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In the Shadow of Shwe Dagon
By Ananda Maitriya (Allan Bennett)
Buddhism, Vol 1 Iss 1, 1903
I. BURMESE BANK-HOLIDAY.
Glad let us live, then,—naught our own esteeming;
Glad let us live, ’midst hatred full of Love;
Amidst the troubled free from all vain dreaming;
Feeding on Joy, as the bright Gods above!
IT was the Feast-day of the Great Pagoda, the Full Moon of Thadingyut, which ends the long Buddhist Lent, and all Burmese Rangoon was making ready for a day of happiness.
During the three months of Lent, all Burma is busy with the preparation of a double Harvest;—the Harvest of the Rice that feeds the nations, and the greater Harvest of Good Deeds that bears fair fruit of nobler, happier lives. All the days of Lent there are no Pwés or weddings, and then, more than at any other time, the thoughts of the whole nation are turned to sacred things. Then every Temple has its full complement of Monks, for during Lent the Monk must live in one Temple, and not absent himself for more than a few days; then the Rest-houses are filled on Holy days with crows of devotees, keeping the Eight Precepts, taking food, like the Monks, only before noon, and listening to the preaching of the most Excellent Law; then the Monasteries resound with the loud studies of new Novices, proud in the Yellow Robe they wear during the days of Lent:—the Yellow Robe which gives them their ‘Humanity,’—for, until he has lived as Novice in the Yellow Robe, the Burman boy does not regard himself as properly a ‘man’:—or at least his elders do not so regard him, which amounts to much the same thing. Lent in Burma is a time of great solemnity, of self-restraints and high religious ideals, when the laughter-loving Burman forgets awhile his native joyfulness, and devotees himself in right earnestness to the purification of his heart and mind, to sowing Merit for the reaping of another life.
But the long days of discipline come to an end at last, and now behold all Buddhist Rangoon ready to go mad with joy. The laymen free again to marry and give entertainments; the little ex-novices, hungry with their three month’s fasting, hastily disrobed that they may take part in the general rejoicings, full of the importance of their new dignity as men; the children chattering gaily of the coming Festival;—all radiant with the joy of life, and determined to be happy to be the best of their not inconsiderable ability. The very earth and sky seem to take part in the general happiness, for the Rains are past gone; the sky, long dark with hurrying clouds, is blue and clear once more; the beautiful sun, veiled for three months, shines glorious again; and all the earth is breaking into new life and bloom.
At the Pagoda itself, all is life and movement. From the earliest dawn, bullock-waggons, decked with flags and streamers, have been depositing their merry burdens;—whole families, the baby not the least in evidence, that have travelled from outlying villages all night; busy crowds of nuns and women who have spent the night at the Rest-houses near the Pagoda, that they might cook fresh food before day comes to give in charity to Monks and poor; sellers of toys and flowers, incense-sticks and lights, and of all manner of quaint foods, dear to the Burmese heart, setting their various stalls ready for the day’s bright earnings; Shan traders in strange attire, come to lay fresh gold-leaf on the Golden Fane, astonished at the bustle of the town after their silent hill-sides; beggars not a few, come early to secure their places, confident of a silver harvest to-day;—all these and many more there are, hearts thrilling to the universal joy, making unwonted clamour in the great City of the Pagoda.
Days before, preparations have been going on apace; and now on the wide platform stands many a temporary building, wherein an endless succession of wonderful things may be seen and heard. The Society of the Devotees of the Four Quarters has its stall, where the porr may find food for the asking; the Chinese Society has a big structure of paper screens, covered inside with wonderful paintings by Chinese artists, and a big ‘Welcome to All’ in three languages over the door; Mr. Edison has invaded the solemn precincts with his phonographs, which from horrid brazen throats chatter forth Burmese songs and tales, to the wonder of the village folk, who can say naught but ‘O my Mother!’ for amazements. The whole platform is brilliant with flags and paper dragons, which vie in their gorgeousness with the bright silk clothing of the joyous crowds. Here and there musicians are seated on their mats; one beating the sweet-sounding Burmese Dulcimer, made of hard bamboo strips strung on silken cords; another, seated in the midst of a perfect orchestra of gongs, taps out low plaintive melodies; whilst a third discourses on a bamboo flute in thin penetrating tones that carry to an astonishing distance. Fortune-tellers are busy casting horoscopes, story-tellers reciting oft-told tales; whilst, on the slopes of the hill below, workmen are busy building bamboo stages, ready for the numerous Pwés that will start after dark, and continue until dawn next day. Best of all, there are the numerous shrines where lights and flowers and incense may be offered, for your Burman on his holiday never forgets to honour Him to whose Teaching all his happiness is due.
As day wears on, women and girls, great baskets balanced on their heads, come from the gardens and the woods with fresh flowers to supply the swift-diminishing piles on the flower-sellers’ stalls; and, their burdens disposed of to advantage, they too join the sightseers,—not forgetting themselves to offer the fairest of their flowers at their favourite shrines. All is life and merriment from dawn to dusk; and then, of a sudden the whole scene changes, and new delights, ceasing but with the night, begin.
The Sun was setting in a crimson flood beyond the answering red gold of Shwé Dagon, as my friend and I passed up the terraced path that leads from our Temple to the Great Pagoda; and, as the evening breeze stirred in the palm-trees’ lofty crowns, the gold and silver bells upon the spire throbbed clear and sweet above the murmur of the Shrine; another and another gleamed, till all the vast fabric of the Pagoda was outlined in fire; the lights of a thousand lamps following its faultless curves and tracing out its golden terraces, shining high above Rangoon, a new Orion in the Western sky.
I do not think that in all the world there is another spot so fair, so perfect in its ordered beauty, as is this City of the Great Pagoda, the shrine of Him who taught that all fair forms are Fleeting, full of Sorrow, and Unreal. Its very loveliness, indeed, recalls that Teaching, for it seems unearthly, beyond the poor realities of human life; the heart aches at the sight of it, and the strong sense of its impermanence invades the mind; as in a vision of the night whereof the splendour and the wonder grow until we realize it but a dream, and, spite of our longing to prolong it, wake. To-day, with light and laughter of the happy throngs, with song and show and mystery-play of olden times, it seemed liker the Country of the Nats than ever. The little shrines that nestle at the golden base of Shwé Dagon where all ablaze with light, hundreds of tiny candles flaming in each, lighting up the marble figures of the Master within, and shining in the faces of the surging crowd without.
And what a crowd that was, filling all the wide platform unto overflowing! Clad in that harmony of colour which seems to be the birthright of Burma and Japan alone; white flowers gleaming in the raven hair and golden bracelets on the soft brown arms; sweet and pure as the flowers that decked them; thrilling with joy and merriment and happiness, they too seemed as the children of a dream, as the denizens of some bright heaven come to dwell awhile on earth. Reverent, too, they were,—not with the sad respectful countenance and slow gait accounted reverence in the West, but with the free spontaneous reverence of the Buddhist, who, wherever you may find him, deems happiness and laughter not amiss in holy places, but rather the best and fittest sign of true devotion—joy in the Law he loves made manifest as worship. All the crowd seemed so intent on seeing all the sights, on enjoying everything with the naïvèté of children: yet all so careful and considerate of others. When one small urchin, whose short stature prevented him seeing, from where he was wedged in the crowd, the Dragon-lanterns at the Chinese Stall, sate down and wept abruptly, instantly a big boy perched him on his shoulders, and, gently pushing, made his way to the front and set him by the great lamp, to drink his full of all its green and scarlet glories; when some man or woman, finding the shrine he sought, (for there are special quarters sacred to the seven days of the week, and the Burman likes best to make his offerings at the of his own birth-day) would kneel down to worship, room would be made around; and when, most of all, the venerated Yellow Robe appeared, the close-packed crowd would somehow flatten itself yet more, and make a clear wide path that he might pass untouched.
Thus it was, helped by considerate self-appointed guardians, my friend and I came through the parting throng to one of the four chief shrines that flank the Pagoda to the cardinal points, where tiers on tiers of Buddha-rīpas, bronze and gilded wood and marble, smiled, with the calm awful smile that utter wisdom brings, down the wide altar, insufficient for the needs of holiday-making Rangoon, had been removed, and a great wealth of flowers, white, and red, and gold, lay piled to the very top of the altar-rails; the air was heavy with the scent of countless orchids, thick with the smoke of incense; and the coloured mirror-work on ceiling, walls and pillars glittered in the blaze of a thousand flickering candles. Kindly hands pressed on us gifts of flowers, till we could hold no more; and we knelt to meditate on Him whose Words had brought a nation thus to take its holiday.
Whilst yet we knelt, the broad full Eastern Moon arose, brighter than ever seen in Western lands, bathing all the world in a silver flood that shamed the ruddy glare of candle and of lamp, and from shrine and flower and glancing silk called forth strange opalescent tints,—colours unknown, undreamed of in the garish light of day; till when, devotions done, I rose to watch the moving pageant, it seemed another world had dawned to life,—a world wrought of the rainbow and the cloud.
And, as I stood and watched, deep upon my heart stole the glamour of the Great Pagoda. The kneeling worshippers within, the surging moonlit throngs without, the deep low tolling of ‘the Great Sweet Voice,’ the Sacred Bell; and all the beauty and the light and life around me trembled like a vision on the verge of wakening; and, wearied of loveliness, I turned to watch my mind, to see what it was thinking of it all.
A great psychologist of the West once said that we are wrong in saying “I think,” and that we should rather say “It thinks,”—just as we say “It lightens” or “It rains.” I do not know if Lichtenberg had studied Buddhism, but certain it is that his saying expresses a profound truth, a truth which lies at the bottom of all Buddhist psychological methods. To understand the difficult truth that there is no “I”, no Soul that thinks or sees or acts through mind or eye or hand; but only a succession of phenomena, mental, visual, molar; each, by reason of Moha, the Illusion, giving rise to a momentary “I”:—this is in Buddhism accounted the first step of
by the least frequented paths, and marvelled what evil I had done in former lives, that I should take birth as countryman of such as these.
Such was the picture that I saw, and for a while I stood there,—there in midst of scenes so different,—and wondered why this memory had dawned upon my mind, not understanding the linkage of these thoughts. At last, suddenly and swiftly, the comprehension came:—the scene before me was Burmese Bank-holiday; and these fair children of the East, so sweet and courteous, so reverent and joyful, were but the masses of Rangoon, taking their pleasure on their national festival.
And then I thought of Mr. Rudyard Kipling’s “Sullen child-like peoples,” and of the White Man’s Burden; remembered the millions that the religious folk at home spend in the hope of converting such folk as formed the crowd before me unto Western thoughts and ways; remembered a quaint old saying, “Manners makyth Man,” and meditated on the marvels of the Modern Civilisation.
And I laughed aloud.
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