Myanmar Monk and Monastery

by Kyaw Win (culture)

Myanmar perspectives, vol:II 6/97

(The term "Monk" in Myanmar is Hpongyi and "Monastery" is Hpongyi Kyaung")

wpe4.jpg (39948 bytes)

    To a Buddhist the three gems, or the three objects for special veneration and respect, are the Buddha, his Law and the Priesthood. On the hpongyis has fallen the duty of propagating the Law and also of preparing religion and morals. Not only do hpongyis occupy a dominant and special position in the Buddhist scheme of things, but to them is also entrusted the entire education of a certain percent of the male population. The influence of hpongyis, therefore on the lives of the Myanmar people is indeed considerable. Before the introduction of the present system of education into Myanmar, there must have been, on the lowest computation, 60 percent of Buddhist boys receiving free education in hpongyi kyaungs both as lay pupils or as koyins (i.e., novices). No fees were charged and poorer boys were even given food and clothing. In return the boys rendered a few personal services to the master or teacher.

A Hpongyi Kyaung (Monastery)

    In village tracts one or two kyaungs would minister to the religious and educational needs of a large village or agroup of small villages. The number of hpongyis residing in a kyaung would depend upon the size of the building, but no overcrowding was noticeable. The presiding hpongyi would have a room to himself opening out into a large central open hall, while the other priests would occupy the remaining rooms. Each hpongyi has allotted to him a small space and a hall with a window at the head of his bed, and all his worldly possessions would consist of a box, generally a wooden one, for storing his yellow robes, and a mat and a pillow and a blanket. Hpongyis are not permitted to handle money. To each priest are attached pupils from one to three in number and also a few koyin, i.e. young novices in yellow robes who occupy a position somewhere between that of lay pupil and that of a fully ordained priest. Pupil koyins attached to each hpongyi are taught individually by the hpongyi himself. There are no classes and no yearly examination. A boy can join a Hpongyi Kyaung at any time of the year and no school leaving certificates are required to be produced. Each boy forges ahead in his lessons as far as his capacity or industry will carry him.

Daily Routine

    Everybody in a kyaung has to get up very early in the morning. At about 5 a.m. along piece of wood about 4 feet in length and six inches in diameter, suspended between two posts is beaten with a wooden mallet announcing that it is time for everybody to get up. Pupils and koyins will cook one or two pots of boiled rice to be served at dawn to priests in small plates. Hpongyis, it must be mentioned, have been on a fast and not taken any food since twelve noon of the previous day. After partaking of this boiled rice, priests, except those who are very aged or sick and the head priest, would go out to the town or to the village to receive food provided by devotees, each carrying a bowl, or sometimes with a pupil carrying a bowl following him. It is customary for each Myanmar household to keep apart some rice and curry to be offered to hpongyis who come along every morning with their bowls, the quantity and quality depending on its "Well-to-do-ness." Hpongyis would stop in front of a house and receive a spoonful of rice and sometimes a bowl of curry. He goes from house to house in this manner until a sufficient quantity of rice and 4 or 5 dishes of curry have been collected before returning to the kyaung between 8 or 9 a.m.


    Those boys who stay behind will clean and sweep the halls and also the grounds around their kyaung. In a portion of the central hall specially reserved for the purpose, is kept an image of the Buddha. The face of the image is wiped with a clean towel and freshly plucked flowers placed before it in small lacquer trays. The boys will carry water from the wells - there is a well for each Kyaung - for filling drinking pots and also for the head priest and wash their master's robes and their own cloths. Some would read their lessons aloud, while others would indulge in a game of marbles, or of gonnyyin (round seeds about two inches in diameter and one quarter of an inch thick) projected forward by turning them round with the index or middle finger, the object being to hit a marked seed about 12 feet away), or other simple games. When hpongyis come back from their receiving rounds between 8 and 9 a.m. the boys take over the bowls and commence the preparations for serving the only meal of the day.

Hpongyis' Only Meal

    After few minutes rest, hpongyis go to the well for their morning bath - to draw water for one's master is an act of merit and there is no lack of volunteers among the boys for this task. Hpongyis sit down to their meal in groups of 5 to 10 in a large open passage. All the curries and rice brought by the priests forming a particular group are placed on a round wooden or lacquer table and the hpongyis take their meals sitting round the table on the floor. The best curries are offered to the presiding hpongyi who ordinarily has a small table to himself. After the hpongyis have had their repast, koyions boys sit down to what is left. The place is then cleaned. Bowls and plates are washed and arranged on a rack ready to be taken round again on the following morning. 

    About half an hour or so before noon all the priests, including the head priest sit down to tea - tea without milk or sugar, but served with jaggery, slices of coconut or sweets. After the tea hpongyis retire to their rooms or halls - a few to have a short siesta and the rest either to teach their pupils, both boys and koyins, or to read Pali texts as a preparation for the day's lecture. Each boy is taught separately either by the master or by elder pupils. Pali stanzas and passages are learnt by heart and after a boy can repeat from memory. his master explains the meaning to him. As a hpongyi has not more than 2 or 3 pupils, each boy gets individual attention, which would be impossible in a big class. There is a wholesome atmosphere of intimacy and understanding between the teacher and the taught.

Koyins (Novices)

wpe4.jpg (30065 bytes)

    It is obligatory for a Buddhist boy to become a koyin once in his life time and to remain as such for some months. Before the time when necessity for getting employment induced parents to send their boys to English or lay school, a boy would spend at least three months as koyin, but such a thing would now mean loss of one year and missing of one's class promotion. Present day parents have, therefore, to be content with sending their boys to hpongyi kyaungs for only a few days during holidays. A Buddhist who has not been a koyin or donned the yellow robe is looked upon as one who has missed the most essential priviledge of his existence in this world. Some koyins, after acquiring what is considered to be sufficient education for the secular world, leave the kyaungs, while others, become attached to the simple religious life, and stay on in the yellow robe to become ordained priest at the age of 19. The ordination ceremony has to be performed in a specially consecrated building known as a "Thein" and lasts for four to five hours. A hpongyi, however, can "come back" to the world at any time he chooses. There is no such thing as a vow for life-long priesthood.

Charity of Learning

    Of all charities, the charity of learning is the noblest. A hpongyi renowned for his learning will give free lectures to all and sundry. Young priests in search of knowledge from all parts of the country will crowd around his lectures. The teaching in a hpongyi kyaung is mainly religious, even social ethics, philosophy and literature taught therein are derived from religious texts, and sometimes over crusted with legends and fables.

    Boys do not have to buy books or pencils. Lessons are written on long rectangular boards about one-third of an inch thick covered with a thin layer of paste of powdered charcoal and rice gruel. Each boy has one such board of his own. These boards are erased every day and prepared for the next day's lessons.

    They pass on from one lesson to another and from one text to the next when the teacher is satisfied that the first has been mastered. Competitions in calligraphy and memorizing are held quite frequently. No tangible prizes are awarded; however, the winner has a free ride on the back of the loser round the kyaung to the simple enjoyment of the spectators. No ill-feeling is created thereby.

   About 4 p.m. the hpongyis come out and take a stroll round the kyaung for exercise or pay visits to their friends in other kyaungs. Then there is another bath after which they congregate in the prayer hall to worship the Buddha and say their prayers and light candles. Beads are counted before retiring for the night.

   The boys play chinlon or leap frog before dinner, which they have to cook themselves. It is very plain affair - rice, dried fish and vegetable soup. The boys also have to say their prayers every evening and repeat aloud the passages they have learnt by heart in the course of the day.

   A library is kept in the central hall, consisting of square shaped wooden almirahs, some richly carved and gilt, others covered with mosaic work, in which are kept bundles of palm leaf texts neatly wrapped up and piled.

   Before the commencement and after the end of the Buddhist Lent, lasting from 3 to 4 months, during which as a rule hpongyis do not travel, koyins are allowed to put on lay gala clothes for a few days and pay short visits to their parents and relatives and to join in the customary festivities.