Washing the Mahamuna Buddha face and teeth brushing
Buddhist Rituals and Traditions
Unusual buddhist rituals and traditions in Southeast Asia have always fascinated me. The colours, the sounds of chanting monks and the smells of incense. All of these form part of the mystique and beauty of the religion. However, I freely admit to understanding little about the reasons or meanings of buddhist rituals and traditions. Myanmar is unique and has it’s own take on the many aspects of the Buddhist religion combining local legends and superstitions to the religious mix.
One such remarkable ritual is the Buddha daily face washing and teeth brushing at the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay. It is unique and steeped in mythology. I have never seen a similar ritual elsewhere in the buddhist world. The ceremony is not a tourist attraction and is a serious religious ceremony for locals and pilgrims.
For casual visitors or tourists there is a limiting factor keeping crowd numbers low – a daily ceremony start at 4am. Female visitors must not come too close to the ceremony or the buddha image and must keep a distance from the buddhist monks. As a positive, the main temple gallery affords good views of the ceremony and non-flash photography is permitted. The extra effort required of an early morning rise for this unique cultural experience is well worthwhile. The ceremony is truly unique.
The Mahamuni Ritual
Every morning at 4am, monks and devotees gather around the Buddha image. Large yellow cloths (brahmic robes), wrap the Buddha’s head with the face remaining visible. In some ways the golden buddha resembles a VIP customer at a barbershop or hair dressing salon.
The ritual really commences with the head monk, dressed in orange-red monastic robes taking the lead. Assistant monks and devotees dressed in white robes and caps carefully pass forward silver bowls of water and cleaning materials.
The ritual involves repeatedly washing and drying the face of the Buddha image, followed by vigorously brushing the teeth. This unusual Buddha image has distinctive large white teeth. The head monk uses sandalwood paste to brush the teeth, a kind of substitute Colgate toothpaste. The face-drying utilises fresh clean towels. After the ceremony conclusion, the monks permit devotees to take the towels home as keepsakes and as religious mementoes.
Following the monks’s departure and ceremony conclusion, worshippers come forward and rub gold leaf around the base of the image. This goes on for the rest of the day as visitors come and go to the pagoda. Over the years, generations of worshippers have rubbed countless layers of gold leaf to the base of the image. This has resulted in a distinctly bulbous appearance and texture to the base Buddha image.
The origins of this Buddha image is reportedly from the Arakan kingdom. Arakan is located across much of present day Rakhine State located several hundred kilometres north-west of Mandalay. The legend revolves around a visit by Lord Buddha and his entourage to the Arakan Kingdom. In honour of the auspicious occasion, the King and Queen ordered the people to craft an image in his likeness. This golden buddha became known as the Mahamuni Buddha. How or why it ended up in Mandalay, the reason is unclear. It’s a mythology, legend and superstition unique to this place.
Hoping for reasons and meanings behind this ceremony and ritual, I asked my Thai buddhist wife, Took, some questions. 1) What is the reason for face washing and teeth brushing ritual of this particular large toothed, golden Buddha image each morning? and 2) What is the true Buddhist meaning of the ritual ? With a dismissive shrug of her shoulders, her response was – “Don’t you wash your face and brush your teeth every morning?”.
….maybe it really is that simple!