While working in Lashio, Danielle and I had the pleasure of participating in the Thadingyut Festival which occurs on the full moon day of the seventh month of the Myanmar calendar. Thadingyut Festival, also known in English as the Lighting Festival, celebrates the descent of Buddha from heaven after preaching the Abhidhamma pitaka to his mother.
While the Abhidhamma pitaka is highly regarded throughout the Buddhist world, the center of its study resides in Myanmar.
The celebration of Thadingyut is integral to Myanmar culture and religion. It is a three-day affair, with the full moon day at its center, and is considered a national holiday. People migrate all across Myanmar as they head to their hometowns to see families and old friends. This year, students and teachers were given a week off from school. It was during this week that we were allowed to train the teachers of Northern Shan State, as this was the only time they would be available. However, since the full moon day is the most sacred of holidays in Myanmar, Danielle and I had the day to take a break, explore Lashio, and celebrate Thadingyut.
Our day began slowly. We had been teaching intensively for the past three days so it was nice to finally have the chance to sleep in and rest. We didn’t leave our hotel till mid-day when the drive to eat superseded our drive to occlude ourselves from the world. Since our local food eatery was closed (due to the festival), we were forced to find an alternative establishment. Thus, we marched around the streets of Lashio looking for a place to eat, any place that would take us in.
Lashio is not a big city by any means (well, anything bigger than two-thousand people is huge to me), but it definitely hustles-and-bustles (see my YouTube video: Lashio) as people make their way in and out of small shops, food stands, or travel down the road. The day of the full moon, the roads were bare except for the occasional motorbike or private car, the shops were closed, and the town was quiet. It was surreal. The organism, so alive on the streets during the previous days, relegated itself to quick peeps and glances from behind shutters and windows as we walked around.
Eventually we came upon an Indian restaurant that served a plateful of rice and a chicken leg (probably pulao or biryani) for the equivalent of $2. After the cook shoveled out the food from a huge cauldron behind the counter, we munched down heartily. The food was excellent and was a great departure from the staple white-rice meals we had been eating for the last three days.
After finishing our meals, we proceeded to wander around the rest of the deserted city: in the back alleys and roads, kids play in the streets only to look up, point at us, snicker, and run off as we walk past; a troupe of boys and girls from a Catholic mission wave and scream, “Hello!”; a monk smiles and laughs as I try to capture a picture of him driving a motorbike; I turn us in the direction of our hotel as the afternoon gets later–I want to make it to the pagoda in time for the sunset so I can get some pictures.
As we walked, I started to hear a lot of noise that grew louder the closer we got to the end of the street. I heard laughter, music, and the sound of motor engines running…we had stumbled upon a park in the middle of Lashio. The sign above the entrance read, “Palace Garden.” Kids ran around, balloons floated in the air, and families spread themselves out on the lawn–there was even an arcade, a gondola boat ride, bumper cars, and a roller-skating rink.
‘What a strange wonderland to stumble upon in the middle of the day,’ I thought to myself.
Danielle and I spent about thirty minutes watching all of the kids trying to roller-skate around the rink–some falling, some tripping over the cracks in the cement, some struggling to get up the rise–before we decided to leave and go back to the hotel.
In order to get to the pagoda in time for the sunset, we left around 17:45. Unfortunately, I miscalculated the time it would take to get to the pagoda which resided at the top of a hill in the center of Lashio. Since we didn’t arrive at the bottom of the hill until nightfall, we were unable to see where we were going as we hiked up. On our way to the top, the sun sank slowly behind the Shan hills on the horizon. The shadows hid many surprises–young couples, tree debris, and to my misfortune, the edge of each stair. I kicked one of these edges quite hard as I walked, not realizing that the steps had started to rise again. Not wanting to miss the festival, the pain in my foot would dog me for the next three hours.
We were some of the first people to arrive at the pagoda that evening. The only people there were some children and young monks (shin thamanei in romanized Myanmar) who were already beating their drums and shooting off fireworks. At first, it was quite strange to see monks running around, laughing, and throwing fireworks at one another. Where was the stoicism, the humbled countenance, the modesty?
During our three hours at the pagoda, I learned a lot. Fifteen minutes after our arrival, a monk approached us to talk and we spent the next two hours in conversation with him. He explained the name of the pagoda, Thatana 2500, which means the age of Buddhism since it has begun. He brought us into the monastery and introduced us to some women who were part of a project to promote women’s and human rights among the villages of Northern Shan State. We talked and he explained the linguistic differences of his name in different regions of SE Asia as he traveled from Myanmar to Thailand to Cambodia. Here, it was pronounced as Thahanada–the deep meaning being a ‘lion’ or ‘courage.’
He explained that the lighting of the candles represented the ruby stairway that Buddha descended as he returned to earth from heaven. People light their candles, pay their respects at the pagoda, and pray for enlightenment from the Buddha throughout the night of the full moon. He also shared food and soy milk with us (things I recognized from the alms they receive from locals each day) while talking.
At one point, he retrieved his iPad (a laughable sight to me, although I did see monks in Shanghai with them) and started playing with it. It is funny how the world of technology crosses all boundaries–the core need for all humans to interact and communicate with one another, as well as the interest to access the network of information which exists globally. Buddhist monasticism requires that monks do not lead a luxurious life and are limited to only a small number of proprietorial items so why he had an iPad I will never know.
It has been two weeks since Thadingyut and I still find myself reflecting on the celebration. While cultures and countries can be so different, I often find that the behaviors and habits of our species unite us. Fireworks were a main theme of the night and many of the children got a sadistic pleasure out of throwing firecrackers or popping them under the feet of others to scare them. Teenage couples locked arms, hung on each other, and traveled in groups throughout the darkness. Some families brought food and blankets to spread out on the cement to watch the fireworks. Little children “oohhhed” and “ahhhhed”. Although we are clearly distinguishable as foreigners by the color of our skin, eyes, and hair (as well as the facial nature of the latter for me), under the cover of darkness, I felt quite at home in such a celebration.
At the end of the night, a little boy handed me a roman candle, giggled, and ran off to join his family as they were getting in their car to leave.