Pagodas and what they mean to Buddhist Myanmar

The first lesson about Buddhism I’ve ever had was from my visits at pagodas. In front of the Buddha Image, my mother taught me to recite: “I take refuge in Buddha; I take refuge in Dhamma (his teaching); I take refuge in the Sanga, his order of the yellow robe”. And as I wandered on the platform of pagodas, I saw so many sculptures and paintings. All represents the Buddha’s life and birth-stories. With a limited number of sources of entertainment in those days, pagoda visits and tours with my elder brother and his story telling were so interesting to me. I did not realize the principles of Buddha’s teachings were instilled into my young mind since then. This may be one of the reasons why a number of ancient temples still exist in a Buddhist country like Myanmar. I believe pagodas can teach you a lot about Buddhism and the way of Buddhist life.

As children, pagodas offered us recreation as well as education, but for youths, it is a field of romance and poetry. For adults, it gives us the relaxation, a sense of security and comfort. So, Buddhists usually go to pagodas no matter when we are in joy or in sorrow. We seek peace from the stress and strain of life.

Moreover, pagodas the center of social, cultural and even commercial activities. They are often rendez-vous for communal almsgiving ceremony to monks, where people go to contribute their shares. In addition, most of pagodas have their annual festivals, which are like local trade fairs. People can market their ware products while gaining merit by paying respects to the memory of Buddha at shrines. It is a good chance that they make contributions towards repairing and up keeping of the pagodas.

Another interesting point about them is that there is no monument for the kings and great heroes. Although we have thousands of pagodas built over ten centuries ago, there are no statues of kings and great men to be found except for the statue of King Kyan-Sitt-Thar (က်န္စစ္သား) in Ananda temple, Bagan. However, his statue does not represent great power and glory. He is seen in a humbly kneeling position with his hands putting together on the chest, as a true disciple of the Buddha.

Pagodas are also the unifying elements in Myanmar. People are different over many aspects. But these differences wane when it’s time to build or repair a pagoda, or to organize a festival. Everybody rallies round, the rich and the poor, giving whatever they can either in cash or labor to make merit. This can be clearly witnessed by a number of nameless donors of jewels at Shwedagon pagoda.

Although what I first learnt about pagodas had nothing to do with the intellectual side of Buddhism but entertaining stories. Well now, of course, it’s clear that pagodas simply puts me in a peaceful state of mind in time of turbulence.

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