Finding Dhamma in Yangon

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The Free Press Journal
— By RUBY LILAOWALA | Jul 05, 2015 07:40 am

RUBY LILAOWALA learns more about Buddhist art and culture from her visit to Yangon.

Although Myanmar has opened itself up to tourism since a decade or so, the old capital city of Yangon and its suburbs can still boast largely unexplored Buddhist art and culture.

Under a scorching Sun and with our bare feet burning from tiled walkways we, a group of Indians with some Thais, entered several pagodas and temples in Yangon and the suburban town of Thanlyin. However, we felt this trip was worth all the effort and expense because we learnt so much about Buddhist art and culture from one Khatha Chinbunchon who is not only a famous fortune-teller but also a PhD student in Buddhism.

We visited the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, Parami Monastery, Botahtaung Pagoda and the temples of Chauk Kyauk Gyi (the huge marble Buddha) in Yangon and the Kyauk Hmaw Wan Yele Pagoda in Thanlyin.

The town of Thanlyin, formally called Syriam, is about 45 km east of Yangon across the Bago River. It is now a major port town. In the late 1500s’, it was the base of Portuguese adventurer Philip De Britto, who first served the King of Arakan, the ruler of Syriam from 1599 1613. More Portuguese settled in Syriam and built forts for defence. He finally declared independence from Arakan but was defeated by the Burmese and executed for demolishing temples, pagodas and Buddhist images in Toungoo. In 1756, Thanlyn was destroyed by King Alaungpaya, who unified and ruled Myanmar from 1752 to 1760.2nd lead 2

Along the way back to Yangon, Katha Chinbunchon talked about Buddhist legends relating to the two pagodas and the Reclining Buddha. Both the pagodas contain Lord Buddha’s hair relics. Two Bamar merchants, Taphussa and Ballika were the first two people to give alms to Lord Buddha after his Enlightenment. Both obtained eight strands of the Buddha’s as a blessing.

On their way back, the King of the Nagas took two of their hair relics. When they finally arrived in Dagon (the present day Yangon), the two merchants were ceremonially welcomed by King Okkapala and his military officers. The King built the Botahtaung Pagoda for enshrining two of the Buddha’s hair relics and later the Shwedagon Pagoda on a hill for keeping the rest.

Throughout the trip, our group noticed the people’s strong faith in Buddhism through their modest ways of life, praying and meditation, while a few Thai tourists who were there sought blessings from Buddha statutes and sacred sculptures. We saw them make a wish before the statues of the Botahtuang Pagoda’s guardian spirits, Poe Poe Gyi and Ahmagyi Mya Nan New.

We learnt that about 90% of the 53 million people in Mayanmar are Theravada Buddhists. Their next door neighbour, Thailand has a similar culture and many common festivals, including water splashing during Songkran and religious ceremonies for Buddhist Lent. On the last day in Yangon, we visited the sacred White Elephant Centre, enjoyed shopping at the Aung San Market, tasted local food and watched a cultural performance at a boat shaped Hall on Kandawgyi Lake. Our hearts were filled with dhamma.

This wonderful trip was sometimes spoiled when the local people tried to cheat us by refusing to return the change against things and souvenirs bought. We also noticed that local women wait inside restrooms at a few tourist attractions to hand over tissue paper and then expect a big tip. Cheating is unacceptable and is especially unbearable at temples where people came to make merit and do good. But except for some such incidents, I had many good experiences, especially at the two main pagodas where I could feel the genuine warmth of the people.

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