It is predominantly in the Burmese month of ‘Tagu’ (March/April), the time of ‘Thingyan’, the Burmese New Year and ‘Waso’ (June/July), the beginning of the Buddhist Lent, that ‘Shin Pyu’ and ‘Koyin’ are in the mouths, hearts and minds of all Buddhists in this country.
Thingyan, means ‘change over’ or ‘transition’ and this transition not only refers to a transition from one season or year to the next but also for young boys the transition from an ordinary ‘living creature’ to a ‘human being’ as a Buddhist male is accepted as fully-fledged human being only after he is gone through the shin pyu. This happens usually sometime between his sixth and twelfth birthday, mostly at about the age of nine years. This is for a young boy in Burma the most important moment of his life: the initiation as a ‘Koyin’, a ‘novice’ in the order of Buddhist ‘Pongyis’ (monks) with the ‘Shin Pyu’, the ‘Initiation ceremony’ and his parents consider it as a privilege to novitiate their son(s).
No man’s life is fulfilled and completed without having been novitiated. In other words, a Buddhist man who has not at the very least been a koyin once in his early life is looked upon as someone who has missed out on the most important thing in his worldly life. Therefore this is a must for Buddhists. But the significance of this moment is not the only reason for the shin pyu being traditionally a time of extravagance. Actually, it is not even the main reason as a noviciation ceremony can in fact also be very simple. The main reason for this is that Siddhartha Gautama (c 563 to c 483 BC) – the later Gautama Buddha – was a wealthy and powerful prince. He was born as the son of the very wealthy head of the mighty Indian warrior chaste the ‘Sakya’ (which accounts for the name ‘Sakyamuni’, meaning ‘Sage of the Sakya’, the name by which Siddhartha was also known in his later life), and – becoming a philosopher – he decided in his young years to depart from his worldly secular life.
He became the ‘Seeker of the Ultimate Truth’, walked ‘The Path of Perfection’, became the founder of ‘Buddhism’ and finally – after finding ‘Enlightenment’ (‘Buddha’, meaning ‘The Enlightened One’). The name ‘Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’ is, subsequently, his first name ‘Siddhartha’ plus family name ‘Gautama’ plus ‘The Enlightened One’, Buddha.
So, since Gautama Buddha was a wealthy prince before he became a monk and later Buddha, young boys in Burma become in imitation of this, symbolically, princes what explains the traditional grandeur of the ‘Shin Pyu Ceremony’.
After the arrangement of the ceremony the boy’s sister(s) – if there is/are any – announce it to the whole neighbourhood. Everyone is invited and contributes to the festival (in other words, do acts of ‘dhana’ or giving), which is a very costly affair for the boy’s parents who if they are not so wealthy -what is, unfortunately, true for the majority of them – often go to the limits of their means when their boy(s) is/are becoming a ‘human being’, i.e. a Koyin in a Buddhist monks order although in order to ease the pressure on the budget attendance of mass noviciation ceremonies and cost-sharing with respect to e.g. cars, drivers and music troupes so as to get the most and best possible for the lowest possible price is the order of the day.
Prior to the shin pyu the young monk-to-be (shinlaung) gets an extravagant makeup, is dressed in princely garments (the style of which differs from region to region) of silk embroidered with elaborate sequin work, wears a royal (often golden) headdress and has a symbolical white horse.
If the family can afford it it’s a real one although it may not be white. However, the ‘mode of transportation’ can also be an elephant, a pick-up or simply daddy’s shoulders in piggy-back fashion. Again, that depends on region, location and family budget.
In any case musicians are hired to entertain the guests and accompany the boy(s) to the monastery. The musicians are part of all that what is representing the worldly goods the novice monk must part with when accepting the rules of the ‘Sangha’, the ‘Buddhist Brotherhood’ or ‘Order of the Buddha’ that renounces of all personal possessions. Excepted from this are a few very basic ones such as 3 robes, a hand fan, slippers, a needle (for sewing), a belt, a strainer for water (to ensure that no living thing is swallowed), a razor, an alms bowl and an umbrella. However, in reality monks usually have some additional small items in their possession.
The night before the ceremony is a very busy one as a feast is prepared for all the monks of the order the young boy(s) will join and all the invited guests including musicians, drivers, friends, etc. Then, in a festive procession of cars, pickups, trucks, etc., decorated with ‘Htihpyus’ (white umbrellas) and ‘Htishwes’ (golden umbrellas) the young ‘Prince’ soon to be a Koyin (monk novice) is brought accompanied by the entire family, all invited guests and to the tunes of the ‘Do bat’ (small group of musicians) to the Kyaung (monastery) where he will spend the next days, weeks or months separated from his family under the strict rules of the Sangha.
This procession is an imitation of the night when according to Buddhists belief young prince Siddhartha Gautama left riding on a horse to the woods, leaving his family (incl. wife, Princess Yasodhara, and son Rahula) and all the royal splendour and his privileged life in the palace behind to humbly practice ascetic virtues as forest-dwelling monk and live a life of self-detachment for the following six years.
In Yangon many go first up to the Shwedagon Pagoda as this is here the pagoda of choice. They walk one time clock-wise around the pagoda’s central stupa to pay homage to the Buddha and do meritorious deeds; then they make pictures and proceed to the monastery where the shin pyu will take place.
Upon arrival at the monastery it’s again time for photo shooting in order to make this important moment an everlasting one for all the present and future family members and friends to be seen.
Then the monks are fed elaborately followed by all invited men and finally the women.
As the ceremony proceeds the novitiate monk’s (koyin’s) head is shaved, his hair is when it is falling down collected by female relatives in a white cloth later to be buried near a pagoda or kept at home where it is given a special place.
However, the monk attire and equipment is not handed over to the monk-to-be just like that. It is a very ceremonial affair and the language used during this ceremony is Pali because the language of the Theravada canonical texts is Pali. As it is difficult to speak and pronounce Pali language perfectly the novice to be has to learn at least one month ahead how to, for instance, ask for the robe (thingan daung) from the presiding monk, how to pronounce properly the three venerable (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha), how to say beats, the Ten Precepts (seba thila) and so on in.
Upon approval of his request to enter into monkshood the koyin prostates himself three times before the ‘Sayadaw’, the abbot preceding over the ceremony. Then he is robed (the robes can be white, yellow or maroon), has his ‘Thabeik’, the alms bowl, hanged over his shoulders and is given an old Pali name. This is traditionally based on an astrology-based naming system and given by the Sayadaw. Now the young boy is accepted as a Koyin. He is ready to walk as Buddhist novice the ‘Path of Perfection’; first done by Gautama Buddha and later by his own son ‘Rahula’.
As long as he stays in the kyaung (monastery) the young monk novice may – even by his parents – be addressed in revered tones only for he is now a ‘Son of Buddha’. He on his part addresses his mother as ‘lay sister’ and his father as ‘lay brother’. But these privileges our koyin has to earn the hard way as life in the monastery is usually not so easy for him. During the time spent in the monastery he is subject to the rules of the Sangha the adherence to which requires a high degree of discipline and is monitored and mercilessly ensured by a ‘Kapya’ a sort of general factotum that assists the Sayadaw. The young novice is taught the ten basic Buddhist rules of conduct and the basic Pali scriptures. These include the ‘Four Noble Truth’, which are:
1. All life is suffering
2. This suffering comes from selfish desire
3. When forsaken selfish desire suffering will be extinguished
4. The ‘middle-path’ is the way to eliminate desire. This ‘middle-path’ is the ‘Eight-Fold-Path’ that comprises: right speech, right action, right thought, right exertion, right attentiveness, right concentration, right aspiration and right understanding.
At 10:00 P.M. the Koyin has to sleep and to get up at 03:00 A.M. Two hours before dawn he goes with the other monks on the daily alms-round announced by advancing ‘Pongyi Kyauk thas’ (boys from the monastery) on a gong or triangle.
A traditional poem describes this as follows:
“Hark! From the village’s brow comes the ting-a-ling of the triangle gong.
Our novice of the bamboo grove kyaung on his alms-round he will come.
Hurry, please with the alms food bowl.”
The food received as alms is his only meal today. After the completion of the alms-round the monks and the koyin return to the kyaung. His last solid food for the day he is allowed to take in at 11:00 A.M.
The rest of the time until he goes to sleep is spend on prayers and meditations both individually and together with others as well as with religious instructions in Theravada Buddhism given by monks. As for Theravada Buddhism one could say that the name is programme because in Pali ‘Thera’ means elders and ‘Vada’ means doctrine, thus, Theravada, ‘The Doctrine Of The Elders’. It is also called ‘small vehicle’ or Hinayana, meaning ‘lesser vehicle’. By contrast, the second main school of Buddhism, ‘Mahayana’ or ‘larger/greater vehicle’ – dominant in most of Asia – is centred on the personality of the historical Buddha and its relation to a person’s salvation. The diversion into Theravada and Mahayana is the result of the Third Buddhist Synod that took place in 235 B.C. at Pataliputra in India and was convened by the deeply religious king Ashoka.
In Theravada Buddhism a true form of worship does not exist for which reason the pongyis and the koyin perform three times daily the recitation of the ‘Triratna’ or ‘Three Jewels’ that goes: “I take refuge in the Buddha (The Enlightened One). I take refuge in the Dharma (Buddhist doctrine). I take refuge in the Sangha (Buddhist monastic community/Buddhist Brotherhood/Order of the Buddha).”
So, life in the monastery is not easy for the young koyin as its philosophy is diametrically opposed to the worldly life. For almost all koyins the period of time they stay in the monastery is not very long. Their life as a member of the monastic community lasts usually 7 to 14 days. Many of them will repeat their stay in a kyaung on a yearly basis (mostly during Thingyan) and leave it at that. However, some hundred thousand pongyis have become ordained at the age of 20, the minimum age at which one can become full member of the Sangha) or later. These mostly young men have the intention to devote the rest of their lives to the learning of ‘Pali’. Pali is one of the Indo-Aryan dialects known as Prakrits and a direct descendant from Sanskrit. It is the language in which the original Buddhist scriptures are written. They do not only submit themselves to the studying of Pali scriptures and the religious instruction of lay people but also to the 227 rules of the Buddhist order. These rules include the three fundamental rules the monks have to subscribe to:
1. The renunciation of all possessions except those mentioned previously.
2. The vow to injure nothing and to offend no one.
But since contrary to Christian religions no vow is taken Buddhist monks are at liberty to leave the order at any time they wish to do. But whatever the koyin will decide to do with his life in respect to religion his spiritual life respectively, it begins with the shin pyu.
Shin pyus are usually staged before and at the beginning of the three-months Buddhist Lent season that begins with the full moon of the Burmese month of Waso (June/July), is followed by Wagaung (July/August), and Thawthalin (August/September) and ends with Thadingyut (September/October). While Burmese boys are novitiated in the shin pyu with all ceremonial splendour, the girls have an unspectacular ceremony that is of rather social than religious nature. In this ceremony called Nahtwin that usually coincides with the boys (their brothers) noviciation and takes place prior to the noviciation ceremony their ear lobes are pierced. This rather unceremonious ear-piercing ceremony is traditionally an important one to them. For this reason they are on this occasion dressed like little princesses. But the ear-piercing ceremony almost pales into insignificants against the backdrop of the boys ‘ pompous Shin pyu. But if the boy’s sisters (or any other girl or young woman, for that matter, wishes so she can of course also join a Buddhist nuns order.
Having reached the end of the monk ordination ceremony or noviciation ceremony that centres solely about boys it seems to me only fair to say a few words about Buddhist nuns. In general, so much is written about monks and all stuff related; but very little be it scriptures or contemporary writing can be found about Buddhist nuns.
As so often in life women do, alas, also in matters of religion – in this case Buddhism and in particular the Theravada Buddhism in Burma (Burma) – come off badly. This goes for Buddhism and Christianity as well as for other religions.
Even Buddha himself – who always said that there was no difference between men and women in terms of attaining nibbana (Enlightenment) – put the monks on the front seat and it took pretty much persuasion by his Sangha comprising some 60 disciples (bhikkhus), his aunt and foster-mother, Maha Pajapati Gotami, and his cousin and aide Ananda to have him also establish an order for Buddhist nuns. This he did by ordaining Maha Pajapati Gotami and some of her followers.
Giving existing scriptures the credit to be reliable sources Buddha’s reason for not being so happy with the admission of women to the Sangha was that he thought that this would have a negative effect on its strengths and, subsequently, on the lengths of its life (too much temptation is as I think what he means). And this negative attitude towards nuns (bhikkhunis) or Thilashins (owners of virtue), as they are called in Burma lives on in both Sangha and society till today.
This finds its expression and becomes visible in many things. It begins with Buddha’s laying down more rules of discipline for nuns (for the bhikkhunis 311 compared to the bhikkhus 227 in the Theravada version) and his making it more difficult for them to be ordained. To top it all he also made them subordinate to monks. This is what I call discrimination, which in my view constitutes a problem. Sure, there are monks who think differently (meaning they are of the opinion that nuns should be admitted to the Sangha) and those who do not even give this problem a thought (meaning either way is OK with them) but the simple truth is that the governing council of Burmese Theravada Buddhism has ruled that there can be no valid ordination of women. All of this together kind of sanctions that Buddhist nuns are not given the status, respect and financial support they deserve by both monks and lay people.
And the inequity continuous as you can see from the following example. For most Buddhist lay people (ordinary lay people) in Burma feeding the monks with delicious meals comprising thamin (cooked rice), curry (Hin), vegetable (Hin thee hin ywat), soup (Hin yay), etc. is an important ritual in order to obtain much merit, to ensure them a fortunate rebirth and even luck in their present lives. This does by no means go for nuns. Whereas monks are offered elaborately cooked meals nuns get only a few odd things such as a small amount of Kyat (pennies actually), a spoon or two of uncooked rice (Sa), a sweet, a tomato (Kha yan chin thee) or an onion (Kyat thun ni), etc.
Speaking in more general terms it is very obvious that the Buddhist lay people in Burma make a great show of offering new robes to the monks and money to the pongyi kyaungs but that they pay very little attention to the nuns and their monasteries.
In plain English, feeding monks and financially supporting their monasteries results in plenty of merits for the afterlife but feeding nuns and give financial support to their nunneries does not give anything in return; so why giving something (if anything at all) to them? So it’s business or what? Very selfish, wouldn’t you say so? For this reason I donate for nuns rather than monks. The nuns know that and never fail to stop at my doorsteps when they make their daily rounds.
Here is another example; Buddhist monks enjoy highest status in society, even presidents and elder statesman kneel before them, but nuns (even higher ranking bhikkhunis) are paid, at best, (never mind the few exceptions from the rule) the respect that any ordinary woman receives.
When the topic religious study comes into the picture the discrimination against women in Buddhist sisterhood does not stop. The highest level a Buddhist nun in Burma can ever reach is called Dhammacariya and is a Buddhist university degree equivalent to a civilian bachelor. To the Buddhist universities that offer master degrees in Buddhist studies nuns are not admitted.
I could go on and on with giving you examples of the discrimination of Buddhist nuns that still persists in Burma (not in other Buddhist countries) but I think it is enough now. No? OK then, here is one more; but this is really the last one: When a Buddhist monk (not koyin) – no matter how young and healthy – is entering, for instance, a bus it is a matter of course that he is unhesitatingly going to the front seats because he knows that almost everyone is eager to offer him his seat (actually the seats in front are whenever possible kept free for monks in pretty much the same way in which in other countries seats are reserved for old and disabled people); even pregnant woman and elder people will do that. If, however, a nun (no matter how old or fit) is entering a bus almost no one is paying any attention. How much worse can it get, I ask you?
All of this may account for the fact that there are about 500.000 Buddhist pongyis in Burma and only a handful of thilashins. Estimates are that their number is about 40.000. As a final note I want to mention that for all the a.m. examples of discrimination it seems to me that the life of a thilashin has become somewhat more attractive in Burma. However, unlike in e.g. Sri Lanka or Thailand – where the endeavours for restoring the Bhikkhuni order are slow but continuously gaining strengths – in Burma similar attempts are inconsiderable.