October 20, 2017

Thingyan New Year Festival: The Time for Community

  • Oxford Sayadaw Prof. Dr. Dhammasami, DPhil (Oxford)

Once again, Thingyan, the Myanmar New Year, is upon us that we have to say goodbye to the old year and welcome the new one, and this year I wish to focus my thought on Thingyan that this is an occasion for the community. This is the time when members of the community individually and collectively reflect and communicate for the sake of harmony and peaceful coexistence. This is amply demonstrated in both the outer appearance of related Thingyan rituals as well as in the Thingyan’s centuries-old emotional healing approach for inner peace.
Although Thingyan is practised not just in Myanmar but also in South and Southeast Asia, in some places (Andra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Goa, Kunkan, Manipur, Kashmir and Sindh states in India) celebrate it either in March or April depending on the astrological calculation of the year, while others (Northern and central states as well as Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Odisha and Bengal states in India; Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Yunnan of China and some part of Vietnam) have fixed the dates as 13 to 15 April each year to hold this important festive occasion. While Myanmar retains a more elaborate culture of Thingyan, I will not say anything on that aspect but focus on the importance of the community in the Thingyan tradition.
Thingyan as the focal point of a calendarial system to ensure social harmony has some ritual practices to remind people of the importance of the community. For instance, the astrological calculation associated with the Thingyan calendarial system helps the people to see both good and bad experiences in their life and acknowledge them part and parcel of human existence; with this acceptance, there is a chance to improve. Moreover, there is a ritual called in Burmese a-tah(meaning the end/ the last), believed to predict possible misfortunes for those who were born on the same day as the end of the day the year ends. To avert any bad luck that might fall on oneself, one has to offer flowers to holy objects such as the Buddha, if one is a Buddhist. For this, seven types of flowers should be presented to represent everyone born on this planet, from Monday to Sunday. This is to help the people associated with a-tah each year to think of everyone in the society, rather than just themselves which is a tendency we often display when under severe stress. In brief, when faced with problem in life, think of the community, instead of withdrawing from it, and then do something good for it. On the last day of the old year, which is called the day of a-tah, the people born on the a-tah day should dress up nicely and make an offering to the Buddha, if they are Buddhist, and elders. Again, this is about not giving up easily but preparing for the predicted upheaval with the blessing of the community. Even, the splashing of water, it is to carry out with decorum demonstrating respect to others. Just as we use water to purify ourselves daily, we use water as symbolism to purify the relationship between ourselves and other members of the society. To consolidate the same message of humility and maturity, we also wash our hair ceremonially, to show that we acknowledge any shortcoming in the past year and are prepared to learn and move on with the New Year. These centuries-old rituals have profound message for us as individual and community.
As to the healing of emotions within, there is a belief that one has to avoid certain things, usually ten in total, during the Thingyan festive period. According to some texts on Thingyan still known in Myanmar today, one must refrain from negative emotions such as anxiety and anger. What it means is we should take care of our negative emotions especially at this time of the year because as time goes by, any emotion not properly healed can lead to perception of injustice, grievances, bitterness and hatred, or even violence. The Thingyan tradition also advices people not to engage in business of any kind or major construction when those negative emotions remain unsolved, and to instead pay priority to managing them. In Buddhist psychology, we call this as mindful refraining from fight and flight mode on the one hand, and, on the other, encouraging a tend-and-befriend behaviour. This is about emotional intelligence.
Life in general is not perfect and we often have to be content with something nearest to our set goal. And, it is everyday experience for everyone to experience dissatisfaction, disappointment, anger or regret. When it comes to the community, these emotions should be carefully and objectively looked at so that there is a possibility of achieving reconciliation that Thingyan annually offers. Any sense of injustice, be it from the majority or the minority within the family and the community and even the nation, should be given a fair hearing. Some Buddhist meditation masters call this exercise as deep listening practice. Both sides may have some feeling of insecurity based on how they see the situation, real or perceived, and the message here is that those feeling should not be ignored. Some of widely known Burmese poems on Thingyan describe how fragile and sensitive emotions should be given sufficient attention so that the community as a whole can move on and coexist peacefully. So, Thingyan is more than a mere festive occasion and a holiday; it is imbued with profound wisdom on how we as community may coexist peacefully.
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