Waso, the fourth month of the Myanmar calendar, marks the beginning of the lenten season. It is a time for sobriety, self-denial and religious contemplation. The fresh moist air of the early morning is filled with the thinkling of brass triangular gongs that summons lay folk to come and contribute what they can towards the communal offering of alms food for the monasteries.
How can anything go wrong on a like this? The day began with the tinkling of doo-wei-wei from the bass triangular gong and the rich sing-song voice announcing: “Hear y.e, bawun-taw, good friends, our companions-in-doing meritorious deeds, please wake up, do wake up and prepare alms food for the revenend sangha…bestir yourselves, good friends.”
The announcement is couched in poetic prose wreathed with familiar pali words like ba-wun-taw(good people) thrown in for elegance and style. So, with the thinking of the brass triangular going in your ears, you roll in your bed from one side to the other murmuring, “So, it’s time to the kitchen. Praise be to Buddha!” You listen to the lingering notes of the brass gong and unlatch your droway eyes, still sluggish with the last remnants of slumber.
After the usual ritual of writhing and stretching, you drag yourself down to the kitchen and begin to do the chores. It is still in semidarkness, but not all gloomy, for the air is filled with the promise of the coming day. It is lovely to be woken up by the tinkling of the brass gong and the sing-song chanting of the neik- ban-saws.
How aptly are the organizers of these benevolent activities called Neik-ban-saws, unhers-in-to-heaven. They are members of the voluntary service groups called wut-thins, which play an important part in the life of the community. Such wut-thin activities are still very much alive in small towns though rarely seen now-a-day in Yangon. In Mandalay, where old customs and traditions are still revered, wut-thins operate in grand style. Members of these wut-thins wear all-white suits. They go round in procession collection alms for monasteries. Some carry silver bowls to receive coins, and for receiving food, there are large three-legged lacquer trays with sets of small blows inside. They are beautiful things with red-domed covers. Each tray is suspended from cords attached to a yoke. With the tray hanging in the middle, two men shoulder the yoke at each end. The yoke is often painted red and splashed with gold and glass mosaic flowers. The huge brass triangular gong suspended on a pole is carried by two men, one at the rear striking in tune to the chanting while moving in step with the procession. No easy task, this.
Sometimes, the procession is attended by music troupes of drums, cymbals and flute. Even as the blinking stars fade away and the dawn steals over the horizon, lights shine through the window panes and people come out with offerings. The air is filled with music interposed with recitations and the tinkling of the brass gong.
People bless the neik-ban-saws, who make things easy for people to do meritorious deed that would open the gates of celestial regions. They see that monks are supplied with their needs during the lenten season when they are not allowed to stay overnight outside the monastery precincts.
Waso is the time when people do meritorious deeds and practice contemplation and self-denial. People make it a point of fasting and observing special precepts one day in the week. Even habitual drinkers take a vow of abstinence, for the season, at least. It is good in a way for people to be reminded of the need for self discipline.
However, the lenten season is not as dull as it sounds. Even as the senior citizens are making preparations for offerings to the monasteries, the young people busy themselves with organization music troupes. On the full moon day people flock to the monastery with offerings; and, of course, there will be music troupes in attendance. There will be playful teasing songs that run something like this:
Mother is a scold
Off to Wazo Pwe we go.
Oh my love, fell a kokko tree,
And cut it quick,
Make a cart…
But, no…’t will take too long.
Why worry, love,
There’s Ma Boke Sone,
Her ample hip for us to ride
To ride merrily,
Merrily, merrily all the way.
Marriages are taboo during the lent. This has nothing whatsoever to do with any religious concept. Monsoon season is a busy time for the farmer and it is more convenient to celebrate weddings after the harvest is safely home. Buy, some impatient lovers often rush off to wedlock before the lent begins.
The full moon of Waso month is the anniversary of the Buddha’s First Sermon, at Isipatana, a sylvan woodland of Migadhaya or Deer Park. It is meet that the Buddha should deliver his first discourse in the wide open spaces where the deer can wander free and safe. It was where peace reigned and where the running deer and the chasing tiger stopped in their tracks to nestle close to each other as they listened to the voice of the compassionate Buddha.
The Buddha’s first sermon was heard 25 centuries ago. The Four Noble Truths, namely, Suffering, the Origin of Suffering, Ceasing of Suffering, and the Path that leads to the Ceasing of Suffering. The Light of the Four Noble Truths still guides the way of enlightenment to those who are grouping in the dark.
One unique thing about tha Sutta or discourse, firsts heard in the wide open spaces, is that it does not bind men in dogmas and beliefs. Man is free to believe and act accordingly. There is no one to punish or reward man. He reaps the harvest of what he has sown, and none but he is the doer of his own deeds.
The Path laid down by the Buddha is not hidden in a labyrinth of terms and phraseology. It is the simple middle way between the two extremes of devotion to pleasures of the senses and the practice of self mortification. It is the Noble Eightfold Path, to wit, Right View, Right Resolution, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Means of Living, Right Exertion, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
To have Right View is put first and foremost, because it is the key to the attainment of Wisdom. The minds of worldings are often mastered by wrong ideas. The worldings are driven by their own desires that result in Suffering. Only Right View can help them see this truth and attain wisdom that will quench the desires as dust is by rain showers.
Perhaps many may not be able to grasp the Truth the Buddha teaches, but whatever little effort they put in contemplation and meditation gives them strength to face life. With the Dhamma(the Buddha’s teachings) enshrined in the heart, one can spread goodwill and loving kindness all around. The worldings may have their feet deep in the mire of desires, but their hands may reach out or rather strive to reach out for the blossoms of enlightened wisdom.
Blossoms of the Dhama! That reminds one that this season is also a season of flowers. There comes the sound of music that leads young people who will roam the woodlands to gather flowers. The flowers gathered in joy and love will be offered to decorate the shrines and pagoda. As young people bow down before the stupas and the Buddha images, serenity comes even to the most boisterous and mischievous of the gang as they recite the prayer;
“May we, in future-one of those days,
Don the Blossoms of the Dhamma.”