Sondang Grace Sirait

When it comes to the world’s major religions, there’s the Golden Rule of doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. Everyone probably knows that already.

There is, however, another less-known constant. All of those religions recommend a certain rite of penance. The idea is for the faithful to enhance their spirituality by refraining themselves from worldly pleasures, and instead, soaking in religious ideals, for a designated period of time. Christians do it ahead of Easter and Muslims for a whole month during Ramadan.

Here in Myanmar, the Buddhist Lent is observed for three months, beginning with the Waso Full Moon Festival, which falls in the fourth month of the Myanmar calendar, 19th July this year, and ending with the Thadingyut Festival, which will be celebrated in the seventh month of the Myanmar calendar.

Shwedagon Night_Hongsar Wadee
Photo Hongsar Wadee

Unlike other Buddhist festivities commonly celebrated in Myanmar, Waso is by far the most serene. It’s definitely a contrasting experience from that of Thingyan and all its splashy mayhem.

For many reasons, Myanmar Buddhists revere Waso. It was during this month that the Buddha Prince Siddharta was believed to have been conceived. It was also during Waso that he renounced the world, and later, after the Enlightenment, delivered his first sermon.

In keeping with the religious nuance of the month, Buddhist monks in the modern times now observe the period to retreat from the hustle and bustle of life. Remaining at their monasteries, for the next three months the monks will devote themselves to meditation.

For devout Buddhists, the Waso Full Moon rings in weeks of less self-pleasing and more self-introspection. It’s that time of the year where the pious seek merit through intense praying, meditating and donating.

As for the rest of the country, it’s common for laymen to observe Waso by holding the annual occasion known as “Waso-pwe” or “Waso-thingan-katlupwe”, which refers to the offering of robes, food and other essentials to the Sangha—with robes topping off the list of top items to be donated to monks.

During this time of the year, people will also flock to pagodas or shrines depicting Buddha images to offer flowers and other donations. Marriage isn’t encouraged to take place during this period of moderation, and alcohol consumption is kept to a minimum level, if not abhorred.

In the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where it is reckoned that one out of 10 people is a monk, religious festivities have become a cultural norm. It also makes a great window to look into the country’s cultural heritage.

If you happen to be in the country during Waso, don’t miss out on the chance to witness firsthand the calming beauty of the festival. Keep in mind, though, some basic rules such as not deliberately touching monks and not posing in front of Buddha images, which are deemed sacred. It’s also customary to make a donation when visiting pagodas or shrines, either in the form of money or in kind. As always, it’s a good idea to consult a local on what would be a recommended practice.

This Waso Festival, come with an open mind and get ready for a whole new experience of the country, its main religion and cultural heritage. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Featured photo from Marie Starr

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