How great [...] are the differences concealed under the Theravadin Buddhist monk’s uniform yellow toga.
It is not quite uniform, is it? With the Burmese monks, it seems redder than it is in Thailand. I was waiting for someone to say “saffron revolution” and The Economist has this on its front cover.
Toynbee visited Burma in December 1957.
In Thailand this noble raiment clothes a clergyman of an established church. The Thai monk receives respect and honour so long as he knows and keeps his place and obeys the civil authorities. In Thailand the Government has the Sangha (monastic fraternity) under control. In Burma the status and temper of the monks remind an historian of fifth-century Christian Egypt. The fraternity includes as many genuine ascetics, philosophers, and saints as any similar body anywhere at any time. But it also includes “turbulent priests” like those who were the terror of Byzantine governors-general at Alexandria. A mob of monks may suddenly fling off the yellow toga and start fighting with staves, swords, revolvers, or even hand-grenades. And Burman monks who misbehave themselves in these or other less flagrant ways – by making money, for instance, or by frequenting the cinema – are not easy to call to order. Like their lay fellow-citizens, the Burman monks – normally so well disciplined and severe – may abruptly turn violent and vindictive. To de-frock a delinquent monk is quite a dangerous operation for his spiritual superiors. They find it safer to boycott him in the hope that he may eventually de-frock himself and take his departure quietly.
This picture might suggest that the Burman monks are not such worthy followers of their Master as their Thai brethren. But any such conclusion would be misleading. In Thailand Buddhism is respectable; in Burma it is alive. In Burma today, as in Byzantine Egypt, the monastic life is paradoxical. It is both scandalous and edifying – a stumbling-block and at the same time a source of inspiration. While some monks are doing no credit to their cloth, others are reviving the Theravada (they do not accept the nickname Hinayana – “Little Vehicle” – which has been given to Southern Buddhism by the rival northern school that claims to be the “Great vehicle” or Mahayana). These Burman Buddhist revivalists believe that the authentic philosophy of the Buddha Siddhartha Gautama is a cure for the spiritual crisis of the present-day world. Their first step, taken two years ago, was to convene an oecumenical council of monks representing the five Theravadin Buddhist countries: Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Ceylon. The assembled Fathers achieved a huge piece of co-operative intellectual work: they made a new recension of the Tripitaka [or Tipitaka], the Pali scriptures of the Southern Buddhist Church.
Pāḷi, the language of the earliest extant Buddhist canon, the Pāḷi Canon (in Pāḷi, Tipitaka), and the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, was originally a north Indian Indo-European language and probably related to the language the Buddha spoke.
The text fills forty-two volumes. I watched these being printed and bound at the printing-press that is one of the Council’s legacies. These volumes are finding their way over the World, and they are being followed by missionaries. Japan, where the Mahayana is just now at a rather low ebb, is one mission-field on which the Southern Buddhist revivalists have their eye.
This zeal for the Buddha’s philosophy is not confined to the monks; there are zealous laymen too, including lawyers, magistrates, and business men who have had a modern secular education in Britain as well as at home. But this Ancient Indian school of philosophy, like the schools of Ancient Greece, is only for an élite. To qualify for embarking on this arduous spiritual endeavour, one must have considerable intellectual ability and training besides moral earnestness and self-discipline. Simpler “persons” (Buddhists do not admit the existence of “selves” or “souls”) express their piety in outward acts which the Buddha might have found spiritually valueless or even detrimental. For example, thousands of willing hands acquired merit by heaping up the vast artificial cave in which the Rangoon oecumenical council held its sessions (a cave is the traditional setting for an assembly of this kind). Other voluntary groups spontaneously combine to build a new pagoda or a new statue of the Buddha – dedicated, perhaps, to world peace or to the release of all sentient beings from the sorrowful wheel of suffering. The poorest can build a little pagoda of sand held together by a bamboo frame, or can offer a candle or a bundle of joss sticks or a bunch of flowers. Religion, at all its levels, from sublime contemplation to commonplace superstition, is the field in which Burmans of all social and intellectual classes are enthusiastic, energetic, and effective. And they devote themselves to religion, undismayed, while the transitory phenomenal world runs true to form by falling about the ears of its transitory denizens.
In the past, Burma has been as prosperous as Thailand, and she is still quite as rich potentially. Besides producing a large exportable surplus of rice, she can grow better teak and she possesses mineral oil deposits that the Thais might envy. Yet, today, Burma is, from the material point of view, in a poor way. Her bane is the breakdown of public security. Even on the railways and the main roads, traffic cannot now venture to travel by night; and whole areas, even within close range of the capital, are out of the Government’s control. In consequence, Burma’s economic life has been lamed and her currency has been depreciating. But the darkness of her immediate material prospects does not extinguish the spiritual light that is radiating from Burman minds.
Burmese nationalism began with the the formation of the Young Men’s Buddhist Associations (YMBA), modelled on the YMCA, which started to appear all over the country, and in Ceylon, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Buddhist monks, along with students, were at the forefront of the struggle for independence, and later for democracy.
Civilian governments, after Burma gained independence, patronised Buddhism, donating large sums to fund the upkeep and building of Buddhist monuments. U Nu, prime minister for most of the time from 1948 to 1962, when the military rook over, passed legislation influenced by Buddhism. He declared Buddhism the state religion, which alienated minority groups, especially the animist and Christian Kachin. That measure was passed in 1961, so Toynbee was not wrong in the contrast he made between Burma and Thailand on this score. The 1947 Burmese Constitution had recognised Buddhism’s special position, but had not called it the state religion.
I am not sure how that question was handled after 1962, but the present military government has also tried to be seen as a patron of Buddhism. The relationship between monks and the state is a more volatile thing than in Thailand and Burmese monks do not “know their place”, but it would not true to say that the Burmese state has not paid Buddhism honour.
I will do a longer post on Burmese history in a few days.
Monks in the rain, Rangoon, September 20 2007
East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958