Being in a country that is heterogeneously Buddhist is intriguing. There are shrines everywhere; hotel lobbies, gas stations, inside or in front of people’s homes and stores, on the roadsides, on a street corner. Monks, too are everywhere. Wait a few minutes and one or two or twenty will appear. Out of a forest, on a path, in the market, in an airport, at a monastery. I have heard the Buddha life story multiple times with little variation though sometimes with a bit more embellishment depending on the depth of knowledge of the speaker, interest of the listener and the region. In Myanmar and I imagine elsewhere in countries that practice Buddhism there is a rite of passage ceremony that marks the boy’s entry into the Buddhist community: Novitiation, the honor of becoming a novice monk.
As we were driving back from Hsipaw into Mandalay , I spotted a procession with riotous color and golden carriages pulled by oxen riding alongside a wall of ruins. I asked to stop the car for a photo and Sithu says, “It’s a Novitiation “. I’m thinking, O.K. that’s cool, and then I see an elephant all decorated in gold and red at the head of the procession and Sithu and I jump out of the car and start running to catch up with the elephant. I want to take a picture of the costumed children in the cart but Sithu grabs me and says come on. He stops a motor bike driver, he says something, I jump on and we are off riding down a village road tailing the elephant. The mahout slows the beast and lets me take pictures. Steve and Sithu have corralled another bike and have arrived at the scene. The boy in white in the howdah is the only son of the donor who is sponsoring the whole village’s children’s Novitiation. All the golden carts with oxen, the food and entertainment are paid for by this boy’s parents.
The bike driver motions me back on the bike and we scoot into the center of the village where the music is blaring and the entire village throng is in their best dress walking towards their pagoda. The carts are now empty of their young passengers. The children are made up to be as beautiful as a prince and are transported in carts so their feet do not touch the ground. It is connected to the Buddha life story when Siddhartha Gautama was a prince and as royalty was transported by carriage. He ultimately renounces his kingdom and leaves the palace to pursue his path for truth. That is what tomorrow is about for these young people.
For now, the party is just beginning. The parents lead the adults into the pagoda; the dad carrying the alms bowl and the mother holding the folded red robe of the novice monk. A Novitiation takes a couple of days. We are seeing the beginning of the ceremony with the entourage and village feast. Tonite there will be dancing and a bigger feast. Tomorrow their head is shaved, they are consecrated, and they don the robes and depart for the monastery where they will live with monks and learn the Buddhist doctrine for a week at least. We learn that beginning of summer when school is closed is when these ceremonies usually take place. It is a rare spectacle for an outsider to witness and we were the only foreigners. It does not happen every year. It is so expensive that brothers and sisters (girls have an ear piercing ceremony) and all boys who have not been novices yet no matter their age can participate. The whole village volunteers with food, cleanup and logistics. The children can be five or younger especially if an older brother is going to be a novitiate. Sponsoring one event per family is enough.
We could not believe our luck. We finally said goodbye with a fullness of spirit and gratitude.