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Posts Tagged ‘Sakka

Thadingyut Festival of Lights

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The Myanmar lunar month of Waso, which usually falls in July, marks the beginning of the three-month Vassa period, also known as Buddhist Lent or the Rains Retreat. During this time, monks are not allowed to travel overnight from their monasteries, and therefore they dedicate these months to intensive meditation and the study of scripture.

Many laypeople also adhere more closely to the Buddhist precepts by giving up meat or alcohol. Weddings are not allowed during this period, and music concerts and other public performances are frowned upon. As Myanmar author Khin Myo Chit writes in her book Flowers and Festivals Round the Myanmar Year, “It is a time for sobriety, self-denial and religious contemplation.”

Monsoon starts loosening its grip during the lunar month of Tawthalin (September). The rain still falls, but sunshine increasingly finds its way through the cloud-cover. The rivers are brimming with water, and in some places the Ayeyarwady appears more like a lake than a flowing waterway.

The buildup to Thadingyut, which marks the end of Buddhist Lent and fell on October 28 this year, is characterized by a gradual change in weather. With the skies now clearing, it is the season of pagoda festivals, music concerts and weddings, with cooler winter weather just around the corner.

The end of Lent is marked nationwide with the three-day Thadingyut Festival of Lights.

Buddhists believe that at one point in his life, the Buddha ascended to Tavatimsa, the Celestial Abode, and spent the three-month Vassa period teaching the sacred Abhidhamma discourses to the heavenly beings who lived there. Among his students was his mother from a previous existence, who had been reborn in Tavatimsa as a god named Santusita. The lengthy sermon was the Buddha’s way of thanking Santusita for having been his mother in a previous incarnation.

On the full moon day of Thadingyut – which is still known as Abhidhamma Day – the Buddha descended back to the human realm from Tavatimsa. Some versions of the story say that Sakka, king of the celestials, created stairways made of gold, silver and rubies to facilitate the procession, while other accounts claim that the pathway was fashioned from the stars themselves. In any case, the procession is said to have included a host of brahmas and gods accompanied by the sound of Sakka wailing away on his mighty conch-shell horn. The people of the earthly realm set out bright lights to help guide the Buddha and to celebrate his return, a tradition that is maintained to this day.

During Thadingyut, pagodas and homes throughout the country are decorated with electric lights, colorful paper lanterns, candles and even small ceramic saucers filled with oil in which wicks are lit. Major religious sites such as Shwedagon Pagoda are packed with pilgrims who light candles to pay homage to the Buddha and gain merit. Each light adds to the incredible spectacle of thousands of small flames burning in the night. Out on the streets, meanwhile, some people light fireworks or launch small hot-air balloons, which silently ascend and drift across the sky before burning out.

Thadingyut is also a time for street fairs, one of the most popular of which is held along several blocks of Bogyoke Aung San Road in downtown Yangon. For three days the air is thick with the aroma of fried food, and street vendors urge passersby to throw their money away on blue jeans, wristwatches, sunglasses and the latest hip-hop gangsta-wear from China. There are impossible-to-win ring-toss games, as well as sketchy Ferris wheels that are spun manually by acrobatic, death-defying carnies. Signboards are erected along the upper block of 50th Street and decorated with cartoons drawn by local artists, a tradition that dates back to 1932 when cartoonist U Ba Gyan set up an exhibition of his work on 13th Street in Lanmadaw township. After his death in 1953, young artists carried on the tradition in different locations around the city.

Thadingyut is also associated with paying homage not only to the Buddha and his teachings (dhamma), but also to the order of monks (sangha), parents, teachers and elder relatives. In this way, laypeople are able to emulate the gesture of gratitude that the Buddha paid to his mother during his sequester in Tavatimsa. Visits are made to parents and elders to present gifts and to give thanks, and some people hand out food donations (satuditha) to friends, family and strangers alike. In a ceremony known as pawarana, monks ask their monastic brethren to rep­rimand them for any sins they may have committed.

Several areas around Myanmar have their own unique way of celebrating Thadingyut. At Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda in Mon State – popularly known as Golden Rock – pilgrims offer 9000 lit candles and 9000 flowers to the Buddha. In Shwe Kyin in Bago Region, located along the banks of the Sittaung River, the day after the full moon day is marked with a decorative boat competition and the launch of a Karaweik barge carrying images of the Buddha. After darkness falls, thousands of lotus-shaped oil lamps are lit and set afloat on the water.

Shwethalyaung Pagoda in Kyaukse, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Mandalay, hosts an elephant dancing festival on the full moon eve and the full moon day. The dancing is not done by genuine pachyderms, but rather by teams of two competitors dressed in colorful, homemade elephant costumes, who bust their moves to the beat of live drum music as they seek to out-perform the other contestants.

Thadingyut also marks the beginning of Kahtein (Kathina in Pali), a month-long period leading up to the full moon day of Tazaungdine in November during which people donate new robes or other supplies to local monasteries. These offerings can include anything from fans, alms bowls and books for learning the Pali language, to tote bags, towels and soap. They are attached to wooden frames called padethapin (trees of plenty) that are set up throughout the country by business owners, schools, hospitals and even groups of trishaw drivers who congregate on street corners waiting for customers.

On a designated day toward the end of Kahtein, the trees are taken to the monastery for which the robes, supplies and money have been collected. The donation day is cause for celebration in neighbourhoods and villages throughout Myanmar, and everyone participates. There are music and dance performances, and food is prepared to hand out to all comers. Everyone congregates at one spot, such as a community center or the village headman’s house, from where the colourful Kahtein procession sets out on foot or by vehicle to take each padethapin to its designated monastery.

One significant aspect of this festival is that donors do not make offerings to a particular monk, but rather to a monastery in general. To decide who gets what, the monastery holds a lottery starting with the most valuable item and moving down the list to the least valuable. The gathered donors watch, applauding when the names of their favorite monks are called. The most valued prizes are the new robes, and the monks who get them are considered to have received a special honor.

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Seeking treasure and its undead guardians on Daysompar Pagoda Hill

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Daysompar Pagoda pic 10

Pick any pagoda in Myanmar and it’s almost certain to have extraordinary legends attached to it.

One site in particular kept popping up in conversations with Myanmar friends: a hilltop shrine 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Bago known as Daysompar.

The forested hill on which the pagoda was located, I was told, was home to an array of nats (spirits), as well as to ghost-like entities who guard buried treasure. According to one second-hand rumor, there was also a subterranean passageway where mummified corpses could be seen.

Being suckers for high weirdness of the supernatural sort, my wife and I planned a day-trip to the pagoda. A couple of local friends declined to accompany us on the basis that it was ground zero for excessive paranormality, so we were on our own.

The drive from downtown Yangon took less than three hours, and when we got close we had to ask for directions because construction work along the old Yangon-Mandalay highway had obscured the sign at the turnoff to the dirt lane leading to the pagoda.

We parked under a shady tree at the foot of the hill and approached the pagoda from the main south-facing entrance. The stairway was lined with Buddhist nuns begging for alms. Most of them were widows, we were told, and they came to the pagoda from a nearby nunnery on Saturdays and Sundays.

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Partway up the stairs was a shrine to the regional nat Bago Medaw, recognizable by her horned water buffalo headdress and the golden fish she holds in each upturned hand. Also known as Nankarine Medaw, in her past life she was a water buffalo who raised an orphan boy whom she loved as her own son.

The boy grew up to be extraordinarily strong, and he travelled to the palace at Hanthawaddy (now Bago) with the intention of serving the king. The boy was accepted into service, and one day the king ordered him to kill the water buffalo who had raised him and cut off her horns, which were known to be filled with fine gold.

When the boy’s mother learned of the king’s order, she made a solemn wish for her own death, as she did not want her son to suffer in hell for committing murder. Her heart broken, she died as the result of her own wish and became a nat. To this day, her followers make offerings for good luck and other favors.

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The Bago Medaw shrine.

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Across the stairway from the Bago Medaw shrine was a small room holding a statue of Thaik Chote, chief of the treasure-guarding spirits at Daysompar.

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Thaik Chote, chief of the treasure-guarding spirits at Daysompar.

The hill is famous as a haunt for thaik, or spirits who are so attached to their material possessions that they stick around to guard their belongings rather than pass on to their next incarnations. Many of them are thought to be misers who hid money under the earth from robbers or dacoits, then died before they had the chance to reclaim it.

Such spirits are more properly called osa zaunt, while thaik refers to the treasure to which they are bound. This attachment is not always a symptom of greed: Some osa zaunt are believed to be awaiting the arrival of the next incarnation of the Buddha so they can donate their belongings, pay homage and achieve enlightenment.

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Actors Shwe Ba (left) and Kyi Kyi Htay play the roles of osa zaunt in the 1950s film Myaw Taw Yaung (Expectation).

In the meantime, osa zaunt who wish to can become human beings for a specific amount of time, but they must promise their thaik family – those from their previous life who are also attached to the buried treasure – that they will return after an agreed-upon period has elapsed.

That means former osa zaunt are walking among us. But – as if all of this were not eerie enough – while they are human they forget their osa zaunt existence. Their thaik family sends reminders in the form of dreams, and most of them also suffer from frequent illness: It is believed that the thaik family makes them sick so they will not enjoy their human life and will not want to dwell long in the human world.

The result of this belief is that normal people who suffer from bad dreams or recurring illness sometimes start to wonder whether they might actually be osa zaunt who will soon die and be called back to their thaik.

Anyone who suspects they might be an osa zaunt can consult a bodaw, or one who has gained great supernatural power through meditation, vegetarianism and moral purity. Bodaw can determine whether a disease originates from natural causes, was sent by a witch or is the result of being an osa zaunt. Bodaw can also determine the precise time when the osa zaunt is meant to die and return to the thaik.

The bodaw can attempt to cut the person’s connection with the thaik, a process known as thaik kyoe pyat. This usually involves brokering a bargain where the osa zaunt can sever his or her link to the thaik and remain human, but must fulfill a particular promise, such as sharing their Buddhist merit with their thaik family so they too can return to the cycle of reincarnation.

On the other hand, the thaik family might not agree to set the person free, and if angered they can launch supernatural attacks on the human-form osa zaunt, or on their human spouse and children, to hasten their return from the land of the living.

Perhaps the fear of seeing – or being – an osa zaunt lies at the root of some people’s reluctance to visit Daysompar Pagoda. One acquaintance who explained thaik beliefs to me said he knew of a family who, several years ago, drove to the pagoda from Yangon to pay homage to the Buddha. On the way, they got into a car accident that resulted in the death of their housemaid. The family subsequently assumed that she was an osa zaunt connected to treasure near the pagoda, and that she had suddenly been called back from the human world due to their proximity to her thaik.

Some also believe that the osa zaunt at Daysompar do not like people singing or cursing on the hill, and that they can make offenders lose their way. There are stories about pilgrims who sing on their way to the top of mountain and end up wandering around in circles in the forest. When others ask what they are doing, they say they are trying to find a way to the top of mountain even though the path is right before their eyes.

After visiting the strange nat and thaik shrines, we found the pagoda itself to be an unremarkable example of Mon stupa design. There was a large weekend crowd on the platform,

demonstrating that plenty of people had no fear of osa zaunt. In fact, many believe that those who were relatives of Daysompar osa zaunt in past lives can be granted material wealth by visiting the pagoda.

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Polishing a Buddha image on the pagoda platform.

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Making offerings at the pagoda.

But my wife and I were more interested in finding the cave with the mummies, so we left the hilltop platform by the back entrance and found ourselves on a network of trails lacing through a peaceful bamboo forest.

Despite asking several people for directions to the cave, we had a tough time finding it. I don’t remember singing or dropping the F-bomb, but we spent quite a long time walking back and forth on the same trails before we finally spotted a concrete stairway tucked behind an old monastery that took us in the right direction.

The walkway ended at a small building and a collection of shrines shaded by a huge bodhi tree. We were met by a man with long hair and a wispy beard who was dressed all in white and who introduced himself as U Phone Shwe. He told us he was from Ayeyarwady Region but had been living alone on Daysompar Hill for 20 years.

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U Phone Shwe displays a magical staff.

“Most people can’t stay here very long, but for me it’s a really tranquil place,” he said, adding that he was the caretaker of a shrine dedicated to Sayadaw Bar Mei, who lived during the Inwa period, more than 500 years ago.

“He was highly respected by many generations of kings, including Bayinnaung and Dhammazedi. He meditated here, and he predicted that someday this place would be swarming with pilgrims and that Buddhism would flourish here,” he said.

U Phone Shwe said Bar Mei found this place with the help of Sakka (Thagyamin), the king of the celestials.

“While living here, sayadaw limited his diet to vegetables and fruits, and people who visit still need to be vegetarians,” he said. “This was one of the things that helped him through a series of spiritual advancements. He had supernatural skills that lie beyond a layman’s conception. He could bring down Sakka from heaven and he could make things emerge out of nowhere.”

He told us that Bar Mei was a bodaw whose pupils included Inwa Min Gaung and Dhammazedi Min Gaung. Among their spiritual kin is Bo Min Gaung, a layman who passed away about 50 years ago but who, through his powers, became ashinhtwet, or reincarnated into another life without experiencing physical death.

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Bo Min Gaung

These beings, also known as weizza, continue to wander the earth using their power to help people in trouble and perform good deeds as they wait for the arrival of the next incarnation of the Buddha. Among their powers are the ability to see

previous lives; to hear distant sounds and see objects that are far away; to know the minds of others; and to fly in the air, dive into the earth, walk on water, create multiple bodies and be many places at once.

All of this was fine, but what about the cave?

Yes, the cave. The entrance was just on the other side of the shrine, U Phone Shwe said, and it was where Bar Mei spent his time meditating. He explained that the tunnel passed through the hill, from where we were sitting all the way to Daysompar Pagoda about 500 meters away.

“Bar Mei always enters the cave from this side,” U Phone Shwe said, speaking as if the ancient bodaw were still alive. “I recently repaired the cave, but we closed it down due to people’s greed. Some visitors were stealing the sayadaw’s relics.”

He could have been referring to Bar Mei’s belongings, but he might also have meant the bodaw’s physical remains, in the same way people might talk about tooth relics of the Buddha or bone-and-flesh relics of Catholic saints.

Whatever the thieves had taken, and for whatever purpose, we were disappointed that we were not able to see the cave, but we were also happy to return from our day-trip unscathed – secure in the knowledge we were unlikely to be osa zaunt living on time borrowed from a thaik buried somewhere on the slopes of Daysompar Hill.

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