Myanmar is a highly devout Buddhist society with around 89% of its population practicing Theravada, the more conservative out of the two traditions of Buddhism. There are currently about half a million monks and 75,000 nuns in the country.
The Buddha takes different colors and shapes, sometimes devotees cover the statues with gold leaves:
Monks are highly revered by the population as a whole and families usually feed the same monk(s) daily; which is part of their good deeds to acquire merit. Every man is expected to join the monastic life at least twice in their lives, once as boys when they become a “koyin” or novice monk between the age of 7 and 13 for a few weeks or several months, and the second time as adults. They can become fully ordained monks at the age of 20 if they choose to do so. A lot of poor families send their boys to join monasteries for many years as this is a sure way for them to receive daily meals and a free Buddhist education. The young novices adhere to a strict study and meditation schedule but only concentrate on following 10 precepts (ethical rules) of Buddhism; they are still allowed to take time out of their busy schedule to play outside and just be boys. The adult fully ordained monks follow even stricter schedules and must follow all 227 precepts.
It is common to see monks in their orange robes everywhere in Myanmar- walking around the villages receiving their daily alms and traveling around on trains, buses or tuk-tuk’s. Anyone is welcome inside the monasteries as long as you respect the rules of the place. You often find devout Buddhists and monks in Pagodas; which are the places for worshipping Buddha.
The Buddhist nuns wear pink robes with an orange sash over their shoulder. They also shave their heads like the monks. They only follow ten precepts of Buddhism like novice male monks. They take ordination vows, do their daily readings, meditate, study, teach and collect alms but they don’t perform ceremonies or travel to other countries. Women are not expected to join the monastic life like men so they do so at the their own (or their family’s) will. Sometimes they do it to escape poverty.
And one of the best things about travel is witnessing celebratory ceremonies or rituals around you unexpectedly. We got to see part of a “Novitiation” ceremony while doing a day-tour of the city of Hpa-An. Our tuk-tuk got stuck in the mud at a perfect time when boys all dressed up in prince costumes passed us in their beautifully decorated small horses. It was a nice procession; which included the boys’ mothers, other family members, local women carrying offerings, a band inside a truck that played music as they followed behind the boys, and elephants. I later learned that this ceremony is held during the summer months when schools close for vacation. The boys aged between 9 and 12 are paraded in their prince costumes before they go home and shave their heads to prepare for their monastic life as novice monks.
It is important to mention that in Myanmar, especially in the ethnic minority towns, Buddhism is combined with the animistic belief of Nats. These are mostly spirits of human beings that suffered violent deaths. These spirits are believed to be caught in limbo between life cycles. Some of them are good Nats and some are bad Nats. It is common to see Buddhists worshipping the Buddha and Nats in the same places. I learned that when King Anawrahta established Theravada Buddhism as the main religion in Myanmar in the 11th century, he tried to eliminate the Nat beliefs. When he saw that his efforts were in vain as people would not give up their Nat worshipping, he decided to adapt to it by creating the 37 Nats that would become subordinates to the Buddha. In Myanmar a lot of the Buddhist temples have a Nat shrine or house attached to the main pagoda. Many believe that Nats can bring good luck and fortune if you pray to them, or the opposite, if you disrespect them.
You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the magic of watching these Buddhist rituals unfold all over the place. It is enchanting to witness such devotion, and at times fun to join in the activities. It makes you feel closer and in a way more accepted by those around you.