Buddhism in Myanmar | History


1. Buddhism in Myanmar

Buddhism is practiced by 90% of the Myanmar’s population, and is predominantly of the Theravada tradition. It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion.

Monks, collectively known as the Saṅgha, are venerated members of Burmese society.

Among many ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practised in conjunction with Nat worship, which involves the placation of spirits who can intercede in worldly affairs.

With regard to the daily routines of Buddhists in Myanmar, there are 2 most popular practices: merit-making and Vipassanā.

The Weikza path is the least popular path - it is an esoteric form somewhat linked to Buddhist aspiration that involves the occult.

Merit-making is the most common path undertaken by Burmese Buddhists:

This path involves the observance of the 5 Precepts and accumulation of good merit through charity and good deeds (Dāna) to obtain a favourable rebirth.

The Vipassanā path is a form of insight meditation believed to lead to Enlightenment.

The Weikza path is an esoteric system of occult practices (such as recitation of spells, Śamatha and alchemy) believed to lead to life as a Weikza, a semi-immortal and supernatural being who awaits the appearance of the future Buddha, Maitreya.

2. History

Kuthodaw Pagoda, Myanmar

The history of Buddhism in Myanmar probably extends more than 2 000 years.

The Sāsana Vaṁsa (Burmese Thathanawin), written by Paññāsāmi in 1861, summarises much of the history of Buddhism in Myanmar.

According to the Mahāvaṁsa, a Pāli chronicle of 5th century Śrī Lanka, Aśoka sent 2 Bhikkhus, Sona and Uttarā, to Suvarṇabhūmi around 228 BC with other monks and sacred texts, including books.

An Andhra Ikṣvāku inscription from about the 3rd century refers to the conversion of the Kirātas to Buddhism, who are thought to have been Tibeto-Burman-speaking peoples of Myanmar.

Early Chinese texts of about the same date speak of a "Kingdom of Liu-Yang," where all people worshiped the Buddha and there were several thousand Samaṇas. This kingdom has been identified with a region somewhere in central Burma.

A series of epigraphic records in Pāli, Sanskrit, Pyu and Mon datable to the 6-7th centuries, has been recovered from Central and Lower Burma (Pyay and Yangon). From the 11-13th centuries, the Bamar kings and queens of the Pagan Kingdom built countless Stūpas and temples.

The Ari Buddhism era (7-11th century) included the worship of Bodhisattvas and Nāgas.

Theravada Buddhism was implanted at Bagan for the first time as early as the 11th century by the Bamar king Anawrahta (1044-1077):

In year 1057, Anawrahta sent an army to conquer the Mon city of Thaton to obtain the Tipiṭaka of the Pāli Canon. He was converted by a Mon Bhikkhu, Shin Arahan, to Theravada Buddhism.

Shin Arahan's advice led to acquiring 30 sets of Pāli scriptures from the Mon king Manuha by force. 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 for the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

Successive kings of Bagan continued to build large numbers of monuments, temples, and pagodas in honour of Buddhism, and there is inscriptional evidence of a Theravādin Vihāra for Bhikkhunīs from 1279.

Burmese rule at Bagan continued until the first Mongol invasion of Burma in 1287. Towards the end of the 13th century, Buddhism declined due to the invading Tatars.

In the 14th century, another lineage was imported from Śrī Lanka to Ayutthaya, the capital of the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom. A new ordination line, the Thai Forest Tradition, thus entered Myanmar.

The Shan people, meanwhile, established themselves as rulers throughout the region now known as Myanmar. Thihathu, a Shan king, established rule in Bagan by patronising and building many monasteries and pagodas.

The Mon kingdoms, often ruled by Shan chieftains, fostered Theravada Buddhism in the 14th century.

Wareru, who became king of Mottama, patronised Buddhism, and established a code of law, the Dhammasattha, compiled by Buddhist monastics.

King Dhammazedi, formerly a Mon Bhikkhu, established rule in the late 15th century at Inwa and unified the Saṅgha in Mon territories. He also standardised ordination of monks set out in the Kalyāṇī Inscriptions.

Dhammazedi’s mother-in-law, Queen Shin Sawbu, was also a great patron of Buddhism. She is credited for expanding and gilding the Shwedagon Pagoda, giving her own weight in gold.

The Bamars, 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 Myanmar. These monarchs also embraced Mon culture and patronised Theravada Buddhism.

In the reigns of succeeding kings, the Taungoo Dynasty became increasingly volatile and was overthrown by the Mon.

In the mid-18th century, King Alaungpaya defeated the Mon, expanded the Bamar kingdoms, and established the Konbaung Dynasty.

Under the rule of Bodawpaya, a son of Alaungpaya, a unified sect of monks ("Thudhamma") was created within the kingdom. Bodawpaya restored ties with Śrī Lanka, allowing for mutual influence in religious affairs.

During 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.

Schisms arose in the Saṅgha; they were resolved during the 5th Buddhist Synod, held in Mandalay in 1871.

The 5th Council was convened at Mandalay in Myanmar on the 1st waning day of Tazaungmon, 1232 Myanmar Era, 2415 B.E (November 1871).

The scriptures inscribed on palm-leaves could not last for a long time. Besides, there could be many variations in rewriting the scriptures from copy to copy. Therefore, the scriptures were inscribed on marble slabs to dispel these disadvantages.

2400 Bhikkhus led by Venerable Jagarabhivamsa Thera of Dakkhinarama Monastery, Mandalay, convened, to recite and approve the scriptures. King Mindon initiated and supported the 5th Great Council to the end.

The scriptures were first inscribed on 729 marble slabs in the precinct of Lokamarajina Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill:

From 1860-1868, the Tipiṭaka was engraved on 729 marble slabs and assembled in the Kuthodaw Pagoda. It took 7 years, 6 months and 14 days to finish this work. Then the Bhikkhus recited to approve the inscriptions for 5 months and 3 days.

In 1871, a new Hti (the gold umbrella that crowns a Stūpa) encrusted with jewels from the crown was also donated by Mindon Min for the Shwedagon now in British Burma.

After the 5th Great Council, the Pāli Texts were translated into Myanmar language, and the Doctrinal Order was promulgated to the whole country for purpose of purification and propagation of the Buddha's Teachings.

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.

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 administering Buddhist affairs in Myanmar.

In 1954, the Prime Minister, U Nu, convened the 6th Buddhist Synod at Kaba Aye Pagoda in Rangoon (Yangon), which was attended by 2 500 monks, and established the World Buddhist University.

During the military rule of Ne Win (1962–1988), he attempted to reform Myanmar 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 succeeding military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) patronised Buddhism, although persecution of Buddhists who opposed to the regime, as well as persons of other religions, namely Islam and Christianity, continues.

3. Traditions

The culture of Myanmar 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 Hinduism but it is also a time when many Burmese boys celebrate Shinbyu, a special rite of passage by which a boy enters the Kyaung for a short time as a Sāmaṇera.

4. Veneration

A Burmese Buddhist household contains an altar or shrine to the Buddha, with at least one dedicated image of the Gautama Buddha. The Buddha image is commonly placed on a "throne" called a gaw pallin (from Pāli pallanka).

Before a Buddha statue is used for veneration at home, it must be formally consecrated, in a ritual called Buddha Abhiṣeka or anay gaza tin:

This consecration, led by a Buddhist monk, who recites aneka jāti saṁsāra (translated as 'through the round of many births I roamed'), the 153rd verse of the Dhammapāda (from the 11th chapter).

The consecration rite, which can last a few hours, is held in the morning and consists of 4 primary parts:

1. Offerings (candles, flowers, incense, flags) made to the Buddha
2. Chanting of Paritta (typically Maṅgala Sutta, Metta Sutta, Ratana Sutta, Pubbhana Sutta)
3. Recitation of aneka jāti saṁsāraṁ
4. Recitation of the Twelve Nidānas

The consecration rituals are believed to imbue the Buddha image with a sacred quality that can protect the home and surroundings from misfortune and symbolically embody the powers of the Buddha.

5. Shinbyu

It is the most important duty of all Burmese parents to make sure their sons are admitted to the Buddhist Saṅgha by performing a Shinbyu ceremony once they have reached the age of 7+ years.

A symbolic procession and ceremony of exchanging princely attire with that of an ascetic follows the example of Gautama Buddha:

He was born a royal prince named Siddhārtha Gautama, but left his palace on horseback followed by his loyal attendant Chanda after he found out that life is made up of suffering (dukkha) and the notion of self is merely an illusion (anatta) when one day he saw the "Four Great Signs" - the old, the sick, the dead, and the ascetic - in the royal gardens.

All Buddhists are required to keep the basic Five Precepts, and novices are expected to keep the Ten Precepts.

Parents expect them to stay at the Kyaung (Monastery) immersed in the teachings of the Buddha as members of the Saṅgha for 3 months or longer.

They will have another opportunity to join the Saṅgha at the age of 20, taking the Upasampadā ordination, to become a fully ordained Bhikkhu, keeping the 227 precepts of the full monastic rules or Pātimokkha and perhaps remain a monk for life.

6. Buddhist holidays

Thingyan (Myanmar’s New Year) usually falls in mid-April and tops the list of Public holidays in Myanmar.

Vesak, the full moon in May, is the most sacred of all as the Buddha was born, became Enlightened, and entered Parinibbāna (died) on the same day. It is celebrated by watering the Bodhi Tree.

Pagoda festivals (Paya pwè) held throughout the country also usually 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.

7. Vassa

The 3 monsoon months from mid-July to mid-October is Vassa, a time when people are busy tilling their land and planting the rice paddies and Bhikkhus remain in Kyaungs.

New robes are offered to Bhikkhus at the beginning of Vassa, the end of which is marked by the Thadingyut Festival.

After the harvest, robes are again offered at Kathina, usually held during October or November.

Uposatha days are observed by keeping the 8 Precepts by laypersons during Thingyan and Vassa 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 Vassa that he ascended to the Tāvatiṁsa Heaven to preach a sermon, as an act of gratitude, to his mother, who had become a deva, 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 Saṅgha - are not held during the 3 months of Vassa, a custom which has resulted in a spate of weddings after Thadingyut or Wa-kyut, waited impatiently by couples wanting to tie the knot.

8. Buddhist education

Theravādins send their children to Kyaungs to receive a Buddhist education, learning the Pāli Canon, the life story of Gautama Buddha, the 550 Jātaka tales - most importantly the 38 Buddhist Beatitudes - as soon as they have a good grounding of the reading, writing and arithmetic.

Monks were the traditional teachers of the young and old alike until secular and missionary schools came into being during the British colonial administration.

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 minority groups are benefitting from this revival.

9. Monasticism

Buddhist Monks, who are venerated throughout Burmese society, are approximately 500 000 strong. Nuns form an additional 75 000.

Monks belong to one of 2 primary monastic orders:

a) Thudhamma Nikāya (88% of Buddhist monks)
b) the more orthodox Shwegyin Nikāya (7% of Buddhist monks)

Burmese monastic orders do not differ in doctrine but in monastic practice, lineage and organisation structure.

Other minor monastic orders include the Mahādvāra Nikāya in Lower Burma, and Hngettwin Nikāya in Mandalay, both of which have a few thousand member monks.

There are 9 legally recognised monastic orders in Burma today, under the 1990 Law Concerning Saṅgha Organizations.

There are also esoteric Buddhist sects or Weikza not recognised by any authority that incorporate non-Buddhist elements like alchemy, magic and occultism.

The overwhelming majority of Burmese monks wear maroon robes; while others wear ochre, unlike in neighbouring Theravada countries like Thailand, Laos and Śrī Lanka, where monks commonly wear saffron robes.

10. Women

The full Bhikkhunī (nuns) lineage of Theravada Buddhism died out, and for various technical and social reasons was therefore permanently absent.

The governing council of Buddhism in Myanmar has ruled that there can be no valid ordination of women in modern times, though some Burmese monks disagree.

However, as in many other Theravādin countries, women have created a niche for themselves as renunciants not recognised by the state-empowered Saṅgharaja or even the Saṅgha in general:

In Myanmar, these women are called Thilashin.

A Thilashin ("possessor of morality", from Pāli Sīla) is a female lay renunciant whose vows are the same as those of Sāmaṇerīs "novitiate nuns".

Like the Maechi of neighbouring Thailand and the dasa sil mata of Śrī Lanka, Thilashin occupy a position somewhere between that of an ordinary lay follower and an ordained monastic.

However, they are treated more favourably than most Maechi, being able to receive training, practice meditation and sit for the same qualification examinations as the monks.

Thilashins observe the 10 precepts and can be recognised by their pink robes, shaven head, orange or brown shawl and metal alms bowl. Thilashins go out on alms rounds on Uposatha and receive uncooked rice or money.

Thilashins are addressed with the honorifics Sayale ("little teacher") and daw. These are used as honorifics to the Buddhist name given.

Thilashins often reside in either separate quarters or in segregated Kyaung (temple-monasteries). They do not have to look after the monks, but may help cook if required. Although ranked lower than the monks, they are not subservient to them.

There have been efforts by some Thilashins to reinstate the Bhikkhunī lineage, although there are reservations from the government and general populace.

A new Theravada Bhikkhunī Saṅgha was first convened in 1996, and since then many more have taken the full vows. However, within Myanmar, Thilashins remain the only monastic option for women at this time.

In 2003, Saccavadi and Ayya Guṇasārī were ordained as Bhikkhunīs in Śrī Lanka, thus becoming the first female Myanmar novices in modern times to receive higher ordination in Śrī Lanka.

11. Politics

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 start of the 20th 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.

The League of Young Monks (Yahan Pyo) 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 2 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.

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.

12. Saffron Revolution

In September 2007, Buddhists again took to the streets in the Saffron Revolution, a mass protest against the military government.

Thousands of junta military and police forces poured into Yangon to try to control the situation, which rapidly deteriorated. A curfew was imposed and on 25 September troops surrounded Sule Pagoda.

The protest continued to grow with regular citizens joining to support and defend the Buddhists.

Overnight, junta forces invaded all the Kyaungs in the country and imprisoned thousands of monks.

It was reported that Nobel Prize winning human rights activist and Buddhist Aung San Suu Kyi was removed from her home where she were in 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 Myanmar in protest.

The Burmese junta responded by trying to control media coverage, curtail travel, censor news stories, and shut down access to the Internet.