In the streets of Yangon, and at temple gates in various cities in Myanmar, there are girls with baskets full of finches. Perky little finches, cheeping cheerfully and hopping about. For 500 Kyat (about 50 cents USD), the girl will reach into the basket, bring out one of the wiggling birds, and place it in your cupped hands. Then, you make a wish and set the little birdie free.
Buddhists believe that such small acts of kindness give them extra merit points in their karma banks, to be totaled up with all their other good deeds and weighed against all their bad deeds when it comes time to be reincarnated. Every little bit helps, especially if the balance is already tipping toward reincarnation as a dung beetle or one of those birds that picks dead meat out of crocodiles’ teeth. And, although superstitions are generally inconsistent with Buddhist beliefs, many people consult astrologers to tell them how many of these little birds to set free to balance out a bit of naughtiness, or give extra power to especially important prayers.
It’s quite an uplifting feeling to watch that little creature flutter into the sky from your outstretched hands, carrying your good intentions into the world. The first time I tried it, I was so exhilarated, I ended up buying out the girl’s whole basket of birds. At 30-something finchies, it was the best fifteen bucks I’d spent in a long time. If it keeps me from being reincarnated as a Muni driver, so much the better.
That girl was waiting for me on the same corner the next day. I knew I was being had, but I was happy to go along with it, and cleaned out her finch inventory again. It really puts you into a good mood to release those little guys and watch them streak off to freedom. That and a good breakfast pretty much ensure that you’re going to have an awesome day.
Then some killjoy told me that the birds are trained to return to the owners, and they end up back in the same basket the next day. I didn’t want to believe it, so I asked around, and it’s apparently true. I have no idea how you train a finch, but I guess it’s doable. So, perhaps I released the same bunch of birds two days in a row. But, I say, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! It’s still magical to hold that quivering little body in your hands, feel it pinch you impatiently with its dainty beak if you take too long formulating your wish, and see it take off and reclaim its liberty. Setting it free is all I can do; if the bird has been trained to surrender itself again after being emancipated, that’s on someone else’s karma account. And, maybe one or two of those tiny guys took advantage of the chance to make a real break for it, and didn’t come back. I hope so. Unless they get eaten by bigger birds or lizards or something. If so, then I hope they were back in the safety of their basket by nightfall.
I was so entertained by this finch thing, that I even took some requests from friends back home, and made wishes for them by proxy when I would encounter the finch girls at a temple. I was running out of things to wish for, anyway, so it worked out.
One day, at a temple in Bago, after I had made finch wishes for health and happiness for all my loved ones, strength to those I know who are going through something, peace in places of conflict, and all the selfless, benevolent things I could think of, and placed the special orders given to me by folks back home, I figured I had earned a selfish one that I could use for something vain.
So, on my last birdie of the day, I cupped him lightly in my hands and wished to drop a couple of dress sizes. Now, I’m normally pretty sorted out about being on the fluffy side, but I’ve been traveling in Asia for almost a year now, and I’m here to tell you, if you aren’t built like Olive Oyl, you will be told several times a day, by well meaning, smiling people, how fat you are. It isn’t malicious, but it isn’t exactly a compliment either, and it kinda gets to a girl after a while. So, there I stood, fervently wishing on a finch that my booty be a little less…well, just less.
I stretched my arms up and opened my hands to release the finch to the sky…and he didn’t budge. I brought my hands down and had a look at him. He just sat there. I shook my hands a little, to encourage him, but he just looked at me and cocked his head to the side.
The girl, probably concerned she would have to give me a refund for this one, got up and tapped pretty hard under my hand to boost him into the air. He just hopped down to the cage and got back inside. He wasn’t going anywhere with that wish.
So much for that. Looks like I’d better hang on to my stretchy pants!