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FACETS OF LIFE AT SHWEDAGON PAGODA
from: Colorful Myanmar

by Khin Myo Chit

Edited for this page by U Kyaw Tun, M.S. (I.P.S.T., U.S.A.) Not for sale. Prepared for students of TIL Computing and Language Center, Yangon, Myanmar.

Of the many things that intrigue the visitor to the precincts of the Shwedagon Pagoda, nothing is so baffling and complicated as the figurines of mythical animals, each perched on its red signboard at the eight points of the compass.

Keeping the great stupa on the right, the visitor starts at the northeast comer, where the figure of the mythical garuna bird represents the sun, the ruling celestial body on Sunday. The unwary visitor probably does not have an inkling that he or she is being taken on a tour through the planetary regions, at least not yet.

A well-meaning friend may tell the visitor that the days of the week are assigned respectively to each point of the compass, each with its ruling planet or celestial body and its mythical symbol.

"But there are only seven days in the week. One point of the compass will be vacant," the visitor ventures to comment; the visitor of course has not taken into account Myanmar ingenuity in taking liberties with the days of the week. The midweek day, Wednesday, is split into two parts so that the distribution is even.

"Well, so far so good," muses the visitor, as he walks following the sequence of days. First comes the east, or Monday, corner with its ruling sign of the moon and the tiger as its mythical symbol. Southeast is the Tuesday comer with the planet Mars and the symbol of the lion. South is the Wednesday morning comer with planet Mercury and the symbol of an elephant with tusks.

By this time, the visitor's mind is already conditioned to expect the next comer, the southwest, to stand for Wednesday afternoon. So the visitor will be surprised to learn that the southwest corner is the Saturday comer, with its planet, Saturn and its mythical symbol, a fire-breathing dragon.

From there on more inconsistencies follow. The next point, west, is the Thursday comer; its planet is Jupiter and its symbol is the mouse. The northwest comer belongs to Wednesday afternoon with its planet, Rahu (an idiosyncrasy of Myanmar astrology), and its symbol, an elephant without tusks. The last point, north, is the Friday corner with its planet, Venus and its symbol, the guinea pig.

The only thing that seems to make sense is that Myanmar Buddhists go to pray at the comer assigned to the day of their birth. As Shway Yoe says in his book The Burman: His Life and Notions: "A Burman's birthday occurs once a week." When a Myanmar says's "birthday," he means the day of the week on which he was born.

It is quite impossible for a Myanmar to survive without knowing on which day of the week he or she was born or, as the Myanmar says, "what-day-born" one is. Without this basic information, a Myanmar would not know which point of the compass on the pagoda platform to go to for prayer.

Important decisions in life, like choosing a spouse, a best friend or a business partner, are made based on "birthday" information. Without this knowledge, one would not even know on which day of the week to have a haircut or to shampoo one's hair.

This last is no exaggeration. Shway Yoe says: "There are regulations as to the days proper for washing one's head ... you must remember it is unlucky to wash your head on a Monday or a Friday or a birth day. In the same way, parents sending their boy to the monastery must remember not to cut his hair on a Monday, a Friday or his birthday. A Bumman's birth day, it must not be forgotten, occurs once a week."

As for choosing spouses and friends and business partners, there are sets of rhymes that are supposed to be repositories of ancient wisdom.

Here is an example:

Friday's daughter
Didn't oughter
Marry a Monday's son.

It means that Monday and Friday are hostile pairs, even if it is a Friday son and Monday daughter. There is also a saying that a Wednesday and Saturday couple will never know hunger "even if they are a couple of lunatics".

Now, to go back to the pagoda platform, the bemused visitor wonders why there are more pilgrims on the southwest than elsewhere; perhaps there is a higher percentage of Saturday-born here among the Myanmars? One can hardly blame the visitor if he or she begins to think in that way:

The explanation is simple (to the Myanmar): the planet ruling Saturday is Saturn, a powerful one, and it can bode evil to the person whose horoscope comes under its influence, which often happens when the planets go around in their orbits. What this means in practice is that when an astrologer reads a horoscope and sees Saturn in this situation, the person concerned must go and make an offering at the southwest comer. This piece of information is often couched in astrological terms, together with predictions, propitiation rites, traditional beliefs and superstitions.

The visitor by this time must be lost in this labyrinth, and this is where the present writer humbly begs to come in and help. The writer has perhaps foolishly rushed in where wise men keep their distance.

Let me begin with a somewhat trite statement. Visits to pagodas are important to Myanmar Buddhists. The guiding force is faith in the efficacy of one's own karmic deeds. For example, contemplation of the infinite compassion of Buddha, as one makes one's way to Shwedagon's great stupa, is a good karmic deed.

Thus merit is gained even before one gets to the pagoda. On the pagoda platform, offerings of flowers and candles are made in honor of the stupa where the relics of Buddha are enshrined. Donations are also given for the upkeep of the stupa. All these add up to the meritorious deeds that give one strength in facing life's problems.

Along with this Buddhist way of life and thought there exist many traditional beliefs, tribal customs and ancient rites. Buddhism is tolerant of traditional customs so long as they do not clash with basic Buddhist teachings. So it is possible for a person to be a good Buddhist without severing himself from his animistic roots.

A Myanmar Buddhist's life is rather mixed up. One goes to the pagoda not only to take refuge in Buddha and his teaching, but also to spread good-will and loving kindness to fellow beings who are on different planes of existence. There are nats, a term that embraces all beings of the spirit world, high and low, good and not so good, sharing the same range of qualities as people in the human world. Many of the nats are represented on the pagoda precincts in paintings and sculptures.

A Myanmar Buddhist goes to the pagoda and performs deeds of merit not only for himself but also to share the merit with other fellow beings, both nats and humans. Making offerings at certain corners is a means to enhance the good deed.

Sometimes the pilgrim is guided by a professional astrologer as to which corner he should go to for making his offerings; more often he has the basic knowledge of his horoscope, that is, the day of the week on which he was born. This is usually good enough if there are no urgent problems. If, however, there are particular problems, there are special corners at which to make offerings, and the advice of a professional astrologer may be needed. But the basic principles are easy to learn. The first thing to know is how the days of the week and the planets are assigned to the points of the compass, and, of course, the day of the week on which one was born.

Now let's look at a chart of the week-days and planets.

Following this system of counting, one can draw charts for anyone born on any day of the week:

Northeast Sunday SUN Garuna
North Friday VENUS Guinea pig
Northwest Wednesday, pm RAHU Tuskless elephant
West Thursday JUPITER Mouse
East Monday MOON Tiger
Southeast Tuesday MARS Lion
South Wednesday, am MERCURY Tusked elephant
Southwest Saturday SATURN Dragon

As the chart shows, the "birthday" comer is the one for honour and position. One goes there for all general purposes, as well as when one is trying to get a position or promotion in one's career. The inauspicious corner is usually a corner to avoid, and in fact this direction is useful in places other than the pagoda platform. For example, when a Sunday-born is beset with ill luck he will throw his old shoes and rags (UKT: an item of his old clothing) to the south of his abode.

Special corners counted from the "birthday" corner and their purpose may be listed as follows.

1. The birthday corner is for position and honor, so it is the one to go to when one needs help in getting a position or a promotion in one's career.

2. The longevity corner is used in time of illness.

3. The kingdom corner is for luck in a new job, new home, new community or when starting married life.

4. The corner of inauspiciousness is to be avoided.

5. The wealth comer is used to pray for a better bank balance or for a fortune.

6. The power and glory comer is for success in competition, a better job or a promotion.

7. The permanence corner is for success and happiness in love and marriage. It is also for the time one is building a new house or settling in a new place.

8. The grace and splendour corner is to bring success in social and professional life and happiness in family life.

With the help of the basic directional chart and the special chart drawn for the subject of the horoscope, any one can determine which directions are auspicious for what purpose. It is, of course, essential to know the day of the week on which one was born.

It is also important not to lose one's bearings, and one should always know the points of the compass wherever one is, even on a train. Myanmar peasants always know where they are, and what is more, they are often appalled by the backwardness of urbanites who speak in terms of "left and right" and not the points of the compass. Once, on a local train on a trip to my hometown in the provinces, I had the odd experience of being told; "You want to go to the toilet? It's down west. Go west, then turn south."

To the Myanmar, the days of the week are important - and points of direction more so. Without this basic knowledge, visits to the pagoda are no longer meaningful. And it is always a marvel how beautifully things work out when one acts according to the guiding chart. Professional aspirations can be achieved, love affairs put right, marriages saved and, above all, a sense of security and peace of mind will be maintained.

When Myanmar Buddhists go to the pagoda, they know in their hearts that they are treading the noble path to that state where the best of human nature will have a fair chance to manifest it self in deeds of generosity, loving kindness and compassion for one's fellow beings.

The pilgrim, on his way up the steps of the pagoda, buys flowers, candles, coloured flags and streamers. They are to be offered in honour of the great stupa wherein are enshrined the relics of Buddha. this act is the act of dhana, or giving, an important aspect of Buddhist teaching. The donation boxes around the pagoda receive offerings large and small, given to the pagoda for general purposes. All donations are voluntary, from the smallest coin put into the box to the priceless jewels hung on the top of the pagoda. No fees are ever requested at pagoda for use of the lifts or for the minding of footwear. The pilgrim can - make whatever donation he chooses and may even make none if he wishes.

For the Myanmar Buddhist to go to the pagoda is to rejoice: to rejoice in the good deeds of others and in one's own good fortune to be able to do good deeds. I only pray that this little piece of writing will give rejoicing to others.

The next one is a chart combining the eight-weekday system: the cardinal point, the celestial body, and the animal sign. Counting clock-wise start from the day of birth as follows:

1. Honour and position
2. Longevity
3. Kingdom
4. Inauspiciousness
5. Wealth
6. Power and glory
7. Permanence
8. Grace and splendour

Following this system of counting, one can draw charts for anyone born on any day of the week.

------

Note by UKT

The author Daw Khin Myo Chit, wife of the late U Khin Maung Latt and the mother of Dr. Khin Maung Win, was Ma Ma Mya to me. Thanks to her and U Lay U Khin Maung Latt, I had the pleasure of writing in magazines and newspapers. I was always in close contact with them, and in fact they looked on me as one of their own was a thought I will always treasure. Thanks to them I have taken part in play readings, which had shown that my English pronunciation was very much in need of improvement.

 
From left to right: KyawTun, Than Than, MaMaMya, ULayUKhinMaungLatt, ULayUTheinMaung (author: UHtinLin), Khwin (Dr. Khin Maung Win). Picture taken in 1960. Click on the picture to get a larger view.

Though I became part of their family through my marriage to my wife Daw Than Than, I became close to them because of my interest in English literature. I was a chemist, and being such was not expected to know much about English literature until one day I happened to quote "Mother you have saved Rome, but have killed your son." - Ma Ma Mya’s response was "Hey! how did you know this - sounds like Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. It was, but lines from Shakespeare are more lengthy: ‘O mother, mother! / What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope, / The gods look down, and this unnatural scene / They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O! / You have won a happy victory to Rome; / But, for your son, — believe it, O, believe it, / Most dangerously you have with him prevail’d, / If not most mortal to him. But, let it come. / Aufidius, though I cannot make true wars, / I’ll frame convenient peace. Now, good Aufidius, / Were you in my stead, would you have heard / A mother less? or granted less, Aufidius?"

Ma Ma Mya, as was usual with most of the educated Myanmars born before the Second World War, knew astrology. The kind of astrology she knew was indigenous to Myanmar - Maha Boad system, where the ‘planets’ and their natures are quite different from that of the Hindu systems. For example, in the Myanmar system, the (artificial) planet Kate being the king of the planets is beneficial, whereas its equivalent in the Hindu system, Katu, is an evil planet. What she was referring to in FACETS OF LIFE AT SHWEDAGON PAGODA was based on the Maha Boad system.

Ma Ma Mya’s grandfather, whom she loved greatly was the one person who instilled into her the love of literature and culture of Myanmar, and she and I had spent many an hour together talking things that were close to our hearts - about our land of birth - MYANMAR. Now that she is no more, I remember her more and more, and her husband my U Lay who would do most of the listening while she did most of the talking, and I listened on with eyes wide open.

Update: 2004-05-04 09:28 AM -0400
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