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A gold and white temple, a statue, and two boys reading.

History of Buddhism in Burma
The Ideas of Theravada Buddhism
Buddhist Practice in Burma
The Nat Spirits and Burmese Animism

The main religion in Burma is Theravada Buddhism which has been the official religion since the 11th century. About 90% of the Burmese people follow Buddhism. Another 4% are Christians (converted during the years of British colonialism, when missionaries were allowed; they have not been allowed in since Independence in 1948). About an equal number are Muslims; although the government claims not to practice religious discrimination, many Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh in recent years, claiming that they have been persecuted. In addition, a number of tribal peoples practice forms of Animism and Shamanism.

However, Theravada Buddhism is ingrained in Burmese history and culture and the country is often defined by it. Every town or village has a monastery, monks are highly visible throughout the country, and every hilltop or riverside, every clump of trees, seems to have a Buddhist shrine or pagoda. The easily recognized landmark of Burma is the Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital Yangon (Rangoon).

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History of Buddhism in Burma

Theravada Buddhism became the official religion of Burma during the reign of King Anawratha, who is also credited with unifying the country. According to legend, he was king of Bagan (Pagan) in the Northern part of Burma. At this time, the religion was a mixture of Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) and Tantrayana (esoteric, secret, magical) Buddhism. His spiritual advisor, Shin Arahan, had migrated to Bagan from the kingdom in Southern Burma in which Theravada Buddhism was practiced. He convinced King Anawratha that Theravada was a superior form of Buddhism, devoid of the magical properties of Tantrayana. The king thus sent a message to the King of the southern kingdom, Manuhal, requesting that the king send him copies of the Theravda Pali scriptures. Manuhal rudely refused to part with copies of these scriptures. Enraged, King Anawratha invaded and conquered Manuhal¡¯s kingdom and brought 30 copies of the scriptures and many monks to Bagan. In so doing, he also unified Burma for the first time! Thus he became the most important king in Burma¡¯s history.

Anawratha had a royal library built to house the scriptures, declared Theravada to be the official religion and embarked on a period of great religious reform. This included the building of over 5000 pagodas in the following 200 years, each holding a scripture or the image of Buddha. The ruins of this forest of pagodas can be seen in Bagan today and is one of Burma¡¯s premier tourist attractions. Anawrathas¡¯ son continued to build Buddhism in Burma, even sending a mission to Bodhhagaya in India to help rebuild the temple at the place where Buddha attained enlightenment. The descendants of Anawratha promoted Buddhism at home and abroad, sending missions to Sri Lanka, Thailand and other places in Southeast Asia, to exchange scholars, monks and information about Buddhism.

Bagan fell after two centuries, at the end of the 13th century, when the Mongols invaded from China. While the Mongols were unable to hold Burma (they were debilitated by the heat and frightened by the elephants) they destroyed the empire and ushered in a period of anarchy. Burma underwent a difficult period, finally recovering in the 15th century when King Dhammazedi took the throne, reunified the country, re-established Buddhism as the official religion and began to rebuild the Sangha (community of monks). The ensuing centuries saw Burma establish itself as the center of Theravada Buddhism, especially after its near disappearance in Sri Lanka as the result of Portuguese and British conquests. The importance of Burma as the center of the Theravada world increased with the rule of King Mindon (1852-1878). He actively supported Buddhism, patronized Buddhist scholars, and worked against the Christian missionaries sent by Britain. He convened the Fifth Buddhist Council in Mandalay to which Buddhist scholars from many countries in Asia came, to revise and study the Tripitaka (the Pali Buddhist canon). The entire scripture was carved into 729 stone stelae (columns) to preserve it for posterity. One hundred years later, Burma was again at the center of world-wide Buddhist celebrations. The 2500th anniversary of Buddha¡¯s Nirvana was celebrated in Yangon with the convening of the 6th Buddhist Council from 1954-1956 to revise and translate the Tripitaka texts that Mindon had had inscribed 100 years previously. These celebrations including the bringing to Burma of a number of Buddhist relics including the two extant teeth, one held in the Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the other held in a Buddhist temple, near Beijing, China.

The History of Burma since its Independence from British rule in 1948 has been one of dictatorship, military rule, repression and isolation. The leader of the Independence movement, Aung San, was unfortunately assassinated just before Burma gained its independence. U Nu, who became the President and served until 1962 was a devout Buddhist, a cultured and spiritual man, who was unable to rule effectively. His solution to many of Burmas political and economic problems was to shut himself in the capital and meditate. The military staged a coup in 1962, bringing to power a military government headed by Ne Win. The ensuing 25 years saw Burma isolate itself from the world and pursue the Buddhist path to socialism. The failure of this policy was demonstrated in the large scale demonstrations which took place in 1988 in Yangon, led by monks and students. This demonstration was brutally repressed by the military, the elections were overturned, the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest and the State Law and Order Restoration Council took power. Although this military regime, which still rules Burma under a new name, practiced repression and human rights abuses, it promoted Buddhism, honored both male and female Buddhist leaders, reconstructed many temples and pagodas and declared the primacy of Buddhism in Burmese life. Buddhism, while controlled, is still the center of Burmese spiritual and cultural life.

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The Ideas of Theravada Buddhism

Theravada (Teaching of the Elders) Buddhism is one of the three major divisions of Buddhism, the others being Mahayana (Great Vehicle) and Tantrayana (esoteric Buddhism). This form of Buddhism is the one currently prevalent in the Southeast Asian countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and Sri Lanka. It considers itself to be the oldest form of Buddhism and the one closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. All forms of Buddhism have key beliefs in common and the differences are in matters of practice and emphasis.

All Buddhists accept Buddha as the historical founder of the religion. Theravada emphasizes his humanity; he was a man who discovered the way to enlightenment and anyone can follow his footsteps and achieve enlightenment as well. Buddha was a teacher, a guide, one who showed the way to happiness and enlightenment. Buddha was a human who lived, discovered the middle way between pleasure and pain that leads to enlightenment, taught this path for 45 years, and then entered Nirvana (when he passed away). He is not a God, is not involved in the world and thus he cannot answer prayers or petitions. Thus, Theravada stresses self-reliance and obtaining enlightenment on one's own by following the way of the Buddha. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana, on the other hand, stress the supernatural quality of the Buddha and the fact that Buddha and other beings can help one on the way to enlightenment.

Buddhism is a religion which originated in India in the 6th century B.C. and rapidly spread throughout Asia. Founded by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), the religion stresses one's own responsibility for one's actions and promotes the central virtues of love, compassion, kindness, and no harm to any living creature. Buddhism grew out of dissatisfaction with the increasingly ritualistic practices of Hinduism; it also totally rejected the caste system and insisted on the equality of everyone. However, Buddhism kept certain of the key Hindu beliefs, including the belief in reincarnation, the role of Karma (one's actions) in causing reincarnation, the desire to escape from this "wheel of rebirth" and the belief that ending the cycle of life resulted in entrance to Nirvana, a vaguely described feeling of total bliss. Buddhists also believed that the world, while often a thing of joy, is also a place of suffering; the aim of Buddhism is to relieve the suffering of mankind by eliminating the cause of this suffering.

The basic ideas of Buddhism are those taught by the Buddha in his first sermon, in the Deer Park in Benares, after he himself attained "enlightenment". The legend of the Buddha states that he was a prince (Siddhartha Gautama) of a small kingdom called Sakya (now in Nepal). When he was born, a seer predicted that he would be either a great king or a great world renouncer. His father, the king, wanted to prevent his son from renouncing the world and becoming a wandering holy man and thus surrounded him with luxury and kept from him knowledge of ills and evils. However, the gods took a hand and, when the prince was out riding one day, exposed him to the four sights: a beggar, an ill man, a corpse, and a holy man. These sights shocked the young prince who realized how much suffering existed. He decided to rid the world of this suffering and one night, at the age of 29, left his palace, his wife, his son (named Rahula, which means fetters), his horse and clothes and adopted the robe of a wandering ascetic. He spent 6 years in self-mortification, starving and suffering, and then realized that this was not bringing him closer to understanding the cause of suffering. So he ate and drank in moderation and sat under a tree (since called the Bodhi or tree of enlightenment) and meditated until he came to a realization, an understanding of the cause both of misery and of rebirth. This understanding is called enlightenment and it came to have two meanings: that one would not be reborn again but, upon "death," would go to Nirvana, a state of bliss in which one would live the rest of one's life in total joy and happiness, unbothered by anything that would happen.

The way to rid oneself of suffering that the Buddha came to understand and to preach was called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the basic core beliefs of Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. The world is full of suffering
  2. This suffering is caused by desire
  3. There is a cure for this suffering
  4. The cure is to get rid of desire

The Noble Eightfold Path is the way to get rid of desire, which is seen as the cause of all misery AND the cause of rebirth. The Indian term Karma, which literally means actions, was redefined by Buddha to imply that it is the desires behind one's actions that cause the accumulation of karma, which in turn causes rebirth. Thus any action which is accidental or which is done with no selfish desire of any kind does not cause rebirth. The key to escaping from the cycle of rebirth, as well as to achieving happiness on earth, is the elimination of desire. Following the Eightfold Path is the easiest and best way to achieve this aim. The path consists of three sections: ethical conduct, mental development and wisdom. Under ethical conduct, one practices right speech, right action and right livelihood; under mental development one practices right effort, mindfulness, and concentration; and under wisdom, one practices right view and right intention.

The various sects which developed had different ideas about what constituted these eight virtues and how to practice them. For example, what is right speech? Is it permissible to tell a lie to save people's lives? Under right action, for example, one must take a vow of non-harm of other creatures. Does this mean that one should starve to death rather than eat meat? Does it mean one should never kill in self-defense? Each of the above 8 virtues raised many questions about its implementation and these were answered differently by different Buddhists.

The center of Buddhist life is the monastery. Buddha felt that it is difficult to avoid desire and preference while leading the life of a householder; giving up the things of the world and living in a monastery with one's simple wants met would make it easier to follow the above eightfold path. Thus, monks and nuns have always been at the center of Buddhism and the monastic way of life is practiced in all Buddhist countries. Gradually a set of rules, called the Vinaya rules, governing monastic life was created. Each monk or nun takes 3 great vows: poverty, chastity, non-harm to others and agrees to abide by ten precepts: to abstain from harming living beings, taking things not freely given, sexual misconduct, false speech, intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness, taking untimely meals, dancing, singing, music, the use of flowers, perfumes and personal adornment, the use of high seats, and the use of gold and silver. In Theravada countries, it is the custom for each young boy to spend a certain amount of time, ranging from one week to several months, in a monastery. In his initiation, he repeated the Buddha's life by renouncing things of this world, shaving his head and donning the robes of a monk. This served to inculcate Buddhist values in these young boys and ensure tight relations between the monks and the community.

For the first 300 years or so after Buddha's death, his teachings were passed on orally and were memorized by the monks and nuns. Eventually they were written down into a series of sutras know as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets. These contained the ethical, practical and metaphysical teachings of the Buddha as well as the rules for monastic living. All Buddhists consider these scriptures to be the word of the Buddha and thus sacred. Theravada Buddhists accept only this collection of Sutras as valid. Both Mahayana and Tantrayana Buddhists have additional writings which they consider to also be the teachings of Buddha.

For a detailed discussion of Theravada Buddhism and excerpts from the scriptures (Sutras): What is Theravada Buddhism?

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Buddhist Practice in Burma

Many of the ways in which Buddhism is practiced in Burma echo those of Buddhists in other Theravada countries. The center of Buddhist life is the monastery and the monks are greatly revered. Monks are given seats on crowded buses, they are honored by the government in special ceremonies, they are financially supported both by the government and by the local communities, and they are seen as the advisors and helpers of the people.

In Burma, as in other Theravada countries, it is the custom for many young men, between the ages of 8 and 14, to take Buddhist vows and spend a few weeks or months, living in a Buddhist monastery. This serves as an initiation to adulthood, helps to cement ties between the monastery and the community, and inculcates Buddhist values into the minds of the young. The ceremonies of renunciation are elaborate and mimic the Buddha¡¯s renunciation of the world. The young initiate is clothed in elaborate princely robes, and is feted and pampered for several days. He then is taken to the monastery, removes his princely robes, dons the simple robes of the monks, has his head shaven, and dedicates himself to living a simple life for a period of time. While it is not as common, many young girls also take vows as nuns and live temporarily in nunneries just as do the monks. This is a habit that both sexes often continue throughout their lives by spending ¡°retreat¡± periods in a monastery during life¡¯s crises or other important periods.

Monks do not work for money in Burma; instead they exist upon donations by the community. Each morning, monks from the various monasteries make the rounds asking for alms. This food is taken back to the monastery and shared for the two allowed meals of the day. It is considered an act of great merit to donate food to the monks and the giver thanks the monk for the opportunity to donate, rather than the monk thanking the giver. Ties with the monasteries are strong, and many Burmese take vows to observe some of the Buddhist precepts on certain days of the week, during the 3 month rainy season (July-October) retreat period, or at special times in their lives.

Buddhism is a part of everyday life in Burma. Many Burmese begin the day by praying or making offerings of rice and vegetables to the monks, and to their family altar. Each home has a shrine, usually a shelf with the family¡¯s Buddha image, plus other images or photos of other Buddha images. Small cups of water and portions of food are offered and removed at noon; flowers and candles are also placed on the altar. The idea behind this is to constantly focus the mind on the Buddha and his teachings (the Dharma). While Buddhist doctrine says that one must rely on one¡¯s own deeds (Karma) to achieve desired goals, many Burmese also pray to Buddha for good health, wealth, success, and happiness.

Shrines, pagodas, and monasteries are everywhere and most Burmese put their hands together and bow their heads when passing them. Important events, such as a wedding, graduation from school or university, the birth of a child, or death, are marked by inviting monks to attend the event, by reciting prayers and chants, by listening to recitations from the scriptures, by holding a feast, and by making offerings to the monastery. The major festivals in Burma celebrate Buddhist holidays. The most important include the Water Festival in April, which ushers in the New Year and includes dousing everyone with buckets of water (it symbolizes a new beginning); the Thanksgiving Festival in October at the end of the 3 month rainy season, also called the festival of lights as candles (and electric lights) are lit and carried in processions, and the Weaving Festival which is marked by the donation of robes to the monks. All festivals are noisy, crowded and exciting. The temples are festooned with lights and material, and food stalls, bazaars, and entertainment are everywhere. Festival events begin at dawn and often continue until after mid-night.

Monks undertake a number of services to the people in return for their financial support. Traditionally the monastery provided the basis of education throughout the country; even today, monastery schools still teach young people and often provide housing for students away from their families. Monks undertook social welfare projects such as running orphanages, old age homes and hospitals; today some of these continue as well. Monks aided people with advice and prayer in times of trouble, officiated at funeral services and memorial services for the deceased. Death was not looked upon as an end but as a new beginning. It is believed that the person¡¯s life force is reborn in a new form: prayers of the monks can help to ensure a positive rebirth.

For websites which contain images and more information about Burmese Buddhism please click on the following:
This is Myanmar: Buddhism and Burma
myanmar.com: The ultimate guide to Myanmar

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The Nat Spirits and Burmese Animism

Prior to the advent of Buddhism, Burmese were animists who worshipped a series of nature spirits called Nats. As is true with the spirit deities in neighboring Laos and Thailand, the Nats were not neglected but were incorporated into Buddhism and often Nat statues will be found in Buddhist temples. These spirits became converted to Buddhism and thus became helpers of the monks. This was a deliberate policy on the part of King Anawratha and the rulers of Burma in the 11th century. At the same time, these spirits often have their own ceremonies and festivals and are worshipped in addition to the Buddha. There are 37 officially recognized Nats, each with its own history and image. The Nats, as spirits of natural forces, such as water, wind, stones and trees, take many guises. The Nats are all ghosts or spirits of heroes except for one, the chief Nat, Thagyamin Nat (the Indian god Indra, protector of royalty) who was elevated to this position in the 11th century by the great unifier, King Anawratha, who integrated Nat worship into Buddhism. Thus the Nats became the guardians of the state and royal family and guarantors of dynastic continuity. Each Nat has its own history or legend which places the Nat in an important or heroic role in Burmese history. While some Burmese regard Nat worship as mere superstition, most people do pay some attention to them and regard the Nat worship as a method of dealing with or solving the problems of this life, whereas Buddhism is concerned with future lives.

In addition to asking the Nats for good fortune, the Burmese were concerned with avoiding harm from the Nats, especially from those Nats who died prematurely and thus were considered to be angry and jealous. Thus, a number of measures were taken to propitiate these Nats, especially those who had been Royal (and in fact, at some time in the reincarnations, all the Nats were associated with members of the royal family).

Each of the Nats has a story that tells how that person became a Nat. For example, the story of Popa Medaw (the mother of Mount Popa), tells how her two sons were first enfiefed by the king and then falsely accused of betraying him and executed. In fact, all of the Nats, at one time or another, were unjustly executed by a member of the royal family. The home of the Nats is Mt. Popa, in Central Burma and on the summit of this mountain shrines to all 37 Nats are found.

Ceremonies are held for each of the Nats and they are officiated at by spirit mediums, shamans who combine music, dancing and trances to communicate with the spirits. Nat s¨¦ances are often held in private homes; and often involve a female shaman called the ¡°spirit wife¡± into whose body the spirit of the Nat is believed to enter during a trance. The largest and most important Nat ritual is held in the town of Taungbyon. In August, around the time of the full moon, people assemble from all around Burma for 6 days of the festival, which consists of all night parties combining music, dance, and theatre performances. The Nat dancers are usually women or cross-dressers; donations to the Nats include alcohol, cigarettes, goods, and money. Money blessed by the Nats is seen to be especially lucky.

For pictures of the Nats and a Nat ceremony, please read Nats of Burma

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