| Kyaw Lynn |
YANGON (dpa) – Perched high on the wall of U Zaw Win’s shop in Yangon is a small, unassuming tin.
The 41-year-old car accessories salesman, who runs a modest businessin the city’s Mayangone township, has for the past 15 years religiously allocated a share of his daily profit to the tin.
“I never forget to save money for donation,” he says, pointing to the box on an altar beside a small statue of the Buddha and two vases full of flowers.
He estimates that the tin has collected almost 30,000 US dollars over the years, all of it going toward renovations at the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist site.
The 100-metre stupa, which towers over Myanmar’s most populous city, is currently wrapped in bamboo scaffolding as workers touch up its gold leaf covering and replace some of the solid gold plates that adorn its upper reaches.
Zaw Win, his face beaming, says he has donated gold weighing a total of 45 kyattha to the pagoda. With a kyattha corresponding to just over 16 grammes, one kyattha of gold is currently worth about 600 US dollars.
“By saving just a small amount of money at a time, I donate at least three kyattha a year for the renovation of the Shwedagon Pagoda,” he said.
Renovations are funded by individual donations from ordinary people, as well as from religious associations across Myanmar.
Many people in the majority-Buddhist country give a large portion of their income to religious causes or to charity in hopes of improving their fortune in the next life.
The country’s gross domestic product per capita is just 1,105 US dollars, according to a World Bank report published this week, and the poverty rate is among the highest in Southeast Asia at 37.5 per cent.
But many families still manage to find the 600 to 3,600 US dollars needed to buy a gold plate, depending on the size, for the Shwedagon.
“There are renovations every year, but this year we are undertaking a major renovation that only happens every five years,” said Sein Win Aung, head of the Trustees of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
At least 15,000 of the pagoda’s 22,000 gold plates are being replaced, requiring about 735 kilogrammes of gold, he said. “So people are very eager to donate this year,” he added.
Aung Tun, secretary of the Yadanataya Thamagga Religious Association in Yangon’s Sanchaung Township, said the group had placed more than 1,800 small tins in stores and tea shops around the township to ask for donations for the Shwedagon this year.
The association in total donated more than 3.2 kg of gold, he said. “Our donations have mainly come from saving boxes for decades now,” he said, adding that the association has been donating to the pagoda annually for 64 years.
The citizens of Myanmar and the United States spend the most money and time on charitable causes in the world, according to a report released last month by the Britain-based Charities Aid Foundation.
The religion and culture play a role, with Myanmar’s more than 500,000 Buddhist monks essentially supported by individuals’ donations, the report said.
Some 91 per cent of Myanmar people donate money, more than any other country. It said 51 per cent volunteered time to good causes and 49 per cent gave help to strangers.
Some of the donations go to monastic education or religious-based social services, but much of it simply goes into the gold that brightens the country’s thousands of pagodas.
Donating money is an important tenet of Theravada Buddhism, said prominent Myanmar monk Sitagu Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara.
The faith is the country’s dominant religion, and its proponents believe that when people die, they are reincarnated as humans or animals.
“As merit is one essence of Buddhism, giving donations is common practice in our country, Myanmar,” said the monk.
“Making merit means making good karma, which brings good luck to you now, and also in your next life.”
However, small monetary donations are only the lowest form of merit making, Nyanissara said, emphasising that other good deeds were also required to guarantee favourable reincarnation.
“But most of our people are poor, so they just collect money a little bit at a time, which we call asanna kan (or daily merit). Asanna kan is like saving money for the future,” he said.