People of the Golden Land

Burmese character and customs

As with happy times, so too when death occurs both relatives and neighbors rally round to assist the bereaved. Some will conduct the wake for two nights, when a certain amount of card playing is not considered inappropriate, and others will take charge of ordering the coffin and bathing and dressing the corpse, then joining in the march to the graveyard.  And it is a deed of merit to sleep in the house of the deceased in the week after his death.

One of our most common, and popular, forms of social gathering is the ceremonial offering of a meal to a group of phongyis, usually monks from the neighborhood monastery. Any number may be invited, depending on the resources of the host, and it is the duly of the monks to accept whenever they are asked. Because it is one of the rules of the order that a phongyi will eat nothing after noon, they are invited for breakfast, which means that the women of the house must be up long before dawn to make the necessary and very elaborate preparations.

By seven o’clock the guests will be on hand to greet the monks as they seat themselves around a carpet on which gifts such as provisions, candles, matches, or towels have been spread. The company becomes silent and, in turn, make their respectful shikos to the orange-robed guests of honor, kneeling and touching the forehead to the floor. Then, while the host answers friendly inquiries put by the senior phongyi, low, round tables are placed and a hearty meal is laid. There will be a soup and great mounds of rice, a choice of meats, curried or sautéd, cooked vegetables, salad and relish, and fried crackers. The company will not eat until the monks have finished, and they are served with the ceremony. After the main courses, new tables are offered, with sweet cakes, coffee, and fruit. Then dishes of pickled ginger and tea leaf with sesamum and half a dozen other ingredients followed by cups of green tea and, finally, wads of betel for the monks to chew.

This is a full, unstinted menu, and having done it justice the monks cleanse their mouths into spittoons, give a few coughs, and then take their places in a line, seated in the Buddha’s lotus pose with the spine perfectly erect and eyes downcast. This is the signal for a great bustle—calling all cooks, servers, romping children, and giggling girls to take their places on the mats for prayers. One of the laymen leads, and—each one reciting his or her own preamble in a low tone—the prayers begin. There is the chant in unison of reverence to the Buddha, his doctrine (the Dhamma, the “way”), and his order (the Sangha, to which the monks belong).

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in tile Dhamma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

Each phrase is repeated three times. Then the recital of the five precepts of right living:

I shall abstain from the taking of life.
I shall abstain from the taking of what is not given.
I shall abstain from unchastity.
I shall abstain from speaking falsehood.
I shall abstain from intoxicants which cloud my reason.

Following this there will be a short sermon by one of the monks, or special ghatas, requested by the host as blessing for the home or the occasion, are recited in beautiful melody and entire concentration by the monks. Then the gifts are presented and acknowledged with a touch of the hand, no more. (For a Burmese, gratitude lies first with the giver, who has been allowed to acquire merit through the acceptance of his gift.) The donor takes up a glass jar holding water and pours it drop by drop into a silver bowl while the phongyi intones that this is the water of the continuance of merit from existence to existence, that the good deeds we do in this life will help us in our next incarnation. Then the donor declares his desire to share the merit with all present, and is acclaimed with a “Thadu” (“Well done!”) repeated three times. The monks rise and file out, followed by young men carrying their gifts. Then more food is brought and the guests set to with a will.

Everyone loves these parties for our monks: the children who revel in the excitement and special food; the young men and women who want to dress up in their finest silk clothes and jewels; the old men and women who are thinking most about their lives to come; the middle-aged who like to meet and gossip in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere which is at the same time hallowed by religion; the shyest and homeliest whose special talent may be the preparation and serving of the food. Moreover, feeding the monks gives full scope for the great love all we Burmese have for giving away or spending our resources—we are not a people who save or hoard—the importance that we attach to good eating, and our preference for the maximum informality and liveliness.

In our warm climate we like, except in the monsoon months, to be outdoors, and our traditions give us many opportunities to join festival processions to the monastery or the pagoda, each dressed in his best and bearing gifts or offerings. The calendar, which in Burma is a lunar one, counted by the days of the moon’s waxing and waning, is liberally sprinkled with holidays.

Around the New Year, which for us usually falls on the 13th of April, we have our tumultuous Thingyan, the water festival, comparable to the Indian Holi. In times gone by this was more quiet, with the young gently sprinkling scented water on the old in token of their deference. Today it has become a wild outburst of mass dousing and soaking, a chance to release pent-up energy at the time of our hottest weather. In the cities all business stops for three days and everyone takes to the streets to get wet as much and as often as possible. Little boys have squirt-guns and the girls toss water with pans and buckets. Older youths go out in jeeps and even grown men rent trucks to cruise the streets, hurling water from barrels in the car. Fire hoses are commandeered, and woe betide the motorist who tries to keep his windows closed and not join in the sport.

Thingyan is also the time for making fun of our betters, and particularly the politicians. In Rangoon elaborate floats are prepared on which young people in regalia perform song and dance shows, lampooning officialdom in salty and satiric verses composed for the occasion. Roadside pavilions are erected in each quarter, where the floats will pause in their parade of the city and each group put on its show for the judges in competition for prizes. Thingyan is a time for dancing, too, though, actually, dancing comes so naturally to the Burmese that, in one form or another, it is part of almost all our festivals.

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