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In the eyes of The Buddha

For most Burmese the quest for enlightenment is part of everyday life

click to enlarge Pindaya Caves contain more than 8,000 Buddhas.
  • Pindaya Caves contain more than 8,000 Buddhas.

It was still dark when the clang of monastery bells joined the chorus of roosters crowing in the new day. I slipped out of bed, made a cup of the hotel’s ersatz coffee and took it out to our second floor balcony. Shops on the street below were just opening and a few people, seated on tiny stools outside the local noodle shop, were enjoying their morning tea and soup. A lone monk, his bright saffron robes reflecting the early morning light, appeared at the end of the street and walked slowly in my direction. He stopped outside one of the shops, held out his alms bowl and received a donation of food. Having made his offering the shopkeeper, hands together in prayer and head bowed, stood in front of the monk to receive his kutho (merit).

The ritual is part of everyday life in Myanmar where almost 90 per cent of the population is Buddhist. Each day an estimated 500,000 Burmese monks make their daily alms routes — receive a donation of food or money and convey merit upon the donor. And for every monk in the country there must be a thousand effigies of “The Buddha”. From the tops of the highest mountains to the depths of the deepest caves the benign, gold-plated countenance of “The Enlightened One” inspires the faithful to strive for the inner peace of nirvana. Buddhas large and small, huge and tiny preside over the most holy sites in the country — grand temples, modest stupas, and just spots that have been consecrated as holy ground. These are the places where Myanmar’s Buddhist pilgrims come to place their incense sticks on the alters and pray, and where thousands of tourists come to marvel at the gold-plated monuments that the faith has inspired.

The Buddhist faith, one of the most tolerant of all religions, is based on the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who was born in 563 BC and dedicated his life to seeking, and finding, personal enlightenment. In its purest form Buddhism is not based on the worship of a god or gods but rather on the philosophy of karma that is highly pragmatic and personal. The thousands of Buddha images that adorn the places of worship are not portraits of an individual or god but idealized symbols of a spiritual concept. In Myanmar, Buddhism, which was brought from India in the third century BC, is still intertwined with Hindu and animist elements. Many of the holiest sites, because of some unique natural feature, were revered long before The Buddha arrived in Myanmar, and the worship of pre-Buddha spirits (nat) is still woven into the lives of the people and the architecture of the temples.

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