Shin-Pyu:
Initiating into Buddhist Order as a Novice

By Khin Maung Maung



A common sight that visitor to Myanmar will see on the streets of cities and villages, particularly during the dry season, is a procession called ‘shin pyu’ procession. The word ‘shin’ means a novice and ‘pyu’ means to make one. Therefore, a ‘shin pyu’ means initiating a boy into the Buddhist Order as a novice. However, this is only the introductory part of the actual initiation ceremony as you will see later in this article. To explain the background of this, I will have to take you back more than 25 centuries to the early years of Buddha’s life.

Lord Buddha was born as Prince Siddhattha, heir to the throne of King Siri Suddhodana and Queen Siri Maha Maya of the Kingdom of Kapilavatthu. He married Princess Yasodhara who bore him a son named Rahula. Crown Prince Siddhattha, on reaching the age of 29, renounced all the worldly pleasures of princely life and retired deep into the forest in the middle of one night in search of the four Noble Truths - the basic of Buddhist doctrine. After six years of austere life as an ascetic, self-denial and steadfast meditation, he finally found the ‘right path’ and attained Buddhahood, which epithet means the state of becoming the ‘Enlightened One’ or the ‘Omniscient One’.

This auspicious day was the full moon day of the month of Kasone of lunar calendar (approximately between April and may in western calendar). The astonishing fact in the life of Buddha is that three very important events took place on the same full moon day of Kasone. First his birth; second, his attainment of Buddhahood when he turned 35 and finally the day he entered Nivara (his demise) at the age of 80. That is why that day is called ‘Buddha Day’’.

After becoming Gautama Buddha, as he was known by then, he proceeded to Kapilavathu at the invitation of his father. When Princess Yasodhara heard of his arrival in the neighborhood, she sent her son Rahula saying, “My dear son, go to your father, and ask for the inheritance you are entitled to. He had four huge pots of gold before he left the palace.” Rahula therefore went and asked Buddha as instructed. There upon, Buddha replied, “Son Rahula, the inheritance you are now asking are material riches, but they will only perpetuate the sufferings resulting from hankerings after material wealth. The inheritance that I will now give you is the inheritance of the religion, which is more valuable than any other thing. For this, you will have to enter the Buddhist order as a novice. By doing so your mother will automatically acquire the merit and distinction of supported of my religion (sasana dayaka).” Consequently, Rahula was admitted as a novice then and there.

Since then, it has been he cherished desire of Buddhist parents to initiate their sons as novices for a few days at least, before the boys grow up to the manhood. The status of becoming ‘sasana dayaka’ amounts to becoming related to the religion and thereby qualifying to inherit it.

Since only boys can become novices, parents naturally wish to have at least one son in the family. Therefore, those who have no male offspring, very often initiate the sons of others who cannot afford to do their own.

Regarding age, there is no hard and fast rule as to when a boy can become a novice. Young Rahula was 7 when his initiation took place. It is said that if a boy is old enough to ‘drive away a bird that comes to pick the food laid one one’s meal, or scare the birds away from farm’, he can become a novice. However, the usual age nowadays is between 5 and 15.

As I said earlier, the ‘shin pyu’ procession is the introductory part of the main initiation ceremony. The procession is optional and does not play any significant part in the actual initiation of a novice. However, conservative parents consider it part and parcel of the initiation ceremony. There are two reasons for doing so. The first is to let the public know that a certain initiation is taking place and who the proud parents are. Secondly, it is let the spirits (called nats) of the locality know that they have not been forsaken and that they are welcome to share the merits acquired by the occasion. It is also to propitiate and appease the ‘nats’ associated with the family ancestry. Therefore, the procession is also referred to as a ‘nat showing’ procession.

Since the whole function is a re-enactment of the initiation of Prince Rahula, the would-be novice, called a ‘shin laung’ has to dress like a member of the royalty of those days. The regalia consist of a coronet, a gold cross-sash, a jacket of the Royal Court design, a long ‘ paso’ (sarong), and velvet shoes braided with gold. As an alternative to the coronet, a white piece of cloth rolled into a long piece can be worn as head dress with one end of the roll sticking out of the band above the head. An attendant has to hold a golden umbrella over him, which again is a royal custom. There are different ways of carrying the boys around the town for the procession. For the sons of affluent parents, elephants (when and where available) are the most prestigious form of transport. This is also a re-enactment of the ancient custom.

Another type of transport, which is obsolete now, is a palanquin that has a seat upholstered with velvet, fixed to two wooden poles, and carried aloft by bearers on their shoulders. Horses with decorated harness are another form of transport. If the boys are very young and the parents cannot afford expensive means of transport they are just carried by personal attendants usually on their shoulders. However, nowadays, motor vehicles are being used more and more. The first vehicle in the motorcade and the one at the tail end, would carry music and dancing troupes, equipped with very powerful amplifiers blaring away traditional and folk songs in fast tempo. For the poor, they have to resort to trishaws pedaled by just pure human power. These are ordinary bicycles to which a two-seater contraption is attached to the frame of the bicycle.

The parents and the close relatives have to lead the procession, carrying the eight requisites prescribed for a novice. They comprise of 1 piece of robe to be worn from waist down, one overall robe, another large sheet to be used as a cloak, a black lacquered bowl for collecting alms, a razor for shaving, a needle (for mending one’s robe), a web belt of saffron colour, and a cloth water sieve. In the villages and some towns, it is in the pageantry and walk, along in the procession, carrying the paraphernalia of the royalty. These include golden flower vases, gilded food trays, golden goblets, golden casket for betel-leaf and other items normally used by the royal families, together with all the robes and offerings for the monks invited. The items carried are the same in all processions, whether on foot or with transport. The procession then heads for a pagoda to say prayers and make wishes.

From the pagoda, they proceed to the place where the actual initiation ceremony will take place. The venue can be anywhere - a monastery, one’s own house, a pandal (covered shelter) specially erected for the purpose, a hotel or any place convenient and spacious enough to accommodate the number of guests invited, and depending on one’s financial ability. In most cases, parents prefer monasteries. There, all the guests are served with food. After the guests have left, there is a short break before the actual ceremony is held, with some close relatives and intimate friends staying on to attend the religious ritual.

The first part of the ceremony is to shave the head, which is done by one of the monks in the monastery, while the parents hold a piece of white cloth in front of the boy to collect the falling hair. Next, the boy or boys proceed to the senior monk from whom they have to request for admission into the Buddhist Order in Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures. Then the boys change into saffron robes and take the vow of ten precepts. They are then required to repeat relevant extracts from the scriptures dictated by the senior monk, the most important part of which are the words: “Buddha saranam gachhami, Dhamman saranam gachhami, Sangham saranam gachhami”. These words mean: “I take refuge in Buddha, I take refuge in the Dhamma (religion). I take refuge in the sangha” (the Buddhist clergy).

Since it is important that the boys must be able to repeat these words correctly with proper accent and emphasis on the right syllables, most parents wait till the boys are old enough to repeat the Pali words correctly. However, when parents are getting old and are worried that they may not live long enough to see their boys’ initiation, they prefer to have the “shin-pyu” at an earlier age. When the boys get older they can again become novices any number of times. I might add here that a layman cannot be ordained as a full fledged monk without becoming a novice first. Besides, he must be at least twenty years old. After being admitted as novices, they have to live in a monastery but there is no limit as to how long they should remain as novices. It depends on the boy’s desire and ability to withstand a life of austerity. The difficult part, particularly for the younger ones, is to fast from noon till next dawn. Incidentally, a day for religious purposes begins at dawn and not at midnight as in the western calendar. So a novice cannot get up after midnight and break his fast thinking the day already passed. He can only eat after dawn. There are two main meals for each day; breakfast at dawn, and the lunch that must be finished before noon. In the evening, novices and monks are allowed to take soft drinks or juice. There is not restriction to when a “shin-pyu “ ceremony may be held. However, the months of February, March and April are the most popular. The reasons are two folds. Firstly, young Rahula became a novice about this time. Secondly, this is the time when farmers and those associated with agriculture are financially better of with the proceeds from their crops. There are instances where boys are initiated as novices as other times of the year too.