Project Canterbury

Personal Recollections of British Burma and Its Church Mission Work in 1878-79.
by the Right Rev. J. H. Titcomb, D.D.
First Bishop of Rangoon

London: Published for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1880.

Chapter III.

Difficulties and encouragements in Mission work among the Burmese--Brief account of Buddhism--Work in Rangoon--Description of St. John's College--Its true Missionary character--Girls' Schools in Rangoon--Direct Evangelistic work in Kemmendine and Alatchyoung.

I AM now going to speak of our general Mission work, with regard both to its difficulties and encouragements, in order that my readers may better realise our actual position in the country.

The first difficulty against which we have to contend is the variety of races and languages by which we are surrounded; namely, the Burmese, Chinese, Tamil, Telugu, and Karen.

Another difficulty is our almost total lack of Christian literature in these languages. The Tamils are, perhaps, best supplied, owing to the greater development of Mission work among that race throughout the Madras Presidency. As for the other languages, good Christian books scarcely exist in them. Even school books fit for Christian children to read have yet to be compiled and published.

In speaking, however, of the Burmese, with whom we chiefly have to do, the greatest difficulty we meet with arises from the fact that Buddhism has been rooted in the soil for upwards of 2,000 years, and therefore lies in the hearts of the people with all the veneration which is due to its antiquity and many immemorial sanctions. It is a religion, moreover, which in spite of its atheistic hopelessness and childish superstitions, is both astute and philosophical. Add to which it has a morality that commends itself to every upright conscience. This gives an immobility of temper to the Buddhists which appears to justify them in asking, "What can we desire better?" Then, again it is popularised by customs which make its sacred services a series of holidays and pleasure-takings for all its gay-hearted followers.

Nevertheless it is not without an aspect of encouragement. For instance, the total absence of caste among them provides us with many an open door of entrance which is altogether denied to our Missionary brethren who labour in India. In. addition to this, the professed veneration which Buddhism enforces towards every religious teacher acts considerably in our favour. In a similar manner, the noble spirit of its toleration, and its reluctance to persecute converts to Christianity, are facts which, though probably founded more upon a complacent confidence in its own stability than on any abstract theories of religious liberty, furnish undoubted aids to us in our work.

I have no space in this little book to enter upon the elaborate system of Buddhism. Suffice it to say, in the first place, that it is without a priesthood, in any proper sense of the word. We often speak of their priests; but, in reality, they are only religious teachers, or monks bound to celibacy, who dwell in kyoungs or monasteries, and live as professed mendicants upon the daily, and occasionally special, alms of the people. Every morning you may see a company of these men, each carrying a bowl or tray for the reception of the people's offerings as they silently pass by their houses, and each followed by a servant. At every wedding and funeral too, and on festival days, they receive more special offerings. In this way the monasteries become very fairly supported. Nor are these favours undeserved. For each monastery is a place of popular education, where all Buddhist boys receive free instruction in reading, writing, and elementary arithmetic, as well as teaching in the laws of their religion. Neither has Buddhism any system of sacrifice, inasmuch as the taking away of life is strictly forbidden. Three of its finest precepts are, "One should not destroy life;" "One should not steal;" "One should not tell lies." Offerings of flowers, however, on the shrines which surround many of the pagodas, are perpetual. Some of these shrines are very gaily decorated--gold and silver tinsel-work, plates and bowls for offerings, lighted candles, and banners, giving them a strange resemblance to some of the Roman Catholic altars which one sees in out-of-the way villages upon the Continent of Europe. Images, too, of Guatama (as Buddha) are placed around these shrines in profusion. They are made of every substance. They stand, sit, or lie, in all sizes. And before these, as well as before the pagodas themselves, the worshippers are constantly seen kneeling. Prayers, in any ordinary sense of the word, they offer not, for it is no part of the Buddhist religion to inculcate the superintendence of the world by a Divine Being, nor even the existence of such a being. The idea of a loving Father in heaven who has made the world, and who looks upon the human family as His children, is utterly unknown. They believe, however, in the existence of many invisible spirits, and it is probable that to these supposed beings they may address themselves. But most frequently their so-called prayers are merely repetitions of sentences taken from their sacred books.

It may be asked, perhaps, what moral sanctions this religion can afford for the practice of virtue, and what principle of hope it can provide for its followers after death. To enter into the subject fully would be impossible within these pages. Its importance, notwithstanding, is so great, and the principles involved in it are so striking, that I should be guilty of a great omission if I were not to say a few words respecting it; the more so, because it is one of the most salient points of Buddhism.

The foundation idea of Guatama's philosophy was, that all sentient existence is an evil, and that the ultimate blessing to be hoped for is utter annihilation. In this sentient existence man is not believed to have any entity within him which may be called his "soul," and which gives him thereby a personal individuality distinctly separable from his body. On the contrary, man is an assemblage of various properties, including all his material, sensational, and mental qualities; none of which are permanent. However moral or intellectual, they are but bodily functions, produced by the contact of our material organs with external objects. There is therefore no such thing as a "soul." We have rather a compound cumulative existence, and this is subject not only to perpetual changes and decay, but to new formations in almost endless succession, throughout a series of separate births. It is just at this point that what are called moral sanctions enter into the Buddhist belief. For the sentient being which thus arises by a fresh birth is fixed in a lower or higher condition, and has its entire state regulated by the merits of the previous being. If the previous being has been impure and criminal, the new being may reappear in a tiger or crocodile; if virtuous, in nobler forms than it had before. Herein, then, are great moral sanctions. For whatever a man is; or does, becoming thus traceable throughout future births, it necessarily subjects his future being to the consequences of his past conduct. Hence the longer he continues evil, the longer will existence endure with all its terrible concomitants of pain, sorrow and despair; the longer will he last in a state of restless, changing, metamorphosing decay. On the other hand, the sooner he rises by a succession of accumulated merits,1 through paths of increasing knowledge and holiness, the sooner will he attain to that state of perfect rest which is generally known as Nirvana, but in Burma is called Nigban--a state in which there is rest from all sinful desires, the enjoyment of perfect peace, and a total freedom from all those imperfections which usually necessitate, after death, a birth into some new state of existence. [One of the most common forms of obtaining merit is the building of Zayats or Rest Houses, affording shelter for travellers and strangers.] Yet even this is not the highest hope of the Buddhist, it is but the last step toward it: that which leads on to annihilation.

For even, in this state of Nirvana, where all his yearnings are extinguished, and where he rests in holy calm unutterable, his life still survives; nevertheless, perfect as it is, it must be subject to decay. The battle is therefore done! Victory over change and restlessness has been achieved! Anxiety is no longer needed about a future birth! In a word, when that state ends, annihilation has been attained! The flickering, smoking flame of the lamp has gone out! The inharmonious sounds of the music of life have all died away! This is the essence of Buddhism.

Let me now carry my readers with me into Rangoon, and show them what influences I found at work in connection with our own Church, for the purpose of enlightening this darkened, yet most interesting people: premising only, that the whole work of Church Missions in Burma is carried on in connection with the "Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts," and is almost entirely supported out of its annual income.

We will first enter St. John's College, situated behind the house in which I lived. This group of buildings stands within large and beautiful grounds, where the boys have ample scope for their favourite sports of football and cricket, in which they are admirably led by G, Scott, Esq., head master, acting under the principal or warden. It is well to note the fact; for Englishmen must not suppose that they alone have the prerogative of enjoying such games. Football, indeed, has been the national sport of the Burmese from time immemorial, which is a plain proof of the vigour and manliness of their race when compared with the ordinary condition of Orientals, and naturally accounts for their having taken to cricket so readily. The group of buildings spoken of consists first of the warden's dwelling-house, with its outhouses (or go-downs) as they are called; and secondly of the school premises, a little distance therefrom. The latter is a noble erection, having an immense central room, with class-rooms attached, capable of receiving 500 boys. To all this there is added a spacious dining-room, bedrooms for boarders, and a beautiful chapel for daily and Sunday services. The college is presided over by the Rev. Dr. Marks, aided by ten vernacular teachers. Dr. Marks is one of the most skilful and successful of schoolmasters: who, having resided in the country for nineteen years, has now learned to speak Burmese like a native, and is not only known throughout the chief part of British Burma, but is so loved and admired by the Burmese as to possess influence over them wherever he goes. Indeed, it is not too much to say that, in many ways, I found him quite a power among them.

At the close of 1871 this Anglo-vernacular college had only 184 pupils, with a daily average of 142 attendances. It will therefore show the encouraging success which has been lately achieved by the vigorous energy of its Principal, when I say that, at the time of which I am now speaking there were over 500 pupils on the books, with a daily average of 450 attendances. The delight with which I first walked into its spacious hall and class-rooms, and beheld this mass of youth under Christian instruction, may be well imagined, especially in view of the fact that it has had to compete with our magnificent Rangoon High School; which, though built and conducted by Government at an enormous cost, upon the avowed principle of non-religious instruction, has been nevertheless fairly beaten in numbers by this Missionary institution.

Here work is daily commenced by the reading of the Bible in English and Burmese, by the singing of a hymn also, and by prayers in both languages. Does not this show that the Burmese have no objection to Christian teaching; and that, only provided there were a conscience clause for those who objected to it; Government itself might safely introduce some distinctive acknowledgment of God and His Gospel into the curriculum of daily routine? I am aware that this would be accompanied by difficulties not met with in Missionary schools. I trust the time may come, however, when the subject will receive attention, and an attempt be made toward the solution of those difficulties which shall be worthy of our Christian empire.

It may be interesting to give a more detailed account of this religious teaching, lest it should be thought that we unduly or unwisely thrust it upon our heathen scholars. Let it be understood, then, that Bible teaching, in all classes of heathens, or in mixed classes of heathens and Christians, is grounded on the historical portions of Scripture--special doctrinal subjects being avoided. Also that school prayers are alone read by a Christian master. This is done before the entire school, the distinction between Christian and heathen being clearly marked by the assembling of the former in the centre of the school. All the heathen boys quietly stand; the Christian boys alone are permitted to kneel. I need scarcely add that no heathen master is allowed to teach from the Bible, and that we forbid the Bible to be made a common class-book for reading, parsing, and dictation. By such rules as these we find everything rightly adjusted. Christianity holds her proper place without being offensively imperious, while heathenism sits under her light without being offended.

I should add that one of the most interesting features of this college is the variety of races represented by its scholars, and the diversity of costume which is entailed by it, causing it to look like a large garden filled with beds of many-coloured flowers. It contains Burmese, Karens, Shans, Siamese, Chinese, Taleings, Mussulmans, Tamils, Bengalis, and Eurasians; from among whom Dr. Marks has educated and sent out young men who now cover the country as clerks and Government officers in almost every department.

In addition to the day scholars, about 110 are also boarders and about twenty Eurasian orphans are also boarded and clothed. It is of course with these boarders and orphan inmates that the college chapel has to do. Services are held in this chapel daily, sometimes in English and sometimes in Burmese. On Sundays also it is thrown open to all the Burmese Christians of Rangoon; for I grieve to say that, up to the present moment, we have no Burmese church in the city in connection with our own Mission. In this college chapel, however, I recognise a spot of many signal blessings, for seventy-five converts have been baptised within it. Nothing more encouraged me, indeed, on my first entrance into the Episcopate, than to take part in the services of this sanctuary, and to be permitted to preach to the boys--the heathens, being arranged on one side, and the Christians on the other. Here too I have been permitted to baptise some of the boys, as from time to time they have come forward, renouncing Buddhism and openly declaring for Christ. On such occasions the convert transfers his seat from the heathen to the Christian side of the chapel; after which we feel richer toward God in communion with a new brother. It would surely be impossible for the most prejudiced observer to deny that a college thus conducted is of a distinctly Missionary character.

Not only have we Missionary education thus going on among boys; in St. Mary's school we have a similar though smaller institution, where one hundred girls of different races are in like manner being instructed. This is presided over by Miss Libbis and vernacular teachers, and is doing a thoroughly good work. The Christian girls of this school attend the chapel of St. John's College on Sundays. It is superintended, in common with other girls' schools of which I shall have to speak in their proper places, by a "Ladies' Association" committee, working in connection with a "Ladies' Association" in London, belonging to the S.P.G., and from which all our Burmese girls' schools are liberally supplied with funds. At the time of my arrival in Burma we had also another of these schools in Poozondoung, with twenty-seven scholars, under the charge of Mrs. Hamilton. As far, therefore, as educational work is concerned, I think our Rangoon Mission may be considered to be in a very satisfactory condition

Let me now speak of what is being done in the way of more direct evangelistic work in this city among the Burmese. The field of labour, I am sorry to say, is by no means so well developed as the former. Yet, by God's blessing, it has considerably improved since the time of my arrival in Rangoon. At that period the central residence of the Mission was in Keminendine, a suburban village between two and three miles from the centre of the city, under the charge of the Rev. J. A. Colbeck, assisted by two Burmese catechists. Mr. Colbeck exhibited signs of true missionary zeal and devotion in a remarkable degree; living in a native Burmese house among Buddhists, in a single upper room, which served him as a study, bedroom, and dining-room. This he generously did, in order that the lower room might be devoted to the purpose of a chapel, in which he conducted daily and Sunday services for the converts. Kemmendine is a large and important village, standing on the left bank of the Rangoon, or Hline river, as it is more properly called; opposite to which, on the other bank, is a less important village named Alatchyoung. In this place also we have a resident catechist and a small Mission work, equally superintended by our S.P.G. Missionary, the converts from which come across by boat on Sundays to Kemmendine. These two villages, with Rangoon itself, formed the area of Mr. Colbeck's Burmese labours. I shall not easily forget the first visit I paid to Mr. Colbeck's house in Kemmendine, when climbing up to his dwelling-room by a rough ladder, and afterwards attending evening service in his little chapel, I witnessed the simplicity, yet earnestness, of his loving labour for the Lord. I could but feel that all this was a germ of Divine life which, as chief pastor, it was my duty to cherish with my best powers. Nor can I ever forget the hearty zeal with which he one day came to me, and said that he was about to purchase half an acre of ground, if I would give him permission, in the village of Alatchyoung, for the ultimate purpose of making it a plot for more fully ripened Mission work in the place. The life and spirit with which he evidently threw himself into this work seemed an augury of the highest good for the future; so that I could but wish him success, and bid him go on, in God's strength, and prosper.

Project Canterbury