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Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism

08-initia.htm

Maung Htin Aung. Printed and published by U Myint Maung, Deputy Director, Regd: No (02405/02527) at the Religious Affairs Dept. Press. Yegu, Kaba-Aye P.O., Rangoon, BURMA. 1981.

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Contents of this page
Initiation Ceremonies
Shinbyu ceremony
Pre-Buddhist elements in the ceremony
Its social significance
Why is the boy dressed regally?
Ceremony was once a fertility ritual
Goddess Pon-ma-Kyi
Other pre-Buddhist beliefs in the ceremony
Ear-boring ceremony

Author's notes

UKT notes
PonMaKyiShin

Contents of this page
p115

08. Initiation Ceremonies

Shinbyu ceremony

Among present-day Burmese there exist two ceremonies which can be described as initiation ceremonies, namely, the Shinbyu  {shin-pru.} ceremony and the ‘Ear-boring’ {na:tha.} ceremony. The Shinbyu ceremony marks the occasion of the entry of a Burmese Buddhist boy into the Buddhist order of monks, and the ‘Ear-boring’ ceremony marks the occasion of the boring of a Burmese girl’s ears so that she will be able to wear jewelled earrings.

Every Burmese Buddhist boy has to enter the Buddhist order of monks before he grows up to manhood. At the present day, the age of the boy going through the Shinbyu ceremony varies from about five to fifteen years. As part of the ceremony alms are offered to the monks, and friends are invited to the reception given by the parents of the boy. It is an occasion for gaiety and joy, but it is also a solemn occasion. Solemn music, usually a royal march, is played. (In Burmese music a royal march is slow and stately.) Then the boy’s head is shaved, and after a recital of formulae from the scriptures the boy becomes a novice. So far as this part of the ceremony is concerned it follows the Buddhist ceremony of initiation.

The boy’s head is shaved. A recital of formulae from the scriptures. A novice

When a layman becomes a Buddhist monk, a ceremony which has two parts is performed. The first part is the initiation, on the completion of which the layman becomes a novice, and the second part is the ordination, on the completion of which the novice becomes a monk. The Burmese, therefore, have taken over the first part of the Buddhist ceremony and grafted it on their own Shinbyu ceremony. The second [{p116}] part of the ceremony is beyond the scope of the Shinbyu ceremony, as no person can be ordained as a Buddhist monk until he has attained the age of twenty years.

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Pre-Buddhist elements in the ceremony

As in the case of all Burmese ceremonies and festivals, outwardly the Shinbyu ceremony is Buddhist; but it also contains pre-Buddhist elements. The boy has to remain indoors and under the careful watch of his elders at least seven days before the ceremony, because it is believed that evil spirits are jealous of his approaching glory and will attempt to cause some accident which would make him hors de combat for the ceremony. Then, on the morning of the ceremony, dressed in the full regalia of a prince or a king and shaded with gold umbrellas, the boy is put on a horse fn116-01 and taken in procession round the town or village. As the procession gaily passes through the village, the young men of the village who attend on the boy during the procession and the ceremony will keep shouting, ‘Shwè’ {shwè:}, meaning ‘(to be) wet’. Often the leader will shout out, ‘May the fields be . . .’, and the other young men will act as the chorus and shout out, ‘Shwè’.

  May the fields be . . .’
     ‘
Wet.’
‘May the streams be . . .’
     ‘Wet.’
‘May the breasts of the boy’s mother be . . .’
     ‘Wet.’
‘May the breasts of the boy’s sister be . . .’
     'Wet.’

UKT: Elephant and horse -- These two animals, particularly the elephant, are more than <animals> to the Burmese. In counting <animals> Burmese put in a "unit" such as {kaung}. However, in counting elephants, the "unit" is {si:} inferring that an elephant is a mount. Thus:
  {hkwé: tic. kaung} -- one dog
  {hsin tis. si:} -- one elephant or one mount of an elephant.

UKT: Shwè. This word as spelled by the author -- shwe -- would be mis-pronounced by the average English-speaking Myanmar as shway  meaning 'gold'. The Myanmar word in Romabama is {shwè:}  and it should be spelled as Shwè and not as Shwe. Note that in Romabama the letter <e> is differentiated either è or é, and the word for <gold> is {rhwé}.

When the procession reaches the western gate of the village it stops for some minutes, during which time the boy has to sit upright on the horse and remain still, for he is being shown to the guardian-spirit of the village. Therefore, this part of [{117}] the ceremony is known as ‘the Nat-Showing Ceremony’. The boy then returns in procession to his parents’ home. After he has been thus ‘officially’ returned to the parents, the young men will attempt to ‘steal’ the boy when the parents are not looking and, if successful, they will keep him hidden until the harassed parents ‘redeem’ him by paying a small fee.

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Its social significance

Until the annexation of the country by the British in 1886 and the resulting changes in Burmese society, the Shinbyu ceremony had a deep social significance. The ceremony then was performed only when the boy had attained puberty and was fifteen or sixteen years of age. In those days the village monastery was also the village school, and thus the boy was no stranger to the monastery at the time of the ceremony. Since he was about six years old he had been attending the monastery, learning his lessons during the day, going round the village with the monks in the morning as they ‘begged’ for alms, and playing with the other boys of the monastery in the evenings. The initiation ceremony signified that his school days were over, and thus for him it was in some ways a graduation ceremony. The village maidens had never taken any notice of him until his Shinbyu ceremony, but now many a maiden waited hopefully his ‘return from the monastery’, as can be seen from the following folk-song:

In front of this little maiden’s house.
There are one or two clumps of sattha-phu  flowers, fn117-01
The Parrots are pecking at them.
Oh, Masters Golden Parrots, please spare the flowers,
For they are meant to await the return from the monastery of my beloved,
When I shall adorn his ears with flowers. fn117-02

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p118

After the ceremony the boy remained as a novice for one or two months, or even longer, and then when he became a lay man again, he was a fully-fledged young man. He would join the gay and merry throng of young bachelors of the village, and the village maidens would look askance at him. He would now be earning his own living, and his elders would encourage him to marry and set up a house. But to the young men of the village he was still a greenhorn, and he awaited with eagerness a second initiation. If the Shinbyu ceremony was a test of his intellect and moral character, the second initiation was a test of his courage and manliness.

The second initiation involved tattooing the young man. The Burmese had two kinds of tattoos, those for ‘decoration’ and those for ‘magic’, that is, for physical prowess and for invulnerability. The first tattoo for the young man was merely for ‘decoration’ and was a social necessity. The second, which would be for magical powers, would come later in life and by his own choice. Tattooing was a very painful process and the young man would bite his lips until blood flowed out, so that he should not cry out in pain; for should he utter a squeal or a shriek, it would be greeted with loud laughter on the part of his companions, and for days after he would be the butt of their jests.

UKT: Photograph on the right from: Klein, W, Burma, p.71. Notice the tattoos on both thighs and arms. The practice of decorative tattooing had gone out of fashion since early 1900s, especially because the traditional tattooing is a very painful process. Three steel needles which are tied together have the tip dipped in tattooing ink and the tattooing master (monk or layman) would pierce the skin of the young man in a pattern. The area of the skin would be swollen for a couple of days, and when the scab peeled off, the pattern would remain forever. Tattooing is done in parts, and the extent of the tattooed area shows how much pain the young man could endure which of course would reflect his courage and manliness.

 

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Why is the boy dressed regally?

Why is the boy in the Shinbyu ceremony dressed as a king and why is he mounted on a horse? Before answering this question we have to note that whereas mounting a horse was a common thing for a Burmese boy in the days of the kings, being dressed as a prince or king was not only unusual but generally not permitted by law. Burmese society in many ways was a classless society in that there was a general absence of material inequalities, but the king insisted that the difference between himself and his officials, on the one hand, and the rest of his people, on the other, should be clearly marked. For [{p119}] that reason great emphasis was laid on marked differences in dress, and the king’s regalia, and the robes and uniforms of his officials, were given great prominence. When the king appeared before the public he might not always come riding on a richly caparisoned elephant or horse, or borne on a golden litter; he might come walking, but he would be wearing the golden chains of majesty, the jewelled sword of power, and the golden shoes of royalty. He would be in the shade of the white umbrellas and the gold umbrellas which his attendants held over his head. To wear a dress in imitation of the king’s regalia and the robes of his officials was treason, certain to be punished with instant death. But the boy in a Shinbyu ceremony, and actors in a play, were exempted from the operation of this law.

To return to the question, why is the boy dressed as a prince or king? The usual answer which will be given by the Burmese is that the boy is following the path of purity followed by Prince Siddhartha, who forsook his luxurious life of a prince to become a recluse and later the Buddha, and therefore the boy is, in effect, enacting the scene of Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation of the world. But this explanation is merely an afterthought meant to give a Buddhistic basis to a pre-Buddhistic ceremony, just as Buddhistic explanations are given for many Burmese festivals which now seem to be Buddhistic, but which originated in pre-Buddhistic times.

The word Shin means ‘monk’, but it can also mean ‘lord’ or ‘king’. Of course, from the way Shin is now spelt in Burmese, Burmese scholars will deny that it can mean ‘king’ and will say that it can mean only ‘monk’. But the spelling itself is likely to be a later innovation, and colloquially Shin can have both these meanings. The phrase Shinbyu means ‘to make a monk’, but it can also mean ‘to make a king’. The boy who is going to be initiated is called a Shin-laung, which means ‘he who would be a monk’, but it can also mean ‘he who would be a king’. [{p120}]

In Burmese society, although the king and his officials were at the top of the social structure, everyone could hope to be king one day, and as the king’s officers constituted a nobility by talent and not by birth, even the humblest peasant, if he had the ability, could hope to become an official of the highest rank. Burmese folk-lore is full of stories of poor boys becoming kings, and chronicles mention many instances of persons ‘not of the royal bone’ becoming kings. In early Burmese history, kings were elected by the free choice of the people, just as the village headman was elected by popular acclaim, and right up to the final fall of the Burmese kingdom in 1886 the theory was that the king ruled by choice of the people. Even after the establishment of the first Burmese empire under King Anawrahta, we find that the office of king could he filled by election; the great Kyansittha became king by popular acclaim, after the earlier royal line suddenly ended with the death of King Sawlu, Anawrahta’s son. Therefore, when a Burmese boy entered manhood, he was qualified to be even the king of the country. Viewed against the background of these Burmese beliefs, the royal dress of the boy of the Shinbyu ceremony was originally meant to symbolize the fact that the boy was going to attain maturity and manhood.

The ceremony of ‘showing to the Nat-spirits’ had its origins in pre-Buddhist times. In many villages in Upper Burma until recently, the boy was shown not only to the Nat Guardian but also to the Naga guardian of the village. Before Anawrahta’s time the images of the Nat guardian and the Naga (Dragon) were placed in shrines at the eastern gate of the village and, as described above, after Anawrahta the worship of the Naga was abandoned and the worship of the Nats remained only as an adjunct to Buddhism. The image of the Naga was destroyed and that of the guardian Nat was removed to the western gate of the village when it was decided to build a pagoda and a monastery at the eastern gate. It was [{p121}] to these fallen and forgotten gods that the boy was originally meant to be ‘shown’.

The word Shwè {rhwè:}, which is shouted with so much gusto by the young men during the Shinbyu procession, was originally a Burmese imitation of the Sanskrit word Sri, so magically potent and auspicious to the Hindus. The Hindu astrologers who had been attendants at the court of the Burmese kings since the early centuries of the Christian Era had used this word on all ceremonial occasions, especially at the coronation of the king. The custom of using this word doubtless soon spread far beyond the palace gates, and it came to be used at the Shinbyu procession as an auspicious word, for it seemed fitting that the same magic word which was used at the coronation of a king should be used at the ceremony which marked the occasion of the boy’s entry into manhood, which would qualify him to be even a king.

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Ceremony was once a fertility ritual

However, the word Shwè means ‘(to be) wet’, and in the parched country of Upper Burma, the home of the early Burmese kingdoms, wetness and fertility were synonymous. The Shinbyu ceremony was usually, if not always, performed in the Burmese month of Tabaung (February/March) ( Tabaung is still the usual month for initiation ceremonies). fn121-01 The harvest had been collected, the countryside was parched, and it was hoped that enough rain would fall some nine or ten weeks later when the new growing season was due to begin. Therefore, the word Shwè was a word of invocation and a prayer for rain, and as such it was a magic word to procure fertility. The repeated references to women’s breasts during the course of the shouting seem to indicate that the Shinbyu ceremony was originally regarded also as a fertility ritual. In fact, the pre-Buddhist initiation ceremony which later be came the Shinbyu ceremony was probably part of a harvest festival.

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Goddess PonMaKyi

Nowadays, some time after the harvest has been gathered and usually on the Full Moon Day of Tabaung, the eleventh month of the Burmese year, the women of every household spend the whole night in making white and red cakes. At the first streak of dawn they go to the back of the house and offer them to a Nat named PonMaKyi {poan:ma.kri nat}, who is described as a goddess with big breasts and a huge belly. According to one theory it means ‘Great Lady in Hiding’, and according to another it is a popular mispronunciation of the name ‘Pobba Kyai’, meaning the ‘Friday Star’. In my opinion, both explanations are correct. The primitive harvest festival later became associated with the fertility planet of astrology, namely the Friday planet, and the primitive goddess of fertility became merged with the new god of the Friday planet. After Anawrahta, the worship of both the primitive goddess and the Friday planet had to be practised in ‘hiding’.

Regarding this goddess also, there exists a Buddhist explanation. As the Buddha was preaching to an assembly of monks and layman a woman rushed in carrying a newborn child, and in great fear and anxiety she placed it at the Buddha’s feet. She explained that on previous occasions when she had given birth to a child a frightful-looking ogress came and ate up the child, and this time, also, the ogress appeared and so she had come running to the Buddha to save her child. The Buddha saw the ogress waiting outside, not daring to come near him. He soothed the woman and also gently asked the ogress to come near. Then he explained to them that in a previous existence the ogress was a doe, and every time she gave birth to an infant-deer a tigress came and ate up the little animal. At last, the doe died praying for revenge and now she was the ogress and the tigress was the woman. The Buddha preached to them and the ogress, stricken with remorse, undertook never to eat flesh again, and seized with pity the woman took the ogress to her home [{p123}] and gave her shelter and food. At first, the neighbours resented the presence of the ogress and abused her. But the ogress bore them no ill-will, and when the growing season approached, out of gratitude for her kindness, the ogress told the woman that rainfall was going to be scanty that year and advised her to grow her crops on low ground. That year, as the ogress had forecast, rainfall was scanty. The next year the ogress told the woman that rainfall was going to be heavy and advised her to grow her crops on high ground. Again as the ogress had said, the rainfall that year was heavy. As the woman always followed her advice regarding the crops, and as the forecasts of the ogress were always correct, the woman became prosperous. She told her neighbours about the wisdom of the ogress in foretelling rainfall, so that the neighbours also consulted the ogress and gave her presents of food, with the result that prosperity and tranquillity prevailed in the village. fn123-01

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Other pre-Buddhist beliefs in the ceremony

Other pre-Buddhist beliefs are also to be found in the Shinbyu ceremony. The belief that evil spirits are liable to do bodily harm to the boy during the period of seven days before the ceremony by causing an accident, seems illogical from the Buddhist viewpoint. The boy is to enter the noble order of monks, and surely the seven-day period is a time of merit and virtue during which evil spirits should be powerless and subdued. It seems that the belief originally belonged to a more primitive initiation ceremony, before the advent of Buddhism.

The tattooing ceremony must also have been part of that more primitive initiation ceremony. The ‘stealing’ of the boy by the young men and the payment of a fee to redeem [{p124}] him will remind one of the payment of ‘stone fee’ and ‘bed chamber fee’ in Burmese marriages; the ‘stone fee’ is payable by the parents of the bride to the young men of the village, who will throw stones at the house of the bride on the night following the marriage until the fee is paid. And the young women of the village will prevent the bridegroom from entering the bridal chamber, and even ‘kidnap’ the bride until a small fee is paid by the bridegroom. These customs are still followed, but their primitive origins and significance are no longer known.

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Ear-boring ceremony

Since prehistoric times Burmese women have bored their ears. Burmese men, also, have sometimes bored their ears, but the practice was never widespread. The male members of the royal family usually had their ears bored, and for the king this was obligatory. In the villages, no ceremony seems to have marked the occasion of the ear-boring of either women or men, but at the king’s court the ear-boring was always accomplished with ceremony. For the royal princesses this ceremony was compulsory, and no princess could marry until her ears had been ceremoniously bored. For the king the ceremony was obligatory, because the ear-boring ceremony was a necessary prelude to the ceremony of coronation. Royal custom was followed in the city where the ear-boring of the daughters of officials or of richer families was a ceremony.

These days ear-boring ceremonies are common in towns, but not in villages. Even in towns, the ceremony is by no means obligatory. Moreover, the ear-boring ceremony is a simple ceremony; guests are invited and fed, the ears of the young maidens for whom the ceremony is being performed are pierced with a gold needle, in the presence of the guests; some elders give a few words of greeting and advice to the maidens, and the ceremony is over. There is no religious significance attached to the ear-boring ceremony.

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Author's notes

fn116-01 Or an elephant if one is available. fn116-01b

fn117-01 Sattha-phu =Hsat-thwa-hpu = Pandanus tectorius) fn117-01b

fn117-02 A Burmese village maiden wore (and still wears) flowers in her hair, but the village youth wore them on his ears. fn117-02b

fn121-01 Tabaung is still the usual month for initiation ceremonies. fn127-01b

fn123-01 The full story is given in the Dhammapada Commentary. See Burlingame, Buddhist Legends, Part 1 , Harvard Oriental series) fn123-01b

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UKT notes

PonMaKyi

The Myanmar spelling {poan:ma.kri nat} is yet to be checked with my peers. The spelling could very well be {poän:ma.kri nat}.

Go back ponmakyi-note-b

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Shin

Though the pronunciation of this word is IPA [ʃɪŋ] as in English <shin>, the word is now spelled in Burmese-Myanmar as {rhing}. However, there was an alternate form of spelling {thhying} or {þhying} where [þ] is the "thorn" character of Old English. The words Shin {rhing}, Shinbyu  {rhing-pru.}, and Shin-laung {rhin-laung:} concern the initiation ceremony.

The Burmese syllable or word {laung:} means a "pre-" stage, or "one who would be" as in {Bu.ra:laung:}, {ming:laung:} and {rhing-laung:}. On being allowed to dress as princes and princesses, the young people came to be confirmed in the belief that any human being can be born in the next life as royalty if only he or she would lead a good Buddhist life, and that the ruling king and his sons and daughters must have led a good Buddhist lives in their previous existences. If the ruling king and his children were to behave "wrongly" they would be born as poor villagers or even as animals in their next lives. And there is no reason why one should habour ill-will towards those who are in the higher stations of life.

Go back shin-note-b

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