Buddhism’s forebears in Burma

I apologize for my lack of frequent updates, as promised. I’ve been struggling to balance my schoolwork, which has gotten the worst of me. I have two midterms this Monday, for chemistry and physics, which are not particularly easy subjects… However, in my spare time, I have been reading Buddhism and Society by Melford Spiro, which is an interesting study on Burmese Buddhism.

I came across a section that describes the yay zet cha (ရေစက်ချ) ceremony and found it particularly interesting. For those who don’t know, Burmese Buddhists often pour water from a glass (nowadays, fancy metal teapots have begun to replace the simple glass cup) into a plate or cup (as a symbolic act of offering the “earth” water) while monks recite blessings, in order to gain merit. In my family, usually the adult males (grandfather and uncles) sit in the front, slowly pouring water into a plate or cup, until the end of the ceremony. The water is then “released” outside, into the soil. Although quite ubiquitous among Burmese Buddhists, as I’ve seen this small ceremony performed at occassions ranging from housewarmings to funerals, I never really understood the rationale and history behind it.

According to Spiro:

The water-libation ceremony…is an intrinsic part of all public ceremonies and public acts of meritorious giving. As the formula indicates, it calls the merit of worshipers to the attention of an earth goddess, known in Burma as Withondara, an in ancient India as Vasundhara. Although little known in ancient Indian Buddhism, this goddess is widely known in Buddhist Southeast Asia. Indeed, it is a myth associated with her that provides the Buddhist charter for the water-libation ritual, which is no doubt older than Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

[…]

Like the Buddha, then, the Burmese commemorate their meritorious acts by pouring water onto the ground, calling upon Withou-daya to witness them. As in many rituals, however, the symbolism is overdetermined. The “intoxicants” for whose destruction the worshipper prays while performing the libation are also compared to floods which, if not controlled, wash away (from the path).

So apparently, the yay zet cha ceremony has Hindu origins, intertwined with a Buddhist parable. Withondara (ဝသုန္ဒရာ or ဝသုန္ဒရေ), the earth goddess, appeared as a woman when Buddha is confronted by Mara, who asks for examples of his merit. According to lore, she proves his symbolic merit by squeezing the water out of her hair, which creates a flood that washes Mara away. I think Withondara is analagous to the Thai earth goddess Mae Thorani, who plays a similar role in Thai Buddhism. The syncretic nature of Southeast Asian Buddhism is quite intriguing–Saraswati, Hindu goddess of knowledge is known as Tipitaka Medaw (တိပိဋကမယ်တော်) in Burmese, “protector of the Tipitaka,” which are the scriptures that form the foundation of Theravada Buddhism.

Anyhow, I thought I’d just share this. Back to work for me.

2 thoughts on “Buddhism’s forebears in Burma

  1. amy says:

    This is so fascinating. I have an art piece I got at a flea market ten years ago from a Burmese man that he said he had etched from a temple in Burma – he called the woman depicted an “angel” but I am guessing it is either a goddess or temple attendant – I am trying to research who she might be – do you know where I can do further research???

  2. Ralph Isaacs says:

    Thanks, Aung Zaw, for this. I’m working on a book about sazigyo, manuscript binding tapes. The little woven images very often include a trio: Round Bell (gaung-laung-gyi), Flat bell (kyizi), and Waythondaye, who is always depicted wringing out her long wet hair. She often stands on a throne shaded by up to three Hti.

    I’ve been told that women in Cambodia regard Waythondaye as their champion and protectress, empowering women in a male-dominated society. As almost all the Burmese weavers of sazigyo were female, I wonder if they had this high regard for the Earth Goddess. Have you ever heard this role of waythondaye, that of women’s friend and protectress, in Burma?

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