Asian and African studies blog

41 posts categorized "Burmese"

15 November 2021

Transcribed from the boundary wall of the universe: Early Dhammasattha manuscripts in the Burmese collection of the British Library

The British Library’s Burmese collection holds some of the earliest extant dhammasattha manuscripts in the world. The dhammasattha, or “treatise on the law” is a genre of Buddhist literature prevalent in mainland Southeast Asia, written in Pali and in a range of vernacular languages including Burmese, Arakanese, Mon, Shan, Thai, Lao and Khmer. Although it is an integral part of the Theravada tradition, it is also historically related to Brahmanical dharmaśāstra texts written in Sanskrit.

Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript
Gilded and embossed front cover of a dhammasattha manuscript. The title “Dhamasat’” is flanked by two dragons. Manu kyay dhammasat, 19th century. British Library, Phayre Collection, Or 3447 A Noc

The dhammasattha was the primary legal framework for society, and originally applied to every Buddhist, both secular and monastic. It dealt with all aspects of the law, covering property and land, debt, wages, inheritance, slavery, marriage (including rape and adultery), assault, murder, theft, slander and the breaking of oaths. The most extensive tradition of dhammasattha comes from Myanmar, where some laws derived from the genre are still in force in the legal system today. Knowledge of dhammasattha was part of the education of rulers and administrators, monks, as well as any “good men”, and could be put to practice by any of these (therefore being mainly a male activity). The exclusive profession of a judge came into being only during the colonial period.

This blog draws extensively on Christian Lammerts’ recent authoritative publication Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (2018), as well as his article 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong and Arakan' (2015), in which he discusses at length the dhammasattha manuscripts found at the British Library.

The Origin of Law

A flying rishi
A flying rishi. Manu was one of the first rishis or men who had accomplished super-knowledge and super-powers, such as the capacity to fly. Scenes from Jataka stories, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 1r Noc

The story of how the dhammasattha text came into being has many versions. According to one standard narrative, it already existed at the beginning of the world. The very first king, Mahāsammata, had a renowned minister of great learning named Manu, whom he appointed to adjudicate disputes. Manu, however, soon found that it was difficult to rely only on witness testimony in passing judgment, and since he was fully accomplished in super-knowledge (abhiññā) and magical powers (iddhi), he used these to fly through the sky to the boundary wall of the universe. There the dhammasattha was written on the wall in Pali with letters each as big as a cow. Manu then proceeded to transcribe the law from the wall and presented the dhammasattha text to Mahāsammata.

The dhammasattha was therefore originally conceived of as cosmically derived, neither human nor divine. It had no author, but was intimately tied to writing. Although it was a natural part of the cosmos it was only accessible to those with magical power. It was also stated that the dhammasattha was so vast it could not be mastered by the average man. This is why, the tradition reports, scholars and wise men abridged it, sometimes translating it into vernacular languages. Although the dhammasattha had many textual variations its essential cosmic justification stayed the same until the 18th century when Burmese jurists began to question this theory of the origin of law.

Dhammavilāsa dhammasat

An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version
An early 18th century copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat, the oldest known dhammasattha version. British Library, Or 11775. Noc

Textual references to dhammasattha begin to be found in 13th century Burmese inscriptions (although dhammasattha texts were likely in circulation earlier).  The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (ဓမ္မသတ်, Burmese for dhammasattha) is understood to be the oldest known dhammasattha composition. Out of seven existing manuscript copies three are located at the British Library (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249, Or 11775). Of these, Add MS 12249 is particularly significant, as it provides the only secure date for the composition of the text. Although the manuscript is dated 1825 the scribal colophon states that the text was copied from an old manuscript dated to 1637/38.

The oldest physical copy of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat is from 1758 and is located at the Universities’ Central Library in Yangon. One of the British Library copies (Or 11775), however, is dated only 11 years later, to 1769.

The Dhammavilāsa dhammasat was widely transmitted and produced many significantly different versions, both in prose and verse, not only in Burmese, but also in Arakanese, Mon and Shan.

An Arakanese dhammasat

The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749
The last folio of a rare Arakanese dhammasattha manuscript with a colophon dating it to 1749. British Library, Murray Collection, Add MS 12254, f. 73rNoc

The British Library holds a rare early Arakanese dhammasat manuscript (Add MS 12254) from 1749, which has been fully digitised. Although related to the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat this version represents a distinct Arakanese dhammasattha tradition, prevalent in the area of Sittwe and Chittagong in 18th-19th centuries. This is the oldest extant Arakanese version and the westernmost of all dhammasatthas; it is also nine years older than the oldest extant Burmese version of the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat.

The text is written with black ink on individual strips of yellow paper (instead of palm leaf). The Murray Collection, of which it is a part, contains the oldest Arakanese paper manuscripts in the world (dated between 1721-1784).

The text is written in “mra mā”, which before the end of the 18th century designated both Arakanese and Burmese languages (that are closely related). Its scribal colophon identifies it as the work of “the excellent teacher and monk Rāmi Shyaṅ.” In Arakan personal names were used instead of monastic titles, which is still tradition in Chittagong today.

Manusāra dhammasat and Manu kyay dhammasat

The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese nissaya commentary
The Manusāra dhammasat was written in Pali verse with a Burmese commentary (nissaya). British Library, Add MS 12241. Noc

The Manusāra dhammasat was also an early tradition with the composition of the text attributed to 1651-52. It was written by Tipiṭakālaṅkāra (a monk and Vinaya scholar) and Kaingza Manurāja (a lay judge), and for the first time links the dhammasattha geographically to Myanmar and chronologically to Burmese and Mon kings. The origin story is slightly transformed, with a seer named “Manusāra” responsible for transcribing the dhammasattha from the boundary wall of the universe. Manusāra was written in Pali verse, for the benefit of durability and easier memorisation, but also included an elaborate nissaya or commentary in Burmese. Manusāra is noteworthy for the many reformulations of the dhammasattha tradition it introduced, including a more explicit separation of lay and monastic jurisdictional boundaries.

The British Library holds the earliest known manuscript of the 1651–2 Manusāra dhammathat (Add MS 12241), copied in 1773.

The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions
The Many kyay dhammasat was an abridged compendium of pre-existing versions. British Library, Mss Man/Bur 3429. Noc

The Manu kyay was a much later abridgement and differed considerably from the aforementioned treatises. It was an anonymous compendium of laws derived from the dhammasattha tradition and compiled sometime prior to 1782. The British Library holds the second oldest extant Manu kyay manuscript (Man/Bur 3429), dated to 1789. The Many kyay was translated in English by Richardson already in 1847, and henceforth made this version well known.

Impartial justice

The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon
The Dhammasattha was likened to the illuminating rays of the moon. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 63r. Noc

The dhammasattha advocated for universal justice and applied to all Buddhist beings, human and celestial. It was meant to be “impartial, like a pair of scales”.

The Dhammasat is like Sakka’s thunderbolt-weapon and the jewel-treasure of a cakkavatti king that grants all wishes. It is like the weapon of the lords and ministers who have been tasked with carrying out the duties of the country. It is like a carpenter’s ruler and a physician’s diagnostic manual. It is like an oil lamp that illuminates a dark room filled with precious gems. It is like an eye that can see whether an appearance is good or bad, and like an ear that can hear whether a sound is good or bad. It is like the rays of the moon that illuminate the four continents at night, and the rays of the sun that brighten them during the day. It is like the tusk of a powerful elephant. It is like mother’s milk.” (Add MS 12254, f. Ki v; trans. Lammerts 2018, 184–185)

Lammerts has noted that interestingly the Arakanese versions of the dhammasattha are much more tolerant than their Burmese counterparts by allowing the testimony of both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike (“those who take refuge [in the three jewels] and those who do not,” Lammerts 2015, 431), as well as local residents and foreigners (“people from places far away,” Lammerts 2015, 431), and of good and bad people regardless of their character and the scale of the dispute. The Burmese dhammasatthas, by contrast, specifically discriminate against non-Buddhists as untrustworthy witnesses.

Bad Judges

Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly
Being eaten by a tiger was one of the eight punishments for judges adjudicating incorrectly. British Library, Or 4542 B, f. 131r Noc

Punishment for faulty judgement was extremely harsh from the very beginning, and was the reason why Manu was prompted to look for a cosmic explication of the law in the first place. Judges were expected to be truthful, avoid bias, refrain from bribes, and to examine the evidence comprehensively. They were particularly advised to avoid the four “bad courses” (agati): desire (favouring a relative, a friend or someone who has given presents), hatred (disfavouring an enemy or someone who doesn’t pay one respect), fear (letting someone go without consequences because they know someone in power, or because they threaten one’s property or oneself), and ignorance (inability to understand or discern the law). Should a judge adjudicate incorrectly or unjustly the “eight dangers” and “ten punishments” would befall him.

The eight dangers, which in this formulation are unique to Myanmar, are the following: 1) being swallowed by earth, 2) being struck by lightning, 3) being eaten by ogres, 4) being eaten by a tiger, 5) death by crocodile, 6) capsizing in a boat, 7) bleeding to death, 8) madness.

The ten punishments are paralleled in the Dhammapada: 1) violent, unhappy suffering, 2) loss of property, 3) destruction of the body, 4) severe, torturing disease, 5) loss of mind, 6) oppressive punishment from the ruler, 7) harsh accusations, 8) extermination of the family, 9) eradication of wealth, 10) houses burnt by lightning.

When such a person died they fell into the four unhappy destinies (hell realm, demon realm, ghost realm and animal realm) suffering greatly as ghosts. The texts describe such hell-ghosts in detail: “His body would grow enormous… His eyes were a cubit in diameter, his mouth the size of a needle. His body was red like the colour of blossoming flowers. His toenails and fingernails were as sharp as nails, and with them he incessantly gouged his flesh and cannibalised himself. He lost all strength from consuming himself, and was eventually carried away by the wind.” (Add MS 12248, Add MS 12249; trans. Lammerts 2018, 81).

If the law was adjudicated correctly it would bring great prosperity to the country and foster the ability of humans to perform acts of merit. According to certain dhammasatthas, the benefit of such merit would be divided into six parts, one of which went to the ruler. In contrast, should the law be adjudicated incorrectly the country would be unable to achieve prosperity and happiness. The demerit produced would similarly be divided into six parts, with the ruler and the judge each personally receiving one.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese Ccownwork

I would like to thank Christian Lammerts for his comments on this blog and for his expert opinion.

Further Reading:
Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250–1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2018).
Lammerts, D. Christian. 'The Murray Manuscripts and Buddhist Dhammasattha Literature Transmitted in Chittagong in Arakan', Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 19, no. 2 (Dec. 2015), 407-444.
Mong, Sai Kham, ed., Shan Thammasat manuscripts (Tokyo: Mekong, 2012).
Huxley, Andrew. ‘The Importance of the Dhammathats in Burmese Law and Culture’, Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 1 (1997), 1-17.
Hla, Nai Pan, Eleven Mon Dhammasāt Texts (Tokyo: Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies for Unesco, 1992).
Richardson, D. (trans.) The Damathat, or the Laws of Menoo (Maulmain, 1847)

20 September 2021

Kālāma Sutta and the premise of free thinking

Tipiṭaka or the ‘Three Baskets’ forms the canon of the teachings of the Buddha written in Pāli. The second ‘Basket’, Sutta Piṭaka, contains five Nikāyas or ‘collections’ of thousands of discourses attributed to the Buddha and his disciples. The Aṅguttara Nikāya, or ‘numerical discourses’ is divided further into eleven Nipāta or ‘books’, one of which includes the Kālāma Sutta (ကာလာမသုတ်) or the ‘Instruction of the Kalamas’ (Tika-Nipāta, Mahāvagga, Sutta no. 65, also known as the Kesamutti Sutta). The Kālāma Sutta is famous for encouraging free thinking and opposes dogmatism, fanaticism and any kind of intolerance. It expounds the idea that in order to gain clarity one has to also examine one’s mind and ideas.

Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century. Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
Palm leaf manuscript with gilded edges, containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

The British Library’s Myanmar (Burma) Collections hold several manuscripts of the Aṅguttara Nikāya. Man/Pali 56 and Man/Pali 61 both contain the Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, including the Kālāma Sutta. They are beautifully manufactured palm leaf manuscripts, entirely gilded from the outside and placed between bevelled gilded wooden binding boards. These manuscripts belong to the Mandalay Palace Collection from 1886 and therefore date from the 19th century. Both manuscripts contain over 170 precisely incised palm leaves.

The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56
The beginning of the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, in a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 56  noc

In the Kālāma Sutta the Buddha is wandering around Kosala accompanied by a large community of monks (bhikkhus) and comes to Kesaputta town, inhabited by the Kalamas. The Kalamas ask the Buddha for advice. There are many holy and wise men who visit the town, each expounding their own doctrines and demolishing opposing ones. This leaves the Kalamas uncertain: which of these men speaks the truth?

The Buddha responds with these famous words:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumour; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration 'The monk is our teacher.' Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them.”

Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
Palm-leaf manuscript with gilded edges containing Eka-, Duka-, and Tika-Nipāta of the Aṅguttara Nikāya, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61
An excerpt from the Tika-Nipāta, which includes the Kālāma Sutta, from a palm leaf manuscript, 19th century, Pali in Burmese script. British Library, Man/Pali 61  noc

The Buddha then goes on to explain that mental wellbeing can be acquired by overcoming greed, hate and delusion and goes through each of these in detail. The Kalamas agree that greed, hate and delusion can only cause harm and that the absence of these is thus beneficial. Following this the Buddha expounds that each person has the capacity to distinguish what causes harm and what causes happiness and therefore each person should follow their own judgement. Whatever one’s belief (or non-belief) in the hereafter, if one is free of hate and malice, that person will be able to find solace.

Distinguishing between what causes harm and what causes happiness is in the Kālāma Sutta not simply an act of reasoning or an intellectual exercise, it is the ability to distinguish what leads to the harm or benefit of not just oneself but of everybody.

The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.
The Kesariya stupa in Bihar is believed to be the place where the Kālāma Sutta was first taught. Creative Commons BY-SA 2.5.

Further reading:

"Kalama Sutta: The Buddha's Charter of Free Inquiry", translated from the Pali by Soma Thera. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

"Kalama Sutta: To the Kalamas" (AN 3.65), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013.

Alfred Bloom, Critical Thinking in Buddhism: The Kalama Sutta. Shin Darma Net.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

15 February 2021

The Burmese Harp: (3) Heaven and Earth

In my two previous blogs on the Burmese harp - (1) Seduction of the Senses and (2) Matters of the Heart - I gave examples of how the Burmese harp or Saung was incorporated into Jātaka stories (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha). In this final instalment I will discuss how the Saung was intimately connected with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha was originally born as a prince into a lavish lifestyle, and is described as having been accompanied by forty thousand dancing women and an all-female orchestra. In this depiction of the court (Or 14197) one can see alongside the dancer a full female orchestra with a fiddle, a xylophone, a harp (back row, next to the fiddle), a flute and a drum. Two of the women are clapping their hands in rhythm.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library
Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library, Or 14197, f. 1r  noc

The orchestra played an important part in the Buddha’s disillusionment and decision to leave his princely life. One day, when he returned to his palace the orchestra started enthusiastically entertaining him. However, his mind was already detached from such pleasures and he fell asleep. Without its main audience, the orchestra also dozed off while still hugging their instruments. When the prince woke up and saw them lying around in a disorderly fashion, leg showing here, breast showing there, some sleeping with their mouths open, some grinding their teeth, he became even more disillusioned. He decided to bid goodbye to his sleeping wife and child and leave the palace for good in the Great Departure (Or 4762, Or 14197).

Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r
Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r  noc

Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1
Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1  noc

Although the Buddha left his earthly orchestra behind, the Saung still followed him throughout his journey in heavenly form. In this rare illustrated Kammavācā manuscript (Or 13896), which is currently on display at the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, the deva Sakka plays the harp in order to lead the Buddha, who now has become a monk, to the Middle Path.

Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r
Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r  noc

The Saung was an integral part of the life in the heavenly realms, and is shown in cosmology manuscripts in all four heavenly realms of sensual pleasure - Paranimmita-vasavatti, Nimmānaratī, Tusita, and Yāma. In the depiction below, which describes the heavenly musicians of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm the Saung is accompanied by a bell and a dancer (Or 14004).

Harp 3 - picture 5 Paranimmita-vasavatti realm
The ruler of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm accompanied by his heavenly musicians and a dancer. British Library, Or 14004, f. 15r  noc

The most impressive orchestra of all, however, could be found in the Tāvatiṃsa realm, or the realm of the thirty-three devas, located on top of the Sumeru world mountain. In the depiction below we can see two joined orchestras with a dancer in the middle. There are two harps and a bell in the left side orchestra, and a xylophone and a harp in the right side orchestra (Or 14004).

The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven.
The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven. British Library, Or 14004, f. 21r  noc

Until the 19th century the Saung was played exclusively within the royal court, and was considered the most valued of instruments. The most notable harpists were given posts at court, where they composed many famous pieces. Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853) was one of these great musicians, and added six more harp strings to the existing seven, thus producing a fuller range (of two and a half octaves). A fourteenth string was added by the famous and last court harpist U Maung Maung Gyi (1855-1933), who was appointed to King Mindon’s court in Mandalay, where he was given the title "Deiwa-Einda" (Heavenly Musician) already at the age of thirteen. The Saung gradually came out of the palace during the 19th century via small outlying courts and travelling troupes of actors and musicians. Since then it has found its way to the general public and can now be enjoyed by all.

The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise
The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise. British Library, Or 14297, f. 18r  noc

The Saung returned at the pivotal moments of the Buddha’s life. The scene above depicts the beginning of the process of meditation that in the end led to Enlightenment. The Buddha is here shown meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the three devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla from the three realms next to him singing songs of praise. Sakka blows the conch, while Mahākāla plays the harp and sings with over a hundred verses (Or 14297).

The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music
The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music. British Library, Or 14297, f. 20r  noc

The devas ran away when Māra’s frightening troops arrived, and a difficult mental battle ensued which the Buddha eventually conquered. He had now attained Enlightenment, and the event was celebrated and rejoiced with much music. The Saung (with Mahākāla) is depicted here again right at his side (Or 14297).

Harp 3 - picture 9 Buddha descending
The Buddha descends from Tāvatiṃsa heaven with a heavenly retinue beside him. British Library, Or 5757, f. 17r  noc

After his Enlightenment the Buddha travelled around and taught the Dhamma to others. In the above illustration the Buddha is descending from the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he spent three months preaching the Dhamma to his mother, who was there. The Saung accompanies his descent to Earth (Or 5757). It has been said that the Saung was indeed the Buddha’s preferred instrument or even a symbol of him, and in temple murals he has been portrayed as a harpist in many of his previous incarnations.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: its classical music, tunings, and modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

N.A. Jayawickrama (trans.), The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2002.

A documentary about the harp in Southeast Asia, by Patrick Kersalé, Sounds of Angkor, 2021, including music clips of the Burmese and Karen harps, can be viewed here.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

28 December 2020

The Burmese Harp: (2) Matters of the Heart

In my previous blog The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses I gave examples of how female harpists were depicted in Burmese manuscript illustrations. In this blog I will discuss stories of male harpists that appear in Jātakas, or tales of the Buddha's former lives, in the British Library's Burmese manuscripts collection. The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

The Sussondi Jātaka (Or 13538) recounts the story of Sagga, a harpist-minstrel. He is sent by the king of Benares to find the queen who has disappeared. Unbeknownst to the king the queen had in fact fallen in love with the Garuḍa king, who had taken her with him to Nāga Island.

The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

While looking for her Sagga crosses the sea with a ship of merchants who implore him to play his harp. He responds: “I would make music, but if I do, the fish will be so excited that your vessel will be wrecked.” The merchants disbelieve him and insist, and in the end he plays and sings with great beauty. The fish start splashing about and a sea monster who lives in the area leaps up, falls onto the ship and sinks it. Nevertheless, Sagga manages to reach the shore of the Nāga island clutching onto his (boat-shaped) harp.


Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Queen Sussondi, who was strolling on the shore in the absence of the Garuḍa king, finds him. She recognises Sagga and welcomes him with open arms. They become lovers and Sussondi hides him from the Garuḍa king whenever he returns.

Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Queen Sussondi finds Sagga. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

The next time a group of merchants reach the shore, Sagga sails back with them to Benares (this time successfully), where he plays his harp and sings the song of Sussondi, replete with his own longing of her, to the king.

Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r
Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r  noc

Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r 
Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. British Library, Or 13538, f. 28r   noc

The Burmese harp or Saung is a very old instrument that has a continuous history that spans over a thousand years. Many temple reliefs and wall frescoes from Bagan (9th-13th centuries) depict harps, although Judith Becker has suggested these harps may be different from the Sri Ksetra harp (see previous blog), which in turn resembles quite closely the modern Burmese harp. There probably were many different kinds of harps in use at the time. Although the terminology for the harp varies, the word Saung first appears at the Lokatheikpan temple in Bagan (c. 1125), where it describes “monks, who can play the harp”. Indeed, the Saung seems to have an inextricable connection with Buddhism and, according to Becker, the disappearance of the harp accompanied the decline of Buddhism in certain parts of South Asia.

The earliest known songs thought to have been composed for harp music date to the early 14th century (“Three Shield-Dance Songs attributed to the Lord of Myinzaing”). Although song-texts were inscribed on palm leaf there was no musical notation, and so the musical tradition was passed on orally with the music itself being impressed on memory when performed. The oldest harp music that still survives is the “Three Barge Songs”, attributed to Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), a minister at the Toungoo court. These songs purportedly describe a river voyage from Lake Meiktila to Tagaung.

The Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka (Mss Burmese 202) makes use of the harp for a lighthearted slapstick humour scene. It recounts the story of a Brahmin who has gone to great effort to find and keep a wife who has never seen any other men. Here he plays the harp to her at home for her entertainment. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has taken a lover, and tricks him into being blindfolded through the pretense of her being too shy of him watching her dance. While he is blindfolded in this way, the lover, who is currently staying in the house, hits him on the head and hides.

A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v 
A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v   noc

The Dīghītikosala Jātaka (Or 13538) tells the heart-wrenching story of a prince (the Bodhisatta), whose parents are cruelly slain by a deceitful rival. He is devastated, but instead of seeking revenge he goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant of the palace and leads a simple life. Slowly he recovers from his heartache and when the monsoon rains fall he sings and plays beautiful songs of acceptance and reconciliation with his harp.

The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r
The Bodhisatta goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant, and recovers from his heartache by playing his harp. British Library, Or 13538, f. 65r  noc

In the next installment of this series of blogs on the Burmese harp, I will talk about the Saung’s relationship with Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

 

09 November 2020

The Burmese Harp: (1) Seduction of the Senses

The British Library’s collection of digitised Burmese manuscripts, dating mainly from the 19th century, has many depictions of the Burmese harp or Saung (စောင်းကောက်). The Saung appears often in certain Jātaka stories, or tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, which have seduction and pleasure as one of the prevailing themes. The Mandhātu Jātaka tells the story of Mandhātā, a powerful king who had everything he could ever desire. Although he ended up ruling even the heavenly realms, he still remained dissatisfied. Shown below is a detail from an illustrated manuscript of the Mandhātu Jātaka (Or 4542/B). It gives us a peek into Mandhātā's court, which included beautiful musicians. The Saung player is turning curiously to see who is entering the palace.

Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r
Women of the court, including a musician holding the Burmese harp or Saung, Mandhātu Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f.57r  noc

The Saung is a unique musical instrument with a continuous history that stretches over a thousand years. It is known for its soothing, melodious sound and can be recognised by its horizontal boat-shaped body and its long, inwardly arched neck. The ends of the strings, which used to be made from silk, are decorated with red cotton tassels. The harp is held on the lap and the strings are plucked with one hand, while the other is used for damping and staccato notes. The Saung usually accompanies a singer, who also controls the tempo with a bell (Si) and a clapper (Wa).

The earliest description of the Saung comes from a temple relief at Bawbawkyi in Sri Ksetra from the 8th century CE. It depicts a dancer with an accompanying harpist and a rhythm keeper. Tang chronicles from the 9th century also describe a delegation from the kingdom with thirty-five musicians and dancers that enchanted the court with their elaborate music performance. The orchestra included two harps and it performed twelve songs on Buddhist texts. These harps were tuned with pegs rather than strings, and interestingly peg-tuned harps are still used in Mon and Karen traditions. A later 10th-century Tang chronicle confirms that the music from these two geographic areas (from the present-day lower Myanmar) was the same.

The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r 
The Boddhisatta and his four brothers at the enchanted pavilion of music. Telapatta Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/A f. 53r   noc

Another of the Jātaka stories, the Telapatta Jātaka (Or 4542/A) recounts the story of the Bodhisatta as a prince who had to travel through a dangerous, enchanted forest inhabited by ogresses. His five brothers accompany him, but are eaten one by one by the ogresses who seduce them with different sensory pleasures. In this manuscript illustration the Boddhisatta (on the right in gold) has arrived to the ogresses’ magical pavilion of music. By this time he has already lost one brother in the pavilion of beauty. One of his remaining brothers, the lover of music, is raising the curtain in order to be fully immersed by the entertainment, and is just about to become the next victim. The harpist is here accompanied by a flute and a singer.

Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r
Temiya’s last temptation. Temiya Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 3676, f. 7r

The famous Temiya Jātaka (Or 3676) is one of the ten last lives of the Buddha. He was a much wished-for son of the king of Benares. However, as soon as he discovered that his future kingly duties would involve inflicting punishment, he stopped speaking and sat motionless, as he did not want to inherit the throne. The king tried to budge him in many different ways, from tempting him with cakes to scaring him with snakes and loose elephants, but with no success. When Temiya turned sixteen he was put to the final test with beautiful women, song and dance. Although this illustration actually shows him quite tempted, he did in fact hold firm, and ended up not having to inherit the kingdom.

The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r
The Bodhisatta hears beautiful music through his window, and slowly falls in love with the harpist. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

A somewhat similar story is recounted in the Culla Palobhana Jātaka (Or 4542/B). In this story as well, the Bodhisatta was born as a much-wanted prince, but from his earliest days as a baby he didn’t like to be nursed by women, and was only attended by male members of the court. The king grew worried about his son’s lack of desire for pleasure, for surely this would also include ruling the kingdom. A young dancing girl, accomplished in music and song, was therefore asked to seduce him. In return she would become his queen. When morning came she played and sang outside the place where the prince was meditating. Little by little he fell in love with her and they became closer.

The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r
The Boddhisatta and his lover are banished from the kingdom after a fit of jealousy. Culla Palobhana Jātaka, 19th century. British Library, Or 4542/B, f. 89r  noc

Unfortunately, the Bodhisatta became so enamoured with her that he ran amok the town in a fit of jealousy. As punishment for this bad behaviour both of them were banished from the kingdom and went on to live together in the forest.

In forthcoming blog posts I will give examples of how male harpists were depicted in manuscript illustrations, and how the Saung was inextricably entwined with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

28 January 2020

Women in Buddhism at the time of the Buddha

This is the tenth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020. Today's post looks forward to the talk Buddha's Daughters: Women in Buddhism Today, to be held at the British Library on 6 February 2020.

The Canon of Buddhist teachings in Pali, called the Tipitaka, records the practice of loving kindness taught by the Buddha, directed at all human beings. This blog post recalls episodes from the Life of the Buddha highlighting the role of women in Buddhism at the time of the historical Buddha Gotama, with illustrations from Burmese manuscripts.

King Pasenadi Kosala, a close devotee of the Buddha, was displeased when he was informed that his queen had given birth to a daughter. The Buddha taught the king that Buddhism does not consider the birth of a daughter a cause for worry and despair, for Buddhism considers men and women to be equally useful to society. The Buddha elevated the status of women by pointing out that a woman is the mother of man, and no person is worthy of greater reverence and veneration than one’s mother.

After renouncing the world, for six years Siddhattha Gotama tried to find release from the weariness of existence but he could not reach his goal. While Prince Siddhattha was sitting under a Banyan tree, Sujata, a rich man’s daughter, offered him a golden cup containing milky rice. This gift provided the ascetic Buddha-to-be Siddhattha with enough strength to practise meditation and to achieve enlightenment. Later Sujata became a bhikkhuni (an ordained female monastic).

The Bodhisatta receiving the milky rice pudding from Sujata. He accepted his first food after realizing that extreme asceticism was not suitable for achieving enlightenment. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 16
The Bodhisatta receiving the milky rice pudding from Sujata. He accepted his first food after realizing that extreme asceticism was not suitable for achieving enlightenment. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 16 Noc

Vasundhara is an earth goddess and her name literally translates to ‘flow of wealth’. Boddhisatta Siddhattha’s moment of enlightenment came when he touched the earth to bear witness to the virtues and great offerings he had made, while Mara (the demon of illusion) assaulted him with his armies. The earth goddess was summoned to help the Boddhisatta by wringing water from her hair to wash away Mara’s armies. The Buddha’s victory is presented with a gesture of his hand downward toward the earth. This gesture, called the Bhumisparsha mudra, or "the earth witness" mudra, commemorates the Buddha's victory over temptation by the demon Mara, and his attainment of enlightenment.

Siddhattha, seated in a cross-legged posture, decided not to arise until he became a Buddha
Siddhattha, seated in a cross-legged posture, decided not to arise until he became a Buddha, and he meditated. Mara, the Evil One, then arrived, riding on a ferocious elephant and appearing to have a thousand arms, each bearing a weapon. In response the prince called the earth to witness. When the kneeling figure of the earth goddess replied, Mara and his army found all their efforts to no avail, and therefore fled. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 20 Noc

Queen Maya was married to the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, the king of Kapilavatthu. After ten lunar months, she returned to her parents for the impending birth. On the way, she gave birth to the prince Siddhattha at the Lumbini garden on Friday, on the full-moon day of May. She died seven days after the birth of the Buddha. During the seventh rainy season the Buddha went to Tavatimsa heaven and preached the Abhidhamma (higher teaching) for three months to his mother, who had been reborn as a deva, as a mark of gratitude for his former mother. After hearing the Dhamma from the Buddha, she became a Sotapanna (Stream-winner) and entered the first stage on the path to enlightenment.

Or_14405_f077r
The Buddha teaching the Abhidhamma in Tavatimsa heaven to assembled gods. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 77 Noc

After the death of the Buddha’s father, King Suddhodana, the widowed queen Gotami, the Buddha’s foster mother, approached the Buddha with a request to join the Sangha or monkhood.  However, at the beginning the Buddha did not permit the admission of women into the Order. Although the Buddha initially declined, after the intercession of Ananda, he later granted his foster mother’s wish. The ordination of Gotami and the establishment of the Order of Buddhist Nuns or bhikkhunis is the one of the great stories in Buddhist literature. Gotami was the first ordained bhikkhuni and the foremost female disciple of the Buddha. It was the first time in the history of the religion that the Order of Nuns was established and women were admitted to the monastic life.

Yasodhara was the mother of Rahula and the wife of the Bodhisatta Siddhattha Gotama. When she heard about her husband’s ascetic life she took to wearing yellow robes, taking one meal a day, and rejecting comfortable beds. After the ordination of Pajapati Gotami, Yasodhara was ordained as well, and many other women also followed in her footsteps to become bhikkhunis.

The Dhammapada commentary includes a story of a bhikkhuni called Janapadakalyani Rupananada who was engaged to be married to Nanda, the brother of the Buddha. After Nanda became a bhikkhu she went to the Buddha to hear him preach and she also became an arahant (a perfected person).

The followers of the Buddha including Bhikkhuni Patisambhidapattacira, and Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna pay respects to the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 65
The followers of the Buddha including Bhikkhuni Patisambhidapattacira, and Bhikkhuni Uppalavanna pay respects to the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 65 Noc

There were many more bhikkhunis during the Buddha’s time. Uppalavanna was the daughter of a wealthy merchant from Savatthi. She became a bhikkhuni and was the foremost model amongst bhikkhunis.

Patisambhidapattacira was the daughter of another wealthy man who went mad with grief when she lost her family. After hearing the Buddha’s teaching she became a bhikkhuni and she was an eminent female arahant declared by the Buddha.

Visakha was one of the chief female lay followers of the Buddha. Her father was the king’s treasurer and her husband was a wealthy man. When she was seven years old she attained the first stage of sanctity after hearing the Buddha’s teachings. She donated the Pubbarama monastery to the Buddha and his disciples. She offered daily alms to the monks and nuns, and also played an important role in the affairs of the Order of Nuns.

Kisagotami from Savatthi experienced the profound pain of grief when her little son died. After the Buddha had taught to her about impermanence, as death comes to all beings, she requested the Buddha to admit her to the order of Bhikkhunis.

When the Buddha arrived at Vesali, the courtesan Ambapalika approached the Buddha and invited him to a meal. The Buddha accepted the invitation of the courtesan. The next day, after the Buddha received another meal from her, Ambapalika also donated her mango grove. After hearing the Buddha’s teachings she entered the order of nuns and became an arahant (a perfected person).

Ambapalika offering a meal to the Buddha and his disciples, and donating a mango grove. British Library, Or. 13534, f. 18-19
Ambapalika offering a meal to the Buddha and his disciples, and donating a mango grove. British Library, Or. 13534, f. 18-19 Noc

Just like Buddhist monks, Buddhist nuns also left their family life to practise the Buddha’s teachings. After the passing away of the Buddha, all his Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis, male and female disciples, continued teaching the Dhamma to the people to maintain the Buddha’s teachings. The Apadana provides all these rich biographical details with great poetic flourish. The Therigatha (Verses of Elder Nuns), a section of the Khuddaka Nikaya, contains numerious stanzas that clearly express the feelings of joy experienced by saintly bhikkhunis at their ability to enter the Order and realize the Truth. The Anguttara Nikaya gives a very comprehensive record of Buddhist women, bhikkhunis and upasikas (nuns and laywomen), who did great work not only as followers of the Dhamma but as preachers of the Buddha’s teachings. Each woman, like each man, had in her the potentiality of becoming an arahant.

Further reading:
Mahathera Piyadassi, The spectrum of Buddhism. Taiwan: The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1991.
Alice Collett, Women in Early Indian Buddhism: comparative textual studies. N.Y. Oxford University Press, 2014.

San San May Ccownwork

This is the final blog post by San San May, assistant Curator of the Buddhism exhibition, who joined the British Library as Curator for Burmese in 2000, and retired in October 2019.

San San viewing MSS at UCL  Rangoon  May 2011-ed
San San May (in the centre) viewing manuscripts in the Universities Central Library in Yangon, during an official visit to Myanmar in May 2011 on behalf of the British Library.

2016-SEAsia
San San May, Curator for Burmese (left), with colleagues in the Southeast Asia section of the British Library in 2016 (from left): Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese; Annabel Gallop, Curator for Malay and Indonesian, and head of the Southeast Asia section; and Jana Igunma, Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian and Lead Curator for the Buddhism exhibition.

18 October 2019

The Buddhist Kathina Festival

This is the sixth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

This month, October, marks the end of vassa or the Buddhist Lent, the three months rainy season retreat observed by the Sangha or Buddhist monastic communities. The end of vassa is celebrated by Buddhists with Pavarana, the inviting ceremony, followed by Kathina, the robe offering ceremony, which take place on Uposatha (Observance) day. At the end of Buddhist Lent, Buddhist monks are free to travel again, but before parting they should maintain monastic discipline and punish offenders, in order to purify the Sangha. At the Pavarana ceremony, each monk invites the other monks to point out to him any faults he has committed during the vassa retreat period.

Kathina robe-offering ceremony
The word kathina denotes a cotton cloth offered by lay people to bhikkhus (monks) annually, after the end of the vassa rainy retreat, for the purpose of making robes. On the termination of vassa, the Kathina robe offering ceremony is usually held at the monastery. This practice started quite early in Buddhist society, with the approval of the Buddha himself. When the Buddha was staying at Jetavana monastery at Savatthi, he granted permission for the bhikkhus to accept kathina robes from the laity, as several bhikkhus only had old and torn robes. It is the Sangha as a whole which receives these gifts of robes or plain cloth from the laity: the cloth must be offered to the whole Sangha, and not to individuals, and the bhikkhus will then decide which of the monks should receive the gifts. If the kathina offered is plain cloth, selected monks will do the cutting, sewing, and dying of the cloth in a single day. The gifts are then distributed to the individual monastics who have properly observed the rainy retreat.

Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician, is described as the first layman to offer robes to Buddhist monks.
Jivaka, the Buddha’s physician, is described as the first layman to offer robes to Buddhist monks. Before that, Buddhist monks made their robes themselves from pieces of rag cloth. Jivaka also requested the Buddha to allow the monks to accept robes donated by lay people. The Buddha appreciated that it was very hard for the monks to make their robes themselves and he allowed his monks to accept kathina robes donated by the laity. British Library, Or. 14405, f. 32 Noc

The Buddha is sitting at the centre, surrounded by monks and lay people
When the Buddha granted his disciples permission to accept kathina robes, lay people from the city of Rajagaha brought the garments and other requisites to the monastery. The Buddha is sitting at the centre, surrounded by monks and lay people. Rows of monastic gifts, such as kathina robes and other requisites, are depicted in front of the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14405, ff. 36-37 Noc

Dana, or giving, is a practice essential to Buddhism, and the offering of kathina robes is considered to be one of the most meritorious deeds. Offering kathina robes to the Sangha is thus valued as a way of keeping alive the true spirit of offering, as taught by the Buddha, and at the Kathina ceremony monks will chant the Kammavaca for Kathina robes. Kammavaca is a Pali term and it refers to collections of passages from the Tipitaka concerning ordination, the bestowing of robes and other rituals of monastic life. A Kammavaca is a highly ornamental type of manuscript, usually commissioned by lay members of society as a work of merit.

A leaf of a Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, on lacquered cloth with gilded and lacquered boards. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r
A leaf of a Kammavaca manuscript in Pali in Burmese square script, on lacquered cloth with gilded and lacquered boards. British Library, Or. 12010A, f. 1r Noc

The manuscript shown above (Or. 12010A) contains the following Kammavaca texts: Upasampada (Official Act for the conferment of the Higher Ordination), Kathinadussadana (Official Act for the holding of the Kathina ceremony), Ticivarena-avippavasa (text for the investiture of a monk with the three robes), Sima-sammannita (Official Act for the Agreement of boundary limits), Thera-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon the seniority of theras), Nama-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon a name), Vihara-kappa-bhumi-sammuti (text of the dedication of a Vihara), Kuṭi-vatthu-sammuti (Official Act to search and agree upon a site for a hut), and Nissaya-muti-sammuti (Official Act to agree upon relaxation of the requisites).

The Festival of Light
This festival celebrates the anniversary of the Buddha’s return from the celestial abode where he had spent Lent, giving the sermon on Abhidhamma or the Higher Doctrines to celestial beings and his former mother, who had been reborn as a deva. It was on the full moon day of the month of October that the Buddha descended from the Tavatimsa heaven to the abode of humans. Humans on earth therefore illuminate their homes, and paper lanterns dazzle the streets, to welcome back the Buddha, and candles and lighted little bowls of oil are placed on the terraces of the pagodas. The event is celebrated with lights, which is why it is called the Festival of Light. People pay obeisance to their parents and elders, following the example of the Buddha who paid a visit to his former mother to repay his debt of gratitude.

On the full moon day at the end of vassa, the Buddha was ready to descend to the human world.
On the full moon day at the end of vassa, the Buddha was ready to descend to the human world. Sakka, the god who rules over Tavatimsa heaven, created a triple stairway of gold, silver and jewels. At the base of the stairway lay people from the city of Sankassa on earth wait to pay obeisance to the Buddha. British Library, Or. 14297, f. 44 Noc

The Kathina festival held at the conclusion of the rainy retreat originated 2,500 years ago and is still celebrated by Buddhists, with alms giving and offering of robes to the monks who observed the retreat. Buddhists believe that the offering of kathina robes is a great act, but in addition to giving robes, lay supporters also consider the bhikkhus’ other needs. The bhikkhus who receive the kathina robes deliver sermons to the lay supporters. The Festivals thus bring ordinary people together with the Buddhist orders, in a joyful spirit of shared devotion. In some places fire balloons rise up in the sky in order to pay homage to the Culamani Pagoda in Tavatimsa heaven, where the relic of the Buddha’s hair is believed to be enshrined. According to Theravada tradition, these offerings take place over a period of one month, from 19th October to 16 November.

Further reading:
H. Bechert and R. Gombrich, The world of Buddhism, London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

San San May, Curator for Burmese  Ccownwork

22 August 2019

Monastic ordination in Theravada Buddhism

This is the fourth of a series of blog posts looking forward to the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 – 23 Feb 2020

The Buddhist rainy season retreat or Buddhist lent, which started on Dhamma Day last month (17 July), is used by many Theravada Buddhists to enter the monastic order, Sangha, for the whole three months of the Buddhist lent. Ordination can also be for a shorter or longer period of time, depending on personal circumstances and decisions.

The practice of monastic ordination goes back to the time of the historical Buddha. Soon after he attained enlightenment, the Buddha founded a community of disciples called the Sangha. He started to form his bhikkhu-sangha with only five monks; but because of the rationality of the Dhamma he soon gained a large number of followers.

Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2
Yasa, the son of a rich man, joins the monkhood to become the sixth bhikkhu after the Buddha’s five chief disciples. Fifty of Yasa’s friends followed his example and joined the Sangha. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14553, f. 2 Noc

The Sangha is central to Theravada Buddhism. In the context of Buddhist monasticism, one who enters into a monastic life should for all purposes aim at the extinction of the three root causes of suffering (dukkha) – ignorance, aversion and greed – in order to put an end to the cycle of rebirths (samsara). Monastics shave their heads, wear robes in a shade of yellow, orange or ochre, study the Buddhist doctrines, observe a particular number of precepts depending on their religious advancement, practice meditation and spread the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. Eight requisites (attha parikkhara) allowed to a monastic include three yellow, orange or ochre robes (i.e. the lower loincloth, the upper inner robe and the large top robe), an alms bowl, a razor to shave the head, a needle for mending clothes, a water strainer, and a cloth girdle.

Maha Mulasattha text on the principles of making merit written in Northern Thai Dhamma script on palm leaves with wooden covers, dated 1851 CE British Library, Or 16077. From Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection
Maha Mulasattha text on the principles of making merit written in Northern Thai Dhamma script on palm leaves with wooden covers, dated 1851 CE British Library, Or 16077. From Doris Duke’s Southeast Asian Art Collection. Noc

The eight requisites of monastics and some additional items like a ceremonial fan and a shoulder bag for travelling are normally donated by the lay community as acts of merit, along with food, medicines and objects for daily use. Making merit is at the centre of Theravada Buddhism and shapes the interaction between Sangha and the lay community. High levels of merit-making are regarded as a sign of peace, happy relationships and prosperity within the community or the entire country.

During the rainy season retreat, vassa, the Buddha stayed in one place of residency to teach the Dhamma. The rains retreat is a three-month period (July to October) where the Buddha did not travel from one location to another. The Buddha ordered his disciples to avoid travel for this three-month period during the rainy seasons. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14823, f. 29
During the rainy season retreat, vassa, the Buddha stayed in one place of residency to teach the Dhamma. The rains retreat is a three-month period (July to October) where the Buddha did not travel from one location to another. The Buddha ordered his disciples to avoid travel for this three-month period during the rainy seasons. Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, Or 14823, f. 29 Noc

The Sinhala Ordination was introduced into Burma from Sri Lanka in the 12th century. In 1423 CE, twenty-five monks from Chiang Mai and eight monks from Angkor travelled to Sri Lanka and brought the Sinhala Ordination to Thailand. In 1476 CE, twenty-two monks from Burma were sent in two ships to the island. They were duly ordained by the Mahavihara monks at the consecrated sima (ordination hall) on the Kalyani River, near Colombo. Upon the return of these monks, King Dhammaceti (1471-1492 CE) built the Kalyani Sima in Pegu (Bago), where monks from neighbouring countries received their ordination.

In mainland Southeast Asia, two types of ordination ceremonies are held in the sima: ordination for novices (pabbajja), and ordination for monks (upasampada). To become a novice, the follower has to recite the Ten Precepts as well as the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha. In order to become a monk, the Sangha or monastic community will perform the upasampada ordination on fulfilment of the five conditions: Perfection of a person, Perfection of an assembly, Perfection of the sima, Perfection of the motion, and Perfection of the Kammavaca. The most senior elder leads the assembly for the newly-ordained monk, while selected monks will recite the upasampada Kammavaca ordination text taking great care with articulation and pronunciation.

Upasampāda Kammavācā in Dhamma script on red lacquered and gilt palm leaves or paper, northern Thailand or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16454, cover and first leaf
Upasampāda Kammavācā in Dhamma script on red lacquered and gilt palm leaves or paper, northern Thailand or Laos, 19th century. British Library, Or.16454, cover and first leaf Noc

There are 227 monastic rules for a bhikkhu (monks) and 311 monastic rules for a bhikkhuni (nuns) as described in the Vinaya Pitaka under the section of Patimokkha, which includes abstaining from eating after midday and refraining from handling money. After the death of King Suddhodana, father of the Buddha, the widowed queen Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Buddha and asked him to allow women to be fully ordained. The Buddha initially refused her request as the reality of living nunhood posed a hardship for the women. After the Buddha’s disciple Ananda pleaded, the Buddha granted the request of Gotami on her promise to accept certain important rules to qualify her for ordination. Gotami, the Buddha’s foster mother was the first woman to be ordained in Buddhism to become a bhikkhuni. After Gotami’s ordination and the ordination of her five hundred followers, more and more women became nuns during the life time of the Buddha.

Folios of the Bhikkhuni-patimokkha in black lacquer on gilded leaves, Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, IO Man/Pali 21
Folios of the Bhikkhuni-patimokkha in black lacquer on gilded leaves, Burmese manuscript, 19th century. British Library, IO Man/Pali 21 Noc

Although there is currently no formally acknowledged Order of Bikkhuni in Burma, Thailand or Laos, upasika (women who take vows) play important roles in society. They shave their heads, wear light yellow or white robes, keep eight or ten precepts, study the Buddhist doctrines, practice meditation and spread the Dhamma. They are also educators for women who wish to become upasika. They help carry out religious rituals and ceremonies, and they give support to elderly women, widows and orphans who are left without family. Currently, there are strong endeavours to revive full ordination of women and to get formal acknowledgement of the bhikkhuni-sangha in several Southeast Asian countries. It is said that the bhikkhuni-sangha and ordination of nuns in the Theravada tradition had died out about 1000 years ago. Nonetheless many manuscripts containing the entire Bhikkhuni-patimokkha were still produced in Southeast Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries, and this leads to the question as to why this was done, if the Order of Bhikkhuni had indeed been non-existent for centuries.

San San May, Curator for Burmese
Jana Igunma, Lead curator, Buddhism exhibition

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