People of the Golden Land

Burmese character and customs

That there should be a Burmese national character is not very remarkable. Our fields of green rice paddy, our broad rivers, the bare sands of the hot central plains, interspersed everywhere with the particular Burmese grouping of palms, low roofs, high monastery and higher pagoda spire—with always on the east and west horizons the line of blue hills—have produced their own inimitable synthesis of human characteristics.

To our neighbors in India, as far back as the times of the Buddha, Burma was known as “the golden land.” And so it still seems to the Burmese today, who, as figures for emigration will prove, have no desire to live anywhere else. This national contentment has its roots in the facts of our geography, our religion, and our history.

Burma’s geography is that of an abundant, warm, and well-watered land, where raising enough food for the population has never been difficult. Our religion is a form of Buddhism which tempers and moderates, and which, as it has evolved over the centuries, absorbing elements from several cultures, has come to provide a full range of activity for the many rather than a difficult mystic philosophy for the few. And the history of the Burmese has been that of a nation long victorious over all neighbors until a conquest by the British, which, after only some sixty years of colonial subjugation, was ended with apparent ease. These factors have made us relaxed and generous; neither fanatical nor preoccupied; proud, and in a great many ways unusually contented with ourselves.

The Burmese society of today has developed from about fifteen centuries of a rural, agricultural way of life in which the village, and within the village the family, were the controlling units. With us, family ties are always very strong—not so much from rigid traditions as from natural affections allowed full play. The components of a Burmese family are mirrored in the three ages which our Buddhist teaching apportions to a human being: the first of acquiring knowledge in a respectful attitude of receptiveness; the second of building up material resources for the proper discharge of social obligations; and the third of devotion to higher and more spiritual things. Thus in a typical family we would find the children being liberally admonished in intervals between extreme indulgence; the parents, usually both of them, working to support the home; and the old men and women giving much time to their prayer beads and placing the daily offerings on the altar for the whole family.

The Burmese family is a loosely defined unit, its membership varying with the circumstances. Sons and daughters and sisters, aunts and uncles acquired by marriage, may or may not be incorporated; there is no rule. But most Burmese have a warmhearted desire for as many relatives as possible, including cousins and in-laws. Our word for “relative” has the same root as the one for “friend,” and for the ten beings who merit our greatest love. This list begins with the Buddha and the arahats—those who have reached the state of Nirvana—and includes, with the parents, benefactors outside the family who can give one either material gifts or counsel and example in moral living.

Such a concept extends the family in the most natural way to friends and so to neighbors—in the country to the whole village, and in the city to the yatkwet, or neighborhood. The respected elders of the community share with the heads of the family the privileges of giving counsel and being kept informed, as well as the duty of lending a sympathetic ear on all occasions. There is hardly any activity, apart from the daily routine of work, in which all of the neighbors do not participate. And Burmese life is rich in opportunities for communal experience. First one might enumerate some of the occasions when a family interrupts the normal day-to-day pattern to mark an event of special significance.

There will always be a gathering for the naming ceremony of a month-old child, when the baby's hair is cut and washed for the first time. Water scented with acacia seeds and thayaw bark is prepared in a silver bowl into which the arriving neighbors drop silver coins. Then sprays of eugenia are dipped in the water, and the little head is sprinkled while blessings are invoked.

Far more elaborate preparations will be made for the ceremonies which mark the passing from childhood into adolescence. For a boy, this is one of the most important events in his life, because, even though he does not plan to be a monk, he will be taken into one of our Buddhist monasteries for a week’s novitiate. In this shinpyu ritual, the boy’s head is shaved to symbolize his renunciation of the world as he temporarily enters the Sangha, the Holy Order of those who consecrate their lives to the teaching of the Buddha. For a week, or longer if he wishes, the lad will wear the orange robe of the monks, go out each morning with a bowl to beg his food, and practice the austerities of the monastic life. But first, at the shinpyu, he will be dressed in his finest clothes to receive gifts from the guests at a feast that will be as lavish as possible, with music or better still a troupe of entertainers. And if his parents are poor, the chances are that a relative, or even someone outside the family, will finance the occasion, since merit accrues to the sponsor who helps a boy to begin his spiritual development.

While we do have religious orders for women, they attract far fewer followers than do the monasteries, and our girls do not undergo any religious initiation. For them, the nahtwin, the ceremony which takes place at the same time as their brother’s shinpyu, and is often celebrated with it, is entirely secular and social in character. It is the boring of the ears for the first pair of gold earrings, for which the little girl is dressed in a costume and gilded headdress such as were worn by the ladies-in-waiting at the court of our former kings in Mandalay. The piercing is done with a gold needle by the most esteemed friend or relative of the family. In all the excitement, the child hardly feels any pain.

There are many other occasions which a Burmese may observe with a celebration: a housewarming; a birthday when he feels that he has reached a blessed plenitude; a sudden remembrance of the gratitude he owes his dead mother; or any other line that he feels good and happy, or, alternatively, low in spirits and needing the blessings of a good deed done. Then the neighbors must flock to his house and there will be evident in the proceedings an intimate and complementary relationship between the religious and the social offices.

One notable exception to this blending of elements is our Burmese marriage ceremony. Here no member of the Buddhist clergy officiates because the love is of a profane nature and the contract purely a social one. But there are the go-between friends and relatives busy making sure that both sides know what they are taking on, consulting with the local sages to see whether the horoscopes of bride and groom are well matched, choosing the most auspicious day and hour for the union, and selecting the most happily married couple of the family’s acquaintance to lead the ceremony so that one successful marriage will bless another. The ceremony itself is a beautiful one, full of a simple but moving symbolism. The hands of bride and groom are joined and bound together with a silk scarf. They partake of food from the same bowls and make obeisance together. The guests bring gifts of money to help in setting up the new household. And finally there may be a playful pantomime in which the groom’s friends must bargain with the bride’s friends to allow him to enter her room.

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