Burmese Monk's Tales
Maung Htin Aung
(Pariyatti Press, 867 Larmon Rd
Onalaska WA 98570)
To become a Buddhist monk in Burma is a daunting task. When a boy attains the age of five or six years he is sent to the nearest monastery to wait on the elder monks, to go with them on their morning rounds of begging for alms, and to study reading, writing, and arithmetic in the afternoon. He is constantly s to observe the five precepts, namely
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
  • I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.
All ties to the family are cut. He loses all property and civil rights. It is only after fifteen years in the monastery that he can choose - - - or not - - - to leave, to marry, to work as "an educated and trained adult."

If he stays, he studies the scriptures, literature, history and law. According to Burmese-Buddhist belief, there are Five Great "Beings" to be constantly remembered, honored, and worshiped: the Buddha, His Teachings, the Monk, the Teachers, and the Parent. "Thus the monks were worshiped and esteemed not only as monks but also as teachers. The most respectful term of address, in the Burmese language, namely, my lord, was applicable only to the Buddha, the king or his senior representatives, the monks, and one's own parents.

    Burmese society had always been classless, in that a person's position in society was determined not by his birth but by his talent and abilities. Wealth was more or less evenly distributed, and there were very few really rich or really poor people. The majority were peasant proprietors.

§   §   §

Buddhism came early to Burma, sometime in the 3rd Century, and was soon divided between the Pyus in Upper Burma, and the Mons in Lower Burma. It spread throughout, only to fall into decay with the invasion of the British in the mid-19th Century. The Christian missionaries brought along with the conquerers a contempt for this religion, that of the layfolk - - - and Christianity became the "official" religion.

Fortunately, King Mondon, who ascended to the throne in 1852 felt impelled to protect the tradition, ceremonies and learning of Buddhism, and, in the words of Maung Htin Aung, "purified the clergy by encouraging learning . . . and introduced stern measures to suppress and punish breaches of monastic discipline."

Burmese Monk's Tales flows from the tradition of Jatakas, "The Five Hundred and Fifty Stories" of the Buddha. These were

    the layman's bible, for they were concerned not with the more advanced principles of Buddhism, but with the general virtues, and inexorable law of Karma, according to which we reap as we sow, however many lives it may take for the rewards or punishment to come to fruition.

The parables in this volume are tales of the Thingazar Sayadaw from the mid-19th Century. Born in 1815, Sayadaw became a "wandering scholar," studying at the feet of famous monks, often retreating to the forest to meditate.

The seventy-one stories, rather than being staid and tedious messages of divine wisdom, are lively - - - sometimes even bawdy - - - tales of laymen often creating problems for themselves through ignorance, greed, or lust. Each is proceeded by a meditation by the Thingazar Sayadaw.

For instance, #4 relates the cure for asthma. A village physician found that "one inch of elephant hide, boiled together with five ticals of garlic" was an effective cure. Because he was poor, he had his sandals made of elephant hide, and would cut off strips to boil with garlic, effecting a sure-fire if slightly odoriferous medicine for asthma.

One old lady tried it, and, realizing that the sandals had "trodden though dunghills and cesspools," found it disgusting. She vomited it up. This purged her lungs and instantly cured her asthma, but she refused to pay the physician's fee. He pointed out that she vomited "because you loathed my medicine . . . In any case, you are now cured of your asthma and I am entitled to my fee."

This story causes Thingazar Sayadaw to respond to an alchemist who avoided his classes, said that he didn't have time to come and listen to stories: he was too busy to attend because he spent all his time creating the "elixir of life . . . This will keep me alive until the next Buddha appears.

"I shall then be able to worship him in person and listen to his preaching. Although our ways are different [he said], our goal is the same, namely, Nirvana."

The Sayadaw smiled and remarked, "Layman, if you do get to Nirvana as the result of your alchemy, you can say with the Village Physician, 'My medicine may be filthy, but it does cure my patients of asthma.'"

§   §   §

Another tells of an attempt on the life of The Sayadaw while he was giving lessons. A man in the audience stood up and emptied a double-barreled gun at him, but he was unhurt, and continued on with his lesson.

When the culprit was caught, the master demanded he be set free. He knew that - - - because of the rare weaponry used - - - it was probably an attempt on his life by officials close to the British government. Later, when invited by the people of the village to return to give more lessons, the Sayadaw says, "I would come, but like the Shaven-head who once loved the Farmer's Wife, I am so afraid, I am so afraid."

This referred to the well-known tale of "The Monk and the Farmer's Wife." Every day the farmer would leave to work in the fields, and when he did, his wife would croon "Hush-a-bye my baby." The monk, from a nearby monastery, at the same time would be chanting "Happiness to all beings."

Soon enough, the two ended up in each others' arms - - - at least, until the farmer was warned by his neighbors that there was some hanky-panky going on between the two. So the farmer returned mid-morning, on hearing him, the wife pulled the monk aside and stuffed him in her large wicker rice jar.

Unfortunately, the top of the monk's shaven head stuck out, so she placed a sieve on top of it. "The woman was strong and the Monk's skull was thick, so the shaven dome cut a hole in the center of the sieve and protruded out of it."

It's a story as old as the history of humanity: a lover hiding in the bed, or under the bed, or in the closet, or, in this case, in a huge storage jar in the kitchen. Seeing the bald pate, the farmer asks her what is in the rice jar, and, thinking quickly, she says was "an old gong" that she had bought in the market, which now she uses as a lid to protect the rice.

The farmer begins to bang on it with his riding stick, so the monk bites his lip, makes no sound. "Strange," says the farmer: "I've never come across a silent gong before." She whispers to her lover, "Gong, are you dumb?" so when the farmer bonks on his skull again, the monk says, "Bong. Bong. Bong."

Knowing that he has taught this sneak a lesson, the farmer returns to the fields, and the monk returns to his monastery.

On the very next day, the wife intones aloud, for the monk to hear,

    Hush-a-bye my baby,
    Do go to sleep,
    Your father is gone
    To sow and to reap.

The Monk then chants back,

    Happiness be to all,
    I dare not come to you;
    Remembering yesterday,
    I dread the Bong Bong Bong.

We've modified and shortened this a little, but the message is the same, as it always is in these cuckhold tales of yore. In like manner, when the Thingazar Sayadaw is invited please to return to Henzada where the gunman tried to murder him, he smiles and says,

    I want to come, but like the Shaven-Head who once loved a Farmer's Wife, I am so afraid, I am so afraid.

Burmese Monk's Tale is filled with this funny, sometimes raucous country humor. This is no strait-laced recitation of godly lore, but, instead, one replete with simple stories that prove that those who are on the path to divinity do not have to hide behind a tendentious Puritan religiosity, merely to prove that they are any better (or worse) than the rest of us. That we all are stumbling along, on our own path to divinity.

--- Pamela Wylie
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