Full Moon Of Wagaung And Draw-A-Lot-Festival

Wagaung (July/August) one (the second) of the three months of the Buddhist lent – Waso (June/July), Wagaung (July/August) and Thawthalin (August/September) – is a month of sobriety, quiet contemplation, meritorious deeds with e.g. ‘Soons’ (alms given to pongyis), robe and food offerings and self-denial, in which the travelling of pongyis, hunting, moving of the house and marriages are not permitted; and many people go into religious retreat or fasten for a certain period. Therefore, Wagaung la pyei htun pwe daw’, the Full-moon Festival of Wagaung is a purely religious affair for merit-making. It is observed as ‘Festival of Offering’ or ‘Draw-a-lot Festival’.

I, for one, have paid for the lunch of all of the ‘pongyis’ (monks) of the Pandita Yama Kyaung (monastery) in Yangon where I sometimes go for meditation. All necessary arrangements will be made by the administration of the monastery. You are cordially invited to accompany me and my family and some of my friends at 09:00 a.m. on the Full-Moon Day Of Waso to the monastery where we will have our lunch.

As the name ‘Draw-a-lot’ festival implies, the drawing of a lot will decide on which pongyi will have his meal paid by you, if you take part in the ‘draw-a-lot’, that is. This goes as follows. The name of each member of the local Sangha (or Sangha of your township) is written on a paper that is placed in a box or basket after being rolled up or folded together. Each participating household is choosing a representative who is drawing a lot from the box or basket. The pongyi whose name is on the paper will be elaborately fed the following day. However, one of the lots bears the name ‘Gautama Buddha’. This lot is, in a manner of speaking, the ‘jackpot’ and the lucky person who is drawing this lot will have the honour to host the Buddha. All in all, the festival is a quiet and sober event serving for Buddhists predominantly the purpose of doing acts of ‘dhana’ (giving) to gain merits.

But there are also other festivals that take place in Wagaung. Taungbyone, located an about one-hour car ride, some 30 miles/48 kilometre north of Mandalay, for instance, is in August the venue of ‘Nat gadaws’ (wives or mediums of nats/guardian spirits) who hold there annually a 7-day ‘Nat Festival’ or ‘Nat pwe’.

If you happen to be in Mandalay at the right time this is an opportunity to get acquainted with one or more of the all-powerful ‘nats’; something not to be missed because it is not only fascinating and exiting but depending on from where you are coming it is also likely to be the only opportunity to do this you will ever be offered in your entire life. It will take you the whole day.

Since it is no easy task to track down a nat gadaw (it took me quite a long time to make friends with two of them and attend nat pwes) for which reason you should plan this ahead and employ a good local friend or guide to make the arrangements. I promise that you will not regret this. It can easily become one of the highlights of your holiday in Burma. Nat worship constitutes the direct connection with Burma’s past, going far back to pre-Buddhist times.

People of the past come to life because nats were all real people at one time or another who died rather tragically before they became spirits. Stories of love, hope, happiness, sadness and intrigue are the order of the day in the realm of the nats. You may make the acquaintance with the spirit of one of the much revered nats, Min Kyaw Zwa, known as U Min Kyaw, the ‘Drunken nat’

There are many stories about who U Min Kyaw was. One of them is that U Min Kyaw was a king and courageous warrior in the 12th century who was very prone to drinking, smoking, gambling and womanising. But he was nevertheless very much loved by his people because he was also very generous. So, if you see a dancing nat gadaw drinking liquor from a bottle and throwing hands-full of money into the happy crowd, that is him, the ‘guardian spirit’ of all those who like to live life in the fast lane. If you make him happy (give him a bottle of his favourite beverage ) he may in return make you rich.

But be careful, U Min Kyaw is a rather rakish nat and it is possible that you become possessed by his spirit. Who knows? Celestials have their own mysterious ways of showing their gratitude and expressing their happiness.

But do not worry, should this happen he will after a short while leave your body again and the worst case scenario is that on the following day you will have to fight a severe hangover; small price for the wonderful experience of having become a friend of U Min Kyaw and having been possessed by his spirit.

Be that as it may, tomorrow is ‘Full-moon day of Wagaung’ and at 08:30 I will come to pick you up before we go to the monastery for the ceremonial food offering, a ceremony of the kind celebrated on this day all over the country whatever the object of donation might be. Please bear in mind that it is a dressy occasion. See you tomorrow morning.

It is now Full-moon Day of Wagaung and we – you, my wife, my maids, my driver and I – have arrived at the Pandita Yama Kyaung and we are lucky because it is not raining as it usually is in this time of rainy season. We enter the monastery compound. Behind the gate, leaning against the wall of the gate keeper house stands a man-high blackboard with the name of today’s donor on it; it is my name, so everything is fine.

We are welcomed by a young man from the administration office who leads us to a group of two pongyis. He introduces us as today’s donors and upon introduction they lead us into a reception room where we sit down. One of the monks stays for small talk with us while the other one is leaving. After a short while he returns to inform us that the ‘Sayadaw’ (the venerable abbot of a Buddhist monastery) would like to see me and my wife. So, we have to leave you for a short time. But you do not need to worry both my senior maid and the pongyi speak English and you can chit-chat with them while you are waiting. It is a good opportunity for you to get first-hand information on Buddhist matters, the monastery, life in the monastery, meditation, and so on, do not hesitate to ask them.

Me and my wife follow the pongyi to the Sayadaw’s office where we are warmly welcomed by him. He has an air of dignity about him but otherwise he does not display any whatsoever behaviour of superiority; a very likeable elder man with quite a good command of English. We have a very pleasant conversation in the course of which he shows genuine interest in my life in Burma, my home country and my spiritual life. We leave him after a short while, re-join you and then our group is led into the hall were the offering ceremony will take place.

The hall is rather austerely furnished with a row of five high-backed easy chairs with elaborate wood carvings and three tables with wood carvings in front of them. The rest of the furnishing is made up of simple round, short-legged wooden tables as well as some simple side-boards placed along the walls. Everything is very clean, neat and tidy, the floor is covered with straw mats and one side of the hall is over almost its entire lengths open to the court with a ramp-like, roofed walkway in front of it. There, quite a large number of small groups of red-robed pongyis are waiting for the beginning of the ceremony. Despite the austerity the whole scene is enveloped in a very dignified and festive atmosphere that is in its own way very touching. The Sayadaw, accompanied by four senior pongyis is already sitting on the easy chairs with the Sayadaw placed in the centre and two senior monks placed on either side of him.

All guests are asked to sit in the free space right in front of the Sayadaw and his senior pongyis (as usual on the floor) my wife and I in the first row, separated from the Sayadaw only by the tables while the pongyis are beginning to enter the hall. All being seated the food is placed in bowls on the tables while a friendly conservation between the Sayadaw and our group of guests commences. Then, after some words of greeting spoken by the Sayadaw the official part of the ceremony begins with the ‘gadaut the’, meaning we are prostrating ourselves tree times before the Sayadaw in reverence of him. This is followed by the ‘saung kat hlu pu zaw the’, the ‘lifting of the table’ with food on it by my wife and me. We position ourselves on either side of the table, bend down to grab the edge of the table and in a synchronised movement raise and lower the table three times (each time representing one part of the ‘Tiradna’, the three gems or jewels namely, ‘Buddha’ (Enlightened One), ‘Dharma'(in Sanskrit)/(in Pali)’Dhamma’ (Buddha’s teachings) and ‘Sangha’ (monkshood or order of the monks or Buddhist monastic community) while the Sayadaw is saying: “This food is dedicated to the wisdom of and in gratitude to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” Then the pongyis begin to eat. When they are by and large ready it is our turn. The tradition to let the pongyis eat first is called ‘Ah-hlu’.

There is a large variety of dishes served for us. Nothing is missing: ‘thamin’ (boiled rice), ‘we tha hin’ (pork curry), ‘chet tha hin’ (chicken curry), amay tha hin’ (beef curry) mixed with ‘alu’ (potatoes), ‘hin thee hin youwet’ (vegetable) such as ‘molang oo ni’ (carrots) and ‘ban gobi’ (cauliflower), ‘hkau hswe djo’ (fried noodle with vegetable and meat), ‘hin jou’ (hot soup), ‘kauk hnyin boung’ (sweet made from glutinous rice and coconut), ‘thit thee’ (fruits) such as ‘pan thee’ (apple) and ‘hnget pyaw thee’ (banana). As beverages served are ‘yay’ (drinking water), ‘kaphee’ (coffee), ‘laphat yay jan’ (plain green tea) and ‘laphat yay’ (green tea with milk and sugar). You see, it truly is a copious and very tasty lunch.

After lunch the ceremony continuous with the Sayadaw’s blessing of the donor(s) and the ‘yay set cha the’ (water dripping ceremony). While my wife and I am very slowly dripping water from a silver can into small silver beaker the Sayadaw is blessing us by saying on behalf of Gautama Buddha that good things shall happen to us in our present and future lives on our way to ‘nibbana’ (a state of neither being nor non-being which to reach is the ultimate goal of Buddhism). Also, our absent relatives as well as our ancestors are included in that they are invited and requested to benefit from our meritorious deed by sharing its rewards.

Next follows a repetition of the ‘gadaut the’ and we pay again respect to the Sayadaw by prostrating ourselves three times before him.

At this point I deem it necessary to say a few words of both explanation and advice to you. To prostrate ourselves before another person is a kind of deference or way of showing respect not usual in our culture and something that to do does not come easy to us. It is beneath our dignity to do this. We think it ridiculous and are annoyed if we are asked or expected to do this. And your point of view is correct as long as measured by ‘western’ standards. However, you are wrong when looking at it against the backdrop of Burmese culture and Buddhist philosophy or ‘Sasana’ (religion).

The reverent posture of prostration has nothing to do with servility. It is a voluntary act of paying respect and honour to who respect and honour is due. In the eyes of Burmese people and/or Buddhists you do by no means make a fool of yourself when prostrating yourself before a Sayadaw. On the contrary, doing so will earn you their respect. So, I suggest that you are following local customs in case you are attending a Buddhist ceremony and e.g. prostrate yourself before a Sayadaw even if this makes you feel uneasy. They will value your behaviour highly and – believe me – after the first one or two times you have done it you will be free of any reservations. And, by the by, do you not expect foreigners to adjust themselves to your customs while they are in your home country? So, why apply double standards? Of course, people here know that you are a foreigner, thus will not feel offended when you are not following my advice. Also, they will not ask you to adjust to local customs. However, to do it – to follow my advice, that is – is as I see it just the proper way of behaviour that does not cost you anything, does not do you any harm and will earn you lots of respect of the Burmese people. It is not about how successful you are in doing this; it is the good will and effort that will be honoured.

The ceremony is concluded with the ‘Buddha saathanan sirantatetahtu’. This means that all persons present (provided they have sufficient command on Pali language/Burmese respectively) recite in prayer-like fashion the standard words to the effect that it is hoped that the wisdom of the Buddha and the dharma will last eternally and conclude by chanting: “Thadu, thadu, thadu”, ‘well done, well done, well done”.

The Sayadaw leaves accompanied by his senior pongyis the room and we go to meet some friends of mine; they speak English and have invited us. There you will see and hear about a typical Burmese household and everyday life, something a few tourists will ever have the chance to experience. After an early dinner at about 05:00 pm we will return home.

Now it is almost 06:00 pm and we go home. Did you enjoy our full-moon day of Wagaung food offering? I hope you did and that you are also satisfied with the additional knowledge you may have acquired. I hope I will see you again. Bye for now and have a good time.

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