“I can see your future and that of everyone I meet,” smiled U Aung Baung, as the gilded dome of the legendary Shwedagon Pagoda glistened behind him in the night. “But, you have to start following Buddhist precepts before I can tell you anything.”
I had come to the country’s most sacred Buddhist site in search of the weikzas, so-called wizard saints who act as the embodiment of the spirit world. Those modern-day sorcerers are said to acquire their powers through Buddhist teachings and meditation, as well as spells and alchemy, and locals seek them out for everything from curing afflictions to improving career odds.
I wondered; as the country continues to open up to the world, can these traditions survive?
“I find it hard to accept that they exist,” said a Yangon MP who asked not to be named, fearing it would make him sound superstitious. “But I’ve seen them do things that cannot be explained.”
View image of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda features statues of Burmese wizard saints (Credit: Credit: Sean Pavone / Alamy Stock Photo)
My taxi driver was more effusive. “Of course, I believe in wizards,” he said. “Three times while I was praying, they have appeared to me in visions and helped me make important decisions.”
In fact, weikzas are so ingrained in Burmese society that weikza tazaungs, special shrines worshipping famed weikzas, can be found at Buddhist temples throughout the country. This is where aspiring wizards come to meditate and where people come to pray for magical help.
I’d met U Aung Baung at the Shwedagon’s weikza tazaung, whose impressive size and important location makes it a particularly holy spot for weikzas. He told me that he’s 93 years old and has been training to become a wizard for 37 years.
“To become a wizard, you have to follow Buddha’s moral rules and practice a special form of meditation. Weikzas gain great powers from this,” he told me, glancing at his younger disciple, who was playing with a smartphone. “Some of us can even fly.”
View image of Special shrines worshipping renowned weikzas can be found at Buddhist temples throughout Burma (Credit: Credit: Pep Roig / Alamy Stock Photo)
Although it might seem unlikely, Buddhism and magic have long been uniquely linked in Burma.
According to Dr Thomas Patton, an expert on weikzas at Hong Kong’s City University, the weikza most likely had its genesis in the anti-colonial traditional healers and holy men of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
“Upon the dissolution of the Burmese monarchy [in 1885], monks, hermits, bodaw (ascetics with magical powers), and medicine men all vied for power and began exerting their influence over ever-growing groups of people, which quickly roused the ire of the British,” he explained. “British forces had to fight against a whole host of groups who rallied around the mission of protecting the Buddhist religion and expelling the British, often through the use of supernatural means.”
It was unclear exactly what these supernatural powers were, however, as U Aung Baung refused to offer any details of his precise abilities. Although, he did reveal that he travels around the country and that people give him food in exchange for his supernatural guidance.
View image of The wizards are said to gain their powers through Buddhist teachings, spells and alchemy (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
A person who’s reached full weikza status is said to attain immortality and leaves the Earth, shedding the body or vanishing altogether, for a mystical realm from where wizards watch over humans.
U Tin Naing, another wizard at Shwedagon Pagoda – who claimed to be 90 years old, although he looked three decades younger – tried to explain it to me.
“I can’t describe to you exactly my powers, but I can explain my goal. As wizards, we are looking for nirvana or salvation. We cannot die because we are waiting for the coming of the Future Buddha,” he said. “Yet we have to try to die so to be able to leave this world and enter the celestial realm.”
U Tin Naing is married with two children, whose photos he showed me. Unlike monks, wizards can be of either gender and can have families. When they enter the weikza path, however, they must become celibate and embrace an ascetic life.
View image of U Tin Naing claims to be 90 years old and specializes in healing practices (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
“People come to see me for either health or personal problems,” U Tin Naing said. “I use my powers to help dispel the evil spirits causing them pain, and change their energies.”
Some weikzas, like U Tin Naing, are known to be particularly skilled at healing practices and exorcisms, and are often called upon by families for whom modern healthcare hasn’t worked. A commonly used technique is the casting of magical diagrams that act as either healing or protection devices, which can be printed on amulets, slips of papers or even tattooed on the body.
The most mysterious type of wizards are alchemist weikzas, who dedicate their lives to metamorphosing metals (usually mercury) into gold or giving them a special potency so that they can then communicate to their holders, making them magical.
View image of Alchemist weikzas, who transform metal into gold, are uncommon (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
Alchemist wizards are rare, and hard to meet. A French scholar, who asked to stay anonymous, told me of her own baffling encounter with an alchemist wizard more than two decades ago.
“He recited a spell and was able to make a mercury ball appear in my hands from the vial of liquid mercury he was holding. When I got back to Paris, I lost the stone and didn’t meet [him] again for four years,” she said. “But he was able to describe exactly the auditorium it had gone missing in. He then made a new mercury ball appear, this time in my backpack, which had been locked.”
“I’ve never been able to understand it,” she said, showing me a tiny silver sphere the size of a penny. “Even in Burma, they sometimes doubt this story.”
In fact, many educated Burmese don’t believe in weikzas, dismissing them as charlatans trusted only by the poor. “Weikzas are not a part of real Buddhism,” I was told repeatedly. Yet, acceptance of wizard saints has grown more mainstream and looks likely to become stronger.
View image of Statues of Bo Bo Aung, a famous wizard in Burma, are featured in temples across the country (Credit: Credit: Fanny Potkin)
Until 2013, publications on Buddhist wizards were heavily censored by the military junta. But as the country opens up, weikza-related books and manuals have mushroomed, and references to wizards are now made regularly on Burmese news programs and in celebrity gossip magazines. According to Patton, it’s even become trendy for Burmese movie stars and musicians to hire a film crew and be shown donating a statue of a particular wizard.
And it’s not just the Burmese. “Many rich Chinese businessmen are coming to Burma to seek out weikzas to get help with their businesses. They see them as living good-luck charms,” Patton told me.
It’s an understandable appeal. As Patton pointed out, the weikza tradition offers an alternative way to get what you want in the world.
And who wouldn’t want to resort to magic for that?
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.