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Barbara O'Brien

The Nats of Burma

By August 9, 2010

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A Burmese NatYesterday a sangha brother who has spent time in Burma told us about nats, which are something like Burmese elves. They are regarded as both protectors and tricksters, and they are recognizable by their stylized, pointed ears. I believe the handsome fellow in the photograph is a nat.

I understand that nats were worshiped in pre-Buddhist Burma. An 11th-century king who made  Buddhism the official religion of his kingdom tried to ban nat worship, but this was so unpopular the king allowed nat observances to mix into Burmese Buddhism. Today people who want to ask a favor of a nat can make an offering to the appropriate nat (there are 37 of them) at a Buddhist temple.

Sometimes we talk about cultural beliefs and practices found attached to Asian Buddhism that are not likely to make the transition to the West. And at first I thought nat worship fit that category nicely. But then I read about the nat festivals.

There is a big nat festival in Taungbyon about this time every year.  According to one account, festival goers enjoy several days of music, dancing, drinking, theater, all-night parties, probably some more drinking, and spirit possession. I don't know about the spirit possession, but perhaps we shouldn't dismiss nat worship too hastily.

Here is more about nat worship and photos of beautiful nats.

(Photo Credit: © James Thewlis | Dreamstime.com)

August 10, 2010 at 2:52 am
(1) Laurel says:

Oh, come on, spirit possession is fun (just joking!). It sounds like Buddhism has had a similar history to Christianity, at least in that it adapted itself to the local beliefs as it spread from place to place. There are some conservative people who quickly dismiss partying, drinking, and even Halloween as not appropriate for their religious observances. But all of those things are part of folk cultures that have influenced, and been influenced by, religions spreading all over the world. Not that I’m necessarily adovcating for a Shakyamuni pumpkin headed statue, but I’m sure there are very good pumpkin carvers (or carvers of other fruits) who could do something really cool–much cooler than Pu-tai in a sleigh, or Jizo in a Santa hat. I think the Buddha statue with elf (sorry, nat) ears is adorable. Hooray for cultural diffusion!

August 10, 2010 at 9:33 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Yeah, I can see nats as being somewhat analogous to the Easter bunny, although I take it the Burmese genuinely believe in nats and take them very seriously.

August 10, 2010 at 10:08 am
(3) Pete in B'more says:

I think there are many mysteries come down from ancient times that can’t be explained by science or modern “empirical” analyses that relies on one’s limited experience to verify the experiences being referred to.

August 10, 2010 at 10:19 am
(4) Pete in B'more says:

I’d like to add something in addition to my last comment. The Buddha taught that his teachings should not be taken at his word, but verified like testing the purity of gold. Of course, the only way to truly verify the teachings is to practice them assiduously and for a long period of time with both an open mind and a measure of faith. This is how the gold-testing of the teaching happens, from the first level of the overall reasonableness of the teachings, and on to inner experience after that. At a certain point, strong faith may develop, and one can still maintain an open mind. This is referred to by the Dalai Lama when he says that if science can really disprove an aspect of the Buddhist practice, it should be abandoned. A lot of people equate an open mind with doubt, but that automatically denies so much of what is availiable. If one is to be truly skeptical, one must also be skeptical of the value of constant doubting. The only thing that doesn’t require some measure of faith is omniscience itself.

August 7, 2011 at 5:11 am
(5) David Flinkstein says:

Burmese Nat worship seems to be related to Nathayana Buddhism, otherwise called the Nathayan. The Nathayan was invented by Krishnacharya, the famous commenter of the Buddhist Tantras, the Nathayan was also the final dispensation of Buddhism, the length of time between the origin of Hinayana Buddhism to Nathayana Buddhism was approximately a thousand years. The Buddhists of India were eventually exterminated by Hindus during the “parashurama holocaust”. Surviving Buddhists fled to the Chittagong hill tracks, some Indian Buddhists in Bengal were protected by members of the local Muslim population from being murdered by Hindus. It is one big Hindu lie to say that the Muslims exterminated the Buddhists of India, viz. Parashurama for more information.

August 7, 2011 at 7:25 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Dabid Flinkstein — every authoritative history I have seen says that Nat worship existed in Sri Lanka before Buddhism came there. Also, stirring up old resentments about who murdered whom is not Buddhist practice. The Buddhists of India faced violence from many groups over a period of centuries. Huns — yes, Huns, as in Attila — wiped a lot of them (and also a lot of non-Buddhists in India) out in the middle of the 5th century, before Islam existed. A Muslim army destroyed the old learning center of Nalanda several centuries later. There wasn’t any one act or pogrom that drove all Buddhists out of India at once; it was many things. This is well documented and not in dispute.

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