MAHA MYAT MUNI BUDDHA IMAGE
THE RAKHINE PAGODA
The center of activity in Mandalay is the shrine of Maha Myat Muni Buddha image or Mahamuni Image as it is usually called, which had been carried from Rakhine as a war trophy in 1784. One of the most fervent wishes of a Myanmar Buddhist is to have seen the Buddha in person and offered devotions and gifts to him. It is at the shrine of Mahamuni Buddha image that such pious aspiration is – in a manner – fulfilled, as the legend testifies.
Once in the land called Dinnyavati, now known as Arakan or Rakhine, a horde of ogres came up from the seas and fed themselves on the people. The devastation was such that it looked as if the human race would be wiped out. It was then that a tribe of Sakkya clansmen from Northern India came, after long years of wandering and searching for new lands. By then Dinnyavati was a scene of death and destruction.
True to Sakkya tradition of gallantry and wisdom, the clansmen reorganized the natives to defend their land against the ogres. Under their leadership, the ogres were driven away and they set about developing the land and founded a kingdom, Dinnyavati, which soon became a thriving center of trade, a rendezvous for seamen, overland caravanners and merchants. The dynasty of Sakkya was soon established.
The Great News: The advent of the Buddha
It was during the reign of a king named Canda Suriya that the news spread of how Prince Siddattha, of the warrior clan Sakkya, became the Enlightened Buddha. ( We should forget, for the moment, that historically King Canda Suriya died around 600 A.D. )
The news, of course, came in fragments, and at long intervals, often disconnected and incoherent. To many people, it was an interesting conversation piece, something sensational — a young handsome prince leaving the kingdom and family to take to the woods; his life as an ascetic wearing sackcloth and begging for his daily food; the beautiful wife and son he left behind, later the report of his death through too arduous striving; this last piece was hotly debated; then the news of his being up and about again leading a normal life; this again was also controversial, for how could this prince attain Supreme Light by “taking things easy” when he could not by arduous striving?
People talked of nothing else. They waited for caravanners and seamen for the latest development. Each bit of news was passed round and discussed with enthusiasm. The news of Prince Siddattha’s attainment of Supreme Light and his Sermon at the Deer Park was the climax. People began to wonder what was in the teaching of Siddattha Gotama Buddha, that made kings and powerful clansmen bow down at his feet. What made young men, noble of lineage, leave their life of luxury and pleasure and follow him to lead a life of poverty and austerity? Why was it that the Buddha’s teaching withstood the challenge of the senior teachers of the time?
King Canda Suriya’s Enthusiasm
Ever since the first news of Gotama Buddha came, King Canda Suriya had been filled with an exultant thrill of awe and wonder. The words, Sakkya Prince, Kappilavatthu City, Migadaya Deer Park, Lumbini Woodlands — all these struck a chord in his heart; for, had he heard these names and places mentioned by his parents and grandparents when they told the story of their ancestor’s wanderings before they came to Dinnyavati?
To think that his own kinsman had become the All-Enlightened One and was now teaching the Dhamma, the Law which had never been known or heard in the memory of man, and which could not be challenged by any sage or teacher! As the news of the Buddha developed, the king became more and more excited. He felt that he must have the Buddha come and teach him and his people the Dhamma.
However, when king spoke of his wish to his ministers, they were appalled. After all, the whole thing was a rumor that had been passed, round and perhaps, the story had improved with each telling, so there was hardly any point in chasing moonshine.
The king was disappointed when he saw that his ministers could not or would not share his enthusiasm. Rarely had he felt more lonely, though he was in the midst of all the pleasure and luxury that life could give.
Ministers fell from favor as they could not come up with any helpful suggestion and they dwelt in fear of their life and limb, not daring to say a word, even their silence became an offense. The king became so obsessed with his desire to see the Buddha that he became a sick man losing appetite and sleep. Things came to such a pass that there was a pall of despair in the once pleasurable royal court.
One day the king spoke to his favorite consort Omma Devi, who had long remained silent. He reproved her for being callous and indifferent. Omma Devi, in fact, had been contemplating the matter; she was just biding her time. Now with the king’s reproof, she knew the opportune moment had come. She suggested that the king should summon all the sages and wise men of the land and hear what they had to say. Surely someone should come up with a solution.
The Wise Minister’s Advice
The king immediately proclaimed that all the wise men should assemble at his court. On the day of the assembly, an old minister, who had served the king’s father and grandfather and now who had retired from active life, stood up and spoke:
Your Majesty, I have grown old and infirm in the service of your grandfather and your father, and there were affairs of the state, to which but a few had access, and I had the honor of sharing many of the state secrets, one of which was the advent of your birth.
One day, your majesty was barely conceived in the lotus chamber of your mother’s womb, when she had a strange dream. She dreamed that her desire to hold the sun and the moon in her hands was fulfilled when your father plucked them out of the heavens and put them in her hands.
Asked to read the dream, I answered that the queen, your mother, would have a son whose wisdom, like the sun, would illuminate the land and whose loving kindness would, like the moon, give happiness and peace to the people. Such was the auspicious event that heralded your coming.
Later when the time ripened, you came forth, like a precious jewel out of a golden casket; that moment a huge satellite came flying from the west and encircled the palace spire and flew westward again. It meant that a great teacher, the All Enlightened One would brace this land with his visit.
The old minister’s words were like a balm to the king’s sad heart. He heaped honors and awards on the minister and asked what he should do so that the Buddha would come.
Acting on the old minister’s advice, the king, his queens, and courtiers took a solemn vow to keep themselves pure in thought, word, and deed. Then as each day dawned they assembled in the palace courtyard where offerings of flowers, fruits, and candles were arranged and they recited incantations inviting the Buddha to come and favor them with a visit so that they would be saved from all the evils of suffering. They showered sweet-smelling flowers, and gold leaf confetti and grains of multicolored jewels to welcome the Buddha’s coming.
The Buddha received the message
All these acts manifested themselves on the mirror of the Buddha’s wisdom. The Enlightened One foresaw how his visit to Dinnyavati would lay a foundation for the propagation of his teaching and how it would benefit the multitudes of sentient beings for centuries to come. So the Buddha and his disciples journeyed forth to Dinnyavati. The Buddha stood on the hill and pointing towards Dinnyavati predicted the great future that awaited the territory around the east of the hill. There would arise a prosperous kingdom ruled by the descendants of the Sakkya clan and there his teaching would flourish.
Even as the Buddha spoke the words of the prophecy, the skies abounded with flying stars, and multitudinous seas arose and swelled in colossal waves. In the city of Dinnyavati, the wise men told the king that the Buddha was on the way.
So elated by the news were the king and his court that they could no longer stay and wait; they left the city to meet the Buddha on the way.
The King’s Welcome Journey
The hardships of traveling through the untamed forests and hills, the king hardly felt, so suffused he was with ecstasy. He turned away from appetizing foods his attendants had prepared for him and contented himself with the simple fare of cooked rice and salt.
The king’s men feared that their royal master might grow weak and sick, but the king was thriving on his spiritual joy and sense of wonder. He was in good health and full of spirits, ever ready to comfort those who were sick or tired or down-hearted. His infectious cheeriness sustained his men throughout the journey.
Days later they came upon a plateau. There a great dust storm arose and the king and his men lost their bearings. Frightened by the pall of the darkness surrounding them, they set their hearts on the infinite compassion of the Buddha and prayed for guidance.
That moment the iridescent rays of the Buddha’s aura in indescribably beautiful colors fell in cascades over the king and his men.
Refreshed and overjoyed they soon came upon the Buddha who stretched his hand to welcome them; they all prostrated themselves at the Great One’s feet, where they heaped the offerings to express their devotion. All the way back to the city of Dinnyavati the king and his men served the Buddha and his disciples like retainers.
The Buddha at Dinnyavati City
The people of Dinnyavati city gave a rousing welcome to the Buddha and his disciples who entered the city attended by the king and his courtiers. The Buddha and his disciples were housed in the monastery which had been built for the purpose. Their needs and comforts were adequately attended to by the king and his men.
The Buddha taught the king the basic principles of managing the kingdom’s affairs with compassion, generosity, and tolerance. The officials and commoners alike were given guidance as to how to conduct themselves, so that they could promote happiness and wellbeing not only in this life but also in the lives to come. The time drew near for the king could not face. He simply would not hear of it. His queen and courtiers feared that the Buddha’s departure would be the end of the king himself. Something had to be done and done very quickly. A compromise.
By using subtle hints and suggestions, the queens and courtiers finally succeeded in making the king come to terms with the inevitable departure of the Buddha, and he decided to content with a lifelike replica of the Buddha. He begged the Buddha to leave him a likeness so that he and the other devotees could have a replica of the Great One to honor and worship.
The Buddha foresaw the infinite good that would result from conceding to such a request, and so he gave his word to comply with the king’s wish.
The king in his great joy heaped gold and precious stones at the Buddha’s feet so that the statue could be cast. It was then that Thagyarmin, king of celestials, came and at the Buddha’s command, transported the treasures to the top of the Siri Makuta Hill on the south west of the city.
The Casting of the Image
There on the top of the hill, Thagyarmin and his retinue saw to the creation of the image, the likeness of the Buddha, to the utmost perfection. The finished image was then enthroned on a bejeweled seat.
When the people came to look at the image, they bowed down in deep reverence thinking that it was the Buddha in person. When the Buddha himself came in, they were struck with wonder as if they were seeing two suns arise in the heavens.
Even as they gazed in awe, the statue seemed to come to life and a smile lighted on the face as if to greet the great original. Then the Buddha embraced the statue seven times, imparting to it the breath of life. The Buddha exhorted the statue to represent him and his teaching so that multitudes of posterity would benefit. And the rejoicings of the men and gods rose to tumultuous heights. So when the Buddha and his disciples left, the people of Dinnyavati and their king were well established in the teaching of the Buddha, and the life-like image was there to reinforce their faith and ardor.
How the Image was brought to Mandalay
That was how the Mahamuni Buddha image came into being. How it was brought to Mandalay from Rakhine by King Bodawphaya’s troops after their campaign in 1784 belongs to history — authentic and factual.
However, the tedium of historical facts is mercifully enlivened by colorful patches of gossip, rumor, and fable. It was the Crown Prince, son, and heir of King Bodawphaya, who led the campaign to Rakhine and brought back the image to Mandalay.
With so little technical know-how and sophisticated tools and equipment, transporting the image across the Rakhine Yoma mountain ranges and later up the river Ayeyarwaddy was indeed no small task. There would be plenty of room for sensational events that could be passed around with more embellishments.
People of Rakhine still insist that the Buddha image at Mandalay is not the genuine one, not the one the Buddha himself had embraced seven times and breathed life into. Their story of what happened is as follows:
After the conquest of Rakhine, the Crown Prince sent one of his generals to go and get the Mahamuni Buddha Image. The general went to the shrine and after offering flowers, candies, and fruits and showering confetti to show reverence, requested the image to allow him to carry it to Mandalay.
That moment the great image throbbed as if alive and beads of perspiration fell in rivulets. The general received the drops in a solid gold goblet and presented it to his master the Crown Prince as an exhibit to support his starting story.
The Crown Prince, however, was determined to get the image. At long last, the prince and his men managed to transport the image to the bank of one of those unpredictable, treacherous creeks that meandered through the formidable ranges of Rakhine Yoma. The image was then put on the raft which was made for the purpose, but it immediately broke to pieces and the image sank down to the bottom.
The men dived and searched but all their efforts were in vain. The image might as well have been melted and lost forever. So there was only one thing to do — to cast a replica of the image and carry it to Mandalay. And that was done.
To the Myanmar, however, the image now enshrined at Mandalay is the one and only Mahamuni that they know of. To go to Mandalay and pay respects to the Mahamuni Buddha Image means to the Myanmar Buddhists, the next best thing to seeing the Buddha himself in person.