Wagaung, the month of casting lots festival

Full Moon day of Wagaung is designated as the Day of Metta Sutta and Myanmar Buddhists perform meritorious deeds across the nation on this holy day.  PHOTO COURTESY: Yatanavasa Buddhist Monastery

By Dr Khin Maung Nyunt (Maha Saddhamma Jotika Dhaja, Sithu)

Wagaung (August) is the 5th month of Myanmar lunar calendar. Myanmar is a tropical country with three seasons namely hot season (gein hman) rainy season (wathan) and cold season (hei man). Wagaung falls in the rainy season. The word ‘Wagaung’ is a combination of two words ‘Wa’ and ‘Khaung’. Wa means Buddhist lent and Khaung means middle or peak. So, Wagaung implies the middle or the peak of the Buddhist lent which covers three months of rainy season namely Waso (July), Wagaung (August) and Tawthalin (September). In the stone inscriptions of the Bagan Period another word for Wagaung was used. It was “Nan Kala” (နံကာလ) which means the time for ploughing, or the planting season, or the month for agricultural activities. There is a Myanmar folk rhyme which aptly describes this season “ဝါဆို၊ ဝါခေါင်၊ ရေဖောင်ဖောင်” (In Waso and Wagaung there are billows of rain water). As these two months are the peak of rainy season the countryside is inundated with rain water. Astrological name of Wagaung is Simha (သိဟ်) (Leo) and its zodiacal sign is lion. In this month in daytime the Sun and the Hpou Sha stars and at night the Moon and Tharawun stars rival in their radiance. Although all lilies and most trees and plants burst forth into bloom,khat-tar or land lily (Crinum amoenum) is traditionally marked as the flower of Wagaung.
Sayey Tan Pwe which may best be rendered into English as “Casting lots Festival” was the traditional festival held in Wagaung in days of yore. Sayey Tans are lots to decide to choose recipient of food or gift or alms in a religious offering. The custom of casting lots in religious charity originated in the lifetime of the Lord Buddha. While the lord Buddha was residing in the Weiluwun Vihara at the Capital of Yazagyoe, famine hit the city and there was scarcity of food. Buddhist devotees could no longer provide ‘hswan’ (food) for all monks of the Vihara.Some wanted to select ten or twenty monks to offer food. Some preferred to cast lots so as to decide the recipient monks. Some thought of offering food to the monks only on the Sabbath days when they came to the Vihara for fasting and observing moral precepts. Others chose the day after the Sabbath day for offering food because they thought that was the day the monks were in real need of food. Being unable to reach a consensus of opinion the devotees referred the matter to the Lord Buddha.
Where upon the Lord Buddha expounded seven different modes of offering food to the monks. They are as follows:
(a) Sangha-bhat which is the food offered to all monks
(b) Uddesa-bhat which is the food offered particularly to one or two monks.
(c) Nimantana-bhat which is the food offered to the invited monks.
(d) Salaka-bhat which is the food offered to the monks chosen by casting lots.
(e) Pakkhika-bhat which is the food offered to the monks on the waxing and waning moon days.
(f) Uposathika-bhat which is the food offered to the monks on the Sabbath day.
(g) Patipadika-bhat which is the food offered to the monks on the day after the Sabbath day.
The Lord Buddha then said that he approved all of them. Since that time offering of food to the monks by casting lots became a common practice among the Buddhist devotees. With the permission and at the direction of the Lord Buddha, the monks chose one monk from among themselves and appointed him “Bhattuddesaka” i.e. the monk who was in charge of alloting food offered by the devotees. The monk thus chosen and appointed must have special qualifications such as good health, activeness, managerial skill, freedom from bias and prejudice, and being able to keep the correct list of alloted and unalloted monks. The first monk appointed in that charge during the lifetime of the Lord Buddha was Maha Thera Ashin Datba, the son of the Malla king. He discharged the duty of alloting Uddesa-bhat, Nimantana-bhat and Salaka-bhat, with fariness and correctness.
The lots are either wooden sticks or bamboo slats or bamboo strips or palm leaves or pei leaves on which names and addresses of the donors of food are written. The lots are then put into the basket and the basket is shaken upside down many times so that the lots are thoroughly shuffled up. The monks queue up either according to their serial number if such numbers are given them or according to the seniority of their vasa (ordained age) to draw the lot. Then they go to the house as directed by their lots to partake of the food offered there. During the lifetime of the Lord Buddha offering of food to the monks by casting lots could be made at any place, on any date and in any month. There was no rule fixing its place, date and month. But Myanmar kings chose Wagaung as the month for performing this religious function because the monks observing lent vows and residing together in the same monastery might have difficulty in getting sufficient food in Wagaung. Originally casting lots was to provide food to the monks. But later, eight priestly utensils namely three pieces of yellow robe, the girdle, the alms bowl, the adze, the water dipper, and the needle and other offertories are also donated by casting lots. Such articles are hung on a tree-shaped stand which is called Padei-thabin meaning the tree of plenty and variety, comparable to the mythical cornucopia.
In Myanmar the earliest evidence of offering of food to the monks by casting lots was found in the stone inscriptions of ancient Bagan. In lines 22 and 23 of Saw Hla Wun pagoda inscriptions of A.D. 1268, 1290 and 1291, there was mention of Sayey Tan (casting lots) There is one oral history which tells how offering food by casting lots originated in Myanmar. During the reign of King Thihathu (A.D. 1298-1312) of the Pinya dynasty (A.D. 1298-1364) a big wooden monastery was built by the royal order, and the king decreed that ‘he who hath the courage let him take possession of it’ At that time there was one head monk named Soo Twin Pyit Sayadaw who was famous for his learning and knowledge. Hearing the royal decree the monk took residence of the monastery. Later the monk advised the king that the best way to find the deserving occupant for the monastery was by casting lots. From that time began the casting lots festival. Later, in the reign of King Thalun (A.D.1629-48) of the Nyaung Yan dynasty (A.D. 1599-1752) there appeared two religious translations namely Culavapali nisaya and Culava-pali Athakatha nisaya by the most venerable monk Shwe Umin Sayadaw of Pakhan Gyi town. In them he translated into Myanmar the two Pali words “Salaka” and ‘bhatta’ as ‘Sayey Tan’ and “Hswan’. Salaka means wooden or bamboo sticks on which letters were written and bhatta means food (hswan). Letters written on the sticks mention names and addresses of the donors of food.
Myanmar literature of later historic periods contained references to the casting lots festival. Different forms of poem such as loota, lay cho, eh-chin, tay htat, tha hpyan etc. on twelve seasons composed by eminent bards like U Yar, Lu U Min, Hpo Thu Daw U Min, Mei Khwe, U Hpyey, U Ponnya have mention of casting lots festival in Wagaung. On page 229 of one Myanmar Chronicle named Konbaung Set Maha Yazawun Tawgyi Volume 11, the holding of the casting lots festival at the palace of King Bagyidaw (A.D. 1819-37) was recorded as follows:
“On the 8th waning day of the month of Wagaung, village monks (Ga ma wa thi) and forest monks (Arin nja wa thi) were invited to the palace. Eight priestly utensils and other offertories were hung on the two hundred and sixty Padeithabins.His Majesty the King and the Chief Queen donated them to the monks and poured the libation water. Their Majesties then offered Salakabhat Sayey Tan hswan (food offered by casting lots) to the monks.”
It is to be noted that unlike the Sayey Tan Pwe of the Lord Buddha’s time, Myanmar Sayey Tan Pwe has the names of the recipient monks written on the lots, instead of the donors’ names and addresses and it is the donors who draw the lots, not the monks. List of names and addresses of the monks residing in the locality is made and these are written on the lots which are placed in the bamboo container called ‘wa kyi-tauk’. At the assembly of the Buddhist devotees, names of the donors of food are called out according to their serial number to draw the lots. The following morning the donors either invite the monks of their lots to their houses to offer food or put food in the large bowl with stand and cover (usually of lacquer) called’ hswan ok’ and send it to the monks.
Just like on other Myanmar religious functions. A festival atmosphere is created by the gathering of lay devotees dressed in their finery, and dainty damsels carrying offertories on their heads, followed by groups of merry-making youths who joyously dance, sing and play folk music of ‘do-bat’, ‘ozi’, and ‘byaw’ which befit the occasion.

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