In Myanmar, young boys walk in the footsteps of the Buddha, learning humility and seeking enlightenment.
Words: Gina Geurgis Images: TheTPA.net
Welcome to Bagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River in Myanmar. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas in the world. The landscape is scattered with golden temples and red brick ruins, some dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Here, rest eternal remnants of Myanmar’s religious heritage, where every part of every building assumes a spiritual meaning and age-old rituals continue to this day.
It is unsurprising that in this unique, almost mystical environment, locals still hold firm to old traditions – perhaps, more so here in Bagan than anywhere else in Myanmar. One of these traditions is the initiation ceremony known as shinbyu – the entry of young boys to the monastery to become ‘The Sons of the Enlightened One’ or ‘The Sons of the Buddha’. This tradition dates back 2,500 years to the conversion of Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha known as the ‘seeker of enlightenment’.
EMBRACING THE ROBES
In the 21st century, this initiation ceremony usually occurs during school holidays, predominantly the March and April summer holidays preceding the Water Festival. It is compulsory for boys between eight and 20 years old to enter the Buddhist order for a week or more. Occasionally, the boys are as young as four. Encouraging their sons to embrace the legacy of Buddha is one of the most important duties for Myanmarese parents.
Through this ritual, the young boys will become novice monks. The novice monk enters the order at least twice in his lifetime, each time gaining good merit. It is vital to the local tradition. Shinbyu is the beginning of a spiritual journey towards enlightenment. Those who are not blessed with a male child will sponsor an orphan or a boy from a very poor family in order to receive this special dispensation by the Buddha and gain great merit.
A NOBLE DUTY
I am lucky enough to be introduced by my friend, Khine Ko Gyi to two young initiates: 12-year-old Thea Ha and his 10-year-old brother, Pyi Pyu. It is mid April, a favourable period of the year; it’s the week that precedes Thyingyan, the Water Festival, which coincides with the New Year celebration in the Buddhist calendar.
The local village residents consider their lives unfulfilled if they themselves, or their sons, have not been novices. For orphans and children whose parents cannot afford to sponsor a shinbyu, other benevolent people will contribute. The tradition of giving is widespread in Myanmar.
The event is associated with much pomp and ceremony, and feasts are held for guests and relatives of the sponsors. There are also grand ceremonies of mass initiations , in which hundreds of affluent well-wishers sponsor boys who do not have any family support.
Days prior to this event, the girls of the family knock at their neighbours’ doors to offer lepetho, a delicious traditional salad of pickled tea leaves mixed with sesame oil, fried peas, peanuts, broad beans, garlic, toasted sesame, dried shrimps, shredded ginger and sometimes, hot chilli. This serves as invitation to the shinbyu.
The rite of passage is preceded by fascinating and colourful customs. For example, many believe that some of the more troublesome spirits, known as nats, will try to push the young boys into rivers or wells, so that they will not be able to participate in the ritual. Therefore, the boys are kept away from open water before the ceremony.
They are also forbidden from climbing trees or playing any risky games that could give the nats an opportunity to stop the shinbyu from taking place. Parents even carry their children from place to place making sure their feet do not touch the ground!
LEAVING THE MATERIAL WORLD
I am invited into the compound of the family clan. It is mid-afternoon, and Thea Ha and Pyi Pyu sit surrounded by cousins and extended relatives. The hot sun seeps through the cracks of the tent erected in the family’s backyard.
The celebration, which lasts for two days, begins with loud temple music blaring from a monastery on the northern side of Old Bagan. As preparations for the ceremony commence, neighbours and extended families gather in the family dwelling, and the boys, who have come of age, become the centre of everyone’s attention. Entire families are abuzz with excitement as parents fuss over preparing a dozen or more children, and dressing them as royalty. The children are being prepared to follow in a symbolic re-enactment of Siddhartha’s quest for enlightenment.
Depending on the financial status of the parents and the age of the grandparents, the ceremony may include boys as young as six months. Females – sisters and relatives of the novices-to-be – may also show their support by having their ear lobes pierced. This ceremony for the young girls usually runs parallel with the boys’ shinbyu. Girls can have their ears pierced on their own or in a group. On the day of the ceremony, the girls’ ritual is held before the actual shinbyu, so they can then join the procession. Ear lobes were traditionally pierced with a painful thorn, however now, the more-sanitary piercing gun method is used. Apart from their wedding day, most Myanmarese girls regard this ritual as the most auspicious ceremony of their lives as it signifies their coming of age. Unlike the boys’ shinbyu, this is more a social than religious event, and Myanmarese women have traditionally worn earrings as ornaments, as well as status symbols. The earrings are made of silver or gold, with or without gemstones set in them, or they can be of modern design, and are interchangeable to match the dress and to suit the occasion.
JOURNEY TO THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS
The primary focus of the two-day ceremony is for young boys to become novice monks. A colourful procession parades the heroes of the day in a loud display of the prosperity of the family clan. The bigger the procession, the greater the prestige!
Boys and girls ride extravagantly-adorned caparisoned horses, sometimes even elephants, and families are paraded in bullock-pulled carts. The children wear silk garments, crowns made of gold thread and glittering sequins and, sometimes, gold headdresses. Family members attend painstakingly to the needs of each boy, providing water, as well as shade from the hot sun with gilded umbrellas, and proudly carrying his monastic robes and other belongings.
The boys’ silk-garbed sisters and other young women in the village follow with ornate boxes of paan, an areca nut wrapped in betel leaf and lotus blossoms. A lavishly-dressed musical troupe provides joyful music accompaniment. The parade is symbolic of Gautama Buddha’s rejection of worldly pleasures as he leaves his palace and its riches in search of the Four Noble Truths. It is also customary that the village refrains from cooking, with no fi res lit during this period.
Hired singers accompanied by a music ensemble follow the parade playing traditional songs. The parade ultimately ends at the colourfully festooned monastery, where the village has gathered and the monks line up awaiting the procession.
As they finally arrive at the monastery, the boys recite from memory the 10 Buddhist principles and the traditional request for monk robes. It is at this precise moment that the parents offer their sons to Buddha. It is an emotional time of release and offering, as their sons no longer belong to them. The boys’ hair is then shorn by senior monks, with their closest of kin – usually mother and father – holding a white cloth to receive the falling hair that should never touch the ground.
A Brahmin officiates the ceremony, but the monks oversee and complete the shaving of the head and eyebrows in a rite called hsan cha. The young boys have at this stage left their princely dresses for white robes. A sharp razor is used to shave the hair and the boys are not supposed to cry. Only the parents and the boys’ sponsor are allowed to witness this significant event. The shaving of hair symbolises the rejection of all material things and the commitment to live a modest life.
The boys then beg permission of the head monk in Pali, the language of many of the earliest extant Buddhist scriptures, to be initiated, and recite the Buddhist principles that they have learned by heart. They recite prayers, swear oaths, and chant the Ten Precepts and the Buddhist Confession of Faith. This is the highlight of the ritual that has been practised by Buddhist monks for centuries, marking the boys’ ordination as kou-yin, novices. The boys cease belonging to their parents and become the sons of the Buddha.
A NEW LIFE BEGINS
After these prayers, the boys – now, novice monks – are stripped naked and dressed in new, humble red robes by their parents. The boys are almost unrecognisable out of their earlier princely finery. They are given a few basic items: A bowl, tea sieve, prayer mat and two pieces of clothing.
The novices will now stay in the monastery, under the care of the residing monks, for a retreat of between seven days and several months. They will follow every rule set, study Buddhist scriptures and make the most of their stay there.
During this time, the monks will gather alms and bestow blessings within the village. This involves a daily parade of monks through the streets, with the announcer leading the way, carrying his little bell and beater, and the remainder of the group spread out behind him from tallest to smallest, eldest to youngest, with a shepherd at the end escorting the tiniest monks. This initiation teaches humility and frugality as the monks beg for their food from door to door every morning, and their last meal is at midday.
The novices’ main focus within the monastery is to study the rules of the order along with Buddha’s teachings, and to understand the rules of nature – at its most basic, to live their lives meaningfully and peacefully.
A SPIRITUAL CALLING
Upon returning to their families after several days, weeks or months in the monastery, the young monks may later choose to re-enter the monastery as novices at any time.
But the shinbyu ceremony is something that they can only undergo once. It is a deep and meaningful event for the boys and for their families. Any visitor to Bagan, fortunate enough to witness the ritual, will feel privileged to be welcomed and embraced.
“Influences from India and China are apparent in everything – from sumptuous food to resplendent temples, making it a country every foodie and culture vulture (like me) want to visit. But the best thing for me is that it’s the only country in Southeast Asia where I can rock my longyi (sarong) in the middle of the city without anyone even batting an eyelash!”
Ari Fajar (Digital Content Executive, travel 3Sixty°)
GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Mandalay and Yangon, Myanmar, from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Go to www.airasia.com for details. Bagan is approximately 133kms from Mandalay.
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