Myanmar's novice Buddhist monks

Myanmar's novice Buddhist monks


Entering monkhood is a rite of passage for many Myanmar boys, although most of them spend a few days to a few months as young monks rather than making a lifetime commitment.

This young novice Kyaw Thiha enjoys a heavy rainfall at Shin Ohtama Tharya monastery.

. Yangon, Myanmar. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A Buddhist novice monk gets his head shaved at a monastery.

. YANGON, Myanmar. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A Buddhist novice monk reads a religious book at the Shin Ohtama Tharya monastery.

The Sangha, as monks are collectively known in Myanmar, is a powerful social force in the country and is widely revered. They have been politically active since the colonial times, calling for justice and democracy on behalf of the people.

. SAGAING, Myanmar. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A novice monk rings the Mingun Bell, which is the world's third largest bell. The Bell was cast on orders of King Bodawpaya in 1808, and measures 12 feet in height with a diameter of 16 feet 3 inches, and weighs approximately 55,555 viss (199,998 pounds) according to historians.

. Mae Sot, Thailand. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Myanmar's ethnic Karen novice monks attend a class in their monastery.

. Mae Sot, Myanmar. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The ethnic Karen's monastery is in Mae La refugee camp outside Mae Sot near the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Myanmar's Buddhist monks

  • At any one time, there are 500,000 Buddhist monks, novices and nuns in Myanmar, a nation of 53 million people. Around 90 percent of the population are Theravada Buddhist, the rest being Muslim, Christian, Hindu or animist.
  • Monks are supposed to stay out of temporal affairs such as politics, but have a long history of protest, starting with the Young Men's Buddhist Associations (YMBAs) set up at the end of the 19th century to counter Burma's British imperial rulers.
  • The campaign against British rule became known as the "Shoe Question" since British officials refused to remove their footwear when entering temples, a sign of grave disrespect.
  • Violence erupted in Mandalay in 1919 when monks tried to expel a group of shoe-wearing British from a pagoda.
  • In line with the Buddhist philosophy of removal from earthly desire, everything a monks owns or consumes is supposed to be donated by the lay community.
  • In practice, this means monks going out every morning to collect alms - mostly food - from near their monasteries.
  • The system makes them a key barometer of the economy, since people struggle to give them enough to eat in lean times.
  • In return for alms, the monk bestows on the donor the "merit" that will eventually help him or her achieve nirvana, or release from the cycle of rebirth.
  • Men are supposed to enter the monkhood twice in their lives, once as a novice aged between 10 and 20, and once as a fully ordained monk any time after their 20th birthday.