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Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism


Maung Htin Aung. Printed and published by U Myint Maung, Deputy Director, Regd: No (02405/02527) at the Religious Affairs Dept. Press. Yegu, Kaba-Aye P.O., Rangoon, BURMA. 1981.

Copied, set in HTML, and edited by U Kyaw Tun (UKT) (M.S., I.P.S.T., USA), and staff of Tun Institute of Learning (TIL) . Not for sale. No copyright. Free for everyone. Prepared for students and staff of TIL  Computing and Language Center, Yangon, MYANMAR :  http://www.tuninst.net , http://www.softguide.net.mm , www.romabama.blogspot.com

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Preface - Dr. Htin Aung
Foreword - Prof. U Po Tha
The aim of my study of this book - UKT
Looking west towards the Indian subcontinent - UKT 

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Chapters 2 to 8 were originally given as lectures to the Burma Research Society, Rangoon, at its annual meetings from 1952 to 1957. They have, of course, been rewritten, but traces of the spoken word remain here and there, and occasionally the same facts given in an earlier chapter are repeated in a later chapter, for which defects I crave the reader’s indulgence.

I had promised my publishers, the Oxford University Press, to submit the manuscript of this book by June 1958, but other preoccupations intervened and some years passed before I could do so. I am grateful to them for their patience. In the meantime, I wrote an essay on the subject for Perspective of Burma in 1958. I am grateful to Intercultural Publications Inc., New York, for permission to reproduce that essay as Chapter 1 of this book.

Maung Htin Aung

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One full moon day, some thirty years ago, I was attending the annual festival of a ‘Jungle’ pagoda some miles outside the town of Pegu. The pagoda was reputed to be the place where the two monks, Dhamma-zedi and Dhammapala, practiced magic, and the place was full of persons, mostly imposters, who claimed to be following the path of purity and endeavour, along which Dhamma-zedi had travelled before them. [UKT ¶ ]

UKT, 130104: The Theravada Mon monk Dhamma-zedi {Dûm~ma.sé-ti} (1412–1492) eventually became the King of the Kingdom of Hanthawaddy (Pegu - where Mon speech was spoken). He succeeded the throne in 1472 when his mother-in-law Sovereign-queen Shin Saw-bu (daughter of King Razadharit) transferred the throne to him. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhammazedi 130109

Mon speech had at least three different dialects, and the main dialect is dubbed in this study as the Peguan. Since my Mon-ancestors came from the ancient city of Dalla - which extended from Twenté Town to Kungyangon Town where I was born, I suppose Peguan was the dialect of my ancestors.

I watched with some amusement a white-clad and bearded figure walking by, surrounded by a crowd of devotees, but I stopped smiling when I saw an incongrous figure among them, namely a young student, wearing a brand-new college blazer. My surprise turned into shock when I recognized him to be young Maung Htin Aung who had just entered University College, Rangoon, with a very brilliant academic record behind him. [UKT ¶ ]

I was by then a lecturer in chemistry, and shouted to him rather angrily, ‘What do you think you are doing here?’ and he replied, ‘I am doing research, sir, in unnatural science.’ ‘I hope you will publish a thesis on it,’ I said with due sarcasm, and he replied, ‘I will, sir, if you will please write the introduction.’ Years passed, he became my colleague on the University staff, and in 1946 he became the Rector. He had by then published his Burmese Drama and his Burmese Folk-Tales and I reminded him of our encounter at the Jungle pagoda and suggested that he should now write his thesis on unnatural science. ‘Sir, please do not remind me of a mis-spent youth,’ he replied. But a few weeks later, he came to me with a handful of Burmese alchemic compounds and discussed their composition.

The account of the pre-Buddhist religious cults which are contained in the following pages was originally given as lectures by Dr. Htin Aung to the annual meetings of the Burma Research Society during the period 1952 to 1958, in his capacity, first as Vice-President, then as President, and finally as Past President of the Society. I had the honour and the privilege of listening to all the lectures, and I can still remember the excitement and the controversy that followed his first lecture in the series, which was on Burmese Initiation Ceremonies. Some members of the audience were shocked at his defence of the Ari monks, and the one-hour lecture was followed by a heated discussion which lasted for some three hours. The following year, his lecture on the Nine Gods resulted not only in controversy, but also in resentment against him for endeavouring to show that the ceremony was not really Buddhistic in origin. However, as further lectures followed, his audiences came to appreciate his findings.

I have no hesitation in saying that Dr. Htin Aung has rendered again a signal service to Burmese studies in publishing his lectures in book form. Apart from his academic attainments, Dr. Htin Aung is specially qualified to write on the subject of the pre-Buddhist religion of the Burmese, because he combines in his person a deep understanding and faith in Theravada Buddhism and a sympathy and appreciation of the aspirations of the Burmese astrologer and the Burmese alchemist. [UKT ¶ ]

Belonging to a family one of whose ancestors is listed among the Thirty-seven Nats, he was kidnapped as a child by a village headman and initiated into the cult of the were-tiger; this background will perhaps explain his sympathetic attitude towards the folk elements in Burmese Buddhism. Just as his Burmese Drama and his Burmese Folk-Tales placed on permanent record many Burmese oral traditions that have now completely disappeared even from the remotest village, this book puts on permanent record the oral lore of the pre-Buddhist cults, which has never been collected before, even in the Burmese language.

U Po Tha
Professor of Chemistry, and
Dean of the Faculty of Engineering
University of Rangoon,
1st October, 1959.

UKT note: Though I did not realize it, this forward was dated a few months before the death of Professor U Po Tha. At the time of U Po Tha’s death, I had already come back from the United States. He insisted that I rejoin my old post in the Chemistry Department, University of Rangoon: he had great concern for me because I was without a job, but had a wife (she was a demonstrator in his department) and a two-year old son. One day in December 1959, as a sort of a farewell, he wished me well as he passed me by -- I was going into a lecture and he was going home for his lunch. Before I had finished my lecture, I was called to his home to assist in his funeral preparations: embalming his body.

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The Aim of my study of this book

-- UKT, 2008, 130110

There are several reasons why I have chosen to digitize and study this book. Among the many is my interest in linguistics. In what languages were the historical characters in this book speaking to each other. For example, in what language would Anawratha, presumably Burmese, speak to Shin Arahan, presumably Mon. Burmese and Mon are different languages and usually a Burmese speaker, even now, would not understand Mon. Of course, the present-day Mons of Myanmarpré are largely bilingual in Mon and Burmese, but not the other around. This is because the dominant language in Myanmarpré is Burmese. But in the days of Anawratha and Shin Arahan, it was not so. And there were the Pyus with their own language which would be more similar to Burmese than to Mon. It is believed that the Pyu language is now extinct or has been incorporated into Burmese.

Another reason is culture and religion. As a practicing Theravada Buddhist, I have a pretty good idea of what Buddhism is. But the question is whether my interpretation of Buddhism the same as that of the majority of the common people who believe in Nats, Treasure-guardians, ghosts, witches, were-tigers and were-crocodiles, talismans, and incantations.

The culture of the upper classes including their religion has been found in the Brahmanical texts [UKT: simply substitute with "Buddhist texts"] and hundreds of scholars in both the East and the West have produced voluminous works on Brahmanical Hinduism [Buddhism]. Unfortunately nothing or very little is said in the Brahmanical [Buddhist] texts about the culture of the common people, especially of their religion. Even the part played by the common people in the formation of National Culture is not recorded, though 80% of the population are common people living in the villages. However, for the proper assessment of Indian [Myanmar] culture and civilization, it is necessary to record the history of the vast majority of the population. -- from Human Fertility Cults and Rituals of Bengal, by P. K. Maity, Abhinav Publications, 1989, p.2.

This book by Dr. Htin Aung can therefore be an introduction to Myanmar culture and religion. It may throw some light on the lost history of the Pyus, who were the indigenous people of Myanmarpré since the time before Gautama Buddha. See radio-carbon dates given by Bob Hudson on the inset map.

U Kyaw Tun aka Joe Tun
Singapore 080827
Deep River 130110

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Looking west towards the Indian subcontinent

-- UKT, 130124

Though I have flown over the Indian subcontinent of the present-day, Bangladesh-India-Pakistan-SriLanka, I have not set foot on the ground except for a few hours at Karachi airport in 1957 which could hardly be called a visit. It was in August, and as soon as I stepped out of the plane, I felt like going into an oven. I had never imagined that the air could be that hot in any part of the world except in the Arabian desert which we think is the nearest desert to Myanmarpré.

The Thar desert of the subcontinent usually do not register in our minds whenever we hear the term "desert". Even when we do come to read the name of the Indian desert, we usually pronounce it as {þa:}. We do not realize that it is pronounced as {hta:}. This is because we usually rely on the English transcriptions that are used in Myanmarpré. Those of you who read and write Skt-Dev would realized that if only we had taken the English transcriptions (such as IAST) as used in India, we would be in no better position, for then we would be pronouncing it as {Sa:}.

A piece of history I will need:

I have not looked across the land boundary to the west except as a child from Pauk during WWII. Of course, I have looked across the sea from the Arakan coast. We usually think of surface travel to the subcontinent as a sea-journey, completely forgetting that there are land routes which at least are useable during some parts of the year.

I was in Pauk, west of Pakkokku in early 1942 together with my father U TunPe and my mother Daw HlaMay. I need the following dates to time the events that I remember well even though I was still a child under 10.

02/04/1942 - British retreat from Prome, upper Burma.

UKT: The British troops being surrounded by the BIA forces under BoYanaing at Shwédaung (very near Prome) had to fight their way out. They retreated through Pauk followed by the BIA. There were no Japanese except one liaison officer with the BIA troops under BoYanNaing.

In Pauk, my father, the Public Health Inspector from Kungyangon, Hanthawaddy Dist., now incorporated into Greater Yangon, was contacted the British who asked my father for medicines. My father emptied the family medicine box which he had brought along from Kungyangon and gave everything to the British troops. Without any medicine we lost two members of the family some time later to cholera. As soon as the British left, with sappers and miners taking up the rear, the BIA troops entered Pauk just a couple of hours later.

My father and his elder brother U Kyi Zin, and a younger one U ThaHsin were arrested by the BIA, for not surrendering their guns. Luckily, the second youngest brother, U Aung Myin, happened to be college-friends with BoYanaing, and not only the brothers were released, they became friends with the senior officers of the BIA.

From that very time onwards, as long as the BIA stayed in Pauk, the BIA officers were our dinner guests. Bo YanNaing as a college student was Ko Tun Shein. There were two others with the name Tun Shein and were known as Max TunShein and Beiktha TunShein.

Among the senior officers was BoThura, who lost most of the troops under his direct command at Shwédaung, and had one star on his shoulder dropped. BoThura died sometime later in Rangoon during a British air-raid. He is commemorated by a street name in Kemmendine. 

03/04/1942 - Japanese aircraft bombed Mandalay in central Burma, killing 2,000.
They met no opposition from the RAF as all its aircraft had by now been withdrawn to India.

UKT: My father was in Mandalay before the bombing raid. He had gone from Pauk to Mandalay through Monywa to report to his headquarters of Hanthawaddy District Health Officer which was temporarily stationed in Mandalay.

He had to draw his salary for a few months in crisp British issued "legal-tender in Burma only" notes.

09/04/1942 - Mahatma Gandhi arrested in India.
10/04/1942 - British negotiations in India break down.

12/04/1942 - Japanese troops capture Migyaungye in Burma, which exposes the western flank of 1st Burma Corps at put the oilfields at Yenangyuang under threat.

15/04/1942 - The British begin to destroy the oil wells at Yenangyuang.
The 1st Burma Division with the help of the 38th Chinese Division, manages to extricate itself from a pocket south of Yenangyuang, before being completely surrounded.

23/04/1942 - Churchill tells the House of Commons of disasters in Japanese war.

I had looked towards the Poandaung-Poannhya range, towards Mt. Victoria, to the west. From the place where my father and I had stood, across the almost dry bed of the stream, was the cemetery where we had buried the two family members we had lost. My father showed me the direction the British had taken and had we joined them which we ourselves would have taken. As a parting reward for the services my father had rendered to them,  the British troops had offered to take my father, my mother, and me, with them because they saw the danger my father would be in when they had left.

I remember my father having a war-council with my mother, because the family had increased due to my mother's sister-in-law and her grown-up children had come to join us. They had come to my mother for protection, when she herself was now with my father's brothers. If she were to go they would be simply among strangers who were Burmese. My mother's sister-in-law was not only pure Chinese born in China, but was suffering from insanity.

We did not go west with the British troops, but I have seen the route we would taken, where there were no regular roads, just along the dry beds of streams, through which the waters would come rushing down. Now that I have seen movie clips of the Elephant Man, I realized what we would have been in. See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/wwii-elephant-man-rescue-revealed-on-film-2122153.html).

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