- Theravada Buddhism in Burma
- Prof. Winston L. King
Although Theravaada Buddhism May have taken root in Thaton and Pegu as
early as the second century w., and although Pagan was a Mahaayaana stronghold from around
the fifth century, the verifiable history of Burmese Buddhism begins only in the reign of
Anawrahta (1044-1077), the ruler who made Burma a major political force in Southeast Asia,
establishing the first Burmese "empire." This monarch provided sanctuary to a
monk named Shin Arahan, who had fled from Thaton to Pagan, because of the growing
encroachments of Hinduism (and Mahaayaana?) on Thaton Pali Canon Buddhism. Shin Arahan
persuaded Anawrahta of the superior truth and orthodoxy of Theravaada and inspired him to
outlaw the local Ari variety of Buddhism (apparently a Mahaayaana form, which had become
affected by tantrism). With Shin Arahan as his counselor, later his primate, the king
undertook a thorough reform, executing recalcitrant Ari leaders, conscripting the body of
monks into the army, and having an entirely new monkhood ordained. The new monks were to
follow the Vinaya code, no longer indulging in intoxicants, associating with women, and
carrying on other practices inconsonant with Theravaada standards of morality. Anawrahta
respectfully requested a set of the Pali canonical texts, of which he had no copy, from
the king of Thaton, but was rudely refused. In 1056 he mounted a military campaign and
captured Thaton, its king, and his scriptures. Seeking to be a true dhamma raaja after
the model of A'soka, Anawrahta built many pagodas and temples, initiating the surge of
construction whose still-impressive ruins cover several square miles in the Pagan region.
He worked to establish Theravaada elsewhere in his spreading domain, which either by
direct rule or tributary kinglets included most of modern Burma and some of Thailand.
The main characteristics of Theravaada as Anawrahta established it
survive in modern Burma. The Pali Canon is the standard of belief and practice and a
blueprint for reform when needed. It is the responsibility of the Sa"ngha to maintain
the strength and purity of this scriptural tradition both in doctrine and in Vinaya
observance. They provide the laity with a field for creating merit by giving aims to them.
They also have a responsibility to teach the Dhamma, though a few are allowed to assume
the special vocation of fulltime meditators or forest hermits. All monks renounce lay
occupations and concerns, shaving their heads, donning the yellow robe, possessing nothing
but their robes and begging-bowl, medicine, a needle, and a
water-strainer-and these are actually the property of the Sa"ngha. Their life is
devoted to the quest of nibbaana and to aiding others in this quest. Monks may leave the
Sa"ngha without discredit, for any reason that seems important. The nun's vocation
has not flourished, despite provisions for it in the canon; nuns are few and their
The lay person's chief obligations are to observe the five precepts and
to support the Sa"ngha. The goal of lay practice is to produce merit, thus ensuring a
fortunate rebirth and laying the remote basis of the attainment of nibbaana. Lay men
sometimes adopt the monastic life for a time, thus adding to their store of merit. Lay
devotion is centered on the pagoda and the Buddha image. Some pagodas are believed to
enshrine relics of the Buddha or one of his disciples, notably the Shwedagon in Rangoon,
said to contain some hairs of the Buddha. But any pagoda having a Buddha image in some
niche in its spire or seated at its foot is the sacramental presence of the Buddha's power
(paya) to the lay people who circumambulate it and, kneeling, offer flowers. Even
simple pagodas in field or village, without a Buddha image, are considered sacred. There are only a few other lay rituals, including
the Triple Refuge, recited three times, led by a monk, and the shimbyu initiation
ceremony, held in most families, in which a boy of puberty age acts the part of Prince
Gotama living in splendour and then renouncing the world to take a monk's robe (which the
boy does for a week or so, begging for his food like a monk).
For all his zeal for Theravaada, Anawrahta was unable to root out folk
religion, firmly embedded in popular local festivals. The cult of the Thirty-six Lords,
with Mahagiri of Mount Popa at their head, was dominant, and all Burmese saw themselves as
subjects of one or other of these lords (popularly caged nats). Though he
demolished all the great public nat shrines, Anawrahta was eventually obliged to
adopt the nats into the household of faith, giving them a subordinate position.
Thagyarnin, the Pali Canon Sakra, king of the gods, who dwells on Mount Sumerti, was made
the thirty-seventh and supreme Lord, displacing Mahagiri, and in pagodas images of the
thirty-seven lords. Placed on the same platform as the Buddha, depicted them as worshiping
the Buddha. This set the pattern for Burmese
Buddhism, in which gods and spirits, now many more than the original thirty-seven, are
powers to be honored and placated in the proper context, but always in subordination to
the transcendent power and worth of the Buddha. This is a variant of a Pattern warranted
by the canon, which never denied the Hindu gods, but left them subject to impermanence,
and taught that humans with proper karma can become gods and that even at their best the
gods' knowledge of ultimate truth is less than that of a virtuous monk. The nats are
helpful in this world -- Premier U Nu honored them for their assistance in overcoming
insurgency shortly after Burmese independence in 1948- and few Burmese see any
impiety in appealing to them in mundane matters as guardians of the otherworldly Buddha,
housed in spirit-shrines on pagoda grounds. In many Buddhist usages, remnants and
disguised forms of the native cults may be observed. A boy who receives initiation must be
kept indoors for seven days before the ceremony to protect him from spirits, and he is
sometimes marched to the nat shrine during the rites. Loud shouts of "Sbwe"
(Lord), signifying his entry into manhood, are a Hindu element. Again, the three-day
New Year festival in the spring and the Feast of Lights in the autumn, though given a
Buddhist gilding, are doubtless equinox celebrations. Despite the accommodations between
them, there is a residual tension between nat and Buddha, and autonomous forms of nat
worship, with shrines, priestesses, mediums, and harvest fertility rites, can be found
in rural areas.
Anawrahta also set the pattern of the relationship between throne and
Sa"ngha. The Sa"ngha was to be detached from the business of government. This
otherworldly role could not always be strictly maintained. The kings piety was of concern
to the monks, since it was expressed in material support for the Sa"ngha. The
prosperity, or even the survival, of the Sa"ngha depended on the king's disposition
toward them, for he alone had the resources for the building of pagodas and the granting
of lands. Moreover, as Buddhist kings followed the dhamma raaja rather than the deva
raaja power pattern, they sought from the Sa"ngha a sacral legitimation of their
kingship, which, intangible though it might be, greatly strengthened their rule.
Anawrahta's successors included such pious and generous kings as Nadoungmya (1210-1234),
the last great pagoda builder before the Pagan Kingdom succumbed to Shan incursions in
the later thirteenth century; Dhammazedi, reigning in Pegu (1472-1492), who
instituted a reform of the Sa"ngha; Bodapawya (1782-1819), reigning from
Amarapura near Mandalay, the last empire builder, who regularized the Sa"ngha and
promoted Buddhist learning; and Mindon
(1853-1878), ruler over a Burma diminished by British conquest, who sought to make
Mandalay a great center of a renewed Buddhism and had all the scriptures and some of the
commentaries engraved on stone. Variation in the strength and extent of central rule
throughout these centuries caused frequent disorganization and consequent undiscipline
among monks. Under a strong king, who appointed a primate (such as Shin Arahan under
Anawrahta), the Sa"ngha was kept in order; the king seldom intervened directly, but
the primate had the prestige of royal backing. Sa"ngha reforms nearly always looked
to a model in the past. In 1192 Chapta, a Burmese monk trained in Sri Lanka and
convinced that Buddhism there was more "orthodox," persuaded King Narapatisithu
(1173-1210) to reform the regnant Thaton Buddhism by having many monks reordained.
These monks formed the Latter Order, in contrast to the Former Order. In 1474 King
Dhammazedi sent twenty-two monks to Sri Lanka for reordination and enforced reform and
reordination on all monks in his realm. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the
Sa"ngha was split by the robe dispute: should monks in public cover both shoulders or
only one? Under pressure from King Bodapawya the dispute was settled in favor of both
shoulders. Most of the present sectarian divisions stem from the indecision of King
Mindon. Shwegyn Sayadaw, prot'eg'e of the king and trainer of his sons, called for a
return to the Vinaya rules: no sandals, no umbrellas, no monks' attendance at worldly
festivals. Mindon recognized the Shwegyn sect, but did not disestablish the existing
Thudhamma sect; the division continues, the Thudhamma being the larger of the two. Other
sects are the Dwaya, which is close to the Shwegyn, the small Hrigetwin group which frowns
on such popular lay practices as worship of Buddha images, lighting of candles, and food
offerings, and the highly conservative Pakokku sect, which prides itself on its monks'
learning. In addition to these there are many evanescent subsects, each with its special
traits but all claiming to be pure Theravada.
British rule (1885-1948) was a misfortune for Buddhism. It ended state
support for Buddhist institutions; no provision was made for Sa"ngha supervision by a
primate; and missionary or government schools replaced the traditional monastery schools.
The Sa"ngha became disorganized and undisciplined, and children were weaned from
their Buddhist upbringing. In the restive 1930s the British made a belated effort
to authorize national supervision of the Sa"ngha, but it was ineffective. Protests
against Britishers wearing shoes within pagoda precincts developed into a strong
pro-independence movement in the Sa"ngha, producing a martyr or two. Independence did
not bring immediate improvement, for U Nu, though helping Buddhism in every way he could,
was preoccupied with the survival of his government. In his final premiership (1960-1962)
he sought to make Buddhism the state religion: a Buddhist calendar was instituted;
Buddhist institutions were given state support, as were those of other religions in due
proportion; monastic schools for the early years were strengthened; a "Buddhist
socialism," neither capitalist nor communist, was attempted at state level. The holy
experiment lasted only two years. After the military takeover in 1962, the state
was secularized and the monks sent back to their monasteries. Lay practice was not greatly
affected. A novel feature of contemporary Burmese Buddhism is the popularity of lay
meditation, stimulated by U Nu; this is the primary offering of Burma's new missionary
outreach to the West.
 Buddha images, introduced in the last centuries B.C.E.,
are probably a Mahaayaana innovation, with no warrant in the P9i Canon, yet they have
taken an unshakable hold on the popular imagination in Theravaada countries.
 See Maung Htin Aung, Folk Elements
in Burmese Buddhism, 73-75.
 He hoped to be designated a Future
Buddha, as Alaungsithu (1112-1167) and Alaungpaya (1752-1760) had been, but was
refused the honor. See Mating Htin Aung, A History of Burma, 89.
Aung, Maung Htin. Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism.
London: Oxford University Press, 1962.
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Aung-Thwin, Michael. Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma.
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The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, 1923.
Translated by Pe Mating Tin and G. H. Luce. Rangoon: Burma Research Society, 1960.
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King, Winston L. In the Hope of Nibbaana. An Essay on
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Mendelson, E. Michael. Sangha and State in Burma. Ithaca,
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[Originally published in Buddhist Spirituality - Indian, Southeast
Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: The Crossroad
Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 102-8.]
Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for
retyping this article.