life of another, or
deliberately terminating one's own existence, is the most
unpardonable of sins. Some such extreme penal threat



is only natural in a religious philosophy of so pessimistic
and cynical a character. It merely forms an essentially
necessary safeguard. Suicide is consequently of ex-
tremely rare occurrence among the Burmese.

Buddhism acknowledges no God or supreme ruler, and
no Providence shaping the destinies of each individual ;
for it holds that man's destiny lies in his own hands.
Moreover, it is a purely selfish religion. While it can-
not be denied that many of the duties imposed by the
Buddhist law upon human beings for their guidance in
this life are beautiful teachings, yet they are cold and
cynical. They absolutely lack sympathy. They do not
inculcate charity or anything like doing to one's neigh-
bour as we would that he should do unto us. The
bestowal of alms, offerings of rice to priests, the found-
ing of a monastery, the building of a bridge or of a rest-
house for the convenience of travellers, are all works of
religious merit {^Kutho) prompted not by love of one's
fellow-creatures, but simply and solely in order to place
so much credit to one's own current life account. Selfish-
ness is the sole motive for which good works are under-
taken. That they may be of benefit or convenience to
other people does not enter at all into consideration, ex-
cept in so far as that determines the fact of such particular
performance being ranked as a work of merit. It is to
save himself from punishment or degradation in a future
state of existence that works of merit or benevolence are
carried out by a Burman.

Buddhism is thus simply the religious philosophy of
pure selfishness. In this respect it forms the very anti-
thesis of the altruism which is the living spirit of Chris-
tianity. "■For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even
in this ; thou shall love thy neighbour as thy self y' is a
statement quite incomprehensible to the Buddhist. An
absolutely impassable barrier, a fathomless abyss that
cannot possibly be bridged over, exists between the
eternal law as enunciated by Gaudama and St. Paul's
noble interpretation of the Christian law that " love is the
fulfilling of the law" or that " he that loveth another hath
fulfilled the law'.' The Buddhist mind is ignorant of
altruistic feeling or of anything like what is implied in



" charity, which is the bond of perfectness!' Whatever he
may perchance do in the way of alleviating suffering- by
means of bestowing alms is not done in order to relieve
the wants of others, but solely to gain religious merit for

The fear of becoming an ox or an ass in the next
state of existence leads him to be devout and attentive
to religious ceremonies, and to make merit for himself
even though he may thereby leave his family absolutely
penniless. That it should also lead him to be patient
with and kind to such animals, as well as to vipers,
mosquitoes, and all other noxious creatures, necessarily
follows as a corollary. Otherwise, might he not perhaps
be beating or abusing the incarnation of his father or his
mother, if their merit {Kiitho) had not been in excess of
their demerit {Akiithala) ? From this teaching it there-
fore follows that all the lower orders of animals differ
from man only in condition and not in nature, for they
are the temporary abodes of the souls of human beings
who are undergoing punishment on account of having
had a debit balance to their life account, and who were
consequently compelled to descend in the scale of beings
in place of ascending to become N'at and Brahma in the
twenty-six celestial regions.

Even Gaudama himself recounted how he had passed
through many existences in the embodiment of the lower
animals, owing to demerit during a past state of existence
as a man. Hence, as a rule, the taking of life is most
repugnant to the Burman, for one may perhaps be killing
the incarnation of a lost friend or relative. Buddhist
monks [Pon^yi, Rahan) are even forbidden to cut down
trees or to pull up weeds, in order to avoid killing insects.
Averse as the average Burman may be to taking life,
however, he has no scruples whatever about partaking
of the food products thereby obtained in the way of
fish, flesh, or fowl. Any demerit connected with their
death is not his, and is not chargeable to the debit
side of his life account.

Gaudama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in the
year 623, and died in 543 B.C. He was the son of
Suddawdana (Suddhodana), the Rajah of Kappilawut



(Kapilavastu), situated amid the sub-Himalayan forests
of Nipdl, by Maya, his wife ; and he was known as Seid-
datta (Siddhartha) before he renounced the world and
became Gaudama, the " Buddh " (literally, the " wise " or
"learned"). Having more than once appeared in the
form of a man, and having passed through various stages
of existence as a lower animal on account of his want of
religious merit when a human being, he was finally in
623 B.C. born in the Lumbini forest of Sdl trees (Skorea
robusta), while his pure and pious mother was on a
journey to the place of her birth. Delivery took place
while his mother stood in an upright position, and she
felt no pain ; but she died seven days afterwards, when
she became the daughter of a spirit (Nat).

Various marvellous signs prevailed at the time of
Gaudama's birth. The earth rocked and swayed, the
sky was lighted up with flashing meteors, and trees burst
into full blossom to herald the auspicious event. From
the moment of his conception within his mother's womb
the spirits inhabiting the six lower celestial regions [Nat
and Dewa) came forth to pay him honour and to offer
homage at the time of his birth, as also did the superior
beings (Brahma) abiding in the twenty divisions of the
higher celestial regions. These Brahma of Buddhism
and their archangel Maha Brahma are not to be con-
founded with the Brahma of the Hindu triad. Being
superior to spirits (Nat), they are in every way greater
and more richly endowed with regard to longevity and
other matters. They feel neither heat, nor cold, nor
sexual passion. When the age allotted to them has
been attained they may become born again as men or as
animals, or may even pass away into some other world.

No sooner was Seiddatta born than he at once gave
evidence of his future greatness, for he stood erect and
announced to his mother the glory of his future and the
omniscience he was destined to attain. On sixty-four astro-
logers being consulted, they predicted that he would either
be a Sakya Wade, a great and mighty ruler of the universe,
or else a Buddha, without, however, being able to dis-
cern to which alternative consummation the infant prince
had been born. Ambitious as a ruler, and filled with



hatred of the Brahmin or priestly caste, Suddawdana,
his royal father, a prince of the Kshatriya or fighting
caste, trained him to arms as the champion of the latter
against the former. At the age of sixteen he was
married to the Princess Yasawdara, who, having been
his consort in past stages of existence, was born again
into this world on the same day as Suddawdana in order
to assist him in the fulfilment of the duties necessary for
the attainment of his high destiny.

For thirteen years he lived surrounded by the luxuries
of a court, enjoying the companionship of his wife,
Yasawdara, and of their son, Rahulo. But the time was
then approaching when he was to receive the call to the
religious life to which he had been predestined, and
which the training of his father and the comforts of his
princely home could neither prevent nor obviate. It
was then that he received the " four great signs "
{Nemeik-le-da) — an old man, a leper, a corpse, and a
recluse — the sight of which, and the lessons thereby
inculcated, induced him to renounce the world previous
to becoming Gaudama the Buddha ; for these four
great signs impressed him with the nothingness and the
burden of this life, and indicated that the only possible
mode of obtaining relief therefrom was in religious con-

Whilst surrounded by luxuries and living in the
enjoyment of them, he one day drove forth in his chariot
drawn by four gorgeously caparisoned lily-white horses
for the purpose of promenading in his garden, situated,
as is usual in Upper India, at some distance from the
palace. On his way he met a toothless, infirm, and
decrepit old man, with grey hair and bent form, who was
slowly and painfully making his way along the road with
the aid of a stick. Astonished at such a sight, he asked
if there were many people of that sort, and was surprised
to learn that the old man was once young and strong
like himself, and that he himself too, in course of time,
would become old, infirm, and stricken in years. Thus
were the impermanence and the transitoriness of things
impressed upon his mind. Four months later he was
again driving along this road to the pleasure garden,

VOL. II. 97 H


when he met a miserable leper sitting on the roadside,
whose foul, sloughing sores and filthy, squalid appear-
ance agitated him so much that he returned at once to
the palace, being filled with the thought of the misery to
which man is born in being liable to foul diseases as well
as to the decrepitude of old age and senile decay.

After another period of four months, the third sign
came to him in the form of a funeral procession, bearing
onwards to the sacred river a loathsome corpse in an
advanced stage of putrefaction and decomposition.
Again he learned that such too would one day be his
state ; and this caused him to ponder over the fact that
death and its consequences are added to the infirmity of
age and the misery of disease.

Four months later, on the day of the full moon in the
month Aesola, he beheld the last of the four great signs.
Driving along as before, he beheld a recluse seated on
the ground, oblivious of all around, engrossed in deep
and peaceful meditation, and filled with the philosophic
calm begotten thereof; and thus he learned how the
pains and penalties of life and of death might best be
obviated by pursuing a course which would bring rest
and peace.

Thus the four great signs were given, and all was
completed in order that the astrologers' prophecy should
enter upon its fulfilment. The luxury of his high estate
lost its desirability in the eyes of Seiddatta, who at once
determined to abandon his life of ease and comfort, to
dedicate himself solely to the attainment of Neikban
(Nirvana), and to preach to his fellow-creatures the only
way of securing happiness in this life, and final emanci-
pation hereafter. Returning to the palace, he took one
last fond look at his beloved wife and child ; and then,
donning the garb of an ascetic and subsisting on alms
received by the wayside, he set forth at the age of
twenty-nine upon the six years' pilgrimage which was
to intervene before the time should arrive when the
Buddhahood would be attained by him.

During this time Seiddatta was a Bawdisat, or being
destined to become a Buddha. There are many such
beings, for the term includes all who avow themselves as



candidates. When ages elapse without the appearance
of a Buddh, some compassionate Brahma dwelHng- in one
of the higher celestial worlds seeks out a Bawciisat and
inspires him with the resolution enabling him to form
the wish to become the teacher of the three worlds (of
men, Nat, and Brahma), in order that he may release all
sentient beings from the evils of existence.

During the time of his Bawdisat, Seiddatta practised
the ten cardinal virtues [Pdrami-se-ba), in which he had
to become mature before attaining the Buddhahood.
These were (i) giving away as alms everything he
possessed ; (2) observing all the precepts in the three
degrees ; (3) abandoning all kinds of possession or
wealth ; (4) the virtue proceeding from wisdom, through
the revelation to others of what his purified eyes beheld ;
(5) the virtue proceeding from determined courage; (6)
enduring with composure the opposition of unjust men,
regarding it as if it were merely the prattle of a child ;
(7) speaking the words of truth, and thus exercising the
virtue proceeding therefrom ; (8) the resolute perform-
ance of what is good, without giving way to evil ; (9) the
virtue of kindness and affection, by giving away what he
possessed to aid the necessities of others, and by taking
their sorrows upon him; (10) the virtue of equanimity,
by regarding with an equal mind both those who exer-
cised the most severe cruelties upon him and those who
assisted and were kind to him.

The attainment of the Buddhahood took place under
the sacred Bawdi tree ("the tree of knowledge," Ficus
religiosa) at Gaya in 588 B.C. For seven times seven
days he was plunged in the profoundest meditation.
For seven days he remained under the shade of a Bawdi
tree, seated upon a golden throne which had ascended
miraculously from the interior of the earth. For seven
days he stood close to this spot beholding the throne
that he had left, then walked backwards and forwards
in the air for an equal space of time. Other seven days
he spent in a bejewelled golden house built for him by
spirits (Nai), and seven more under the shade of a Pipul
tree [Ficus religiosa); whilst during another period of
seven days he was seated on a dragon whose body and



wings protected him from storms raging round about
him. It was during one of these periods that he was
attacked by the chief of the spirits [Mdn Nat) inhabit-