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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 September 2007, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Who are Burma's monks?
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News

Monks command such respect in Burma because some 80-90% of the country's population is Buddhist, and even those who do not choose to become a "career monk" usually enter the orders for short periods of their lives, giving the monasteries a prominent role in society.

There is a monastery in every village, according to Myint Swe of the BBC Burmese service, and monks act as the spiritual leaders of that community.

They give religious guidance and perform important duties at weddings and funerals.

An elder Buddhist monk is escorted on the side of the street by a protester in a street in downtown Yangon, 26 September 2007
Burma's monks have a history of poliltical activism

In return for these duties, they are given donations by laymen. As they are forbidden from handling cash, they are completely reliant on these handouts. Each full moon day, they are also given donations such as robes.

If they refuse these handouts, they are denying the donor the potential to earn spiritual "credit" - "the strongest possible penalty that can be expected from a Buddhist", said Myint Swe.

That is why the announcement by the monks currently protesting in Burma that they would refuse all donations from the ruling military - most of whom would be Buddhist themselves - was so powerful, he said.

"The government wants the image that they are pious and helping the monks," he said.

Monastery 'holidays'

There are 400,000-500,000 professional monks in a country of about 50 million people, but many more laymen worship alongside the monks for a few weeks at a time throughout their lives in order to earn spiritual credit.

Myint Swe said he had himself entered the monasteries three times in his adult life, on each occasion for just a few weeks.

"Buddhism is very individualistic - you have to work for your own liberation," said Aung Kin, a Burmese historian.

A monastery not only provides spiritual guidance, but also fulfils a practical role in Burmese society.

BUDDHISM
Buddhism is non-violent, non-dogmatic and meditative
Not centred on a god
Aimed at gaining insight into life's true nature
There are two schools. One of them, Theravada (S, SE Asia), focuses on freedom from craving and suffering
The other, Mahayana (NE Asia), emphasises helping others achieve that freedom
Burmese observe the Theravada school

Entering a monastery as a child - or novice - is a cheap way of gaining an education. Although education is free in Burma, extras such as uniforms may still prove a struggle for impoverished families.

And some parents choose to send their children during the school holidays, while they are out at work, Myint Swe said.

Those who choose to adopt Buddhism as a career often do so for financial reasons, Mr Aung Kin said, with donations collected by the monks shared with family members.

In return, however, prospective monks have to pass religious exams and agree to adhere to more than 220 restrictions.

Burmese monks not only play a spiritual role, but also have a history of political activism. They have been at the forefront of protest against unpopular authorities, from British colonial power in the 1930s to the last pro-democracy campaign in 1988.

A Young Buddhist monk looks on following devotional Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006, at the Sayadaw Bhaddanta Kaveinda orphanage on the outskirts of Rangoon
Many children are sent to monasteries for a cheap education

Their political role stems from the days of the Burmese monarchy, which operated until the late 19th century, under which monks worked as intermediaries between the monarch and the public, and lobbied the king over unpopular moves such as heavy taxation, said Mr Aung Kin.

They became more confrontational during colonial times, in protest at the failure of foreigners to remove their shoes in pagodas, he said.

But the historian stressed that only about 10% of Burma's monks are politicised, and many of the monasteries may be unaware of the scale of the agitation currently under way in the country.

If fully mobilised, however, the monks would pose a major challenge to the military, and their moral position in society could embolden many more people to join the protests.


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