Myanmar Ministry Orders Monastery to Remove Buddha Statues Designed Using Occult Practices

By San Yamin Aung 7 July 2020

YANGON—Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture has ordered the removal of sitting Buddha statues donated by members of the country’s former military regime, as the stone idols were sculpted according to occult practices that go against Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

The 66 statues with “unusual hand gestures” are located in the compound of the Seindamuni Monastery on Mt. Min Wun in Naypyitaw’s Pyinmana Township. The compound also hosts a number of small stupas with strange titles like “May power be long established” and “Let the throne be long established.” The donors of the stupas include the family of Myanmar’s former dictator Senior General Than Shwe, and U Thein Swe, a former major general who served as transport minister under the military regime and is the current minister of labor, immigration and population.

Among the donors of the statues are general-turned-politician Thura Shwe Mann; senior members of the country’s former ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); military commanders; and high-ranking government officials.

The statues are described as having “one hand behind the back and the other in front with the palms facing outward.”

According to Tampawaddy U Win Maung, a prominent scholar on traditional Myanmar design and architecture, the positions and gestures of these Buddha images are intended to signify that the Buddha is protecting worshipers from misfortune from both behind and in front, and that donating to it or worshiping it will afford such protection to the devotee.

A stupa with the strange title ‘Get Promoted’ is seen inside the monastery compound. / Htet Naing Zaw / The Irrawaddy

“But what the Buddha has taught us is to follow his way, not to build such idols in the hope that worshiping them will fulfill our desires,” he said.

In others words, the creation of the statues with unusual hand gestures is an act of Yadaya—Brahman rituals enacted to prevent misfortune or secure wealth and power under the guidance of astrologers. The practice is wildly popular among Myanmar officials and the country’s powerful generals. This would appear to explain the presence of stupas with strange titles like “Get Promoted” in the compound of the Seindamuni Monastery.

In its announcement released on Tuesday, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture said the 66 statues inside the Seindamuni compound, created with unauthorized mudras (gestures) and with the astrological goal of changing the donors’ karma to enhance their power and wealth, were “disgraceful”.

Through the local clerical authority, the Naypyitaw Sanga Maha Nayaka, the ministry asked the abbot of the monastery to remove all of the statues by 4 p.m. on Monday. Some of the statues were removed on Monday.

Buddha statues with unauthorized mudra are seen at the Seindamuni Monastery in Pyinmana, Naypyitaw. / Htet Naing Zaw / The Irrawaddy

“Those mudras are disgraceful and also against Theravada Buddhism. Thus, we asked that they be removed,” said U Zarni Win, deputy permanent secretary of the ministry.

“If they don’t follow the order, we will take [legal] action,” he said on Tuesday.

Asked what action the ministry planned to take in regard to the stupas with strange names, U Aung San Win, the director of the ministry, said it would follow up on the case and keep the public informed.

Regarding some of the statues that were donated under the name of the USDP, party spokesperson Nanda Hla Myint said the donations were made by individual party members, not the party itself.

“It is neither the party’s donation nor the party’s policy. [The donations] were made by individual party members based on their own beliefs,” he said.

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