Merit, in Myanmar, is that little ledger you add to in order to push yourself further down the path toward liberation.

There are multiple of forms of Buddhism in Myanmar, not all of them flattering.

In the unflattering column, I would put the Buddhism that acts as an ethnic emblem, a tool for oppressing Myanmar’s non-Buddhist minorities. It is, for example, very difficult to have a high-ranking job in the military or bureaucracy if you are not an avowed Buddhist (many priests I spoke with in Kachin state told similar stories of their parishioners being advised to change their religion, at least on official paperwork, so their careers wouldn’t be ruined).

Then there is Laser-Buddhism. In the arcade of the sprawling Shwedagon pagoda, just before Hillary Clinton’s visit, I had a chance to admire the many framed electric images of Gautama Buddha with multicolored lasers shooting out of his head. Vedic meets Vegas. Laser-Buddhism seems perfectly in line with the flashy, flimsy religion of the military junta, which would murder monks on the street but then build massive golden pagodas throughout the land, as if the two acts could ever exist on the same karmic plane.

Those are the bad Buddhisms of Myanmar. But the good Buddha is everywhere and everywhere more powerful, I think. Not in the bloated gold temples, but baked into the way of life. The morning I walked Pazundaung Township in Rangoon, the culture of Merit was on display. Merit, of course, is that little ledger you add to in order to push yourself further down the path toward liberation. Good deeds. And even in a country that is as desperately poor as Myanmar, that means acts of charity toward the most wretched creatures.

Some do this automatically, like the rice vendors who carry thickets of grain so that sparrows can eat from them. That’s Merit. So, too, is the pigeon feeding: vendors like this one who line sidewalks with plates of seed. For a few kyat you can feed the pigeons. The vendor survives, the pigeons flock, Merit is done. In a country that seems on the verge of earthly liberation, it’s a good reminder that liberation of the soul is also an unending work in progress.

[Header image: Sittwe, Burma, by Mutt Lunker, used under CC BY-SA 3.0]