The Burmese peasant had to fight his own fight in 1885 alone. His king was gone, his government broken up, he had no leaders. He had no god to stand beside him when he fired at the foreign invaders; and when he lay a-dying, with a bullet in his throat, he had no one to open to him the gates of heaven.
Yet he fought—with every possible discouragement he fought, and sometimes he fought well. It has been thrown against him as a reproach that he did not do better. Those who have said this have never thought, never counted up the odds against him, never taken into consideration how often he did well.
Here was a people—a very poor people of peasants—with no leaders, absolutely none; no aristocracy of any kind, no cohesion, no fighting religion. They had for their leaders outlaws and desperadoes, and for arms old flint-lock guns and soft iron swords. Could anything be expected from this except what actually did happen? And yet they often did well, their natural courage overcoming their bad weapons, their passionate desire of freedom giving them the necessary impulse.
In 1886, as I have said, all Burma was up. Even in the lower country, which we held for so long, insurrection was spreading fast, and troops and military police were being poured in from India.
There is above Mandalay a large trading village—a small town almost—called Shemmaga. It is the river port for a large trade in salt from the inner country, and it was important to hold it. The village lay along the river bank, and about the middle of it, some two hundred yards from the river, rises a small hill. Thus the village was a triangle, with the base on the river, and the hill as apex. On the hill were some monasteries of teak, from which the monks had been ejected, and three hundred Ghurkas were in garrison there. A strong fence ran from the hill to the river like two arms, and there were three gates, one just by the hill, and one on each end of the river face.
Behind Shemmaga the country was under the rule of a robber chief called Maung Yaing, who could raise from among the peasants some two hundred or three hundred men, armed mostly with flint-locks. He had been in the king's time a brigand with a small number of followers, who defied or eluded the local authorities, and lived free in quarters among the most distant villages. Like many a robber chief in our country and elsewhere, he was liked rather than hated by the people, for his brutalities were confined to either strangers or personal enemies, and he was open-handed and generous. We look upon things now with different eyes to what we did two or three hundred years ago, but I dare say Maung Yaing was neither better nor worse than many a hero of ours long ago. He was a fairly good fighter, and had a little experience fighting the king's troops; and so it was very natural, when the machinery of government fell like a house of cards, and some leaders were wanted, that the young men should crowd to him, and put themselves under his orders. He had usually with him forty or fifty men, but he could, as I have said, raise five or six times as many for any particular service, and keep them together for a few days. He very soon discovered that he and his men were absolutely no match for our troops. In two or three attempts that he made to oppose the troops he was signally worsted, so he was obliged to change his tactics. He decided to boycott the enemy. No Burman was to accept service under him, to give him information or supplies, to be his guide, or to assist him in any way. This rule Maung Yaing made generally known, and he announced his intention of enforcing it with rigour. He did so. There was a head man of a village near Shemmaga whom he executed because he had acted as guide to a body of troops, and he cut off all supplies from the interior, lying on the roads, and stopping all men from entering Shemmaga. He further issued a notice that the inhabitants of Shemmaga itself should leave the town. They could not move the garrison, therefore the people must move themselves. No assistance must be given to the enemy. The villagers of Shemmaga, mostly small traders in salt and rice, were naturally averse to leaving. This trade was their only means of livelihood, the houses their only homes, and they did not like the idea of going out into the unknown country behind. Moreover, the exaction by Maung Yaing of money and supplies for his men fell most heavily on the wealthier men, and on the whole they were not sorry to have the English garrison in the town, so that they could trade in peace. Some few left, but most did not, and though they collected money, and sent it to Maung Yaing, they at the same time told the English officer in command of Maung Yaing's threats, and begged that great care should be taken of the town, for Maung Yaing was very angry. When he found he could not cause the abandonment of the town, he sent in word to say that he would burn it. Not three hundred foreigners, nor three thousand, should protect these lazy, unpatriotic folk from his vengeance. He gave them till the new moon of a certain month, and if the town were not evacuated by that time he declared that he would destroy it. He would burn it down, and kill certain men whom he mentioned, who had been the principal assistants of the foreigners. This warning was quite public, and came to the ears of the English officer almost at once. When he heard it he laughed.
He had three hundred men, and the rebels had three hundred. His were all magnificently trained and drilled troops, men made for war; the Burmans were peasants, unarmed, untrained. He was sure he could defeat three thousand of them, or ten times that number, with his little force, and so, of course, he could if he met them in the open; no one knew that better, by bitter experience, than Maung Yaing. The villagers, too, knew, but nevertheless they were stricken with fear, for Maung Yaing was a man of his word. He was as good as his threat.
One night, at midnight, the face of the fort where the Ghurkas lived on the hill was suddenly attacked. Out of the brushwood near by a heavy fire was opened upon the breastwork, and there was shouting and beating of gongs. So all the Ghurkas turned out in a hurry, and ran to man the breastwork, and the return fire became hot and heavy. In a moment, as it seemed, the attackers were in the village. They had burst in the north gate by the river face, killed the Burmese guard on it, and streamed in. They lit torches from a fire they found burning, and in a moment the village was on fire. Looking down from the hill, you could see the village rushing into flame, and in the lurid light men and women and children running about wildly. There were shouts and screams and shots. No one who has never heard it, never seen it, can know what a village is like when the enemy has burst in at night. Everyone is mad with hate, with despair, with terror. They run to and fro, seeking to kill, seeking to escape being killed. It is impossible to tell one from another. The bravest man is dismayed. And the noise is like a great moan coming out of the night, pierced with sharp cries. It rises and falls, like the death-cry of a dying giant. It is the most terrible sound in the world. It makes the heart stop.
To the Ghurkas this sight and sound came all of a sudden, as they were defending what they took to be a determined attack on their own position. The village was lost ere they knew it was attacked. And two steamers full of troops, anchored off the town, saw it, too. They were on their way up country, and had halted there that night, anchored in the stream. They were close by, but could not fire, for there was no telling friend from foe.
Before the relief party of Ghurkas could come swarming down the hill, only two hundred yards, before the boats could land the eager troops from the steamers, the rebels were gone. They went through the village and out of the south gate. They had fulfilled their threat and destroyed the town. They had killed the men they had declared they would kill. The firing died away from the fort side, and the enemy were gone, no one could tell whither, into the night.
Such a scene of desolation as that village was next day! It was all destroyed—every house. All the food was gone, all furniture, all clothes, everything, and here and there was a corpse in among the blackened cinders. The whole countryside was terror-stricken at this failure to defend those who had depended on us.
I do not think this was a particularly gallant act, but it was a very able one. It was certainly war. It taught us a very severe lesson—more severe than a personal reverse would have been. It struck terror in the countryside. The memory of it hampered us for very long; even now they often talk of it. It was a brutal act—that of a brigand, not a soldier.
But there was no want of courage. If these men, inferior in number, in arms, in everything, could do this under the lead of a robber chief, what would they not have done if well led, if well trained, if well armed?
Of desperate encounters between our troops and the insurgents I could tell many a story. I have myself seen such fights. They nearly always ended in our favour—how could it be otherwise?
There was Ta Te, who occupied a pagoda enclosure with some eighty men, and was attacked by our mounted infantry. There was a long fight in that hot afternoon, and very soon the insurgents' ammunition began to fail, and the pagoda was stormed. Many men were killed, and Ta Te, when his men were nearly all dead, and his ammunition quite expended, climbed up the pagoda wall, and twisted off pieces of the cement and threw them at the troops. He would not surrender—not he—and he was killed. There were many like him. The whole war was little affairs of this kind—a hundred, three hundred, of our men, and much the same, or a little more, of theirs. They only once or twice raised a force of two thousand men. Nothing can speak more forcibly of their want of organization than this. The whole country was pervaded by bands of fifty or a hundred men, very rarely amounting to more than two hundred, never, I think, to five hundred, armed men, and no two bands ever acted in concert.
It is probable that most of the best men of the country were against us. It is certain, I think, that of those who openly joined us and accompanied us in our expedition, very, very few were other than men who had some private grudge to avenge, or some purpose to gain, by opposing their own people. Of such as these you cannot expect very much. And yet there were exceptions—men who showed up all the more brilliantly because they were exceptions—men whom I shall always honour. There were two I remember best of all. They are both dead now.
One was the eldest son of the hereditary governor of a part of the country called Kawlin. It is in the north-west of Upper Burma, and bordered on a semi-independent state called Wuntho. In the troubles that occurred after the deposition of King Thibaw, the Prince of Wuntho thought that he would be able to make for himself an independent kingdom, and he began by annexing Kawlin. So the governor had to flee, and with him his sons, and naturally enough they joined our columns when we advanced in that direction, hoping to be replaced. They were replaced, the father as governor under the direction of an English magistrate, and the son as his assistant. They were only kept there by our troops, and upheld in authority by our power against Wuntho. But they were desired by many of their own people, and so, perhaps, they could hardly be called traitors, as many of those who joined us were. The father was a useless old man, but his son, he of whom I speak, was brave and honourable, good tempered and courteous, beyond most men whom I have met. It was well known that he was the real power behind his father. It was he who assisted us in an attempt to quell the insurrections and catch the raiders that troubled our peace, and many a time they tried to kill him, many a time to murder him as he slept.
There was a large gang of insurgents who came across the Mu River one day, and robbed one of his villages, so a squadron of cavalry was sent in pursuit. We travelled fast and long, but we could not catch the raiders. We crossed the Mu into unknown country, following their tracks, and at last, being without guides, we camped that night in a little monastery in the forest. At midnight we were attacked. A road ran through our camp, and there was a picket at each end of the road, and sentries were doubled.
It was just after midnight that the first shot was fired. We were all asleep when a sudden volley was poured into the south picket, killing one sentry and wounding another. There was no time to dress, and we ran down the steps as we were (in sleeping dresses), to find the men rapidly falling in, and the horses kicking at their pickets. It was pitch-dark. The monastery was on a little cleared space, and there was forest all round that looked very black. Just as we came to the foot of the steps an outbreak of firing and shouts came from the north, and the Burmese tried to rush our camp from there; then they tried to rush it again from the south, but all their attempts were baffled by the steadiness of the pickets and the reinforcements that were running up. So the Burmese, finding the surprise ineffectual, and that the camp could not be taken, spread themselves about in the forest in vantage places, and fired into the camp. Nothing could be seen except the dazzling flashes from their guns as they fired here and there, and the darkness was all the darker for those flashes of flame, that cut it like swords. It was very cold. I had left my blanket in the monastery, and no one was allowed to ascend, because there, of all places, the bullets flew thickest, crushing through the mat walls, and going into the teak posts with a thud. There was nothing we could do. The men, placed in due order about the camp, fired back at the flashes of the enemy's guns. That was all they had to fire at. It was not much guide. The officers went from picket to picket encouraging the men, but I had no duty; when fighting began my work as a civilian was at a standstill. I sat and shivered with cold under the monastery, and wished for the dawn. In a pause of the firing you could hear the followers hammering the pegs that held the foot-ropes of the horses. Then the dead and wounded were brought and put near me, and in the dense dark the doctor tried to find out what injuries the men had received, and dress them as well as he could. No light dare be lit. The night seemed interminable. There were no stars, for a dense mist hung above the trees. After an hour or two the firing slackened a little, and presently, with great caution, a little lamp, carefully shrouded with a blanket, was lit. A sudden burst of shots that came splintering into the posts beside us caused the lamp to be hurriedly put out; but presently it was lit again, and with infinite caution one man was dressed. At last a little very faint silver dawn came gleaming through the tree-tops—the most beautiful sight I ever saw—and the firing stopped. The dawn came quickly down, and very soon we were able once more to see what we were about, and count our losses.
Then we moved out. We had hardly any hope of catching the enemy, we who were in a strange country, who were mounted on horses, and had a heavy transport, and they who knew every stream and ravine, and had every villager for a spy. So we moved back a march into a more open country, where we hoped for better news, and two days later that news came.
'Never in the world does hatred cease by hatred. Hatred ceases by love.'—Dammapada.
We were encamped at a little monastery in some fields by a village, with a river in front. Up in the monastery there was but room for the officers, so small was it, and the men were camped beneath it in little shelters. It was two o'clock, and very hot, and we were just about to take tiffin, when news came that a party of armed men had been seen passing a little north of us. It was supposed they were bound to a village known to be a very bad one—Laka—and that they would camp there. So 'boot and saddle' rang from the trumpets, and in a few moments later we were off, fifty lances. Just as we started, his old Hindostani Christian servant came up to my friend, the commandant, and gave him a little paper. 'Put it in your pocket, sahib,' he said. The commandant had no time to talk, no time even to look at what it could be. He just crammed it into his breast-pocket, and we rode on. The governor's son was our guide, and he led us through winding lanes into a pass in the low hills. The road was very narrow, and the heavy forest came down to our elbows as we passed. Now and again we crossed the stream, which had but little water in it, and the path would skirt its banks for awhile. It was beautiful country, but we had no time to notice it then, for we were in a hurry, and whenever the road would allow we trotted and cantered. After five or six miles of this we turned a spur of the hills, and came out into a little grass-glade on the banks of the stream, and at the far end of this was the village where we expected to find those whom we sought. They saw us first, having a look-out on a high tree by the edge of the forest; and as our advanced guard came trotting into the open, he fired. The shot echoed far up the hills like an angry shout, and we could see a sudden stir in the village—men running out of the houses with guns and swords, and women and children running, too, poor things! sick with fear. They fired at us from the village fence, but had no time to close the gate ere our sowars were in. Then they escaped in various ways to the forest and scrub, running like madmen across the little bit of open, and firing at us directly they reached shelter where the cavalry could not come. Of course, in the open they had no chance, but in the dense forest they were safe enough. The village was soon cleared, and then we had to return. It was no good to wait. The valley was very narrow, and was commanded from both its sides, which were very steep and dense with forest. Beyond the village there was only forest again. We had done what we could: we had inflicted a very severe punishment on them; it was no good waiting, so we returned. They fired on us nearly all the way, hiding in the thick forest, and perched on high rocks. At one place our men had to be dismounted to clear a breastwork, run up to fire at us from. All the forest was full of voices—voices of men and women and even children—cursing our guide. They cried his name, that the spirits of the hills might remember that it was he who had brought desolation to their village. Figures started up on pinnacles of cliff, and cursed him as he rode by. Us they did not curse; it was our guide.
And so after some trouble we got back. That band never attacked us again.
As we were dismounting, my friend put his hand in his pocket, and found the little paper. He took it out, looked at it, and when his servant came up to him he gave the paper back with a curious little smile full of many thoughts. 'You see,' he said, 'I am safe. No bullet has hit me.' And the servant's eyes were dim. He had been very long with his master, and loved him, as did all who knew him. 'It was the goodness of God,' he said—'the great goodness of God. Will not the sahib keep the paper?' But the sahib would not. 'You may need it as well as I. Who can tell in this war?' And he returned it.
And the paper? It was a prayer—a prayer used by the Roman Catholic Church, printed on a sheet of paper. At the top was a red cross. The paper was old and worn, creased at the edges; it had evidently been much used, much read. Such was the charm that kept the soldier from danger.
The nights were cold then, when the sun had set, and after dinner we used to have a camp-fire built of wood from the forest, to sit round for a time and talk before turning in. The native officers of the cavalry would come and sit with us, and one or two of the Burmans, too. We were a very mixed assembly. I remember one night very well—I think it must have been the very night after the fight at Laka, and we were all of us round the fire. I remember there was a half-moon bending towards the west, throwing tender lights upon the hills, and turning into a silver gauze the light white mist that lay upon the rice-fields. Opposite to us, across the little river, a ridge of hill ran down into the water that bent round its foot. The ridge was covered with forest, very black, with silver edges on the sky-line. It was out of range for a Burmese flint-gun, or we should not have camped so near it. On all the other sides the fields stretched away till they ended in the forest that gloomed beyond. I was talking to the governor's son (our guide of the fight at Laka) of the prospects of the future, and of the intentions of the Prince of Wuntho, in whose country Laka lay. I remarked to him how the Burmans of Wuntho seemed to hate him, of how they had cursed him from the hills, and he admitted that it was true. 'All except my friends,' he said, 'hate me. And yet what have I done? I had to help my father to get back his governorship. They forget that they attacked us first.'
He went on to tell me of how every day he was threatened, of how he was sure they would murder him some time, because he had joined us. 'They are sure to kill me some time,' he said. He seemed sad and depressed, not afraid.
So we talked on, and I asked him about charms. 'Are there not charms that will prevent you being hurt if you are hit, and that will not allow a sword to cut you? We hear of invulnerable men. There were the Immortals of the King's Guard, for instance.'
And he said, yes, there were charms, but no one believed in them except the villagers. He did not, nor did men of education. Of course, the ignorant people believed in them. There were several sorts of charms. You could be tattooed with certain mystic letters that were said to insure you against being hit, and there were certain medicines you could drink. There were also charms made out of stone, such as a little tortoise he had once seen that was said to protect its wearer. There were mysterious writings on palm-leaves. There were men, he said vaguely, who knew how to make these things. For himself, he did not believe in them.
I tried to learn from him then, and I have tried from others since, whether these charms have any connection with Buddhism. I cannot find that they have. They are never in the form of images of the Buddha, or of extracts from the sacred writings. There is not, so far as I can make out, any religious significance in these charms; mostly they are simply mysterious. I never heard that the people connect them with their religion. Indeed, all forms of enchantment and of charms are most strictly prohibited. One of the vows that monks take is never to have any dealings with charms or with the supernatural, and so Buddhism cannot even give such little assistance to its believers as to furnish them with charms. If they have charms, it is against their faith; it is a falling away from the purity of their teachings; it is simply the innate yearning of man to the supernatural, to the mysterious. Man's passions are very strong, and if he must fight, he must also have a charm to protect him in fight. If his religion cannot give it him, he must find it elsewhere. You see that, as the teachings of the Buddha have never been able to be twisted so as to permit war directly, neither have they been able to assist indirectly by furnishing charms, by making the fighter bullet-proof. And I thought then of the little prayer and the cross that were so certain a defence against hurt.
We talked for a long time in the waning moonlight by the ruddy fire, and at last we broke up to go to bed. As we rose a voice called to us across the water from the little promontory. In the still night every word was as clear as the note of a gong.
'Sleep well,' it cried—'sleep well—sle-e-ep we-l-l.'
We all stood astonished—those who did not know Burmese wondering at the voice; those who did, wondering at the meaning. The sentries peered keenly towards the sound.
'Sleep well,' the voice cried again; 'eat well. It will not be for long. Sleep well while you may.'
And then, after a pause, it called the governor's son's name, and 'Traitor, traitor!' till the hills were full of sound.
The Burman turned away.
'You see,' he said, 'how they hate me. What would be the good of charms?'
The voice was quiet, and the camp sank into stillness, and ere long the moon set, and it was quite dark.
He was a brave man, and, indeed, there are many brave men amongst the Burmese. They kill leopards with sticks and stones very often, and even tigers. They take their frail little canoes across the Irrawaddy in flood in a most daring way. They in no way want for physical courage, but they have never made a cult of bravery; it has never been a necessity to them; it has never occurred to them that it is the prime virtue of a man. You will hear them confess in the calmest way, 'I was afraid.' We would not do that; we should be much more afraid to say it. And the teaching of Buddhism is all in favour of this. Nowhere is courage—I mean aggressive courage—praised. No soldier could be a fervent Buddhist; no nation of Buddhists could be good soldiers; for not only does Buddhism not inculcate bravery, but it does not inculcate obedience. Each man is the ruler of his life, but the very essence of good fighting is discipline, and discipline, subjection, is unknown to Buddhism. Therefore the inherent courage of the Burmans could have no assistance from their faith in any way, but the very contrary: it fought against them.
There is no flexibility in Buddhism. It is a law, and nothing can change it. Laws are for ever and for ever, and there are no exceptions to them. The law of the Buddha is against war—war of any kind at all—and there can be no exception. And so every Burman who fought against us knew that he was sinning. He did it with his eyes open; he could never imagine any exception in his favour. Never could he in his bivouac look at the stars, and imagine that any power looked down in approbation of his deeds. No one fought for him. Our bayonets and lances were no keys to open to him the gates of paradise; no monks could come and close his dying eyes with promises of rewards to come. He was sinning, and he must suffer long and terribly for this breach of the laws of righteousness.
If such be the faith of the people, and if they believe their faith, it is a terrible handicap to them in any fight; it delivers them bound into the hands of the enemy. Such is Buddhism.
But it must never be forgotten that, if this faith does not assist the believer in defence, neither does it in offence. What is so terrible as a war of religion? There can never be a war of Buddhism.
No ravished country has ever borne witness to the prowess of the followers of the Buddha; no murdered men have poured out their blood on their hearthstones, killed in his name; no ruined women have cursed his name to high Heaven. He and his faith are clean of the stain of blood. He was the preacher of the Great Peace, of love, of charity, of compassion, and so clear is his teaching that it can never be misunderstood. Wars of invasion the Burmese have waged, that is true, in Siam, in Assam, and in Pegu. They are but men, and men will fight. If they were perfect in their faith, the race would have died out long ago. They have fought, but they have never fought in the name of their faith. They have never been able to prostitute its teachings to their own wants. Whatever the Burmans have done, they have kept their faith pure. When they have offended against the laws of the Buddha they have done so openly. Their souls are guiltless of hypocrisy—for whatever that may avail them. They have known the difference between good and evil, even if they have not always followed the good.
'Fire, water, storms, robbers, rulers—these are the five great evils.'—Burmese saying.
It would be difficult, I think, to imagine anything worse than the government of Upper Burma in its later days. I mean by 'government' the king and his counsellors and the greater officials of the empire. The management of foreign affairs, of the army, the suppression of greater crimes, the care of the means of communication, all those duties which fall to the central government, were badly done, if done at all. It must be remembered that there was one difficulty in the way—the absence of any noble or leisured class to be entrusted with the greater offices. As I have shown in another chapter, there was no one between the king and the villager—no noble, no landowner, no wealthy or educated class at all. The king had to seek for his ministers among the ordinary people, consequently the men who were called upon to fill great offices of state were as often as not men who had no experience beyond the narrow limits of a village.
The breadth of view, the knowledge of other countries, of other thoughts, that comes to those who have wealth and leisure, were wanting to these ministers of the king. Natural capacity many of them had, but that is not of much value until it is cultivated. You cannot learn in the narrow precincts of a village the knowledge necessary to the management of great affairs; and therefore in affairs of state this want of any noble or leisured class was a very serious loss to the government of Burma. It had great and countervailing advantages, of which I will speak when I come to local government, but that it was a heavy loss as far as the central government goes no one can doubt. There was none of that check upon the power of the king which a powerful nobility will give; there was no trained talent at his disposal. The king remained absolutely supreme, with no one near his throne, and the ministers were mere puppets, here to-day and gone to-morrow. They lived by the breath of the king and court, and when they lost favour there was none to help them. They had no faction behind them to uphold them against the king. It can easily be understood how disastrous all this was to any form of good government. All these ministers and governors were corrupt; there was corruption to the core.
When it is understood that hardly any official was paid, and that those who were paid were insufficiently paid, and had unlimited power, there will be no difficulty in seeing the reason. In circumstances like this all people would be corrupt. The only securities against bribery and abuse of power are adequate pay, restricted authority, and great publicity. None of these obtained in Burma any more than in the Europe of five hundred years ago, and the result was the same in both. The central government consisted of the king, who had no limit at all to his power, and the council of ministers, whose only check was the king. The executive and judicial were all the same: there was no appeal from one to the other. The only appeal from the ministers was to the king, and as the king shut himself up in his palace, and was practically inaccessible to all but high officials, the worthlessness of this appeal is evident. Outside Mandalay the country was governed by wuns or governors. These were appointed by the king, or by the council, or by both, and they obtained their position by bribery. Their tenure was exceedingly insecure, as any man who came and gave a bigger bribe was likely to obtain the former governor's dismissal and his own appointment. Consequently the usual tenure of office of a governor was a year. Often there were half a dozen governors in a year; sometimes a man with strong influence managed to retain his position for some years. From the orders of the governor there was an appeal to the council. This was in some matters useful, but in others not so. If a governor sentenced a man to death—all governors had power of life and death—he would be executed long before an appeal could reach the council. Practically no check was possible by the palace over distant governors, and they did as they liked. Anything more disastrous and fatal to any kind of good government than this it is impossible to imagine. The governors did what they considered right in their own eyes, and made as much money as they could, while they could. They collected the taxes and as much more as they could get; they administered the laws of Manu in civil and criminal affairs, except when tempted to deviate therefrom by good reasons; they carried out orders received from Mandalay, when these orders fell in with their own desires, or when they considered that disobedience might be dangerous. It is a Burmese proverb that officials are one of the five great enemies of mankind, and there was, I think (at all events in the latter days of the kingdom) good reason to remember it. And yet these officials were not bad men in themselves; on the contrary, many of them were men of good purpose, of natural honesty, of right principles. In a well-organized system they would have done well, but the system was rotten to the core.
It may be asked why the Burmese people remained quiet under such a rule as this; why they did not rise and destroy it, raising a new one in its place; how it was that such a state of corruption lasted for a year, let alone for many years.
The answer is this: However bad the government may have been, it had the qualities of its defects. If it did not do much to help the people, it did little to hinder them. To a great extent it left them alone to manage their own affairs in their own way. Burma in those days was like a great untended garden, full of weeds, full of flowers too, each plant striving after its own way, gradually evolving into higher forms. Now sometimes it seems to me to be like an old Dutch garden, with the paths very straight, very clean swept, with the trees clipped into curious shapes of bird and beast, tortured out of all knowledge, and many of the flowers mown down. The Burmese government left its people alone; that was one great virtue. And, again, any government, however good, however bad, is but a small factor in the life of a people; it comes far below many other things in importance. A short rainfall for a year is more disastrous than a mad king; a plague is worse than fifty grasping governors; social rottenness is incomparably more dangerous than the rottenest government.
And in Burma it was only the supreme government, the high officials, that were very bad. It was only the management of state affairs that was feeble and corrupt; all the rest was very good. The land laws, the self-government, the social condition of the people, were admirable. It was so good that the rotten central government made but little difference to the people, and it would probably have lasted for a long while if not attacked from outside. A greater power came and upset the government of the king, and established itself in his place; and I may here say that the idea that the feebleness or wrong-doing of the Burmese government was the cause of the downfall is a mistake. If the Burmese government had been the best that ever existed, the annexation would have happened just the same. It was a political necessity for us.
The central government of a country is, as I have said, not a matter of much importance. It has very little influence in the evolution of the soul of a people. It is always a great deal worse than the people themselves—a hundred years behind them in civilization, a thousand years behind them in morality. Men will do in the name of government acts which, if performed in a private capacity, would cover them with shame before men, and would land them in a gaol or worse. The name of government is a cloak for the worst passions of manhood. It is not an interesting study, the government of mankind.
A government is no part of the soul of the people, but is a mere excrescence; and so I have but little to say about this of Burma, beyond this curious fact—that religion had no part in it. Surely this is a very remarkable thing, that a religion having the hold upon its followers that Buddhism has upon the Burmese has never attempted to grasp the supreme authority and use it to its ends.
It is not quite an explanation to say that Buddhism is not concerned with such things; that its very spirit is against the assumption of any worldly power and authority; that it is a negation of the value of these things. Something of this sort might be said of other religions, and yet they have all striven to use the temporal power.
I do not know what the explanation is, unless it be that the Burmese believe their religion and other people do not. However that may be, there is no doubt of the fact. Religion had nothing whatever—absolutely nothing in any way at all—to do with government. There are no exceptions. What has led people to think sometimes that there were exceptions is the fact that the king confirmed the Thathanabaing—the head of the community of monks—after he had been elected by his fellow-monks. The reason of this was as follows: All ecclesiastical matters—I use the word 'ecclesiastical' because I can find no other—were outside the jurisdiction of civil limits. By 'ecclesiastical' I mean such matters as referred to the ownership and habitation of monasteries, the building of pagodas and places of prayer, the discipline of the monkhood. Such questions were decided by ecclesiastical courts under the Thathanabaing.
Now, it was necessary sometimes, as may be understood, to enforce these decrees, and for that reason to apply to civil power. Therefore there must be a head of the monks acknowledged by the civil power as head, to make such applications as might be necessary in this, and perhaps some other such circumstances.
It became, therefore, the custom for the king to acknowledge by order the elect of the monks as Thathanabaing for all such purposes. That was all. The king did not appoint him at all.
Any such idea as a monk interfering in the affairs of state, or expressing an opinion on war or law or finance, would appear to the Burmese a negation of their faith. They were never led away by the idea that good might come of such interference. This terrible snare has never caught their feet. They hold that a man's first duty is to his own soul. Never think that you can do good to others at the same time as you injure yourself, and the greatest good for your own heart is to learn that beyond all this turmoil and fret there is the Great Peace—so great that we can hardly understand it, and to reach it you must fit yourself for it. The monk is he who is attempting to reach it, and he knows that he cannot do that by attempting to rule his fellow-man; that is probably the very worst thing he could do. And therefore the monkhood, powerful as they were, left all politics alone. I have never been able to hear of a single instance in which they even expressed an opinion either as a body or as individuals on any state matter.
It is true that, if a governor oppressed his people, the monks would remonstrate with him, or even, in the last extremity, with the king; they would plead with the king for clemency to conquered peoples, to rebels, to criminals; their voice was always on the side of mercy. As far as urging the greatest of all virtues upon governors and rulers alike, they may be said to have interfered with politics; but this is not what is usually understood by religion interfering in things of state. It seems to me we usually mean the reverse of this, for we are of late beginning to regard it with horror. The Burmese have always done so. They would think it a denial of all religion.
And so the only things worth noting about the government of the Burmese were its exceeding badness, and its disconnection with religion. That it would have been a much stronger government had it been able to enlist on its side all the power of the monkhood, none can doubt. It might even have been a better government; of that I am not sure. But that such a union would have meant the utter destruction of the religion, the debasing of the very soul of the people, no one who has tried to understand that soul can doubt. And a soul is worth very many governments.
But when you left the central government, and came down to the management of local affairs, there was a great change. You came straight down from the king and governor to the village and its headman. There were no lords, no squires, nor ecclesiastical power wielding authority over the people.
Each village was to a very great extent a self-governing community composed of men free in every way. The whole country was divided into villages, sometimes containing one or two hamlets at a little distance from each other—offshoots from the parent stem. The towns, too, were divided into quarters, and each quarter had its headman. These men held their appointment-orders from the king as a matter of form, but they were chosen by their fellow-villagers as a matter of fact. Partly this headship was hereditary, not from father to son, but it might be from brother to brother, and so on. It was not usually a very coveted appointment, for the responsibility and trouble were considerable, and the pay small. It was 10 per cent. on the tax collections. And with this official as their head, the villagers managed nearly all their affairs. Their taxes, for instance, they assessed and collected themselves. The governor merely informed the headman that he was to produce ten rupees per house from his village. The villagers then appointed assessors from among themselves, and decided how much each household should pay. Thus a coolie might pay but four rupees, and a rice-merchant as much as fifty or sixty. The assessment was levied according to the means of the villagers. So well was this done, that complaints against the decisions of the assessors were almost unknown—I might, I think, safely say were absolutely unknown. The assessment was made publicly, and each man was heard in his own defence before being assessed. Then the money was collected. If by any chance, such as death, any family could not pay, the deficiency was made good by the other villagers in proportion. When the money was got in it was paid to the governor.
Crime such as gang-robbery, murder, and so on, had to be reported to the governor, and he arrested the criminals if he felt inclined, and knew who they were, and was able to do it. Generally something was in the way, and it could not be done. All lesser crime was dealt with in the village itself, not only dealt with when it occurred, but to a great extent prevented from occurring. You see, in a village anyone knows everyone, and detection is usually easy. If a man became a nuisance to a village, he was expelled. I have often heard old Burmans talking about this, and comparing these times with those. In those times all big crimes were unpunished, and there was but little petty crime. Now all big criminals are relentlessly hunted down by the police; and the inevitable weakening of the village system has led to a large increase of petty crime, and certain breaches of morality and good conduct. I remember talking to a man not long ago—a man who had been a headman in the king's time, but was not so now. We were chatting of various subjects, and he told me he had no children; they were dead.
'When were you married?' I asked, just for something to say, and he said when he was thirty-two.
'Isn't that rather old to be just married?' I asked. 'I thought you Burmans often married at eighteen and twenty. What made you wait so long?'
And he told me that in his village men were not allowed to marry till they were about thirty. 'Great harm comes,' he said, 'of allowing boys and girls to make foolish marriages when they are too young. It was never allowed in my village.'
'And if a young man fell in love with a girl?' I asked.
'He was told to leave her alone.'
'And if he didn't?'
'If he didn't, he was put in the stocks for one day or two days, and if that was no good, he was banished from the village.'
A monk complained to me of the bad habits of the young men in villages. 'Could government do nothing?' he asked. They used shameful words, and they would shout as they passed his monastery, and disturb the lads at their lessons and the girls at the well. They were not well-behaved. In the Burmese time they would have been punished for all this—made to draw so many buckets of water for the school-gardens, or do some road-making, or even be put in the stocks. Now the headman was afraid to do anything, for fear of the great government. It was very bad for the young men, he said.
All villages were not alike, of course, in their enforcement of good manners and good morals, but, still, in every village they were enforced more or less. The opinion of the people was very decided, and made itself felt, and the influence of the monastery without the gate was strong upon the people.
Yet the monks never interfered with village affairs. As they abstained from state government, so they did from local government. You never could imagine a Buddhist monk being a magistrate for his village, taking any part at all in municipal affairs. The same reasons that held them from affairs of the state held them from affairs of the commune. I need not repeat them. The monastery was outside the village, and the monk outside the community. I do not think he was ever consulted about any village matters. I know that, though I have many and many a time asked monks for their opinion to aid me in deciding little village disputes, I have never got an answer out of them. 'These are not our affairs,' they will answer always. 'Go to the people; they will tell you what you want.' Their influence is by example and precept, by teaching the laws of the great teacher, by living a life blameless before men, by preparing their souls for rest. It is a general influence, never a particular one. If anyone came to the monk for counsel, the monk would only repeat to him the sacred teaching, and leave him to apply it.
So each village managed its own affairs, untroubled by squire or priest, very little troubled by the state. That within their little means they did it well, no one can doubt. They taxed themselves without friction, they built their own monastery schools by voluntary effort, they maintained a very high, a very simple, code of morals, entirely of their own initiative.
All this has passed, or is passing away. The king has gone to a banishment far across the sea, the ministers are either banished or powerless for good or evil. It will never rise again, this government of the king, which was so bad in all it did, and only good in what it left alone. It will never rise again. The people are now part of the British Empire, subjects of the Queen. What may be in store for them in the far future no one can tell, only we may be sure that the past can return no more. And the local government is passing away, too. It cannot exist with a strong government such as ours. For good or for evil, in a few years it, too, will be gone.
But, after all, these are but forms; the soul is far within. In the soul there will be no change. No one can imagine even in the far future any monk of the Buddha desiring temporal power or interfering in any way with the government of the people. That is why I have written this chapter, to show how Buddhism holds itself towards the government. With us, we are accustomed to ecclesiastics trying to manage affairs of state, or attempting to grasp the secular power. It is in accordance with our ideals that they should do so. Our religious phraseology is full of such terms as lord and king and ruler and servant. Buddhism knows nothing of any of them. In our religion we are subject to the authority of deacons and priests and bishops and archbishops, and so on up to the Almighty Himself. But in Buddhism every man is free—free, subject to the inevitable laws of righteousness. There is no hierarchy in Buddhism: it is a religion of absolute freedom. No one can damn you except yourself; no one can save you except yourself. Governments cannot do it, and therefore it would be useless to try and capture the reins of government, even if you did not destroy your own soul in so doing. Buddhism does not believe that you can save a man by force.
As Buddhism was, so it is, so it will remain. By its very nature it abhors all semblance of authority. It has proved that, under temptation such as no other religion has felt, and resisted; it is a religion of each man's own soul, not of governments and powers.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
'Overcome anger by kindness, evil by good.' Dammapada.
Not very many years ago an officer in Rangoon lost some currency notes. He had placed them upon his table overnight, and in the morning they were gone. The amount was not large. It was, if I remember rightly, thirty rupees; but the loss annoyed him, and as all search and inquiry proved futile, he put the matter in the hands of the police.
Before long—the very next day—the possession of the notes was traced to the officer's Burman servant, who looked after his clothes and attended on him at table. The boy was caught in the act of trying to change one of the notes. He was arrested, and he confessed. He was very hard up, he said, and his sister had written asking him to help her. He could not do so, and he was troubling himself about the matter early that morning while tidying the room, and he saw the notes on the table, and so he took them. It was a sudden temptation, and he fell. When the officer learnt all this, he would, I think, have withdrawn from the prosecution and forgiven the boy; but it was too late. In our English law theft is not compoundable. A complaint of theft once made must be proved or disproved; the accused must be tried before a magistrate. There is no alternative. So the lad—he was only a lad—was sent up before the magistrate, and he again pleaded guilty, and his master asked that the punishment might be light. The boy, he said, was an honest boy, and had yielded to a sudden temptation. He, the master, had no desire to press the charge, but the reverse. He would never have come to court at all if he could have withdrawn from the charge. Therefore he asked that the magistrate would consider all this, and be lenient.
But the magistrate did not see matters in the same light at all. He would consider his judgment, and deliver it later on.
When he came into court again and read the judgment he had prepared, he said that he was unable to treat the case leniently. There were many such cases, he said. It was becoming quite common for servants to steal their employers' things, and they generally escaped. It was a serious matter, and he felt himself obliged to make an example of such as were convicted, to be a warning to others. So the boy was sentenced to six months' rigorous imprisonment; and his master went home, and before long had forgotten all about it.
But one day, as he was sitting in his veranda reading before breakfast, a lad came quickly up the stairs and into the veranda, and knelt down before him. It was the servant. As soon as he was released from gaol, he went straight to his old master, straight to the veranda where he was sure he would be sitting at that hour, and begged to be taken back again into his service. He was quite pleased, and sure that his master would be equally pleased, at seeing him again, and he took it almost as a matter of course that he would be reinstated.
But the master doubted.
'How can I take you back again?' he said. 'You have been in gaol.'
'But,' said the boy, 'I did very well in gaol. I became a warder with a cap white on one side and yellow on the other. Let the thakin ask.'
Still the officer doubted.
'I cannot take you back,' he repeated. 'You stole my money, and you have been in prison. I could not have you as a servant again.'
'Yes,' admitted the boy, 'I stole the thakin's money, but I have been in prison for it a long time—six months. Surely that is all forgotten now. I stole; I have been in gaol—that is the end of it.'
'No,' answered the master, 'unfortunately, your having been in gaol only makes matters much worse. I could forgive the theft, but the being in gaol—how can I forgive that?'
And the boy could not understand.
'If I have stolen, I have been in gaol for it. That is wiped out now,' he said again and again, till at last he went away in sore trouble of mind, for he could not understand his master, nor could his master understand him.
You see, each had his own idea of what was law, and what was justice, and what was punishment. To the Burman all these words had one set of meanings; to the Englishman they had another, a very different one. And each of them took his ideas from his religion. To all men the law here on earth is but a reflection of the heavenly law; the judge is the representative of his god. The justice of the court should be as the justice of heaven. Many nations have imagined their law to be heaven-given, to be inspired with the very breath of the Creator of the world. Other nations have derived their laws elsewhere. But this is of little account, for to the one, as to the other, the laws are a reflection of the religion.
And therefore on a man's religion depends all his views of law and justice, his understanding of the word 'punishment,' his idea of how sin should be treated. And it was because of their different religions, because their religions differed so greatly on these points as to be almost opposed, that the English officer and his Burman servant failed to understand each other.
For to the Englishman punishment was a degradation. It seemed to him far more disgraceful that his servant should have been in gaol than that he should have committed theft. The theft he was ready to forgive, the punishment he could not. Punishment to him meant revenge. It is the revenge of an outraged and injured morality. The sinner had insulted the law, and therefore the law was to make him suffer. He was to be frightened into not doing it again. That is the idea. He was to be afraid of receiving punishment. And again his punishment was to be useful as a warning to others. Indeed, the magistrate had especially increased it with that object in view. He was to suffer that others might be saved. The idea of punishment being an atonement hardly enters into our minds at all. To us it is practically a revenge. We do not expect people to be the better for it. We are sure they are the worse. It is a deterrent for others, not a healing process for the man himself. We punish A. that B. may be afraid, and not do likewise. Our thoughts are bent on B., not really on A. at all. As far as he is concerned, the process is very similar to pouring boiling lead into a wound. We do not wish or intend to improve him, but simply and purely to make him suffer. After we have dealt with him, he is never fit again for human society. That was in the officer's thought when he refused to take back his Burmese servant.
Now see the boy's idea.
Punishment is an atonement, a purifying of the soul from the stain of sin. That is the only justification for, and meaning of, suffering. If a man breaks the everlasting laws of righteousness and stains his soul with the stain of sin, he must be purified, and the only method of purification is by suffering. Each sin is followed by suffering, lasting just so long as to cleanse the soul—not a moment less, or the soul would not be white; not a moment more, or it would be useless and cruel. That is the law of righteousness, the eternal inevitable sequence that leads us in the end to wisdom and peace. And as it is with the greater laws, so it should, the Buddhist thinks, be with the lesser laws.
If a man steals, he should have such punishment and for such a time as will wean his soul from theft, as will atone for his sin. Just so much. You see, to him mercy is a falling short of what is necessary, a leaving of work half done, as if you were to leave a garment half washed. Excess of punishment is mere useless brutality. He recognizes no vicarious punishment. He cannot understand that A. should be damned in order to save B. This does not agree with his scheme of righteousness at all. It seems as futile to him as the action of washing one garment twice that another might be clean. Each man should atone for his own sin, must atone for his own sin, in order to be freed from it. No one can help him, or suffer for him. If I have a sore throat, it would be useless to blister you for it: that is his idea.
Consider this Burman. He had committed theft. That he admitted. He was prepared to atone for it. The magistrate was not content with that, but made him also atone for other men's sins. He was twice punished, because other men who escaped did ill. That was the first thing he could not understand. And then, when he had atoned both for his own sin and for that of others, when he came out of prison, he was looked upon as in a worse state than if he had never atoned at all. If he had never been in prison, his master would have forgiven his theft and taken him back, but now he would not. The boy was proud of having atoned in full, very full, measure for his sin; the master looked upon the punishment as inconceivably worse than the crime.
So the officer went about and told the story of his boy coming back, and expecting to be taken on again, as a curious instance of the mysterious working of the Oriental mind, as another example of the extraordinary way Easterns argue. 'Just to think,' said the officer, 'he was not ashamed of having been in prison!' And the boy? Well, he probably said nothing, but went away and did not understand, and kept the matter to himself, for they are very dumb, these people, very long-suffering, very charitable. You may be sure that he never railed at the law, or condemned his old master for harshness.
He would wonder why he was punished because other people had sinned and escaped. He could not understand that. It would not occur to him that sending him to herd with other criminals, that cutting him off from all the gentle influences of life, from the green trees and the winds of heaven, from the society of women, from the example of noble men, from the teachings of religion, was a curious way to render him a better man. He would suppose it was intended to make him better, that he should leave gaol a better man than when he entered, and he would take the intention for the deed. Under his own king things were not much better. It is true that very few men were imprisoned, fine being the usual punishment, but still, imprisonment there was, and so that would not seem to him strange; and as to the conduct of his master, he would be content to leave that unexplained. The Buddhist is content to leave many things unexplained until he can see the meaning. He is not fond of theories. If he does not know, he says so. 'It is beyond me,' he will say; 'I do not understand.' He has no theory of an occidental mind to explain acts of ours of which he cannot grasp the meaning; he would only not understand.
But the pity of it—think of the pity of it all! Surely there is nothing more pathetic than this: that a sinner should not understand the wherefore of his sentence, that the justice administered to him should be such as he cannot see the meaning of.
Certain forms of crime are very rife in Burma. The villages are so scattered, the roads so lonely, the amount of money habitually carried about so large, the people so habitually careless, the difficulty of detection so great, that robbery and kindred crimes are very common; and it is more common in the districts of the delta, long under our rule, than in the newly-annexed province in the north. Under like conditions the Burman is probably no more criminal and no less criminal than other people in the same state of civilization. Crime is a condition caused by opportunity, not by an inherent state of mind, except with the very, very few, the exceptional individuals; and in Upper Burma there is, now that the turmoil of the annexation is past, very little crime comparatively. There is less money there, and the village system—the control of the community over the individual—the restraining influence of public opinion is greater. But even during the years of trouble, the years from 1885 till 1890, when, in the words of the Burmese proverb, 'the forest was on fire and the wild-cat slapped his arm,' there were certain peculiarities about the criminals that differentiated them from those of Europe. You would hear of a terrible crime, a village attacked at night by brigands, a large robbery of property, one or two villagers killed, and an old woman tortured for her treasure, and you would picture the perpetrators as hardened, brutal criminals, lost to all sense of humanity, tigers in human shape; and when you came to arrest them—if by good luck you did so—you would find yourself quite mistaken. One, perhaps, or two of the ringleaders might be such as I have described, but the others would be far different. They would be boys or young men led away by the idea of a frolic, allured by the romance of being a free-lance for a night, very sorry now, and ready to confess and do all in their power to atone for their misdeeds.
Nothing, I think, was more striking than the universal confession of criminals on their arrest. Even now, despite the spread of lawyers and notions of law, in country districts accused men always confess, sometimes even they surrender themselves. I have known many such cases. Here is one that happened to myself only the other day.
A man was arrested in another jurisdiction for cattle theft; he was tried there and sentenced to two years' rigorous imprisonment. Shortly afterwards it was discovered that he was suspected of being concerned in a robbery in my jurisdiction, committed before his arrest. He was therefore transferred to the gaol near my court, and I inquired into the case, and committed him and four others for trial before the sessions judge for the robbery, which he admitted.
Now, it so happened that immediately after I had passed orders in the case I went out into camp, leaving the necessary warrants to be signed in my absence by my junior magistrate, and a mistake occurred by which the committal-warrant was only made out for the four. The other man being already under sentence for two years, it was not considered necessary to make out a remand-warrant for him. But, as it happened, he had appealed from his former sentence and he was acquitted, so a warrant of release arrived at the gaol, and, in absence of any other warrant, he was at once released.
Of course, on the mistake being discovered a fresh warrant was issued, and mounted police were sent over the country in search of him, without avail; he could not be found. But some four days afterwards, in the late afternoon, as I was sitting in my house, just returned from court, my servant told me a man wanted to see me. He was shown up into the veranda, and, lo! it was the very man I wanted. He had heard, he explained, that I wanted him, and had come to see me. I reminded him he was committed to stand his trial for dacoity, that was why I wanted him. He said that he thought all that was over, as he was released; but I explained to him that the release only applied to the theft case. And then we walked over half a mile to court, I in front and he behind, across the wide plain, and he surrendered to the guard. He was tried and acquitted on this charge also. Not, as the sessions judge said later, that he had any doubt that my friend and the others were the right men, but because he considered some of the evidence unsatisfactory, and because the original confession was withdrawn. So he was released again, and went hence a free man.
But think of him surrendering himself! He knew he had committed the dacoity with which he was charged: he himself had admitted it to begin with, and again admitted it freely when he knew he was safe from further trial. He knew he was liable to very heavy punishment, and yet he surrendered because he understood that I wanted him. I confess that I do not understand it at all, for this is no solitary instance. The circumstances, truly, were curious, but the spirit in which the man acted was usual enough. I have had dacoit leaders with prices on their heads walk into my camp. It was a common experience with many officers.
The Burmans often act as children do. Their crimes are the violent, thoughtless crimes of children; they are as little depraved by crime as children are. Who are more criminal than English boys? and yet they grow up decent, law-abiding men. Almost the only confirmed criminals have been made so by punishment, by that punishment which some consider is intended to uplift them, but which never does aught but degrade them. Instead of cleansing the garment, it tears it, and renders it useless for this life.
It is a very difficult question, this of crime and punishment. I have not written all this because I have any suggestion to make to improve it. I have not written it because I think that the laws of Manu, which obtained under the Burmese kings, and their methods of punishment, were any improvement on ours. On the contrary, I think they were much worse. Their laws and their methods of enforcing the law were those of a very young people. But, notwithstanding this, there was a spirit in their laws different from and superior to ours.
I have been trying to see into the soul of this people whom I love so well, and nothing has struck me more than the way they regard crime and punishment; nothing has seemed to me more worthy of note than their ideas of the meaning and end of punishment, of its scope and its limits. It is so very different from ours. As in our religion, so in our laws: we believe in mercy at one time and in vengeance at another. We believe in vicarious punishment and vicarious salvation; they believe in absolute justice—always the same, eternal and unchangeable as the laws of the stars. We purposely make punishment degrading; they think it should be elevating, that in its purifying power lies its sole use and justification. We believe in tearing a soiled garment; they think it ought to be washed.
Surely these are great differences, surely thoughts like these, engraven in the hearts of a young people, will lead, in the great and glorious future that lies before them, to a conception of justice, to a method of dealing with crime, very different from what we know ourselves. They are now very much as we were sixteen centuries ago, when the Romans ruled us. Now we are a greater people, our justice is better, our prisons are better, our morality is inconceivably better than Imperial Rome ever dreamt of. And so with these people, when their time shall come, when they shall have grown out of childhood into manhood, when they shall have the wisdom and strength and experience to put in force the convictions that are in their hearts, it seems to me that they will bring out of these convictions something more wonderful than we to-day have dreamt of.
'The thoughts of his heart, these are the wealth of a man.' Burmese saying.
As I have said, there was this very remarkable fact in Burma—that when you left the king, you dropped at once to the villager. There were no intermediate classes. There were no nobles, hereditary officers, great landowners, wealthy bankers or merchants.
Then there is no caste; there are no guilds of trade, or art, or science. If a man discovered a method of working silver, say, he never hid it, but made it common property. It is very curious how absolutely devoid Burma is of the exclusiveness of caste so universal in India, and which survives to a great extent in Europe. The Burman is so absolutely enamoured of freedom, that he cannot abide the bonds which caste demands. He will not bind himself with other men for a slight temporal advantage; he does not consider it worth the trouble. He prefers remaining free and poor to being bound and rich. Nothing is further from him than the feeling of exclusiveness. He abominates secrecy, mystery. His religion, his women, himself, are free; there are no dark places in his life where the light cannot come. He is ready that everything should be known, that all men should be his brothers.
And so all the people are on the same level. Richer and poorer there are, of course, but there are no very rich; there is none so poor that he cannot get plenty to eat and drink. All eat much the same food, all dress much alike. The amusements of all are the same, for entertainments are nearly always free. So the Burman does not care to be rich. It is not in his nature to desire wealth, it is not in his nature to care to keep it when it comes to him. Beyond a sufficiency for his daily needs money has not much value. He does not care to add field to field or coin to coin; the mere fact that he has money causes him no pleasure. Money is worth to him what it will buy. With us, when we have made a little money we keep it to be a nest-egg to make more from. Not so a Burman: he will spend it. And after his own little wants are satisfied, after he has bought himself a new silk, after he has given his wife a gold bangle, after he has called all his village together and entertained them with a dramatic entertainment—sometimes even before all this—he will spend the rest on charity.
He will build a pagoda to the honour of the great teacher, where men may go to meditate on the great laws of existence. He will build a monastery school where the village lads are taught, and where each villager retires some time in his life to learn the great wisdom. He will dig a well or build a bridge, or make a rest-house. And if the sum be very small indeed, then he will build, perhaps, a little house—a tiny little house—to hold two or three jars of water for travellers to drink. And he will keep the jars full of water, and put a little cocoanut-shell to act as cup.
The amount spent thus every year in charity is enormous. The country is full of pagodas; you see them on every peak, on every ridge along the river. They stand there as do the castles of the robber barons on the Rhine, only with what another meaning! Near villages and towns there are clusters of them, great and small. The great pagoda in Rangoon is as tall as St. Paul's; I have seen many a one not three feet high—the offering of some poor old man to the Great Name, and everywhere there are monasteries. Every village has one, at least; most have two or three. A large village will have many. More would be built if there was anyone to live in them, so anxious is each man to do something for the monks. As it is, more are built than there is actual need for.
And there are rest-houses everywhere. Far away in the dense forests by the mountain-side you will find them, built in some little hollow by the roadside by someone who remembered his fellow-traveller. You cannot go five miles along any road without finding them. In villages they can be counted by tens, in towns by fifties. There are far more than are required.
In Burmese times such roads and bridges as were made were made in the same way by private charity. Nowadays, the British Government takes that in hand, and consequently there is probably more money for rest-house building than is needed. As time goes on, the charity will flow into other lines, no doubt, in addition. They will build and endow hospitals, they will devote money to higher education, they will spend money in many ways, not in what we usually call charity, for that they already do, nor in missions, as whatever missions they may send out will cost nothing. Holy men are those vowed to extreme poverty. But as their civilization (their civilization, not any imposed from outside) progresses, they will find out new wants for the rich to supply, and they will supply them. That is a mere question of material progress.
The inclination to charity is very strong. The Burmans give in charity far more in proportion to their wealth than any other people. It is extraordinary how much they give, and you must remember that all of this is quite voluntary. With, I think, two or three exceptions, such as gilding the Shwe Dagon pagoda, collections are never made for any purpose. There is no committee of appeal, no organized collection. It is all given straight from the giver's heart. It is a very marvellous thing.
I remember long ago, shortly after I had come to Burma, I was staying with a friend in Toungoo, and I went with him to the house of a Burman contractor. We had been out riding, and as we returned my friend said he wished to see the contractor about some business, and so we rode to his house. He came out and asked us in, and we dismounted and went up the stairs into the veranda, and sat down. It was a little house built of wood, with three rooms. Behind was a little kitchen and a stable. The whole may have cost a thousand rupees. As my friend and the Burman talked of their business I observed the furniture. There was very little; three or four chairs, two tables and a big box were all I could see. Inside, no doubt, were a few beds and more chairs. While we sat, the wife and daughter came out and gave us cheroots, and I talked to them in my very limited Burmese till my friend was ready. Then we went away.
That contractor, so my friend told me as we went home, made probably a profit of six or seven thousand rupees a year. He spent on himself about a thousand of this; the rest went in charity. The great new monastery school, with the marvellous carved facade, just to the south of the town, was his, the new rest-house on the mountain road far up in the hills was his. He supported many monks, he gave largely to the gilding of the pagoda. If a theatrical company came that way, he subscribed freely. Soon he thought he would retire from contracting altogether, for he had enough to live on quietly for the rest of his life.
His action is no exception, but the rule. You will find that every well-to-do man has built his pagoda or his monastery, and is called 'school-builder' or 'pagoda-builder.' These are the only titles the Burman knows, and they always are given most scrupulously. The builder of a bridge, a well, or a rest-house may also receive the title of 'well-builder,' and so on, but such titles are rarely used in common speech. Even the builder of a long shed for water-jars may call himself after it if he likes, but it is only big builders who receive any title from their fellows. But the satisfaction to the man himself, the knowledge that he has done a good deed, is much the same, I think.
A Burman's wants are very few, such wants as money can supply—a little house, a sufficiency of plain food, a cotton dress for weekdays and a silk one for holidays, and that is nearly all.
They are still a very young people. Many wants will come, perhaps, later on, but just now their desires are easily satisfied.
The Burman does not care for a big house, for there are always the great trees and the open spaces by the village. It is far pleasanter to sit out of doors than indoors. He does not care for books. He has what is better than many books—the life of his people all about him, and he has the eyes to see it and the heart to understand it. He cares not to see with other men's eyes, but with his own; he cares not to read other men's thoughts, but to think his own, for a love of books only comes to him who is shut always from the world by ill-health, by poverty, by circumstance. When we are poor and miserable, we like to read of those who are happier. When we are shut in towns, we love to read of the beauties of the hills. When we have no love in our hearts, we like to read of those who have. Few men who think their own thoughts care much to read the thoughts of others, for a man's own thoughts are worth more to him than all the thoughts of all the world besides. That a man should think, that is a great thing. Very, very few great readers are great thinkers. And he who can live his life, what cares he for reading of the lives of other people? To have loved once is more than to have read all the poets that ever sang. So a Burman thinks. To see the moon rise on the river as you float along, while the boat rocks to and fro and someone talks to you—is not that better than any tale?
So a Burman lives his life, and he asks a great deal from it. He wants fresh air and sunshine, and the great thoughts that come to you in the forest. He wants love and companionship, the voice of friends, the low laugh of women, the delight of children. He wants his life to be a full one, and he wants leisure to teach his heart to enjoy all these things; for he knows that you must learn to enjoy yourself, that it does not always come naturally, that to be happy and good-natured and open-hearted requires an education. To learn to sympathize with your neighbours, to laugh with them and cry with them, you must not shut yourself away and work. His religion tells him that the first of all gifts is sympathy; it is the first step towards wisdom, and he holds it true. After that, all shall be added to you. He believes that happiness is the best of all things.
We think differently. We are content with cheerless days, with an absence of love, of beauty, of all that is valuable to the heart, if we can but put away a little money, if we can enlarge our business, if we can make a bigger figure in the world. Nay, we go beyond this: we believe that work, that drudgery, is a beautiful thing in itself, that perpetual toil and effort is admirable.
This we do because we do not know what to do with our leisure, because we do not know for what to seek, because we cannot enjoy. And so we go back to work, to feverish effort, because we cannot think, and see, and understand. 'Work is a means to leisure,' Aristotle told us long ago, and leisure, adds the Burman, is needed that you may compose your own soul. Work, no doubt, is a necessity, too, but not excess of it.
The necessary thing to a man is not gold, nor position, nor power, but simply his own soul. Nothing is worth anything to him compared with that, for while a man lives, what is the good of all these things if he have no leisure to enjoy them? And when he dies, shall they go down into the void with him? No; but a man's own soul shall go with and be with him for ever.
A Burman's ideas of this world are dominated by his religion. His religion says to him, 'Consider your own soul, that is the main thing.' His religion says to him, 'The aim of every man should be happiness.' These are the fundamental parts of his belief; these he learns from his childhood: they are born in him. He looks at all the world by their light. Later on, when he grows older, his religion says to him, 'And happiness is only to be found by renouncing the whole world.' This is a hard teaching. This comes to him slowly, or all Buddhists would be monks; but, meanwhile, if he does but remember the first two precepts, he is on the right path.
He does do this. Happiness is the aim he seeks. Work and power and money are but the means by which he will arrive at the leisure to teach his own soul. First the body, then the spirit; but with us it is surely first the body, and then the body again.
He often watches us with surprise. He sees us work and work and work; he sees us grow old quickly, and our minds get weary; he sees our sympathies grow very narrow, our ideas bent into one groove, our whole souls destroyed for a little money, a little fame, a little promotion, till we go home, and do not know what to do with ourselves, because we have no work and no sympathy with anything; and at last we die, and take down with us our souls—souls fit for nothing but to be driven for ever with a goad behind and a golden fruit in front.
But do not suppose that the Burmese are idle. Such a nation of workers was never known. Every man works, every woman works, every child works. Life is not an easy thing, but a hard, and there is a great deal of work to be done. There is not an idle man or woman in all Burma. The class of those who live on other men's labour is unknown. I do not think the Burman would care for such a life, for a certain amount of work is good, he knows. A little work he likes; a good deal of work he does, because he is obliged often to do so to earn even the little he requires. And that is the end. He is a free man, never a slave to other men, nor to himself.
Therefore I do not think his will ever make what we call a great nation. He will never try to be a conqueror of other peoples, either with the sword, with trade, or with religion. He will never care to have a great voice in the management of the world. He does not care to interfere with other people: he never believes interference can do other than harm to both sides.
He will never be very rich, very powerful, very advanced in science, perhaps not even in art, though I am not sure about that. It may be he will be very great in literature and art. But, however that may be, in his own idea his will be always the greatest nation in the world, because it is the happiest.
'Let his life be kindness, his conduct righteousness; then in the fulness of gladness he will make an end of grief.'—Dammapada.
During his lifetime, that long lifetime that remained to him after he had found the light, Gaudama the Buddha gathered round him many disciples. They came to learn from his lips of that truth which he had found, and they remained near him to practise that life which alone can lead unto the Great Peace.
From time to time, as occasion arose, the teacher laid down precepts and rules to assist those who desired to live as he did—precepts and rules designed to help his disciples in the right way. Thus there arose about him a brotherhood of those who were striving to purify their souls, and lead the higher life, and that brotherhood has lasted ever since, till you see in it the monkhood of to-day, for that is all that the monks are—a brotherhood of men who are trying to live as their great master lived, to purify their souls from the lust of life, to travel the road that reaches unto deliverance. Only that, nothing more.
There is no idea of priesthood about it at all, for by a priest we understand one who has received from above some power, who is, as it were, a representative on earth of God. Priests, to our thinking, are those who have delegated to them some of that authority of which God is the fountainhead. They can absolve from sin, we think; they can accept into the faith; they can eject from it; they can exhort with authority; they can administer the sacraments of religion; they can speed the parting soul to God; they can damn the parting soul to hell. A priest is one who is clothed with much authority and holiness.
But in Buddhism there is not, there cannot be, anything of all this. The God who lies far beyond our ken has delegated His authority to no one. He works through everlasting laws. His will is manifested by unchangeable sequences. There is nothing hidden about His laws that requires exposition by His agents, nor any ceremonies necessary for acceptance into the faith. Buddhism is a free religion. No one holds the keys of a man's salvation but himself. Buddhism never dreams that anyone can save or damn you but yourself, and so a Buddhist monk is as far away from our ideas of a priest as can be. Nothing could be more abhorrent to Buddhism than any claim of authority, of power, from above, of holiness acquired except by the earnest effort of a man's own soul.
These monks, who are so common all through Burma, whose monasteries are outside every village, who can be seen in every street in the early morning begging their bread, who educate the whole youth of the country, are simply men who are striving after good.
This is a difficult thing for us to understand, for our minds are bent in another direction. A religion without a priesthood seems to us an impossibility, and yet here it is so. The whole idea and thing of a priesthood would be repugnant to Buddhism.
It is a wonderful thing to contemplate how this brotherhood has existed all these many centuries, how it has always gained the respect and admiration of the people, how it has always held in its hands the education of the children, and yet has never aspired to sacerdotalism. Think of the temptation resisted here. The temptation to interfere in government was great, the temptation to arrogate to themselves priestly powers is far, far greater. Yet it has been always resisted. This brotherhood of monks is to-day as it was twenty-three centuries ago—a community of men seeking for the truth.
Therefore, in considering these monks, we must dismiss from our minds any idea of priesthood, any idea of extra human sanctity, of extra human authority. We must never liken them in any way to our priests, or even to our friars. I use the word monk, because it is the nearest of any English word I can find, but even that is not quite correct. I have often found this difficulty. I do not like to use the Burmese terms if I can help it, for this reason, that strange terms and names confuse us. They seem to lift us into another world—a world of people differing from us, not in habits alone, but in mind and soul. It is a dividing partition. It is very difficult to read a book speaking of people under strange terms, and feel that they are flesh and blood with us, and therefore I have, if possible, always used an English word where I can come anywhere near the meaning, and in this case I think monk comes closest to what I mean. Hermits they are not, for they live always in communities by villages, and they do not seclude themselves from human intercourse. Priests they are not, ministers they are not, clergymen they are not; mendicants only half describe them, so I use the word monk as coming nearest to what I wish to say.
The monks, then, are those who are trying to follow the teaching of Gaudama the Buddha, to wean themselves from the world, 'who have turned their eyes towards heaven, where is the lake in which all passions shall be washed away.' They are members of a great community, who are governed by stringent regulations—the regulations laid down in the Wini for observance by all monks. When a man enters the monkhood, he makes four vows—that he will be pure from lust, from desire of property, from the taking of any life, from the assumption of any supernatural powers. Consider this last, how it disposes once and for all of any desire a monk may have toward mysticism, for this is what he is taught:
'No member of our community may ever arrogate to himself extraordinary gifts or supernatural perfection, or through vainglory give himself out to be a holy man; such, for instance, as to withdraw into solitary places on pretence of enjoying ecstasies like the Ariahs, and afterwards to presume to teach others the way to uncommon spiritual attainments. Sooner may the lofty palm-tree that has been cut down become green again, than an elect guilty of such pride be restored to his holy station. Take care for yourself that you do not give way to such an excess.'
Is not this teaching the very reverse of that of all other peoples and religions? Can you imagine the religious teachers of any other religion being warned to keep themselves free from visions? Are not visions and trances, dreams and imaginations, the very proof of holiness? But here it is not so. These are vain things, foolish imaginations, and he who would lead the pure life must put behind him all such things as mere dram-drinking of the soul.
This is a most wonderful thing, a religion that condemns all mysticisms. It stands alone here amongst all religions, pure from the tinsel of miracle, either past, or present, or to come. And yet this people is, like all young nations, given to superstition: its young men dream dreams, its girls see visions. There are interpreters of dreams, many of them, soothsayers of all kinds, people who will give you charms, and foretell events for you. Just as it was with us not long ago, the mystery, what is beyond the world, exercises a curious fascination over them. Everywhere you will meet with traces of it, and I have in another chapter told some of the principal phases of these. But the religion has kept itself pure. No hysteric visions, no madman's dreams, no clever conjurer's tricks, have ever shed a tawdry glory on the monkhood of the Buddha. Amid all the superstition round about them they have remained pure, as they have from passion and desire. Here in the far East, the very home, we think, of the unnatural and superhuman, the very cradle of the mysterious and the wonderful, is a religion which condemns it all, and a monkhood who follow their religion. Does not this out-miracle any miracle?