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Published: December 30th 2016
Shwedagon Pagoda, with its surfeit of gold, and plethora of Buddhas can be dizzying. Best to start small. The history
Legend has it that two traders from Burma took 500 bullock carts full of goods to India. There they met Gautama Buddha as he was meditating under a bodhi tree. Even though Guatama had not yet been revealed as The Enlightened One, the brothers recognized him and gave him a gift of honey cake. Gautama was so thankful he pulled eight hairs from his head and gave them to the two brothers. They headed home, but on the way they were robbed, and four of the sacred hairs were taken from them.
On their return, King Okkalapa honored them with a grand celebration. It had been decided that these relics would be housed in a shrine place to be built on Singuttara Hill in Dagon, a holy place in what is now Yangon, that already housed relics from three previous Buddhas. When the casket containing the four remaining hairs was opened, an earthquake rocked the earth and jewels fell from the sky. Today the spire is set with diamonds and other gems, and at its very tip is a
76 carat diamond.
Shwedagon Pagoda opens to the public at four in the morning. I wanted to get there early before it got too hot, but not that
early. Instead, I got up around sunrise and headed to the pagoda.
Some mornings I’m awakened around 4:30 am by a gong announcing the monks starting their walk through the neighborhood collecting alms. This morning I hadn’t heard a gong, but as I started walking I came across a procession of young novice Buddhist nuns. These are young girls, and as such are a little giggly and shy. They walk single file, holding a bowl into which people can put offerings of food and money. In return, the nun – or monk – chants a blessing.
These girls move fast! Some of their bowls held offerings of fruit, some of money. I saw one girl whose bowl was empty and dropped a small amount of money into it. As the girls walked on, a couple of them kept looking back at me. I think they don’t see many Caucasians in this neighborhood.
I got to the pagoda a little after 6:30 am. The pagoda is situated on a
high hill, and thankfully, there are elevators and escalator to take you to the terrace around the pagoda itself. As soon as you walk out onto the plaza, it hits you – all that gold, all the ornate decorations. Not being able to read Burmese, I’m sure I missed a lot of the significance of some of the different Buddhas and shrines.
And then I came across (or rather, it came by me) a shinbyu
ceremony. This is the novitiate ceremony for a boy to become a novice monk. The shinbyu is a very big deal, not only for the boy, but for his family as well. The boy is dressed as a royal prince, and is sheltered from the sun by a golden parasol held by a friend or family member. Other novices may be part of the procession, along with friends and family members. Once he becomes a novice, his head is shaved, often by a member of his family, and he dons the robes of a monk. This ceremony reenacts Gautama giving up his princely roll to live a simple life.
The end of the procession is brought up of friends and family members dressed
in fine clothes, sometimes matching outfits, carrying gifts. Novices are all under the age of twenty. A novice may or may not become a full-fledged monk, but all Buddhist males are expected to spend at least a little time as a monk. Once they reach the age of twenty they can decide to continue the life of a monk and become fully ordained.
By this time it was about noon, and one Buddhist statue was beginning to look like another. And I was hungry. Looking at reliquaries and stupas covered in gold can really work up an appetite. After getting a bite to eat, I walked across the park surrounding the Shwedegan Pagoda to the North Gate. I came across another group of nuns, little girls really, who took great delight in saying “Hello,” and “Good morning,” to me. They walked with me a little ways as if to show me off to the other nuns, as if to say “Look what I got!” Possibly useful information:
* Shwedegon Pagoda is open from 4:00 am to 10:00 pm every day. There is an entrance fee of US$8 or 8,000 Kyat for foreigners.
*There are four entrances.
just outside the pagoda
Regardless of which entrance you use, you must remove your shoes and socks when you enter the pagoda site. You can leave your shoes at the entrance; just remember to leave by the same entrance.
* The West Gate is directly across the street from a small strip mall that has several decent restaurants. The North Gate is directly across the street from the Martyr’s Mausoleum, where Aung Sun is interred along with several other people who were assassinated with him.
* The pagoda is surrounded by a very pretty park that makes for a brief respite from the heat and crowds. There are also souvenir vendors and wood carvers by the entrances.
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