With other faiths it is different: they hold out to those who follow their tenets and accept their ministry that in exchange for the worldly things which their followers renounce they shall receive other gifts, heavenly ones; they will be endued with power from above; they will have authority from on high; they will become the chosen messengers of God; they may even in their trances enter into His heaven, and see Him face to face.
Buddhism has nothing of all this to offer. A man must surrender all the world, with no immediate gain. There is only this: that if he struggle along in the path of righteousness, he will at length attain unto the Great Peace.
A monk who dreamed dreams, who said that the Buddha had appeared to him in a vision, who announced that he was able to prophesy, would be not exalted, but expelled. He would be deemed silly or mad; think of that—mad—for seeing visions, not holy at all! The boys would jeer at him; he would be turned out of his monastery.
A monk is he who observes purity and sanity of life. Hysteric dreams, the childishness of the mysterious, the insanity of the miraculous, are no part of that.
And so a monk has to put behind him everything that is called good in this life, and govern his body and his soul in strict temperance.
He must wear but yellow garments, ample and decent, but not beautiful; he must shave his head; he must have none but the most distant intercourse with women; he must beg his food daily in the streets; he must eat but twice, and then but a certain amount, and never after noon; he must take no interest in worldly affairs; he must own no property, must attend no plays or performances; 'he must eat, not to satisfy his appetite, but to keep his body alive; he must wear clothes, not from vanity, but from decency; he must live under a roof, not because of vainglory, but because the weather renders it necessary.' All his life is bounded by the very strictest poverty and purity.
There is no austerity. A monk may not over-eat, but he must eat enough; he must not wear fine clothes, but he must be decent and comfortable; he must not have proud dwellings, but he should be sheltered from the weather.
There is no self-punishment in Buddhism. Did not the Buddha prove the futility of this long ago? The body must be kept in health, that the soul may not be hampered. And so the monks live a very healthy, very temperate life, eating and drinking just enough to keep the body in good health; that is the first thing, that is the very beginning of the pure life.
And as he trains his body by careful treatment, so does he his soul. He must read the sacred books, he must meditate on the teachings of the great teacher, he must try by every means in his power to bring these truths home to himself, not as empty sayings, but as beliefs that are to be to him the very essence of all truth. He is not cut off from society. There are other monks, and there are visitors, men and women. He may talk to them—he is no recluse; but he must not talk too much about worldly matters. He must be careful of his thoughts, that they do not lead him into wrong paths. His life is a life of self-culture.
Being no priest, he has few duties to others to perform; he is not called upon to interfere in the business of others. He does not visit the sick; he has no concern with births and marriages and deaths. On Sunday, and on certain other occasions, he may read the laws to the people, that is all. Of this I will speak in another chapter. It does not amount to a great demand upon his time. He is also the schoolmaster of the village, but this is aside entirely from his sacred profession. Certain duties he has, however. Every morning as the earliest sunlight comes upon the monastery spires, when the birds are still calling to the day, and the cool freshness of the morning still lies along the highways, you will see from every monastery the little procession come forth. First, perhaps, there will be two schoolboys with a gong slung on a bamboo between them, which they strike now and then. And behind them, in their yellow robes, their faces cast upon the ground, and the begging-bowls in their hands, follow the monks. Very slowly they pass along the streets, amid the girls hurrying to their stalls in the bazaar with baskets of fruit upon their heads, the housewives out to buy their day's requirements, the workman going to his work, the children running and laughing and falling in the dust. Everyone makes room for them as they go in slow and solemn procession, and from this house and that come forth women and children with a little rice that they have risen before daylight to cook, a little curry, a little fruit, to put into the bowls. Never is there any money given: a monk may not touch money, and his wants are very few. Presents of books, and so on, are made at other times; but in the morning only food is given.
The gifts are never acknowledged. The cover of the bowl is removed, and when the offering has been put in, it is replaced, and the monk moves on. And when they have made their accustomed round, they return, as they went, slowly to the monastery, their bowls full of food. I do not know that this food is always eaten by the monks. Frequently in large towns they are fed by rich men, who send daily a hot, fresh, well-cooked meal for each monk, and the collected alms are given to the poor, or to schoolboys, or to animals. But the begging round is never neglected, nor is it a form. It is a very real thing, as anyone who has seen them go knows. They must beg their food, and they do; it is part of the self-discipline that the law says is necessary to help the soul to humility. And the people give because it is a good thing to give alms. Even if they know the monks are fed besides, they will fill the bowls as the monks pass along. If the monks do not want it, there are the poor, there are the schoolboys, sons of the poorest of the people, who may often be in need of a meal; and if a little be left, then there are the birds and the beasts. It is a good thing to give alms—good for yourself, I mean. So that this daily procession does good in two ways: it is good for the monk because he learns humility; it is good for the people because they have thereby offered them a chance of giving a little alms. Even the poorest may be able to give his spoonful of rice. All is accepted. Think not a great gift is more acceptable than a little one. You must judge by the giver's heart.
At every feast, every rejoicing, the central feature is presents to the monks. If a man put his son into a monastery, if he make merry at a stroke of good fortune, if he wish to celebrate a mark of favour from government, the principal ceremony of the feast will be presents to monks. They must be presents such as the monks can accept; that is understood.
Therefore, a man enters a monastery simply for this: to keep his body in health by perfect moderation and careful conduct, and to prepare his soul for heaven by meditation. That is the meaning of it all.
If you see a grove of trees before you on your ride, mangoes and tamarinds in clusters, with palms nodding overhead, and great broad-leaved plantains and flowering shrubs below, you may be sure that there is a monastery, for it is one of the commands to the monks of the Buddha to live under the shade of lofty trees, and this command they always keep. They are most beautiful, many of these monasteries—great buildings of dark-brown teak, weather-stained, with two or three roofs one above the other, and at one end a spire tapering up until it ends in a gilded 'tee.' Many of the monasteries are covered with carving along the facades and up the spires, scroll upon scroll of daintiest design, quaint groups of figures here and there, and on the gateways moulded dragons. All the carvings tell a story taken from the treasure-house of the nation's infancy, quaint tales of genii and fairy and wonderful adventure. Never, I think, do the carvings tell anything of the sacred life or teaching. The Burmese are not fond, as we are, of carving and painting scenes from sacred books. Perhaps they think the subject too holy for the hand of the craftsman, and so, with, as far as I know, but one exception in all Burma—a pagoda built by Indian architects long ago—you will look in vain for any sacred teaching in the carvings. But they are very beautiful, and their colour is so good, the deep rich brown of teak against the light green of the tamarinds, and the great leaves of the plantains all about. Within the monastery it will be all bare. However beautiful the building is without, no relaxation of his rules is allowed to the monk within. All is bare: only a few mats, perhaps, here and there on the plank floor, a hard wooden bed, a box or two of books.
At one end there will be sure to be the image of the teacher, wrought in alabaster. These are always one of three stereotyped designs; they are not works of art at all. The wealth of imagination and desire of beauty that finds its expression in the carved stories in the facades has no place here at all. It would be thought a sacrilege to attempt in any way to alter the time-honoured figures that have come down to us from long ago.
Over the head of the image there will be a white or golden umbrella, whence we have derived our haloes, and perhaps a lotus-blossom in an earthen pot in front. That will be all. There is this very remarkable fact: of all the great names associated with the life of the Buddha, you never see any presentment at all.
The Buddha stands alone. Of Maya his mother, of Yathodaya his wife, of Rahoula his son, of his great disciple Thariputra, of his dearest disciple and brother Ananda, you see nothing. There are no saints in Buddhism at all, only the great teacher, he who saw the light. Surely this is a curious thing, that from the time of the prince to now, two thousand four hundred years, no one has arisen to be worthy of mention of record beside him. There is only one man holy to Buddhism—Gaudama the Buddha.
On one side of the monasteries there will be many pagodas, tombs of the Buddha. They are usually solid cones, topped with a gilded 'tee,' and there are many of them. Each man will build one in his lifetime if he can. They are always white or gold.
So there is much colour about a monastery—the brown of the wood and the white of the pagoda, and tender green of the trees. The ground is always kept clean-swept and beaten and neat. And there is plenty of sound, too—the fairy music of little bells upon the pagoda-tops when the breeze moves, the cooing of the pigeons in the eaves, the voices of the schoolboys. Monastery land is sacred. No life may be taken there, no loud sounds, no noisy merriment, no abuse is permitted anywhere within the fence. Monasteries are places of meditation and peace.
Of course, all monasteries are not great and beautiful buildings; many are but huts of bamboo and straw, but little better than the villager's hut. Some villages are so poor that they can afford but little for their holy men. But always there will be trees, always the ground will be swept, always the place will be respected just the same. And as soon as a good crop gives the village a little money, it will build a teak monastery, be sure of that.
Monasteries are free to all. Any stranger may walk into a monastery and receive shelter. The monks are always hospitable. I have myself lived, perhaps, a quarter of my life in Burma in monasteries, or in the rest-houses attached to them. We break all their laws: we ride and wear boots within the sacred enclosure; our servants kill fowls for our dinners there, where all life is protected; we treat these monks, these who are the honoured of the nation, much in the offhand, unceremonious way that we treat all Orientals; we often openly laugh at their religion. And yet they always receive us; they are often even glad to see us and talk to us. Very, very seldom do you meet with any return in kind for your contempt of their faith and habits. I have heard it said sometimes that some monks stand aloof, that they like to keep to themselves. If they should do so, can you wonder? Would any people, not firmly bound by their religion, put up with it all for a moment? If you went into a Mahommedan mosque in Delhi with your boots on, you would probably be killed. Yet we clump round the Shwe Dagon pagoda at our ease, and no one interferes. Do not suppose that it is because the Burman believes less than the Hindu or Mahommedan. It is because he believes more, because he is taught that submission and patience are strong Buddhist virtues, and that a man's conduct is an affair of his own soul. He is willing to believe that the Englishman's breaches of decorum are due to foreign manners, to the necessities of our life, to ignorance. But even if he supposed that we did these things out of sheer wantonness it would make no difference. If the foreigner is dead to every feeling of respect, of courtesy, of sympathy, that is an affair of the foreigner's own heart. It is not for the monk to enforce upon strangers the respect and reverence due to purity, to courage, to the better things. Each man is responsible for himself, the foreigner no less than the Burman. If a foreigner have no respect for what is good, that is his own business. It can hurt no one but himself if he is blatant, ignorant, contemptuous. No one is insulted by it, or requires revenge for it. You might as well try and insult gravity by jeering at Newton and his pupils, as injure the laws of righteousness by jeering at the Buddha or his monks. And so you will see foreigners take all sorts of liberties in monasteries and pagodas, break every rule wantonly, and disregard everything the Buddhist holds holy, and yet very little notice will be taken openly. Burmans will have their own opinion of you, do have their own opinion of you, without a doubt; but because you are lost to all sense of decency, that is no reason why the Buddhist monk or layman should also lower himself by getting angry and resent it; and so you may walk into any monastery or rest-house and act as you think fit, and no one will interfere with you. Nay, if you even show a little courtesy to the monks, your hosts, they will be glad to talk to you and tell you of their lives and their desires. It is very seldom that a pleasant word or a jest will not bring the monks into forgetting all your offences, and talking to you freely and openly. I have had, I have still, many friends among the monkhood; I have been beholden to them for many kindnesses; I have found them always, peasants as they are, courteous and well-mannered. Nay, there are greater things than these.
When my dear friend was murdered at the outbreak of the war, wantonly murdered by the soldiers of a brutal official, and his body drifted down the river, everyone afraid to bury it, for fear of the wrath of government, was it not at last tenderly and lovingly buried by the monks near whose monastery it floated ashore? Would all people have done this? Remember, he was one of those whose army was engaged in subduing the kingdom; whose army imprisoned the king, and had killed, and were killing, many, many hundreds of Burmans. 'We do not remember such things. All men are brothers to the dead.' They are brothers to the living, too. Is there not a monastery near Kindat, built by an Englishman as a memorial to the monk who saved his life at peril of his own at that same time, who preserved him till help came?
Can anyone ever tell when the influence of a monk has been other than for pity or mercy? Surely they believe their religion? I did not know how people could believe till I saw them.
Martyrdom—what is martyrdom, what is death, for your religion, compared to living within its commands? Death is easy; life it is that is difficult. Men have died for many things: love and hate, and religion and science, for patriotism and avarice, for self-conceit and sheer vanity, for all sorts of things, of value and of no value. Death proves nothing. Even a coward can die well. But a pure life is the outcome only of the purest religion, of the greatest belief, of the most magnificent courage. Those who can live like this can die, too, if need be—have done so often and often; that is but a little matter indeed. No Buddhist would consider that as a very great thing beside a holy life.
There is another difference between us. We think a good death hallows an evil life; no Buddhist would hear of this for a moment.
The reverence in which a monk—ay, even the monk to-day who was but an ordinary man yesterday—is held by the people is very great. All those who address him do so kneeling. Even the king himself was lower than a monk, took a lower seat than a monk in the palace. He is addressed as 'Lord,' and those who address him are his disciples. Poor as he is, living on daily charity, without any power or authority of any kind, the greatest in the land would dismount and yield the road that he should pass. Such is the people's reverence for a holy life. Never was such voluntary homage yielded to any as to these monks. There is a special language for them, the ordinary language of life being too common to be applied to their actions. They do not sleep or eat or walk as do other men.
It seems strange to us, coming from our land where poverty is an offence, where the receipt of alms is a degradation, where the ideal is power, to see here all this reversed. The monks are the poorest of the poor, they are dependent on the people for their daily bread; for although lands may be given to a monastery as a matter of fact, very few have any at all, and those only a few palm-trees. They have no power at all, either temporal or eternal; they are not very learned, and yet they are the most honoured of all people. Without any of the attributes which in our experience gather the love and honour of mankind, they are honoured above all men.
The Burman demands from the monk no assistance in heavenly affairs, no interference in worldly, only this, that he should live as becomes a follower of the great teacher. And because he does so live the Burman reverences him beyond all others. The king is feared, the wise man admired, perhaps envied, the rich man is respected, but the monk is honoured and loved. There is no one beside him in the heart of the people. If you would know what a Burman would be, see what a monk is: that is his ideal. But it is a very difficult ideal. The Burman is very fond of life, very full of life, delighting in the joy of existence, brimming over with vitality, with humour, with merriment. They are a young people, in the full flush of early nationhood. To them of all people the restraints of a monk's life must be terrible and hard to maintain. And because it is so, because they all know how hard it is to do right, and because the monks do right, they honour them, and they know they deserve honour. Remember that all these people have been monks themselves at one time or other; they know how hard the rules are, they know how well they are observed. They are reverencing what they thoroughly understand; they have seen their monkhood from the inside; their reverence is the outcome of a very real knowledge.
Of the internal management of the monkhood I have but little to say. There is the Thathanabaing, who is the head of the community; there are under him Gaing-oks, who each have charge of a district; each Gaing-ok has an assistant, 'a prop,' called Gaing-dauk; and there are the heads of monasteries. The Thathanabaing is chosen by the heads of the monasteries, and appoints his Gaing-oks and Gaing-dauks. There is no complication about it. Usually any serious dispute is decided by a court of three or four heads of monasteries, presided over by the Gaing-ok. But note this: no monk can be tried by any ecclesiastical court without his consent. Each monastery is self-governing; no monk can be called to account by any Gaing-ok or Gaing-dauk unless he consents. The discipline is voluntary entirely. There are no punishments by law for disobedience of an ecclesiastical court. A monk cannot be unfrocked by his fellows.
Therefore, it would seem that there would be no check over abuses, that monks could do as they liked, that irregularities could creep in, and that, in fact, there is nothing to prevent a monastery becoming a disgrace. This would be a great mistake. It must never be forgotten that monks are dependent on their village for everything—food and clothes, and even the monastery itself. Do not imagine that the villagers would allow their monks, their 'great glories,' to become a scandal to them. The supervision exercised by the people over their monks is most stringent. As long as the monks act as monks should, they are held in great honour, they are addressed by titles of great respect, they are supplied with all they want within the rules of the Wini, they are the glory of the village. But do you think a Burman would render this homage to a monk whom he could not respect, who did actions he should not? A monk is one who acts as a monk. Directly he breaks his laws, his holiness is gone. The villagers will have none such as he. They will hunt him out of the village, they will refuse him food, they will make him a byword, a scorn. I have known this to happen. If a monk's holiness be suspected, he must clear himself before a court, or leave that place quickly, lest worse befall him. It is impossible to conceive any supervision more close than this of the people over their monks, and so the breaches of any law by the monks are very rare—very rare indeed. You see, for one thing, that a monk never takes the vows for life. He takes them for six months, a year, two years, very often for five years; then, if he finds the life suit him, he continues. If he finds that he cannot live up to the standard required, he is free to go. There is no compulsion to stay, no stigma on going. As a matter of fact, very few monks there are but have left the monastery at one time or another. It is impossible to over-estimate the value of this safety-valve. What with the certainty of detection and punishment from his people, and the knowledge that he can leave the monastery if he will at the end of his time without any reproach, a monk is almost always able to keep within his rules.
I have had for ten years a considerable experience of criminal law. I have tried hundreds of men for all sorts of offences; I have known of many hundreds more being tried, and the only cases where a monk was concerned that I can remember are these: three times a monk has been connected in a rebellion, once in a divorce case, once in another offence. This last case happened just as we annexed the country, and when our courts were not established. He was detected by the villagers, stripped of his robes, beaten, and hunted out of the place with every ignominy possible. There is only one opinion amongst all those who have tried to study the Buddhist monkhood—that their conduct is admirable. Do you suppose the people would reverence it as they do if it were corrupt? They know: they have seen it from the inside. It is not outside knowledge they have. And when it is understood that anyone can enter a monastery—thieves and robbers, murderers and sinners of every description, can enter, are even urged to enter monasteries, and try to live the holy life; and many of them do, either as a refuge against pursuit, or because they really repent—it will be conceded that the discipline of the monks, if obtained in a different way to elsewhere, is very effective.
The more you study the monkhood, the more you see that this community is the outcome of the very heart of the people. It is a part of the people, not cut off from them, but of them; it is recruited in great numbers from all sorts and conditions of men. In every village and town—nearly every man has been a monk at one time or another—it is honoured alike by all; it is kept in the straight way, not only from the inherent righteousness of its teaching, but from the determination of the people to allow no stain to rest upon what they consider as their 'great glory.' This whole monkhood is founded on freedom. It is held together not by a strong organization, but by general consent. There is no mystery about it, there are no dark places here where the sunlight of inquiry may not come. The whole business is so simple that the very children can and do understand it. I shall have expressed myself very badly if I have not made it understood how absolutely voluntary this monkhood is, held together by no everlasting vows, restrained by no rigid discipline. It is simply the free outcome of the free beliefs of the people, as much a part of them as the fruit is of the tree. You could no more imagine grapes without a vine than a Buddhist monkhood that did not spring directly from, and depend entirely on, the people. It is the higher expression of their life.
In writing this account of the Burmese and their religion, I have tried always to see with my own eyes, to write my own thoughts without any reference to what anyone else may have thought or written. I have believed that whatever value may attach to any man's opinions consists in the fact that they are his opinions, and not a rechauffe of the thoughts of others, and therefore I have not even referred to, or quoted from, any other writer, preferring to write only what I have myself seen and thought. But I cannot end this chapter on the monks of the Buddha without a reference to what Bishop Bigandet has said on the same subject, for he is no observer prejudiced in favour of Buddhism, but the reverse. He was a bishop of the Church of Rome, believing always that his faith contained all truth, and that the Buddha was but a 'pretended saviour,' his teachings based on 'capital and revolting errors,' and marked with an 'inexplicable and deplorable eccentricity.' Bishop Bigandet was in no sympathy with Buddhism, but its avowed foe, desirous of undermining and destroying its influence over the hearts of men, and yet this is the way he ends his chapter:
'There is in that religious body—the monks—a latent principle of vitality that keeps it up and communicates to it an amount of strength and energy that has hitherto maintained it in the midst of wars, revolutionary and political, convulsions of all descriptions. Whether supported or not by the ruling power, it has remained always firm and unchanged. It is impossible to account satisfactorily for such a phenomenon, unless we find a clear and evident cause of such extraordinary vitality, a cause independent of ordinary occurrences of time and circumstances, a cause deeply rooted in the very soul of the populations that exhibit before the observer this great and striking religious feature.
'That cause appears to be the strong religious sentiment, the firm faith, that pervades the mass of Buddhists. The laity admire and venerate the religious, and voluntarily and cheerfully contribute to their maintenance and welfare. From its ranks the religious body is constantly recruited. There is hardly a man that has not been a member of the fraternity for a certain period of time.
'Surely such a general and continued impulse could not last long unless it were maintained by a powerful religious connection.
'The members of the order preserve, at least exteriorly, the decorum of their profession. The rules and regulations are tolerably well observed; the grades of hierarchy are maintained with scrupulous exactitude. The life of the religious is one of restraint and perpetual control. He is denied all sorts of pleasures and diversions. How could such a system of self-denial ever be maintained, were it not for the belief which the Rahans have in the merits that they amass by following a course of life which, after all, is repugnant to Nature? It cannot be denied that human motives often influence both the laity and the religious, but, divested of faith and the sentiments supplied by even a false belief, their action could not produce in a lasting and persevering manner the extraordinary and striking fact that we witness in Buddhist countries.'
This monkhood is the proof of how the people believe. Has any religion ever had for twenty-four centuries such a proof as this?
'The restrained in hand, restrained in foot, restrained in speech, of the greatest self-control. He whose delight is inward, who is tranquil and happy when alone—him they call "mendicant."'—Acceptance into the Monkhood.
Besides being the ideal of the Buddhists, the monk is more: he is the schoolmaster of all the boys. It must be remembered that this is a thing aside from his monkhood. A monk need not necessarily teach; the aim and object of the monkhood is, as I have written in the last chapter, purity and abstraction from the world. If the monk acts as schoolmaster, that is a thing apart. And yet all monasteries are schools. The word in Burmese is the same; they are identified in popular speech and in popular opinion. All the monasteries are full of scholars, all the monks teach. I suppose much the same reasons have had influence here as in other nations; the desire of the parents that their children should learn religion in their childhood, the fact that the wisest and most honoured men entered the monkhood, the leisure of the monks giving them opportunity for such occupation.
Every man all through Burma has gone to a monastery school as a lad, has lived there with the monks, has learnt from them the elements of education and a knowledge of his faith. It is an exception to find a Burman who cannot read and write. Sometimes from lack of practice the art is lost in later manhood, but it has always been acquired. The education is not very deep—reading Burmese and writing; simple, very simple, arithmetic; a knowledge of the days and months, and a little geography, perhaps, and history—that is all that is secular. But of their religion they learn a great deal. They have to get by heart great portions of the sacred books, stories and teachings, and they have to learn many precepts. They have to recite them, too, as those who have lived much near monasteries know. Several times a day, at about nine o'clock at night, and again before dawn, you will hear the lads intoning clearly and loudly some of the sacred teachings. I have been awakened many a time in the early morning, before the dawn, before even the promise of the dawn in the eastern sky, by the children's voices intoning. And I have put aside my curtain and looked out from my rest-house and seen them in the dim starlight kneeling before the pagoda, the tomb of the great teacher, saying his laws. The light comes rapidly in this country: the sky reddens, the stars die quickly overhead, the first long beams of sunrise are trembling on the dewy bamboo feathers ere they have finished. It is one of the most beautiful sights imaginable to see monks and children kneeling on the bare ground, singing while the dawn comes.
The education in their religion is very good, very thorough, not only in precept, but in practice; for in the monastery you must live a holy life, as the monks live, even if you are but a schoolboy.
But the secular education is limited. It is up to the standard of education amongst the people at large, but that is saying little. Beyond reading and writing and arithmetic it generally does not go. I have seen the little boys do arithmetic. They were adding sums, and they began, not as we would, on the right, but on the left. They added, say, the hundreds first; then they wrote on the slate the number of hundreds, and added up the tens. If it happened that the tens mounted up so as to add one or more to the hundreds, a grimy little finger would wipe out the hundreds already written and write in the correct numbers. It follows that if the units on being added up came to over ten, the tens must be corrected with the grimy little finger, first put in the mouth. Perhaps both tens and hundreds had to be written again. It will be seen that when you come to thousands and tens of thousands, a good deal of wiping out and re-writing may be required. A Burman is very bad at arithmetic; a villager will often write 133 as 100,303; he would almost as soon write 43 as 34; both figures are in each number, you see.
I never met a Burman who had any idea of cubic measurement, though land measurement they pick up very quickly.
I have said that the education in the monasteries is up to the average education of the people. That is so. Whether when civilization progresses and more education is required the monasteries will be able to provide it is another thing.
The education given now is mostly a means to an end: to learning the precepts of religion. Whether the monks will provide an education beyond such a want, I doubt. A monk is by his vows, by the whole tenour of his life, apart from the world; too keen a search after knowledge, any kind of secular knowledge, would be a return to the things of this life, would, perhaps, re-kindle in him the desires that the whole meaning of his life is to annihilate. 'And after thou hast run over all things, what will it profit thee if thou hast neglected thyself?'
Besides, no knowledge, except mere theoretical knowledge, can be acquired without going about in the world. You cannot cut yourself off from the world and get knowledge of it. Yet the monk is apart from the world. It is true that Buddhism has no antagonism to science—nay, has every sympathy with, every attraction to, science. Buddhism will never try and block the progress of the truth, of light, secular or religious; but whether the monks will find it within their vows to provide that science, only time can prove. However it may be, it will not make any difference to the estimation in which the monks are held. They are not honoured for their wisdom—they often have but little; nor for their learning—they often have none at all; nor for their industry—they are never industrious; but because they are men trying to live—nay, succeeding in living—a life void of sin. Up till now the education given by the monks has met the wants of the people; in future it will do so less and less. But a community that has lived through twenty-four centuries of change, and is now of the strength and vitality that the Buddhist monkhood is, can have nothing to fear from any such change. Schoolmasters, except religious and elementary, they may cease to be, perhaps; the pattern and ensample of purity and righteousness they will always remain.
'What is there that can justify tears and lamentations?' Saying of the Buddha.
Down below my house, in a grove of palms near the river, was a little rest-house. It was but a roof and a floor of teak boarding without any walls, and it was plainly built. It might have held, perhaps, twenty people; and here, as I strolled past in the evening when the sun was setting, I would see two or three old men sitting with beads in their hands. They were making their devotions, saying to themselves that the world was all trouble, all weariness, and that there was no rest anywhere except in observing the laws of righteousness. It was very pathetic, I thought, to see them there, saying this over and over again, as they told their beads through their withered fingers, for surely there was no necessity for them to learn it. Has not everyone learnt it, this, the first truth of Buddhism, long before his hair is gray, before his hands are shaking, before his teeth are gone? But there they would sit, evening after evening, thinking of the change about to come upon them soon, realizing the emptiness of life, wishing for the Great Peace.
On Sundays the rest-house, like many others round the village, was crowded. Old men there would be, and one or two young men, a few children, and many women. Early in the morning they would come, and a monk would come down from the monastery near by, and each one would vow, with the monk as witness, that he or she would spend the day in meditation and in holy thought, would banish all thought of evil, and be for the day at least holy. And then, the vow made, the devotee would go and sit in the rest-house and meditate. The village is not very near; the sounds come very softly through the trees, not enough to disturb the mind; only there is the sigh of the wind wandering amid the leaves, and the occasional cry of birds. Once before noon a meal will be eaten, either food brought with them cold, or a simple pot of rice boiled beside the rest-house, and there they will stay till the sun sets and darkness is gathering about the foot of the trees. There is no service at all. The monk may come and read part of the sacred books—some of the Abidama, or a sermon from the Thoots—and perhaps sometimes he may expound a little; that is all. There is nothing akin to our ideas of worship. For consider what our service consists of: there is thanksgiving and praise, there is prayer, there is reading of the Bible, there is a sermon. Our thanksgiving and praise is rendered to God for things He has done, the pleasure that He has allowed us to enjoy, the punishment that He might have inflicted upon us and has not. Our prayer is to Him to preserve us in future, to assist us in our troubles, to give us our daily food, not to be too severe upon us, not to punish us as we deserve, but to be merciful and kind. We ask Him to protect us from our enemies, not to allow them to triumph over us, but to give us triumph over them.
But the Buddhist has far other thoughts than these. He believes that the world is ruled by everlasting, unchangeable laws of righteousness. The great God lives far behind His laws, and they are for ever and ever. You cannot change the laws of righteousness by praising them, or by crying against them, any more than you can change the revolution of the earth. Sin begets sorrow, sorrow is the only purifier from sin; these are eternal sequences; they cannot be altered; it would not be good that they should be altered. The Buddhist believes that the sequences are founded on righteousness, are the path to righteousness, and he does not believe he could alter them for the better, even if he had the power by prayer to do so. He believes in the everlasting righteousness, that all things work for good in the end; he has no need for prayer or praise; he thinks that the world is governed with far greater wisdom than any of his—perfect wisdom, that is too great, too wonderful, for his petty praise.
God lives far behind His laws; think not He has made them so badly as to require continual rectification at the prayer of man. Think not that God is not bound by His own laws. The Buddhist will never believe that God can break His own laws; that He is like an earthly king who imagines one code of morality for his subjects and another for himself. Not so; the great laws are founded in righteousness, so the Buddhist believes, in everlasting righteousness; they are perfect, far beyond our comprehension; they are the eternal, unchangeable, marvellous will of God, and it is our duty not to be for ever fretfully trying to change them, but to be trying to understand them. That is the Buddhist belief in the meaning of religion, and in the laws of righteousness; that is, he believes the duty of him who would follow religion to try to understand these laws, to bring them home to the heart, so to order life as to bring it into harmony with righteousness.
Now see the difference. We believe that the world is governed not by eternal laws, but by a changeable and continually changing God, and that it is our duty to try and persuade Him to make it better.
We believe, really, that we know a great deal better than God what is good, not only for us, but for others; we do not believe His will is always righteous—not at all: God has wrath to be deprecated; He has mercy to be aroused; He has partiality to be turned towards us, and hence our prayers.
But to the Buddhist the whole world is ruled by righteousness, the same for all, the same for ever, and the only sin is ignorance of these laws.
The Buddha is he who has found for us the light to see these laws, and to order our life in accordance with them.
Now it will be understood, I think, why there is no prayer, no gathering together for any ceremonial, in Buddhism; why there is no praise, no thanksgiving of any kind; why it is so very different in this way from our faith. Buddhism is a wisdom, a seeking of the light, a following of the light, each man as best he can, and it has very little to correspond with our prayer, our services of praise, our meetings together in the name of Christ.
Therefore, when you see a man kneeling before a pagoda, moving silent lips of prayer, when you see the people sitting quietly in the rest-houses on a Sunday, when you see the old men telling their beads to themselves slowly and sadly, when you hear the resonant chant of monks and children, lending a soul to the silence of the gloaming, you will know what they are doing. They are trying to understand and bring home to themselves the eternal laws of righteousness; they are honouring their great teacher.
This is all that there is; this is the meaning of all that you see and hear. The Buddhist praises and honours the Buddha, the Indian prince who so long ago went out into the wilderness to search for truth, and after many years found it in his own heart; he reverences the Buddha for seeing the light; he thanks the Buddha for his toil and exertion in making this light known to all men. It can do the Buddha no good, all this praise, for he has come to his eternal peace; but it can arouse the enthusiasm of the follower, can bring into his heart love for the memory of the great teacher, and a firm resolve to follow his teaching.
The service of his religion is to try and follow these laws, to take them home into the heart, that the follower, too, may come soon into the Great Peace.
This has been called pessimism. Surely it is the greatest optimism the world has known—this certainty that the world is ruled by righteousness, that the world has been, that the world will always be, ruled by perfect righteousness.
To the Buddhist this is a certainty. The laws are laws of righteousness, if man would but see, would but understand. Do not complain and cry and pray, but open your eyes and see. The light is all about you, if you would only cast the bandage from your eyes and look. It is so wonderful, so beautiful, far beyond what any man has dreamt of, has prayed for, and it is for ever and for ever.
This is the attitude of Buddhism towards prayer, towards thanksgiving. It considers them an impertinence and a foolishness, born of ignorance, akin to the action of him who would daily desire Atlas not to allow the heavens to drop upon the earth.
And yet, and yet.
I remember standing once on the platform of a famous pagoda, the golden spire rising before us, and carved shrines around us, and seeing a woman lying there, her face to the pagoda. She was praying fervently, so fervently that her words could be heard, for she had no care for anyone about, in such trouble was she; and what she was asking was this, that her child, her baby, might not die. She held the little thing in her arms, and as she looked upon it her eyes were full of tears. For it was very sick; its little limbs were but thin bones, with big knees and elbows, and its face was very wan. It could not even take any interest in the wonderful sights around, but hardly opened its careworn eyes now and then to blink upon the world.
'Let him recover, let him be well once more!' the woman cried, again and again.
Whom was she beseeching? I do not know.
'Thakin, there will be Someone, Someone. A Spirit may hear. Who can tell? Surely someone will help me? Men would help me if they could, but they cannot; surely there will be someone?'
So she did not remember the story of Ma Pa Da.
Women often pray, I think—they pray that their husbands and those they love may be well. It is a frequent ending to a girl's letter to her lover: 'And I pray always that you may be well.' I never heard of their praying for anything but this: that they may be loved, and those they love may be well. Nothing else is worth praying for besides this. The queen would pray at the pagoda in the palace morning and evening. 'What did she pray for?' 'What should she pray for, thakin? Surely she prayed that her husband might be true to her, and that her children might live and be strong. That is what women pray for. Do you think a queen would pray differently to any other woman?'
'Women,' say the Buddhist monks, 'never understand. They will not understand; they cannot learn. And so we say that most women must be born again, as men, before they can see the light and understand the laws of righteousness.'
What do women care for laws of righteousness? What do they care for justice? What for the everlasting sequences that govern the world? Would not they involve all other men, all earth and heaven, in bottomless chaos, to save one heart they loved? That is woman's religion.
'The law is sweet, filling the soul with joy.' Saying of the Buddha.
The three months of the rains, from the full moon of July to the full moon of October, is the Buddhist Lent. It was during these months that the Buddha would retire to some monastery and cease from travelling and teaching for a time. The custom was far older even than that—so old that we do not know how it arose. Its origin is lost in the mists of far-away time. But whatever the beginning may have been, it fits in very well with the habits of the people; for in the rains travelling is not easy. The roads are very bad, covered even with water, often deep in mud; and the rest-houses, with open sides, are not very comfortable with the rain drifting in. Even if there were no custom of Lent, there would be but little travelling then. People would stay at home, both because of the discomfort of moving, and because there is much work then at the village. For this is the time to plough, this is the time to sow; on the villagers' exertions in these months depends all their maintenance for the rest of the year. Every man, every woman, every child, has hard work of some kind or another.
What with the difficulties of travelling, what with the work there is to do, and what with the custom of Lent, everyone stays at home. It is the time for prayer, for fasting, for improving the soul. Many men during these months will live even as the monks live, will eat but before mid-day, will abstain from tobacco. There are no plays during Lent, and there are no marriages. It is the time for preparing the land for the crop; it is the time for preparing the soul for eternity. The congregations on the Sundays will be far greater at this time than at any other; there will be more thought of the serious things of life.
It is a very long Lent—three months; but with the full moon of October comes the end. The rains then are over; the great black bank of clouds that walled up all the south so long is gone. The south wind has died away, and the light, fresh north wind is coming down the river. The roads are drying up, the work in the fields is over for a time, awaiting the ripening of the grain. The damp has gone out of the air, and it is very clear. You can see once more the purple mountains that you have missed so long; there is a new feeling in the wind, a laughter in the sunshine, a flush of blossom along the fields like the awakening of a new joy. The rains are gone and the cool weather is coming; Lent is over and gladness is returned; the crop has been sown, and soon will come the reaping. And so at this full moon of October is the great feast of the year. There are other festivals: of the New Year, in March, with its water-throwing; of each great pagoda at its appointed time; but of all, the festival at the end of Lent is the greatest.
Wherever there are great pagodas the people will come in from far and near for the feast. There are many great pagodas in Burma; there is the Arakan pagoda in Mandalay, and there was the Incomparable pagoda, which has been burnt; there are great pagodas at Pegu, at Prome, at many other places; but perhaps the greatest of all is the Shwe Dagon at Rangoon.
You see it from far away as you come up the river, steaming in from the open sea, a great tongue of flame before you. It stands on a small conical hill just behind the city of Rangoon, about two miles away from the wharves and shipping in the busy river. The hill has been levelled on the top and paved into a wide platform, to which you ascend by a flight of many steps from the gate below, where stand the dragons. This entrance-way is all roofed over, and the pillars and the ceiling are red and painted. Here it was that much fighting took place in the early wars, in 1852 especially, and many men, English and Burmese, were killed in storming and defending this strong place. For it had been made a very strong place, this holy place of him who taught that peace was the only good, and the defences round about it are standing still. Upon the top of this hill, the flat paved top, stands the pagoda, a great solid tapering cone over three hundred feet high, ending in an iron fretwork spire that glitters with gold and jewels; and the whole pagoda is covered with gold—pure leaf-gold. Down below it is being always renewed by the pious offerings of those who come to pray and spread a little gold-leaf on it; but every now and then it is all regilt, from the top, far away above you, to the golden lions that guard its base. It is a most wonderful sight, this great golden cone, in that marvellous sunlight that bathes its sides like a golden sea. It seems to shake and tremble in the light like a fire. And all about the platform, edging it ere it falls away below, are little shrines, marvels of carven woodwork and red lacquer. They have tapering roofs, one above another, till they, too, end in a golden spire full of little bells with tongues. As the wind blows the tongues move to and fro, and the air is full of music, so faint, so clear, like 'silver stir of strings in hollow shells.'
In most of these shrines there are statues of the great teacher, cut in white alabaster, glimmering whitely in the lustrous shadows there within; and in one shrine is the great bell. Long ago we tried to take this great bell; we tried to send it home as a war trophy, this bell stolen from their sacred place, but we failed. As it was being put on board a ship, it slipped and fell into the river into the mud, where the fierce tides are ever coming and going. And when all the efforts of our engineers to raise it had failed, the Burmese asked: 'The bell, our bell, is there in the water. You cannot get it up. You have tried and you have failed. If we can get it up, may we have it back to hang in our pagoda as our own again?' And they were told, with a laugh, perhaps, that they might; and so they raised it up again, the river giving back to them what it had refused to us, and they took and hung it where it used to be. There it is now, and you may hear it when you go, giving out a long, deep note, the beat of the pagoda's heart.
There are many trees, too, about the pagoda platform—so many, that seen far off you can only see the trees and the pagoda towering above them. Have not trees been always sacred things? Have not all religions been glad to give their fanes the glory and majesty of great trees?
You may look from the pagoda platform over the whole country, over the city and the river and the straight streets; and on the other side you may see the long white lakes and little hills covered with trees. It is a very beautiful place, this pagoda, and it is steeped in an odour of holiness, the perfume of the thousand thousand prayers that have been prayed there, of the thousand thousand holy thoughts that have been thought there.
The pagoda platform is always full of people kneeling, saying over and over the great precepts of their faith, trying to bring into their hearts the meaning of the teaching of him of whom this wonderful pagoda represents the tomb. There are always monks there passing to and fro, or standing leaning on the pillars of the shrines; there are always a crowd of people climbing up and down the long steps that lead from the road below. It is a place I always go to when I am in Rangoon; for, besides its beauty, there are the people; and if you go and stand near where the stairway reaches the platform you will see the people come up. They come up singly, in twos, in groups. First a nun, perhaps, walking very softly, clad in her white dress with her beads about her neck, and there in a corner by a little shrine she will spread a cloth upon the hard stones and kneel and bow her face to the great pagoda. Then she will repeat, 'Sorrow, misery, trouble,' over and over again, running her beads through her fingers, repeating the words in the hope that in the end she may understand whither they should lead her. 'Sorrow, misery, trouble'—ah! surely she must know what they mean, or she would not be a nun. And then comes a young man, and after a reverence to the pagoda he goes wandering round, looking for someone, maybe; and then comes an old man with his son. They stop at the little stalls on the stairs, and they have bought there each a candle. The old man has a plain taper, but the little lad must have one with his emblem on it. Each day has its own sign, a tiger for Monday, and so on, and the lad buys a candle like a little rat, for his birthday is Friday, and the father and son go on to the platform. There they kneel down side by side, the old man and the little chubby lad, and they, too, say that all is misery and delusion. Presently they rise and advance to the pagoda's golden base, and put their candles thereon and light them. This side of the pagoda is in shadow now, and so you can see the lights of the candles as little stars.
And then come three girls, sisters, perhaps, all so prettily dressed, with meek eyes, and they, too, buy candles; they, too, kneel and make their devotions, for long, so long, that you wonder if anything has happened, if there has been any trouble that has brought them thus in the sunset to the remembrance of religion. But at last they rise, and they light their little candles near by where the old man and the boy have lit theirs, and then they go away. They are so sad, they keep their faces so turned upon the ground, that you fear there has been something, some trouble come upon them. You feel so sorry for them, you would like to ask them what it all is; you would like to help them if you could. But you can do nothing. They go away down the steps, and you hear the nun repeating always, 'Sorrow, misery, trouble.'
So they come and go.
But on the festival days at the end of Lent it is far more wonderful. Then for units there are tens, for tens there are hundreds—all come to do reverence to the great teacher at this his great holy place. There is no especial ceremony, no great service, such as we are accustomed to on our festivals. Only there will be many offerings; there will be a procession, maybe, with offerings to the pagoda, with offerings to the monks; there will be much gold-leaf spread upon the pagoda sides; there will be many people kneeling there—that is all. For, you see, Buddhism is not an affair of a community, but of each man's own heart.
To see the great pagoda on the festival days is one of the sights of the world. There are a great crowd of people coming and going, climbing up the steps. There are all sorts of people, rich and poor, old and young. Old men there are, climbing wearily up these steps that are so steep, steps that lead towards the Great Peace; and there are old women, too—many of them.
Young men will be there, walking briskly up, laughing and talking to each other, very happy, very merry, glad to see each other, to see so many people, calling pleasant greetings to their friends as they pass. They are all so gaily dressed, with beautiful silks and white jackets and gay satin head-cloths, tied with a little end sticking up as a plume.
And the girls, how shall I describe them, so sweet they are, so pretty in their fresh dresses, with downcast eyes of modesty, tempered with little side-glances. They laugh, too, as they go, and they talk, never forgetting the sacredness of the place, never forgetting the reverences due, kneeling always first as they come up to the great pagoda, but being of good courage, happy and contented. There are children, too, numbers and numbers of them, walking along, with their little hands clasping so tightly some bigger ones, very fearful lest they should be lost. They are as gay as butterflies in their dress, but their looks are very solemn. There is no solemnity like that of a little child; it takes all the world so very, very seriously, walking along with great eyes of wonder at all it sees about it.
They are all well dressed who come here; on a festival day even the poor can be dressed well. Pinks and reds are the prevailing colours, in checks, in stripes, mixed usually with white. These colours go best with their brown skins, and they are fondest of them. But there are other colours, too: there is silver and green embroidery, and there are shot-silks in purple and orange, and there is dark blue. All the jackets, or nearly all the jackets, are white with wide sleeves, showing the arm nearly up to the elbow. Each man has his turban very gay, while each girl has a bright handkerchief which she drapes as she likes upon her arm, or carries in her hand. Such a blaze of colour would not look well with us. Under our dull skies and with our sober lights it would be too bright; but here it is not so. Everything is tempered by the sun; it is so brilliant, this sunlight, such a golden flood pouring down and bathing the whole world, that these colours are only in keeping. Before them is the gold pagoda, and about them the red lacquer and dark-brown carving of the shrines.
You hear voices like the murmur of a summer sea, rising and falling, full of laughter low and sweet, and above is the music of the fairy bells.
Everything is in keeping—the shining pagoda and the gaily-dressed people, their voices and the bells, even the great bell far beyond, and all are so happy.
The feast lasts for seven days; but of these there are three that are greater, and of these, one, the day of the full moon, is the greatest of all. On that day the offerings will be most numerous, the crowd densest. Down below the pagoda are many temporary stalls built, where you can buy all sorts of fairings, from a baby's jointed doll to a new silk dress; and there are restaurants where you may obtain refreshments; for the pagoda is some way from the streets of the city, and on festival days refreshments are much wanted.
These stalls are always crowded with people buying and selling, or looking anxiously at the many pretty wares, unable, perhaps, to buy. The refreshments are usually very simple—rice and curry for supper, and for little refreshments between whiles there are sugar-cakes and vermicelli, and other little cates.
The crowd going up and down the steps is like a gorgeous-coloured flood, crested with white foam, flowing between the dragons of the gate; and on the platform the crowd is thicker than ever. All day the festival goes on—the praying, the offering of gifts, the burning of little candles before the shrines—until the sun sets across the open country far beyond in gold and crimson glory. But even then there is no pause, no darkness, for hardly has the sun's last bright shaft faded from the pagoda spire far above, while his streamers are still bright across the west, than there comes in the east a new radiance, so soft, so wonderful, it seems more beautiful than the dying day. Across the misty fields the moon is rising; first a crimson globe hung low among the trees, but rising fast, and as it rises growing whiter. Its light comes flooding down upon the earth, pure silver with very black shadows. Then the night breeze begins to blow, very softly, very gently, and the trees give out their odour to the night, which woos them so much more sweetly than the day, till the air is heavy with incense.
Behold, the pagoda has started into a new glory, for it is all hung about with little lamps, myriads of tiny cressets, and the facades of the shrines are lit up, too. The lamps are put in long rows or in circles, to fit the places they adorn. They are little earthenware jars full of cocoanut-oil, with a lip where is the wick. They burn very redly, and throw a red light about the platform, breaking the shadows that the moonlight throws and staining its whiteness.
In the streets, too, there are lamps—the houses are lined with them—and there are little pagodas and ships curiously designed in flame.
All the people come out to see the illuminations, just as they do with us at Christmas to see the shop-windows, and the streets are crowded with people going to and fro, laughing and talking. And there are dramatic entertainments going on, dances and marionette shows, all in the open air. The people are all so happy, they take their pleasure so pleasantly, that it is a delight to see them. You cannot help but be happy, too. The men joke and laugh, and you laugh, too; the children smile at you as they pass, and you must smile, too; can you help it? And to see the girls makes the heart glad within you. There is an infection from the good temper and the gaiety about you that is irresistible, even if you should want to resist it.
The festival goes on till very late. The moon is so bright that you forget how late it is, and only remember how beautiful it is all around. You are very loath to leave it, and so it is not till the moon itself is falling low down in the same path whither the sun went before her, it is not till the lamps are dying one by one and the children are yawning very sleepily, that the crowd disperses and the pagoda is at rest.
Such is a great feast at a great pagoda.
But whenever I think of a great feast, whenever the growing autumn moon tells me that the end of Lent is drawing nigh, it is not the great feast of the Shwe Dagon, nor of any other famous pagoda that comes into my mind, but something far different.
It was on a frontier long ago that there was the festival that I remember so well. The country there was very far away from all the big towns; the people were not civilized as those of Mandalay or of Rangoon; the pagoda was a very small one. There was no gilding upon it at all, and no shrines were about it; it stood alone, just a little white plastered pagoda, with a few trees near it, on a bare rice-field. There were a few villages about, dotted here and there in the swamp, and the people of these were all that came to our festival.
For long before the villages were preparing for it, saving a little money here, doing a little extra work there, so that they might be able to have presents ready for the monks, so that they might be able to subscribe to the lights, so that they would have a good dress in which they might appear.
The men did a little more work at the fields, bamboo-cutting in the forest, making baskets in the evening, and the women wove. All had to work very hard to have even a little margin; for there, although food—plain rice—was very cheap, all other things were very expensive. It was so far to bring them, and the roads were so bad. I remember that the only European things to be bought there then were matches and tinned milk, and copper money was not known. You paid a rupee, and took the change in rice or other commodities.
The excitement of the great day of the full moon began in the morning, about ten o'clock, with the offerings to the monks. Outside the village gate there was a piece of straight road, dry and open, and on each side of this, in rows, were the people with their gifts; mostly they were eatables. You see that it is very difficult to find any variety of things to give a monk; he is very strictly limited in the things he is allowed to receive. Garments, yellow garments, curtains to partition off corners of the monasteries and keep away the draughts, sacred books and eatables—that is nearly all. But eatables allow a very wide range. A monk may accept and eat any food—not drink, of course—provided he eat but the one big meal a day before noon; and so most of the offerings were eatables. Each donor knelt there upon the road with his or her offerings in a tray in front. There was rice cooked in all sorts of shapes, ordinary rice for eating with curry, and the sweet purple rice, cooked in bamboos and coming out in sticks. There were vegetables, too, of very many kinds, and sugar and cakes and oil and honey, and many other such things. There were a few, very few, books, for they are very hard to get, being all in manuscript; and there were one or two tapestry curtains; but there were heaps of flowers. I remember there was one girl whose whole offering was a few orchid sprays, and a little, very little, heap of common rice. She was so poor; her father and mother were dead, and she was not married. It was all she could give. She sat behind her little offering, as did all the donors. And my gift? Well, although an English official, I was not then very much richer than the people about me, so my gift must be small, too—a tin of biscuits, a tin or two of jam, a new pair of scissors. I did not sit behind them myself, but gave them to the headman to put with his offerings; for the monks were old friends of mine. Did I not live in one of their monasteries for over two months when we first came and camped there with a cavalry squadron? And if there is any merit in such little charity, as the Burmese say there is, why should I not gain it, too? The monks said my present was best of all, because it was so uncommon; and the biscuits, they said, though they did not taste of much while you were eating them, had a very pleasant after-taste that lasted a long time. They were like charity, maybe: that has a pleasant after-taste, too, they tell me.
When all the presents, with the donors behind them, dressed all in their best, were ready, the monks came. There were four monasteries near by, and the monks, perhaps in all thirty, old and young, monks and novices, came in one long procession, walking very slowly, with downcast eyes, between the rows of gifts and givers. They did not look at them at all. It is not proper for a monk to notice the gifts he receives; but schoolboys who came along behind attending on them, they saw and made remarks. Perhaps they saw the chance of some overflow of these good things coming their way. 'See,' one nudged the other; 'honey—what a lot! I can smell it, can't you?' And, 'My mother! what a lot of sweet rice. Who gave that? Oh, I see, old U Hman.' 'I wonder what's in that tin box?' remarked one as he passed my biscuits. 'I hope it's coming to our monastery, any way.'
Thus the monks passed, paying no sort of attention, while the people knelt to them; and when the procession reached the end of the line of offerings, it went on without stopping, across the fields, the monks of each monastery going to their own place; and the givers of presents rose up and followed them, each carrying his or her gifts. And so they went across the fields till each little procession was lost to sight.
That was all the ceremony for the day, but at dusk the illuminations began. The little pagoda in the fields was lighted up nearly to its top with concentric rings of lamps till it blazed like a pyramid of flame, seen far across the night. All the people came there, and placed little offerings of flowers at the foot of the pagoda, or added each his candle to the big illumination.
The house of the headman of the village was lit up with a few rows of lamps, and all the monasteries, too, were lit. There were no restaurants—everyone was at home, you see—but there were one or two little stalls, at which you could buy a cheroot, or even perhaps a cup of vermicelli; and there was a dance. It was only the village girls who had been taught, partly by their own mothers, partly by an old man, who knew something of the business. They did not dance very well, perhaps; they were none of them very beautiful; but what matter? We knew them all; they were our neighbours, the kinswomen of half the village; everyone liked to see them dance, to hear them sing; they were all young, and are not all young girls pretty? And amongst the audience were there not the girls' relations, their sisters, their lovers? would not that alone make the girls dance well, make the audience enthusiastic? And so, what with the illuminations, and the chat and laughter of friends, and the dance, we kept it up till very late; and we all went to bed happy and well pleased with each other, well pleased with ourselves. Can you imagine a more successful end than that?
To write about these festivals is so pleasant, it brings back so many delightful memories, that I could go on writing for long and long. But there is no use in doing so, as they are all very much alike, with little local differences depending on the enterprise of the inhabitants and the situation of the place. There might be boat-races, perhaps, on a festival day, or pony-races, or boxing. I have seen all these, if not at the festival at the end of Lent, at other festivals. I remember once I was going up the river on a festival night by the full moon, and we saw point after point crowned with lights upon the pagodas; and as we came near the great city we saw a new glory; for there was a boat anchored in mid-stream, and from this boat there dropped a stream of fire; myriads of little lamps burned on tiny rafts that drifted down the river in a golden band. There were every now and then bigger rafts, with figures made in light—boats and pagodas and monasteries. The lights heaved with the long swell of the great river, and bent to and fro like a great snake following the tides, until at length they died far away into the night.
I do not know what is the meaning of all these lights; I do not know that they have any inner meaning, only that the people are very glad, only that they greatly honour the great teacher who died so long ago, only that they are very fond of light and colour and laughter and all beautiful things.
But although these festivals often become also fairs, although they are the great centres for amusement, although the people look to them as their great pleasure of the year, it must not be forgotten that they are essentially religious feasts, holy days. Though there be no great ceremony of prayer, or of thanksgiving, no public joining in any religious ceremony, save, perhaps, the giving of alms to the monks, yet religion is the heart and soul of them. Their centre is the pagoda, their meaning is a religious meaning.
What if the people make merry, too, if they make their holy days into holidays, is that any harm? For their pleasures are very simple, very innocent; there is nothing that the moon, even the cold and distant moon, would blush to look upon. The people make merry because they are merry, because their religion is to them a very beautiful thing, not to be shunned or feared, but to be exalted to the eye of day, to be rejoiced in.
'Her cheek is more beautiful than the dawn, her eyes are deeper than the river pools; when she loosens her hair upon her shoulders, it is as night coming over the hills.'—Burmese Love-Song.
If you were to ask a Burman 'What is the position of women in Burma?' he would reply that he did not know what you meant. Women have no position, no fixed relation towards men beyond that fixed by the fact that women are women and men are men. They differ a great deal in many ways, so a Burman would say; men are better in some things, women are better in others; if they have a position, their relative superiority in certain things determines it. How else should it be determined?
If you say by religion, he laughs, and asks what religion has to do with such things? Religion is a culture of the soul; it is not concerned with the relationship of men and women. If you say by law, he says that law has no more to do with it than religion. In the eye of the law both are alike. 'You wouldn't have one law for a man and another for a woman?' he asks.
In the life of the Buddha nothing is said upon the subject. The great teacher never committed himself to an opinion as to whether men or women were the highest. He had men disciples, he had women disciples; he honoured both. Nowhere in any of his sayings can anything be found to show that he made any difference between them. That monks should be careful and avoid intercourse with women is merely the counterpart of the order that nuns should be careful in their intercourse with men. That man's greatest attraction is woman does not infer wickedness in woman; that woman's greatest attraction is man does not show that man is a devil. Wickedness is a thing of your own heart. If he could be sure that his desire towards women was dead, a monk might see them as much as he liked. The desire is the enemy, not the woman; therefore a woman is not damned because by her man is often tempted to evil; therefore a woman is not praised because by her a man may be led to better thoughts. She is but the outer and unconscious influence.
If, for instance, you cannot see a precipice without wishing to throw yourself down, you blame not the precipice, but your giddiness; and if you are wise you avoid precipices in future. You do not rail against steep places because you have a bad circulation. So it is with women: you should not contemn women because they rouse a devil in man.
And it is the same with man. Men and women are alike subject to the eternal laws. And they are alike subject to the laws of man; in no material points, hardly even in minor points, does the law discriminate against women.
The law as regards marriage and inheritance and divorce will come each in its own place. It is curiously the same both for the man and the woman.
The criminal law was the same for both; I have tried to find any difference, and this is all I have found: A woman's life was less valuable than a man's. The price of the body, as it is called, of a woman was less than that of a man. If a woman were accidentally killed, less compensation had to be paid than for a man. I asked a Burman about this once.
'Why is this difference?' I said. 'Why does the law discriminate?'
'It isn't the law,' he said, 'it is a fact. A woman is worth less than a man in that way. A maidservant can be hired for less than a manservant, a daughter can claim less than a son. They cannot do so much work; they are not so strong. If they had been worth more, the law would have been the other way; of course they are worth less.'
And so this sole discrimination is a fact, not dogma. It is a fact, no doubt, everywhere. No one would deny it. The pecuniary value of a woman is less than that of a man. As to the soul's value, that is not a question of law, which confines itself to material affairs. But I suppose all laws have been framed out of the necessities of mankind. It was the incessant fighting during the times when our laws grew slowly into shape, the necessity of not allowing the possession of land, and the armed wealth that land gave, to fall into the weaker hands of women, that led to our laws of inheritance.
Laws then were governed by the necessity of war, of subjecting everything else to the ability to fight. Consequently, as women were not such good fighters as men, they went to the wall. But feudalism never obtained at all in Burma. What fighting they did was far less severe than that of our ancestors, was not the dominant factor in the position, and consequently woman did not suffer.
She has thus been given the inestimable boon of freedom. Freedom from sacerdotal dogma, from secular law, she has always had.
And so, in order to preserve the life of the people, it has never been necessary to pass laws treating woman unfairly as regards inheritance; and as religion has left her free to find her own position, so has the law of the land.
And yet the Burman man has a confirmed opinion that he is better than a woman, that men are on the whole superior as a sex to women. 'We may be inferior in some ways,' he will tell you. 'A woman may steal a march on us here and there, but in the long-run the man will always win. Women have no patience.'
I have heard this said over and over again, even by women, that they have less patience than a man. We have often supposed differently. Some Burmans have even supposed that a woman must be reincarnated as a man to gain a step in holiness. I do not mean that they think men are always better than women, but that the best men are far better than the best women, and there are many more of them. However all this may be, it is only an opinion. Neither in their law, nor in their religion, nor—what is far more important—in their daily life, do they acknowledge any inferiority in women beyond those patent weaknesses of body that are, perhaps, more differences than inferiorities.
And so she has always had fair-play, from religion, from law, and from her fellow man and woman.
She has been bound by no ties, she has had perfect freedom to make for herself just such a life as she thinks best fitted for her. She has had no frozen ideals of a long dead past held up to her as eternal copies. She has been allowed to change as her world changed, and she has lived in a very real world—a world of stern facts, not fancies. You see, she has had to fight her own way; for the same laws that made woman lower than man in Europe compensated her to a certain extent by protection and guidance. In Burma she has been neither confined nor guided. In Europe and India for very long the idea was to make woman a hot-house plant, to see that no rough winds struck her, that no injuries overtook her. In Burma she has had to look out for herself: she has had freedom to come to grief as well as to come to strength. You see, all such laws cut both ways. Freedom to do ill must accompany freedom to do well. You cannot have one without the other. The Burmese woman has had both. Ideals act for good as well as for evil; if they cramp all progress, they nevertheless tend to the sustentation of a certain level of thought. She has had none. Whatever she is, she has made herself, finding under the varying circumstances of life what is the best for her; and as her surroundings change, so will she. What she was a thousand years ago I do not care, what she may be a thousand years hence I do not know; it is of what she is to-day that I have tried to know and write.
Children in Burma have, I think, a very good time when they are young. Parentage in Burma has never degenerated into a sort of slavery. It has never been supposed that gaiety and goodness are opposed. And so they grow up little merry naked things, sprawling in the dust of the gardens, sleeping in the sun with their arms round the village dogs, very sedate, very humorous, very rarely crying. Boys and girls when they are babies grow up together, but with the schooldays comes a division. All the boys go to school at the monastery without the walls, and there learn in noisy fashion their arithmetic, letters, and other useful knowledge. But little girls have nowhere to go. They cannot go to the monasteries, these are for boys alone, and the nunneries are very scarce. For twenty monasteries there is not one nunnery. Women do not seem to care to learn to become nuns as men do to become monks. Why this is so I cannot tell, but there is no doubt of the fact. And so there are no schools for girls as there are for boys, and consequently the girls are not well educated as a rule. In great towns there are, of course, regular schools for girls, generally for girls and boys together; but in the villages these very seldom exist. The girls may learn from their mothers how to read and write, but most of them cannot do so. It is an exception in country places to find a girl who can read, as it is to find a boy who cannot. If there were more nunneries, there would be more education among the women; here is cause and effect. But there are not, so the little girls work instead. While their brothers are in the monasteries, the girls are learning to weave and herd cattle, drawing water, and collecting firewood. They begin very young at this work, but it is very light; they are never overworked, and so it does them no harm usually, but good.
The daughters of better-class people, such as merchants, and clerks, and advocates, do not, of course, work at field labour. They usually learn to read and write at home, and they weave, and many will draw water. For to draw water is to go to the well, and the well is the great meeting-place of the village. As they fill their jars they lean over the curb and talk, and it is here that is told the latest news, the latest flirtation, the little scandal of the place. Very few men or boys come for water; carrying is not their duty, and there is a proper place for flirtation. So the girls have the well almost to themselves.
Almost every girl can weave. In many houses there are looms where the girls weave their dresses and those of their parents; and many girls have stalls in the bazaar. Of this I will speak later. Other duties are the husking of rice and the making of cheroots. Of course, in richer households there will be servants to do all this; but even in them the daughter will frequently weave either for herself or her parents. Almost every girl will do something, if only to pass the time.
You see, they have no accomplishments. They do not sing, nor play, nor paint. It must never be forgotten that their civilization is relatively a thousand years behind ours. Accomplishments are part of the polish that a civilization gives, and this they have not yet reached. Accomplishments are also the means to fill up time otherwise unoccupied; but very few Burmese girls have any time on their hands. There is no leisured class, and there are very few girls who have not to help, in one way or another, at the upkeep of the household.
Mr. Rudyard Kipling tells of an astonishing young lady who played the banjo. He has been more fortunate than myself, for I have never had such good luck. They have no accomplishments at all. Housekeeping they have not very much of. You see, houses are small, and households also are small; there is very little furniture; and as the cooking is all the same, there is not much to learn in that way. I fear, too, that their houses could not compete as models of neatness with any other nation. Tidiness is one of the last gifts of civilization. We now pride ourselves on our order; we forget how very recent an accomplishment it is. To them it will come with the other gifts of age, for it must never be forgotten that they are a very young people—only children, big children—learning very slowly the lessons of experience and knowledge.
When they are between eight and fourteen years of age the boys become monks for a time, as every boy must, and they have a great festival at their entrance into the monastery. Girls do not enter nunneries, but they, too, have a great feast in their honour. They have their ears bored. It is a festival for a girl of great importance, this ear-boring, and, according to the wealth of the parents, it is accompanied by pwes and other rejoicings.
A little girl, the daughter of a shopkeeper here in this town, had her ears bored the other day, and there were great rejoicings. There was a pwe open to all for three nights, and there were great quantities of food, and sweets, and many presents given away, and on the last night the river was illuminated. There was a boat anchored in mid-stream, and from this were launched myriads of tiny rafts, each with a little lamp on board. The lamps gleamed bright with golden light as they drifted on the bosom of the great water, a moving line of living fire. There were little boats, too, with the outlines marked with lamps, and there were pagodas and miniature houses all floating, floating down the river, till, in far distance by the promontory, the lamps flickered out one by one, and the river fell asleep again.
'There is only one great festival in a girl's life,' a woman told me. 'We try to make it as good as we can. Boys have many festivals, girls have but one. It is only just that it should be good.'
And so they grow up very quiet, very sedate, looking on the world about them with very clear eyes. It is strange, talking to Burmese girls, to see how much they know and understand of the world about them. It is to them no great mystery, full of unimaginable good and evil, but a world that they are learning to understand, and where good and evil are never unmixed. Men are to them neither angels nor devils, but just men, and so the world does not hold for them the disappointments, the disillusionings, that await those who do not know. They have their dreams—who shall doubt it?—dreams of him who shall love them, whom they shall love, who shall make life one great glory to them; but their dreams are dreams that can come true. They do not frame to themselves ideals out of their own ignorance and imagine these to be good, but they keep their eyes wide open to the far more beautiful realities that are around them every day. They know that a living lover is greater, and truer, and better than any ideal of a girl's dream. They live in a real world, and they know that it is good.
In time the lover comes. There is a delightful custom all through Burma, an institution, in fact, called 'courting-time.' It is from nine till ten o'clock, more especially on moonlight nights, those wonderful tropic nights, when the whole world lies in a silver dream, when the little wandering airs that touch your cheek like a caress are heavy with the scent of flowers, and your heart comes into your throat for the very beauty of life.
There is in front of every house a veranda, raised perhaps three feet from the ground, and there the girl will sit in the shadow of the eaves, sometimes with a friend, but usually alone; and her suitors will come and stand by the veranda, and talk softly in little broken sentences, as lovers do. There maybe be many young men come, one by one, if they mean business, with a friend if it be merely a visit of courtesy. And the girl will receive them all, and will talk to them all; will laugh with a little humorous knowledge of each man's peculiarities; and she may give them cheroots, of her own making; and, for one perhaps, for one, she will light the cheroot herself first, and thus kiss him by proxy.
And is the girl alone? Well, yes. To all intents and purposes she is alone; but there is always someone near, someone within call, for the veranda is free to all. She cannot tell who may come, and some men, as we know, are but wolves in sheep's clothing. Usually marriages are arranged by the parents. Girls are not very different here to elsewhere; they are very biddable, and ready to do what their mothers tell them, ready to believe that it is the best. And so if a lad comes wooing, and can gain the mother's ear, he can usually win the girl's affection, too; but I think there are more exceptions here than elsewhere. Girls are freer; they fall in love of their own accord oftener than elsewhere; they are very impulsive, full of passion. Love is a very serious matter, and they are not trained in self-restraint.
There are very many romances played out every day in the dusk beside the well, in the deep shadows of the palm-groves, in the luminous nights by the river shore—romances that end sometimes well, sometimes in terrible tragedies. For they are a very passionate people; the language is full of little love-songs, songs of a man to a girl, of a girl to a man. 'No girl,' a woman once told me, 'no good, quiet girl would tell a man she loved him first.' It may be so; if this be true, I fear there are many girls here who are not good and quiet. How many romances have I not seen in which the wooing began with the girl, with a little note perhaps, with a flower, with a message sent by someone whom she could trust! Of course many of these turned out well. Parents are good to their children, and if they can, they will give their daughter the husband of her choice. They remember what youth is—nay, they themselves never grow old, I think; they never forget what once was to them now is to their children. So if it be possible all may yet go well. Social differences are not so great as with us, and the barrier is easily overcome. I have often known servants in a house marry the daughters, and be taken into the family; but, of course, sometimes things do not go so smoothly. And then? Well, then there is usually an elopement, and a ten days' scandal; and sometimes, too, there is an elopement for no reason at all save that hot youth cannot abide the necessary delay.
For life is short, and though to-day be to us, who can tell for the morrow? During the full moon there is no night, only a change to silver light from golden; and the forest is full of delight. There are wood-cutters' huts in the ravines where the water falls, soft beds of torn bracken and fragrant grasses where great trees make a shelter from the heat; and for food, that is easily arranged. A basket of rice with a little salt-fish and spices is easily hidden in a favourable place. You only want a jar to cook it, and there is enough for two for a week; or it is brought day by day by some trusted friend to a place previously agreed upon.
All up and down the forest there are flowers for her hair, scarlet dak blossoms and orchid sprays and jasmine stars; and for occupation through the hours each has a new world to explore full of wonderful undreamt-of discoveries, lit with new light and mysterious with roseate shadows, a world of 'beautiful things made new' for those forest children. So that when the confidante, an aunt maybe or a sister, meets them by the sacred fig-tree on the hill, and tells them that all difficulties are removed, and their friends called together for the marriage, can you wonder that it is not without regret that they fare forth from that enchanted land to ordinary life again?
It is, as I have said, not always the man who is the proposer of the flight. Nay, I think indeed that it is usually the girl. 'Men have more patience.'
I had a Burmese servant, a boy, who may have been twenty, and he had been with me a year, and was beginning to be really useful. He had at last grasped the idea that electro-plate should not be cleaned with monkey-brand soap, and he could be trusted not to put up rifle cartridges for use with a double-barrelled gun; and he chose this time to fall in love with the daughter of the headman of a certain village where I was in camp.
He had good excuse, for she was a delicious little maiden with great coils of hair, and the voice of a wood-pigeon cooing in the forest, and she was very fond of him, without a doubt.
So one evening he came to me and said that he must leave me—that he wanted to get married, and could not possibly delay. Then I spoke to him with all that depth of wisdom we are so ready to display for the benefit of others. I pointed out to him that he was much too young, that she was much too young also—she was not eighteen—and that there was absolutely nothing for them to marry on. I further pointed out how ungrateful it would be of him to leave me; that he had been paid regularly for a year, and that it was not right that now, when he was at last able to do something besides destroy my property, he should go away.
The boy listened to all I had to say, and agreed with it all, and made the most fervent and sincere promise to be wise; and he went away after dinner to see the girl and tell her, and when I awoke in the morning my other servants told me the boy had not returned.
Shortly afterwards the headman came to say that his daughter had also disappeared. They had fled, those two, into the forest, and for a week we heard nothing. At last one evening, as I sat under the great fig-tree by my tent, there came to me the mother of the girl, and she sat down before me, and said she had something of great importance to impart: and this was that all had been arranged between the families, who had found work for the boy whereby he might maintain himself and his wife, and the marriage was arranged. But the boy would not return as long as I was in camp there, for he was bitterly ashamed of his broken vows and afraid to meet my anger. And so the mother begged me to go away as soon as I could, that the young couple might return. I explained that I was not angry at all, that the boy could return without any fear; on the contrary, that I should be pleased to see him and his wife. And, at the old lady's request, I wrote a Burmese letter to that effect, and she went away delighted.
They must have been in hiding close by, for it was early next morning that the boy came into my tent alone and very much abashed, and it was some little time before he could recover himself and talk freely as he would before, for he was greatly ashamed of himself.
But, after all, could he help it?
If you can imagine the tropic night, and the boy, full of high resolve, passing up the village street, now half asleep, and the girl, with shining eyes, coming to him out of the hibiscus shadows, and whispering in his ear words—words that I need not say—if you imagine all that, you will understand how it was that I lost my servant.
They both came to see me later on in the day after the marriage, and there was no bashfulness about either of them then. They came hand-in-hand, with the girl's father and mother and some friends, and she told me it was all her fault: she could not wait.
'Perhaps,' she said, with a little laugh and a side-glance at her husband—'perhaps, if he had gone with the thakin to Rangoon, he might have fallen in love with someone there and forgotten me; for I know they are very pretty, those Rangoon ladies, and of better manners than I, who am but a jungle girl.'
And when I asked her what it was like in the forest, she said it was the most beautiful place in all the world.
Things do not always go so well. Parents may be obdurate, and flight be impossible; or even her love may not be returned, and then terrible things happen. I have held, not once nor twice alone, inquests over the bodies, the fair, innocent bodies, of quite young girls who died for love. Only that, because their love was unreturned; and so the sore little heart turned in her trouble to the great river, and gave herself and her hot despair to the cold forgetfulness of its waters.
They love so greatly that they cannot face a world where love is not. All the country is full of the romance of love—of love passionate and great as woman has ever felt. It seems to me here that woman has something of the passions of man, not only the enduring affection of a woman, but the hot love and daring of a man. It is part of their heritage, perhaps, as a people in their youth. One sees so much of it, hears so much of it, here. I have seen a girl in man's attire killed in a surprise attack upon an insurgent camp. She had followed her outlawed lover there, and in the melee she caught up sword and gun to fight by his side, and was cut down through neck and shoulder; for no one could tell in the early dawn that it was a girl.
She died about an hour afterwards, and though I have seen many sorrowful things in many lands, in war and out of it, the memory of that dying girl, held up by one of the mounted police, sobbing out her life beneath the wild forest shadow, with no one of her sex, no one of her kin to help her, comes back to me as one of the saddest and strangest.
Her lover was killed in action some time later fighting against us, and he died as a brave man should, his face to his enemy. He played his game, he lost, and paid; but the girl?
I have seen and heard so much of this love of women and of its tragedies. Perhaps it is that to us it is usually the tragedies that are best remembered. Happiness is void of interest. And this love may be, after all, a good thing. But I do not know. Sometimes I think they would be happier if they could love less, if they could take love more quietly, more as a matter of course, as something that has to be gone through, as part of a life's training; not as a thing that swallows up all life and death and eternity in one passion.
In Burmese the love-songs are in a short, sweet rhythm, full of quaint conceits and word-music. I cannot put them into English verse, or give the flow of the originals in a translation. It always seems to me that Don Quixote was right when he said that a translation was like the wrong side of an embroidered cloth, giving the design without the beauty. But even in the plain, rough outline of a translation there is beauty here, I think:
From a Man to a Girl.
The moon wooed the lotus in the night, the lotus was wooed by the moon, and my sweetheart is their child. The blossom opened in the night, and she came forth; the petals moved, and she was born.