Poverty-stricken Buddhists devote time, money to rebuilding shrines


YANGON, Myanmar -- Somerset Maugham described the great golden spire of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, towering over the city, as "a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul."

Few who have seen it could fault him for hyperbole.

Walt Disney might have tried to create something so exotic, so fantastically mystical and serene. He might have tried.

But Shwe Dagon exceeds even Disney's wildest dreams, dominating Yangon as it dominates the psyche of those in Myanmar, the most sacred shrine in what is widely regarded as the world's most devoutly Buddhist country.

And with Myanmar suffering, isolated and impoverished, at the hands of one of the world's most corrupt and repressive regimes, Buddhism today has become an even more dominant force in everyday life.

That is why the pagoda's famous spire, "glistening with its gold," as Maugham wrote in 1930, is now covered with bamboo scaffolding.

The Shwe Dagon Pagoda is being re-gilded, "robe" by tiny "robe" of gold leaf, donated by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens whose salaries are often less than $10 a month.

"For Buddhist people," a young Myanmar woman explained, "it is the heart, or the glory. We want our Shwe Dagon to shine."

Indeed, there seems to be a strong correlation between Myanmar's "misery index" and its Buddhist devotion.

"As the country appears to have become more impoverished, both pagodas and spirit shrines have become more resplendent," Sarah M. Bekker, a U.S. authority on Burmese Buddhism, wrote in an essay published three years ago. "It is as if these are the only worthwhile things in which to invest time and money."

Her observation seems even more trenchant today, now that the hated Burmese dictatorship has snuffed out the country's democracy movement.

Thousands of demonstrators have been gunned down in the streets. Elections were voided in 1990, after the junta's overwhelming defeat. Hundreds of political opponents have been imprisoned, including 1991 Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

And everywhere, in a country where the roads crumble and the water isn't fit to drink, the pagodas are being feverishly improved.

In the endless Buddhist cycle of existence, where fate is a matter of karma, the sum of good and bad deeds from previous lives, nothing builds merit faster than donating gold to the local pagoda.

"That is what people do with their time now," a Yangon resident said. "They retreat into themselves and find comfort in life around the pagoda. They worry about their next life -- or lives." This one, for many, is pretty much a lost cause.

Gen. Saw Maung is pagoda-hopping, his fleet of helicopters parked, just now, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Pagan.

Rumor has it that the general consulted a fortuneteller -- as many Burmese regularly do -- and was told that he needed to visit 1,000 pagodas and touch the hands of 10,000 Buddhists to balance his merits.

Luckily for him, 2,217 of some 13,000 temples and pagodas remain standing in Pagan, the only sight in Myanmar -- if not all of Asia -- that is arguably more spectacular than Shwe Dagon itself.

Pagan is the city where Theravada Buddhism flourished for more than 200 years until Kublai Khan's soldiers overran it in 1287. Even today, the spires of 12th- and 13th-century pagodas still lead the eye to the horizon in all directions on a vast, semiarid plain.

What better place, then, for the general to play to people's Buddhist instincts? Especially now that the junta has made Buddhism safe for dictatorship, in a manner of speaking, by cleaning out pagodas and imprisoning dozens of politically active Buddhist monks.

The sad fact is that with the monks in jail and the Buddhist establishment cowed, like the rest of the population, people's Buddhist instincts basically play right into the junta's hands.

Theravada Buddhism is a conservative interpretation of Buddhist teachings, placing great emphasis on individual behavior as the principal path to nirvana, the cessation of desire.

Buddhists believe that people whose good deeds outweigh their bad deeds experience rebirth as humans, occupying 27 planes of existence approaching nirvana; those whose don't may occupy the animal world or worse, the worlds of demons and ghosts.

"We accept in this life that we have been pressed like this," a Myanmar woman said, referring to the poverty and repression in her country, "because of karma in a previous life. When things go wrong in America, you demand that President Bush make changes, but we don't make demands like that. We have karma."

When the junta forced all 6,000 people in Pagan out of their homes three years ago and relocated them four miles away, all were unhappy, but only six refused -- and they went to prison for six months.

One Pagan resident, a professional in his early 30s, explained over a dinner of Burmese curries and rice that the regime justified the forced relocation by saying it wanted to create an archaeological zone.

"But I don't think they wanted the people of Pagan speaking with the tourists," he said. "The people of Pagan speak very good English and are very friendly with the tourists."

There isn't much demand these days from the tourists, 20 or 30 of whom straggle in daily on official government tours to a city that could be drawing thousands.

"Even if we try to make revolution, they have so many guns and spies everywhere," the young professional said, explaining that it is safer for people to go on contributing "about a half or a quarter of their money" for good works on Pagan's wealth of ancient pagodas.


Thirty-foot "leogryphes," mythological half-lions, half-griffin beasts, guard the south entrance to Shwe Dagon, reminding all who enter to remove their shoes.

Vendors along the entryway peddle the mundane and the magnificent -- garden shears and golden Buddhas, bronze gongs and bamboo wind chimes, incense and flowers.

Then, almost without warning, the east shrine hall appears at the end of the long, gradual ascent like a vision, its four huge, golden Buddhas gazing down serenely at several dozen visitors, deep in genuflection.

The visitors include three young girls, their faces painted in thanaka bark; young Buddhist novices, with shaved heads, in burgundy robes; and college boys wearing rock T-shirts and traditional sarongs.

And always, on their right, the great spire, so huge and majestic that it almost doesn't seem real, even now, covered in scaffolding.

"After this, you can say you've been to Burma," a young woman said. "Without a visit to Shwe Dagon, you cannot."

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