Shan - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. In some characterizations of Theravada Buddhism, Shan beliefs and practices may be considered unorthodox. Nevertheless, Shan identify themselves as Theravada Buddhists. By so doing, they classify themselves with other lowland groups and distinguish themselves from upland "tribal" peoples. Although they are Buddhist, the worldview of the Shan centers on the idea of "power protection" and its unequal distribution. Power protects people from the consequences of their actions, allowing them to behave as they choose. Because more powerful beings exist and may behave capriciously, people need to enter into a relationship with more powerful others for their own protection. One gains power protection through the practice of restraint or relying on the protection of more powerful others. Buddhas and Buddhist monks are the most powerful beings. Powerful beings associated with Buddhism are more reliably benevolent while others, such as government officials or spirits, are less likely to be benevolent. The world is populated with beings ranked on a continuum of power, with human beings falling somewhere near the middle. Beings with more power than humans include Buddhas, cadastral spirits of the village, and spirits associated with fields, households, and the forest. Beings less powerful than humans, although still dangerous, include spirits that arose from violent deaths or from women dying in childbirth and disease spirits. People, rice, and water buffalo have spirits whose loss causes illness or death.

Religious Practitioners. There are Buddhist monks, novices, and nuns; temple lay readers; traditional curers; and caretakers of the cadastral-spirit altar. All except the caretaker of the cadastral-spirit altar draw on the power associated with Buddhism. The traditional curer's ability to cure comes from his keeping of precepts, his practice of restraint, and his reliance on his teachers and on the Buddhas.

Ceremonies. The Buddhist lunar calendar structures the ceremonial cycle with four holy days each month falling on the days of full, dark, and half-moons. There are temple festivals celebrating events in the Buddha's life, such as the anniversaries of his birth, his enlightenment, his first sermon, and his death; other festivals entail the construction of sand pagodas, and the firing of rockets before or after the rainy season and to honor the end of the retreat during the three months of rain. Wealthy villages and temples celebrate more of these events than do poorer ones. However, all villages at least hold a festival after the end of the rains' retreat. Once a year villages as a whole invite monks to chant to remove misfortune and to renew the village and its constituent households' barriers against misfortune. The village cadastral spirit is also feasted at least once a year. Households may sponsor a range of ceremonies including Buddhist ordinations, funerals, merit making for the dead, marriages, first bathing ceremonies for infants, and invitations for monks to chant in the house.

Arts. Mostly these are impermanent decorations such as carved and decorated fruit offered to the Buddha image or monks and elaborately decorated coffin carriers, money trees, and pagodas celebrating the end of the rains' retreat. In Myanmar, Shan still weave traditional shoulder bags and carve small objects such as Buddha images from marble and jade. Shan in Chiang Mai were known for their silverwork.


Medicine. Shan accept and use Western medicine where available and when the ailment responds to such treatment. They also use the four elements—earth, water, wind, and fire—together with hot and cold to diagnose and treat illness. Buddhist verses are important in curing, either being blown over the patient or recited over water for the patient to drink.


Death and Afterlife. Funerals occur three to seven days after death. In Thailand everyone is cremated, although in the recent past people dying "bad deaths" were buried. Shan in Myanmar and China still bury people who die a "bad death." Buddhist monks officiate at funerals; Shan believe that only monks can transfer merit from the living to the dead. After a short period, during which the spirit may remain waiting for people to make merit for it, it is reborn.


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