BAGAN, Burma—Let there be no doubt: The so-called "saffron revolution" of September 2007 has only enhanced the Burmese people’s reverence for their Buddhist monks.
"We love our monks," a café owner in Bagan told me during this year’s Ananda Festival in January.
And not just in Bagan, with its spectacular landscape of 11th-century pagodas and temples.
All across the country during a month-long visit earlier this year, I saw an outpouring of support for monks and nuns, from children filling their alms bowls with food to people donating money for their monasteries and orphanages.
Perhaps most impressive, however, was the annual Ananda Festival in Bagan, where thousands of monks and novices gathered to accept alms from people who had come from far and wide, many in ox carts.
The people gave whatever they could—some a bowl of peanuts or a bunch of bananas, others pinwheels of cash—distributed one by one to the monks as they passed by a huge platform laden with gifts.
As the monks emerged, several women were bowing, their palms together in reverence. One woman was handing out cash to each of the monks.
Largest gathering of monks since SeptemberThis was, to my knowledge, the largest gathering of monks since the September uprising, when government troops opened fire on the monk-led demonstrations, killing at least 31 marchers.
"No one is saying anything," a bystander told me at the festival. "‘But everyone is thinking the revolution cannot die."
Burma is officially a Buddhist country, and for the regime to open fire on monks was, in the eyes of the people, blasphemy. Monasteries were raided and monks were arrested or forced into hiding.
The Ananda Festival was the biggest but by no means the only display of support I saw for the monks.
Not a word about politics
Outside Rangoon one day, I was fortunate enough to be invited to an initiation ceremony for novice monks. The young candidates’ heads were shaved, they were fed a hearty lunch, and then they were questioned and finally initiated by their monk mentors.
Afterward, families and friends filled their alms bowls with treats and money as they emerged from the ceremony. Not a word was said about politics, but the implication of the generosity was plain to see.
"We want everyone to abide by Buddha’s teachings," a monk at the ceremony told me. "‘No lying, stealing, or cheating. That would include the government."
Every morning in Burma, monks fan out from their monasteries with alms bowls. In effect, they are begging for the food that will sustain them through the day. In the afternoon, nuns from the nunneries do the same.
What struck me was that no matter how poor, people along their route would come out to provide scoops of rice or small bundles of meat or vegetables.
I saw one older monk reach into his alms bowl and share his bounty with a disabled man.
In their hearts, they are crying
It’s not just people on the street who care for the monks. More fortunate Burmese donate time and money for the monks’ and nuns’ care of novices and orphans.
In a country where impoverished parents are often unable to care for their children, monasteries and nunneries provide a refuge for boys and girls who might otherwise face exploitation on the streets.
I visited a number of monasteries and orphanages where children were fed, schooled, and sheltered. The monks said the government provides some money and rice, but not enough to sustain them. Private donors make up the difference.
It's the Buddhist way to care for one another. More and more people in Burma need the help of others, especially now.
"People may have smiles on their faces," a businessman in Bagan told me. "But in their hearts, they are crying."
He traced his two index fingers down from his eyes—the path of tears.
Tyler Chapman is a pseudonym to protect the author's sources.