The Thāthanābaing

“He is carried on a gilt litter in great state.”

“At Mandalay is stationed the Thāthanābaing or patriarch. He is supreme in all matters connected with religion, and, next to the King, is the person to whom the greatest honour is paid. He is generally made patriarch from having been the King’s instructor during youth. Hence it generally happens that each King, on his accession, appoints his own patriarch, and the one in possession of the office has to retire. Great respect is paid by the King to his high dignitary of the Church. When he goes to visit His Majesty or visit other monasteries, he is carried on a gilt litter in great state. He lives in a magnificent monastery, highly decorated with carving and richly gilt; from the centre of which rises a lofty shwe-pyathat (a golden seven-tiered canopy), a dignity which even is not allowed an heir-apparent to the throne.”

In these words did Lieutenant-General Fychte describe in 1878 the primate of the Buddhist Church in Burma, the Saṁgha-rāja or Ruler of the Order; a dignitary who, in his own way, exercised an even vaster authority over the Burmese people than did the King himself.

For the glory of the people of Burma has always been in their Religion, and above all in the Brotherhood of the Yellow Robe, the instructor of their childhood’s days, the guide of all their lives, the repository of the Master’s Teaching, their Refuge and the solace of their dying hours. Rightly have the Burmans termed their Monks Hpongyi, ‘Great Glory’; for they have made of them the pattern and ensamplar of their lives; and, as we are told in The Soul of a People, ‘if you would know what a Burman would be, see what a Monk is: that is his ideal’.

And to the Burman, that ideal is the most cherished in all his life, that Order is his ‘Incomparable Field of Merit’, wherein he may sow charity and all good deeds to the reaping of the future life. The Monk, especially the Monk of many years’ standing, is still the most respected being in all Burma; vastly better housed and fed, mendicant though he be, than are the villagers who build his monastery and supply his food; saluted with the greatest reverence, spoken to only in a special language, full of therms of the highest respect.

And in return for this the Burman asks but one thing of his ‘Great Glory.’ That thing is purity of way and life, a perfect adhesion to at least the greater rules which the Master left for the guidance of His Brotherhood. He knows, indeed, his Monk has nothing more to give, for there is in Buddhism no priestly office, no intercession between earth and heaven that the Monk can make. But the merit of his charities depends, in this Religion, on the holiness of the recipient; and so the Burman expects from his ‘Great Glory’ only that he shall live according to the Law. And, without doubt or hesitation can it be said, the majority of those who retire into the Yellow Robe in Burma do so live; ‘guarding,’ as the Path of Purity has taught them, ‘guarding their Precepts as a mother guards her only child.’

But the very nature of the Order, the ease with which its Membership could be attained—for all who ask are admitted, with but a few exceptions—made it possible that its cherished purity might be undermined. And, that such disaster might never happen, that its purity might be preserved untarnished, the Kings of Burma in the olden days, like other Buddhist monarchs from Dhammāsoka downwards, were wont to appoint a Saṁgha-rāja, a King of the Brotherhood, and to place in his hands such authority as was needful for maintaining order, for the preservation of the Vinaya Rules, for supervising monastic matters and generally regulating the affairs of the Saṁgha.

Thus it was that, appointed by the King, selected by the previous rulers, and received by ancient custom as the preserver of religious discipline, the Thāthanābaing1 or Saṁgha-rāja gained in a sense a supremacy in the estimation of the people of greater importance than even the King who appointed him. The King’s affairs were outside of Buddhism; the Thāthanābaing was the guardian of the purity of the Faith; the King was served through fear, the Thāthanābaing by love; the King’s orders were carried out or not, as suited the convenience and the safety of his ministers, the Thāthanābaing’s lightest instructions were obeyed to the letter, for if his orders went unperformed, the very Sāsana itself might suffer; and, saving his orders, what else could maintain the Glory of Burma worthy yet to receive the Burman’s homage and his charity or keep it holy and pure, as it had been from the days of old? Even the children in the Temples would feel the lack of that benign authority; and the people the loss of what they cherished most in life, if the Monks should give way to laxity and idleness, and the Vinaya be no more enforced. And so the Thāthanābaing was obeyed even to the remotest corner of Burma; and his influence was felt—felt always for good—wherever the Yellow Robe was seen.

So well was this great influence for good, in maintaining authority and discipline, and in promoting education, recognized by all, that, at the time of the annexation of Upper Burma, the then incumbent was recognised as Thāthanābaing by the British Government, and continued in full exercise of his authority till his death in 1895. After that event, however, no new Thāthanābaing was appointed, the local Government holding, quite rightly, that the appointment of a Thāthanābaing was outside the scope of its jurisdiction; whilst it was willing to recognise, and to confirm in the ancient privileges, any person who might be appointed by those most concerned, the members of the monastic Order. As there seemed little chance of any definite understanding on the subject being attained by the Monks, the matter remained open until the visit of His Excellency the Viceroy in 1901 when, in the midst of that wonderful monument of Burma’s greatest King, the Lokamarīci at Mandalay, a great Darbar was held; in which Lord Curzon explained the position of the Government in the matter to an Assembly of some 2,000 Monks. Shortly before this event an election had taken place, and the bulk of the votes thereat were divided between two of the great Theras of Mandalay. The first on the election list, the Moda Sayādaw, died not long afterwards; and then the heads of the Buddhist community at Mandalay intimated to the Local Government that, a right understanding being come to, a further election was unnecessary, as they were now agreed on the choice of Taunggwin Sayādaw, who had stood second in the voting lists of the original election. The ultimate result of these representations was that, after some delays, the following Notification appeared in the official Burma Gazette for October 24th, 1903:—

GENERAL DEPARTMENT No. 255.— His Honour the Lieutenant-Governor will hold a Darbar at Mandalay on Friday, the 13th November, for the purpose of announcing the decision of Government to recognise the Taunggwin Sayadaw as Thathanabaing of Upper Burma.

It is difficult to give adequate expression to the intense relief and satisfaction to which this Notification gave rise, amongst Monks and laity alike, even in Lower Burma, although the latter province was not included in the sphere of jurisdiction of the Thāthanābaing. The matter had been so long in abeyance, the office of Thāthanābaing had been for so long vacant, that it had come to be very generally held by the people at large that this long-expected recognition would never take place, that the ancient authority would never be re-established. And yet it meant so much to the Burmese people. They knew that every year that passed without the re-establishment of that authority was as another decade cut from the national life of Burma; they knew that, owing to the lack of that authority, bad characters were taking to the Yellow Robe; who, free from all wholesome discipline, committed evil deeds unchecked in the very Temples of the Master; they had seen with horror Monks, in the sacred Robe itself, arraigned before the secular tribunals for crimes that, in the olden days, would have secured their immediate expulsion from the Brotherhood of the Elect; and now there was none who had the power to expel, even though a man were known to have committed all Four Deadly Sins. They knew, too, that Burma depended on its Monks for all that was greatest and noblest in the national life; that their Religion, their morality, the very education of their children, were indissolubly connected with the well-being of the Order; and they could not, for the most part, understand the reasons for which Government refused itself to appoint a Thāthanābaing. Some, even, knowing how little the Monks understood of the principles underlying an election, knowing how the very nature of things would prevent them from coming to an unanimous selection, saw in this very election itself only an attempt to shift the responsibility for the absence of a Thāthanābaing on to the shoulders of the Mandalay Theras,—they could not comprehend why the Government; that had inherited the powers of the Burmese Kings, should refuse to exercise one of the most important functions of their former Sovereigns.

Moreover, so long as the matter remained as undetermined, there were not wanting a few zealous adherents of certain Theras in Mandalay, who aspired after the prestige of Thāthanābaing for their own ends, who thought that it would be possible, by dint of false representations to the Viceroy and the Local Government, to secure for their nominees the coveted position. Prominent amongst these were the adherents of a Thera who, at the election of 1901, had secured but an infinitesimal number of votes; and who had, as mentioned before in this Journal, greatly entertained the Conclave by asking the Viceroy to appoint him Thāthanābaing; to which His Excellency replied, amidst roars of laughter, that he had better induce the Assembly to elect him. These people, next to wishing their nominee to gain the dignity of Thāthanābaing, desired that no Thāthanābaing at all should be appointed; and when it was announced last August that the recognition would be postponed (really to suit the convenience of the Monks themselves, who may not travel during the months of Buddhist Lent), they attributed this postponement to a feeling of uncertainty on part of the Government; and then and later did all they could, by petitions and misrepresentations of the popular opinion, to persuade the Viceroy and the Local Government that the Thāthanābaing-elect had not the confidence or the support of the Buddhist community. Fortunately, the Local Government was too well-informed to be deceived by these representations; but the accounts of these petitions which appeared in the local Press only added to the feeling of doubtfulness on the part of the people, as to whether the Thāthanābaing would ever be recognised by Government at all.

So it was that, when the above Notification appeared in the official Gazette, a wave of profound relief and pleasure passed through the length and breadth of Burma, from Myitkyina to Mergui, from Arakan to the Shan States; manifesting itself in the acclamations of the vernacular Press, and forming the main subject of conversation in the monasteries. The enthusiasm was higher, perhaps, in the Upper than in the Lower Province, for the people of the latter felt that the local Order was still left without direction; but it was remembered that the former Thāthanābaing had, in 1886, been invited to asume jurisdiction in Lower Burma also; and so it was commonly assumed that, in due course, the Taunggwin Sayādaw’s sphere of action would be similarly enlarged. We were even asked by an eminent Thera of Rangoon when such extension of jurisdiction would be granted, and on our replying that we did not know, but supposed the Government would wait to see the effects of the Taunggwin Sayādaw’s rule in Upper Burma, and to ascertain the wishes of the Buddhist community in Lower Burma before going further; answer was made that in this case all would doubtless be well, as the Taunggwin Sayādaw was a great and wise Monk, and that there could be but little doubt of the desire of the Order in Lower Burma to be included in his jurisdiction.

A few words on the past history and the personality of the Taunggwin Sayādaw may here not be out of place. The present Thāthanābaing of Burma, whose name in the Order is U Visuddha2 comes of a family of high repute in Upper Burma; his father, U Po, who held important offices in the reign of King Bagyidaw Payā, being the son of the Tsitkai of Koonakayaing; and his mother Mai Shwe Wa, the daughter of Mahā Thihathu, the Kyauksauk Mingyi. He was born on Wednesday the Fourth Waxing of Nadaw, 1206, B. E., corresponding to November 13th, 1844, the day of the Installation being therefore his 58th birthday. His father died when he was only three years old, and in his ninth year he entered a monastery as lay-pupil, under the tutelage of U Adicca. At the age of 14 he became Sāmanera or Novice, a learned and pious Thera, U Maida, being his Superior; and, under this instructor, U Visuddha acquired that keen devotion to the Master’s Teaching which has characterised him ever since. In his nineteenth year he was fully ordained as Bhikkhu, and, six years afterwards, he went to Mandalay; where, in order to perfect his knowledge of the Vinaya, he placed himself under the Nissaya of the Maungdaung Sayādaw, who at that time was reputed of greatest knowledge in the Rules of the Order. When he had fulfilled ten Vassas, King Mindon Min then being on the Throne, he was given the title of ‘Sayādaw’ or Royal Teacher; and then first took independent charge of a monastery, the Chief Queen being his Tagama or Supporter. In the fourteenth year from his Ordination, at the invitation of the Taunggwin Mingyi and his wife, the Sayādaw moved into and took charge of the group of monasteries known as the Taunggwin Kyaungdaik; where he has ever since remained, of highest repute amongst the people and Monks of Mandalay, alike for his holiness of life, his unfailing courtesy, and his profound knowledge of the Vinaya Rules. It was his fame in this latter respect which led the Taungdaw Sayādaw, the former Thāthanābaing, to appoint him as his Deputy, with special powers to decide differences between Monks, and to enforce proper obedience to the Vinaya Code; and there is but little doubt but that his great learning in the Vinaya was the chief reason for the large support accorded to him at the election in 1901. It is this knowledge which is most essential to one holding the high dignity to which the Buddhist Community has raised him; and now that the Government has confirmed the selection of the chief Theras of Mandalay by recognising the Taunggwin Sayādaw as Thāthanābaing, there can be but little doubt that this special knowledge will stand him in good stead; and will prove of the greatest advantage to the Saṁgha over which he rules; for, as has been well said by those of olden time, ‘the Foundation of the Sāsana is the purity of the Order.’ A life of holiness, dignified by a deep learning in the Sacred Law, and graced by an unassuming modesty rare in Burma, has culminated for the Taunggwin Sayādaw in his elevation to the highest dignity to which a Burman can aspire; to a position which places in his hands the destinies of the Burmese People, the preservation of the purity of their Religion, the Discipline of their cherished Saṁgha, and the education of the rising generations. That he will honorably fulfil the functions of his high estate, maintaining the noble tradition of the past Thāthanābaing of Burma, none who have had the privilege of knowing him can doubt; and the chief hope of the People of Burma to-day is this; that he may live long to carry out the work of maintaining order and promoting learning amongst his Monks; that he may fulfil the happy omen of his name (Visuddho Saṁghaṁ visodheyyâ’ti!) and restore, even to its pristine purity and ancient sanctity, that Brotherhood of the Yellow Robe, founded by the Master for the guidance and deliverance of mankind; which since the days of Sona and Uttara has been the pride and the glory of Burma; its Teacher and its Refuge from the cradle to the grave.

1 Thathana-baing, the Ruler of the Sasana or Buddhist Religion; the ‘th’ is really the Pali ‘s,’ pronounced as in English ‘thing.’

2 Visuddha is the real name, the honorific U being invariably added to all Monks’ names in Burma. But the actual name of a superior Monk is never used in Burma, such being generally known by the name of the town of their birth or of the monastery they inhabit; with the title Sayādaw, ‘;Royal Teacher’ added. This title was in former days bestowed by the King; but it is now fast becoming the common custom to speak of any Chief Monk of a monastery as ‘Sayadaw’.

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