The Daily Monastic Life and Education in Myanmar
Sao Htun Hmat Win, MA., AM.
(From 'The Initiation of Novicehood and the Ordination of Monkhood in the Burmese Buddhist Culture', Department of Religious Affairs, Rangoon, 1986)
The Daily Routine
All the residents in the monastery are accustomed to sleep late at night after reciting all the old lessons by rote or meditating upon the manner in which they have spent the whole day. However everybody is happy to get up from the coarse and rough coconut mattresses and wooden floor early in the morning before day break. The loud and harsh sounds of the brass discs and bronze bells including hollow-wood-gongs, mercilessly beaten by the sleepy young scholars and novices, make every body jump out of the uncosy beds. It is about four o'clock early dawn. Washing of faces, mouths and hands, and rushing to the latrines are spontaneously done and every body is fresh and clean at day break.
Hot rice gruel is ready in the dining hall to appease the hungry stomach and there is no complaint even if there is no side dish nor any appetizer. This is the regular breakfast if there occurs no festival and special ceremonial celebration in the monastery.
The daily routine of the monastic life is very busy; the discipline is exacting and rigid, but never harsh. The morning service and homage to the Lord Buddha before the monastic shrine, the sharing of merits and meditation of Lovingkindness to all sentient beings, and the mutual confession among the members of the Order are systematically done in the morning. The junior monk must approach another senior monk to confess his sins or sometimes the senior member may approach the junior one to confess his guilts. So here is the Confessional Catechism usually intoned by the pairs. Sometimes there are group confessions instead of two by two procedure.
Junior: "Aham bhante sabba apattiyo avikaromi;- Venerable sir, may I disclose all my sins."
Senior: - "Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu; - All right, All right, All right"
Junior: - "Aham bhante sambahula nanavatthuka sabba apattiyo apajjim ta tumha mule patidesemi;- Venerable sir, I have committed all these many sins of various nature. I confess them under your kindness and consideration."
Senior: - "Passasi avuso ta apattiyo; - Do you realise that these are sins?"
Junior: - "Ama bhante passami; - Yes, Venerable, I do realise sir.
Senior: - "Ayatim avuso samvareyyasi; - Next time you shall restrain well, my fellow."
Junior: - "Sadhu sutthu bhante samvarissami; - Aliright, Venerable, I shall restrain well and appropriately sir."
Senior: - "Sadhu Sadhu Sadhu. All right. All right. All right."
N.B. Change avuso in place of bhante; and bhante in place of avuso when the Senior Monk does confession to a Junior monk. And change Passatha instead of passasi and samvareyyatha instead of samvareyyasi.
All the novices then are admonished by a monk to observe the ten precepts of samanera. A novice then admonishes all the scholar boys in the monastery to observe the five precepts of the laity, and all the morning services are concluded by the sharing of merits, beating the triangular brass discs with wooden hammers.
The monastic educational method is to learn all the Pali texts by rote and to attend the classes where the learned monk translates the passages and explains the meaning of the doctrine imbibed therein.
Then at 9:00 o'clock having changed into clean robes and washed the alms-bowls all the monks and novices set out in a long procession into the village quarters for alms-round.
The school boys march along with a triangular brass disc slung on a bamboo staff shouldered between two of them which they strike now and then to call the attention of the villagers that the Samgha are coming for alms-round. And behind them, in their yellow robes, their faces cast down to the ground and looking neither to the left nor to the right, their arms embracing big black bowls to receive the alms-food come the monks and novices in slow and solemn procession; and from the houses come forth women and children with a little rice, a little curry, or fruit, or some thing to eat, to put into the alms-bowls. The Samgha express no word of thanks, but pass silently on. The gifts are not acknowledged. The cover of the alms-bowl is removed, and when the offertories have been put in, it is recovered. And when they have completed their usual round, with their bowls full of eatables, and the containers carried by the boys are also filled with curries and fruits and cakes, they went their way back to the monastery as solemnly as they departed. Thus the teachings of the Lord Buddha are fulfilled, the Samgha by living a life of humility and poverty, the laity by exercising their charity towards the venerable ones.
The charitable devotees supply the Samgha with the monastery to dwell in, the robes to wear, the medicine to treat with, and the food to eat; and ask in return no thanks but instead grateful for the opportunities thus given of performing acts of charity and accruing merits and virtues. Thus the daily alms-round serves bilateral benefit for the devotees as well as the devoted ones.
Since a monk gets his daily food from such regular alms-round and because he does not partake of anything after noon, he needs no money for shopping in the market; he needs no other utensils to prepare and cook his food. He has no means of storing food for the next day either. Thus he is free from all the troubles in connection with food. If only he has a bowl to put the alms in, and if only he is healthy and strong enough to go out in the morning to receive the offertories from the devout families, then he gets enough food to sustain himself for the day. The food he receives is well cooked and usually the best part of the meal. So a monk has nothing to do with kitchen work and recipe collection or menu itemization.
The residents in the monastery have a cold bath as soon as they arrive at their residence and hurry up to finish their meals before noon. Then the Samgha members have a brief siesta whilst the school-boys play on the ground in the monastery compound, but keeping in mind not to be too noisy to disturb the snoozing elders.
The Monastic Education
All the classes begin at one o'clock in the afternoon until sunset. The monastic education concentrates on the study of religious scriptures to cover the three Canons of Buddhist literature; Vinaya disciplinary rules and regulations, Suttanta discourses, and Abhidhamma philosophy doctrines.
A common average monk must study the Pariyatti Scriptures, or practise the Insight Patipatti meditation, in order that he may gradually develope and advance his Pativedha realization of the Perfect Truth.
During the three-month Lent of rainy season, all monks have to remain within the monastery and they are not supposed to travel anywhere. Only at the end of the Buddhist Lent which usually falls in October, they are permitted to visit other monasteries, make pilgrimages, attend meetings and conventions, deliver sermons in other villages and towns. They can even transfer from one abode to another, because the Buddhist monk does not take a vow of stability to be attached to a particular monastery forever. After the Lenten period he may leave for any monastery of his choice, to pursue further study of the scriptures, or to learn in practice more about the Insight meditation, or even for general knowledge and new experience of monastic life in other places.
There are some monastic institutions which concentrate upon the intensive study of lessons preparing monks to appear in the religious examinations. These religious examinations in Burma are held by the Government, or by the local bodies of monastic education, or by some associations established for this ecclesiastical purpose. In such cases, an ordinance of the Lord Buddha dispenses the scholar monks from rounding for alms from house to house in the villages. There are pious families who proffer to these student monks their sustenance at their monastic abode. The founder of the monastery or the religious association, who nominates the incumbent, regularly undertakes the support of the monk. The food which is the best of its kind, is regularly brought every morning by the children of the supporters. In case of joint support the children or the workers of the leading families in turn bring the essential eatables to the monastery. An ornamental tiffin receptacle is used, with a tall finial to the cover. These food supplies are received by the stewards, scholars, and the novices who arrange and set the luncheon table for the monks who must finish their meal before noon. Sometimes the stewards, and novices have to prepare rice gruel and other meals at the monastery from raw supplies. But the monks are not invoked in such affairs. The monastic butlers and stewards are usually attached to the monasteries by the wealthy supporters for the preparation of food and other necessary services. The purpose of this special arrangement is to allow the monks to get ample time in the study or in the practice of meditation.
The senior monk or the Abbot of the monastery has little interaction with the village. Occasionally, however, on Sabbath days and on special festival days he leads the devotees in recitation of the discourses, or administering the precepts. On special occasions such as weddings, funerals and some other notable events, he chants the Eleven Holy Discourses of Protection (Paritta). He presides over 'the Initiation ceremony of novices and higher ordination ceremony of monks. Sometimes he accepts the special meals served by his devotees during the Lenten season either in the monastery or in the village houses. He preaches sermons at appropriate occasions, and gives advice and admonitions to his devotees when they come to the monastery for spiritual help.
The teaching staff in the Monastic Education institution is usually recruited and organized from the learned members of the Samgha and the Abbot acts as the President or Rector of the academy.
Often the Rector or the Abbot is busy with domestic affairs and he assigns an old deacon or a novice to take care of the school boys teaching them the alphabets and basic arithmetic. The youngsters usually learn the basic principles of the Buddhist Teachings by rote and recite the lessons all in unison chanting loudly enough in chorus to let the Abbot hear from his place so that he can correct on the spot at once whenever they commit a mistake They all have to write their lessons on the slates or on the wooden boards blackened by soot and rice-glue with talcum pencils. And the young teachers check them every day to see if the handwriting is neat and tidy, or if the spelling is all correct.
A young tutor monk is appointed by the Abbot to instruct the novices and newly ordained monks in the study of canonical literature and language prescribed for the elementary scholars in the monastic educational programme. Such junior courses of instruction are taught both in Pali as well as in the vernacular language. Most of the lessons are learnt by heart and the student must be able to recite fluently when the instructor requests him to do so in the class.
The elderly lecturer monks are specialists in their specific subject field and they deliver their lectures at their residential quarters. They may be Professors of Pali Grammar, or Professors of Vinaya Disciplinary Rules, or Professors of Abhidhamma Philosophy and other suttantas. So the advanced students approach those lecturers for their higher academic studies. Among such advanced students arc monks, nuns, a few laymen and old novices who have already passed the religious examinations set and sponsored periodically by the Government, or by the Local Board of Monastic Education.
There are however some scholar monks who do not care for sitting any examination, and they learn the scriptures of the religion for the religion's sakes only. They also attend all these lectures delivered by the experts at various monasteries. There is no tuition fees, no admission fees, no registration fees, and no charge whatsoever. The academy is free and open to all interested scholars.
The lecturers conclude their classes For the day Just before sunset, to allow the students to stroll for a while to the pagoda for evening service, or to clean the sanctuary.
Then comes evening worship similar to that in the morning. Sometimes there are evening classes for the Advanced Abhidhamma studies usually discussed in the darkness which conclude at nine o'clock late at night. While the elder monks perform their meditation and the youngsters tell the rosary-beads, the scholars recite their daily lessons before they retire to bed. All are so tired and exhausted after such a long day that there is no need for any one to tell them to be quiet after ten o'clock.
The young steward boys and scholars are happy to go to bed late at night because they have already filled up their hungry stomachs with the remnants and leftovers that they have saved from the lunch boxes. And they never regret having to get up early the next morning at dawn to sip the hot rice gruel welcoming them to the routine work and labour of another busy day.
The Tranquility and Peace
The entire monastery remains cool and calm under the twinkling stars and silvery moon-beam of tropical Burma. The picturesque life of Buddhist monasticism is fabulous and really magnificent. In such a monastic life one is tranquil at heart and serene in brain; clean in the physical body and vita in the veins; pure in thought, word and deed whilst every act is virtuous and beneficial, if only one abides in compliance with all the Teachings of the Lord Buddha.
About 123,500 adults were registered here in Burma as full-fledged ordained monks in 1981 and they have all been supported voluntarily by the 34 million inhabitants of Buddhist Burma. Some enter the Samgha Order directly from their boyhood as monastery stewards, neophytes and novices without any experience of secular life. But some enter the ecclesiastic life through ceremonial ordination after having enjoyed the family-life of the world for sometime. Whoever they may be, they are all recruited into the Order with a variety of aims and objectives. They join the Order because they are disgusted with the world and its miserable propensities, or to avoid occupational labour and to enjoy a happy easy life, or to transmigrate a better rebirth hereafter and to attain the Nirvana (Nibbana) or just to acquire meritorious means and good result in terms of fortunes and blessings, or to help promote the purification, perpetuation and dissemination of the Teachings of Lord Buddha, or any other motives for becoming a Buddhist clergy-man. All these monks are revered equally by the laity with due deference and let them dwell happily and peacefully in those monasteries. Such is the nature of Burmese Buddhist Monasticism in the heritage of the Theravada Buddhist Tradition.