Shinbyu: Rite of passage from boy to manhood
“You must become a Monk before you can become a Man.”
Such is the ancient Theravada Buddhist belief. The shinbyu is a rite that young men of Burma would go through. It is the duty of parents to let their sons embrace the path that Buddha has taken when he was young. The son joins the sangha and becomes a novice monk studying the Dhamma for at least a period or should the boy decide, embraces it for the rest of his life. It is considered a great honor and the belief of getting good karma is so strong that the shinbyu ceremony is given all the pomp and pageantry.
A boy can be novitiated as young as 4 years old. There is a list of interesting events that would prelude to this rite of passage. The village believes that some nats, the local term for spirits can be mischievous and would be out to play tricks. The novice-to-be is therefore kept out of rivers and wells before the ceremony. It is believed that nats would sometimes push young boys into the water so they would not be able to partake of this ancient ritual.
The shinbyu procession begins early in the morning where the shinbyu candidate is dressed in all the finery fit for a young prince. Dressed in silk with embroidered gold designs, the young boy is shielded by an elegantly designed umbrella as he is being paraded through town seated on a horse. An orchestra is led by a moustached clown holding a parasol and dancing joyfully. This is symbolic of Gautama Buddha’s rejection of worldly pleasures as he leaves his palace and its riches in search for the Four Noble Truths.
The young boy’s family follow the procession proudly carrying with them his monastic robes and other belongings. His sisters and other young women in the village also dressed in silk would trail along with boxes of paan, an areca nut wrapped in betel leaf as well as lotus blossoms.
The monks would all line up awaiting the procession in the monastery. It is customary that the village would refrain from cooking. No fires will be lit. The brahmin would officiate the ceremony but the monks would be the ones to oversee and complete the shaving of the head and eyebrows, a rite called hsan cha. The young boys would by this time be changed into their yellow robes. A sharp razor is used to shave the hair and the boys are not supposed to cry. The hair should not fall or touch the ground and instead a piece of sheet would catch the shaved hair. Only the parents and the boys sponsor are allowed to witness this significant event. The shaving of hair symbolizes the rejection of all material things and to live a simple life. The boy in his monastic robes would chant the Ten Precepts as well as the Buddhist Confession of Faith. This is the highlight of the ritual that has been practiced by Buddhist monks for centuries marking the boy’s entry to kou-yin.