Dai - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Buddhism—the Theravada (Way of the Elders) or Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) school—was the official religion of the Dai. Although Buddhism was said to have been introduced to the Dai of Yunnan as early as the seventh century, it only gained great popularity after 1569, when Dao Yin Mong, the nineteenth chaopianling of Xishuangbanna, married a daughter of the king of Burma. Since then, Buddhism was accepted by the tusi as the official religion and spread widely to all classes. With four sects (Ruen, Baizhuang, Dolie, and Zodi), Buddhism in both Xishuangbanna and Dehong argues for reaching enlightenment by following the Middle Way (avoiding the extremes of life) and the Four Noble Truths (all existence is suffering; suffering arises from desire; cessation of desire means the end of suffering; cessation of desire is achieved by controlling one's conduct, thought, and belief), and it emphasizes gaining wisdom and working out one's own salvation by renouncing the world and living the life of a monk, devoting oneself to meditation and study in a temple. Therefore, it is customary for men to spend at least some part of their lives in a temple. For the lay believers, making offerings to the Buddha, supporting the monks, and sending their sons into a temple are the ways to become enlightened and achieve salvation. In addition to Buddhism, traditional spirit belief also has its place in Dai society. The Dai believe that human beings become spirits ( diula or pi ) after death and that the spirits exist everywhere; some are benevolent and helpful, while others are wicked and harmful. Rituals of worship and sacrifice provide protection and assurance to people and community.

Religious Practitioners. Formal ecclesiastical systems exist in Xishuangbanna and Dehong. In Xishuangbanna, monks are grouped into ten classes in the hierarchy: (1) the pano (small monk, the elementary class of the system) ; (2) the pa (common monk); (3) the dugang (deputy abbot of a temple); (4) the dulong (abbot of a temple); (5) the kuba (elder of the first grade) ; (6) the shami (elder of the second grade); (7) the samghaloshe (elder of the third grade); (8) the pachaoku (elder of the fourth grade); (9) the songdi (elder of the fifth grade); and (10) the songdi aghamoni (the highest elder). Dehong has a similar system with variation in grading and terminology. Those with the title of kuba or above are master monks and, as a rule, cannot resume secular life. Before 1956, the highest title holders of a tusi region were approved and granted authority over all the temples in the region by the tusi. Today the temples and monks that survived the Cultural Revolution are under the supervision of official Buddhist Associations of the county and prefecture.

Ceremonies. The main Buddhist ceremonies are Haowasa and Aowasa, Shaobaichai, Sangha, and Dan or Bai. Haowasa and Aowasa, meaning "in" and "out" of the fast period, are yearly ceremonies popular in both Xishuangbanna and Dehong. The Dai make series of Buddha offerings between the ninth and twelfth days of the month from June to October. During this period, the believers go to local temples every seventh day to offer food and flowers to the Buddha and to listen to the monks reciting scriptures; male adults have to stay three nights a week at the temples, experiencing a monk's life. On the first day and last day of the period grand celebrations are held. Through the whole period, all farm work is suspended, and no courtship, wedding, long journey, house building, promotion, or resumption of secular life by monks is allowed. Formerly, this was also the time for the tusi to appoint the village heads. Shaobaichai, meaning "Burning of White Firewood," popular only in Dehong, is held at the beginning of every spring. At this time, adolescents go into the mountains to collect firewood and then burn it by the village temple to expel the coldness and thus show the people's goodwill to Buddha. Sangha, the Water-Sprinkling Festival, is celebrated in all Dai regions at Buddhist New Year (about mid-April). On the day, people gather at the temple with fresh flowers, food, and other offerings, build small Buddhist pagodas in the yard of the temple with clean sand from the rivers, and then sit around the pagodas and listen to the monks reciting the scriptures to expiate the sins of the dead. Meanwhile, a figure of Buddha is carried into the yard. People wash the Buddha and sprinkle each other with clear water as a blessing. Now the day is officially declared a Dai national holiday and celebrated with a big rally, dragon-boat races, and fireworks. It draws large numbers of tourists. Dan (in Xishuangbanna) or Bai (in Dehong) is the Buddha-offering ceremony. The most common and pious way for the lay believers to gain salvation, the ceremony is performed on every important occasion such as a birth, marriage, death, harvest, the building of a Buddhist pagoda or a house, the upgrading of monks, etc. The ceremonies can be held either by an individual household or a community. People offer flowers, food, candles, money, and so on before the figures of Buddha, listen to the monks reciting the scriptures, and appeal to the Buddha for blessing. In Dehong, a Bai sponsor first has to go to Myanmar to buy one or more figures of the Buddha, make elegant streamers and umbrellas, hire monks to make a copy of Buddhist scripture, and put all these in a temporarily built hall at his house. Then the family invites the local abbot and monks to officiate at the ceremony, feasting all relatives and villagers. After the ceremony, all the items are sent to the local temple as offerings. All those who have made a Bai become an honorable paka, a disciple of the Buddha, and will be able to enter the Western Paradise after death. In addition to Buddhist ceremonies, there are spirit-offering rituals ( linpimong ) in all Dai regions, communally held for the village's protection and well-being.

Arts. Dai literature is especially rich in poetry and folktales. In Dai, poetry ( kahma ) means talking and singing. With relatively loose rhyme, rules, and forms, Dai poetry leaves much room for the zamha or haluanhong, the balladists, in their impromptu recital. Epics are an important part of Dai poetry, among which Langaxihuo, Chaoshutun and Nanmanuola (or The Peacock Princess), and Wuopin and Losang are most famous. The first is about the Dai ancestors' conquest of flood; the second and third are love stories of ancient princes and princesses. The story of the peacock princess seems to be a Dai version of an ancient Hindu drama, Manva . The Dai are well known for their gracerul peacock folk dance, which vividly imitates and displays the elegance of the peacock, the symbol of luck and happiness for the Dai. Mural painting, wood and stone carving, and sculpture are closely tied to Buddhism. Woven and embroidered wool, cotton, and silk bags and other works are famous Dai handicrafts, and they sell well in the markets.

Medicine. Medical knowledge and expertise are mainly passed on orally by the moya (medical man) from generation to generation. Traditional medicine comes from herbs, minerals, or materials from animals—ginger, chili, anise, shaddock and pine leaves, opium paste, camphor, borax, tiger bone, pilose antler (of a young stag), the gallbladder of a bear or a snake, and so on. Local epidemics and frequently occurring disorders are malaria, dysentery, cholera (now rare), and convulsions. Massage, oral or surface application of medicines, bloodletting, and heat application are common methods used in treatment and cure. The Dai have accepted modern medicine since the Revolution, but they still use traditional medicine and treatment—as well as the Buddha or spirit offerings—as supplemental cures.

Death and Afterlife. Dai belief about death is a combination of Buddhism and traditional spiritism. The people believe in samsara (all human beings are wandering from life to life through countless rebirths) and karma (people are suffering the consequences of past and present lives). Also, they believe that all humans become spirits after death. The traditional idea is actually more popular among ordinary people, whose fear and reverence of the spirits are reflected vividly at funerals. Burial (for commoners) and cremation (for Buddhist monks and tusi) are common ways to dispose of the body. The funeral ceremonies are for normal deaths only. When a person is dying, the relatives get a small bamboo tablet with two pieces of yellow cloth on it from the temple and put it on the body as a verification of belief in the Buddha so that the deceased can enter paradise. The elder of the family has to recite several verses of Buddhist scriptures to the dying person. All the villagers should stop their work and come to help, for the spirit dislikes any noise of working. All water at home should be tipped away lest the spirit come back to wash. The abbot and the monks are invited to perform rites for one day or more to release the soul from purgatory and expiate the sins of the dead. When the coffin is carried out, all family members come upstairs to drive the spirit out of the house. The spouse of the dead cuts up a pair of candles at this moment to manifest eternal separation from the dead. On the way to the cemetery, the abbot and monk go in front, holding a string tied to the coffin, as guides; behind, the relatives of the dead carry packages of cooked rice and occasionally allow the eldest son of the deceased to take some rice from the packages for the deceased. Each village has its own cemetery nearby in the woods. Adults are buried at a location separate from the sites for those who died young and those who died by accident or violence. Dead children cannot become spirits, whereas those who died through violence become evil spirits. Back from the cemetery, people burn a special kind of nut, exposing themselves to the smoke, and wash their hair with stale rice water to cleanse themselves.

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