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Weikza-Lam and Vipassanā: The Relic Industry

The history of weikza-lam is dark. The term weikza-do is a Burmese corruption of the Pāli, vijjā-dhara, a word that is in the Jātakas where it simply refers to a magician or maker of wonders without any soteriological significance. In Burmese literature the term only began to take religious connotations in the nineteenth century with the figure of Bo Bo Aung.Prior to that, the weikza-do was a common character in Burmese legends and in stories attributed to the zawgyi or Burmese alchemist, a romantic figure famous for the sharpness of his sense of smell.

The zawgy was an alchemist and semi-mortal human shaman with supernatural powers and was often seen with a magic wand and a red hat.It is one of the supernatural figures in Burmese mythology and folklore.

The zawgyi has supernatural powers, such as flying through the air traveling beneath the earth and the oceans and are also capable of performing divinations, necromances and even resurrections. It lives in the deep forests near the Himalayas, where it feeds on herbs with magical properties. After searching for many years, he obtained the mythical philosopher’s stone and thus gained his «zawgyidad».

Sometimes, with a touch of her magic wand, she gives life to «illusory females» (Thuyaung-mèý) in a thuyaung, a fruit tree that gives fruit in the form of a woman to fulfill her carnal desires. He uses drugs derived from trees, roots, tubers and bulbs from deep forests and the legendary ball of mercury that possesses supernatural powers. He spends his life looking for herbs to treat suffering humans and to achieve longevity. Use the magic wand to grind the medicinal herbs and roots. Any round, flat stone that you can find miles away from anywhere is thought to be the zawgyi millstone. He always has a cane in his hand, which he would use during his walks, especially along very hilly paths.

The zawgyi practices alchemy to become Weizza and attain immortal life, along with other minor achievements. The goal of this practice is to achieve the timeless state of Weizza, which awaits the appearance of the future Buddha Metteyya.

The zawgyi are dressed in red from head to toe with a red hat and a magic wand in their hands. An interesting fact about the zawgyis is that there are only zawgyis men. The mustache is an optional part of the costume. A zawgyi becomes weizza, changes her dress to white and changes her pants for a white Burmese longyi.

The dance of the zawgyis is basically a happy dance to symbolize how he grinds the medicine with the wand and how he finally creates a magic pill.Therefore, arriving at the end of the presentation, he performs this choreography where he holds the wand horizontally and jumps over it to show his success.

As a simple zawgyi, the weikza-do was not as powerful or as long-lived as the later weikza-lam literature will make it. It was not even serious, on the contrary, it was even portrayed as something good to eat, since it provides superhuman strength. However, disguised as a heroic Buddhist assistant, the weikza-do shows a remarkable similarity to the imposing mahāsiddha, the «great compliment» of the medieval Buddhist tantra of Bengal. Several of the eighty-four mahāsiddha of that tradition are said to have attained immortality through alchemy and meditation, and to serve as protectors of the Buddha’s religion until the arrival of Metteyya.

A paradigm for this belief is the famous legend in the Mahayazawin-gyi (c.1724) about two temple boys who acquire supernatural strength by eating the body of an alchemist. So strong they became that the kings of Thaton and Pagan were afraid of them and murdered them. The most famous mahāsiddha that awaits Metteyya is the chemist and philosopher Nagarjuna.

The Tibetan historian Tāranātha (1575-1634) affirmed that the mahāsiddhas had the Buddhist tantra mythified in Burma in antiquity. For example, in Minnanthu, a complex of Mahayana temples from the 12th century located on the outskirts of Pagan, there are tantric images.

And until the fifteenth century, the paradigm of mahāsiddha is based on an earlier Indian Buddhist archetype of the long-lived or immortal arahant awaiting the arrival of Metteyya. In one of the Sanskrit permutations of the legend of Mahākassapa, the saint does not die, but remains alive in a meditative trance. The arahant Piṇḍola Bhāradvāja also awaits Metteyya in the world, in his case as punishment for his greed. Over time the list expanded to include four, eight and sixteen arahants. These became the same sixteen Chinese Luohan.

Similarly, in Burma, people believe in eight protean arahants of the world known as the «four dead and four living lords» (thay-lay-pa shin-lay-pa).The list includes Mahākassapa among the dead lords and Shin Upagot among the living lords. Everyone awaits the advent of Buddha Metteyya.

The vidyā-dhara is a figure of India through the tantric traditions typically associated with alchemy, particularly the manipulation of mercury. A late Indian Tantric practice (fourteenth century) called Alchemy ‘Siddha’ similar in its techniques to the methods found in the weikza-lam is described. In both systems, mercurial alchemy is combined with yogic techniques for the transformation of the body and the attainment of immortality.

In the case of Burmese alchemy, iron competes with mercury as the metal of choice. It should be noted that in the weikza-lam praxis, the manipulation and consumption of runes (in, aing, sama) often dislodges literal alchemy to achieve the same transformation.

A similar science of «edible letters» (za yig) is attested in the tradition of the «treasure text». The characters are written on strips of paper that are then consumed for medicinal, protective or soteriological purposes.

During the Indian Pāla dynasty (8th-12th centuries CE), Mahāyāna and Mantrayāna flourished in Burma. Tantric texts, along with the Theravada writings, were donated to the monasteries in Upper Burma. Modern critics of the practice of weikza-lam have used this historical information to link the weikza-lam to a sect of so-called heretical monks in ancient Pagan known as the Ari, who are vilified in the Burmese chronicles for their moral corruption and their addiction to magic and spiritual worship.

Another possible source of influence dates back to the reign of King Konbaung, Bodaw-hpaya (1782-1819) who, in the nineteenth century, imported numerous treatises on Hindu numerology, medicine and alchemy from northern India. These were translated from Sanskrit and Bengali into Burmese.

In any case, it was through Western scholarship that the terms ‘Mahāyāna’, ‘tantra’, ‘Hīnayāna’ etc., first entered the Burmese lexicon at the beginning of the 20th century, the century from which they were used for the sectarian controversy.

On the other hand, when we look specifically at the weikza-lam techniques to achieve physical invulnerability and at the descriptions of the ‘exit’ of the weikza-do from the mortal plane, we find close parallels with Chinese Taoist procedures to achieve immortality through of ‘liberation of the corpse’ (shijie) in which the physical body is shed a cicada shell and the immortal spirit is released.

Of the many transition scenarios foreseen in Taoist sources, leaving behind an incorruptible body or leaving behind little or nothing, they are similar to the two Burmese categories of the exit athay-htwet «through [apparent] death» and ashin- htwet «come out alive» that mark the apotheosis of the weikza-lam practitioner.

However, not all similarities with Chinese concepts seem to be Taoist derivations. Taoism, for example, does not attribute any particular meaning or value to mummies. In Chinese Buddhism, however, the mummy, the fictional remains of the Buddhist masters are typically considered relics with the power of Buddhahood and, therefore, treated as icons for veneration.

This resembles the Burmese treatment of such bodies, whether remnants of supposed arahant or htwet-yat-pauk. There are Chinese techniques of exorcising tombs to protect the corpses from the demonic attack that are also similar to the strategies used by the disciples of the htwet-yat-pauk aspirant to protect him while he lies helpless in his coffin.

The best-known example of this is the mummified and lacquered body of the sixth Ch’an patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), consecrated in the Ts’ao-hsi temple in Hsin-chou. As, they say, the purity of the mind simultaneously affects the purity of the physical body. Thus the bodies of the Buddhist masters who resisted after death were therefore worshiped as meritorious karma deposits and spiritual powers.

This evaluation is strikingly similar to the postulates of Ledi Sayadaw regarding the incorruptibility of the bodies of arahants.

While it is possible that, by Indian and Chinese influences on the Burmese, the weikza tradition could go back centuries, it was not until the twentieth century that the weikza-lam received what can be considered its cornerstone, and this was through from the writings of none other than Ledi Sayadaw. Of particular importance was his Vijjāmagga-dīpanī composed in 1898. In that work, Ledi Sayadaw set out to define all the various knowledge and sciences (weikza, P. vijjā) then current in the Burmese religious landscape to organize them in a hierarchy along the lokiya-lokuttara axis.

Although his intention was to show how the supreme mundane ‘lokuttara’ vipassanā is superior to all other sciences and the only one capable of offering liberation, Ledi Sayadaw also presented an explanation of the «praxis weikza-lam» in the language of the Abhidhamma. This was to provide the later generations of weikza-lam apologists with an authorized vocabulary and theoretical structure with which to articulate their system and defend it from criticism.

While the general public and the sangha in general remain mostly neutral with respect to weikza-lam, it is the vipassanā lay practitioners who make quite strident criticisms. In addition to accusations that the practice of weikza-lam can lead to madness or simply that it is a quackery, critics accuse him that his infatuation with immortality is tantamount to a rejection of the Buddhist doctorate of no-self, which establishes that there is no eternal soul. The defenders of Weikza-lam respond by referring to the Abhidhamma, where they point out that the mind and body of a weikza-do is no longer possessed by a being or soul like the mind and body of an ordinary mortal. Appealing to the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, they point out that the Buddha himself could have lived for a whole aeon if they had asked for it.

To confront the criticism that the desire for an extraordinarily long life betrays the fear of death, they argue that the Buddhist saint prolongs his life compassionately by remaining in Saṃsāra.

According to a popular collection of hagiographies published in 1973, more than a dozen minor arahants and ariyas have appeared in Burma since the late twentieth century, all associated with the burgeoning vipassanā movement. Of the saints on that list, the last to die was Taungpulu Sayadaw in 1986. The public devotion shown has surpassed that given to any other national figure. In addition, miracles have been reported by his disciples, and occasional consultations have been raised by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to verify orthodoxy.

At the funerals of these saints there are tens of thousands of adepts to the vipassanā, after which their relics are consecrated in pagodas or kept in their monasteries of origin.

However, unlike the relics of the Buddha, which are national treasures venerated by every Buddhist in the country, the fashionable cremated relics in Burma of alleged arahants are quite neglected. But, as we have seen, according to the Burmese belief, the arahants can also leave behind incorruptible bodies, and it seems that these have always aroused a broader interest on the part of the Buddhist community. Perhaps this is because there is more ambiguity about what they represent, because both saints and wizards are capable of the same achievement, and there are very busy shrines in Upper and Lower Burma dedicated to the remains of both types of religious heroes . Located in impressive rooms and often covered in gold leaf, it is considered to be completely consistent with the scriptures.

The Arahants can leave such relics, but only if they have made a resolution to do so. The failure of a cremation to produce relics, therefore, does not necessarily prove that the deceased was not an arahant.

The relics of cremated arahants are, in fact, quite common in Burma and, in general, are not held in sufficient esteem to be consecrated. The Kyaikkasan Pagoda in Rangoon, for example, has a large collection of relics kept on display in a glass jar in its museum. The museum attached to the Myathalun Pagoda in Magwe has in its collection the relics of the very Mahāmoggallāna, one of the two main disciples of the Buddha. These are stored in an anodyne display cabinet made of wood and glass.

These mummified bodies attract thousands of pilgrims a year. The veneration shown before the preserved remains of an acclaimed arahant or a weikza-do is identical, imitating Buddha’s relics: prayers of prostration, circumambulation and recitation; and the desires made by devotees: for health, for prosperity and for a happy rebirth, and so on, they are the same. Then, in the end, while the respective traditions they represent remain in disagreement, these two ideals of human perfection: the arahant is worshiped because he has died his final death, and the weikza-do because he will live forever, find a common meaning in the eyes of the Buddhist faithful in the bodies they leave behind.

In the end, the industry both the vipassanā and the weizza-lam of what it is about is to leave beautiful corpses that serve for the worship (and billing) of their temples.

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