Monks and novices in Myanmar - the Buddhism way of life
Myanmar is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. About 89% of the people in Myanmar are Buddhist. People in Myanmar practice the Theravada Buddhism, which is more austere and ascetic, but also harder to practice than the Mahayana Buddhism, the other main branch of the Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is also followed in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand. No one really knows, but experts estimates that in Myanmar live about half a million monks. It's customary for a male in Myanmar to enter a monastery twice in his life. Once as a samanera, a novice monk, between the age of 10 and 20, and again as a hpongyi, a fully ordained monk, sometime at the age of 20. Some might remain a monk for just a few days, while others stay for life.
Monks hold the highest status in the society of Myanmar. The overwhelming majority of the monks and novives in Myanmar wear maroon-colored robes. Monks receive two meals per day, breakfast and lunch and they are not allowed to eat after 12:00 noon. Early in the morning the monks and novices go out carrying a bowl to get offerings like rice, curry or other food. Usually a monk has his own family where he goes every day. It is not begging, since the family invited the monk to come to their house. It is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the monks and the ordinary Buddhist and gives the locals the chance of doing the deed of dhana and to acquire merit.
The novices in Myanmar have quite an easy-going life. They only have to keep 10 precepts, a fully ordained monk has 227 precepts. Young novices are allowed to play football, watching TV, playing video games and having fun, which is great to see, because all in all they are just normal kids. On the other hand, the life of the monks can be very tough: sleeping in a dormitory, waking up very early, washing with cold water, studying a lot and always strict discipline.
Very often the young novices start their monastic life in a small village at the age of nine or ten. When they grow older they get the opportunity to go to a bigger city or religious center like Bagan, Mandalay/Sagaing or even Yangon. They have to make a decision: either they go to a big monastery with sometimes up to more than thousand other novices. Or they prefer the more quiet and meditative life in a small monastery. Novices have to learn a lot, and the learning doesn't stop for a fully ordained monk. First they have to learn Pali to gain access to the Buddhist scriptures. Pali is also frequently chanted in a ritual context. The other focus of the study is to learn the way of the Buddhism life. Sometimes, in case they attend a monastic school or a scripting center, they also get the opportunity to learn English, Mathematics and Physics. And the brightest of the young monks will probably attend the Buddhist university in Yangon to study Buddhism for many years.
It's really a pleasure to watch or meet the monks and novices in the streets, on public places or even sometimes in a tea house. The monks are very open and they are keen to discuss their beliefs with other people, especially with the tourists to improve their English. So there is a good chance that a young monk will approach and start a conversation when you stay an evening in Shwedagon Pagoda. But visiting a monastery is also a good opportunity to have a chat with the novices and monks. All in all a wonderful experience.