A tiny bell tinkled in the light whisper of wind outside the inner temple, the faint music audible inside the small prayer room despite the crush of bodies kneeling prostrate in front of the gilt Buddha. After paying my respects to Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma inside the room, I continued circling the tall zedi, the Burmese word for stupa. My friend’s young daughter, M, instructed my niece Ana on Buddhist history and prayer rituals. They bowed their heads together, the sounds of their low murmurs contained to their tiny circle of instruction.
I peered at the carved creatures adorning the outside of the temple, and it struck me I how much Buddhism and spirituality is a consistent and daily part of Burmese life. In fact, in terms of ceremonies, merit-making activities, and donations, Burma ranks as the most religious Buddhist country in the world according to scholars who research these things. Myths, animism, and spirituality form the religious core of Myanmar and none of my pre-traveling research prepared me for the deeply spiritual side of daily life in Burma and their faithful fastidiousness.
More than 90 percent of the Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism, a fact common in this region of the world since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka report similarly high percentages of Buddhism. Burmese society differs a bit though because they embrace the merit-making tenant of Buddhism. Meaning the religious engage in good deeds, offerings, and charity work to build merit on their path toward enlightenment…a task is not undertaken lightly.
Religion devotion suffuses the country and is the most obvious layer of spirituality in Burma. But when I looked closer at the temples and shrines, Buddha is but one part to their spirituality. Spirit worship and beliefs that pre-date Buddhism are still alive and fully integrated into modern Buddhist worship, as evidenced by the mythical figures and twisted faces of part-animal creatures standing guard on every temple, in street-side shrines, and throughout the countryside.
Ana and I wandered the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, examining the odd additions to seemingly Buddhist temples. Why are there twisted images of strange creatures? Who are those upright people guarding the temple high at the top of Mt. Popa?
For me it came down to why? Why are these images here? I have long noticed but never researched the many Spirit Houses outside businesses, shops, and houses in Thailand.
Well, it comes from the same, basic and ancient animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism, Christianity, and the majority of the world religions. And it’s funny, I have spent nearly a year in Thailand over the past two years, and yet, until Ana and I traveled through Burma and saw the fervent devotion, it hadn’t occurred to me to look more closely.
In Burma, these statues, and animals on the temple are Nat, which are at their simplest form spirits. The Burmese believe in 37 different primary Nat, while Lower Nat are regionally influence, and often, only a small community worships that one spirit. The stories behind each Nat are fascinating and remind me of the Catholic Saints I learned about in youth. And, that’s likely a bit controversial for any strong Catholics, but the Nat all have a human story behind them—a person who lived and died (often violently) but is ultimately appeased for protection through worship and honor.
There is a King of the Nat, Thagyamin, who is based on of Indra, a Hindu deity. Then, the Nat descend from there with spirits to protect the mountains, forests, trees. The Nat cover every aspect of human life: hearth, animals, crops, safety. The animist beliefs integrate into daily worship for many rural Burmese, as well as the various ethnic groups.
Then you take those basic but seemingly separate Nat concepts, and mix in the Nāga serpent spirits and you have the twined and headed snakes and dragons guarding the entrances to temples complexes throughout Southeast Asia, including the ancient temples of Siem Reap.
And to complete the picture, the animist beliefs spawned a rich culture full of myth and folklore that hasn’t made it outside Burma much in the last century because of the country’s rocky politics. Stories passed to children in Burma explain why crows are black (Ana and I read this one to get a sense for their myth culture), and Burmese folklore founded the country’s creative comic characters rivaling the marvel superheroes with their powers and lessons in humanity.
Myth, history, and religion intertwine in modern Myanmar in an odd fusion I’ve only seen echoed perhaps in the spiritual Hindu-Balinese culture in Bali, Indonesia.
Mount Popa, near Bagan in Burma, is a pilgrimage site for the Burmese, and my friends and their extended family opened up their days and took Ana and me along on their journey through Bagan’s crumbling ruins, golden stupas, and mountain-side temples. After passing nearly an hour at the mountain top temple, our group reconvened near a bright golden zedi. We discussed Buddhism, spirituality, and life. Then, when we each murmured our last prayers, the thin plumes of offered incense delicately dancing into the air, I grabbed Ana’s hand for the long descent back to ground level.
I took one last look at the faded green mountains and crafty monkeys cagily watching us walk; how easy it once was for me to believe the story of the world murmured to me in my cradle, but through traveling, I have listened to so many tales. So many gods, goddesses, and deities. Cultures full o f myths, storytellers, and history. The combination and commonalities across all the cultures — Burmese, American, Balinese — it continually changes shape the more I learn and see of this beautiful world.