Shinbyu – Becoming a Buddhist novice in Burma

On a brief trip to Maymyo, Burma in April 1982, I was fortunate to come across a Burmese family celebrating the ordination of their young son into the Buddhist order of the Sangha. This is an essential rite of passage in the life of every Buddhist male in Burma . In preparation for full ordination as a monk, a boy must first become a novice (shinlaung) before the age of 20 (usually at 10) in a ceremony called Shinbyu. After 20 he can become a monk in the upasampada ordination. The importance of this tradition is reflected in the  Burmese saying, “You must become a monk, before you can become a man.”

Becoming a novice

Becoming a novice for a certain period in life will assist a boy to gain merit which will, in future lives, enable him to reach Nirvana (enlightenment). Attaining Nirvana is the ultimate goal for all Buddhists. By entering the order of The Sangha in this life, a novice will greatly enhance his Karma (Merit) in gaining Nirvana in later lives.

Through ordination, not only does the young novice gain Karma for himself but also for his parents. It is the duty of parents to let their son go and embrace the legacy of the Buddha, join the Sangha and become immersed in the teachings of the Buddha at least for week until he  learns the basic principles that are essential in becoming a good Buddhist. Some families without a male child  may seek an orphaned boy or one from a disadvantaged family in order to receive this special dispensation by the Buddha and hence gain merit by the act.

The shinbyu starts early in the morning with a procession to the monastery with the young boy dressed in dazzling silks embroidered with gold to look like a royal prince or king, shielded from the sun by a gold umbrella and led on horseback by an orchestral band headed by a clown with a moustache called U Shwe Yoe holding a parasol and dancing merrily. This ritual symbolises Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s departure from the royal palace with its sensuous pleasures and luxuries at the age of 29, leaving his wife and newborn son in search of the Four Noble Truths. The procession we watched had most of these elements.

Young Buddhist novices

Procession (shinlaung hlè pwe) to the monastery

Behind his horse follows the family, his proud parents carrying the monastic robes and paraphernalia and his sisters or young village maidens carrying ceremonial boxes of paan and lotus blossoms all in their best silks with the rest of the joyous party completing the procession.

Family members gather for the ordination

Young novice feeling uncomfortable in his silk clothes

Proud family

Sisters waiting to have their ear piercing ceremonies at the same time

The novice-to-be (shinlaung) may be the centre of attention, but his sister may at the same ceremony have an ear-piercing (na htwin) with a gold needle, dressed up as a royal princess herself.

Once at the monastery, the monks will assemble to preside over the ceremony. A feast is prepared for all. A Brahmin priest may be specially hired to act as master of ceremonies but it is the monks who will supervise and perform the shaving of the boy’s head.

After his head is shaved, the young novice will exchange his princely clothes for a saffron robe.  Finally he will be given an alms bowl (thabeik) and palm-leaf fan (yat) from his parents with smiles of joy and tears of sorrow.

Text and photo copyright © Marti Patel / http://www.sanuksanuk.wordpress 2010


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