- Buddhism in Myanmar
- A Short History
- Oger Bischoff
- The Wheel Publication No. 399/401
- Copyright © 1995 Roger Bischoff
Myanmar, or Burma as the nation has been known throughout history, is one of the major
countries following Theravada Buddhism. In recent years Myanmar has attained special
eminence as the host for the Sixth Buddhist Council, held in Yangon (Rangoon) between 1954
and 1956, and as the source from which two of the major systems of Vipassana meditation
have emanated out into the greater world: the tradition springing from the Venerable
Mahasi Sayadaw of Thathana Yeiktha and that springing from Sayagyi U Ba Khin of the
International Meditation Centre.
This booklet is intended to offer a short history of Buddhism in Myanmar from its
origins through the country's loss of independence to Great Britain in the late nineteenth
century. I have not dealt with more recent history as this has already been well
documented. To write an account of the development of a religion in any country is a
delicate and demanding undertaking and one will never be quite satisfied with the result.
This booklet does not pretend to be an academic work shedding new light on the subject. It
is designed, rather, to provide the interested non-academic reader with a brief overview
of the subject.
The booklet has been written for the Buddhist Publication Society to complete its
series of Wheel titles on the history of the Sasana in the main Theravada Buddhist
countries. The material has been sifted and organised from the point of view of a
practising Buddhist. Inevitably it thus involves some degree of personal interpretation. I
have given importance to sources that would be accorded much less weight in a strictly
academic treatment of the subject, as I feel that in this case the oral tradition may well
be more reliable than modern historians would normally admit.
One of the objectives of the narrative is to show that the Buddha's Teaching did not
make a lasting impression on Myanmar immediately upon first arrival. The Sasana had to be
re-introduced or purified again and again from the outside until Myanmar had matured to
the point of becoming one of the main shrines where the Theravada Buddhist teachings are
preserved. The religion did not develop in Myanmar. Rather, the Myanmar people developed
through the religion until the Theravada faith became embedded in their culture and Pali
Buddhism became second nature to them.
I dedicate this work to my teachers, Mother Sayamagyi and Sayagyi U Chit Tin.
International Meditation Centre UK
Wilts SN11 OPE
1. Earliest Contacts with Buddhism
Myanmar and its Peoples
There are four dominant ethnic groups in the recorded history of Myanmar: the Mon, the
Pyu, the Myanmar, and the Shan.
Uncertainty surrounds the origins of the Mon; but it is clear that, at least
linguistically, they are related to the Khmer. What is known
is that they settled in the south of Myanmar and Thailand while the Khmer made northern
Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia their home. These two peoples were probably the first
migrants to the region, apart from Indian merchants who established trading colonies along
the coast. The Mon with their distinct language and culture competed for centuries with
the Myanmar. However, today their influence and language is limited to remote areas of the
The Pyu, like the Myanmar, are a people of Tibeto-Burman origin with a distinct culture
and language. They lived in the area around Prome long before the Myanmar pushed into the
plains of Myanmar from the north. Their language was closely related to the language of
the Myanmar and was later absorbed by it. Their script was in use until about the
fourteenth century, but was then lost.
The Myanmar people began to colonise the plains of Myanmar only towards the middle of
the first millennium AD. They came from the mountainous northern regions and may well have
originated in the Central Asian plains.
After the Myanmar, the Shan flooded in from the North, finally conquering the entire
region of Myanmar and Thailand. The Thai people are descended from Shan tribes. The
northeast region of modern Myanmar is still inhabited predominantly by Shan tribes.
In the sixth century BC, most of what we now know as Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and
Cambodia was sparsely populated. While migrants from the east coast of India had formed
trading colonies along the coast of the Gulf of Martaban, these coastal areas of Myanmar
and Thailand were also home to the Mon. By this time, the Khmer probably controlled Laos,
Cambodia, and northern Thailand, while Upper Myanmar may already have been occupied to
some extent by Myanmar tribes.
As these early settlers did not use lasting materials for construction, our knowledge
of their civilisation remains scant. We do know, however, that their way of life was very
simple -- as it remains today in rural areas -- probably requiring only wooden huts with
palm-leaf roofs for habitation. We can assume that they were not organised into units
larger than village communities and that they did not possess a written language. Their
religion must have been some form of nature worship or animism, still found today among
the more remote tribes of the region.
There were also more highly developed communities of Indian origin, in the form of
trading settlements located along the entire coast from Bengal to Borneo. In Myanmar, they
were located in Thaton (Suddhammapura), Pegu (Ussa), Yangon (Ukkala, then still on the
coast), and Mrauk-U (Dhannavati) in Arakan; also probably along the Tenasserim and Arakan
coasts. These settlers had mainly migrated from Orissa on the northeastern coast of the
Indian subcontinent, and also from the Deccan in the southeast. In migrating to these
areas, they had also brought their own culture and religion with them. Initially, the
contact between the Hindu traders and the Mon peasants must have been limited. However,
the Indian settlements, their culture and traditions, were eventually absorbed into the
G.E. Harvey, in his History of Burma, relates a Mon legend which refers to the
Mon fighting Hindu strangers who had come back to re-conquer the country that had formerly
belonged to them. This Mon tale confirms the theory that
Indian people had formed the first communities in the region but that these were
eventually replaced by the Mon with the development of their own civilisation. As well as
the Indian trading settlements, there were also some Pyu settlements, particularly in the
area of Prome where a flourishing civilisation later developed.
Also, it is assumed that some degree of migration from India to the region of Tagaung
and Mogok in Upper Myanmar had taken place through Assam and later through Manipur, but
the "hinterland" was of course much less attractive to traders than the coastal
regions with their easy access by sea. A tradition of Myanmar says that Tagaung was
founded by Abhiraja, a prince of the Sakyans (the tribe of the Buddha), who had migrated
to Upper Myanmar from Nepal in the ninth century BC. The city was subsequently conquered
by the Chinese in approximately 600 BC, and Pagan and Prome were founded by refugees
fleeing southward. In fact, some historians believe that, like the Myanmar, the Sakyans
were a Mongolian rather than an Indo-Aryan race, and that the Buddha's clansmen were
derived from Mongolian stock.
First Contacts with the Buddha's Teachings
The source of information for many of the events related forthwith is the Sasanavamsa. The Sasanavamsa is a chronicle written in Pali by a
bhikkhu, Pannasami, for the Fifth Buddhist Council held in
Mandalay in 1867. As the Sasanavamsa is a recent compilation, many events mentioned
therein may be doubted. However, as it draws on both written records, some of which are no
longer available, and on the oral tradition of Myanmar, information can be included in
this account with the understanding that it is open to verification.
There are many instances in the history of Southeast Asian tribes in which a conquering
people incorporates into its own traditions not only the civilisation of the conquered,
but also their clan gods, royal lineage, and thereby their history. This fact would
explain the visits of the Buddha to Thaton and Shwesettaw in the Mon and Myanmar oral
tradition, and the belief of the Arakanese that the Buddha visited their king and left
behind an image of himself for them to worship. Modern historiography will, of course,
dismiss these stories as fabrications made out of national pride, as the Myanmar had not
even arrived in the region at the time of the Buddha. However, it is possible that the
Myanmar and Arakanese integrated into their own lore the oral historical tradition of
their Indian predecessors. This does not prove that the visits really took place, but it
seems a more palatable explanation of the existence of these accounts than simply putting
them down to historical afterthought of a Buddhist people eager to connect itself with the
origins of their religion.
The Sasanavamsa mentions several visits of the Buddha to Myanmar and one other
important event: the arrival of the hair relics in Ukkala (Yangon) soon after the Buddha's
The Arrival of the Hair Relics
Tapussa and Bhallika, two merchants from Ukkala, were
travelling through the region of Uruvela and were directed to the Buddha by their family
god. The Buddha had just come out of seven weeks of meditation after his awakening and was
sitting under a tree feeling the need for food. Tapussa and Bhallika made an offering of
rice cake and honey to the Buddha and took the two refuges, the refuge in the Buddha and
the refuge in the Dhamma (the Sangha, the third refuge, did not exist yet). As they were
about to depart, they asked the Buddha for an object to worship in his stead and he gave
them eight hairs from his head. After the two returned from their journey, they enshrined
the three hairs in a stupa which is now the great Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
It is believed in Myanmar that the hill upon which the Shwedagon Pagoda stands was not
haphazardly chosen by Tapussa and Bhallika but was, in fact, the site where the three
Buddhas preceding the Buddha Gotama in this world cycle themselves deposited relics.
Buddha Kakusandha is said to have left his staff on the Theinguttara Hill, the Buddha
Konagamana his water filter, and Buddha Kassapa a part of his robe. Because of this, the
Buddha requested Tapussa and Bhallika to enshrine his relics in this location. Tapussa and
Bhallika travelled far and wide in order to find the hill on which they could balance a
tree without its touching the ground either with the roots or with the crown. Eventually,
they found the exact spot not far from their home in Lower Myanmar where they enshrined
the holy relics in a traditional mound or stupa. The
original stupa is said to have been 27 feet high. Today the Shwedagon pagoda has grown to
over 370 feet.
The Buddha's Visits to the Region
The Myanmar oral tradition speaks of four visits of the Buddha to the region. While
these visits were of utmost significance in their own right, they are also important in
having established places of pilgrimage up to the present day.
The Visit to Central Myanmar
According to the Sasanavamsa, the city of Aparanta is situated on the western shore
of the Irrawaddy river at the latitude of Magwe. The Sasanavamsa gives only a very
brief summary of the events surrounding the Buddha's visit to Aparanta, presumably because
these were well known and could be read in the Tipitaka and the commentaries.
Punna, a merchant from Sunaparanta, went to Savatthi on business and there heard a
discourse of the Buddha. Having won faith in the Buddha and
the Teachings, he took ordination as a bhikkhu. After sometime, he asked the Buddha to
teach him a short lesson so that he could return to Sunaparanta and strive for arahatship.
The Buddha warned him that the people of Sunaparanta were fierce and violent, but Punna
replied that he would not allow anger to arise, even if they should kill him. In the
Punnovada Sutta, the Buddha instructed him not to be enticed by that which is pleasant,
and Punna returned and attained arahatship in his country. He won over many disciples and
built a monastery of red sandalwood for the Buddha (according to some chronicles of
Myanmar, the Buddha made the prediction that at the location where the red sandalwood
monastery was, the great king Alaungsithu of Pagan would build a shrine). He then sent
flowers as an invitation to the Buddha and the Buddha came accompanied by five hundred
arahats, spent the night in the monastery, and left again before dawn.
Sakka, the king of the thirty-three devas living in the Tavatimsa plane, provided five
hundred palanquins for the bhikkhus accompanying the Buddha on the journey to Sunaparanta.
But only 499 of the palanquins were occupied. One of them remained empty until the ascetic
Saccabandha, who lived on the Saccabandha mountain in central Myanmar, joined the Buddha
and the 499 bhikkhus accompanying him. On the way to Sunaparanta, the Buddha stopped in
order to teach the ascetic Saccabandha. When Saccabanda attained arahatship, he then
joined the Buddha and completed the total of 500 bhikkhus who usually travelled with the
On the return journey, the Buddha stopped at the river Nammada close to the Saccabandha
mountain. Here, the Blessed One was invited by the Naga king, Nammada, to visit and preach
to the Nagas, later accepting food from them. The tradition of Myanmar relates that he
left behind a footprint for veneration near this river, which would last as long as the
Sasana (i.e. 5000 years). Another footprint was left in the rock of the Saccabandha
mountain. These footprints, still visible today, were
worshipped by the Mon, Pyu, and Myanmar kings alike and have remained among the holiest
places of pilgrimage in Myanmar. In the fifteenth century, after the decimation of the
population through the Siamese campaigns, knowledge of the footprints was lost. Then, in
the year 1638, King Thalun sent learned bhikkhus to the region; fortuitously, they were
able to relocate the Buddha's footprints. Since then Shwesettaw, the place where the
footprints are found, has once again become an important place of pilgrimage in Myanmar.
And in the dry season thousands of devout Buddhists travel there to pay respects.
The Visit to Arakan
In Dhannavati, whose walls are still partially visible today, the Mahamuni temple is
located on the Sirigutta hill. In this temple, for over two millennia, the Mahamuni image
was enshrined and worshipped. The story of the Mahamuni image, at one time one of the most
revered shrines of Buddhism, is told in the Sappadanapakarana, a work of a local
Candrasuriya, the king of Dhannavati, on hearing that a Buddha had arisen in India,
desired to go there to learn the Dhamma. The Buddha, aware of his intention, said to
Ananda: "The king will have to pass through forests dangerous to travellers; wide
rivers will impede his journey; he must cross a sea full of monsters. It will be an act of
charity if we go to his dominion, so that he may pay homage without risking his
So the Buddha went there and was received with great pomp by King Candrasuriya and his
people. The Buddha then taught the five and eight precepts and instructed the king in the
ten kingly duties, namely, (1) universal beneficence, (2) daily paying homage, (3) the
showing of mercy, (4) taxes of not more than a tenth part of the produce, (5) justice, (6)
punishment without anger, (7) the support of his subjects as the earth supports them, (8)
the employment of prudent commanders, (9) the taking of good counsel, and (10) the
avoidance of pride. The Buddha remained for a week and on preparing for his departure the
king requested that he leave an image of himself, so that they could worship him even in
his absence. The Buddha consented to this and Sakka the king of the gods himself formed
the image with the metals collected by the king and his people. It was completed in one
week and when the Buddha breathed onto it the people exclaimed that now there were indeed
two Buddhas, so alike was the image to the great sage. Then the Buddha made a prophesy
addressing the image: "I shall pass into Nibbana in my eightieth year, but you will
live for five thousand years which I have foreseen as the duration of my Teaching."
The Mahamuni image remained in its original location until 1784 when King Bodawpaya
conquered Arakan and had the image transported to Mandalay where a special shrine, the
Arakan pagoda, was built to enshrine the three-meter image. To have this image in his
capital greatly added to his prestige as a Buddhist king, as it was one of the most sacred
objects in the region. The king himself went out of his city to meet the approaching image
with great devotion and "through the long colonnades leading to the pagoda, there
used to come daily from the Myanmar palace, so long as a king reigned there, sumptuous
offerings borne in stately procession, marshalled by a minister and shaded by the white
The Missionaries of the Third Buddhist Council
The Third Buddhist Council was held in the reign of Emperor Asoka in the year 232 BC in
order to purify the Sangha, to reassert orthodox teaching and to refute heresy. But the
work of the Council did not stop there. With the support of Emperor Asoka, experienced
teachers were sent to border regions in order to spread the teachings of the Buddha. This
dispersal of missionaries is recorded in the Mahavamsa, a Sinhalese chronicle on
the history of Buddhism:
When the thera Moggaliputta, the illuminator of the religion of the Conqueror, had
brought the (third) council to an end and when, looking into the future, he had beheld the
founding of the religion in adjacent countries, then in the month of Katthika he sent
forth theras, one here and one there. The thera Majjhantika he sent to Kasmira and
Gandhara, the thera Mahadeva he sent to Mahisamandala. To Vanavasa he sent the thera named
Rakkhita, and to Aparantaka the Yona named Dhammarakkhita; to Maharattha he sent the thera
named Mahadhammarakkhita, but the thera Maharakkhita he sent into the country of the Yona.
He sent the thera Majjhima to the Himalaya country and together with the thera Uttara, the
thera Sona of wondrous might went to Suvannabhumi....
According to the Sasanavamsa, the above mentioned regions are the following:
Kasmira and Gandhara is the right bank of the Indus river south of Kabul; Mahisamandala is
Andhra; Vanavasa is the region around Prome; Aparantaka is west of the upper Irrawaddy;
Maharattha is Thailand; Yona, the country of the Shan tribes; and Suvannabhumi is Thaton.
The Sasanavamsa mentions five places in Southeast Asia where Asoka's missionaries
taught the Buddha's doctrine, and through their teaching many gained insight and took
refuge in the Triple Gem. There are two interesting features mentioned in the text. First,
in order to ordain nuns, bhikkhunis, other bhikkhunis had to be present, and secondly, the
Brahmajala Sutta was preached in Thaton.
The Sasanavamsa goes on to describe sixty thousand women ordaining in Aparanta.
It states that women could not have been ordained without the presence of bhikkhunis, as
in Sri Lanka where women could only be ordained after Mahinda's sister Sanghamitta had
followed her brother there. In this case, the author surmises that bhikkhunis must have
followed Dhammarakkhita to Aparanta at a later stage.
The Brahmajala Sutta, which the arahats Sona and Uttara preached in Thaton, deals in
detail with the different schools of philosophical and religious thought prevalent in
India at the time of the Buddha. The fact that Sona and Uttara chose this Sutta to convert
the inhabitants of Suvannabhumi indicates that they were facing a well-informed public,
familiar with the views of Brahmanism that were refuted by the Buddha in this discourse.
There can be no doubt that only Indian colonisers, not the Mon, would have been able to
follow an analysis of Indian philosophy as profound as the Brahmajala Sutta.
2. Buddhism in the Mon and Pyu Kingdoms
While there is no conclusive archaeological proof that Buddhism continued to be
practised in southern Myanmar after the missions of the Third Council, the Sasanavamsa
refers to an unbroken lineage of teachers passing on the Dhamma to their disciples.
In a third century AD inscription by a South Indian king in Nagarjunakonda, the land of
the Cilatas is mentioned in a list of countries visited by a group of bhikkhus. Historians
believe the Cilatas or Kiratas (also mentioned by Ptolemy and in Sanskrit literature) to
be identical to the Mon populations of Lower Myanmar.
The inscription states that the bhikkhus sent to the Cilata country converted the
population there to Buddhism. In the same inscription, missions to other countries such as
Sri Lanka are mentioned. It is generally believed that most of these countries had
received earlier Buddhist missionaries sent by Buddhist kings, but as civilisation in
these lands was relatively undeveloped, teachings as profound as the Buddha's had probably
become distorted by local religions or possibly been completely lost. It is possible that
these missions did not so much re-establish Buddhism, but rather purify the type of
Buddhism practised there. Southern India was then the guardian of the Theravada faith and
obviously remained in contact with countries that had been converted in earlier times but
were unable to preserve the purity of the religion.
As has been already mentioned, the first datable archaeological finds of the Mon
civilisation stem from the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati in the South of Thailand. They consist
of a Roman oil lamp and a bronze statue of the Buddha which are believed to be no later
than the first or second century AD. In discussing the Mon Theravada Buddhist
civilisation, we cannot remain in Myanmar only. For only by studying the entire sphere of
influence of the Mon in this period, can a comprehensive picture be constructed. This
sphere includes large parts of present day Thailand. In fact, the Chinese Buddhist
pilgrim, Yuan Chwang, who travelled to India in about 630 AD, describes a single Mon
country stretching from Prome to Chenla in the east and including the Irrawaddy and
Sittang deltas. He calls the country Dvaravati, but the annals of the court of China of
the same period mention Dvaravati as a vassal of Thaton. We can, therefore, safely
conclude that the Mon of the region formed a fairly homogenous group in which the
distribution of power was obviously not always evident to the outsider.
Lower Myanmar was also inhabited by another ethnic group, the Pyu, who were probably
closely related to the modern Myanmar. They had their capital at Sri Ksetra (near modern
day Prome) and were also followers of the Theravada Buddhist faith. Chinese travellers'
reports of the mid-third century AD refer to the kingdom of Lin-Yang where Buddha was
venerated by all and where several thousand monks or bhikkhus lived. As Lin-Yang was to
the west of Kamboja and could not be reached by sea, we
can infer that the Chinese travellers must have been referring to the ancient kingdom of
Prome. This is all the more likely as archaeological finds prove that only about one
century later Pali Buddhist texts, including Abhidhamma texts, were studied by the Pyu.
The earliest highly developed urban settlement of the Pyu was Beikthano, near Prome.
However, its importance dwindled towards the sixth century, when Sri Ksetra became the
centre of Pyu civilisation. A major monastery built in the fourth century has been
unearthed at Beikthano. The building, constructed in brick, with a stupa and shrine
located nearby, is identical to the Buddhist monasteries of Nagarjunakonda, the great
Buddhist centre of southern India. It is situated near a stupa and a shrine, a design
which is identical to the one used in South India. Bricks had been used by the Pyus since
the second century AD for the construction of pillared halls, which formed the temples of
their original religion. Interestingly, the Pyu bricks have always been of the exact
dimensions as those used at the time of Emperor Asoka in India. But the brick laying
techniques used in the monastery in Beikthano were far inferior to the ones used in their
southern Indian counterparts.
For such a major edifice as the monastery at Beikthano to have been constructed, the
religion must have been well established at least among the ruling class. How long it took
for Buddhism to become influential in Pyu society is difficult to determine, but some
historians assume that the first contacts with Asokan religious centres in India took
place in the second century AD. This would allow for a period of development of two
hundred years until the first important shrine was built. Despite the Indian architectural
influence, the inferior brick laying techniques found in Beikthano indicate that
indigenous architects and artisans, rather than imported craftsmen or Indian colonisers,
were employed in the construction of monasteries and other important buildings.
It should, of course, not be forgotten that the Pyu possessed an architecture of their
own and a highly developed urban culture that had evolved quite independently of Indian
influences. Theravada Buddhism found a fertile ground in this highly developed
civilisation. It is probable that the Pyu civilisation was more advanced than that of the
Mon. The Pyu sites found around Prome are the earliest urban sites in Southeast Asia found
to date. The urban developments and datable monuments in Thailand and Cambodia are only
from the seventh century. Older artifacts may have been found in Thailand, but they were
not products of indigenous people and do not prove the existence of a developed
The information we have of the state of the religion in the Mon and Pyu societies
during the first four centuries AD is very limited. However, by the fifth century, with
the development of religious activity in the region, information becomes more substantive.
The historical tradition of Myanmar gives the credit for this religious resurgence to a
well-known Buddhist scholar, Acariya Buddhaghosa.
Buddhaghosa and Myanmar
Acariya Buddhaghosa was the greatest commentator on the Pali Buddhist texts, whose Visuddhimagga
and commentaries to the canon are regarded as authoritative by Theravada scholars. The
chronicles of Myanmar firmly maintain that Buddhaghosa was of Mon origin and a native of
Thaton. They state that his return from Sri Lanka, with the Pali scriptures, the
commentaries, and grammatical works, gave a fresh impetus to the religion.
However, modern historians do not accept that Buddhaghosa was from Myanmar while some
even doubt his existence. Despite this contention, Eliot,
in his Hinduism and Buddhism, gives more weight to circumstantial evidence and
The Burmese tradition that Buddhaghosa was a native of Thaton and returned thither from
Sri Lanka merits more attention than it has received. It can easily be explained away as
patriotic fancy. On the other hand, if Buddhaghosa's object was to invigorate Hinayanism
in India the result of his really stupendous labours was singularly small, for in India
his name is connected with no religious movement. But if we suppose that he went to Sri
Lanka by way of the holy places in Magadha [now Bihar] and returned from the Coromandal
coast [Madras] to Burma where Hinayanism afterwards flourished, we have at least a
The Sinhalese chronicles, especially the Mahavamsa, place Buddhaghosa in the
first half of the fifth century. Although he spent most of his active working life in Sri
Lanka, he is also credited with imbuing new life into Theravada Buddhism in South India,
and developing such important centres as Kancipura and Uragapuram that were closely
connected with Prome and Thaton. Proof of this connection can be found in archeological
finds in the environs of Prome which include Pali literature inscribed in the Kadambe
script on gold and stone plates. This script was used in the fifth and sixth century in
All in all, Myanmar has a valid case for claiming some connection with Buddhaghosa. It
is, of course, impossible to prove that he was born there or even visited there, but his
influence undoubtedly led to great religious activity in the kingdoms of Lower Myanmar.
Buddhism in Lower Myanmar: 5th to 11th Centuries
From the fifth century until the conquest of Lower Myanmar by Pagan, there is a
continuous record of Buddhism flourishing in the Mon and Pyu kingdoms. The Mon kingdoms
are mentioned in travel reports of several Chinese Buddhist pilgrims and also in the
annals of the Chinese court. In the fifth century, Thaton and Pegu (Pago) are mentioned in
the Buddhist commentarial literature for the first time.
They were now firmly established on the map as Buddhist centres of learning. Despite this,
Buddhism was not without rivals in the region. This is shown, by the following event some
chronicles of Myanmar mention.
A king of Pago, Tissa by name, had abandoned the worship of the Buddha and instead
practised Brahmanical worship. He persecuted the Buddhists and destroyed Buddha images or
cast them into ditches. A pious Buddhist girl, the daughter of a merchant, restored the
images, then washed and worshipped them. The king could not tolerate such defiance, of
course, and had the girl dragged before him. He tried to have her executed in several
ways, but she seemed impossible to kill. Elephants would not trample her,while the fire of
her pyre would not burn her. Eventually the king, intrigued by these events, asked the
girl to perform a miracle. He stated that, if she was able to make a Buddha image produce
seven new images and then make all eight statues fly into heaven, she would be set free.
The girl spoke an act of truth, and the eight Buddha statues flew up into the sky. The
king was then converted to Buddhism and elevated the girl to the position of chief queen.
Until now, archaeological finds of Mon ruins in Myanmar are meagre, but at P'ong Tuk,
in southern Thailand, a Mon city, dating from the second
half of the first millennium AD, has been unearthed. Here, excavations have revealed the
foundations of several buildings. One contained the remains of a platform and fragments of
columns similar to the Buddhist vihara at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka; another, with a
square foundation of round stones, seems to have been a stupa. Statues of Indian origin
from the Gupta period (320-600 AD) were also found at the site. The Theravada Buddhist
culture of the Mon flourished in both Dvaravati and Thaton. However, the Mon civilisation
in Thailand did not survive the onslaught of the Khmer in the eleventh century who were
worshipping Hindu gods. In Myanmar, the Mon kingdom was conquered by Pagan. The Myanmar
were eager to accept the Mon culture and especially their religion, while the Khmer, as
Hindus, at best tolerated it.
The Pyu culture of this period is well documented because of archaeological finds at
Muanggan, a small village close to the ancient ruins of Hmawza. There two perfectly
preserved inscribed gold plates were found. These inscriptions reveal three texts: the
verses spoken by Assaji to Sariputta (ye dhamma hetuppabhava...), a list of
categories of the Abhidhamma (cattaro iddhipada, cattaro samappadhana...), and the
formula of worship of Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha (iti pi so bhagava...). At the
same site, a book with twenty leaves of gold protected with golden covers, was discovered.
It contained texts such as the paticca-samuppada (dependent origination), the vipassana-nanas
(stages of insight knowledge), and various other excerpts from the Abhidhamma and the
other two baskets of the Buddhist scriptures. The scripts in all these documents are
identical to scripts used in parts of southern India, and can be dated from the third to
the sixth century AD.
In addition to these golden plates, a number of sculptures and reliefs were found in
Hmawza. They depict either the Buddha or scenes from his life, for example, the birth of
the Buddha and the taming of the wild elephant Nalagiri. The sculpture is similar in style
to that of Amaravati, a centre of Buddhist learning in South India. There were also
unearthed remains of Brahman temples and sites of Mahayana worship of east Indian origin;
hence it would appear that several faiths, of which the Theravada was the strongest,
co-existed in Sri Ksetra, the then capital of the Pyu. The script used by the Pyu is
indicative of major links with Buddhist kingdoms in South India rather than with Sri
Lanka. And it can be surmised that the bhikkhus of the Deccan and other regions of
southern India were the teachers of both the Mon and the Pyu in religious matters as well
as in the arts and sciences.
The inscriptions show how highly developed scholarship of the Pali Buddhist texts must
have been in Lower Myanmar even in these early days. Learning had gone well beyond the
basics into the world of Abhidhamma studies. Pali was obviously well known as a language
of learning, but unfortunately no original texts composed in Sri Ksetra or Thaton have
come down to us. Interestingly, some of the texts inscribed on these gold plates are not
identical to the same canonical texts as they are known today. Therefore, the Tipitaka
known to the Pyu must have been replaced by a version preserved in a country that had no
close contact with the Pyu. This could well have been Sri Lanka, as this country came to
play an important role in the history of Buddhism in Myanmar through the friendship
between the conqueror of Lower Myanmar, Anawratha, and the king who drove the Hindus from
Sri Lanka, Vijayabahu.
The finds on the site of the ancient Pyu capital confirm the reports of the Chinese
pilgrims and also the Tang imperial chronicles of China which state: "They (the Pyu)
dislike taking life. They know how to make astronomical calculations. They are Buddhists
and have a hundred monasteries, with brick of glass embellished with gold and silver
vermilion, gay colours and red kino.... At seven years of age the people cut their hair
and enter a monastery; if at the age of twenty they have not grasped the doctrine they
return to the lay state."
Both Buddhist cultures in the south of Myanmar, the Mon and the Pyu, were swept away in
the eleventh century by armies of the Myanmar who had found a unifying force in their
leader, the founder of Pagan and champion of Buddhism, Anawratha.
3. Theravada Buddhism Comes to Pagan
The Beginnings of Pagan
Pagan is believed to have been founded in the years 849-850 AD, by the Myanmar, who had
already established themselves as rice growers in the region around Kyauksai near
Mandalay. Anawratha began to unite the region by subjugating one chieftain after another
and was successful in giving the Myanmar a sense of belonging to a larger community, a
nation. The crucial event in the history of Myanmar is not so much the founding of the
city of Pagan and the building of its walls and moat, but more Pagan's acceptance of
Theravada Buddhism in the eleventh century. The religion was brought to the Myanmar by a
Mon bhikkhu named Shin Arahan.
The religion prevailing among the Myanmar before and during the early reign of
Anawratha was some form of Mahayana Buddhism, which had probably found its way into the
region from the Pala kingdom in Bengal. This is apparent from bronze statues depicting
Bodhisattas and especially the "Lokanatha," a Bodhisatta believed, in Bengal, to
reign in the period between the demise of the Buddha Gotama and the advent of the Buddha
Metteyya. Anawratha continued to cast terracotta votive tablets with the image of
Lokanatha even after he embraced the Theravada doctrine.
In India, Buddhism had split into numerous schools, some of which differed
fundamentally from the teachings of Pali Buddhism, which is also called Theravada Buddhism
(the doctrine of the Theras). The Ari, the monks or priests of this Mahayana Buddhist form
of worship, are described, in later chronicles of Myanmar, as the most shameless bogus
ascetics imaginable. They are said to have sold absolution from sin and to have oppressed
the people in various ways with their tyranny. Their tantric Buddhism included, as an
important element, the worship of Nagas (dragons), which was probably an ancient
At this time, the beginning of the eleventh century, the Buddhist religion among the
Mon in Suvannabhumi was on the decline as people were disturbed by robbers and raiders, by
plagues, and by adversaries of the religion. These most probably came from the Hindu Khmer
kingdom in Cambodia and the north of Thailand. The Khmer were endeavouring to add Thaton
and the other Mon kingdoms of the south to their expanding empire. Shin Arahan must have
feared that bhikkhus would not be able to continue to maintain their religious practice
and the study of the scriptures under these circumstances. He went, therefore, upcountry
where a new, strong people were developing, prosperous and secure from enemies.
It is interesting to note that in this same period, Buddhism was under attack in other
places as well. The Colas, a Hindu dynasty strongly opposed to Buddhism, arose in southern
India, one of the last strongholds of Theravada Buddhism. They were able to expand their
rule to include most of Sri Lanka between 1017 and 1070. The great Mon city, Dvaravati, a
Theravada centre in southern Thailand, fell to the Khmer, the masters of the whole of
Thailand, who were Shaivaite Hindus. In the north of India, Muslim armies were trying to
destroy what little was left of Buddhism there. "In this perilous period,"
writes Professor Luce, "Buddhism was saved only by such valiant fighters as
Vijayabahu in Sri Lanka and Anawratha."
Shin Arahan Converts the King
Shin Arahan arrived in the vicinity of Pagan and was discovered in his forest dwelling
by a hunter. The hunter, who had never before seen such a strange creature with a shaven
head and a yellow robe, thought he was some kind of spirit and took him to the king,
Anawratha. Shin Arahan naturally sat down on the throne, as it was the highest seat, and
the king thought: "This man is peaceful, in this man there is the essential thing. He
is sitting down on the best seat, surely he must be the best being." The king asked
the visitor to tell him where he came from and was told that he came from the place where
the Order lived and that the Buddha was his teacher. Then Shin Arahan gave the king the
teaching on mindfulness (appamada), teaching him the same doctrine Nigrodha had
given Emperor Asoka when he was converted. Shin Arahan then told the monarch that the
Buddha had passed into Parinibbana, but that his teaching, the Dhamma, enshrined in the
Tipitaka, and the twofold Sangha consisting of those who possessed absolute knowledge and
those who possessed conventional knowledge, remained.
The king must have felt that he had found what had been missing in his life and a
genuine alternative to the superficial teachings of the Ari monks. He built a monastery
for Shin Arahan, and according to some sources, stopped all worship of the Ari monks.
Tradition has it that he had them dressed in white and even forced them to serve as
soldiers in his army. The Ari tradition continued for a long time, however, and its
condemnation is a feature of much later times, and not, as far as contemporary evidence
shows, of the Pagan era.
The Sasanavamsa gives an alternate version of Anawratha's conversion according
to which Shin Arahan had originally come from Sri Lanka to study the Dhamma in Dvaravati
and Thaton and was on his way to Sri Ksetra in search of a text when he was taken to
Anawratha by a hunter. The king asked him, "Who are you?" -- "O King, I am
a disciple of Gotama." -- "Of what kind are the Three Jewels?" -- "O
King, the Buddha should be regarded as Mahosadha the wise, his doctrine as Ummagga, his
order as the Videhan army."
This version is interesting in that Anawratha is portrayed as being a Buddhist with
knowledge of Jataka stories, such as the Mahosadha Jataka referred to above, even before
meeting Shin Arahan. This assumption that he was no stranger to Buddhism is supported by
the fact that earlier kings had been followers of Buddhism in varying degrees. Caw Rahan,
who died about 94 years before Anawratha's accession, is said to have built a Sima and
five Pagodas, and Kyaung Pyu Min built the white monastery outside Pagan. Kyaung Pyu Min
is believed to have been Anawratha's father.
Anawratha Acquires the Scriptures
Through Shin Arahan, Anawratha had now found the religion he had been yearning for and
he decided to set out and procure the scriptures and holy relics of this religion. For he
wished his kingdom to be secured on the original teachings of the Buddha. He tried to find
the scriptures and relics of his new religion in different quarters. In his enthusiasm he
did not limit his quest to Thaton, but also searched among the Khmer in Angkor, and in
Tali, the capital of the Nanchao, a kingdom in modern day Yunnan, in China, where a tooth
of the Buddha was enshrined. But everywhere he was refused. He then went to Thaton, where
his teacher Shin Arahan had come from, to request a copy of the scriptures. According to
the tradition of Myanmar, Anawratha's request was refused, and unable to endure another
refusal he set out with his army in the year 1057 to conquer Thaton and acquire the
Tipitaka by force. Before conquering Thaton, however, he had to subjugate Sri Ksetra, the
Pyu capital. From there, he took the relics enshrined in King Dwattabaung's Bawbaw-gyi
Pagoda to Pagan.
Some think that the aim of his campaign was mainly to add the prosperous Indian
colonies of Lower Myanmar to his possessions, while others think he may have actually been
called to Thaton to defend it against the marauding Khmer. Whatever the immediate cause of
his campaign in the lower country, we know for certain that he returned with the king of
Thaton and his court, with Mon artists and scholars and, above all, with Thaton's bhikkhus
and their holy books, the Tipitaka. Suvannabhumi and its Mon population were now in the
hands of the Myanmar and the Mon culture and religion were accepted and assimilated in the
emergent Pagan with fervour.
Initially the fervour must have been restricted to the king and possibly his immediate
entourage, yet even they continued to propitiate their traditional gods for worldly gain
as the new religion was considered a higher practice. Theravada Buddhism does not provide
much in the way of rites and rituals, but a royal court cannot do without them. So the
traditional propitiation of the Nagas continued to be used for court ceremonials and
remained part of the popular religion, while the bhikkhus were accorded the greatest
respect and their master, the Buddha Gotama, was honoured with the erection of pagodas and
There were contacts between the new kings of Myanmar and Sri Lanka that are recorded
not only in the chronicles of the two countries but also in stone inscriptions in South
India. As the Hindu Colas had ruled Sri Lanka for more
than half a century, Buddhism had been weakened and King Vijayabahu, who had driven out
the Vaishnavite Colas, wanted to re-establish his religion. So in 1070, he requested King
Anawratha of Myanmar, who had assisted him financially in his war against the Colas, to
send bhikkhus to re-introduce the pure ordination into his country. It is interesting to note that the Culavamsa refers to Anawratha
as the king of Ramanna, which was Lower Myanmar, also called Suvannabhumi. He was
approached as the conqueror and master of Thaton, a respected Theravada centre, rather
than as the king of Pagan, a new and unknown country. The bhikkhus who travelled to Sri
Lanka brought the Sinhalese Tipitaka back with them and established a link between the two
countries which was to last for centuries.
Anawratha is mentioned in the Myanmar, Mon, Khmer, Thai, and Sinhalese chronicles as a
great champion of Buddhism because he developed Pagan into a major regional power and laid
the foundation for its glory. He did not, however, build many of the temples for which
Pagan is now so famous as the great age of temple building started only after his reign.
It is important to realize that his interest was not restricted only to Pagan. He built
pagodas wherever his campaigns took him and adorned them with illustrations from the
Jatakas and the life of the Buddha. Some maintain that he used only Jatakas as themes for
the adornment of his religious buildings because that was all he possessed of the
Tipitaka. Such a conclusion is negative and quite superficial. After all, during Asoka's
time Jatakas and scenes from the life of the Buddha were used for illustrations in Bharut
and Sanchi, the great stupas near Bombay. We cannot therefore deduce that the builders of
Bharut and Sanchi were acquainted only with the Jatakas. These edifying stories which
teach the fundamentals of Buddhism so skilfully are singularly suited to educate an
illiterate people beset by superstitions through the vivid visual means of the stone
reliefs depicting these stories. It is almost unthinkable that the Mon Sangha, who taught
Anawratha, had no knowledge of at least all of the Vinaya. Otherwise, they would not have
been able to re-establish a valid ordination of bhikkhus in Sri Lanka.
Anawratha left behind innumerable clay tablets adorned with images of the Buddha, the
king's name, and some Pali and Sanskrit verses. A typical aspiration on these tablets was:
"By me, King Anawratha, this mould of Sugata (Buddha) has been made. Through this may
I obtain the path to Nibbana when Metteyya is awakened." Anawratha aspired to become
a disciple of the Buddha Metteyya, unlike many later kings of Myanmar who aspired to
Buddhahood. Is this an indication that this warrior had remained a modest man in spite of
his empire building?
4. Pagan: Flowering and Decline
Anawratha was succeeded by a number of kings of varying significance to Buddhism in
Myanmar. His successors inherited a relatively stable and prosperous kingdom and
consequently were able to embark on the huge temple building projects for which their
reigns are still remembered.
This is the time when kings such as Kyanzitta and others built pagodas, libraries,
monasteries, and ordination halls. These kings must have possessed coffers full of riches
collected from their extensive kingdom which they lavished on the religion of the Buddha.
Their palaces were probably built of wood as was the last palace of the Myanmar dynasty.
Though the palaces must have reflected the wealth and power of the rulers, the more
durable brick was not deemed necessary for such worldly buildings. This is similar to
views still found in rural areas of Myanmar today. The only structure adorned to any
extent in a village is the monastery and the buildings attached to it, such as the rest
house. The villagers are very modest with regard to their private houses and even consider
it improper to decorate them. Their monastery, however, is given every decoration
Kyanzitta Strengthens Theravada Buddhism
Kyanzitta (1084-1113), who had been Anawratha's commander-in-chief and had succeeded
Anawratha's son to the throne, consolidated Theravada Buddhism's predominance in Pagan. In
his reign, such important shrines as the Shwezigon Pagoda, the Nanda, Nagayon, and
Myinkaba Kubyauk-gyi temples were built.
With the three latter temples, Kyanzitta introduced a new style of religious building.
The traditional stupa or dagoba found in India and Sri Lanka is a solid mound in which
relics or other holy objects are enshrined. The area of worship is situated around them
and is usually marked by ornate stone railings. In the new style of building, however, the
solid mound had been hollowed out and could be entered. The central shrine was surrounded
by halls which housed stone reliefs depicting scenes from the Buddha's life and Jataka
stories. Kyanzitta's aim was the conversion of his people to the new faith. Whereas
Anawratha had been busy expanding his empire and bringing relics and the holy scriptures
to Pagan, Kyanzitta's mission was to consolidate this enterprise. Enormous religious
structures such as the Nanda Temple attracted the populace and the interiors of the
temples allowed the bhikkhus to instruct the inquisitive in the king's faith.
Professor Luce writes:
The Nanda (temple) ... he built with four broad halls. Each hall had the same 16 scenes
in stone relief all identically arranged. The bhikkhus could cope with four audiences
simultaneously. The scenes cover the whole life of the Buddha. When well grounded in
these, the audience would pass to the outer wall of the corridor. Here, running around the
whole corridor are the 80 scenes of Gotama's life up to the Enlightenment. The later life
of the Buddha is shown in hundreds of other stone reliefs on the inner walls and shrines.
Kyanzitta's efforts for the advancement of Buddhism were not limited to his own
country. For in one of his many inscriptions, he also mentions that he sent craftsmen to
Bodhgaya to repair the Mahabodhi temple, which had been destroyed by a foreign king. The
upkeep of the Mahabodhi temple became a tradition with the kings of Myanmar, who continued
to send missions to Bodhgaya to repair the temple and also to donate temple slaves and
land to the holiest shrine of Buddhism.
Kyanzitta also initiated an extensive review and purification of the Tipitaka by the
bhikkhus. This was the first occasion in Myanmar's history when the task of a Buddhist
Sangayana or Synod, comparing the Sinhalese and Suvannabhumi's Tipitaka, was undertaken.
It is possible and even probable that this huge editing work was carried out along with
visiting Sinhalese bhikkhus.
By nature of Myanmar's geographical position, external influences swept in
predominantly from northern India, and therefore tantric Buddhism, dominant especially in
Bengal, remained strong. However, Kyanzitta succeeded in firmly establishing the Pali
Tipitaka by asking the bhikkhus to compare the ancient Mon Tipitaka with the texts
obtained from the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka. In this way, he also made it clear that
confirmation of orthodoxy was to be sought in Sri Lanka and not in any other Buddhist
country. Though Mahayana practices were tolerated in his reign (his chief queen was a
tantric Buddhist), they were not officially regarded as the pure religion. It is
characteristic of Pagan that these two branches of Buddhism co-existed -- the religion of
the Theras, which was accepted as the highest religion -- and the tantric practices, which
included the worship of spirits or nats and gave more immediate satisfaction.
Pagodas are often adorned with figures of all types of deities, but the deities are
normally shown in an attitude of reverence towards the pagoda, a symbol of the Buddha. The
ancient gods were not banished, but had to submit to the peerless Buddha. Tradition
attributes to King Anawratha the observation: "Men will not come for the sake of the
new faith. Let them come for their old gods, and gradually they will be won over."
An approach such as this, whether it was Anawratha's or Kyanzitta's, would suggest that
the practice of the old religion of the Ari monks was allowed to continue and that the
conversion of the country was gentle and peaceful as befits the religion of the Buddha.
Although later Myanmar chronicles refer to the Ari monks as a debased group of charlatans
who were totally rooted out by Anawratha, this is far from the truth. A powerful movement
of "priests" who incorporated magic practices in their teachings continued to
exist throughout the Pagan period, and though they may have respected the basic rules of
the Vinaya and donned the yellow robe, their support was rooted in the old animistic
beliefs of the Myanmar. It should not be forgotten that
the Myanmar first started to settle in the area of Kyauksai in the sixth century AD and
that the "man in the field" was in no way ready for such highly developed a
religion as Theravada Buddhism. The transition had to be gradual, and the process that
started remains still incomplete in the minds of many people, especially in the more
remote areas of the hill country.
The example of Kyanzitta's son Rajakumar, however, shows how even in those early days
the teachings of the Buddha were understood and practised not only by the bhikkhus, but
also by lay people and members of the royal court. Rajakumar's conduct is proof of his
father's ability to establish men in the Dhamma and survives as a monument just as the
Ananda temple does.
Rajakumar was Kyanzitta's only son and his rightful heir. Due to political
misadventures Kyanzitta was separated from his wife and therefore not aware of the birth
of his son for seven years. When his daughter gave birth to his grandson he anointed him
as future king immediately after his birth. Rajakumar grew up in the shadow of his nephew,
the crown prince, but neither during his father's reign nor after his death did he ever
try to usurp the throne through intrigue or by force. He was a minister zealous in the
affairs of state, prudent and wise. He was also a scholar of the Tipitaka and instrumental
in its review, vigorously supporting his father in his objective to establish Buddhism.
But he is best known for his devotion to his father in his last years when his health was
failing. In order to restore the king's health he built five pagodas which to this day are
called Min-o-Chanda, "The Welfare of the Old King." When the king was on his
Rajakumar, remembering the many and great favours with which the king had nourished
him, made a beautiful golden image of the Buddha and entering with ceremony presented it
to the king, saying: "This golden Buddha I have made to help my lord. The three
villages of slaves you gave me, I give to this Buddha." And the king rejoiced and
said "Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu." Then in the presence of the compassionate Mahathera
and other leading bhikkhus, the king poured on the ground the water of dedication, calling
the earth to witness. Then Rajakumar enshrined the golden image, and built around it a
cave temple with a golden pinnacle.
Rajakumar's nephew was King Alaungsithu (c.1113-67), who continued the tradition of his
dynasty of glorifying the Buddha's religion by building a vast temple, the Sabbannu
Temple, probably the largest monument in Pagan. During his many travels and campaigns, he
built pagodas and temples throughout Myanmar. The faith that Shin Arahan had inspired in
Anawratha and his successors continued to inspire Alaungsithu. Shin Arahan, who had seen
kings come and go and the flowering of the religion he brought to Pagan, is believed to
have died during the reign of King Alaungsithu, in about 1115.
After the death of Alaungsithu, Pagan was thrown into turmoil by violent struggles for
the throne. Several kings reigned for short periods and spent most of their time and
resources in power struggles. One even succeeded in alienating the great king of Sri
Lanka, Parakramabahu, by mistreating his emissaries and breaking the agreements between
the two countries. Eventually Parakramabahu invaded Myanmar, devastating towns and
villages and killing the king. The new king, Narapati (1174-1210), blessed the country
with a period of peace and prosperity. This conducive atmosphere was to allow outstanding
scholarship and learning to arise in Pagan.
Kyawswa (1234-50) was a king under whom scholarship was encouraged even more,
undoubtedly because the king himself spent most of his time in scholarly pursuits
including memorising passages of the Tipitaka. He had relinquished most of his worldly
duties to his son in order to dedicate more time to the study of the scriptures. Two
grammatical works, the Saddabindu and the Paramatthabindu, are ascribed to
him. It would appear that his palace was a place of great culture and learning as his
ministers and his daughter are credited with scholarly works as well.
During the twelfth century, a sect of forest dwellers also thrived. They were called arannaka
in Pali and were identical with the previously mentioned Ari of the later chroniclers of
Myanmar. This was a monastic movement that only used the
yellow robes and the respect due to them in order to follow their own ideas. They indulged
in business transactions and owned vast stretches of land. They gave feasts and indulged
in the consumption of liquor, and, though they pretended to be practising the teachings of
the Buddha, their practices were probably of a tantric nature. It would appear that they
had a considerable amount of influence at the royal court and one of the main exponents of
the movement was even given the title of royal teacher. Superstition and magic were
gaining dominance once again and Anawratha's and Kyanzitta's empire was slowly sliding
The last king of Pagan, Narathihapate, whom the Myanmar know by the name Tayoupyemin (the king who fled the Chinese), repeatedly refused to pay
symbolic tribute to the Mongol emperors in Peking who in 1271 had conquered neighbouring
Yunnan. He even went so far as to execute ambassadors of the Chinese emperor and their
retinue for their lack of deference to the king. He became so bold and blinded by
ignorance that he attacked a vassal state of the Mongols. The emperor in Peking was
finally forced to send a punitive expedition which defeated the Pagan army north of Pagan.
The news of this defeat caused the king and his court to flee to Pathein (Bassein). As the
imperial court in Peking was not interested in adding Pagan to its possessions, the Yunnan
expedition did not remain in the environs. When the king was later murdered and the whole
empire fell into disarray, the Yunnani generals returned, looting Pagan. The territories
were divided amongst Shan chiefs who paid tribute to the Mongols.
G.E. Harvey honours the kings of Pagan with the following words:
To them the world owes to a great measure the preservation of Theravada Buddhism, one
of the purest faiths mankind has ever known. Brahmanism had strangled it in its land of
birth; in Sri Lanka its existence was threatened again and again; east of Burma it was not
yet free from priestly corruptions; but the kings of Burma never wavered, and at Pagan the
stricken faith found a city of refuge.
Contacts with Sri Lanka and the First Controversies
The contact with Sri Lanka was very important for the growth of the religion in Pagan.
As was shown previously, it started with the friendship of Anawratha and Vijayabahu, both
of whom fought for Buddhism: Anawratha to establish a new kingdom, Vijayabahu to wrench an
old one from the clutches of the Hindu invaders. They supported each other in their
struggles and then together re-established the Theravada doctrine in their respective
countries, Anawratha sending bhikkhus to Sri Lanka to revive the Sangha, while Vijayabahu
reciprocated by sending the sacred texts. The continued contact between the two countries
was beneficial to both: many a reform movement, purifying the religion in one country
spread to the other as well. Bhikkhus visiting from one country were led to look at their
own traditions critically and to reappraise their practice of the Dhamma as preserved in
the Pali texts. After the fall of the main Buddhist centres in southern India, centres
which had been the main allies of the Mon Theravadins in the south, Sri Lanka was the only
ally in the struggle for the survival of the Theravada tradition.
Leading bhikkhus of Pagan undertook the long and difficult journey to Sri Lanka in
order to visit the holy temples and study the scriptures as they had been preserved by the
Sinhalese Sangha. Shin Arahan's successor as the king's teacher left the royal court for
Sri Lanka, returning to Pagan only to die. He was succeeded by a Mon bhikkhu, Uttarajiva,
who led a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka in 1171. This was to cause the first upheaval in the
Sangha of Pagan.
Uttarajiva travelled to Sri Lanka accompanied by Chapada, a novice who remained behind
on the island in order to study the scriptures in the Mahavihara, the orthodox monastery
of Sri Lanka and the guardian of the Theravada tradition. After ten years, he returned to
Pagan accompanied by four elders who had studied with him. The Kalyani inscription,
written about three hundred years later, relates that Chapada considered the tradition of
the Myanmar bhikkhus impure. He had consequently taken four bhikkhus with him because he
needed a chapter of at least five theras in order to ordain new bhikkhus. It is possible
that the Myanmar bhikkhus, who seemed to have formed a group separate from the Mon
bhikkhus, had paid more attention to their traditional worship than was beneficial for
their practice of the Dhamma. It is also possible that there was an element of nationalist
rivalry between the Mon bhikkhus and the Myanmar bhikkhus. As he showed a penchant for the
reform movement, the Myanmar king Narapati seems to have accepted the superiority of the
Mon bhikkhus, though he did not neglect the other bhikkhus. Chapada and his companions
refused to accept the ordination of the Myanmar bhikkhus as legitimate in accordance with
Vinaya. They established their own ordination, following which the Myanmar bhikkhus sent a
delegation to Sri Lanka to receive the Mahavihara ordination for themselves.
After Chapada's death, the reform movement soon split into two factions, and eventually
each of the four remaining bhikkhus went his own way, one of them leaving the order
altogether. "Thus in the town of Arimaddana (Pagan) there were four schools....
Because the first of these to come was the school of the Elder Arahan from Sudhamma
(Thaton) it was called the first school; while the others, because they came later, were
called the later schools."
Scholarship in Pagan
It is surprising how quickly a relatively simple people absorbed the great civilisation
that arrived in their midst so suddenly. Even before the conquest of Thaton, Pagan
possessed some ornate religious buildings, which is indicative of the presence of artists
and craftsmen. It is quite likely, however, that these were Indians from Bengal and the
neighbouring states. The type of Buddhism that had come to Pagan from India was an
esoteric religion, as some old legends indicate. It was the jealously guarded domain of a
group of priests, who made no attempt to instruct the people but were happy if their
superiority remained unquestioned by a superstitious populace.
The advent of Theravada Buddhism with its openness and its aim to spread understanding
must have been quite revolutionary in Pagan and obviously the people were eager to acquire
the knowledge offered to them by the bhikkhus. Mabel Bode says in her Pali Literature
Though the Burmese began their literary history by borrowing from their conquered
neighbours, the Talaings (Mon) -- and not before the eleventh century -- the growth of
Pali scholarship among them was so rapid that the epoch following close on this tardy
beginning is considered one of the best that Burma has seen.
The principal works of the Pagan period still extant are Pali grammars. The most famous
of these is the Saddaniti, which Aggavamsa completed in 1154. Uttarajiva gave a
copy of this work to the bhikkhus of the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka and it "was received
with enthusiastic admiration, and declared superior to any work of the kind written by
Sinhalese scholars." The Saddaniti is still used to teach grammar in the
monasteries in Myanmar and has been printed many times. B.C. Law regards it as one of the
three principal Pali grammars along with the grammars by Kaccayana and Moggallana. K.R.
Norman says: "The greatest of extant Pali grammars is the Saddaniti, written
by Aggavamsa from Arimaddana [Pagan] in Burma...."
Aggavamsa was also known as the teacher of King Narapatisithu (1167-1202) and was given
the title Aggapandita. Unfortunately, no other works by this author are known today.
The second famous author of Pagan was Saddhammajotipala who has been previously
mentioned under his clan name of Chapada. He was a disciple of Uttarajiva and is credited
with a great number of works, but in the case of some it is doubtful whether he actually
composed them himself or merely introduced them from Sri Lanka.
His works deal not only with grammar, but also with questions of monastic discipline
(Vinaya) and the Abhidhamma, which in later centuries was to become a favourite subject of
Myanmar scholars. His work on Kaccayana's grammar, the Suttaniddesa, formed the
foundation of his fame. However, his specialty would appear to have been the study of
Abhidhamma, as no less than four noted works of his on the subject attained fame: Samkhepavannana,
Namacaradipani, Matikatthadipani, and Patthanagananaya. According to
the Pitaka-thamain, a history of Buddhism in Myanmar, he also devoted a commentary to the Visuddhimagga
by Buddhaghosa called the Visuddhimagga-ganthi.
There are no written records that refer to meditation being practised in Myanmar before
this century. However, his interest in the Visuddhimagga is indicative of an
interest in meditation, if only in the theory rather than in the practice.
Another scholar of Pagan, Vimalabuddhi, also wrote a commentary concerning Abhidhamma,
the Abhidhammatthasangahatika, in addition to another important grammatical work,
the Nyasa, a commentary on Kaccayana's grammar.
Other grammatical works of some importance were written, but none acquired the standing
of Aggavamsa's Saddaniti. However, a rather peculiar work worth mentioning is the Ekakkharakosa
by Saddhammakitti. It is a work on Pali lexicography enumerating words of one letter.
5. Shan Rule
After Narathihapate had fled Pagan in fear of the Mongol army, he was never able to
re-establish his authority, even though the Mongols supported the Pagan dynasty. The
Mongol court in Peking preferred a united neighbouring country under a single ruler, but
in spite of its efforts Myanmar was divided into several principalities mainly under Shan
tribal leaders. These self-styled princelings paid tribute to the Chinese Mongol court and
were nominally its subjects. The Shan, at this time still nomadic tribes in the north,
broke into an already destabilized Myanmar like a tidal wave. They penetrated the entire
region as far as the Mon country and established themselves as rulers in many towns and
cities. The intrigues, fratricidal wars, and murders that make up the history of their
courts are innumerable.
A division of the country into Upper and Lower Myanmar is somewhat arbitrary, as, after
the fall of Pagan, the two regions were composed of many competing principalities.
However, there were the two principle kingdoms of Ava in Upper Myanmar and Pago (Pegu) in
Lower Myanmar. Hostilities between these two prevailed, as well as with the neighbouring
smaller states including the Shan fiefs of Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya in Thailand. Intrigues
within and between courts were rife. Sometimes these claimed victims only within the
circle of the powerful and mighty, and sometimes whole towns were looted and destroyed,
and their population massacred or carried off into slavery. But, in spite of politically
unsettled conditions, the Sangha survived, because the new rulers, initially somewhat
barbaric, soon accepted the religion of their subjects. Just as the Myanmar had adopted
the religion and culture of the more refined Mon, so the Shan submitted to the
sophisticated civilisation of the peoples they subjugated. The Shan initially established
their capital at Pinya in Upper Myanmar to the north of Pagan and transferred it to Ava in
1312. Ava was to remain the capital of Upper Myanmar until the eighteenth century.
The Sasanavamsa praises Thihathu, the youngest of three Shan brothers who
wrested power from the Pagan dynasty in Upper Myanmar, as a Buddhist king who built
monasteries and pagodas. He had a bhikkhu as his teacher and supported thousands of
bhikkhus in his capital Pinya and later Ava. However, Pagan remained the cultural and
religious capital of the region for the whole of the fourteenth century. Scholarly works
were composed in its monasteries throughout this period whereas no such works are known to
have been written in the new centres of power. The works of this period of scholarship
were mostly concerned with Pali grammar.
Two generations later, a descendant of Thihathu secured himself a place in religious
history as a great patron of scholarship. As in the courts of some previous kings, his
court was also devoted to scholarly learning; and not only bhikkhus, but also the palace
officials, produced treatises on religious subjects and the Pali language.
Although the political situation remained unsettled in Upper Myanmar throughout the
fifteenth century, in the main, this affected only those in power and their usurpers.
Consequently the Sangha appears to have flourished, while the traditional devotion to the
support of the Sangha through gifts of the four requisites remained unchanged. The royal
court, followed by the leading families, made great donations of monasteries, land, and
revenue to the bhikkhus.
In approximately 1440, two Mahatheras from Sri Lanka settled in Ava. Here they joined a group of famous scholars, of whom Ariyavamsa was the
most outstanding. The Sasanavamsa tells us of his great wisdom and humility in an
The elder Ariyavamsa had studied the books of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, but felt he had
not gained real understanding. Eventually he came to a bhikkhu in Sagaing who kept his
mouth always filled with water in order not to have to engage in meaningless chatter.
Ariyavamsa did not talk to "the Elder Water-bearer," as this bhikkhu was known
in the Myanmar language, but simply performed the duties of a disciple to his teacher for
two days. On the third day, the Venerable Water-bearer spat out the water and asked
Ariyavamsa why he was serving him. When Ariyavamsa told him that he wanted to learn from
him, the Venerable Water-bearer taught him the Abhidhammattha-vibhavani-tika, a
subcommentary on the Abhidhammattha-sangaha. After two days, Ariyavamsa grasped the
meaning and his teacher asked him to write a commentary on this book in order to help
others to gain understanding.
During the composition of his first work, Ariyavamsa submitted his writings to the
assembled bhikkhus on every Uposatha day, reading out what he had composed and asking his
brethren to correct any mistakes they found. On one occasion, a visiting bhikkhu twice
made a sound of disapproval during the reading. Ariyavamsa carefully noted the passages
where the sound of disapproval had occurred. On reflecting on them in the evening, he
found one error of grammar where he had used the wrong gender and also a repetition, an
error of style. He approached the bhikkhu who had made the sounds during the reading and
out of gratitude for the correction gave him his own outer robe.
Ariyavamsa composed several works in Pali: works on the Abhidhamma, on grammatical
subjects, and a study of the Jatakas. But his very important contribution to Buddhism in
Myanmar was the fact that all his writing was in the Myanmar vernacular. He was probably
the first bhikkhu to write treatises on religious subjects in the local idiom, thus making
the religion accessible to a greater number of people. The work by Ariyavamsa still known
today is a commentary on the anutika (sub-commentary) of the Abhidhamma.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, a bhikkhu by the name of Silavamsa composed
several epic poems in Pali. They were, of course, of a religious nature dealing with
subjects such as the life of the Buddha, or Jataka stories. This genre was later very
popular in the Myanmar language and there are many poems relating Jataka stories which
were sung by bards throughout the country until recently. In the Sasanavamsa,
however, Pannasami disapproves of bhikkhus writing or reciting poetry as he considers it
to be in breach of the Vinaya rules. He says that because of this, Silavamsa's name was
excluded from the Theraparampara, a listing of eminent bhikkhus of Myanmar by ancient
The Mon civilization in Lower Myanmar flourished after Pagan's importance waned, once
again reliving the era of glory that it had experienced prior to Anawratha's conquest.
Wareru, the Shan ruler who had established himself in Martaban in 1287, was soon
converted to Buddhism. He was a Shan peddler who had astutely wrested power from a son of
the last king of Pagan, a son who had revolted against his father and founded an
independent kingdom. Under Wareru's rule, scholarship in the Mon monasteries flourished
and a code of law was compiled which still forms the foundation of the legal literature of
Myanmar. The Mon bhikkhus based this code on ancient Hindu codes of law which had found
their way into Mon tradition through Indian colonisers and merchants.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century two respected Mon theras named Buddhavamsa
and Mahanaga revived the tradition of their countryman Chapada in making a pilgrimage to
Sri Lanka. There, they accepted new ordination in the Mahavihara monastery, the guardian
of Sinhalese orthodoxy. The bhikkhus of the Mahavihara asked those ordained in other
countries to revert to the lay-state before being re-ordained as novices and full
bhikkhus, as it was considered of the utmost importance that the ordination be handed down
in an unbroken tradition from the time of the Buddha. This was especially significant in
Myanmar where there were some reservations about the continuity of the tradition. By
disrobing, a bhikkhu forgoes the seniority he has acquired through the years spent in
robes and, in this case, he also states that he considers his former ordination invalid.
One can imagine that such a step is not taken lightly but only after careful
The Great Reformation of the Sangha
King Dhammazedi (1472-92) takes a special place in the history of the religion in
Myanmar. He unified the Sangha in the Mon country and purified the order of the bhikkhus.
He recorded his great service to the country in the Kalyani inscription, which will be
Dhammazedi was a bhikkhu of Mon origin who taught one of the queens at the royal palace
in Ava. This lady, Shin Sawbu, was the daughter of the king of Pago. She had been queen to
several unfortunate kings of Upper Mynamar and had beeen conveyed into the hands of the
subsequent kings along with the throne. She had become disenchanted with the life of a
queen and desired to return to her native land. Dhammazedi and a fellow Mon bhikkhu helped
her to escape and brought her back to Pago. Eventually she became queen of Pago , but
after reigning only a few years she wished to retire and do works of merit. She found that
the only people worthy of the throne of Pago were her teachers, the two bhikkhus. She let
fate decide which would be the future king by concealing miniature imitations of the
regalia in one of the two bowls in which she offered them their daily alms food.
She handed the throne over to Dhammazedi who had received the fateful bowl and spent
the rest of her life at Dagon (Yangon) building the terrace around the Shwedagon Pagoda
and gilding the sacred mound. The Shwedagon became what it is today chiefly thanks to Shin
Dhammazedi assumed government in Pago after leaving the Order of the bhikkhus. He moved
the capital closer to the Swemawdaw Pagoda and built several pagodas and shrines. His name
is also connected with a collection of wise judgements and the translation of Wareru's
Code of Law into the vernacular. In 1472, Dhammazedi sent a mission to Bodhgaya to repair
the temple and make plans and drawings of it.
Dhammazedi had received his education in monasteries of Ava which adhered to the Sihala
Sangha. The Sihala Sangha was the faction of the Sangha of Myanmar that accepted only the
Mahavihara of Sri Lanka as the ultimate authority in religious questions. King Dhammazedi
knew from direct experience the state of the Sangha in Lower Myanmar and was determined to
improve it. Having lived as a bhikkhu for so many years, he was also singularly qualified
to change the Sangha for the better.
He chose twenty-two senior bhikkhus to lead the reform movement and informed them:
Reverend Sirs, the upasampada ordination of the bhikkhus of the Mon country now
appears to us to be invalid. Therefore, how can the religion, which is based on such
invalid ordination, last to the end of 5000 years? Reverend Sirs, from the establishment
of the religion in the island of Sri Lanka up to this present day, there has been existing
in this island an exceedingly pure sect of bhikkhus.... Receive at their hands the upasampada
ordination ... and if you make this form of the upasampada ordination the seed of
the religion, as it were, plant it, and cause it to sprout forth by conferring such
ordination on men of good family in this Mon country.... Reverend Sirs, by your going to
the island of Sri Lanka, much merit and great advantage will accrue to you.
At the beginning of 1476 the chosen bhikkhus with their twenty-two disciples embarked
on the journey to Sri Lanka. They sailed in two ships, one taking about two months while
the other needed six full months to arrive on the shore of the Buddhist island. They
received the upasampada ordination at the Mahavihara from 17th to 20th July 1476.
The return journey of the forty-four Mon bhikkhus was not so smooth, however. One group
arrived home in August 1476, while the other group took three years to return to Pago and
ten of the bhikkhus died en route. Following their return, Dhammazedi had a pure
ordination hall(sima) consecrated and made the following proclamation:
May all those who possess faith and desire to receive the bhikkhu's ordination at the
hands of the bhikkhus ordained in Sri Lanka come to the Kalyani sima and receive
ordination. Let those who have not faith and do not desire to receive the bhikkhus
ordination of the Sinhalese, remain as they are.
In order to confer the bhikkhu ordination outside the middle country (i.e. northern
India), a chapter of five bhikkhus is needed, one of whom must be qualified to serve as
preceptor (upajjhaya) and another as teacher (acariya). The latter two must
have spent at least ten years in robes as fully ordained bhikkhus. So if Dhammazedi wanted
to have local bhikkhus ordained in the new ordination, it was necessary to find two senior
bhikkhus. Since those returning from Sri Lanka had been ordained for a period of only
three years, they could not act as preceptor or teacher. Local bhikkhus who had not
received the ordination of the Mahavihara in Sri Lanka were unacceptable, as otherwise the
ordination would again have been invalidated by one who was not of pure descent.
Fortunately, the two theras who had undertaken a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka at the beginning
of the century and had received the Sinhalese ordination at that time, were still alive.
As a result, one was able to act as preceptor and the other as teacher of the newly
ordained bhikkhus. The stage was now set for the reformation and unification of the Mon
Order of bhikkhus and soon the re-ordination of almost the entire Order of bhikkhus began.
The Kalyani inscription records the number of 15,666 ordinations in hundreds of ordination
halls newly constructed for the purpose.
It is interesting to note how forcefully the king reformed the Order through royal
decrees that would hardly be tolerated today. He declared that all bhikkhus who were, for
example, practising medicine or other arts and crafts or who even slightly infringed on
the Vinaya rules would be expelled. The king as a layman, however, did not have the power
to defrock a bhikkhu who had not broken one of the four Parajika rules. Dhammazedi circumvented this by threatening to punish with royal
penalties the mother, father, relatives, and lay supporters of bhikkhus whose behaviour
was not in accordance with the rules of the Vinaya.
It goes without saying that a king who could allow himself to take such drastic
measures in regard to the Sangha must have had the support of a broad section of the Order
and also the people. After years spent in robes, he was keenly aware of the problems of
monastic life and because of this even senior bhikkhus respected and accepted his council.
We can assume that all his actions to reform the Order were firstly discussed with his
bhikkhu teachers and then implemented with their blessings. There being no such thing as a
Buddhist Church with a central authority, the Sangha has little possibility to regulate
itself. Only the committed support of a worldly power can protect the Order of bhikkhus
from those who take advantage of the respect that is given to the yellow robe.
Dhammazedi's support for the religion was so great that his fame spread well beyond the
borders of Myanmar and bhikkhus from neighbouring countries such as Thailand came to his
realm to receive ordination there. Though the reform movement did not spread to Upper
Myanmar and cause the same mass ordinations there, it did not remain without influence in
the kingdom of Ava and other principalities, and many bhikkhus came to the Mon bhikkhus to
receive the Kalyani ordination.
6. The Myanmar Build an Empire
Shan versus Myanmar
The beginning of the sixteenth century was one of the most difficult periods for
Buddhism in Upper Myanmar. While the religious fervour of Dhammazedi still lived on in the
kingdom of Pago in Ava, Shan rulers were endeavouring to bring about the destruction of
the Sangha. A Shan king named Thohanbwa (?1527-1543) was particularly well-known for his
barbarity. He destroyed pagodas and monasteries and robbed their treasures. Although he
was a king, he was uneducated and ignorant. Hence fearing the influence of the bhikkhus
and suspicious of their moves, he brought about the massacre of thousands. Under these
terror regimes of the Shan rulers the Myanmar did not feel safe. Many, including learned
bhikkhus, fled to Toungoo, the stronghold of the Myanmar race in the south. Despite the
anarchy prevailing, some respected treatises on Pali grammar were written in Upper Myanmar
in these years.
Better times, however, lay ahead for Buddhism in the Golden Land. Two successive kings
of Myanmar origin from Toungoo would unite the country and fulfil the duties of Buddhist
kings. The wars fought by these two kings, King Tabinshwehti (1531-50) and King Bayinnaung
(1551-81), were long in duration and exceedingly cruel. They succeeded in gaining control
of the Mon kingdom in Lower Myanmar and the kingdom of Ava. They conquered all of what is
today Myanmar including the Shan states as far east as Chiang Mai, and made incursions
into lower Thailand and Yunnan where some kings paid tribute to the Myanmar court.
Bayinnaung deferred to the Mon as far as culture and religion were concerned and
dressed in Mon style. Under his royal patronage, the Mon Sangha produced scholarly works
on grammar and the Abhidhamma and also helped with the collection and standardisation of a
code of law based on the old Mon code compiled during Wareru's reign.
Bayinnaung not only unified the country politically, but also made Buddhist principles
the standard for his entire dominion. He forbade the sacrificial slaughter of animals, a
custom still practised by the Shan chiefs, the worshippers of certain spirits, and the
followers of some other religions. He built pagodas and monasteries in all the newly
conquered lands and installed learned bhikkhus in order to convert the often uncivilised
inhabitants to gentler ways. The main religious building of his reign is the Mahazedi
Pagoda, a majestic monument to the Buddha in the capital, Pago. He also crowned the main
pagodas in Myanmar with the jewels of his own crown, a custom practised by many rulers of
the country. He continued in the tradition of Dhammazedi, in supporting the Sihala Sangha
and in sponsoring the ordination of many bhikkhus in the Kalyani Ordination Hall near
Pago. It is said that he built as many monasteries as there were years in his life.
It remains a mystery how a king who had such deep devotion to the religion of the
Buddha and who was so generous towards it could spend his life fighting campaign after
campaign to expand his realm. He caused bloodshed and suffering in the conquered regions
and at home people starved because farmers were drafted into the army. However this may
be, Bayinnaung seems to have been able to reconcile fighting expansionist wars with being
a pious Buddhist.
After King Bayinnaung, Pago rapidly lost its significance. Bayinnaung's son persecuted
the Mon and consequently re-ignited racial tensions that would plague Myanmar for
centuries. Later, Pago was to fall into the hands of a Portuguese adventurer who pillaged
the pagodas and monasteries. Eventually the whole of Lower Myanmar, already depopulated by
the incessant campaigns of Bayinnaung and his successors, was pillaged by all the
surrounding kings and princelings. The country was devastated and people starved.
The Sasanavamsa records one major problem of the Vinaya during the sixteenth
century. At the beginning of the century, the bhikkhus of Toungoo were divided over
whether or not bhikkhus could partake of the juice of the toddy palm which was generally
used to prepare fermented drink. The dispute was settled by a respected thera who decided
that toddy juice was permissible only if it was freshly harvested.
Political Influence of the Sangha in Early Myanmar
What motivated the royal court probably remained largely a mystery to the ordinary
citizens, except when they were pressed into service in the king's army. There was little
sense of collective responsibility as it is cultivated in today's democracies. Everyone
looked after himself and his immediate circle and governments were sometimes more of a
scourge than a protection. Kings did not always provide a visible administration beyond
appointing governors at whose mercy local people were. These governors often endeavoured
to establish independence as soon as they perceived inherent weaknesses in their masters.
Many accumulated great wealth for themselves.
There was, however, one element in the policy of rulers which, with a few exceptions,
remained fairly stable throughout Myanmar history. Most kings supported Buddhism and the
Sangha provided a framework of continuity as no other entity could. Ray writes:
They (the kings) were good Buddhists and never did they waver from their kingly duty of
acting as the patron-guardian of the faith of the country. Moreover, whatever their
numerical strength, the bhikkhus were real spokesmen of the people and the monasteries
were the popular assemblies as it were; and each king that came to the throne sought to
win the bhikkhus over to his side.
The best insurance of a peaceful life in Myanmar was to become a bhikkhu, as they were
not drafted into armies or enslaved by conquerors and as long as the lay people had food
to eat they were also fed. The bhikkhus not only provided a link between the people and
those in power, they often played a role in the affairs of state. This is illustrated by
an event which occurred in the middle of the seventeenth century and is related by the Sasanavamsa.
The king, Ukkamsika, popularly known as King Thalun, was a devoted Buddhist and thanks
to him, learning flourished in Myanmar. The king's son, however, tried to dethrone his
father, and Thalun, taken by surprise, had to flee accompanied only by two companions.
Coming upon a river, the only vessel in sight was the boat of a samanera. The samanera
agreed to take them onboard as passengers, and they ended up in the samanera's monastery
where they revealed their true identities and asked for protection from their persecutors.
They were referred to another monastery where lived a bhikkhu wise in worldly affairs.
Following his advice, the bhikkhus formed a living wall around the monastery and, as no
Buddhist will attack a man in robes, the rebels who had come to kill the king had to
withdraw. Another example of the beneficial influence of the Sangha is their appeal for
clemency to King Bayinnaung. Bhikkhus often tried to stay executions in accordance with
the principles of metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion) and
sometimes their efforts achieved success.
During one of Bayinnaung's Thai campaigns, the peasantry around Pago revolted and razed
the royal city to the ground. Bayinnaung, after hurrying back from Ayutthaya, captured
several thousand rebels and was ready to burn them alive. It was the custom then to burn
deserters from the army alive and obviously rebellion was considered to be a crime of
similar gravity. The bhikkhus of all races intervened on behalf of the poor wretches and
were able to save all from the pyre, except for seventy ring leaders, the most serious
There are several instances in Myanmar history when bhikkhus also mediated between
contending kings or princes and helped to avoid bloodshed. This was often the case when
cities were besieged and both parties realised that they could not win. The king who was
besieged would normally take the initiative and send his bhikkhus to the king in attack.
Often the bhikkhus were authorised to negotiate on behalf of the monarch. An armistice
agreed by or in the presence of bhikkhus was more likely to be honoured than a promise
given without their blessings. Therefore, if the two parties were sincere in their offers
to negotiate, they usually requested bhikkhus to be mediators and judges.
The Spread of Abhidhamma
The seventeenth century was a period of dynamic growth in the history of Buddhism in
Myanmar. Many outstanding developments took place, and principal among these were the
numerous translations of texts into the Myanmar language and the great increase in the
study of the Abhidhamma. It is quite possible that the two developments were
In the first half of the century, Manirathana Thera translated the following texts into
the Myanmar language: Atthasalini, Sammohavinodani, Kankhavitarani, Abhidhammatthavibhavini,
Sankhepavannana. Of these five, only the Kankhavitarani, Buddhaghosa's
commentary on the Patimokkha, is not concerned with Abhidhamma. In the second half of the
century Aggadhammalankara translated Kaccayana's Pali grammar, the Abhidhammatthasangaha,
Matika, Dhatukatha, Yamaka, and the Patthana into the Myanmar
tongue. Later, the Nettippakarana was also translated.
It cannot be a coincidence that nine out of twelve translated works were texts of the
Abhidhamma or its commentaries. The reason for these translations must have been a
developing interest in the psychology of Buddhism among the Buddhist followers who could
not themselves read Pali. Whether these were only bhikkhus or whether lay people were also
interested in exploring the scriptures for themselves is difficult to determine now.
However, what is known is that almost every boy and many of the girls attended monastic
schools, whose curriculum was probably established by this period, if not earlier.
Included in the curriculum were studies of the Mangala Sutta, Metta Sutta, Ratana Sutta,
and the other parittas, as well as basic literacy which included some Pali. In addition a
number of the Abhidhamma texts had to be committed to memory.
The intention behind these translations and commentaries in the Myanmar language was
obviously to make the words of the Buddha accessible to a wider audience who would, then,
not be solely dependent on the authority of the Pali scholars.
In the later half of the century, the bhikkhu Devacakkhobhasa designed a system for the
study and teaching of the Patthana, the last book of the Abhidhamma, which in
Myanmar is believed to be the highest teaching of the Buddha. The king at the time of
Devacakkhobhasa was so impressed by the bhikkhu's proficiency in these higher teachings
and by his system of instruction, that he ordered the Patthana to be studied in all
the monasteries of Myanmar. It is not unreasonable to assume that the king himself studied
these teachings. Otherwise he would hardly have been in a position to appreciate them and
make them compulsory reading for the Myanmar bhikkhus.
This emphasis on Abhidhamma in general and the Patthana in particular has
survived in Myanmar to the present day. The movement, therefore, that began in the
seventeenth century is still of great significance for Buddhism there. The Patthana,
for instance, is ubiquitous in Myanmar. The twenty-four conditions of the Patthana
can be found printed on the fans of the bhikkhus, on calendars, and on posters. In some
monasteries, the bhikkhus are woken every morning by twenty-four strokes on a hollow tree
trunk, while the bhikkhu striking the tree trunk has to recite the twenty-four conditions
as he does so. Even little children learn to recite the twenty-four conditions along with
the suttas of protection. As the Patthana is the highest and most difficult
teaching of the Buddha, it is believed that it will be the first to be lost. In order to
slow the decline of the Sasana, many people of Myanmar, bhikkhus and lay people alike,
memorize the Patthana and recite it daily.
In Pagan, the Jataka stories and the history of the Buddha's life were the main
subjects of religious study. In later centuries, Pali grammar and the study of the Vinaya
were foremost on the agenda. Dhammazedi's reform movement drew the attention back to the
foundations of all monastic life, the code of conduct for the bhikkhus as laid down by the
Though stricter observation of the Vinaya would have to be re-emphasised in the future,
its foundation was firm enough to insure that progressive reform movements would be
instigated within the Sangha and not be dependent on external impetus. How far a bhikkhu
was allowed to stray from the ideal had been defined in strictures that had become
integral to the Sangha. Based on this foundation of sila (right conduct, morality),
the Sangha was now free to give increased attention to higher teachings.
The age of the Abhidhamma had dawned. The Abhidhamma remained no longer the domain of a
chosen few, but began to be studied by many. The wealth of translations from the
Abhidhamma would suggest that in the seventeenth century it had become so popular that it
may have been taught even to lay people. The Myanmar language had developed and had been
enriched with Pali terms so that it could convey the difficult concepts of Abhidhamma.
Civilisation had matured to an extent never seen before. Myanmar was ready to study the
analysis of mind and matter as taught by the Buddha. The stage was being set for the
widespread practice of insight meditation (vipassana bhavana) in later times.
7. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
In the succession of rulers of the eighteenth century some were strong and despotic,
while others were ineffective and withdrawn. Some tried to expand their power and fought
wars, while others appeared satisfied with existing conditions. There were several wars
with Thailand and the population of Myanmar had to bear the deprivations that war
invariably brings not only to the conquered, but also to the country where the conquering
armies are levied.
After a war between the Mon and the Myanmar in which the Mon initially attacked and
then conquered Ava itself, the Myanmar king Alaungpaya (1752-60), who believed himself a
Bodhisatta, crushed Mon resistance once and for all. After Pago had fallen into his hands
in 1756, Lower Myanmar was devastated and many of the Mon survivors fled to Thailand or
were deported as slaves.
Like Bayinnaung, Alaungpaya established a Myanmar empire, at the same time decimating
the population of the country by drafting the peasantry into the army for campaigns
against Ayutthaya (Thailand) and other countries. The Sasanavamsa does not comment
on the atrocity of war. War is perceived as it is, cruel and pitiless -- but it is the
affair of rulers, not of bhikkhus. The manner in which rulers conduct their affairs is
entirely their responsibility. Pannasami probably took very seriously the Buddha's
injunction that a member of the Sangha should not talk about rulers and royal affairs.
The Sasanavamsa pays much attention to a controversy which raged in monastic
circles throughout the eighteenth century. At the beginning of the century, some bhikkhus
began to wear their robes outside the monasteries as they were worn within them, that is,
covering only one shoulder. Even when going on their daily alms round, they failed to
drape the robe in the traditional way. When challenged as to the orthodoxy of this
practice, they produced various interpretations and opinions, but could not validate their
practice through the authority of the scriptures. Different kings endorsed one or other of
the two opinions and bhikkhus of the orthodox school even died for their conviction when a
king had outlawed the covering of both shoulders.
The most interesting aspect of this historical period of the religion is not so much
the actual controversy as the power the king had in religious affairs. The kings of
Myanmar were not normally expert in the Vinaya and yet they took the final decision in
matters of monastic discipline after due consultation with the leaders of the Sangha. In
the more than one hundred years that this controversy prevailed, different kings supported
the orthodoxy of either view. This shows that this system is not entirely satisfactory.
However, the right view which was in accordance with the Vinaya did eventually triumph due
to the persistence of the majority of the Sangha. Only the worldly power was in a position
to regulate the Sangha into which undesirable elements entered repeatedly. To keep the
Order pure, it had to be always under careful scrutiny and bogus ascetics had to be
removed. The kings of Myanmar in co-operation with the Sangharajas and the other senior bhikkhus had established a system of supervision of
the bhikkhus by royal officials. In every township, the king's representatives were
responsible for ensuring that the bhikkhus adhered scrupulously to the rules of the
Vinaya. Bhikkhus who transgressed were taken before religious courts and punished
according to the code of discipline.
The controversy concerning the correct manner of wearing the robes came up for
arbitration for the last time under Bodawpaya (1782-1819), the fifth son of Alaungpaya. He
decided in favour of orthodoxy and thenceforth all bhikkhus had to cover both shoulders on
the daily alms round. This ruling created one unified sect throughout Myanmar under the
leadership of a council of senior bhikkhus appointed by the king. These were called the
Thudhamma Sayadaws and the Thudhamma sect has survived in Myanmar down to the present day.
Bodawpaya appointed a chapter of eight eminent bhikkhus as Sangharajas, leaders of the
Sangha, and charged them with the duty to safeguard the purity of the Order of bhikkhus.
As a direct result of the discipline and stability created by the work of these senior
bhikkhus, the Sangha prospered, and consequently scholarship flourished under Bodawpaya's
The name of the Mahasangharaja Nanabhivamsa is especially noteworthy in this respect.
Nanabhivamsa was an eminently learned bhikkhu who had proven his wisdom even as a young
man. Only five years after his ordination as a bhikkhu, he had completed a commentary (tika)
on the Nettippakarana. Eight years after full ordination, at the age of
twenty-eight, he became Sangharaja, and then Mahasangharaja, the title conferred by the
king on the highest bhikkhu in his realm. Soon after this, he wrote his well respected
"new sub-commentary" on the Digha Nikaya, the Sadhujjanavilasini. At the
request of the king, he wrote a commentary on Buddhaghosa's Jatakatthakatha and
several other treatises.
The king was so devoted to the head of the Sangha that he dedicated a "very
magnificent five storied monastery" to him and later many other monasteries as well.
According to the Sasanavamsa, Nanabhivamsa was not only a scholar, but also
practised the ascetic practices (dhutanga) sitting always alone. He divided his
time between the various monasteries under his tutelage and was an indefatigable teacher
of the scriptures.
Scholarship flourished in the reign of King Bodawpaya and Myanmar was able, for the
first time, to return thanks to Sri Lanka for nurturing the religion in the Golden Land.
The bhikkhu ordination (upasampada) preserved in Myanmar was re-introduced to Sri
Lanka where the Sasana had been interferred with by an unwise king.
The Amarapura Nikaya in Sri Lanka
In the later half of the eighteenth century, the upasampada ordination in Sri
Lanka was barred to all except the members of the landed aristocracy. This was a result of
royal decree probably issued with the support of at least a section of the Sangha.
However, this was a flagrant defilement of the letter and the spirit of the Buddha's
instructions. The conferring of the upasampada ordination is dependent only upon
such conditions as the candidate being a man, free from government service, free of debt,
free of contagious diseases, and upon his having his parents' consent, etc. Members of the
lower castes had now only the possibility of becoming novices (samanera), a condition that
created dissatisfaction. A sizeable section of ordained bhikkhus also disapproved of the
royal order, but were in no position to defy it within the country. The only recourse for
those of the lower castes desiring the higher ordination was therefore to travel to other
Buddhist countries to ordain. At first, missions were sent to Thailand where Dhammazedi's
reforms lived on through the ordination conferred to Thai bhikkhus in Pago and through the
scores of Mon bhikkhus who had found refuge in Thailand from the Myanmar armies.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, Sinhalese bhikkhus began
travelling to Myanmar to find the pure ordination there. The fame of the then
Mahasangharaja of Myanmar, Nanabhivamsa, influenced their choice. Scholarship had
developed in all fields: Pali grammar, the Vinaya, the Suttanta, and the Abhidhamma.
Myanmar had, after a long period of development, become the custodian of Buddhism.
The first delegation from Sri Lanka arrived in 1800 and was welcomed with a magnificent
reception by King Bodawpaya himself. Nanabhivamsa, the wise Sangharaja, ordained the
samaneras as bhikkhus and instructed them for some time in the scriptures. On returning to Sri Lanka, they were accompanied by five Myanmar
bhikkhus and a letter from Nanabhivamsa to the Sinhalese Sangharaja. Five bhikkhus form a
full chapter and apparently the Myanmar bhikkhus were permitted to ordain bhikkhus without
class distinction. Even today, Sri Lanka possesses three schools, the Amarapura Nikaya,
the Siyama Nikaya (Thai school), and the Ramanna Nikaya.
The Amarapura Nikaya was so called because King Bodawpaya had established his capital
in Amarapura (between Mandalay and Ava) and the bhikkhus had received their ordination
there. The Ramanna Nikaya was presumably founded by
bhikkhus who had received ordination from Mon bhikkhus in the tradition of the Dhammazedi
reforms and who had fled to southern Thailand from the wrath of the Myanmar kings. Both
these schools were allowed to ordain bhikkhus without discriminating against the lower
classes. Only the Siyama Sangha (the Thai ordination) continued to follow the royal
command, and ordained only novices of the higher castes as bhikkhus. Missions from Sri
Lanka continued to travel to Amarapura to consult with its senior theras and they were all
given royal patronage and sent back with gifts of the Pali scriptures and commentarial
Bodawpaya's Relationship with the Sangha
Although King Bodawpaya would appear to have been a pious and devout king, his
relationship with the Sangha was somewhat problematic. He supported it at times and even
used it to extend his own glory, but at times he seemed almost jealous of the respect the
bhikkhus received from the people. He realised that the bhikkhus were not respected out of
fear, but were held in genuine esteem and affection by his subjects. His jealousy became
apparent on different occasions.
At one time, he declared that from then on the bhikkhus were no longer to be addressed
by the traditional title "Hpoungyi" meaning "The One of Great Merit."
This form of address was to be reserved for the king. Then again he tried to confiscate
land and other goods given to the Sangha and to pagodas by previous generations. When the
Sangharajas could not answer his questions to his satisfaction, he invited the Muslim
clergy for a meal to test their faith. He had heard that they were so strict in the
observance of their discipline that they would rather die than eat pork. Unfortunately for
them, they did not display great heroism as they all ate the pork offered to them by the
king. Bodawpaya is also reputed to have been beset by a form of megalomania. He wanted to
force the Sangha to confirm officially that he was the Bodhisatta of the next Buddha to
come in this world cycle, the Buddha Metteyya. On this issue, however, the Sangha was not
to be bent even in the face of royal wrath. The bhikkhus refused, and the king was finally
forced to accept defeat. Another expression of his inflated self-esteem was the Mingun
Pagoda near Sagaing. It was to be by far the biggest temple ever built. Scores of slaves
and labourers worked on its construction until funds were depleted. However, it was never
completed and remains today as a huge shapeless square of millions of bricks.
To his credit, King Bodawpaya imposed the morality of the Five Precepts in his whole
realm and had offenders executed immediately. Capital punishment was prescribed for
selling and drinking alcohol, killing larger animals such as buffaloes, spreading
heretical views, and the smoking of opium. Bodawpaya ruled the country with an iron fist
and brought offending lay people as well as bhikkhus to heel. His successors were
benevolent, but possibly they could be so only because of the fear his rule had instilled
in the populace.
The Fate of Buddhism in Upper and Lower Myanmar
Bodawpaya's successor, Bagyidaw (1819-1837), was the first of the Myanmar kings to lose
territory to the white invaders coming from the West. The Myanmar court was so out of
touch with the modern world that it still believed Myanmar to be the centre of the world
and her army virtually invincible. Hence the king was not unduly disturbed when the
British raj, governing the Indian sub-continent, declared war on the Kingdom of Ava in
1824 (Bagyidaw had moved the capital back to Ava). It came to a battle near the coast in
which the Myanmar general Mahabandhula achieved little or nothing against modern British
arms. The Indian colonial government occupied all of the Myanmar coast as far south as
Tenasserim in 1826 and forced the treaty of Yandabo on King Bagyidaw. In the treaty, he
was forced to accept the new borders established by the Indian government and pay
compensation to the invaders for the annexation of the coast of Lower Myanmar.
However, Bagyidaw made a very important contribution to the development of the Sangha
and to the literature of Myanmar in general. His predecessor, Bodawpaya, had united the
Sangha by resolving the dispute relating to the draping of the robe over one or two
shoulders. Bagyidaw saw the necessity of creating stability for the Sangha. He felt that
this could be achieved to some extent by bestowing on it a sense of its own history. He
commissioned a work on the history of the religion starting from the time of the Buddha,
which was to show an unbroken succession of the pure tradition from teacher to pupil. Its
purpose was to praise the diligent theras and expose the shameless ones.
This work, the Thathana-lin-ga-ya-kyan, was composed at the king's request by
the ex-bhikkhu Mahadhamma-thin-gyan, a leading member of the committee appointed by King
Bagyidaw to compile the famous Hman-nan-ya-za-win, The Glass-palace Chronicle,
a secular history of Myanmar. The Thathana-wun-tha (Sasanavamsa) -lin-ga-ya-kyan
was completed in 1831; and in 1897, it was printed in the form of a modern book for the
first time in Yangon. Pannasami based his Sasanavamsa on this work. About forty
percent of the Sasanavamsa is straight translation from the original work, about
forty percent summaries and paraphrasing of the latter, and only some twenty percent
Pannasami's own work. Pannasami states in his
introduction to the Sasanavamsa that his treatise is based on the works of the
ancients (porana). The concept of mental property or copyright had not been born
and there was no moral need to refer the reader to sources except to give authority to a
statement. The only references that would lend authority to a treatise would be the
scriptures, their commentaries, and sub-commentaries, but not a work as recent as the Thathana-wuntha-lin-ga-ya-kyan.
The preface to the original work in Myanmar explains the reason for its compilation.
The king's representative had many times pleaded with the author to write a history of the
succession of [righteous] religious teachers so that the people would not become
heretical. Apparently the king felt that the lack of a work recording the history of the
pure religion in its entirety left scope for wrong views to arise. But with an
authoritative record of the lineage of teachers, bhikkhus could not call on views of
shameless bhikkhus of the past anymore in order to support their heresies. This is exactly
what had happened again and again through the centuries and especially in the robe-draping
dispute. The ekamsikas, the one-shoulder-drapers, had repeatedly dug out obscure
teachers in order to support their point of view. This was to be made impossible once and
Whether this has been successful is difficult to ascertain without a detailed study of
the developments in the Sangha since the publication of this work. However, the fact that
the original Myanmar chronicle was revised and translated into Pali for the Fifth Buddhist
Council indicates that it was by this time considered a useful tool to put the king's
authority behind a well-defined orthodox lineage, thus making it easy to refute heresy by
referring to the historical teachers.
King Bagyidaw never overcame his shock over the loss of part of his realm. He was
declared insane and was removed from the throne by Tharawaddy-Min (1837-1846), King
In the reign of Tharrawaddy-Min, another mission from Sri Lanka visited Myanmar and was
received by the Sangharaja Neyyadhammabhivamsa. Neyyadhamma instructed the two bhikkhus
and the accompanying novice in the teachings and conferred the bhikkhu ordination on the
novice. He is known for his critical emendation of the text of the Saddhammapajjotika
and its translation into Myanmar. He was also the teacher of the later Sangharaja
Pannasami, the compiler of the Sasanavamsa and one of the most influential theras
at the time of King Mindon. Neyyadhamma showed the need for a recension of at least some
of the Pali texts by editing the Saddhammapajjotika. His disciple, Pannasami, was
to preside over the recension of the entire Tipitaka as Sangharaja under King Mindon.
Tharrawaddy-Min was himself deposed because of insanity by his son Pagan-Min (1846-52),
the brother of Mindon-Min. Pagan-Min appointed Pannajotabhidhaja as his Sangharaja. In his
tenure, scholarship received encouragement as the Sangharaja himself wrote a commentary
and its sub-commentary in Myanmar on the Anguttara Nikaya. Other works of the time, all in
the vernacular, are a translation of the Saddhammavilasini and commentaries on the
Samyutta Nikaya and the Digha Nikaya. This is also the time when the author of the Sasanavamsa
appears. He started his scholarly career with the translation into Myanmar of a commentary
on the Saddatthabhedacinta. His next work was a comparison of the existing versions
of the Abhidhanappadipika and the translation of his emended text.
In accord with the pre-eminence Myanmar had achieved in the Theravada Buddhist world,
the kings of the country became less fierce and wars were fewer. The successors of
Bodawpaya seem to have shown a genuine interest in religion as well as in improving the
administration of the country. Upper Myanmar moved into a period of peace, which meant
improved conditions for the bhikkhus.
The first half of the nineteenth century saw the translation of many Pali texts into
the Myanmar language. Almost the whole of the Suttanta was now available in the vernacular
and many commentaries and sub-commentaries on Suttanta, Abhidhamma, and the Vinaya were
composed in it. This not only made it easier for bhikkhus with limited linguistic skills
to study the texts, but also made them readily accessible to the laity. That people in a
peaceful country have more time for the study of religion is obvious and soon Myanmar
would see the first Buddhist texts printed on modern printing presses. This made it
possible for a great number of people to acquire texts relatively cheaply without having
to pay a scribe to copy them laboriously onto palm leaves.
Politically Pagan-Min was no luckier than Bagyidaw, as he lost the provinces of Pathein
(Bassein) and Yangon (Rangoon) to the British, who were ever ready to create some pretext
for war. So, in 1852, the Kingdom of Ava lost access to the sea and became increasingly
dependent on the colonial power. Like his father, Pagan-Min was overthrown in a palace
revolt. Although not a leader of the uprising, his brother Mindon was placed on the
throne. He did not execute the deposed king as was usually the case after a revolt, but
allowed him to end his days in dignity.
The Colonial Administration and the Sangha
The occupation by the British forces was of utmost significance for the Sangha as the
British administration did not grant the traditional protection afforded it by a Buddhist
ruler. In accordance with the colonial policy established in India, that the colonial
government should be strictly secular, the new lords refused to take on the role of a
Buddhist monarch and accept responsibility for the enforcing of the bhikkhus' discipline.
Without this, Buddhism in Lower Myanmar soon suffered and offending bhikkhus went
unpunished. The colonial administration would recognise its mistake only much later, when
it was too late, and when they were not able to establish control in the Sangha any
Even today King Mindon's reign (1852-1877) is surrounded by the mystique of a golden
era in the minds of the Myanmar people. No war occurred during the twenty-five years of
his tenure and the king himself is said to have been of gentle disposition and adverse to
violence. He even declared a dislike for capital punishment which was customarily
inflicted by sovereigns for the slightest disobedience or even disagreement. He was not only held in esteem by his subjects, but even
praised by a British envoy. The colonisers' comments on the Myanmar and their kings were
usually dictated by a parochial narrow-mindedness and a simplistic view that was only
widened by contact with the conquered. Therefore General Fytche's words describing King
Mindon are all the more impressive: "Doubtless one of the most enlightened monarchs
that has ever sat on the Burmese throne. He is polished
in his manner, has considerable knowledge of the affairs of state and the history and the
statistics of his own and other countries. In personal character he is amiable and kind
and, according to his light, religious."
King Mindon transferred the capital from Ava to Mandalay, the last royal capital before
the British annexation of the whole of Myanmar in 1886. In the early years of his reign,
Mindon strove to improve monastic discipline. Although a system of official investigation
of complaints relating to bhikkhus' misdemeanours existed, each king had to take his own
initiative in re-establishing order in the Sangha.
Mindon found that the attitude of many members of the Sangha to their code of conduct
was exceedingly lax. He therefore wanted all bhikkhus of his dominions to take a vow of
obedience to the Vinaya rules in front of a Buddha image. He consulted the Sangharaja who
convened an assembly of mahatheras, the Thudhamma Council. As opinions regarding the vow
differed, the primate's disciple, Pannasami, had to deliver a religious address in support
of the king's views. He reasoned that vows were also taken by the bhikkhus at the time of
ordination and that if the king sincerely desired to improve the discipline in the Order,
he should be supported. All agreed, and the vow was prescribed.
The greatest challenge King Mindon had to face as a Buddhist monarch was undoubtedly
his duty to look after the spiritual welfare of his subjects not only in his own
dominions, but also in the parts of Myanmar occupied by the British. Moreover, he and many
of the leading sayadaws of his court were increasingly aware that the British were only
waiting for an occasion to annex the whole of Myanmar. Mindon's army clearly would not be
able to stand up to the might of the Indian colonial government. Therefore, it was not
only important to support religious activities in the occupied territories but it was also
essential to prepare the religion for the time when it would have to survive without the
support of a Buddhist monarch.
The British had made it clear at the outset that they would not take over the
traditional role of the Myanmar kings, that of protector of the Sasana. The new masters'
religion, Christianity, rapidly gained influence through the missionary schools. The
schools were popular because their education provided much assistance in securing a job
and favour with the colonisers. Christian religious education was a compulsory part of
After the conquest of Lower Myanmar, many bhikkhus had fled north in order to remain
within the jurisdiction of the Myanmar kings. Many monasteries in British Myanmar were
left without an incumbent and whole villages were therefore bereft of the opportunity to
receive religious and general education. King Mindon, aware of this situation, tried to
convince bhikkhus to return to Lower Myanmar in order to serve their people. The king's
efforts proved successful and many bhikkhus returned to their places of origin. But soon
it became clear that without the king's ecclesiastic officials to control the discipline
of the Sangha, many bhikkhus developed a careless attitude towards their code of
The Okpo Sayadaw, from Okpo between Yangon and Pago, had stopped many bhikkhus on their
way to Upper Myanmar when the movements of bhikkhus out of the conquered territories was
at its peak around 1855. He assembled the bhikkhus around himself teaching that the Sangha
needed no protection from the secular power if it observed the rules of the Vinaya
strictly. His monastery was the birth place of a movement of strict monastic discipline.
He also emphasised that mental volition was what really mattered in the religion of the
Buddha and that acts of worship done with an impure intention were worthless. He obviously
felt that much of the Buddhist practice had become a ritual and that the essence had been
lost. In addition to this, however, his movement also challenged the authority of the
king's Council of Sayadaws, the leaders of the unified Thudhamma sect, when he declared
their ordination was invalid due to a technicality. As a result, he took the higher
ordination anew together with his followers.
The Okpo Sayadaw was not the only critic of the Thudhamma sayadaws. In Upper Myanmar,
the Ngettwin Sayadaw criticised many religious practices and maintained that a radical
reassesment of religious teachings was necessary. The Ngettwin Sayadaw was also a source
of inspiration for the Okpo Sayadaw and other reformers. He had been the teacher of
Mindon's chief queen and had also advised the king on many occasions. Interestingly, he
was a driving force in a movement in Upper Myanmar that wanted to return to the
fundamentals of the religion, but more radically than the Okpo Sayadaw. The Ngettwin
Sayadaw, together with many other bhikkhus, left the royal city and went to live in the
forest near Sagaing. He started to preach that meditation was essential for all bhikkhus
and he required an aspirant to novicehood to prove that he had practised meditation before
he would ordain him. All the bhikkhus around him had to spend a period of the day in
meditation and he emphasised that meditation was of much greater importance than learning.
He advised lay people to stop making offerings of flowers, fruits, and candles to Buddha
images, but to meditate regularly on the Uposatha days. Of course, his instructions that
offerings to Buddha images were fruitless and merely dirtied the places of worship, caused
considerable unhappiness with the traditional Thudhamma Council and presumably with many
ordinary people. However, the Ngettwin Sayadaw never strove to form a different sect by
holding a separate ordination as did the Okpo Sayadaw. His reforms were within the
community and within a Buddhist society that was presided over by a king. The Okpo Sayadaw
had no place for royalty in his view of the world and did not hesitate to confront the
system that was still alive, though obviously doomed.
Two other important sayadaws of King Mindon's reign deserve mention: the Shwegyin
Sayadaw and the Thingazar Sayadaw. The Shwegyin Sayadawalso tried to reform the Sangha and
his movement is still very much alive and highly respected in Myanmar today. He had
studied under the Okpo Sayadaw, but when he returned to his native Shwegyin near Shwebo in
Upper Myanmar, he avoided controversy in never rebelling against the Thudhamma Council. He
introduced two new rules for his bhikkhus, that they must not chew betel and consume
tobacco after noon. He also maintained that the Sangha must regulate itself without help
from the authority, but he never doubted the validity of the traditional ordination
The Thingazar Sayadaw was one of the most popular of the great sayadaws of his time. He
was also part of the movement to return to the basics of the teachings and greatly
emphasised the importance of practice as opposed to mere scholarship. Though he was
greatly honoured by the king and made a member of the Thudhamma Council, he preferred
spending long periods in solitude in the forest. In the numerous monasteries built for him
by the royal family and the nobility of the country, he insisted on the practice of the
purest of conduct in accordance with the Vinaya. However, he did not involve himself in
disputes with the extreme reformers or the Thudhamma council. He became very popular
through the humorous tales he told in sermons preached in his frequent travels up and down
King Mindon had no easy task. One section of the Sangha was pressing for far reaching
reforms, yet it was the king's duty to maintain a certain continuity of the traditional
ways for the benefit of the people in general. What complicated the situation was the fact
that the Sangha of Lower Myanmar felt more and more independent of the Buddhist monarch
and his Thudhamma council of senior mahatheras. This is illustrated graphically by the
Okpo Sayadaw's declaration that the Sangha needed no regulation by the worldly power. This
view gained popularity also in Upper Myanmar. Luckily, King Mindon's devotion to Buddhism
was genuine and he was not deterred by the difficulties confronting him. He was determined
not to allow the Sangha to split into factions that were openly opposing each other. This
he achieved to some extent through careful diplomacy and through the calling of a great
Synod, a Sangayana, in the royal city of Mandalay.
The Sangayana, or Buddhist Council, is the most important function of the Buddhist
religion. The first Sangayana was held during the first Rains Retreat after the
Parinibbana of the Buddha; the texts to be regarded as authentic were determined at this
time. There had been three more Sangayanas since, according to the Theravada tradition.
The council convened by the great Emperor Asoka, whose missionaries brought Buddhism to
Myanmar, probably provided the most inspiration for Mindon. The Fourth Council, the one
prior to Mindon's council, was held in Sri Lanka in the first century BC, at the Aluvihara
near Matale, for the purpose of writing down the Tipitaka, which up to that time had been
passed on orally.
King Mindon himself presided over the Fifth Buddhist Council, during which all the
canonical texts were recited and the correct form was established from among any variant
readings. The task took more than three years to accomplish, from 1868 to 1871. When the
bhikkhus had completed their great project, the king had all of the Buddhist scriptures,
the Tipitaka, engraved on 729 marble slabs. The slabs were then housed each in a separate
small pagoda about three meters high with a roof to protect the inscriptions from the
elements. The small shrines were built around a central pagoda, the Kutho-daw Pagoda, the
Pagoda of the Noble Merit. To commemorate the great council, King Mindon crowned the
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon with a new Hti or spire.
The Fifth Buddhist Council and the crowning of the Shwedagon Pagoda reminded all the
people of Myanmar of the importance of their religion, as well as of the fact that the
king and the Thudhamma Council of senior monks were still the guardians of the Sasana. The
authority of the Thudhamma Council was greatly enhanced also in Lower Myanmar through the
synod. Although the British had not allowed King Mindon to attend the raising of the new
spire onto the Shwedagon, the crowning was a symbol of the religious unity of Myanmar
which persisted in spite of the British occupation. The religion was also later to become
the rallying point for the Myanmar nationalists who fought for independence from the
King Mindon's reign produced a number of scholarly works as well as translations from
the Pali. Neyyadhamma, the royal preceptor, himself wrote a sub-commentary on the Majjhima
Nikaya, which had been translated by one of his disciples under his guidance. A commentary
in Myanmar on the Pali Jatakas was composed by Medhavivamsa and the compiler of the Sasanavamsa,
Pannasami, put his name to a great number of works. One of the queens of King Mindon
requested Pannasami to write the Silakatha and the Upayakatha. His teacher
asked him to compose the Voharatthabheda, Vivadavinicchaya, Nagarajuppattikatha.
He also wrote a commentary on Aggavamsa's Saddaniti. Whether all these works were
composed by Pannasami or whether they were composed under his supervision and control is
difficult to assess. It is interesting to note that a majority of his works were composed
in Pali, which was no doubt an attempt to encourage bhikkhus not to forgo Pali scholarship
now that Myanmar translations were readily available. The calling of a great Buddhist
council to purify the scriptures was part of this movement towards the revival of the
study of the original texts.
During King Mindon's reign bhikkhus from Sri Lanka came to Mandalay on several
occasions to solve difficult questions of Vinaya and to receive the bhikkhu ordination in
Myanmar. After Mindon's death in 1877, his son Thibaw ascended the throne. He was weak and
of feeble intellect, and his reign was short. In 1886, he lost his kingdom to the British
empire and was exiled to India.
With the complete annexation of Myanmar by the British, an historical era came to an
end. Theravada Buddhism developed in Myanmar over more than two millennia. The visits of
the Buddha were the first brief illuminations in a country that was shrouded in darkness.
The worship of the Buddha that is thought to have resulted from these visits and from the
arrival of the hair relics, may have been merely part of a nature religion. The pure
religion could not endure for long in a country which was yet on the brink of
civilisation. Later, however, the teachings of the Buddha were brought repeatedly to those
lands by various people.
The visits of the Arahats sent out after Emperor Asoka's council are historically more
acceptable than the visits of the Buddha. Their teachings were understood and perpetuated
possibly in Indian settlements along the coast and later in communities of people from
central Asia such as the Pyu. Through their contact with India, these cultural centres of
the Pyu and Mon could remain in contact with Buddhism. At first the important centres of
Theravada Buddhism were in northern India and later in South India and then Sri Lanka.
Through repeated contact with orthodox bhikkhus abroad, the understanding of Buddhism grew
ever stronger in the minds of the people of Myanmar. The religion was distorted dozens of
times through ignorance and carelessness, but someone always appeared to correct the
teachings with the help of the mainstays of the Sasana abroad. Gradually the role was
reversed: instead of travelling abroad for advice, the bhikkhus of Myanmar became the
guardians of Theravada Buddhist teaching and their authority was respected by all.
Eventually, when Theravada Buddhism had long been lost to India and its future was
uncertain in Sri Lanka, it found a secure home in Southeast Asia, especially in Myanmar.
1. The Mon are also called Talaing, but this term is considered
to be derogatory. It is thought to come form Telugu, a language of South Indian origin
whose script the Mon adopted. [Go back]
2. G.E. Harvey, History of Burma (London 1925; reprint
1967) pp. 5, 6. [Go back]
3. Translated by B.C. Law, The History of the Buddha's
Religion (London 1952), pp. 40 ff. [Go back]
4. Bhikkhu is the term applied to a fully ordained member of
the Buddha's Order. [Go back]
5. Identified as Okkalapa near Yangon. Some believe it to be
modern Orissa (Utkala) on the east coast of India. [Go back]
6. Shway Yoe, The Burman (reprint: Scotland 1989), pp.
179f. [Go back]
7. Punnovada Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya I,267ff.; Theragatha, v.
70, Theragatha Atthakatha I,156ff. [Go back]
8. See entry 'Punna' in G.P. Malalasekera, A Dictionary of
Pali Proper Names (PTS 1937-38). [Go back]
9. The Sasanavamsa says the Buddha stayed for seven
weeks and converted eighty-four thousand beings to the Dhamma. [Go back]
10. Ashin Dhammacara, Kyaungdawya zedidaw thamain
(Yangon 1978), pp. 28, 29. [Go back]
11. Harvey, History of Burma, p. 268. [Go
12. The Mahavamsa (reprint: London: PTS, 1980), p. 82. [Go back]
13. Kamboja, a country referred to by Emperor Asoka in his
inscriptions, is generally believed to be to the west of India. It could, however, also be
identical with the Cambodia of today, and it is conceivable that two Kambojas existed. [Go back]
14. Smith, Asoka's alleged mission to Pegu (Indian
Antiquary, xxxiv, 1905), pp. 185-86. [Go back]
15. Eliot, Hinduism and Buddhism, I, p. 32. [Go back]
16. Mentioned in several places in the Manorathapurani,
the commentary to the Anguttara Nikaya. [Go back]
17. Cf. L.P. Briggs, Dvaravati, the most ancient kingdom of
Siam (JAOS, 65, 1945), p. 98. [Go back]
18. Parker, Burma with special reference to the relations
with China (Rangoon 1893), p. 12. [Go back]
19. For a detailed treatment of Mahayana Buddhism in Pagan,
see G.H. Luce, Old Burma Early Pagan (New York, 1969), I, p. 184ff. [Go
20. Ibid, I, p. 14. [Go back]
21. Cf. Maha-ummagga-jataka, No.546, The Jatakas
(reprint: PTS, 1973), p. 156. [Go back]
22. Cf. Wickremasinghe, Epigraphica Zeylan., I, pp.
242-55. [Go back]
23. Culavamsa, ch.60, vv. 4-8. [Go back]
24. Luce, Old Burma Early Pagan, I, p. 79 [Go back]
25. Cf. D.K. Barua, Buddha Gaya Temple, Its History
(Buddha Gaya, 1981), pp. 59, 62, 63, 163, 176, 195, 244-247. [Go back]
26. Cf. Than Tun, Essays on the History and Buddhism of
Burma (Arran, 1988), pp. 85ff. [Go back]
27. Cf. Luce, Old Burma Early Pagan, I, p. 74. [Go back]
28. Cf. Than Tun, op. cit. [Go back]
29. The Myanmar word for Chinese to this day is teyou
or tarou which is derived from "Turk," for the Mongols are ethnic Turks. [Go back]
30. G.E. Harvey, History of Burma, p. 70. [Go back]
31. History of the Buddha's Religion, p. 74. [Go back]
32. Pali Literature of Burma (reprint: London, 1966),
p. 14 [Go back]
33. K.R. Norman, Pali Literature (Wiesbaden: Otto
Harrassowitz, 1983), p. 164. [Go back]
34. Ven. A.P. Buddhadatta, in his Corrections to Geiger's
Mahavamsa and Other Papers, offers an argument that there were in fact two Chapatas
and that the one called Saddhammajotipala, who wrote on the Abhidhamma, probably dates
from the late fifteenth century. The Sasanavamsa mentions a contemporary second
Chapata who was a shameless bhikkhu. [Go back]
35. Pitaka-thamain, p. 37. [Go back]
36. See History of the Buddha's Religion, p. 95 [Go back]
37. Ibid, pp. 102-104. [Go back]
38. Kalyani inscription, Epigraphica Birmanica, Vol.
III#, Pt. 2, pp. 220-21. [Go back]
39. Ibid, p. 249. [Go back]
40. A bhikkhu who kills a human being, has sexual relations,
falsely claims to have attained superhuman achievements, or steals automatically ceases to
be a bhikkhu and therefore even a layman can take his robes away. [Go back]
41. The forty-four Myanmar bhikkhus were ordained in Sri Lanka
in a water sima, a place of ordination floating on the water, on the Kalyani river. The
first ordination hall built by Dhammazedi near Pegu was therefore called the Kalyani Sima
and the Sinhalese ordination the Kalyani ordination. Ibid, p. 249. [Go back]
42. Niharranjan Ray, Theravada Buddhism in Burma, p.
212. [Go back]
43. Sangharaja is a position created by the king. The
holder of the title is appointed by the monarch. It is the highest position as far as
influence at the court is concerned as the king will consult the Sangharaja in most
religious matters. The Sangharaja was usually assisted in his duty by a body (similar to a
cabinet) of other senior bhikkhus also chosen by the monarch. [Go back]
44. For more information on his work, see Bode, Pali
Literature of Burma, pp. 79-82. [Go back]
45. Bhikkhus of differing linguistic background used to
communicate in Pali. Even today a visiting Thai bhikkhu will speak with his Burmese
brethren in the language of the scriptures. [Go back]
46. The Ramannadesa is Lower Myanmar, the Mon country. [Go back]
47. For a full discussion of the relation between the Tha-tha-na-wun-tha-lin-ga-ya-kyan
and Pannasami's Sasanavamsa, see Victor B. Lieberman, A New Look at the Sasanavamsa
(S.O.A.S Bulletin, Vol. 39, 1976), Pt. 1, p. 137. [Go back]
48. In the political struggle for independence the bhikkhus of
Myanmar played a significant role. Political activity is, of course, not normally
admissible for a bhikkhu. However, as the British administration had failed to fulfil its
duties towards Buddhism and the religion was in decline, the bhikkhus felt they had to
oppose the government in order to save their culture. When the government suddenly wanted
to re-establish authority to keep the bhikkhus in their monasteries, their effort lacked
credibility and authority and was not heeded. The colonial government had to resort to
imprisoning bhikkhus in ordinary civilian prisons, but it was too late to break the
movement of civil disobedience of the young activists, including the bhikkhus. [Go back]
49. In times of peace kings would use a eulogistic formula
instead of giving the order for execution, like "I do not want to see his face ever
again." In times of war the orders were clearer. Sometimes even bhikkhus were
executed. Mahadhammarajadhipati (1733-52), for instance, executed the Sangharaja and a
Brahman because an important Buddha image was stolen. See The Glass Palace Chronicles
(Hmannan I, 376). [Go back]
50. It was the considered policy of the Indian colonial
government to portray the Myanmar kings as cruel villains. It annexed Upper Myanmar under
the pretext of liberating a people who were oppressed by an ineffective government, much
in the fashion of the Soviets liberating Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. After the
annexation of Upper Myanmar, British publications describing the excesses of King Thibaw's
court and the relief of the liberated people amounted to a propaganda campaign. [Go back]
51. Fytche, A. Burma, Past and Present (London, 1878). [Go back]
52. Cf. Maung Htin Aung, Burmese Monk's Tales (New York
& London, 1966). [Go back]
1. [Go back]
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Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma. Oxford University Press 1923.
Cerre, P.H. and F. Thomas. Pagan, Chronique du Palais de Christal. Editions
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Sasanavamsa. Translated by B.C. Law: The History of the Buddha's Religion.
Recueil des Inscription du Siam. Part II. G. Coedes.
Mahavamsa. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger. London: PTS, 1912. Reprint 1980.
Culavamsa. Translated by Wilhelm Geiger. London: PTS, 1929. Reprint 1973.
Dipavamsa. Translated by Hermann Oldenberg. Reprint: New Delhi 1982.
Barua, Beni Madhab. Asoka and His Inscriptions. Reprint: Calcutta 1968.
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Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellschaft. 3 vols. Wiesbaden: Otto
Bode, Mabel Haynes. The Pali Literature of Burma. Reprint: London 1966.
Collis, Maurice. The Land of the Great Image. Reprint: Bristol 1946.
Eliot, (Sir) Charles N. E. Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch. 3 vols.
London 1921. Reprint 1957. See especially Vol. III, "Buddhism Outside India."
Edwardes, Michael. A Life of the Buddha. London 1959.
Fytche, A. Burma, Past and Present. 2 vols. London 1878.
Halliday, R.S. The Talaings. Rangoon 1917.
Law, Bimala Churn. A History of Pali Literature. 2 vols. Reprint: Delhi 1983.
Luce, Gordon H. Old Burma, Early Pagan. 3 vols. New York 1969-70.
Maung Htin Aung. Burmese Monk's Tales. New York and London 1966.
Maung Htin Aung. The Stricken Peacock. The Hague 1965.
Niharranjan, Ray. Theravada Buddhism in Burma. University of Calcutta 1946.
Norman, K.R. Pali Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1983.
Phayre, A.P. History of Burma. London. 1883-84. Reprint 1967.
Than Tun. Essays on the History and Buddhism of Burma. Arran 1988.
Thomas, E.J. The Life of the Buddha As History and Legend. London 1949.
Shway Yoe (G. Scott). The Burman. Reprint: Scotland 1989.
Stargardt, Janice. The Ancient Pyu of Burma. Vol. I. Cambridge 1990.
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Journal of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London University).