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September 16, 2019

TEACHER PUJA, TEACHER CULTURE

The end of monsoon in the tail-end of October ushers in a flurry of activities and festivities in our exotic land of glittering pagodas, vast stretch of lush paddy fields, and interesting habitat of multi-ethnic peoples of the hills and the plains. It is commonly known as ‘the open season’ where the sky is bright and sunny, with only remnants of lingering post-monsoon showers and most pleasant chilly weather to tingle the cheeks of countrymen and stir their itch to travel. Many festivities: religious, social and pujas abound in the entire country, a real time for tour and pilgrimage. Mandalay, the seat of the last reigning Myanmar king of the Konbaung dynasty and centre of endearing art and culture is thronged by national tourists from all over the country and the hills especially the Shan races, who visit Mandalay as holy pilgrimage to the famous Maha Muni Pagoda to gain merit. Another regular tourist spot is Yangon the heritage site of the imposing solid colonial structures of the last hundred years standing witness to the grander of the British Raj. Standing side by side is the cosmopolitan metropolis, with high-rise modern buildings of concrete, aluminum, glass and steel, characteristic of the booming urban jungle, teeming urban population, roads congested with cars and frustrated passengers waiting for hours as they inch towards their destinations day by day. Such manifestation stands witness to the opening of the political and economic landscape of modern 21st century with global reach. International tourism also enjoyed a phenomenalupsurge with the number of visitors nearing the two million mark oh la la!
This is just a short prelude to the momentum of change to introduce the main theme of my article: “Teacher puja, teacher culture” Our Myanmar society pay deep respect and puja to the venerable teachers all along the course of history. Teachers are also held in high esteem by pupils and parents through successive generations with due respect and obeisance honored to them. Nowadays in our modern society such ceremony commonly known as “Acariya Puja” was celebrated in the open season from November to February of every year. Almost every high school up to the universities hold such puja ceremonies. In the universities there are two main pujas: university and the faculties or department of various subjects offered in the universities year after year. The author was an alumnus of the Mandalay university college. The university began as a Mandalay Intermediate college in 1925 during the days of colonial rule. At the end of World War II a nationalist movement to establish a full-fledged university in Mandalay, the second capital and seat of Myanmar sovereignty and centre of Myanmar art and culture. Eventually in July 1947, the university college (MUC) opened its doors to the aspiring students of Upper Myanmar. The principal was U Ko Lay, a dedicated academic, who with 23 founding members as well as academicians helped the Mandalay UC to grow into a four year degree college and in 1985 to the status of a self-sustained full fledged university for upper Myanmar. The author belonged to the 1947 pioneer batch of first year intermediate class which numbered less than 100. In 1951 these 1947ers, became the pioneer first degree graduates in Arts and Science subjects. Principal U Ko Lay gave first appointments as tutors and demonstrators in the respective faculties of their choice. Some branch out to various departments, business and professions. The author served as English tutor for 2 academic years (1951-53) and opted the career of the BCS administrative service.
Time passed swiftly when new generation of highly qualified academics took over as old generation faded away into retirement and oblivion. Intrinsically Myanmar profess Hteravada Buddhism, couched in the revered  teachings of Lord Buddha the Self-Enlightened Omniscient One since a thousand years ago beginning from the first Bagan Empire of King Anawratha. Somewhere among the teachings was the dictum to pay respects to the teachers (acariya) in their old age and infirmity. Thus began the tradition of acariya Puja ceremonies, all over the country especially in the open  season months from October to March of the ensuing years.
The students of the respective high schools and universities have become effluent, and thus were generous enough to pay respects to these teachers. Such meets also help to regenerate camaraderie spirit to meet old friends and talk over the olden days of freedom joy and hilarity.
Our alma mater also followed the revered trend of paying respects to the retired teachers: the main ceremony involving all faculties pooling their resources, and held once in three years. The 11th puja ceremony was held in 27th December 2014. Where 438 teachers above 68 years were most respectfully honoured among whom only 298 could attend in person. The author attended as the faculty staff of the English Department. Many elder invitees slowly entered the Convocation hall. Only a very few came unattended.  Many had to be assisted to their allotted chairs, aging and feeble. A surge of deep emotion welled up my heart, a mixed feeling of sadness and joy, joy at meeting my old colleagues, where only very few remain alive, and sadness at the toll overwhelming them, progressive aging and senility. But all seemed to enjoy every moment, meeting friends again,the precious moments to treasure. The ceremony began with the serving Rector delivering the keynote speech followed by other speakers who had contributed their share of puja most voluntarily. Then all students clasped their hands in prayer and presents were offered. Fellow teachers including my colleague, Shan Scholar Dr. Sai Aung Tun delivered speech of thanks. Finally the main puja ceremony was over as all dispersed. A few lingered in the Hall as they talked about the lively years of the past.
The English Department held a special puja ceremony on 28th in the Dhammayone, Prayer Hall. A small number of retired teachers attended as the present Professor, teaching staffs and students paid their respects and presents. On behalf of the retired English teachers, I gave a brief talk recounting the joy of the pioneer student of 1947, and tutor of 1951 with fond memories. Only a very few of us remained alive, particularly NawAgnesKlaipo, Dr Chit Maung and myself. Among the 24 founding academic members, only Sayagyi U Ba Toke remained at the age of 95, memory as fresh and alert as ever. I recounted my experience to him on my return to Yangon, and he relished every moment with nostalgia. In my short talk, I reminded the audience to the importance of English as a medium of communication and in-depth study. While talking most randomly and intimately, I remembered our most learned scholar and guru, Dr. Htin Aung and his lectures. Omar Khayyam still remained fresh in my memory through all these 60 years, though sadly the scholar has passed away a longtime ago. Extemporaneously I recited a stanza which I cherished, reminding them of the passing of time:
“The moving finger writes
And having writ moves’ on,
Nor all thy piety nor wit,
Can lure it back
To cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears
Wash a word of it”
“Unborn tomorrow,
Dead yesterday
Why fret about them
If today be sweet!”
Sayagyi U Ko Lay lived to a ripe old ninety in prayer, in contemplation and meditation. He taught Buddhism in English to aspiring monks who chose to become missionaries to propagate Buddhism abroad. He was also honoured for his literary contributions. Finally Sayagyi passed away peacefully in 2003. His devoted pupils organized and held Sayagyi’s birthday centenary ceremony at Mandalay on August 2013. A bust bronze statue was erected on the entrance lawn, where he will always give a warm welcome to students for generations to come.
Finally I concluded my small talk with a refrain from Lord Tennyson’s famous poem. “The Brook’ thus:
“ I chatter, chatter as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever.”
I pray that the Mandalay University, born 1947 having reached 67 years will go on forever.
In Myanmar deeply couched in the teachings of Buddhism and morality, the teacher ‘Acariya’ holds a revered place in our society. Therefore a special ceremony to pay respects to the venerable teachers are held every year in the open season. Such puja can only be found in Myanmar most uniquely and nowhere else. Thus ‘Teacher Culture’ holds a predominant place in our Myanmar society. Such tradition may be sustained and preserved in societies of future generations.

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