Monks and the curious Art of Naming

Being a devoutly Buddhist country, monks are a dime a dozen, but one does have to be careful about “fake” monks. These are the ones that walk about with their begging bowls asking for money. Monks never beg; people donate. I am assuming these fake monks make a tidy business out of the devoutness of the Burmese who will give generously to any wandering monk. Similar things happen in India with fake saddhus. The real ones have renounced worldly pleasures and wander about relying on the comfort of strangers. Fake ones pose for you and then demand royalties for their image. Tut Tut.


I guess it’s easier to become a fake monk than a fake saddhu. just shave your head and wrap yourself in maroon and saffron and buy a silver bowl. The chap to the left has had to put a lot of effort into it!

REAL monks would never ask for money; in fact, they never beg. As they do their morning rounds with their bowls, the houses they visit immediately donate whatever they have cooked up. In fact, the villagers prepare meals with the monks in mind so there is enough to go around.

Contrary to common belief, the monks are not vegetarians. As was explained, it makes sense: since they rely on donated food for their meals they could hardly say no to a donation of chicken curry with rice. The monks eat what they get. Well, I just learned something new.

Many families send their children to the monasteries for at least a few years. Partly due to their devotion, partly because the children get an education, and sometimes because the parents are too poor to afford to keep them. Our guide Ye Minh told us about his introduction to the monastic school when he was a little boy. He wanted to go because whenever his family visited on special days he would get yummy food to eat and the monks were always kind and gentle. So, he was very excited to be sent to be a novitiate at the age of six.

For the chosen child, there is a huge ceremony at the local pagoda, the children are decked out in glittering finery, made up to look like little dolls, boys and girls alike, until you can’t tell what sex the child is. They must be carried at all times, and have gold parasols to shade them from the scorching syn. The family accompanies them on a tour of the pagoda, and the kids are treated to sweets and generally treated like royalty. It’s a big thing becoming a monk.

So Ye Minh thought this was fantastic, and really looked forward to having his life in plush comfort at the monastery. When he was finally alone, he got a rude shock. Only two paltry meals a day, hard pallets to sleep on, and nothing but meditating and hard labour. The head monks proved to be hard disciplinarians, and within a day he wanted to leave. He got his moment when the head monk’s attention was diverted and so he scarpered back home, crying that he didn’t want to stay there anymore. His parents were mortified that he would spurn such an honour and told him they had spent so much money on getting him in, he was going to have to stay at least six months.

The little nuns have it worse, there is such reverence for the monks, it is not the same for the women: second class for them. The monasteries play a similar role to churches in the west in years past, acting as orphanages or schools for poor kids. Sometimes the children are sent to preserve them from trafficking or simply because their parents are too poor to afford them.

20180308-IMG_9203-51But don’t think the monks are stuck in the middle ages, no no, they are just as modern as anyone else in Myanmar, recording their tourist trips on their phone cameras, getting around in cars and motorcycles and as prone to selfies as any lay person.

In fact, some married men with families, when they’re over the family dramas, go and join a monastery to get away, visiting only from time to time. Well, it’s one way of getting peace I suppose.

As to children’s names: in Myanmar, the father doesn’t give his kids his name: in fact there is no such thing as a family name. Each child is given a name according to the day of the week they are born, chosen from a selection of names specific for that day.

Aung San Su Kyi is unusual because she has her own name, Su Kyi, but people also append her father’s name, Aung San because she is held in such high regard and her father was a hero.

Oo is the word for mister, so if we wanted to be formal, we could call our guides Oo Tun Tun, or Oo Ye Minh. For a woman, the word is Daw. I wonder if there is a man called La La, and then he would be Oo La La…. Oh dear, I couldn’t resist.

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