Burmese Wedding

By U Harry Than Htut, Canada

Most weddings are solemnized as a holy matrimony. In Burma (Myanmar), where majority of the population are mainly Buddhist, religion play a different role, depending on the type of ceremony that is being held. For instance birthdays, weddings, arrival of a new family member, ear-boring ceremonies and so on are considered as what is known as lokiya (mundane) or earthly affairs. Novitiation and ordination into becoming Sangha (monks) are lokuttara (supramundane) or spiritual affairs.

Burmese weddings are treated as a lokiya (mundane) or earthly affair and the act of betrothal are never carried out by Buddhist monks but by either the parents, or a reputable person as a civil ceremony, in the presence of relatives and friends recognizing the couple’s right to live as lin (husband) and mayar (wife.) Buddhist monks who had taken the vow of celibacy and follow the Vinaya (code of conduct) do not conduct marriages. They are however invited to soon-chway (lunch) by the couple either prior to or after marriage to receive blessings. The kudos (merits) thus gained by performance of wholesome deeds such as in giving alms, the couple share with all living and sentient beings.

The coming together of a couple in Buddhism is known in Burmese as yay-set-sone-deir, the literal meaning of which is likened to the cohesion of one drop of water with another drop of water. Briefly, according to the fundamental tenets of Buddhism, the kamma of the incumbents play a role in their rounds of rebirth in the samsara (wandering). It does not mean destiny in the sense that the chance meeting was a prior arrangement by an external entity who has control over one’s fate.

Traditionally, the Burmese are a bunch of jolly people and as such their natural characteristics are invariably reflected in the vocabulary used. Getting married in Burmese is known as ein htaung chya deir, a humorous term which ironically means getting into jail or getting imprisoned. It is a reflexive meaning that after marriage one loses the freedom of bachelor or maidenhood, and signifies that the days of living a carefree life is over. It is like self-imposed constraints as in confinement where each strives and learns how to mutually respect the consideration for each other. It is the domestication into married life.

The formal word for marriage in Burmese is called Mingala Saung, the word mingala being a derivation from the Pali language, Mangala. It generally means ‘auspicious,’ ‘lucky,’ or ‘good omen.’ The word ‘saung’ means to carry, and together it means the couple will carry with them this ‘Mangala.’

As mentioned above, the mutual agreement to live as lin and mayar (husband and wife) to a Buddhist couple is following the moral application of self-abstinence as laid down in the Five Precepts (Sila). The observance of maintaining the Five Precepts is a wholesome act of moral and ethical development in raising a family. The Five Precepts are not imposed by God or a divine being as a commandment. It is self-regulating and is conducive to character building. The contravention of any of the Precepts is not regarded as a ‘sin,’ as there is no such thing in Buddhism. Because it is self-regulated abstinence, even the breaking of for instance, the fourth Precept, ‘to refrain from lying,’ is tantamount to cheating. Cheating is unwholesome (deed) with attendant consequences especially when it is intended to deceive your loved ones such as your wife or husband. It can be considered as a-mangala as well.

In Christian weddings, couple are united in bondage of sanctity where each vow solemnly in the presence of a priest to take the other as husband and wife in wedlock and promise to live: ‘in richness or in poverty, for better or for worse, in sickness or in health, and forever, until death do us part.’ The sacrament is a religious ceremony regarded as an outward and vertical visible sign seeking God for spiritual grace.

To a Buddhist couple, marriage is an earthly personal affair, and the two must look ‘inward’ to find ways to balance the natural human urge at occasional and inadvertent outbursts by way of kaya-kamma (bodily action), vaci-kamma (speech) and mano-kamma (mind). The responsibility to keep and maintain the marriage is entirely up to the couple. Indeed the effort to control, maintain and observe the three deeds in a moral and ethical manner brings kusala or wholesome deeds (kusala-kamma) that lead to mundane and supramundane happiness called ‘Blessings’ or ‘Mangala.’ There are thirty-eight Noble Blessings which forms a division of Buddhist Scriptures known as Mangala Sutta. The Sutta includes various rules of conduct conducive to right livelihood that brings happiness and beatitudes.

Blessings or Mangala is what you have to work for to achieve and enjoy the benefits of the results. It is not something that you wait hopefully for some divine or deity to shower them upon you. There is thus this huge difference to the meaning of the word Mangala (Blessing) in Buddhism.

All marriages are always an affair of the ‘heart and mind.’ Where modern neurological science confirms that ‘knowing’ is in the brain, no such localized base of consciousness appears in the canonical texts. There is a chapter however in the Abhidhamma-Pitaka that discussed about the seat of consciousness or knowing to be the hadaya-vathu. According to the commentaries as well as the general Buddhist tradition, the ‘heart’ is the physical base or vathu. A metaphorical meaning to this is that one does not love from the brain but ‘love from the bottom of the heart.’ Heart is where the sensitive emotion of feeling reside, as love or the lack thereof either makes or breaks the heart as the saying goes.

It is love that warms, brightens and lightens the heart-mind. A cruel person is adjectively said to be a person with a cold, cold heart, as they are expressed in songs. You cannot hate or take revenge from the brain but you can from the heart, and hence an apt description for such type of person is one who is ‘hard hearted.’ Heart must presumably be a very fragile organ that requires a regular dosage of vitamins, L.O.V.E and a supplement of T.L.C. (Tender Loving Care). Burmese Mothers often admonished their daughters never to leave their husbands hungry and famish but to ensure they are fed properly and satisfactorily because ‘stomach’ is the organ or conduit through which the love of the husband is won. Stomach like the heart can as such be taken as another vathu or base.

In the book of proverbs known as Lokaniti relating to ordinary life, it is said that:

'Monks are serene when they are lean;
four-legged animals when they are fat;
men when they are learned;
and women when they are married.

As a married person it is very important to heed to the teachings of the Buddha in raising a family. The Buddha who was a husband and a father before his renunciation realized that sensuality sustains suffering as well as being an obstacle in seeing or realizing real truth. There are 1500 different categories of love in Buddhism which are in the sensual tanha (lustful) context that lead one to commit evil. The type that Buddhism encourages to develop, cultivate and grow has 528 categories, out of which the most important ones are metta (loving kindness), karuna (compassion) and mudita (sympathetic joy).

As human beings our perceptions can be influenced, conditioned or tainted by personal ‘views’ which could either be right or wrong. Right View (Samma Ditthi) is one of the constituent categories of Wisdom called Panna (insight). The aim of ethics in Buddhism is the pragmatic performance of duty (by husband, wife or children) which is conceived rightly, because events may lead to effects which are beneficial, agreeable or pleasant or to harmful and detrimental consequences.

Thus rather than looking outward and upward for solution and divine intervention, Buddhist couple follow the guidelines of Buddha’s Teachings by searching inwards through vipassana meditation, and take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha for guidance, wisdom, understanding in their daily lives to achieve a life of harmonious living which itself is Mangala, a Blessing.

(Copy right by Harry Than Htut, Canada)

February 23, 2007