A BUDDHIST CHILDHOOD
The arcadia that is Sagaing
The motor launch skimmed over the
wide expanse of foaming waters of the Ayeyawady River. The city of Mandalay
faded away in the distance. I turned my gaze towards the range of wooded hills
with golden and white pagodas embosomed high in tufted trees. I could see
turrets of the colonnaded stair-ways among the thick growth of neem trees. I
was beside myself with excitement, for there was so much to see. All around the
launch small flat-bottomed boats flitted over the surging waters like birds;
and "birds" they are called in Myanmar. The prow was painted to represent the
beak of a bird. I nestled against my grandfather, whose patient replies could
not keep pace with my eager question.
The pagoda-crested hills loomed closer. Ba Ba
Gyi, for this was how I called my grandfather, made me sit down and took my
palms in his, I knew exactly what I should do. I put my palms together like a
lotus bud and raised them to my forehead; and directing my gaze to the pagoda
on the hills, I recited:
I take refuge in the Buddha,
I take refuge in the Dhamma,
I take refuge in the Sangha.
Ba Ba Gyi smiled and said "well done". This
ritual of saying prayers as we came nearer our home town was a happy prologue
to the glorious days I was going to spend with my grand-parents.
My maternal grandfather lived in Sagaing, a
large town in central Myanmar. An old city of monarchical days, she lies on the
bank of the Ayeyawady River, opposite the city of Mandalay, the last seat of
the Myanmar Kings. My happiest memories are associated with Sagaing, where my
parents stayed whenever my father managed to get a long leave from the police
force in which he was serving as an officer. Whenever we came up there Ba Ba
Gyi came and met the family at Mandalay, from where we took the ferry launch.
It was decades before the handsome Inwa Bridge, which now joins the two towns
Life at Ba Ba Gyi's place was quiet, peaceful
and leisurely, being far from the busy streets. The house was an old-fashioned
rambling affair built of teak and pyinkadoe, 'Myanma steel, timber,' and
the roof was wagut, bamboo slats woven like thatch, which gave the whole
house a cool air-conditioned effect. Ba Ba Gyi disdained the foreign-made
corrugated iron roofing as unsuitable for the hot dry Upper Myanmar climate.
The sight of the dear old home filled me with happiness and I fell into the
arms of my May May Gyi (Grandmother) waiting for us at the gate.
The next morning, I lay on my bed gazing at the
criss-cross pattern of bamboo slats and counted the tiny squares and triangular
triangles as the first light of dawn, stole into the room. I dozed off again
until Ba Ba Gyi's mellow voice reciting Pali prayer texts brought me back to
greet the days. I felt happy and secure, knowing that Ba Ba Gyi's recitations
would drive away the evil spirits and bring in good spirits to bless the home.
As Ba Ba Gyi went on reciting, I looked at the
bamboo matting wall with fair isle patterns woven in black against pale-yellow
background. The rooms in Ba Ba Gyi's house were partitioned with bamboo matting
and the patterns were varied and beautiful.
Ba Ba Gyi struck the brass triangular gong and
called upon all sentient beings to come and share the merit of his good deed of
morning devotions and I pulled myself up and made for the door. The next moment
I felt I had stepped on air and no wonder... the floor level of my room was few
inches higher than the corridor outside, and I fell on the floor with a bump.
It was always like this in Ba Ba Gyi's house...
so full of unexpected turnings and levels, which kept on changing all the time;
Ba Ba Gyi pottered round the house armed with carpenter's tools and the rooms,
corridors, doors and windows were never in the same place. Poor May May Gyi was
often exasperated especially when she had to call in professional men to finish
what Ba Ba Gyi had begun.
I knew my Ba Ba Gyi would get a scolding if she
knew my mishap, so I silently rubbed my hip and limped away to begin my morning
ablutions. Another day had begun with the sweet tones of the brass triangular
gong which was glorious climax of Ba Ba Gyi's morning prayers and recitations.
Paritta : Recitation of Pali texts
The recitation of Pali texts and calling upon
one and all to come and share the merit is closely connected with the basic
teaching of Buddhism... that all sentient beings go through the cycles of birth
and death and rebirths. There are thirty-one planes of existences. With the
abode of the humans as centre, there are twenty-six higher regions above and
four lower regions down underneath. When one dies, one is born again as human,
animal or celestial being according to the merit of one's own deeds.
Recitation of Pali texts is done so that the
celestial beings could once again hear the words the Buddha had spoken in His
lifetime, for the texts are from His teachings. It is considered a deed of
merit to recite them and the good spirits or celestial beings who hear them are
gladdened. Such ones bring blessings to the home. Evil spirits do not dare to
come near such a home.