MYANMAR: Shinbyu—A Buddhist Novitiation Ceremony
Among Myanmar’s ethnic majority Burmese, the Theravada Buddhist novitiation ceremony (Shinbyu Pwe in Burmese) is a major event in the life of every boy—and some girls—and also in the life of the family and the community. The underlying intention is to give the child the opportunity to experience the monastic life and be initiated into a knowledge of the teachings of the Buddha. This is primarily an initiation ceremony for boys, although depending on local custom, girls may also participate either with an ear-piercing ceremony or novitiation in a Buddhist nunnery if there is one in proximity. The duration of stay in the monastery may range from a few days to months or even years; it may be repeated more than once during childhood and youth, and in some cases will lead to a choice of the monastic life upon reaching adulthood. If not, then it is nevertheless considered a necessary preparation for the adult life of a lay Buddhist. The ceremony is often lavish and relatives may share the considerable expense of an occasion that brings merit to all who make it possible. In symbolic imitation of Prince Siddhartha Gautama before his abandonment of the palace for an ascetic life, the novices are dressed like royalty, adorned with face makeup, paraded on horseback, in a cart driven by oxen, or even upon an elephant. A clownlike entertainer holding a parasol is frequently part of the entourage, and participants enjoy music, dancing and feasting. Following the conclusion of the collective festivities, the novice has his (or her) head shaven, receives a monastic robe and begging bowl, and begins instruction in Buddhist scriptures and principles within the confines of the monastery. The first part of this portfolio documents the lavish secular Shinbyu ceremonial activities of the lay community; and the second part, the subsequent life of novices within the monastery or nunnery, which nevertheless appears to embrace fun as well as discipline and instruction.