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.

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.

At the full moon of Kason (in early May) we remember the enlightenment of the Buddha beneath

a bo tree in the Ganges plain by going to pour water on our own bos, some of which are seedlings brought by Prime Minister U Nu from Gaya itself. In the afternoon of this day, in my own town of Taunggyi, offerings of uncooked rice, firewood, oil, and fruits are carried in procession to the monasteries, with a great flourish of gongs and cymbals.

Soon after Kason the monsoon breaks and the rains come. The hard-baked earth is stirred; jasmines and gardenias, thanakha, swedaw and other shrubs are in flower. All during Wa, the Buddhist Lent, for three months, it rains. The heavy, steady downpour never seems to stop, but the people take heart in it; “The rain is good,” they say, as they think of the rice paddy over millions of acres growing green and tall. Even in the wet weather there will be gift-bearing throngs on the roads to the monasteries on full-moon days, new-moon eves and the quarter days.

In October the rains peter out. Comes the full moon of Thadingyut and another festival, with lighting of houses this time, pandals for feasting and dancing, and pwè troupes putting on shows for the crowd at central points in the town. This is our springtime. There is a rush of weddings, which were banned during Lent; and a greater rush to make gifts to the monks, for this is the one month when their saffron robes may be presented. The rich hold their own robe-giving ceremonies, the poor subscribe to a neighborhood pool, but anyone may attend and enjoy all of them.

Our next full moon, Tazaungmon (in November), is perhaps the finest of the year; cool air, clear skies, the moon shining bright and big. Then smoke balloons in the shape of huge animals are sent aloft, and the neighborhood processions vie with each other in having the most beautiful padaythabin, a fabulous, mythical tree hung with gifts of all kinds for the monasteries.

And so through the Christian Nativity which passes unrecognized for itself but now takes color from our new Independence celebrations on January 4. Then in March it is Tabaung, and the mad winds are scattering the roads with flaming butea blossoms, scarlet cotton-tree flowers, the fragrant ingyin and the white bauhinia. This is our harvest season, when for long ages our most renowned pagodas have held their annual fairs to which the country people flock, on foot or by oxcart, from miles around. After this, while the frangipani and the oleanders flower, the heat rises again and people sweat and grumble for another month till the miraculous “mango showers” of mid-April announce another New Year.

Have I made Burmese life sound like one grand joyous song? Let me assure you that I have not really exaggerated its good will and fraternity; its spirit of helpfulness, its generosity, warmth, and contentment. Fortunately—or unfortunately—it is all too true.

Burmese society is happy, I think, partly because its different elements are so well adjusted to each other. There is room in it for all ages. The old feel neither unwanted nor an urge to behave like the young when there is a definite function for them in every festivity and a role in the home routine which the younger members are only too glad to have discharged. So it is with other associations: for example, the relationship between men and women.

There is no “battle of the sexes” in Burma. Burmese women feel the spiritual superiority in a man. How deny this natural instinct that we have, this fact which seems to us all too apparent? It is simply a part of good manners, of what is pleasurable and seemly, to respect the person of a male, to give precedence to his manhood on all social occasions, and to attend to his wants. But in the all-important matters of money, of divorce, of inheritance, of freedom of movement, the right of giving advice, of transacting business or of putting one’s own name alongside a husband’s on the shop front, women admit no inferiority. Thus they serve without shackles, and are equal without impairing the pride of masculinity.

Or consider the relation of children to grown-ups. Though children are indulged to an extreme degree in some things, the basis of the love they are shown is their completely subordinate status to adults. No stormy period of adolescent rebelliousness against elders is anticipated (except, perhaps, when a boy is first stirred toward sex). The doctrine of respect is something the growing child repeats incessantly: to the Buddha, his doctrine, his order, to parents and to teachers respect is due—a respect described as compounded of fear and love. The term “teacher” is not confined to the schoolroom. In the broad sense of “guide and friend,” it is extended to any loved benefactor, no matter what his walk in life.

In Burma you will find a minimum of friction between the rich and the poor. Where little importance is attached to the amassing of material possessions there is little difference in the clothing, food, or housing of a man and his poorer or richer neighbor. Class distinctions hardly operate. The true mark of a refined man being his correct bearing toward all ages, his mastery of religious teachings and sacred literature, and his observance of the precepts of normal living, a poor man could win a lottery and move with ease among the wealthiest.

Rarely does a Burmese feel frustrated. No impetus of high ambition drives him to work hard or leaves him disappointed when he fails. Few things cut deep. The less pleasant aspects of British colonialism, for example, left scars only on those who actually came to grips with it in political struggle, the majority having forgotten their rancor if they ever harbored any. Because we take things so lightly, faults are easily condoned. If a man falls below the standards set by society, his shortcomings will be debated and decried, but if he has not been guilty of inhumanity or sacrilege, he is accepted quite soon again. The same holds for a woman: there is no long slur; with us nothing is irreparable.

There is little feeling of insecurity among us; the “age of anxiety” has not yet reached Burma. A man may lose his livelihood, but his wants are few: some articles of light clothing, a mat and pillow in part of a room, a share in the rice pot for himself and his family without great damage to his prestige in the house of one relative or another. And there are few lonely spinsters and hardly any bachelors. Neighbors and friends, adept at matchmaking, will quickly put an end to such unnatural states.

Friends from abroad often say to me: “It’s wonderful how happy you Burmese all seem to be, but is your social system, fine as it is for the individual, really good for the country?” Alas! I must confess that in terms of orderly urban communities, of unremitting hard work and nation-building, of developing our resources to give an increasing population more elaborate modern living standards our qualities, our very contentment, betray us.

The great gregariousness and love of festivity leave little time for sustained application to a career. The happy social system that guarantees freedom from want and loneliness for the great majority spares little of a man’s income for other uses. When he contributes toward every funeral, wedding, or religious celebration in his community, he is naturally content to own few household goods, but he has little left, either, to subscribe to public charities—the care of the blind, the leprous, the crippled, the uneducated. Our philanthropy is personal and religious, rather than broadly social. The ease of dependence on an elder, or a patron, also saps initiative. It is a compliment often paid the fortunate to say that a person “shelters in their strength.” And then there is the tenderness of this Burmese “strength.” It is apt to be hurt if embarrassment or constraint of any sort is caused to another by it. This fear of abusing our strength also prevents us, in professional life, from pointing out mistakes or shortcomings for fear of humiliating, or assuming uncourteous authority over others. It is no wonder that efficiency in business or civil administration still eludes us. And our easygoing readiness to condone, to forgive, does not create the kind of public opinion needed to mold reliable workers dedicated to their professions, or even to keep our settlements trim and sanitary.

Add to this our proud history. The spirit of our ancestors who marched victorious on bare feet from Assam in the west to Cambodia in the east is still with its. The pride in an isolated inland culture that saw no real superiority in anything from the outside world for many centuries is hard to eradicate. Inherited by a people who are naturally clever and animated, who are endowed with artistic talents and with physical beauty, who live in a social system that allows a sense of both spiritual and worldly fulfillment by its own standards, it has produced an irrepressible élan and a charming insouciance, but also a slapdash confidence about things in general, a fatal lack of humility in approaching any task, and, since we have a sense of humor, sufficient amusement at our own national shortcomings to take the edge off our present hardships—without, however, any conviction of inferiority to any other race of people.