Buddhism and superstitions: an explosive mix

- through Sophie Solere

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When original Buddhism is associated with local animist traditions.

The venerable U Ottama Sara, 72, sits on a teak chair in a large room with walls cluttered with cupboards, donation boxes and portraits of him receiving dignitaries including Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto president of Burma. At his feet, seated in a semi-circle on a red carpet, twenty worshipers, half of whom are women carrying very young babies, are waiting their turn. Each will entrust her child to the old monk who takes it delicately before caressing her skull and murmuring promises of a prosperous life. For many mothers, this blessing comes with the final choice of their baby's name. The parade of newborns is followed by that of adults who have come to collect the monk's predictions and advice. Ma Thae Su Phyo, a 27-year-old woman, and her husband Yan Myo Htet, 32, both run a rice business, came with their 13-month-old daughter. “We come to ask the monk for advice, because we have a problem with a competitor, says the young woman, this is our third visit. U Ottama Sara hands them a piece of paper on which one of her assistants has written a list of recommendations. “For example, she reads, we are forbidden to travel on Wednesdays or to go in the northwest direction; if one of our friends decides to travel, we have to give him a rosary, we also have to wash a statue of the Buddha with 27 cups of water and so on”. Seated at low tables, the five lay assistants consult manuals of astrology and numerology to work out calculations from the dates of birth of the faithful and the position of the planets. The advice and predictions are written on notebook sheets that the monk will revise and read later during his personal consultations.

U Ottama Sara receives a hundred visitors during two daily sessions, five days a week, in this hall of the temple of Kin Wun Min Gyi, one of the oldest in Mandalay. Entered the Buddhist orders at the age of 16, he later studied as a teacher at the famous monastery of Masoeyein, one of the main educational centers (where also taught the extremist monk Wirathu, NDR). From the outset, all smiles, he anticipates the fateful question on the compatibility between his status as a monk and that of a diviner. "I know," he admits candidly, "astrology and numerology have nothing to do with Buddhism, I shouldn't do that, but I do it to help people, it's been going on for thirty years now. … With my calculations, I am able to see what people have done right and wrong in past lives, I can predict what will happen in their professional, emotional, educational lives”. It all started, he explains, about thirty years ago when the daughter of one of his followers disappeared. “Was she dead, had she run away? Nobody knew, but thanks to my calculations, we were able to find her alive two months later. Since then, people haven't stopped consulting me. The donations – not obligatory – collected during these sessions, which amount to an average of 1,5 million kyats per week (around 900 euros) are used to finance a school for orphans, pagodas in poor villages and other social projects.

Explosion of Magic Manuals

Buddhism, like any other religion or spiritual movement, is not immune to supernatural influences. U Ottama Sara is a living symbol of this ambiguous but close relationship, though prohibited by Buddhist canons – the Buddha in particular rejects any idea of ​​predestination – that Buddhism maintains with the world of irrationality and superstition.

Most Buddhist temples house astrologers, numerologists and other diviners. One of the corridors of the famous Mahamuni temple in Mandalay is fitted out with alcoves where palmists of the ancient Hindu caste of Brahmans receive. At the Sakya Muni pagoda, Daw Khin Khin Htay, a 47-year-old palmist, consults every day in a corner she has set up with canvas stretched between cement pillars. "I mainly receive high-ranking officials," she says. Many of us settle in temples because there are many visitors. »

"With my calculations, I am able to see what people have done good and bad in past lives, I can predict what will happen in their professional, emotional, educational life". U Ottama Sara

This particular symbiosis can first be explained by history. There were before the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the national religion by King Anawratha in the XNUMXth century, "a number of primitive religious cults, of which the most important and popular were the veneration of the 'Nats' ("spirits", see later article on this subject, NDR), astrology (introduced by Hindu Brahmans, NDR) and alchemy", wrote in 1958 the historian Maung Htin Aung in an article by The Atlantic. After the formalization of Buddhism, "all pre-Buddhist rites were suppressed," he added. But people found it very difficult to get rid of old beliefs and practices all at once, they devised schemes, practitioners of astrology covered their rituals and ceremonies with a veneer of Buddhism. »

The 125 years of British colonization (1824-1948) as well as the half-century of military dictatorship (1962-2011) only reinforced beliefs in supernatural rituals and magic. Many Burmese resorted to weikza” (see box), sorcerers considered as demi-gods to try to fight against the colonizer first, then the dictators.

If there was a Richter scale of superstition, Burma would rank high. Generals and other powerful people systematically used soothsayers to make their decisions, such as the decision to build a new capital, Naypyitaw, in 2005 in a bush on the central plain.

Paradoxically, the opening of the country since 2011, with in particular the abolition of censorship, has caused the multiplication of Burmese recourse to astrologers and magicians. “There has been an explosion of manuals of magic… They are one of the most widespread genres in Burma, if not the most widespread,” Thomas Patterson, a specialist in these practices in South Asia, told AFP. Southeast at the University of Hong Kong. Manuals and consultations are also available on a multitude of websites.

U Ottama Sara wishes to keep his distance from these sorcerer-magicians whom many Burmese consider to be charlatans. “I respond to requests from people because I want to share metta, loving-kindness, with them, the Buddha said that without metta there is no success in life, I instill confidence in their mind. »

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Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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