A Land of Pagodas
In Myanmar, The Land of Pagodas, you will find pagodas wherever you go. Some golden and towering like the great Shwedagon in Yangon; others small and whitewashed, on hilltops of flat lands among green paddy fields. They come in all sizes, shapes, and conditions. Pagodas are not merely places of religious worship and rituals; for that matter, ritual worship has no place in Buddhist teaching. It is the human need to express devotion to and adoration of the Buddha and his teaching that manifests itself in the act of building pagodas and in making ceremonial offerings before the shrines. Pagodas are also centers of social activities. They are places for communal alms-giving at proper seasons, people contributing in cash or in kind.
Every pagoda has an annual festival, and all such festivals are trade fairs and clan gatherings. Vendors from all over the country come with their wares. Long winding rows of temporary stalls built of bamboo and thatch blossom forth with colorful goods. The revenues from the stalls are a source of income for the upkeep and repair of the pagodas.
Traders-cum-pilgrims contribute voluntary funds to the pagoda. In this way, good business is done, and at the same time, spiritual needs are satisfied. It is a meritorious deed to give away part of one’s earnings to the pagoda. “Live and eat like the crow who eats with one eye on the food and other eye alerts to the dangers“. This is the advice given to the lay folk by the religious teachers. The Myanmar Buddhist is alert to the dangers of the meanness of spirit that could send one to the lower states of rebirth in the afterlife. Thus even while he is occupied in the mundane business of making money, he gives away something from what he earns to a good cause. Buddhism is a way of life that can be practiced by the common folk even though they may be ‘unlearned and unschooled’.
Pagoda and People
Pagodas are maintained mostly by voluntary contributions from the people. It is amazing how well it is done with only voluntary contributions. There is comparatively little or no help from the state or any other institutions. Pagodas are hence very much part of the community. Pagoda plays a memorable part in the life of a Myanmar Buddhist. As a child, he trots along with adults to the pagoda, where he bows down at the shrine and recites verses in praise of the Buddha. He sweeps the grounds, puts fresh flowers in the vases, lights candles and runs about in the glee. He is allowed to roam freely, playing or munching his snacks. Very little restraint is put on him – so long as he keeps away from the older folk doing their contemplation.
On the precincts of the pagodas are paintings and sculptures, depicting the important episodes in the life of the Buddha. These representations excite the children’s interest and they cannot but learn the basics of Buddhism with little effort and lots of fun. Adults also brush up their scriptural knowledge as they cope with the children’s questions. There is a free and easy atmosphere all round, and what may be lacking in solemnity and sedateness is well redeemed by the happy affectionate closeness created between the pagodas and the people of all age groups, and of course consequently with the teaching of the Buddha.
Pagodas are not lifeless monuments
Pagodas are not lifeless monuments, but they are very much alive with people of all ages and sizes. Pagodas are teeming with life, more so perhaps, than one might imagine. There are more than pilgrims on the pagoda grounds than those that meet the eye. One cannot go into the pagoda precincts without encountering mythical beings in human forms as well as in fantastic shapes of dragons and ogres.
When the culturally confused stranger asks what these mythical beings are doing on the pagoda platform, perhaps as preposterous as the statues of Zeus or Venus might be on the consecrated grounds of a Christian church, the answer invariably will be:
“They are the guardian nats of the pagoda.”
While visiting pagodas – or anywhere else in Myanmar for that matter – one will hear ‘nats’ mentioned every now and then.
“What are nats?”
“They are spirits.”
This answer, according to Myanmar, should take care of all the implications and complications of the matter.
One is bewildered by the presence of what he takes to be animistic symbols on the pagoda ground, Myanmar themselves are no less so by queries as to what nats are doing at a pagoda. Why nats are there; they have been with us for generations, so why shouldn’t they be? Nats, like humans, are also the disciples of the Buddha. One might as well ask why there are people on the pagoda platforms. No wonder some western scholars insist that Buddhism in Myanmar is only a veneer and that Myanmar are animists. Others say that Buddhism, as practiced in Myanmar, is mixed up with spirit worship. But neither is true.
Who and what are nats?
Buddhists accept the existence of nats or spirits or devas, not as dieties for worship, but as a class of beings, like humans. This acceptance is rooted in the basic Buddhist teaching, which is that all sentient beings, humans, nats, and animals are fellow beings going around the cycle of rebirth.
Each being is born and reborn in the life or state decided by his own actions, good or bad. The state of being a nat of high or low level is just one of the planes of existence in the cycle of rebirth. The epithet nat covers all levels of spirits, high and low, good and evil.
Nats are supposed to have supernormal powers, like the power of moving at will and changing into any form they wish. It does not follow, however, that all nats are good; goodness and power do not always go together in the world of nats, as anywhere else.
Nats are not immortals like the Greek gods. Their life span is much longer than humans. In spite of the long span of life and supernormal powers, they are still on the journey of birth and rebirth. They too are subject to death, decay and sorrow. They are as much in need of salvation as are humans. In this way, nats, as fellow beings, share the kinship and continuity of life with humans.
Because their blissful state lasts only as long as the force of their good deeds lasts, good nats are anxious to reinforce their good deeds. One way to do that is to take interest in humans, inspiring them to do good. When someone remembers to do a good deed, he says, ‘Some good nat must be telling me to do this’. Humans also call upon nats to help them do good deeds.
When visiting pagodas the kinship between nats and humans is more in evidence. The mythical figures on the pagoda platform are there to welcome the pilgrims and look after their welfare. Pilgrims pay their respects to the guardian nats, as they might to a host when visiting, wish them well and say “ahmya”, which means please have a share of the merit gained by us as a result of our good deeds on the pagoda. This saying of “ahmya” is important, because, according to the Buddhist teaching, to rejoice in the good deeds of others is in itself a deed of merit. When some merit-doer says “ahmya”, the one who hears says “thardu” well done, in response. In this way the one who says “thardu” also gains a share of merit, because he rejoices in the other’s good deed.
In the Buddhist way of thinking, there are spirits of all levels who wish to hear someone say “ahmya” so that they can say “thardu” and the good act will elevate them to a higher state of rebirth. Pilgrims always say “ahmya” so that all the spirits on the pagoda platform can rejoice and gain merit too. In this way, pilgrims can also gain the goodwill and help of the Nats. It is good to feel that one has friends seen and unseen on the pagoda grounds or anywhere, so long as one is willing to let others share one’s good deeds.
Here, it may not be out of place to mention a social custom, which is widely different from that of the West. People here in Myanmar tell of the good deeds they have done to their friends so that they can rejoice over them and gain merit too; it is a way of sharing the merit one gains by doing a good deed. A person of a different culture might easily take it for a tendency to show off.
Since a Myanmar trip means visiting pagodas, one could start with the great Shwedagon, the majestic shining stupa in Yangon. But then, it might be more fitting to visit a smaller pagoda in the suburban area. The reason will be obvious as you go into the precincts, of that pagoda, called the Mai Lamu Pagoda.