The Monks of Myanmar

They are clad in saffron robes with shaved heads. Some of them can be seen along the roads of Burma with novices as young as 7 years old. The monks of Burma have taken center stage recently. Aren’t they worth knowing? What is it with the saffron color? Why the shaved heads? What do all these symbolize?

There are approximately 85% of Burma’s total population that practice Buddhism. Burma is the third highest saturation of practicing Buddhists next to Thailand and the neighboring Cambodia. The monk’s presence in Burma’s towns and cities are a normal sight. Predominantly, Buddhism in Burma is of the Theravada practice.  Theravada Buddhism goes back thousands of years and is researched to be the oldest and purest branch of Buddhism. Theravada is originally sthaviravada,  a Sanskrit word. It literally means “Teaching of the Elders”.

The current economic situation in Burma is not ideal and this leaves families in want for better education and even the most basic of necessities for their children. Burmese monasteries would offer shelter and give these children schooling. Some of the novices who would join the monastery had the same intentions but would later on discover that being a monk and its teachings is a lifestyle and philosophy they can embrace for good.

The monks would come out every morning from their monasteries preceded by a megaphone and a gong to go around town asking for alms. This is how most monks would gather food for the day. Tradition would dictate that giving alms is a way to make penance or perhaps to earn merit. Locals would go out of their homes and line up on the streets to put their offerings in the monks’ bowls.

Novices become full pledged monks by the time they are 20.  And if you would get a chance to enter one of the monasteries, you would see young monks sitting cross-legged on the floor, reading their texts, almost chanting. It is said that reading these collection of Theravada texts out loud increases their ability to comprehend the written message.

A monk’s routine would start early especially the novices. Wake up time would usually be at 5 AM which they would then proceed to the kitchen to make breakfast for the monks who are of higher rank. Morning lessons would follow and they would be out by around 9 or 10 AM for their morning alms walk. After they get back from this morning ritual, the novices would eat their lunch and rest until 1 PM after which afternoon lessons would start. They would learn about the foundations of the Theravada Buddhist principles.

The wearing of orange color or saffron robes goes back centuries. Saffron was the only dye available during that era. This custom carried on and mainly used by Theravada Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhist monks would use the maroon color for their robes. The way the robes are wrapped and worn would denote simplicity. The shaved hair speaks of the same – shunning away from materialism, detachment from worldly things and simplicity of living.

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