An exploration of shinbyu and reincarnation in Myanmar

Dr. Keziah Wallis lectures on Buddhists in Myanmar and how their rituals impact the lives of women

This is an aerial photograph of a temple in Myanmar. The roof is solid gold.
PHOTO: Yves Alarie / Unsplash

By: Olivia Sherman, SFU student

For Buddhist people in Myanmar, earning merit creates a better chance of a good life after rebirth. The pursuit of merit can be understood as “the Buddhist way to develop a wise sense of self” that is often based on selfless activities such as giving, virtue, and meditation. Earning merit can happen in many different ways, but the ideal way is to give things such as food or clothing to monks. The tradition that Dr. Keziah Wallis’ lecture focuses on is called a shinbyu, the practice of turning a boy into a monk. The symbolic action of “giving” the boy to the monks results in high merit for all. 

Wallis, an anthropologist and associate professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, discussed shinbyu ceremonies at a public lecture hosted by the SFU department of sociology and anthropology. She has spent many years studying the Bamar people in Myanmar, where reincarnation “is a total fact of life.”

Wallis has attended 17 of these rituals. The official ordination occurs when boys are around 20 years old. There is a primary ritual for younger boys, often aged between 1012. The shinbyu is, Wallis stated, “the most important ritual in Buddhist Southeast Asia,” and almost all Buddhist Bamars share this notion. 

The shinbyu is a vital ritual in a young boy’s life. It is meant to mimic the ordination of Buddha, who was once a prince who left his regal life to become a monk, where he reached Enlightenment. The boys undergoing the shinbyu are dressed in the finest clothes and makeup, given the best food, and carried in parades: the festivities can last weeks. Wallis explained the literal translation of the word shinbyu is “to make a lord,” as the boys are symbolically turned into princes. 

Though the ceremonies technically aren’t mandatory, most feel an obligation to partake, and those who don’t partake feel an immense loss. Some people will temporarily adopt poor or orphaned boys to sponsor their ordinations; this offers them an equal opportunity to take part in this ritual. Most of the boys stay for only a few weeks, while some stay for years studying Buddhist readings. A mere 1% stay with the monks for life. 

Women are considered “the dominant powerhouse” when it comes to decisions and economics because of their skills. Similarly, the women orchestrate the shinbyu from behind the scenes. While women are not able to earn merit by becoming a monk, they can earn merit by organizing these rituals. 

Shinbyu is also a ritual that highlights motherhood. “A man is not really a man until he has become part of the monkhood, and a woman is not truly a Buddhist until she has given a child to the sangha,” the community of monks, Wallis explained. While most merit-making events have women placed in the back, the shinbyu places them at the forefront. “Although it’s a symbolic sacrifice [ . . . ] that kind of idea of giving up a child is a big thing.” Women earn more merit than men do when they give their child to the sangha. 

The concept of community is a vital factor in a shinbyu as well, something that women largely orchestrate. “The village is constituted by karma, karma is made through merit-making, women are the ones who do merit-making. So if women weren’t doing merit-making, you would have no village.” A shinbyu is a ritual that provides the most merit for the entire community. People gain merit by being happy for others gaining merit, thus creating a “merit-go-round.”

“When you share merit with people, you create a bond of karma with them. You create yeseq.” Yeseq is the concept of sharing merit, therefore creating karma, with those closest to you. The more yeseq one shares with another, the more likely it is they’ll be reborn with each other in the next life.

“Yeseq means we’re not apart,” Wallis elaborated. “We have such strong yeseq that we will be brought back together again.” 

Knowing a shinbyu is the best way to make merit, “it makes sense, then, that the highest, strongest, deepest bonds of yeseq occur during the shinbyu,” Wallis noted. “Karma and community and connectedness — these are all what women do. Men don’t engage in that, women do it on behalf of the men.”