Novice for one week: Novice hood initiation in Bagan, Myanmar
For a boy in Myanmar it is customary to enter a monastery between the age 10 and 20 as a Buddhist novice for at least one week. Sometimes the boys are even younger, and in rare cases they are only 5 or 6 years old. For Burmese people, the novice hood initiation is a very important ceremony and a big event as a family. The novitiation ceremony is called "Shinbyu" in Burmese language. Shinbyu ceremonies are held throughout the whole country, in villages as well as in big cities. Often families send their sons at the same time to the monastery and celebrate the Shinbyu ceremony together. Celebrating together saves costs, because the event with music and traditional dresses is expensive. But it is also a wonderful opportunity for the families to organize a procession through the village as a kind of village festival.
Money doesn't matter for a Buddhist monastery, so they take every boy, regardless of the wealth of the parents. Poor boys or orphans are also welcome to join the monastery for one week. But there is a difference. Although the Shinbyu is without doubt a religious Buddhist ceremony, it is not organized from the monasteries. Of course the monks support the Shinbyu, and they open the monasteries for the families to come and pray. But the ceremony itself is more a secular event, with loud music, a procession on horses through the village, a lot of food, many flowers, wonderful clothes and a big colorful ceremony tent, where the celebration, the dinner and many speeches take place. Sometimes rich families or families who are not blessed with a male child support poor families who cannot afford the ceremony. The boys of the supported families and also orphans are invited to join the ceremony as well.
Usually the Shinbyu ceremony lasts two days. In big cities the horses are often switched to pickup trucks with wooden armchairs on the loading area, and the procession looks more like a big car convoy. But village or big city, the main actors are always undeniably the novice aspirants, who are dressed and made-up to be a prince for one day. The boys are shielded from the sun by colorful umbrellas and led on horsebacks through the village. Behind the horses follow the families, the proud parents in their best silks carrying the monastic robes for the novices, and finally the sisters or young village maidens carrying lotus blossoms and ceremonial boxes. Sometimes also young girls are allowed to join the novice hood initiation to be a nun for a week, but only if a nunnery is nearby.
This ritual of the Shinbyu ceremony reminds of the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama in the royal palace. According to the Buddhist scripts Siddhartha left the royal palace at the age of twenty nine, leaving his wife and newborn son in search of an ascetic life. On his long journey Gautama discovered the "Middle Way", a path of moderation between sensual indulgence and the severe asceticism. The Buddhist texts describe the Enlightenment of Gautama when he was 35 years old. The name "Buddha" means "the enlightened one", and with the Enlightenment the former Prince Siddhartha Gautama became "Gautama Buddha" and therefore the primary figure in Buddhism.
The second day of Shinbyu is more related to the monastery where the boys will stay after the ceremony for at least seven days. The families support the monastery by offering alms, food and money. Sometimes the procession ends in the monastery, sometimes the families simply change the location from their own colorful tent to the monastery. Every Shinbyu is a little bit different, it depends how many boys or girls will go to the monastery, if it takes place in a small village or big city, and where the ceremony tent is located. But in any case the monks are waiting for the families who still are dressed in their colorful clothes, to pray with them, but also to receive the donations and alms.
And finally, after long hours of speeches, processions and praying, the event for the boys of joining the monastery comes closer. The monks shave the boys' heads and the hair is caught in a cloth. The boys pray and ask the head monk in Pali for permission to be novitiated. After the praying the boys get their robes. The fresh novices stay in the monastery for a retreat under the care of the monks for at least one week. For the boys it is the only way to learn about Buddhism and they try to make the most of their stay in the monastery. They have to follow the strict rules of the monastery; they get up with all other novices at 5:00 in the morning to recite Pali scripts. They collect food in the morning, they learn how to meditate, and there are only two meals per day, the breakfast and the lunch at 11:30.
It is not uncommon, that a boy will go a second or third time as a novice to the monastery when they grow older. Some of them also stay longer in a monastery, maybe two or three months, and in some cases they stay in the monastery their whole life. Especially for devout people the Shinbyu ceremony is an imprinting and touching event. At the age over 20 the young men receive another opportunity to experience the Buddhist life in a monastery for a week, but this time as a fully ordained monk.