What do you think about when you think of Buddhism? Peace, meditation, nirvana, and perhaps a certain detachment from the material?
In my recent trip to Myanmar, what struck me most was not only the centrality of Buddhism in the culture – approximately 88% of people in Myanmar follow Theravada Buddhism, but how its practice, meaning, and role in people’s lives and its close coupling with wealth differed from the Buddhism that I know.
For me, this is most evident in the material excess of Buddhist spaces, and its juxtaposition with the simplicity of the lives of people. On one hand, everyday life, even in the biggest city Yangon, is fairly simple. Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia but there is a sense of contentment and optimism in the air – that life is not just good enough, but will get better.
What lies in stark contrast is the wealth, and perhaps extravagance, of Buddhist spaces – the shiniest example being Shwedagon Paya, the country’s most sacred pagoda in Yangon. Shwedagon’s sacredness is attributed to the relics of four Buddhas enshrined in the site. What is fascinating is how veneration for its holiness manifests so materially. Almost every structure and religious idol is gilded, the central stupa is reportedly plated with 22,000 solid gold bars. The umbrella on the tip is adorned with an estimated 5500 diamonds, over 2000 precious jewels such as rubies and sapphires, and approximately 4000 golden bells.
It makes Shwedagon a stunning, opulent beauty, no doubt, but it also hints at the role and meaning of Buddhism in this country.
Everyday, throngs of locals flock to Shwedagon to pray, many also donating money and purchasing gold leaves to paste on idols of Buddha As I watched the endless stream of locals enter the site to pray, many making monetary donations in the process, it made me realise not just how inextricable spirituality is with personal aspirations, but that in Myanmar, the wealth of one’s religion is proportional to the wealth of its devotees. The more prosperous and well cared for one’s religion is, the greater the confidence that lives will similarly prosper.
It’s an intriguing relationship between spirituality and the material, and definitely a unique practice of Buddhism.