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Chapter IV - Burma and Buddhism

Burma is traversed by three parallel rivers that flow southward: the Irawadi, the Sittang, and the Salwen. By far the largest of these is the Irawadi, which is navigable by steamers to Bhamo, eight hundred and forty miles from the mouth. The country is made up of these three parallel river valleys, and the mountain chains which flank them. The land in Asia gradually slopes from the Himalayas southward toward the bay of Bengal. Starting at the south and moving northward, the traveler finds first broad paddy fields, submerged during a part of the year by the network of streams through which the Irawadi finds its way to the sea; then he traverses upland plains; then a rolling country, with ranges of hills; and finally deep forests, high mountains, and the magnificent defiles through which the rivers flow.

The southern part of Burma, like Egypt, owes its fertility to an annual inundation which is thus described by an English officer:

"With the exception of high knolls standing up here and there, and a strip of high ground at the base of the hills, the whole country, fields, roads, bridges, is under water from one to twelve feet or more in depth. Boats are the only means of locomotion for even a few yards. You sail across the country, ploughing through the half-submerged long grass, piloting a way through the clumps of brushwood and small trees, into the streets of large agricultural villages, where the cattle are seen stabled high up in the houses, twelve feet from the ground; the children are catching fish with lines through the floor; the people are going about their daily concerns, if it is only to borrow a cheroot from their next-door neighbor, in canoes; in short, all the miseries and laughable contretemps sometimes pictured in the illustrated papers as caused by floods in Europe, may be seen -- with this difference, that every one is so accustomed to them that they never create a thought of surprise."

The northern part of Burma abounds in mountain streams of exquisite beauty. An eyewitness describes them in flowing terms, as follows:

"In some places they are seen leaping in cascades over precipices from fifty to one hundred feet high; in others, spreading out into deep, quiet lakes. In some places they run purling over pebbles of milk-white quartz, or grass-green prase, or yellow jasper, or sky-blue slate, or variegated porphyry; in others, they glide like arrows over rounded masses of granite, or smooth, angular pieces of green stone. In some places nought can be heard but the stunning sounds of 'deep calling unto deep'; in others, the mind is led to musing by the quiet murmur of the brook, that falls on the ear like distant music. The traveler's path often leads him up the middle of one of these streams, and every turn, like that of a kaleidoscope, reveals something new and pleasing to the eye. Here a daisy-like flower nods over the margin, as if to look at her modest face in the reflecting waters; there the lotus-leafed, wild arum stands knee-deep in water, shaking around with the motion of the stream the dewdrops on its peltate bosom like drops of glittering quicksilver. Here the fantastic roots of a willow, sprinkled with its woolly capsules, come down to the water's edge, or it may be a eugenia tree, with its fragrant white corymbs, or a water dillenia, with its brick-red, scaly trunk, and green, apple-like fruit, occupies its place; there the long, drooping red tassels of the barringtonia hang far over the bank, dropping its blossoms on the water, food for numerous members of the carp family congregated below."

The domestic animals of Burma are the ox, buffalo, horse, and the goat.The horses are small, and are used for riding, never as beasts of burden. The dog is not kept as a pet or for hunting; but, as in other Oriental countries, roams about the cities in a half-wild condition, devouring offal, and at last becomes the victim of famine and disease. The jungles swarm with wild animals, the monkey, elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, deer, and wild-cat. The elephants are caught, tamed, and used for riding. The white elephant, or albino, is especially prized. A specimen is always kept at court as the insignia of royalty, one of the king's titles being, "Lord of the White Elephant."

Venomous and offensive reptiles and insects abound. While you are eating your dinner the lizard may drop from the bamboo rafters upon the table. As you step out of your door the gleaming forms of chameleons shoot up the trunk of your roof-tree and hide themselves in the branches. The scorpion, with its painful sting, and the centipede, with its poisonous bite, may be found in your garden. The children must be warned not to race through the bushes in your compound, lest they encounter the hated cobra: whose slightest nip is sure and speedy death. The author remembers his father taking the Burman spear, the only weapon which he ever used, and coming down into the poultry-yard to dispatch a cobra, whose track had been discovered in the dust beneath the house. How much discomfort and suffering are caused even in our own land by rats, mice, snakes, flies, and mosquitoes! And the foreign missionary has these same pests, but in a more aggravated form. These are larger, more numerous, and in addition to them he has to cope with the white ants, that in armies destroy his furniture, the scorpion, the centipede, the cobra, the tiger.

The inhabitants of Burma belong to the Mongolian race, the characteristics of which are "long, straight hair; almost complete absence of beard; a dark-colored skin varying from a leather-like yellow to a deep brown, or sometimes tending to red; and prominent cheek-bones, generally accompanied by an oblique setting of the eyes." They are described by a modern writer as "of a stout, active, well-proportioned form; of a brown, but never of an intensely dark complexion, with black, coarse, and abundant hair, and a little more beard than is possessed by the Siamese."

At the time of Mr. and Mrs. Judson's arrival, the population numbered from six to eight millions. This included, however, not only Burmans, who are the ruling race, and dwell mainly in the larger towns and cities, but also several subject races -- Shans, Karens, Ka-khy-ens, half-wild people, who live in villages scattered through the jungles and along the mountain streams. These tribes have different habits, and speak a different language from that of the Burmans. They are related to the Burmans somewhat as the North American Indians are to us, being perhaps the original inhabitants of the country, and having been subjugated at some remote period of the past. It would seem that wave after wave of Mongolian conquerors had swept over the country from the North, and these tribes are the fragments of wrecked races.

Major Yule gives the following graphic description of the mental and moral traits of the Burmese:

"Unlike the generality of the Asiatics, they are not a fawning race. They are cheerful, and singularly alive to the ridiculous; buoyant, elastic, soon recovering from personal or domestic disaster. With little feeling of patriotism they are still attached to their homes, greatly so to their families. Free from prejudices of caste or creed, they readily fraternize with strangers, and at all times frankly yield to the superiority of a European. Though ignorant they are, when no mental exertion is required, inquisitive, and to a certain extent eager for information; indifferent to the shedding of blood on the part of their rulers, yet not individually cruel; temperate, abstemious, and hardy, but idle, with neither fixedness of purpose, nor perseverance. Discipline, or any continued employment, becomes most irksome to them, yet they are not devoid of a certain degree of enterprise. Great dabblers in all mercantile ventures, they may be called (the women especially) a race of hucksters; not treacherous or habitual perverters of the truth, yet credulous and given to monstrous exaggerations; when vested with authority, arrogant and boastful; if unchecked, corrupt, oppressive, and arbitrary; distinguished for bravery, whilst their chiefs are notorious for cowardice; indifferent shots, and though living in a country abounding in forest, not bold followers of field sports."

The soil of Burma is richly productive of all that is needed for food, or clothing, or shelter, or ornament. The chief crops are rice, maize (or Indian corn), wheat, tobacco, cotton, and indigo. It is computed that eighty per cent of all the rice brought from the East to Europe is produced in the rich paddy-fields of British Burma. There is an abundance of delicious fruits -- the jack-fruit, the bread fruit, oranges, bananas, guavas, pineapples, and the cocoanut. After the annual inundation, the subsiding rivers leave behind them in the depression of the ground ponds well stocked with fish. Beef and mutton the Burman learns to forego, as his religion does not allow him to eat cattle or sheep unless they die a natural death. His meal of rice and curry is sometimes enriched by the addition of poultry. The bamboo yields building material for his houses, and the teak forest timber for his ships. The mineral resources are large. The earth yields iron, tin, silver, gold, sapphires, emeralds, rubies, amber, sulphur, arsenic, antimony, coal (both anthracite and bituminous), and petroleum, which is used by all classes in little clay lamps.

Yet at the time of the arrival of our missionaries there was no commerce on a large scale. This is shown by the high rate of interest, twenty-five per cent; and sixty per cent, when no security was given. The very productiveness of his country made the Burman of fifty years ago feel independent of foreign nations. He took the narrow view that exportation only tended to impoverishment. The government rigidly prohibited all important exportation except that of the cheap and abundant teak timber. Gold and silver and precious stones must not be carried out for fear of reducing the country to poverty. If in those days an English merchant had carried a large quantity of silks and calicoes to the royal city, and had exchanged them for five thousand dollars in gold, he could possess and enjoy the money there, but he could not, except by bribery, succeed in carrying it home. His wealth made him practically an exile and a prisoner. The marble could not be exported, because it was consecrated to the building of idols and pagodas. The cotton and the rice could not be exported, lest there should not be enough left for the clothing and food of the population. The only commerce worth mentioning was with China. The Chinese caravans brought overland large quantities of silk, and received cotton in exchange.

On account of the low state of commerce, the science of navigation was quite unknown to the Burmans. When sailors made their little trips in the dry season along the shores of the bay of Bengal, they took pains never to pass out of sight of land.

There were no extensive manufactures in Burma, for these required an accumulation of large capital; and a man could never be sure that his wealth would not be wrested from him by the government. And so the chief article of manufacture was lacquer ware, as this requires but little capital. Woven strips of bamboo were smeared with mud, and baked, polished, and varnished, were then manufactured into beautiful boxes and trays.

Most of the Burmans, however, are engaged in agricultural pursuits. They raise rice and catch fish, which they pound up into a mass with coarse salt, and so produce their favorite relish, ngapee. Immense quantities of rice and ngapee are carried up the Irawadi in boats, and are sold at the capital and in the upper provinces of Burma.

The government of Independent Burma was an absolute despotism, now wholly set aside by the English conquest. The king had supreme power over the life and possessions of every subject. He could confiscate property, imprison, torture, or execute at his pleasure -- his only restraint being fear of an insurrection. An English writer relates that at the sovereign's command one of the highest officers of the State was seized by the public executioner and stretched on the ground by the side of the road under a scorching sun, with a heavy weight upon his chest, and afterward restored to his high position. There were indeed two councils of State, by which the government was administered, but the members of these councils were appointed by the king, and could be degraded or executed at his word. The father of the last monarch of Burma saw the evils of this despotic system, and, in arranging for the succession, formed a plan by which his successor should be subject to limitation by his prime ministers. But the new king, Thebaw, a brutal and licentious boy of twenty, frustrated this benignant purpose. He murdered his counselors, massacred his blood relations, and Burma that had roused herself for a moment from her long nightmare of despotism sank again into sleep.

The whole country was divided into provinces, townships, districts, and villages. Over each province was a governor, or as the Burmese call him, an Eater. Through his underlings he taxed every family. His officers received a share of what they could extort, and the rest was divided with the king. In this way the whole land was a scene of enormous extortion. There were no fixed salaries for government functionaries. The higher officer ate a certain province or district. The lower lived on fees and perquisites. Courts of law were corrupted by bribery. It was customary to torture witnesses. The criminal was usually executed by decapitation. He might, however, be disemboweled, or thrown to wild beasts, or crucified, or have his limbs broken with a bludgeon -- if he could not effect his escape by the plentiful use of money. Who can estimate the miseries which the peasantry must have suffered under such a system of bribery and extortion?

The religion of Burma is Buddhism. Here, and in the island of Ceylon, this cult exists in its purest form. Buddhism as is known originated in India about five hundred years before Christ. Here it succeeded in supplanting the ancient religion of the Hindus, derived from the Vedas, and called Brahminism.

India was in former times saturated with Brahminical philosophy and Brahminical ceremonial. The people were completely priest-ridden. Buddhism was an out-growth from Brahminism, or perhaps rather a recoil from it. It was related to it somewhat as Christianity is to Judaism, or Protestantism to the Romish Church. For one hundred and fifty years Buddhism had a very rapid and vigorous growth in India, but soon after the beginning of the Christian era it began to decay, and in the eighth and ninth centuries A. D., in consequence of a great persecution, Buddhism was completely extirpated in India. The ancient religion, Brahminism, was reinstated, and Gautama has comparatively few worshipers in the land of his birth. But a prophet is not without honor save in his own country. Buddhism is pervaded by a missionary spirit, and has won its way by peaceful persuasion into Ceylon, Burma, Siam, Thibet, and China. It is at the present day the religion of more than four hundred millions of human beings -- about one-third of the population of the globe.

Buddhism, like Brahminism, holds the doctrine of transmigration of souls. The soul is at first united with the lowest forms of organic life. By successive births it may climb into the bodies of spiders, snakes, chameleons, and after long ages may reach the human tenement. Then comes the period of probation. According to its behavior in the flesh it either rises still higher to occupy the glorious forms of demigods and gods, or it relapses little by little into its lowest state, and again takes up its wretched abode in the degraded forms of the lower animals.

Life runs its rounds of living, climbing up
From mote and gnat and worm, reptile and fish,
Bird and shagged beast, man, demon, deva, God,
To clod and mote again.
("The Light of Asia," by Edwin Arnold)

"He who is now the most degraded of the demons may one day rule the highest of the heavens; he who is at present seated on the most honorable of the celestial thrones, may one day writhe amidst all the agonies of a place of torment; and the worm that we crush under our feet may in the course of ages become a supreme Buddha." (Hardwick's "Christ and other Masters.")

Eternal process moving on,
From state to state the spirit walks,
And these are but the shattered stalks
And ruined chrysalis of one.
(Tennyson's "In Memoriam.")

This belief pervades the every-day thinking of the most ignorant Burmese. An English officer writes, that "just before the drop fell with a wretched murderer, he himself heard him mutter as his last word, 'May my next existence be a man's, and a long one!" An old woman, whose grown-up son had died, thought that she recognized that son's voice in the bleating of a neighbor's calf. She threw her arms about the animal, and purchasing it, cherished it until its death as the living embodiment of her own child.

Faith in transmigration accounts for the pious Buddhist's treatment of the lower animals. The priests strain the gnats out of the water they drink. "They do not eat after noon, nor drink after dark, for fear of swallowing minute insects, and they carry a brush on all occasions, with which they carefully sweep every place before they sit down, lest they should inadvertently crush any living creature." Mr. Huxley tells us that a Hindu's peace of mind was completely destroyed by a microscopist who showed him the animals in a drop of water. The Buddhists often build hospitals for sick brutes. Perhaps this deep-seated and hereditary faith in transmigration may account for the singular apathy of the natives to the destruction of life caused by snakes and tigers. In fact, one of their legends represents the founder of their religion as sacrificing his life-blood to slake the parched thirst of a starving tigress.

Although Brahminism and Buddhism both agree in teaching transmigration, they differ widely in their views of God and of the soul. Brahminism is pantheistic; Buddhism atheistic. According to Brahminism, matter has no real existence. All physical forms are the merest illusions. The only real existences are souls. These are all parts of a great divine soul from which they emanate and into which they will at last be reabsorbed, as when a flask of water is broken in the ocean. Buddhism denies the existence not only of matter, but of the soul and of God. It is a system of universal negation. There is no trace in it of a supreme being. All is mere seeming. Nothing is real in past, present, or future.

Again, Brahminism betrays a deep consciousness of sin. It teaches the necessity of doing painful penance and of offering animal sacrifices. Buddhism regards sin as cosmical. There is no such thing as blame or guilt. There is no mediation or pardon. The Buddhist brings no animal to the altar. His worship consists in offering up prayers, and perfumes, and flowers, in memory of the founder of his religion.

Again, Brahminism is aristocratic; Buddhism democratic. Brahminism is the religion of caste. It divides the nation into four classes: the priest, the warrior, the tradesman, and the serf. Besides these, but lowest of all, are pariahs, or outcastes -- the offspring of intercourse that violated the law of caste. There can be no social mingling of the castes. The condition of the serfs is most wretched and humiliating. The laws of Manu ordain that their abode must be outside the towns, their property must be restricted to dogs and asses, their clothes should be those left by the dead, their ornaments rusty iron; they must roam from place to place; no respectable person must hold intercourse with them; they are to aid as public executioners, retaining the clothes of the dead.

Now Buddhism rejected the system of caste. Gautama taught: "The priest is born of a woman; so is the outcaste. My law is a law of grace for all. My doctrine is like the sky. There is room for all without exception, men, women, boys, girls, poor, and rich." The two beautiful stories that follow remind us of the spirit and behavior of our own blessed Lord.

Amanda, an eminent disciple of Gautama, meets an outcaste girl drawing water at a well. He asks for a draught. She hesitates, fearing she may contaminate him by her touch. He says, "My sister, I do not ask what is thy caste, or thy descent; I beg for water; if thou canst, give it me." Also, a poor man filled Gautama's alms-bowl with a handful of flowers, while ten thousand bushels of rice from the rich failed.

The founder of Buddhism is called Gautama Siddartha, or Buddha. Gautama was the name of his family, Siddartha his own individual name, and Buddha, "the enlightened one," the surname he acquired by his wisdom. He was born about the year 500 B. C., at Kapilavastu, a few days' journey from Benares, near the base of the Himalayas. His father was an Indian prince, and ruled over a tribe called the Sakyas. Buddha is described as of a gentle, ardent, pensive, philanthropic nature. He was reared in the lap of Oriental luxury, but his earnest nature became weary with pleasure. Intimations of the wretchedness of the peasantry of India penetrated even the palace walls. The winds sweeping over the ?lian harp whispered the miseries of mankind.

We are the voices of the wandering wind,
Which moan for root, and rest can never find;
Lo! as the wind is, so is mortal life,
A moan, a sigh, a sob, a storm, a strife.

O Maya's son! because we roam the earth,
Moan we upon these strings; we make no mirth
So many woes we see in many lands,
So many streaming eyes, and wringing hands.
("The Light of Asia.")

The desire to be a saviour takes possession of his breast. Four ominous sights contribute to fix his purpose. He sees in his pleasure grounds an old man, broken and decrepit; again, he meets a man smitten with a malignant disease; again, his eye rests upon a corpse. He learns that such are the destinies of himself and of all his fellow-beings. At last he sees a mendicant monk passing by with his alms-bowl. The young prince resolves to leave his father, his wealth, his power, his wife, his child, and become a homeless wanderer, that he may search out the way of salvation for himself and his fellow-men. He first becomes a Brahminical ascetic, and gives himself over to the severest penance and self-torture. Afterward he abandons this altogether, and at last, while in profoundest meditation under the bo-tree, discovers the way of life. He spends his remaining days in traveling through India preaching his gospel, and gaining many disciples. He lives to be an old man, and at last dies with the words on his lips: "Nothing is durable!"

But one eagerly inquires, What was the way of salvation that Buddha discovered under the bo-tree, and spent half a century of his life in preaching? Observe successively the point of departure, the goal, and the way.

Buddha starts out with the idea that misery is the indispensable accompaniment of existence -- sorrow is shadow to life. The foundation of his philosophy rests in the densest pessimism. While we are bound up in this material world, we are a prey to disappointment, disease, old age, death. We find ourselves "caught in the common net of death and woe, and life which binds to both." There is no way out of the vast and monotonous cycle of transmigration except into Nirvana -- the blowing out -- that is, total extinction.

The highest goal therefore, to which we can attain is utter annihilation. That this is the meaning of Nirvana or Nigban, seems established beyond a doubt. The most eminent authorities on Buddhism, Barthelemy St. Hilaire, Bigandet, Eugene Burnoul, Spence Hardy, and Max M?ler, all agree with the view presented by Mr. Judson many years ago, that Nirvana or Nigban is nothing less than a total extinction of soul and body. It is the final blowing out of the soul, as of a lamp; not its absorption, as when a "dewdrop slips into the shining sea." It is

To perish rather, swallowed up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion.

But in what way is this bliss of annihilation to be reached? Only by a long and arduous struggle. There are four truths to be believed. 1. There is nothing in life but sorrow. 2. The root of sorrow is desire. 3. Desire must be destroyed. 4. The way to destroy desire is to follow the eightfold path, viz., 1. Right doctrine. 2. Right purpose. 3. Right discourse. 4. Right behavior. 5. Right purity. 6. Right thought. 7. Right solitude. 8. Right rapture.

But in order to do these eight right things, five commandments must be kept. 1. Not to kill. 2. Not to steal. 3. Not to commit adultery. 4. Not to lie. 5. Not to get intoxicated. And upon these commandments Gautama himself gives the following commentary:

"He who kills as much as a louse or a bug; he who takes so much as a thread that belongs to another; he who with a wishful thought looks at another man's wife; he who makes a jest of what concerns the advantage of another; he who puts on his tongue as much as a drop of intoxicating liquor, has broken the commandments."

There are four stages to be arrived at in the way of salvation. 1. The believer has a change of heart, and conquers lust, pride, and anger. 2. He is set free from ignorance, doubt, and wrong belief. 3. He enters the state of universal kindliness. 4. He reaches Nirvana.

In this succession of stages Buddha makes right conduct a precedent condition to spiritual knowledge; and so is in striking harmony with a greater than he: "If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine."

It is clear that the strength of Buddhism lies not in its philosophy or theology, but in its code of morals. To its system of rightness rigidly practised by its founder it owes its vitality. If the presentation of a system of morality could save, then long since India, Burma, Ceylon, Siam, Thibet, and China ought to have become an earthly paradise. Besides the virtues ordinarily recognized in heathen codes, Buddhism teaches meekness and forbearance. The pious Buddhist, when struck a violent blow, can meekly reflect that it is in consequence of some sin that he has committed in a previous state of existence. This is a system that teaches us to love our fellow-men tenderly and perseveringly. "As even at the risk of her own life a mother watches over her own child, her only child, so let him -- the Buddhist saint -- exert good will without measure towards all beings."

But after all, Buddhism, with its exquisite code of morals, has never succeeded in cleansing the Augean stable of the human heart. It is a religion without God, or prayer, or pardon, or heaven. Its laws lack the authority of a law giver. Its Nirvana is a cheerless and uninviting prospect. It is a system of despair. The spirits are weighed down by the vast load of demerits and haunted by the anticipation of endless ages of misery. There is no "pity sitting in the clouds." There is no way of forgiveness, no sense of the divine presence and sympathy. Under such a system of cold abstractions, it is not strange that the common people should distort the conception of Nirvana into an earthly paradise, and fly for refuge even into demon worship, and other forms of Shamanism.

In Edwin Arnold's beautiful poem this religion has been presented in a most burnished and fascinating form; but no one whose mind is not filled with misconceptions of Christianity would think for a moment of exchanging the "Light of the World" for the "Light of Asia."

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