Only some two weeks have passed since ‘Yay’ (water) played an important role in Burmese people’s life. That was when in Tagu (March/April) during ‘Thingyan’ or ‘Water Festival’ – the ‘Burmese New Year’ – the people poured lots of water over one another to wash away all physical filth and dirt and the spiritual sins and evils in order to enter with a clean body and soul into the New Year. Meanwhile we are coping with the heat of the summer as best as we can. All my clothes are dry again and I have recovered from the cold I had caught during that time.
And now, again, yay plays in more ways than one an important role in and for the lives of the people of Burma who are in their vast majority – some 86% – Buddhists.
Again, they pour and throw water; only this time not over one another (so you must not worry, we will stay dry) out of earthen pots (atar pots) they have bought earlier (at the full moon of Kason they can buy them literally at every pagoda corner) but over a tree (or its roots) of the genus ‘Ficus’ that belongs to the family of ‘Moraceae’ and is classified as ‘Ficus religiosa’. This tree is commonly known as ‘Banyan tree’, ‘Bo tree’ or ‘Bodhi tree’ and is a fig tree, more precisely the ‘Indian fig’ tree. Especially on the full-moon day of Kason this sacred tree is of great significance to Burmese Buddhists as it is closely related to Gautama Buddha. In order to understand why this is so, we have to travel some 2,500 years back in time.
Before we start to time-travel and beam ourselves back into the time of around 500 B.C., I must once again draw your attention to the fact that it is often extremely difficult if not impossible to separate historical facts from myth and legend particularly, when it comes to Siddhartha Gautama and his life. Those accounts of his life that still exist were mostly handed down by the Buddha’s disciples as oral traditions and written down long after his death by often idolising followers. For this reason it is most likely that they do not always reflect the historical truth. Therefore, not everyone may agree with all of the details of my writings. However, I have done my very best to find out the truth, which according to the historical ‘facts’ available to me could be as follows.
On the morning of the full-moon day that is celebrated by Burmese Buddhists as the full-moon of Kason, Siddhartha Gautama, the son of the head of the Indian ‘Sakya’ warrior caste (which accounts for the name ‘Sakyamuni’, ‘Sage of the Sakya’, a name Siddhartha Gautama was also known by) sat under a Bo tree near Gaya (now Buddha Gaya in the north-eastern Indian state of Bihar) south of Patna (present-day Bihar’s capital) when he had his ‘Great Enlightenment’ that revealed to him the way of salvation from suffering. This he tried to find for many years by looking for as he is said to have put it: “Who wrought these prisons of senses, sorrow, fraught.”
On this full-moon day under the Bodhi tree he is said to have declared: “I know thee, never shall you build again these walls of pain.” He made the ‘knowledge’ he had acquired in the course of his Enlightenment the basis of his following some 45 years of preaching and teaching as a religious philosopher while travelling as a mendicant. He was about 80 years old when he died in Kusinagara in Nepal after being poisoned.
Legend has it that A) the day he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama in ca. 563 B.C., B) the day of his ‘Great Enlightenment’ under the Bodhi tree (Tree of Enlightenment) in ca. 533 B.C. and C) the day of his death, i.e. his passing on to ‘Nibbana’ or ‘Parinibanna’ (a state of neither being existent nor non-existent that to reach is Buddhism’s ultimate goal) as ‘Buddha’, meaning the ‘Enlightened One’ in ca. 483 B.C. fell all on a full-moon day, the day celebrated by the Burmese Buddhists as full-moon day of Kason. For this reason this day is also called ‘Thrice Blessed Day’ or ‘Three-fold Anniversary’. Subsequently the ‘Full-moon Day of Kason’ marks the three main events of Siddhartha Gautama Buddha’s life and as such it is celebrated in a fitting manner by Burmese Buddhists all over the country.
People of all ages, women and men alike go to ‘Payas’ (Pagodas), ‘Zedis’ (Stupas) and ‘Kyaungs’ (Monasteries) in processions to water the sacred Bodhi tree, give alms, make offerings, keep precepts or practice meditation, enjoy the company of other worshippers, the music made by ‘doh bats’, (folk music groups) accompanying the processions and people even dance a few steps to their music. The celebrations are marked by good deeds, songs and music, dances, happiness, hope and many believers make a wish while pouring water on the Bodhi tree from your atar pot to water the tree in this hot summertime and gain religious merits. I too have made a wish, which is that you will enjoy my articles.
The ‘Board of Trustees’ in Yangon organises and conducts an official ceremony to celebrate this day in the context of which a huge processions is led around the great gilded ‘Shwedagon Stupa’. The people leading this procession are clad in the garb of celestial beings such as ‘Thagyamin’ (King of Celestials), the ‘Galon/Garuda King’ (a mythical being half human and half bird) and the ‘Naga’ (Serpent King). This much to the religious, the commemoration part of the full-moon day of Kason. But what about the anticipating part mentioned earlier?
Well, if you remember correctly I have mentioned that in Kason water is in more than one way important to the Burmese. And water is the subject of anticipation. Burmese farmers put it into the following words: “Water in the ponds recedes in Tagu and the whole land is parched in Kason.”
Weary of the scorching sun during high summer that now comes to an end both people and nature are longing for water and are looking forward to the first rains that herald the monsoon that will begin in June and bring the water so badly needed in this agriculture country. And the first light showers, that are drastically changing the natural environment, are falling around the full-moon day of Kason.
Now everything turns green and colourful, the air is cool and clear and people – especially, of course, children – are happily dancing in the first showers, also called ‘Mango showers’ as they bring forth the delicious mangoes which will soon be ripe and available in abundance. So, I hope you have enjoyed the celebration of the full-moon of Kason and have become familiar with what it is that makes this festival so full of meaning to the Burmese people. I suggest that we have a rest now because soon we will celebrate the next festival, the ‘Full Moon of Waso’ in the month of Waso (June/July) that marks the beginning of the ‘Buddhist Lent.