Bhumibol’s royal demise

The death of the Thai monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej, on October 13 has shaken up the country, and created a serious vacuum in Thailand’s monarchy. All eyes will be on his son, Vajiralongkorn, who is expected to succeed Bhumibol, yet lacks both the following and gravitas of his father, whose public image was carefully cultivated over his seven decade reign.

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maroon vs. saffron burmese monk robes

Why do Burmese monks wear maroon colored robes?

Here’s a question. What’s the easiest way to distinguish Burmese monks from their counterparts in other countries? Typically, it’s from the color of the robes. Burma is unique among Theravada Buddhist countries in one respect: the color of monk robes. While Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Sri Lankan monks don robes dyed in bright saffron hues, Burmese monks typically dress in drab maroon or burgundy-colored robes (aside from a few outliers).

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Burma's generosity in comparison with the rest of Asia.

Misguided generosity: should the Burmese donate differently?

Recent headlines have crowned Burma the world’s most generous country, a ranking shared with the United States. According to the Charitable Aid Foundation America’s 2014 World Giving Index, the world’s biggest economy and one of Asia’s most undeveloped countries have something positive in common for once. And a point of pride is that this is unsurprising, Just a validation, if anything. Continue reading

Drinking trends in the Theravada Buddhist world

This is the third installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.

I decided to take a closer look against the ring of countries that constitute the Theravada Buddhist world, in the context of alcohol consumption. Theravada Buddhism takes a relatively hard stance on drinking alcohol (or any mind-altering substances, for that matter) so it was quite interesting to see great variation in consumption patterns among these countries. At one end of the spectrum was Laos, whose citizens, both male and female, embrace alcohol. At the other end of the spectrum was Burma, the least likely to drink of the bunch.

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Alcohol in the Theravada Buddhist context

This is the second installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.

Theravada?

Theravada Buddhism is often dubbed the most orthodox of the Buddhist sects, especially as it is the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism. The word Theravada, of Pali origin, literally means “doctrine of the elders.” As with other Buddhist practitioners, Theravadins tend to be relatively fluid in terms of devotion and practice. For instance, it’s not uncommon to see a Theravadin devotee make offerings to a Mahayana Bodhisattva like Guanyin.

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A preface of sorts: examining alcohol consumption in Burma and beyond

This is the first installment on Alcohol and the Theravada Buddhist World.

My curiosity into this topic was first piqued when I saw an infographic on Facebook that ranked alcohol consumption among ASEAN countries: Burma was second to last, only rivaled by Indonesia, a Muslim country. My general impression was that Burma’s relative isolation, alongside Theravada Buddhism — more orthodox than its Tibetan and Mahayana counterparts (Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism have more lenient perspectives on alcohol consumption)–was the underlying driving force, the explanation for this observation.

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Palace intrigues: More than a Buddhist monastery dispute gone sour?

This post was updated on June 22, 2014 to reflect recent developments.

A few evenings ago, a headline on BBC Burmese caught my eyes: “Santisukha monks disrobed, to be prosecuted” (သန္တိသုခ သံဃာများကို လူဝတ်လဲစေပြီး တရားစွဲပြီ). To outsiders, the headline may not mean much. But for well over a decade now, the Mahasantisukha Buddhist Missionary Centre (မဟာသန္တိသုခကျောင်း), a major Buddhist monastery in Rangoon, has been the center of a very contentious ownership dispute, between the Burmese government and the Penang Sayadaw.

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Some thoughts on Arakan State’s bloodshed

Translation: Do not support Burma’s 786 [expletive] Indian stores and oppose the Rohingya Indians.

This past week, my Facebook newsfeed has been bombarded by photos, pictures, slogans and status updates all centered around the Buddhist-Muslim killings in Burma’s Arakan State. To be sure, I’ve been caught off guard by the openly racist remarks espoused by family and friends. It’s no secret that the community viewed most suspiciously by the Burmese are the Muslims, even though they’re deeply woven in the country’s social fabric (for instance, some Burmese spirits were Muslims or of Muslim descent, explaining the pork taboo). Also, I believe that Burma’s religious composition figures are inaccurate. I wouldn’t be surprised if upwards of 10% of the country are Muslims.

Considering that Arakan State is in Burma’s periphery, far from the country’s heartland, it’s not surprising that accurate news accounts have been especially hard to come by. I hate reading Burmese language media on situations like this because it is so openly intent on portraying one side of the story, just as exile media is. And English language media is no better. Different accounts have made their rounds throughout the Burmese community.

Basically, the rape and murder of a woman by 3 men (presumably Muslim) triggered the onset of the violence. (Also, I think it’s despicable that images of dead victims have been making their rounds in the Burmese community to further their case. It’s low.) Vigilantes from the Arakanese community then attacked a tour bus of (mostly) Muslim passengers from Pegu (raping and killing a woman as well. Tit for tat?). This set off intense violence in districts especially near the Burmese-Bangladeshi border, between Muslims and Buddhists. I won’t delve into the identity of Rohingyas (also called Bengali migrants by Burmese media), because it’s a complicated issue. But it’s sure stoked up the tensions in the country. There’s a comprehensive write up on New Mandala. (The comments are worth a look as well.)

Some arguments have portrayed this issue as one of immigration (illegal squatters wreaking havoc in Burma), but there’s certainly a streak of racism and Islamophobia written all over netizens’ comments. Many simply don’t distinguish race and religion. A lot of arguments defending the violence have been centered around “protecting” the indigenous womenfolk from Muslims. The rape and murder case produced tremendous backlash, even though systematic rapes and murders frequently occur in Burma’s war-ravished areas. That Burmese (and ethnic) soldiers have been documented to rape and murder ethnic women (Shan, Karen and Kachin women and girls, among others) has not been condemned in the scale we see today. The Burmese have never expressed such outrage against these war crimes. It’s obvious that a double standard exists. Indeed, last year, when a Japanese tourist was raped and murdered by a Burmese man, many Burmese blamed the victim for compromising herself (by travelling alone). Comments like these make me want to facepalm myself.

I can’t help but imagine that there’s more to the violence than what we see. Perhaps the military is taking advantage of this situation, to conjure up the idea of a Burmese state in perpetual need of a iron-fisted military presence. As the “civilian” government consolidates power, the military needs to remain relevant to survive. Some Burmese have pointed out that the Muslims in Arakan State may have been provoked by the government (maybe plainclothes vigilantes, who knows).

P.S. Some Burmese of South Asian descent protested the usage of the Burmese word kala (ကုလား) in state newspapers, on the argument that it’s a racial slur used to refer to South Asians (and perhaps its similarity to the the word “black” in some Indian languages and/or that it sounds similar to Burmese “cross over”, emphasizing South Asians’ non-native origins).

However, I think much of this is hullabaloo. Up to the 1800s, kala encompassed most Indo-European peoples west of Burma (including Europeans and South Asians), the same way Tayoke or Chinese referred to peoples north of Burma. Kala has been used in a neutral context for centuries. The fact that we Burmese still call Thais yodaya (a reference to the Ayutthaya kingdom, destroyed by the Burmese in the 1600s) makes kala seem innocuous by comparison. (Not that I’m saying the Burmese use yodaya as a slur or a reminder of the past. It’s just a descriptive word, nothing else.) Interestingly enough, in Cambodia, Kula refers to refers to Burmese settlers, particularly descendants of the Shan peoples, who settled in Pailin province to mine gems (definition from the Cambodian-English Dictionary).

There’s a pretty solid argument for the etymology of kala (“(Mis)interpretations of the Burmese word kala”), replete with references and footnotes, that essentially argues that kala comes from one of these sources:

  1. Pali kulaputta (ကုလပုတ္တ, noble race)
  2. Mon gla (ဂလာ, noble race), perhaps borrowed from Pali
  3. cola/chola (a historical name for the Tamil/Telegu people)
ဗောဓိညောင်ပင်

Immigrant Buddhists in a resolutely non-Buddhist America

In meditation at the Shwedagon Pagoda. From Wikipedia.

I think it’s difficult to raise children Buddhist in the United States. In college, one of the major shared experiences among a lot of my Buddhist friends was that we had been pressured at one point or another to convert to Christianity. For me, it elicited feelings of frustration but actually strengthened my resolve to have a greater understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

In high school, I think that religion was very much invisible. Perhaps it was because I went to a public school, nobody was pushed toward or away from a certain religion. Most of my friends grew up in Buddhist or Taoist households, and I vaguely knew that a few were Christians. But these distinctions weren’t so discrete.

However, in college, I noticed that Christians asserted themselves much more openly. They were much more well-organized, well-funded and had a much stronger theological foundation than Buddhists. When pressed about our own faiths and values, we didn’t have much to offer, much less “defend” ourselves. We weren’t armed with apologetics courses at Bible study and weekly discussions to dissect and understand the faith. And therein lies one of the major problems.

To start off, my parents are pretty much secular Buddhists. They keep an altar at home and perform merit-based activities on a regular basis. My mom meditates with the rosary every night. But their own understanding of Buddhism is marked with some dissatisfaction, not with doctrine, but with practice. They deride the luxuries of American Buddhist monks and believe money could be much better spent on “helping those who actually need it.” I think my parents wanted to pass on tradition and culture much more than religion. They simply used religion to support their traditional values, not the other way around.

I think that’s one of the major deficiencies of the Burmese Buddhist system: its overemphasis on ritual and merit. A lot of it, in my opinion, is wasteful spending and ostentatious. Pakasana (ပကာသန), to use the Burmese/Pali word. I think merit is best received when done humbly and anonymously, not for the sake of credit or pressure.

ဖွားတော်မူခန်း

The stone carving depicting the Buddha’s birth scene I was referring to.

ဗောဓိညောင်ပင်

The bodhi tree planted to house the “spirit” of the deceased monk.

Also, this generosity is sometimes misguided. I remember a few years back, my entire family paid for the construction of an enormous (and costly) marble carving depicting the Buddha’s birth (ဖွားတော်မူခန်း), partly because of yadaya, after consultations with a family beidin saya (astrologer). At that same monastery, monks guided the planting of a sacred banyan tree at a spot believed to be haunted by a deceased monk (he was unceremoniously murdered in 1987) to “house” his wandering spirit, which was creating mischief at the Dhamma hall. Needless to say, stories like that scared me straight as a child.

An example of the astrological drawings, used to ‘calculate’ predictions.

I think yadaya practices are more pervasive than nat worship (indigenous spirits). In my observations, a lot educated Buddhists shun the latter while still practicing the former. (That’s why I find it dumbfounding when Western media ridicules the Burmese military junta as a bunch of uneducated and pre-medieval soothsayers, because astrology is VERY pervasive in Burma, spanning across all classes and religions. For instance, my Catholic nanny was a firm believer in astrology, especially those elephant drawings.) Okay, moving back onto topic.

My parents never directly imparted much Buddhist knowledge on my sister and I. We learned most of the basics through interactions with others. My dad never sat us down to explain the Middle Path to us. Heck, the first time I read the Dhammapada was for a  Buddhist writing course I took in college. I remember my mom telling us Buddhist stories of Angulimala and Kisa Gotami among others when we were younger, but she never taught us how to chant or recite Pali verses, like the Three Jewels, the Five Precepts or the Awgatha prayer (ogasa), let alone what those meant. All of my cousins and I simply waded through the dense Burmese and incomprehensible Pali like the blind.

These are probably the greatest barriers for first generation immigrant Buddhists: language, deemphasized social engagement (by the same token, overemphasis on ritual) and lack of community or guidance.

One of my friends covered his own experiences as a first generation Asian American at the Dharma Folk blog. It’s worth a read. He comes to this conclusion:

Sure, my parents can’t name the Four Noble Truths and explain the idea of no-self to me. They seem slightly obsessed with burning incense and playing a chanting tape 24/7 without meditating or going to temple services regularly. And yet, I remember as a child my parents teaching me morals – kindness, appreciation, generosity, honesty – through the devotional practices of Buddhism. Maybe that’s what is important.

Incomprehensible Pali scriptures written in Burmese.

Language is a big barrier. Speaking from my own experiences, I had no clue what I was saying when I sought refuge in the Three Jewels. (Theravada Buddhism uses a liturgical language called Pali, similar to how Catholicism uses Latin.) I could translate some stock words and phrases, like dutiyampi or Buddha, but not much beyond that. And I found it hard to pick apart a monk’s sermon because the Burmese was so dense. But I was also a strange kid–I had an inherent interest in Buddhism and religion from a young age, so I sought knowledge through books and monks. But a lot of my cousins simply became outcasts, nominal participants with no tangible ties to their household’s religion. Alienation undoubtedly loosens one’s ties to a religion.

I’m sort of envious of my younger cousins in this respect. The Burmese American community has grown tremendously in the past decade, and weekend monastic schools have sprung up, with instruction led by monks and laypersons. My younger cousins attend “Buddhist culture” courses at a local monastery, learning the basics, doctrine and concepts and a few suttas. This is an admirable cause, because it strengthens one’s religious identity and gives them a clearer understanding of their family’s practices. I think this is vital to sustain Buddhism within immigrant communities.

Also, a common thread of discontent is that Buddhists are often disparaged as not helping one another. Christians have successfully capitalized on immigrant resettlement needs, whereas Buddhists simply try to replicate the merit-based activities they performed in their home countries. In the Burmese American community, there’s a prevailing sense of “that’s their own business” and a hands-off approach to people in need like refugees or the poor. That’s saddening.

Similarly, I find it hard to justify many “Buddhist” practices, like the Burmese concept of ah-hlu pwe (or donation ceremonies) as it is done in the US. For those who don’t know, it’s essentially a huge and costly feast inviting everyone on a monastery’s mailing list. Its purpose is primarily a social one. Sometimes I wonder if that food would be better spent on feeding the homeless. Does that not generate merit as well?

My family altar at Chinese New Year, replete with traditional offerings like fruits, ti-ke (glutinous cake), huat-ke (prosperity cake) among others.

Maybe the experiences of my cousins and I are analogous to those of my parents, who have for the most part, shed their ties to Chinese folk religion and Taoism generation by generation. (As I’ve mentioned previously, my parents are technically second generation Sino-Burmese, but my grandfathers on both sides of the family have Burman ancestry as well). Within my family, Chinese “traditions” are observed during one major holiday: Chinese New Year. Even my grandmother’s death anniversary is observed in a simple Burmese manner (offerings to the monks and a sermon). My parents don’t even house any Chinese deities except for Guanyin (in the altar) and the 3 Immortals (basically dining room decorations).

Perhaps this is just another casualty of immigration..

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.

Does God exist in Burmese Buddhism?

A Buddhist altar at the Azusa Thondrarama Brahma Vihara monastery

I’ve been reading Spiro’s Buddhism and Society in my spare time because it is an interesting study on Theravada Buddhism in village Burma and its cultural significance. The following is a a short and interesting passage from the book:

“In the Theravada tradition, the Buddha is not a god in either the Hindu-Buddhist or the Judaeo-Christian sense of the term. He is superior to all the gods in the Hindu-Buddhist sense of “god”…Nor is he a god in the Judaeo-Christian sense, for the Buddha is neither a Savior–in Theravada Buddhism, as we shall see, man must save himself–nor is He alive.”

“The preponderant view concerning the Buddha in normative Buddhism (a view shared by almost all Burmese) is that, having attained nirvana, He is no longer alive, in any sense at least in which He can serve as a Savior. He shows the way to, but is not the agent of, salvation.”
-Interesting excerpts from Buddhism and Society (Melford E. Spiro)

This question has been puzzling and confusing to me all my life. Technically speaking, within Theravada Buddhism, the primary tradition practiced in Burma, there is no palpable importance attached to the notion of ‘God’ or the divinity of Buddha. Sure, there are hundreds, if not thousands of gods and goddesses, including Hindu ones like Thuyathadi (Saraswati) or spirits like nat that the Burmese worship in times of need. But one interesting point of contention is whether God figures any role in Burmese Buddhism.

I think some of my confusion arose from my being lost in translation. While growing up, I always equated the Burmese word shi-kho (ရှိခိုး) with English ‘worship,’ which I thought was its closest equivalent. When I actually looked up shi-kho recently, it is defined as “to do obeisance; to pay homage.” Whenever my parents would say Phaya shi-kho or ‘Pay homage to Buddha,’ I would inherently think I was worshiping Buddha, like Christians would to God. This may be because I grew up in the U.S. and what I saw all around me, made me want to find parallels in my own life. Continue reading

The Burmese government’s response to ongoing protests

The large-scale and unabated protests in Burma have probably caught many people by surprise. Led by angry young Buddhist monks who wanted an apology from the government for the abusive treatment of fellow monks who protested in Pakokku. The government has yet to stop these the majority of these protests–tear gas was thrown at monks in Sittwe (Akyab) in Arakan State, but aside from that, there has been little violence. The government’s current plan of action seems to be counterattacks on the scale of protests and the identity of the monks participating in them. The Burmese government’s English newspaper The New Light of Myanmar called the protesting monks cohorts of the West and claimed they were charlatans. According to news reports from a few small-scale news sources, the government and its civilian bodies (mass organizations) have been dispatching members dressed as monks to discredit the monks in small towns. In one instance, ‘monks’ went into a government-owned co-op store in a small town in Arakan State and wreaked havoc by vandalizing the store. According to its owner, the ‘monks’ appeared to be new faces in town, and according to the abbots of local monasteries, young monks had not been allowed to leave during the time the incidents occurred.

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