Bénédicte Brac de la Perrière
In this article, practices related to the weikza are not considered as a bounded realm but as existing in a complex setting of dialogical relationships crisscrossing the overall religious landscape. Particularly, processes of interactions between spirit mediums and weikza path practitioners will be examined in the context of the recent growth of the weikza phenomenon visibility. Starting at Mount Poppa, where various religious specialists are present together at the anniversary of Bomingaung, the inquiry moves toward changing practices involving weikza in spirit possession ceremonies and proceeds to the examination of a hybrid path combining mediation with both spirits and weikza. Finally, practices of mediation with spiritual agents by weikza path practitioners (dat si) and spirit mediums (nat win) are compared to show that differences displayed in this regard by weikza followers are used to delineate and rank their own field of practice as a distinctive one.
One of the most typical forms of weikza cult consists in congregations (gaing) specialized in the practice of exorcism. Relying on the monographic study of such a congregation-the Shweyingyaw Congregation-the article explores the Burmese exorcist's identity. It describes the parameters of this identity in accordance with the way the exorcists themselves conceive their role and their efficacy. The article eventually compares the Burmese exorcist with three archetypal figures in the scholarly study of religion (the possession specialist, the shaman and the Church priest) in order to offer a generic characterization of his exorcistic faculty.
This article analyses the fact that in the Thandwe area, in Arakan State (Western part of Burma), weikza-related practices are largely widespread among healers and are highly appreciated by consultants. Taking the example of the diviners and the "masters of the upper path", I show that weikza knowledge and techniques potentially guarantee healers a wider field of action and a higher respectability, both of which are essential qualities for healers. My opinion is that this advantage comes from the fact that the weikzas' status, as well as the practices associated to them, combine and mix aspects which are – cognitively – kept distinct: Buddhist and non-Buddhist, this-worldly and other-worldly aspects. The force of the weikza phenomenon resides in its ambiguity and hybridity.
In this essay, I critique received ideas that describe weikza practices as millennial or unorthodox and propose instead an alternate understanding that places this form of Theravada practice in creative tension with conventional Buddhist practices endorsed by the center of power in royal and modern time. In this approach, I follow the writing of Michael de Certeau on the ways in which certain religious practices were marginalized in the course of modernizing reforms.
This somewhat submerged form of Buddhism speaks powerfully to individuals at the margins of power and in need of alternate ways to garner and control it. This kind of Burmese imaginations has been inspired by charismatic figures like Bo Bo Aung, Bo Min Gaung and charismatic monks who became hermits and occupied sanctified spaces outside conventional Buddhist institutions. Weikza practitioners are inspired by narratives of heroic feats and miraculous accomplishments, by their desire for extraordinary powers gained in samatha meditation, and by secret knowledge revealed in dreams and visions or harnessed through spells and alchemy. As weikza practices and texts did not undergo the authoritative editing of Buddhist reforms, their repertoire is hybrid and resonates with other religious traditions, such as Tibetan Tantric and Shaivite notions. In the absence of historical evidence about the transmission of texts or initiation rites, such polytropic forms only underscore the marginalized displacement of weikza practices. Neither millennial or unorthodox, weikza practices implicitly and subversively contest the conventional sources of power and merit controlled by reformed institutions at the center of Buddhist polities.
In early postcolonial Burma, millenarian prophecies about the imminent arrival of Setkya Min, the world emperor, circulated. This exalted personage was expected to protect Buddhism, and usher in a golden age for Buddhism and Burma. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the anthropologists Michael Mendelson and Melford E. Spiro encountered a perplexing phenomenon – a few so-called royal esoteric congregations whose leaders behaved as kings and were treated as such by their followers. These leaders were held to fulfill the prophecies and thus to be impersonations of the powerful figure Setkya Min, a weikza, a future Buddha, and a righteous king.
Mendelson and Spiro understood these congregations as being continuous with the anti-colonial and even the pre-millenarian rebellions. Until now, this interpretation has remained uncontested, probably due to lack of empirical evidence, since most scholars have assumed that these kinds of congregations ceased to exist long time ago. However, there still exists one such congregation in Burma, and was founded in the early 1950s. This article demonstrates how this congregation has waged a "battle" with supernatural means against what it perceived as the evil, anti-Buddhist forces to save Buddhism from extinction, and that it is just as anti-colonial and anti-Western as the anti-colonial rebellions. Moreover, the article argues that this congregation is similar to those studied by Mendelson and Spiro, and that these kinds of congregations should be understood as new Buddhist movements emerging in response to crises of authority and identity, to projects of modernization and nation-building, and to political turmoil in the postcolonial period. These congregations represented a quest for identity (individual, communal, and national), and are comparable to the other new religious movements that emerged in Southeast Asia in the postwar period.
Although pagoda building is undoubtedly highly regarded as a merit-earning act in Myanmar, the ritual process itself has seldom received much attention. Generally there exist five ritual processes of pagoda building. In each ritual, the specialists of weikza knowledge play much part. This article attempts to consider why these specialists of weikza knowledge are regarded as indispensable persons for pagoda-building, through the analysis of the rituals. The construction of pagoda differs from the other donations in many points. Pagoda-building, considered as big project requesting much time and financial support, is not ordinarily observed in the communities. The knowledge of pagoda building and its associated rituals is transmitted not within the village community, but through closed mentor–student relationships such as those between specialists of weikza knowledge. Pagoda-building is also more risky, compared with the other donations. It is prone to failure or delay, which has both karmic and social consequences for the donor. The donors also try to raise the protection power to complete the project by various practices such as keeping precepts, drawing the power of protection by payeik-recitation, following the time guided by astrology, bringing out the protection from spirits, calling on the weiksa, utilizing the knowledge of weiksa specialists. Especially when they face with the difficulties, they rely on the specialists of weikza knowledge on the rituals.
In other words, weikza specialists are expected to contribute pagoda-building, for they can bring out the protection of weikza and they hold enough knowledge by which they achieve ritual success.