Marching the Buddha


If monks in Myanmar weren’t marching against the military junta this week, they would likely be taking part in a march of another kind. Late September is traditionally the time for one of Myanmar’s largest religious festivals, held just 100 miles north of Yangon, epicenter of the protests and scene of increasingly violent government response.

Myanmar has been described as the most devoutly Buddhist nation on earth. Ninety percent of its citizens count themselves as followers of Buddha, and those who devote their lives to following his path, Buddhist monks and nuns, are held in universally high esteem.

So it’s no small affair when, once a year and only for a few days, the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, the most revered spiritual artifact in the country, is removed from its shrine in the town of Paung-de. Placed on the back of an elephant, the tooth relic is then paraded through the city to bestow blessings on all who behold it. Thousands of monks and other devotees follow in procession, filling the streets with burgundy robes, the smell of incense, and the cacophony of drums, gongs, and chanted prayers.


It’s a scene that seems as though it could have occurred a thousand years ago, and it might lead one to wonder if the monks learned to create such a spectacle for reasons very different than those for which they march now.

Yet it is not so simple that one instance of marching monks is religious and one is political. Even the most purely political actions can have religious causes; even apparently religious events can be political to their core. And even something which seems as timeless and apolitical as a religious relic – in this case, a piece of the Buddha’s tooth said to be recovered from his funeral pyre 2500 years ago – can be so tied up in the machinations of the state that it’s impossible to know where religion ends and politics begins.

It turns out that Myanmar’s tooth relic was a gift – more of a loan, actually – from the officially irreligious and atheistic government of China. The tooth has served a bargaining chip between the two nations for decades. When Myanmar — then called Burma — initially asked to arrange a visit for the tooth in the 1950s , the Chinese were so dismissive of it that they reportedly replied with a disdainful, “Take it, we have no use for it.” Only on reflection did they realize what a powerful political object they had in their possession.

They have made excellent use of it since then, periodically loaning it to the Myanmar junta, which in turn used it as a display of its own power, and moreover as a way of organizing its devout population to its own ends. Every year when the tooth was removed from its shrine and paraded through the streets, it was as much a statement of political will as religious devotion. The politics may have been hidden beneath layers of burgundy robes and pious chanting, but they were there no less than, yes, a tooth hidden behind a tight-lipped grin.

Religion has a long and infamous history, in every tradition, of being used by the state. Yet in Myanmar this month we are reminded that it can also be used in defiance of it.
As similar as one group of marching monks might look to another, they chose to fill the streets for another reason this year. Not in a state-sponsored parade behind a tooth that has become a political pawn, but behind one of their own, carrying a megaphone.