Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The monk of Athwa on kings, warfare, and death

I came across this haunting and poignant passage yesterday.

The Monk of Athwa's works (c. 1740), as of now almost all still untranslated, would probably reveal even more passages like this. This passage would be very fitting at the beginning of any scholarly tome devoted to investigating warfare and its effect on society. It is also a good example of the Buddhist theme of impermanence in literature (The end of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber being another). Here is the passage:

"All the kings who have come down in succession from Mahasamatto [Mahathammada] to Samala and Wimala and their successors who have been kings until now, are thousands and ten thousands of generations."

"All these kings have sought to escape the dominion of Death. Thus they have done: having become Kings, they have planted defences, they have dug moats, they have raised walls and made firm their battlements, they have furnished swords and spears, bows and arrows, muskets, artillery, and engines of war. They have gathered in provisions and mustered armies. They have beaten out weapons, and that they might get the mastery over Death, they have put forth every effort and used every art. All kings have done this have they not?"

"Although these Kings have arranged and planned for their own defence, not one has been able to gain the mastery over Death. Not one has managed to free himself from the power of Death. All rulers have to submit to the power of Death, all of them. Is it not so?"

(Source: Monk of Athwa, Slapat Rajawan Datow Smin Ron [History of Kings], translated from the Mon by Halliday, edited by Christian Bauer (2000) The Mons of Burma and Thailand: Volume 2. Selected Articles, Robert Halliday, Bangkok : White Lotus )

The Monk of Athwa: The greatest and most prolific of all Mon authors

Many of the Mon language works printed at the Pak Lat Press in the early 20th century were authored by one monk known as the Monk of Athwa. This monk supposedly accompanied others fleeing from Pegu during the interregnum preceding the founding of the Konbaung dynasty (1752-1885)and since the books had been left behind to the ravages of war, this monk set to work rewriting them, mostly from memory interpolating in his own literary style in the process. I've included another quote from a monk of Athwa's work on Burmese oppression over the Mon south in another blog entry.

All of the books he wrote can now only be found in rare manuscripts in places like the Myanmar National library in Yangon or the British Library in London. The books he wrote include the Loasiddhi, a book of rules and sayings, the Lik blai bha [Schoolboy’s Book], the Mingala Sutta from the Buddhist Canon of sacred texts, a translation from the Burmese of the poem Parami Kan, the Wan dacit [The Nine Vansas], a collection of works including Buddhawan, Dhatuwan, Mahawan, Rajawan, as well as other legal and didactical works.

Halliday indicates that at the time of writing the Bernard Free Library, the predecessor of the Myanmar National Library, had 304 manuscripts in its catalogue, the earliest dating back to 1655. Some of the works predate this date, but they have been copied and recopied, so don’t let anyone tell you that just because a manuscript dates from a relatively recent times it means the book didn’t originate far in the past. It mahave been copied several times, split apart and rejoined with other texts, several times, all producing complexities in the textual genealogies that philology has yet to unravel and figure out. (Halliday in Christian Bauer (ed.) (2000) The Mons of Burma and Thailand: Volume 1. The Talaings, Robert Halliday, Bangkok : White Lotus, pp. 147-152).