MONKS IN MYANMAR

MONKS IN MYANMAR

Between the ages of ten and sixteen, most young Burmese men and some young women become Buddhist novices and go to live in a monastery. While most young men remain at the monastery for only a short time before returning to the secular life, some become fully ordained monks. A person who wants to become a monk is expected to be free of debt and certain diseases, have the permission of his parents or spouse, agree to follow the disciplinary rules of the monkhood, and not become involved in secular life. While monks are expected to lead a life of aestheticism, they perform important functions in the community, especially as counselors.

There are about 500,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar. They wear saffron-colored or rust-colored robes, and use lacquered parasols. Nuns wear pink robes that represent sunshine. The monkhood is loosely organized into two principal sects that have no doctrinal splits. “To Burmese, monks are like sons of the Buddha,” a Yangon taxi driver told the New York Times.

Burma has tons of monasteries. They are particularly common in the low lands. They have traditionally exerted a strong moral influence on the country and provided the populace with an education. Some of the most beautiful Buddhist monasteries and shrines in Asia are in Myanmar.

Every man is expected to serve as a monk twice in his life: once as a novice and once as an ordained monk. After that time he returns to a normal life. “Many monks in Burma,” a guide told the writer Charles London. “In Amarapura, you see 1,000 monks taking lunch. Many pagoda also. Burma people love the Buddha.”

Although a fan or umbrella are not included in the prescribed articles of donation for use of Buddhist monks, they are necessities in a tropical country like Myanmar. They are therefore always added to the list of articles donated to monks during Buddhist religious holidays. A large fan or umbrella helps to shade the bare-shaved head of the monk who goes barefooted when he goes round village or town under the hot morning sun to accept offerings of food. They are also protects him if there is a drizzle. The fans made for monks are large and are usually made of palm leaves. Nowadays they are covered with velvet fabric and have the donors' names printed on it. When the monks preach sermons they generally screen their faces with the fans, close their eyes and concentrate on their sermons. This traditional method of giving sermons is called "Yet-htaung taya" (“preaching with the fan put right in front of the preaching monk”). But there are times when the monks do not screen their faces and preach sermons face to face with the audience in sonorous voice. This style of preaching is called "Yat-hle." [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Monk Alms-Giving During Buddhist Lent

Describing alms-giving during Buddhist Lent in Mandalay, Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times, “As the lunch gong chimed through a tree-shaded monastery, several hundred monks in burgundy robes lined up on a mid-October day, all holding alms bowls. It is a common scene in Myanmar, formerly Burma, where one out of every 100 people, many of them children, are monks. But the lunch line at the Mahagandhayon Monastery, the country’s largest, used to be much longer. “We usually have 1,400 monks here,” said a senior monk. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 24, 2007 ~~]

“During the Buddhist Lent, which lasts three months, into late October, monks focus on studying scripture and refrain from leaving their monasteries, except for early outings to collect alms. The fact that monks ventured out in protest during this period was widely seen here as a sign of just how angry they were. But by mid-October, many monasteries in Yangon were deserted, after military raids had driven thousands of monks to flee. ~~

“In towns across Myanmar, monks have traditionally filed down streets at dawn seeking alms, and laypeople have gained merit by donating rice and other food. Families take pride in what is often seen as adopting monks, providing them with food, clothing, books and other goods for a few months or years. As poverty has worsened in Myanmar, however, the alms processions have increasingly turned into a sad exchange of apologies for having to beg and for being unable to give. Now, with the monks scattered, the alms lines have dwindled in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay. ~~

In September or October, the Food Offering Ceremony is held at the end of Buddhist Lent in conjunction with the Thadingyut Light Festival. According to traditions, there are many different ways of offering food to the Lord Buddha. Among them is the annual food offering ceremony in Shwekyin Township, Bago Division held on the full-moon day of Thadingyut. Devotees offer fruits, food, flowers, water and light at Ashae Maha Buddha Pagoda early in the morning at dawn on the full moon's day. Devotees from all round the country perform meritorious deeds such as offering food to Buddha.

Monk Initiation Ceremony in Myanmar

Shinbyu, or the monk initiation ceremony, a rite that mimics the Buddha’s renunciation of secular life and marks transition from worldly to spiritual, is an important rite of passage for young boys. After a feast hosted by his family the boy's head is shaved. He is then given a robe and it is off to the monetary for several weeks or months.

In Myanmar, boys undergoing initiation are introduced to the tenets of Buddhism during a feast that includes bitter bean soup and pork curry for as many as 700 guests. The Shinbyu ritual begins in the morning, when the boy is dressed up in a white robe and gilded crown and is made the center of attention. In the afternoon he and all of the other boys going through the ceremony are taken to a monastery where they are dressed in saffron robes and have their heads shaved.

At the initiation ceremony for novice monks at Shwe Dagon Pagoda, boys between six and ten don silk clothes, golden rhinestone-encrusted crowns and yoke-like shoulder plates and then begin a week or more of special religious training.

The ceremony of ordination and novitiation is one of the noblest ceremonies for Buddhists in Myanmar. It has traditionally been held in Waso month, the fourth month in Myanmar calendar which coincide during July and August and the rainy season in much of Myanmar. Becoming a Buddhist novice involves three steps: 1) shaving the hair, 2) wearing the robe and 3) believing in Buddha. A key part or a monk’s training is studying the Dhamma (Dharma)—the Teaching of Buddha.[Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

Of the three steps shaving the hair and wearing the robe are straight forward enough. It is more difficult to ascertain a belief in Buddha. As it is difficult to pronounce the Dhamma chants perfectly a novice has to study and practice them for at least one month ahead of initiation ceremony. In the ceremony the novice has to correctly ask for the robe from the presiding monk and properly pronounce the “Three Venerables” with correct syntax in the Pali language. **

Buddhists in Myanmar believe that if their sons have been initiated into novice-hood at least once in their life their parents will not suffer in hell in their next life. Males have become novice monks are regarded as men in a more noble life and thus should be accorded proper respect. These days, Nowadays in Myanmar, the ceremonies of ordination and novitiation are often held especially in the hot months between March and May. **

First Novitiation, 2,500 Years Ago.

Some two thousand five hundred years ago Rahula, the seven-year-old novice, had followed in the footsteps of the Buddha, his father. For seven years the young prince had waited for the Father who had left him when he was a baby. He had listened to his mother Yasodhaya's story of how one sad night his father prince Siddhartha had left the palace on horse-back attended only by his faithful groom. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

Where had his father gone? Why had he gone? These. the little boy wanted to know. Yasodhaya told him how the faithful groom had come back with the news that the Prince had gone into the forest after changing his princely attire for a yellow robe. Why had he done this? He had gone into retirement to seek the way out of pain. suffering and death: when he had found it he would come back and teach men the Truth he had found. After seven years he came back with his head shorn, robed in coarse yellow cloth, with the black bowl cradled in his arms. He walked. with downcast eyes on the street he once rode in grandeur attended by foot-soldiers, mounted guards, elephants and chariots. His father King Suddhodana was filled with shame and anger. He chided Him for disgracing the Sakkya warrior race to which he belonged. The Buddha answered that he no longer belonged to the Sakkya race but to the race of the Buddhas before Him and the Buddhas after. **

A strange meeting it was: a great King, proud and mighty in warrior armor meeting his son in hermit raiment. The son had become greater than the mightiest of kings. For he had become the greatest Teacher: One who would teach the way out of sorrow, suffering, pain and death. Happy yet tearful was the meeting of Rahula's mother and the Buddha. The whole palace was agog with the news of the Buddha's acceptance of His father's invitation to come and partake of alms-food at the palace. When the meal was over everybody was there to make obeisance to the Buddha except the ever-adored one Yasodhaya. She was standing fast by her conviction that the once beloved would be moved to come to her not forgetting mutual obligations. **

Then she would make her obeisance to her heart's content. The Buddha had prescience that if He did not go to Yasodhaya she would die of grief. Handing his begging bowl to the King father and accompanied by two disciples, he repaired to Yasodhaya's chamber. There He sat Himself down on the seat of honour set ready for Him. Yasodhaya was at His feet in all haste and clasping His two ankles in her two hands she pressed her face on His feet and smothered them in her tears. Thus she made obeisance to the Buddha. her beloved Lord. For some time the Buddha stayed at His father's city teaching His law to the people. **

One day Rahula's mother told him to go to his Father and claim his heritage. The young prince went to his Father. the Buddha and said. "Father. give me my heritage." The Buddha put Rahula in the care of His disciple. Sariputra. Rahula was given the Yellow Robe. This was his glorious heritage. **

One Family’s Shinpyu

Khin Maung Win was put under the care of a monk who gave him some Pali and Myanmar passages to learn. Since my youngest brother and Daw Daw's son were going to be novices all three were to go to the monastery every morning. My younger brother and Daw Daw's son both of whom were about fifteen has already been novitiated. It was not unusual for a male child to become a novice more than once. There is yet another great occasion for a son to be ordained, the upa-sampada, ordination at the age of twenty. It is considered a great privilege to have a son. In the weeks that followed we talked of nothing else. We had to make our son, now nine years old, realised the importance of being a novice. I told him the story of the young princeling Rahula. Buddha's own son. I never realised its beauty until I presented the story to my nine-year-old-son. We showed him young novices who followed older monks as they went on their morning rounds. We pointed out the young boys in the yellow robes with black bowls cradled in their arms after the fashion of the older monks. Their eyes were downcast. their faces benign. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

Now our nine-year-old son was going to receive the heritage the Buddha had given to his own son two thousand five hundred years ago. Our son was to be the Buddha's own kin; we were giving him up into the holy order of the Yellow Robe. It is then that a Buddhist marriage, which in itself has no place in religion, finds its highest fulfilment as the means of rendering onto the Order the flesh of one's flesh, the bone of one's bone. We were up in the clouds during the days of planning and shopping. Yellow robes and all the paraphernalia of novices were got ready. On the appointed day we left home for the monastery. Ko Latt carrying the yellow robes. Daw Daw and the girls carrying gifts for the monks. Khin Maung Win was dressed in a silk longyi and long sleeved shirt. Since we were cutting down on the show we had no princely dresses, no horseback ride and gilded umbrella for him. **

We gave the hundred and fifteen monks in the monastery their morning meal. It was an unforgetable sight; the yellow-robed monks partaking of the morning meal. After the morning duties were done the boy and his two companions had their heads shaved. Ko Latt and I held a snow-white sheet to receive his hair which we buried near a pagoda. Then the boys were led to the monk who was to be their teacher. Each with a roll of yellow robe cupped in both hands they begged permission in Pali to be novitiated. **

The monk invested them with the robes. We picked up our son's wordly attire and there he stood looking pure and serene in yellow robes, yet so young and so tender. My eyes were filled with tears of joy. How could our love, Ko Latt's and mine, bring forth something so sublime? We prostrated ourselves at his feet and paid obeisance to him, who was no longer our son but the Son of the Buddha. **

Novice Monk Stay in a Monastery in Myanmar

The monastery where the novice monks stayed was surrounded by shady trees. Its spacious grounds were well kept; the building were old and solid yet unpretentious. It was eight in the morning and we saw the monks coming back from their daily alms-round. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information **]

The boy stayed in the monastery for nine days during which he had to keep the ten precepts. one of which was to abstain from solid food after the hour of noon. Naturally we were worried about whether the boy could do without his evening meal. He was given lime juice in the evening and he took to his new way of life quite easily. In a place where no one ate in the afternoon it was easy to adapt himself. Going without the evening meal eliminates all the work and fuss and leaves more time for study and meditation. Young people keep fit and strong enough as a result of this act of self-denial. **

Daw Daw told us that the monks staying there had to go on alms-receiving rounds every morning in the same old-fashioned way I had known in my childhood. The alms-round. I understood was done more in the spirit of humility and compassion for the people the necessity. The people were being giving a chance to do deeds of merit by giving a morsel out of their daily food to the monks. The presiding monk received us kindly and we told him we wanted our son to be given pre-novitiation instructions. **

Every morning our son came with the older novices, each carrying his black bowl. We put rice and curry and delicacies into the bowl. Since the novitiation, our son had become another person altogether. Apart from respecting his shorn head. the yellow robe and a new Pali name, we had to speak to him in honorific terms. We no longer called him by his layman's name and he addressed us "Lay-sister" or "Lay-brother". We were no longer his parents—just lay-people— for he had become a Son of the Buddha. All this brought us a strange feeling of ecstasy. Our son's novitiation brought back the sense of wonder I had known in my younger days. The monastery where he stay was a somewhat like the ones I had seen when I was a child. The monks were staid and quiet and spent their days in meditation and the study of the Buddhist scriptures. **

Nibhatkin and the Ordination of the Monks

In older times a form of Buddhist processional theater, called nibhatkin, was popular in Myanmar, but now it seems to have more or less disappeared and given way to more recent theatrical traditions. It was a kind of mystery play, in which tableaux depicting the life of the Buddha and his earlier incarnations were taken from village to village on ox-drawn carts or later on trucks. This custom is believed to have evolved at some time between the 14th and the 16th centuries from the hoza, the tradition reciting the Buddhist texts. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki]

Tableaux were incorporated into the recitation, and ritual purification, fasting and prayers were required of the performers. Comic interludes came to be added to the nibhatkin, and in this way it is believed to have led to the creation of the later discussed zat pwe performances, which enact the didactic Jataka stories. The actual performing tradition of nibhatkin is unknown.

A still widely popular processional performance takes place in temple compounds when young boys and even grown-up men join the monastic order. Under golden umbrellas, which in Southeast Asia symbolise either earthly or spiritual power, the boys are carried on the shoulders of their male relatives to do the ritual walk around the holy stupa structure.

The boys are dressed as princes and thus they enact the role of Prince Siddhartha or the Buddha himself before he rejected earthly riches and pleasures, while the men carrying the boys represent Siddharta’s faithful horse. After this procession the boys end up in a temple hall, where their hair is shaven and they are finally accepted into the monastic order.

Phongyi - Pyan (Cremation of a Monk)

The cremation of a monk is celebrated with great fanfare. The coffin is first loaded onto a gold sheathed carriage. Then in a rambunctious display men with ropes line up on either side of the coffin and push and pull the coffin towards, then away, and then again towards the funeral pyre, as if they are trying to give the monk one more chance at life. At the cremation ceremony for important Buddhist abbots, songs and dances are performed beginning at dawn and the abbots coffin is swung in a hammock while monks perform scenes from life of Buddha while children watch. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

When the incumbent of a Kyaung (monastery) dies the body is embalmed so as to allow the devotion of several months to the preparations for the funeral. The corpse is swathed like a mummy and laid in a solid dug-out coffin of hard wood. (much less pomp is displayed at the funeral of a sojourner). Then the coffin is covered with the decorative stately bier called Thanlyin. It is made of velvet and richly embroidered with silver and gold threads. Sequins and colored semiprecious stones are also used to portray attractive designs and princely figures. Thanlyin inter woven entirely with gold threads was also once been in vogue. Mercury is poured in at the mouth and honey is applied externally. A support for the coffin is made in the form of a naga, with its head raised and portruding fiery tongue to guard its trust. =

Upon the coffin rests an effigy of the deceased. Beneath the naga is a throne decorated with gilded and colorful decorations. Sometimes the whole structure is of glass mosaic (thayo), and subsequently forms part of the catafalque. Such elaborate tala are not burned. but brought back to the kyaung, where they are kept, but not used again. Over all this is a royal canopy of corresponding magnificence. with the tibyu or royal ensign at the four corners. Thus the coffin lies in state in the kyaung, or in a special building, may be during the whole season of the rains, while the kyaungtaga (the lay patron) is occupied with the preparations for the grand funeral ceremony, which is called phongyi-pyan. =

The expenses are frequently shared and public contributions flow in. The catafalque is of the same design as the ordinary tala, but of greater dimensions—fifty to sixty feet high to the to of the pyatthat. It is solidly constructed and braced and strengthened in every direction. Nowadays. the catafalque is mostly erected on a stout platform on wheels. Long cables proceed from each end of the carriage for drawing it and to enable it to be controlled where the road descends. It is difficult to manoeuvre at the corners of streets and under telegraph wires even though these wires are raised on special posts where they cross the approaches to cemeteries. =

The pyatthat often fails to reach its destination in its original perfection; nevertheless it stands out brilliantly in the grand display in which it is frequently preceded and followed by subsidiary pyatthat erected over carriages which bear the largest offerings to the kyaungs. The Myimmo Daung with its denizens is built up on another carriage. Others are bright with nats and thagya, immense paper models of boats, ships and steamers, and similar freaks of the Thadindyut carnival. Life-size models of white elephants, caparisoned with red and tinsel, move in the procession. =

Uniform costumes are specially made and scores of young men are drilled for their parts in the cortege. The day is fixed long beforehand. and people throng in from all the neighbouring villages in their finest clothes. The streets are lined with gay booths. Pwe (entertainments such as dance, drama etc.) are staged and bands play. At noon the great catafalque begins its progress to the cemetery, drawn by the people, preceded and followed by regiments of masqueraders, endless lines of women carrying offerings, and sight-seers. =

If the idea is to conjure up the greatest possible contrast to the life of the man who is being honoured. the object could not be more completely attained. When the bier has reached the cemetery the coffin is not set on a pyre like that of the layman, but is burned in the catafalque for which purpose the latter has been filled with combustibles. The fire is not lit in the common way; it is kindled from a distance by means of rockets. These are contributed by different villages or wards of the town. Each of them root for the honour of starting the fire with their rocket. =

In the lowland areas of Myanmar the great rockets are sent through the air guided by rattans to the catafalque. But it is one thing to reach and another to kindle. The paoe rockets, with the trunks of hard trees, hooped with iron for barrels, and mounted on stout carriages, are merely aimed at the catafalque. It frequently happens that none of them hits the mark; then the fire is kindled by hand. But the rocket that manages to get the nearest wins the day; great sums of money change hands. As they return home, some people’s spirits are higher than ever. while everybody else puts the best face upon it. De phongyi-byan kaung-de—it was a glorious phongyi-pyan, and the kyaungtaga will be congratulated upon it as long as he lives. =

Famous Monks in Myanmar

Ledi Sayadaw showed great talent even as a young novice by mastering all the prescribed texts and treatise. As a monk, he studied and lectured in Mandalay, founded Ledi Monastery in Monywa, took to the forest for retreat and practiced austerities for many years. After that, he went on an extensive preaching tour throughout Myanmar, imparting the teachings of the Buddha to both laity and clergy and also founded Ledi centers of Buddhist Teaching. Ledi Sayadaw has long been acknowledged as one of the foremost Pali scholars of Myanmar and he is the author of many learned works including 68 treatises of major works, many of which had been translated into English by scholars. Because of his abundant contributions of teaching, preaching, writing and general knowledge during his 57 years of monkhood, the British government conferred on him the highest religious title, Aggamahapandita, and Rangoon University conferred him Doctor of Letters at its first convocation in 1921.[Source: Myanmar.cm ==]

Ashin Thittila was ordained as a novice at the age of 15 and became a monk in 1916 in Mawlamyaing in lower Myanmar. He left for India and Sri Lanka in 1933 to study English and Sanskrit, He went to England in 1938 to further improve his knowledge of English, and there he gave his first talk in English on Dhamma. His most outstanding performance was the introduction of the Abhidhamma Pitaka to the West. After 14 years in England, he returned to Myanmar and lectured on Abhidhamma at Yangon University for eight years. His great knowledge and undoubted skills in teaching were acknowledged by the government by conferring upon him the highest title, Aggamahapandita. Between 1959 and 1964, he visited a number of countries to deliver lectures including America, Australia, Japan, Singapore, Indonesia, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, France and England. He also translated the second book of the Abhidhamma Pitaka from Pali into English. He helped spread knowledge of true Dhamma throughout the world. ==

Ashin Janakabhivamsa, a celebrated teacher of Pali scriptures and the founder of the famous Mahagandharyon Monastery, was born in 1900. As a monk, he studied under the best teachers at two most prominent centers of Pariyatti learning in Myanmar, exhausted several treatises of Pali scriptures and passed the higher level examination at the first sitting. By that time, he had already launched into his full time job of writing books for thousands of learners, and small manuals for lay Buddhists who cannot directly access the Pali canon. During World War II, Ashin Janakabhivamsa settled in a monastery, six miles south of Mandalay, which he developed into a prosperous monastic educational institution, known as Mahagandharyon, with several hundreds of residential students up to the present day. He was among the first recipients of the title, Aggamahapandita, the Superior Learned One, bestowed by the first President of independent Myanmar. He intensely and incessantly conducted courses in Pitakas and wrote a total of 74 textbooks and religious handbooks for lay people in a thirty-five year period between 1942 and 1977. He was also earnestly engaged in the Sixth Buddhist Council as an advisor, performer, editor and reviewer of Pali scriptures. ==

U Vicittasarabhivamsa was very intelligent and intuitive even as a child and had developed a literary taste at the age of ten. Before he was ordained as a monk at age twenty, he had passed a number of examinations of different levels and became famous for his intellect. In 1953, at the Sixth Selection Examination, he passed the recitation test and corresponding written examination and became the first monk to pass this examination. The President of the State honoured Venerable U Vicittasarabhivamsa at a grand ceremony and conferred the "Tipitakadhara" title. When the Sixth Buddhist Council was held in Yangon from 1954 to 1956, he participated in answering all the questions concerning Vinaya (Disciplinary Rules). At the request of the Prime Minister of Myanmar and the Buddha Sasana Council, he started writing a treatise, "The Life Story of the Buddha", in 1955 and concluded it in 1960. This work, consisting of six volumes, became his masterpiece. ==

Monks and Politics in Myanmar

Monks in Burma (Myanmar) have historically been at the forefront of protests—first against British colonialism and later military dictatorship. They played a prominent part in a failed 1988 pro-democracy uprising that sought an end to military rule, imposed since 1962. Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “During the darkest days of the dictatorship, after the arrests of most secular political leaders in the 1990s, it was the monks who led resistance to the junta. These “sons of Buddha” could organize discreetly inside their monasteries and spread pro-democracy, anti-regime sentiments to the people. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “During the colonial era, monks, inspired by the Buddha’s call for good governance, led resistance to British rule. The British scorned them as “political agitators in...robes” and hanged several leaders. The country’s liberation hero, Aung San—father of Aung San Suu Kyi—grew up in a devout Buddhist household and attended a monastic school where monks inculcated the Buddhist values of “duty and diligence.” In 1946, not long before his assassination by political rivals in Yangon, Aung San delivered a fiery pro-independence speech on the steps of Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500-year-old, gold-leaf-covered temple revered for a reliquary believed to contain strands of the Buddha’s hair. On those same steps, during the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi was catapulted to the opposition leadership by giving a passionate speech embracing the Buddhist principle of nonviolent protest. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012]

In recent years monks have played a role in student and political activism. They played a big role in recent the pro-democracy demonstrations. They have been subjected to torture, murder and harassment. Because monks played a role in the 1988 uprising, leaders in the Buddhist clergy were purged. Monks have been tortured and imprisoned for having pictures of Aung San and Aung San Suu Kyi in their temples.

David Steinberg, a Georgetown University professor, told Associated Press the work on monks is seconded by quietly burgeoning civil society groups, which Steinberg said could foster pluralism and democracy in the future. These groups include professional guilds, including those of actors and singers, charity organizations and loose associations of like-minded citizens. [Source: Denis D Gray, AP, July 2, 2008]

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times, “For centuries, whoever seized power in this country sought legitimacy by lavishing money on pagodas and monasteries. When the democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called for a “second struggle for national independence” in 1988, she chose Yangon’s gold-spired Shwedagon Pagoda as the site to deliver her watershed speech. So when monks marched in September to the home where she is under house arrest, the act was a moral reproof to the government. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 24, 2007]

Some monks shun getting involved in politics. “We learned a lesson from 1988,” one monk told the New York Times, referring to the large pro-democracy uprising that the military put down, leaving hundreds, perhaps thousands, dead. “If it changes nothing and only gets worse, why risk our lives?” The other monk said: “We would like to love our government. We tried but couldn’t. We want to like to go out and demonstrate again, but we know they are out there with their guns.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 24, 2007]

See Saffron Revolution Protests, History

Monks, the Military and Myanmar Government

The monasteries are under government control. Monks are technically under the jurisdiction pf the Supreme Council of Burmese monks led by 47 abbots approved by the regime. The Political Parties Registration Law enacted in March 2010 bars members of religious orders, members of insurgent groups 'as defined by the state' and foreigners from joining political parties. This separation of Buddhism and politics is a long-standing feature of Burmese politics, dating back to before independence, and was incorporated in the 1947 independence Constitution at the request of the monkhood.

Burma's monkhood and military are roughly the same size. Some regard the Buddhist monkhood as the only viable national institution after the army. It played a leading role in helping Cyclone Nargis survivors. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times, “For decades, two powerful institutions have shaped Burmese life: the 500,000-member Buddhist clergy, which commands a moral authority over the population, and” Myanmar’s” junta, whose 450,000-strong military controls the population through intimidation. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 24, 2007 ~~]

A surprising number of monks become soldiers and a surprising number of soldiers become monks. The military often tries to tap into the religious sentiments of the Burmese for their purposes. The generals often appear on television overseeing the construction of temples and capping stupas with jeweled umbrellas. People are forced into forced labor on the belief it will earn them Buddhist merit.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times, “But the monks are not immune to criticism. Although senior clerics are elected by monks and revered by laypeople, “they form a small, closed society which doesn’t know anything about the community at large,” a Yangon magazine editor said. “Some of them do not know how poor people live in a small village.” Other laypeople defended the aging clerics who have taken gifts from the government. Those monks, they said, are under a moral obligation to accept donations, and fear that confrontation could cost more lives. Still, witnesses said piles of rice donated by the government were left uncollected at the gates of some monasteries, a rebuff of the government’s effort to placate the clergy. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 24, 2007]

“The junta has also used divide-and-rule tactics, by persuading the state-sanctioned Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, which oversees the clergy, to take its donations and to order monks to stop protesting or face punishment. “Some of these senior monks are bribed by the regime,” said an editor at a Yangon magazine. “They have accepted so many good things in life – cars, televisions, big houses, telephones and mobile phones – that they simply have to listen to the regime.” ~~

Activist Monks in Myanmar

George Packer wrote in The New Yorker: “Ashin Issariya is one of the young Buddhist monks who, in September, 2007, led peaceful demonstrations in Burma that were crushed by the country’s military regime. I met him a few months later, in a sweltering monastery in Rangoon, where he had gone to hide from the authorities. Following the custom of many Burmese, he had adopted a pseudonym, King Zero, while underground. By then, many of his friends had been arrested. Restrained and bookish, he was still trying to organize his fellow-monks. “Democracy is something similar to the Buddha’s teachings,” he told me. Poverty and oppression have made Burma’s monks anything but otherworldly—they are among the regime’s most determined opponents. In late 2008, Ashin Issariya exchanged his saffron robe for civilian clothes and fled the country, one step ahead of arrest. He is now among the two hundred thousand Burmese refugees living in Thailand. [Source: George Packer, The New Yorker, October 18, 2010]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “I traveled a dirt road through rice paddies two hours outside Yangon to meet with Ashin Pyinna Thiha, 62, a prominent Buddhist scholar and political activist. A spiritual adviser to Aung San Suu Kyi and critic of the junta, Pyinna Thiha tried to instill a spirit of political activism in thousands of young acolytes at his Yangon monastery. He met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she visited Myanmar early last December, and honored Aung San Suu Kyi with a Nobel Prize ceremony at his monastery in January. Late last December,the Supreme Council of Burmese monks—47 abbots approved by the regime—banished Pyinna Thiha from his monastery and ordered him into domestic exile. “He now resides with 15 monks in a rural compound donated by a supporter. “We are out of touch here,” he said. “Things are changing in Myanmar. But one thing has not changed, and that is religion.” Monks are the biggest potential organizing force in Burmese society, he explained; the government remains fearful of them. The council, he says, serves as “a puppet” of the regime, its members corrupted by privileges. “They get houses, cars,” he told me. “This is not Buddhism. This is luxury.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012]

Monks and the Saffron Revolution in 2007, See History

U Gambari

U Gambira is the pseudonym of a leader of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, which spearheaded nationwide protests in September. After the protests he was arrested and given a 68 year prison term that was cut short with his release in January 2012. He was arrested again a few weeks later but was released after pressure was put on the Myanmar regime by the international community.

U Gambira was 28 at the time of the protests in September 2007. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post published on November 4, 2007 — the day, as it happened, of his arrest after weeks on the run, he wrote: “In August, the Burmese people began to write a new chapter in their determination to find peace and freedom. Burmese monks peacefully protested to bring change to our long-suffering country. As we marched, hundreds of thousands of Burmese and our ethnic cousins joined us to reinforce our collective demand: that military rule finally give way to the people's desire for democracy. Video and the Internet have allowed the world to witness the brutal response directed by Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's de facto ruler and military leader. Than Shwe unleashed his soldiers and the regime's thugs, who attacked us. Once again the streets in Rangoon and Mandalay ran red with the blood of innocent civilians seeking to save our country from the moral, social, political and economic crises that consume us. [Source: U Gambari, Washington Post, November 4, 2007 +++]

“Hundreds of our monks and nuns have been beaten and arrested. Many have been murdered. Alarmingly, thousands of clergy have disappeared. Our sacred monasteries have been looted and destroyed. As darkness falls each night, intelligence units try to round up political and religious leaders. Military rule has brought Burma to collapse. Our economy is in ruins. Once the breadbasket of Asia, Burma cannot feed itself. Once we were a light for education and literacy; now, the regime has closed schools and universities. Once we breathed the air of freedom; now, we choke on the foul air of tyranny. We are an enslaved people. +++

“People ask whether I am disheartened and whether this latest spasm of democratic activism is over. The answer to both questions is no. Although I am wanted by the military and forced to hide in my own country, I am awed by the bravery of so many, including sympathetic security agents of the junta who opened their homes to democracy leaders and me. Since August, I have seen my country galvanized as never before. I have watched our 88 Generation leaders bravely confront the military. I have watched a new generation of activists join to issue an unequivocal call for freedom. And I have watched as many in the police and military, sickened at what they were forced to do to their countrymen, give so many of us quiet help. The primary tools wielded by Burma's senior generals, a climate of fear and the use of violence, are no longer working — and with nothing to lose, we are no longer afraid.” +++

In November after the main protests had finished “more than 200 monks staged a protest in Pakokku. They stared military officers in the face. Their spirit and determination are a warning to the regime and those that prop it up. Burma's Saffron Revolution is just beginning. The regime's use of mass arrests, murder, torture and imprisonment has failed to extinguish our desire for the freedom that was stolen from us so many years ago. We have taken their best punch. Now it is the generals who must fear the consequences of their actions. We adhere to nonviolence, but our spine is made of steel. There is no turning back. It matters little if my life or the lives of colleagues should be sacrificed on this journey. Others will fill our sandals, and more will join and follow. +++

Gambira’s monastery in Yangon was shut down. He withstood four years of torture and beatings during his imprisonment. After his release in January 2012, he resumed his harsh critiques of the government. He then broke into three monasteries that had been sealed by the army in 2007 and also traveled to Kachin State in northern Myanmar to draw attention to human-rights abuses a war against ethnic separatists there and was briefly jailed again. Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “The physical and mental strain of prison life, along with continued harassment, took a heavy toll on Gambira. In March he reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown. The monk left the monastery, returned to layman status and moved in with his mother near Mandalay. “He does not want to speak to anybody,” she told me when I called. “He is not in good mental condition.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012]

U Gambira, a Buddhist monk sentenced to 63 years in prison for his role in the 2007 Saffron Revolution protests was badly tortured in 2009 according to Amnesty International, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) and his elder sister, Ma Khin Thu Htay. The monk was given narcotic injections to silence him rather than appropriate medical care. According to his sister, he was beaten on the head with a stick “every 15 minutes for the entire month of April 2009.” [Source: Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, November 10, 2011 }{]

“He was beaten in this manner for requesting permission to walk for his health,” she wrote in a recent letter to Myanmar’s president. “While he was being beaten, his hands were placed behind his back and handcuffed, and he was forced to wear iron shackles. In addition, he was hooded with a black cloth bag and pieces of cloth were forcefully put in his mouth . . . he was fed meals with a spoon by prison guards . . . and [had to] urinate or defecate on the chair.” By the time he was transferred to another prison in May, he was, according to a prison official, “a crazy guy.” }{

Repression of Monks in Myanmar

The uneasy coexistence Myanmar’s monkhood and its military was shattered the Saffron Revolution crackdown on September 2007. Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times, “After scattered demonstrations erupted against sharp increases in fuel prices in August 2007, thousands of monks protested the junta’s economic mismanagement and political repression. The military responded with batons and bullets. The guns have prevailed over mantras, at least for now. As of early October, the government said it had detained 533 monks, of whom 398 were released after sorting out what it called “real monks” from “bogus ones.” Monks and dissidents contend that many more were detained. “They took away truckloads of monks and laypeople,” said the deputy leader of a monastery in Yangon, the country’s most populous city. “They had the monks kneel down, with their hands on the back of their heads. Anyone who raised his head was beaten.” He said at Ngwe Kyayan, Yangon’s largest monastery, soldiers took food and donation boxes, and beat the abbot and vandalized images of Buddha, as some of its 300 monks fought back. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 24, 2007 ~~]

“The monks, he said, began demonstrating against the economic deprivation of the Burmese. “It’s a terrible situation,” he said. “Monks took to the streets to draw attention to this problem, pleading for loving kindness. But our government is worse than Hitler’s Nazis. They have no respect for religion.” When it was over, The New Light of Myanmar, a state-run English-language newspaper, said, monks had been “defrocked” during interrogation so that they could be questioned as laypeople, then “ordained” and sent “back to their monasteries.” Monks denounced the process. ~~

“At the Mahagandhayon Monastery in Mandalay, soldiers had pulled back by mid-October after cordoning off the temple for weeks. But their trucks continued to lurk in alleys nearby, as rumors circulated that, if the monks rose up again, it would probably be in this city, the nation’s second most populous. About 20,000 of its million residents are monks, one of the highest concentrations in the country. Young men from across the country train here as monks, and they have grown more passionate about the poverty and injustice their nation has suffered under the military government. The fear was still palpable at Mahagandhayon, where monks chanted mantras over their last meal of the day, a late-morning lunch of vegetable soup, eggplants, rice and a treat from a donor – instant noodles. But they were still reluctant to discuss the military’s crushing of the demonstrations in late September.“They are afraid of guns!” a senior monk said before vanishing into the dining hall. ~~

“Long before the protests, monks were aware of people’s suffering. When they went to receive alms, said the senior monk in Yangon, they saw “no happiness in people’s faces, people whose minds are preoccupied with finding food and surviving one day at a time.” But the military’s use of force against the monks has unsettled fundamental Burmese values...A shop owner in Yangon said his 5-year-old son, who had been reared with Buddhist beliefs in karma, had cried out: “I don’t want to become a soldier. If I have to kill a monk, the worst thing will happen to me in my next life.” ~~

Describing monastery that was the home of the activist monk U Gambira after it reopened, Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “ The golden spires of an adjacent temple poked above a dense grove of coconut palms and banana trees. Sitting cross-legged on the veranda of his dormitory, the abbot, also a former political prisoner, told me that the monastery is still trying to recover after the devastation inflicted by the military. At the time it was forcibly shut in 2007, “there were 18 monks, a dozen HIV patients and three orphans living here. Most have disappeared.” I asked if he was grateful to Thein Sein for the reopening. “I do not need to thank this military government for returning what belongs to us,” he told me. He was bitter about the treatment of Gambira, whom he considered a protégé. “Gambira was moved to many prisons and tortured. He has not been right since.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, September 2012]

Myanmar Government Policy of Repression Towards Buddhist Monks

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government continued to restrict the efforts of some Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom. While some of the Buddhist monks arrested in the violent crackdown that followed prodemocracy demonstrations in September 2007 were released during the year, many remained in prison serving long sentences. The government also actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among ethnic minorities. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]

“The government continued its efforts to exert control over the Buddhist clergy (Sangha). It tried Sangha members for “activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism” and imposed on the Sangha a code of conduct enforced by criminal penalties. The government continued the detention, imprisonment, and interrogation of politically active Buddhist monks. In prison, some monks were defrocked and treated as laypersons. In general they were not allowed to shave their heads and were not given food compatible with the monastic code, which dictates that monks should not eat after noon. They often were beaten and forced to do hard labor. ^

“According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), at the end of the year an estimated 130 monks remained in prison, many of them arrested after the September 2007 peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations. During the year, some of the monks, as well as other political prisoners, remained in remote jails away from their family members, limiting their access to basic necessities and medicines that visiting relatives generally provided. ^

“The government restricted the activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (Sangha), although some monks have resisted such control. Based on the 1990 Sangha Organization Law, the government has banned any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the State Monk Coordination Committee (“Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee” or SMNC), the members of which are indirectly elected by monks. ^

“The SMNC and Ministry of Religion also subjected the Sangha to special restrictions on freedom of expression and association. Members of the Sangha were not allowed to preach sermons pertaining to politics. Religious lectures that reflected political views often drew criticism or censure from the SMNC and Ministry of Religion. In February the SMNC banned Ashin Pyinna Thiha, aka Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw, the Abbot of Sardu Pariyatti Monastery, from giving sermons for a year because the SMNC had deemed his previous sermons too political. In December, after he met with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, the abbot received a letter from the State Sangha calling for his dismissal from Sardu Pariyatti Monastery. The letter cited the abbot’s September speech at the headquarters of the pro-democratic opposition party the National League for Democracy as the reason for his dismissal. The government prohibited all clergy from being members of any political party and electoral law bars them from participating in political activity and voting in the elections. ^

During the year, authorities allowed Naw Ohn Hla, the leader of a group of Buddhist laypersons known as the Tuesday Prayer Group, greater latitude to conduct prayer meetings, although they prevented her group from participating in a September street march protesting construction of the Myitsone Dam. ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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