The Buddha’s Wizards: Magic, Protection, and Healing in Burmese Buddhism

Donald M. Seekins

In the eyes of Burmese nationals and foreign observers alike, Burma is ‘the Land of the Buddha’. ‘To be Burmese is to be Buddhist’ (an assertion that is not without controversy). The country is said to possess a unique Theravada Buddhist identity based on zealous promotion of the ‘purest’ teachings of Gotama Buddha (dhamma), as found in the Pali scriptures, by the Sangha (the community of monks), the Burmese state and prominent lay people.

The orthodox Theravada Buddhist worldview has played a major role in modern Burmese history: the struggle for independence from Britain had its origins in an attempt to protect the Buddhist faith from the corruption and exploitation caused by foreign colonial rule. Since independence in 1948, the state has encouraged the establishment of vipassana (insight) meditation centers serving both local and foreign devotees; and the secular, socialist dictator Ne Win convened a congregation of the Sangha in 1980 in order to reform its conduct and purify its doctrines. The political crisis of 1988–2011 has often been described as a contest of wills between a military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (after 1997 renamed the State Peace and Development Council), who tirelessly sponsored Buddhist building projects to acquire legitimacy in the eyes of skeptical if not hostile public and the opposition movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who framed her movement in terms of a synthesis of Buddhist and democratic values (Aung San Suu Kyi, In Search of Democracy, in Michael Aris (ed.) Freedom from Fear and Other Essays, London: Penguin, 1995). The sight of Buddhist monks peacefully demonstrating against the regime in 1990 and again in 2007 (the so-called Saffron Revolution) was a potent challenge to the military’s right to rule.

The dominant worldview of modern Burmese Buddhists has been the fear that the existence of the sasana (the Buddhist religion) has been endangered at different times not only by British colonialism and its consequential ‘globalization’, but by Chinese and Soviet communism and, most recently, the threat of militant Islam, as reflected in the recent prominence of xenophobic and anti-Muslim Buddhist monks such as U Wirathu. Although the unavoidable fate of the sasana as described in the Pali scriptures is decay and dissolution (before the appearance on earth of a Future Buddha), people committed to sasana-pyu (Burmese: ‘to do religion’, that is, to protect and promote the Theravada Buddhist faith) include not only educated and highly respected members of the Sangha and laymen well-versed in the Pali scriptures, but also groups that many if not most Burmese view as superstitious and heterodox.

In his well-written and informative monograph, The Buddha’s Wizards: Magic, Protection and Healing in Burmese Buddhism, Thomas Nathan Patton describes the role of weizza, ‘wizard-saints’, as exercising significantly different powers from Buddhist monks and orthodox-minded lay people in a common defense of the sasana from the ravages of time and its external enemies. Weizza and other practitioners of supernatural powers occupy an ambiguous gray zone between the orthodox division of society into ‘world-renouncing’ (lokuttara) monks and ‘worldly’ (lokiya) lay people. Patton writes that many Burmese people are embarrassed to discuss them and dismiss their practitioners and adherents as fakers or practitioners of black magic. For a foreign scholar to draw attention to them could cause a ‘loss of face’ for ‘the Land of the Buddha’, the citadel of Theravada orthodoxy. But Patton also claims that ‘Burmese Buddhist meditation and monasticism have been popular subjects for scholars of religion in Myanmar, but given that the majority of Buddhists in the country neither meditate nor ordain as monastics, it is surprising that more attention has not been given to statues, chromolithographs, photographs, Buddhist telling beads, amulets, religious magazines, and pagodas, among other "stuff" that matter a great deal to everyday Buddhists’ (p. xxvi). Much of this ‘stuff’ is closely connected to the magical feats of the weizza and their alleged interventions in the lives of ordinary Burmese.

Bo Min Gaung and his Followers

Although Bo Bo Aung, a weizza who lived during the reign of the Burman King Bodawpaya (r. 1783–1819), is commonly recognized as historically the most important of these wizards, Patton focuses on a more modern figure, Bo Min Gaung (1885–1952), who has a wide cult following today. At first glance, Bo Min Gaung seems an unlikely subject for saintly narratives: while alive, he was crude, abusive of the people around him and sometimes seemed to be insane, speaking incoherently and lashing out with his violent temper, though he also was said to have lived as a hermit and practiced meditation and other disciplines in order to develop supernatural powers. His favorite hangout was Mount Popa in central Burma, the famed ‘Mount Olympus of the Nats’ (gods, spirits), which Patton reports in recent times has been transformed gradually into a shrine for the weizza (p. 40). While alive, Bo Min Gaung’s miracles included getting a broken-down car to start using non-mechanical methods, and invulnerability to bullets fired at him by communist guerrillas after World War II. Devotees of Bo Min Gaung claim his death in 1952 resulted not in his entrance into nibbana (nirvana) like a Buddha or rebirth in a different life-form, like beings caught up in the cycle of rebirth or samsara, but his ‘exit’ into ‘death’, his spirit separating from his inanimate corpse to reside with a group (a ‘committee’) of other weizza in what Patton calls ‘another realm’.