THEY HAD traveled for hours, some for days. It didn’t matter. They had arrived at Taung Pyone. Each August, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over Myanmar descend to this village 20 km north of Mandalay to commune with nats, spirits ready to bless the faithful with good fortune if they receive the right offering. . Nats accept bananas, coconuts, alcoholic beverages and cash – the more the better. At this year’s festival, devotees clinging to bundles of tickets lined up under a kiosk to meet one of the medium’s flesh and blood envoys. But the demonstration of piety consecrated by time was marred by seven Buddhist nuns with shaved heads and pink dresses, who bickered with the faithful. Nat worship, the nuns insist, is a basic superstition – a stain on the true faith.
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Myanmar. About 90% of the population is Buddhist. There are approximately 500,000 monks and 75,000 other nuns in a 54-meter country. The Saints were often at the forefront of politics, leading the “saffron revolution” against the military regime in 2007, for example. More recently, nationalist monks have helped spread the idea that Buddhism is threatened in Myanmar and have urged the Holy War against Muslims – a campaign that helps explain the public’s indifference to the ethnic cleansing campaign of the army against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group living in the extreme west of the country.
However, some monks taunt not against perceived external enemies, but against the cankers of Buddhism. Han Tun, a 65-year-old spiritual medium or natkadaw, was at the Taung Pyone festival three years ago when ten Buddhist monks wielding metal rods disrupted a spirit possession ceremony he attended. They threatened to beat the fifty people there if they refused to hand over their offerings to the nat. Han Tun and the other mediums complied, but the monks still destroyed the sanctuary decorations and smashed the statues of the nats. “It was the worst experience of my life,” said Han Tun.
It would not be the only act of desecration he witnessed. Han Tun and three other veterans natkadaws claim that, over the past decade, Buddhist monks have started targeting natives. Sometimes they rebuked and insulted them; at other times, they physically threatened them, stole food and money offerings and destroyed statues of nats. These attacks took place not only at Taung Pyone, they say, but at other festivals and mind-holding ceremonies across the country. Khin Swe Oo, the guardian of Taung Pyone’s most prominent nat shrine, says that shouts, threats and the physical destruction of holy objects have occurred every year for the past five years. A decade ago, she notes, such disruptions were rare.
Anawrahta, the most famous king of medieval Burma, has compiled an official list of 37 nats to assimilate to the Buddhist pantheon. To date, each Burmese village has a sanctuary or two for local nats. However, many Burmese Buddhists disdain the worship of spirits. Keziah Wallis of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand says the fault first appeared in the 19th century, when a new understanding of Buddhism as a rational philosophy free from the mummy of religion began to s ‘impose. The noisy ceremonies of spiritual possession, lubricated with alcohol and hypnotic music, were at odds with this conception of Buddhism. Some have started to describe the nat cult as a corruption of the faith, to be tolerated only because it was traditional.
Not anymore. Hostility towards spirit lords has increased over the past decade, said Wallis, in part because of Myanmar’s openness to the world. City dwellers are ashamed of what they see as the “dirty, shameful and crazy cousin of Buddhism,” as she puts it. Similar movements to cleanse Islam of what purists consider the superstitions of uneducated villagers have a long history in Indonesia and Malaysia. Efforts have been made to purge Buddhism from the popular religion in Sri Lanka and Thailand as well.
Establish the identity of those responsible for the attacks described by the natkadaws is difficult. No individual or organization has claimed responsibility. Zawana Nyarna, an abbot of Taung Pyone, says that the monks in his monastery and the six others in the village are innocent. Many natkadaws believe that some, perhaps all, of the individuals who commit these crimes are “false monks” – either recent insiders with little religious education, or thieves in brown robes to more easily steal the nats’ offerings. However, this explanation may simply be a means of avoiding direct criticism from the revered monastic authorities. Han Tun believes that the monks he met intended not only to steal gifts but “to rape, to interfere with our beliefs”. Khin Swe Oo, the guardian of the Taung Pyone shrine, believes that those responsible are inspired by prominent monks who regularly rant against the nats in widely disseminated sermons.
The main objective of Ma Ba Tha, a radical Buddhist organization banned in 2017, was to alert the Burmese to the threat of Islam. One of its main members, a monk by the name of Wisetkhana, does not believe that followers of the nats pose almost as great a threat to Buddhism as the Muslims, and he does not tolerate the brutal treatment of them. But he wrote a book that claims nats are bad. This is called “Protecting Race and Religion”.
Not all monks hate the worship of spirits. A few years ago, Khin Swe Oo asked Zawana Nyarna and other local abbots to help him prevent the attacks in Taung Pyone. Monks from local monasteries now observe the festivities, question threatening monks, undress them if they are impostors, or send them home if they are real monks. “Thanks to their help, things are better,” said Han Tun. But as Khin Swe Oo leans back on the bamboo chair in front of her house, a stone’s throw from the shrine, a pagoda covered in gold leaf, she closes her eyes. The attacks continue, she said. The burden of protecting spirits weighs heavily on it. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Guilty Nat”