Amid historic demonstrations against the Burmese government, 10,000 maroon-robed monks protested the military junta in Yangon on Sunday. The next day, 1,000 monks led a crowd of almost 100,000 in a 12-mile march. How many monks does Burma have?
No one really knows, but experts in the West estimate between 300,000 and half a million. In Burma, like in other Southeast Asian countries, it's customary for a male to enter a monastery at some point in his life. Some might remain a monk for just a few days, while others—an estimated 15 percent—stay for life. (A monk's tenure might depend on how religious he is or how much money he could earn outside the monastery.) Either way, it's a good thing to have on your résumé: Monks hold the highest status in Burmese society, and men are considered more mature and marriageable if they've been ordained. A man might also join the monkhood to acquire merit, or good karma, to help his mother have a better next life; even a short stint is thought to help.
It's pretty simple to become a monk in Burma. You have to be at least 7 years old, and you may need permission from your parents or spouse. Families who can afford it often have a big village blowout for a young son's ordination; the festivities are replete with drinking, feasting, and dancing—sort of like a Buddhist bar mitzvah. The idea is to act out the temptations that the monk-to-be must resist. Meanwhile, the boy sits still and dons sunglasses as a metaphor for blindness to the wild behavior around him. During the ceremony, the novice monk vows to abide by the Ten Precepts, which include abstaining from things like sexual contact and luxurious seats. Then he puts on his maroon robe, receives the bowl that he'll use to collect alms, and enters the monkhood. (There's a different ceremony for men who ordain for the first time when they're at least 20 years old or for novice monks who are ready to become full monks.)
Monks come from all strata of society, but those who join monasteries as children tend to come from poorer backgrounds. This is because entering the monkhood can be a bit like going off to free boarding school; some boys go for the schooling, food, housing, and health care. Monks who join when they are older might hail from upper-class or religious families, or be retirees who are ready to renounce the world.
Burma is a stronghold of Theravada Buddhism, a more orthodox school popular in Southeast Asia. So is Thailand, which has about half a million monks. Laos and Cambodia each have only about 30,000, and in Sri Lanka, where monks tend to be lifers, there are fewer than 50,000.
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Explainer thanks Moe Chan of Burma Point, Justin McDaniel of University of California at Riverside, Tom Patton of Cornell University, Mu Soeng of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, and Bridget Welsh at Johns Hopkins University.