Observe the lunchtime procession at Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery in Bago to gain a better understanding of Burmese Buddhism.
Here at DIY Travel HQ I was inspired to learn more about Buddhism in Myanmar from a visit to the Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery.
The common Burmese approach to Buddhism is centred upon striving for a better future, founded on the concept of samsara or the “cycle of existence”, the continual process of life and death through rebirth and reincarnation within the six Buddhist realms.
Acts of spiritual merit that can help worshippers attain enlightenment include:
- Feeding monks
- Giving donations to temples
- Affixing gold-leaf layers to sacred images and objects
- Taking part in regular worship at the local paya
Lay Buddhists subscribe to the Five Precepts, though they are more rules of guidance than imperatives in support of practice:
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given
- I undertake the training rule to avoid sexual misconduct
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech
- I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness
Novice monks, on the other hand, follow Ten Precepts:
- Refrain from killing living creatures.
- Refrain from stealing.
- Refrain from unchastity (sensuality, sexuality, lust).
- Refrain from incorrect speech.
- Refrain from taking intoxicants.
- Refrain from taking food at inappropriate times (after noon).
- Refrain from singing, dancing, playing music or attending entertainment programs (performances).
- Refrain from wearing perfume, cosmetics and garland (decorative accessories).
- Refrain from sitting on high chairs and sleeping on luxurious, soft beds.
- Refrain from accepting money.
And a fully ordained monk is governed by the 227 rules of the Pratimoksa.
Buddhism is a serious, yet flexible, practice in Myanmar, with many variables and adaptations, especially in the 21st century. For example, males can enter and leave the monastery as often, and at any time, as they wish.
The Burmese New Year, or Thingyan Water Festival, is a popular period, where many take up residency for a few days, and then return to their ordinary lives. On the other hand, some stay with the monastery for life.
In modern Myanmar, it’s all more or less the same, and monks and nuns of all standing are the most revered members of society.
Kha Khat Wain Kyaung Monastery
A typical daily schedule in a monastery:
- 4:00am – Wake-up
- 4:30am – Meditation, Chanting, Prayers
- 5:00am – Breakfast
- 6:00am – Daily Round of Alms
- 7:30am – Bathing, Chores, Study, Meditation, Free Time
- 11:00am – Lunch
- 12:00noon – Free time
- 1:30pm – Study
- 3:00pm – Bathing, Chores, Study, Meditation, Free Time
- 8:00pm – Bed
With the tourist hordes, cameras and smartphones, the lunchtime procession is as much like feeding time at a zoo as it is like an exhibition of Burmese Buddhism.
It is an exhibition of Buddhism’s reciprocal relationships between monks and disciples:
- monks depend on offerings for physical survival & worshippers need blessings for spiritual nourishment
- visitors donate food and goods and in return are free to take photos and wander the grounds
It’s capitalism vs socialism, consumerism against minimalism, an awkward liaison of which both sides are conscious, willing participants.
Still, just like the afternoon study session, observing the lunch time process is captivating.
It officially begins with the gong of a bell at 11:00am, but tourists arrive much earlier in preparation and anticipation.
There are front-row positions to hold and food stations to organize, gifts to allocate and rice to keep warm.
At 11:00am, the procession commences.
In single-file silence, monks bearing alms bowls slowly and steadily make their way to the dining hall.
Along the way, they pass laypeople in line, opening their containers to accept offerings, commonly of rice, sweets, rice, face towels, toothbrushes and red packets of money.
With approximately 500 monks residing at Kha Khat Wain Kyaung, the lunchtime march can take over half an hour…
… But always in time for all to finish their meal before the midday deadline.
At last, the stage is set and the food looks good.
Lunch is consumed in silence and swiftness.
There is no small talk across the table or pausing in between mouthfuls.
Burmese Buddhism in Myanmar Today
After noon, monks are not permitted to eat, until the breaking of dawn the next day.
However, they can freely consume liquids without any solids, such as water, tea and sweets.
Monks eat what is offered to them. Particularly for smaller monasteries, their main meal is often collected on alms rounds where they present themselves to the lay community and accept whatever is given.
In fact, customarily, all of a monk’s possessions, not just food, must come from the lay community.
In the past, these were no more than a razor, cup, water filter, umbrella and alms bowl.
These days, monks still live modestly, but with more personal effects and freedom.
Indeed, in modern Myanmar, monkhood is becoming increasingly hard to generalize.
Some monks continue to lead traditional lifestyles, either due to tighter discipline as a novice or by choice as a fully ordained monk. They follow strict schedules, eat vegetarian, live mostly collectively or in solitude and possess few belongings.
A growing number, on the other hand, have adapted to current times, socializing inside and outside the monastery, studying and speaking English, eating meat, fish, fast-food and Western snacks. They own or have access to books, televisions, computers and smartphones. Many monks have no responsibilities at the monastery other than study and prayer, and are free to come and go as they like.
Monks have money and spend it freely. I have spent time with monks that have insisted on paying for my transport fares, entrance fees, food and drinks.
Along with meal times, one thing that has remained consistent is the red robe. Upon ordination a monk receives a set of three: lower, outer and inner robes.
Bright red is typically worn by novices under 15, with the darker hue reserved for older, fully-ordained members. This is in contrast to Sri Lanka, Thailand and Laos, where monks wear saffron-coloured robes.
In the tropical heat and humidity of Myanmar, it is perhaps fitting that monks carry umbrella’s for coverage – in Burmese Buddhism, one hat doesn’t fit all.
That’s me with my new monk friends I met at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon who then invited me to visit their families!
Know Before You Go
Location: Kha Khat Wain Kyaung monastery is located just outside the city centre of Bago but still within walking distance.
Lunchtime Procession: Starts at 11:00 am every morning.
Entrance Fee: Free
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*** The Final Word – The lunchtime procession is one of many sides to Burmese Buddhism. Don’t miss the chance to observe & understand it ***
Have you seen the lunchtime procession in any other Buddhist countries?
Super easy DIY travel around city centres
Visited in June 2014