Cambodia • Laos
Burma • Thailand
Buddhism in Burma (or Myanmar) is predominantly of the Theravada tradition, practised by 89% of the country's population It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Adherents are most likely found among the dominant ethnic Bamar (or Burmans), Shan, Rakhine (Arakanese), Mon, Karen, and Chinese who are well integrated into Burmese society. Among ethnic Bamar, Theravada Buddhism is practised often in conjunction with nat worship. Monks, collectively known as the Sangha, are venerated members of Burmese society.
The importance of Buddhism in the history of Burma is evident from a landscape dominated by pagodas, which is why the country is often called "the land of pagodas." The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is steeped in myth and legend, and represents the faith of the people who have worshipped there for generations. Every village in Burma has a pagoda and a monastery, the traditional places for worship and education.
The history of Buddhism in Burma extends nearly a millennium. The Sasana Vamsa, written by Pinyasami in 1834, summarises much of the history of Buddhism in Burma. According to many historians, Sohn Uttar Sthavira (one of the royal monks) to Ashoka the Great came to Burma (Suvarnabhumi or Suvannabhumi) around 228 BC with other monks and sacred texts, including books.
The Ari Buddhism era included the worship of Bodhisattas and nagas, and also was known for corrupt monks. King Anawrahta of Bagan was converted by Shin Arahan, a monk from Thaton to Theravada Buddhism. In 1057 A.D., Anawrahta sent an army to conquer the Mon city of Thaton in order to obtain theTipitaka Buddhist canon. Mon culture, from that point, came to be largely assimilated into the Bamar culture based in Bagan. Despite attempts at reform, certain features of Ari Buddhism and traditional nat worship continued, such as reverence of Avalokiteśvara, a Boddhisatta called Lawka nat in Burmese. Successive kings of Bagan continued to build large numbers of monuments, temples, and pagodas in honour of Buddhism. Burmese rule at Bagan continued until the invasion of the Mongols in 1287.
The Shan, meanwhile, established themselves as rulers throughout the region now known as Burma. Thihathu, a Shan king, established rule in Bagan, by patronising and building many monasteries and pagodas. Bhikkus continued to be influential, particularly in Burmese literature and politics.
The Mon kingdoms, often ruled by Shan chieftains, fostered Theravada Buddhism in the 1300s. Wareru, who became king of Mottama (a Mon city kingdom), patronised Buddhism, and established a code of law (Dhammathat) compiled by Buddhist monks. King Dhammazedi, formerly a Mon monk, established rule in the late 1400s at Innwa and unified the Sangha in Mon territories. He also standardised ordination of monks set out in the Kalyani Inscriptions. Dhammazedi moved the capital back to Hanthawaddy (Bago). His mother-in-law Queen Shin Sawbu of Pegu was also a great patron of Buddhism. She is credited for expanding and gilding the Shwedagon Pagoda giving her own weight in gold.
The Bamar, who had fled to Taungoo before the invading Shan, established a kingdom there under the reigns of Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung who conquered and unified most of modern Burma. These monarchs also embraced Mon culture and patronised Theravada Buddhism.
In the reigns of succeeding kings, the Taungoo kingdom became increasingly volatile and was overthrown by the Mon. In the mid- 1700s, King Alaungpaya defeated the Mon, expanded the Bamar kingdoms, and established the Konbaung dynasty. Under the rule of King Bodawpaya, a son of Alaungpaya, a unified sect of monks (Thudhamma) was created within the kingdom. Bodawpaya restored ties with Sri Lanka started by Anawrahta, allowing for mutual influence in religious affairs. In the reigns of the Konbaung kings that followed, both secular and religious literary works were created. King Mindon Min moved his capital to Mandalay. After Lower Burma had been conquered by the British, Christianity began to gain acceptance. Many monks from Lower Burma had resettled in Mandalay, but by decree of Mindon Min, they returned to serve the Buddhist laypeople. However, schisms arose among the Sangha, which were resolved during the Fifth Buddhist Synod, held in Mandalay in 1871. From 1860 to 1868, the Tipitaka was engraved on 729 marble slabs and assembled in the Kuthodaw Pagoda. In 1871, a new hti (the gold umbrella that crowns a stupa) encrusted with jewels from the crown was also donated by Mindon Min for the Shwedagon now in British Burma.
During the British administration of Lower and Upper Burma, also known as Burma Proper, government policies were secular which meant monks were not protected by law. Nor was Buddhism patronised by the colonial government. This resulted in tensions between the colonised Buddhists and their European rulers. There was much opposition to the efforts by Christian missionaries to convert the Burmese people, Bamar, Shan, Mon, Rakhine and plains Karen, with one exception - the hill tribes. Today, Christianity is most commonly practised by the Chin, Kachin, and the Kayin. Notwithstanding traditional avoidance of political activity, monks often participated in politics and in the struggle for independence.
Since 1948 when the country gained its independence from Great Britain, both civil and military governments have supported Theravada Buddhism. The 1947 Constitution states, "The State recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union." The Ministry of Religious Affairs, created in 1948, was responsible for continuing Buddhism in Burma. In 1954, the prime minister, U Nu, convened the Sixth Buddhist Synod in Rangoon (Yangon), which was attended by 2,500 monks, and the World Buddhist University was established.
During the military rule of Ne Win (1962–1988), he attempted to reform Burma under the Burmese Way to Socialism which contained elements of Buddhism. In the 8888 Uprising, many monks participated and were killed by Tatmadaw soldiers. The current military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) patronises Buddhism, although persecution of persons of other religions, namely Islam and Christianity, continues.
The culture of Burma is deemed synonymous with its Buddhism. There are many Burmese festivals all through the year, most of them related to Buddhism. The Burmese New Year, Thingyan, also known as the water festival, has its origins in Hindu tradition, but it is also a time when many Burmese boys celebrate shinbyu , a special rite of passage by which a boy enters the monastery for a short time as a novice monk.
It is the most important duty of all Burmese parents to make sure their sons are admitted to the Buddhist Sangha by performing a shinbyu ceremony once they have reached the age of seven or older. A symbolic procession and ceremony of exchanging princely attire with that of an ascetic follows the example of the historical Buddha. He was born a royal prince called Siddartha Gautama, but left his palace on horse-back followed by his groom Maung San or Chanda, in search of the Four Noble Truths and to attain Nirvana, after he found out that life is made up of suffering (dukkha) and the notion of self is merely an illusion (anatta or non-self) when one day he saw the 'Four Great Signs' (Nameit Lei Ba) - the old, the sick, the dead, and the ascetic - in the royal gardens.
All Buddhists are required to keep the basic Five Precepts (ngaba thila), and novices are expected to keep the Eight Precepts (shippa thila). Parents would expect them to stay at the monastery immersed in the teachings of the Buddha as members of the Sangha for a few weeks or longer, at least for the duration of Thingyan. They will have another opportunity to join the Sangha at the age of 20, the upasampada ordination, to become a fully fledged monk, keeping the Ten Precepts (seba thila) and the full monastic rules (Vinaya), and perhaps remain a monk for life.
Thingyan usually falls in mid-April and tops the list of public holidays in Burma. The full moon in May (Kason) is however the most sacred of all as the Buddha was born, became the Enlightened One, and entered Parinirvana (died) on the same day, celebrated by watering the Bodhi tree.
Pagoda festivals (Paya pwè) held throughout the country also usually fall on full moon days and most of them will be on the full moon of Tabaung (February/March) including the Shwedagon pagoda. They attract not only crowds of pilgrims from near and far, often in caravans of bullock carts, but they also double as great market fairs where both local and itinerant traders set up their stalls and shops among food stalls, restaurants,and free open-air stage performances as well as theatre halls.
The three monsoon months from mid-July to mid-October coincide with the Buddhist Lent or Wa-dwin, a time when people are busy tilling their land and planting the paddyfields, and monks will not travel but stay at their monasteries (Wa-kup or the rains retreat). Waso robes are offered at the beginning of lent, the end of which is marked by the Thadingyut Light Festival. The harvest is now in and robes (thingahn) are again offered at the Kathina Festival usually held during October and November. Uposatha or sabbath days are observed keeping the Eight Precepts by most during Thingyan and Lent, and by devout Buddhists all the year round.
Parents and elders also receive obeisance from younger members of the family at the beginning as well as the end of lent, after the tradition established by the Buddha himself. It was during lent that he ascended to the Tavatimsa Heaven in order to preach a sermon, as an act of gratitude, to his mother who had become a celestial being, and he was welcomed back to earth with a great festival of lights. Teachers receive the same obeisance, a tradition started by National Schools founded in defiance of the colonial administration and continued after independence by state schools.
Wedding ceremonies - nothing to do with religion and not conducted by the Sangha - are not held during the three months of lent, a custom which has resulted in a spate of weddings after Thadingyut or Wa-kyut, awaited impatiently by couples wanting to tie the knot.
Burmese also send their children to the monastery to receive a Buddhist education, learning the Pali Canon, Buddhawin (the lifestory of the Gautama Buddha), Nga-ya nga-ze nipattaw (the 550 Jataka tales) - most importantly Zatkyi sebwè (the Ten Great Incarnations), and Thonze shihpya mingala (the 38 Buddhist Beatitudes) as soon as they have a good grounding of the three Rs. Monks were the traditional teachers of the young and old alike until secular and missionary schools came into being during the British colonial administration. The Burmese word kyaung for school is derived from Hpongyi kyaung (monastery).
There has been a revival of monastic schools since the 1990s with the deepening economic crisis. Children from poor families that can ill afford fees, uniforms and books have renewed the demand for a free monastic education, and ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Pa-O, Palaung, Lahu and Wa are benefitting from this revival.
Buddhist monks, who are venerated in Burmese society as part of the Triple Gems, are approximately 400,000 strong. Nuns form an additional 75,000. Monks belong to one of two primary monastic orders or gaing: Thudhamma Nikaya (88% of Buddhist monks) and the more orthodox Shwegyin Nikaya (7% of Buddhist monks). It is important to note that Burmese monastic orders do not differ in doctrine, but in monastic practice, lineage and organizational structure. There are also a number of esoteric Buddhist sects that are not recognized by any authority and incorporate non-Buddhist elements like alchemy, magic and occultism.
Buddhism made major contributions in the development of Burmese politics. Burmese nationalism first began with the formation of the Young Men's Buddhist Associations (YMBA) - modelled on the YMCA - which started to appear all over the country at the turn of the century. Buddhist monks along with students had been in the forefront of the struggle for independence and later for democracy, the best known leaders in history being U Ottama and U Seinda in Rakhine State, and U Wisara who died after a protracted hunger strike in Yangon prison. A major thoroughfare in Yangon is named after U Wisara. The League of Young Monks (Yahanpyo) based in Mandalay is a well known activist organisation. The Burmese word for boycott is thabeik hmauk which literally means to turn the monk's alms bowl upside down - declining to accept alms in protest.
Civilian governments, after the country gained independence, patronised Buddhism donating large sums to fund the upkeep and building of Buddhist monuments. In addition, leaders of political parties and parliamentarians, in particular U Nu, passed legislation influenced by Buddhism. He declared Buddhism the state religion which alienated minority groups, especially the Kachin. This added yet another group to the growing number of ethnic insurgencies. The present military government has been so keen to be seen as patrons of Buddhism that it has become a joke- "Burmese TV has only two colours, green and yellow" - describing the military green uniforms and monk's yellow robes or golden pagodas which dominate the screen.
Shwedagon Pagoda has been an important venue for large public meetings where both Aung San and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi had made their famous speeches. During the second university strike in history of 1936 the students camped out on the Shwedagon terraces.
Aung San Suu Kyi returned from London to lead the National League for Democracy which was founded during the 1988 popular uprising, but was placed under house arrest in 1989; since she is a devout Buddhist and leader of the opposition, she is considered a socially engaged Buddhist.
In September 2007, Buddhists again took to the streets in mass protest against the military government. Thousand of junta military and police forces poured into Yangon to try to control the situation, which rapidly deteriorated. A curfew was imposed and on the 25th of September troops surrounded Sule Pagoda. The protest continued to grow with regular citizens joining to support and defend the Buddhists. Over night junta forces invaded all the Buddhist monasteries in the country and imprisoned thousands of monks. Also, it was reported that Nobel prize winning human rights activist and Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from her home where she has languished under house arrest and moved to the infamous Insein Prison. Mass protests erupted over this and junta troops began firing on monks, civilians, and demonstrators in the largest clash since 1988, which left thousands injured and hundreds dead. Images of the brutality were aired worldwide. Leaders around the world condemned the junta's actions and many nations imposed economic sanctions on Burma in protest. President of the United States George W. Bush addressed the United Nations, stating, "Every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand up for people suffering under a brutal military regime like the one that has ruled Burma for so long." The Burmese junta has responded by trying to control media coverage, curtail travel, censor news stories, and shut down access to the Internet.
Daily News, South Utah, July 10, 2008