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Theravada Buddhism in Burma
Prof. Winston L. King

Although Theravaada Buddhism May have taken root in Thaton and Pegu as early as the second century w., and although Pagan was a Mahaayaana stronghold from around the fifth century, the verifiable history of Burmese Buddhism begins only in the reign of Anawrahta (1044-1077), the ruler who made Burma a major political force in Southeast Asia, establishing the first Burmese "empire." This monarch provided sanctuary to a monk named Shin Arahan, who had fled from Thaton to Pagan, because of the growing encroachments of Hinduism (and Mahaayaana?) on Thaton Pali Canon Buddhism. Shin Arahan persuaded Anawrahta of the superior truth and orthodoxy of Theravaada and inspired him to outlaw the local Ari variety of Buddhism (apparently a Mahaayaana form, which had become affected by tantrism). With Shin Arahan as his counselor, later his primate, the king undertook a thorough reform, executing recalcitrant Ari leaders, conscripting the body of monks into the army, and having an entirely new monkhood ordained. The new monks were to follow the Vinaya code, no longer indulging in intoxicants, associating with women, and carrying on other practices inconsonant with Theravaada standards of morality. Anawrahta respectfully requested a set of the Pali canonical texts, of which he had no copy, from the king of Thaton, but was rudely refused. In 1056 he mounted a military campaign and captured Thaton, its king, and his scriptures. Seeking to be a true dhamma raaja after the model of A'soka, Anawrahta built many pagodas and temples, initiating the surge of construction whose still-impressive ruins cover several square miles in the Pagan region. He worked to establish Theravaada elsewhere in his spreading domain, which either by direct rule or tributary kinglets included most of modern Burma and some of Thailand.

The main characteristics of Theravaada as Anawrahta established it survive in modern Burma. The Pali Canon is the standard of belief and practice and a blueprint for reform when needed. It is the responsibility of the Sa"ngha to maintain the strength and purity of this scriptural tradition both in doctrine and in Vinaya observance. They provide the laity with a field for creating merit by giving aims to them. They also have a responsibility to teach the Dhamma, though a few are allowed to assume the special vocation of fulltime meditators or forest hermits. All monks renounce lay occupations and concerns, shaving their heads, donning the yellow robe, possessing nothing

but their robes and begging-bowl, medicine, a needle, and a water-strainer-and these are actually the property of the Sa"ngha. Their life is devoted to the quest of nibbaana and to aiding others in this quest. Monks may leave the Sa"ngha without discredit, for any reason that seems important. The nun's vocation has not flourished, despite provisions for it in the canon; nuns are few and their functions menial.

The lay person's chief obligations are to observe the five precepts and to support the Sa"ngha. The goal of lay practice is to produce merit, thus ensuring a fortunate rebirth and laying the remote basis of the attainment of nibbaana. Lay men sometimes adopt the monastic life for a time, thus adding to their store of merit. Lay devotion is centered on the pagoda and the Buddha image. Some pagodas are believed to enshrine relics of the Buddha or one of his disciples, notably the Shwedagon in Rangoon, said to contain some hairs of the Buddha. But any pagoda having a Buddha image in some niche in its spire or seated at its foot is the sacramental presence of the Buddha's power (paya) to the lay people who circumambulate it and, kneeling, offer flowers. Even simple pagodas in field or village, without a Buddha image, are considered sacred.[1] There are only a few other lay rituals, including the Triple Refuge, recited three times, led by a monk, and the shimbyu initiation ceremony, held in most families, in which a boy of puberty age acts the part of Prince Gotama living in splendour and then renouncing the world to take a monk's robe (which the boy does for a week or so, begging for his food like a monk).

For all his zeal for Theravaada, Anawrahta was unable to root out folk religion, firmly embedded in popular local festivals. The cult of the Thirty-six Lords, with Mahagiri of Mount Popa at their head, was dominant, and all Burmese saw themselves as subjects of one or other of these lords (popularly caged nats). Though he demolished all the great public nat shrines, Anawrahta was eventually obliged to adopt the nats into the household of faith, giving them a subordinate position. Thagyarnin, the Pali Canon Sakra, king of the gods, who dwells on Mount Sumerti, was made the thirty-seventh and supreme Lord, displacing Mahagiri, and in pagodas images of the thirty-seven lords. Placed on the same platform as the Buddha, depicted them as worshiping the Buddha.[2] This set the pattern for Burmese Buddhism, in which gods and spirits, now many more than the original thirty-seven, are powers to be honored and placated in the proper context, but always in subordination to the transcendent power and worth of the Buddha. This is a variant of a Pattern warranted by the canon, which never denied the Hindu gods, but left them subject to impermanence, and taught that humans with proper karma can become gods and that even at their best the gods' knowledge of ultimate truth is less than that of a virtuous monk. The nats are helpful in this world -- Premier U Nu honored them for their assistance in overcoming insurgency shortly after Burmese independence in 1948- and few Burmese see any impiety in appealing to them in mundane matters as guardians of the otherworldly Buddha, housed in spirit-shrines on pagoda grounds. In many Buddhist usages, remnants and disguised forms of the native cults may be observed. A boy who receives initiation must be kept indoors for seven days before the ceremony to protect him from spirits, and he is sometimes marched to the nat shrine during the rites. Loud shouts of "Sbwe" (Lord), signifying his entry into manhood, are a Hindu element. Again, the three-day New Year festival in the spring and the Feast of Lights in the autumn, though given a Buddhist gilding, are doubtless equinox celebrations. Despite the accommodations between them, there is a residual tension between nat and Buddha, and autonomous forms of nat worship, with shrines, priestesses, mediums, and harvest fertility rites, can be found in rural areas.

Anawrahta also set the pattern of the relationship between throne and Sa"ngha. The Sa"ngha was to be detached from the business of government. This otherworldly role could not always be strictly maintained. The kings piety was of concern to the monks, since it was expressed in material support for the Sa"ngha. The prosperity, or even the survival, of the Sa"ngha depended on the king's disposition toward them, for he alone had the resources for the building of pagodas and the granting of lands. Moreover, as Buddhist kings followed the dhamma raaja rather than the deva raaja power pattern, they sought from the Sa"ngha a sacral legitimation of their kingship, which, intangible though it might be, greatly strengthened their rule. Anawrahta's successors included such pious and generous kings as Nadoungmya (1210-1234), the last great pagoda builder before the Pagan Kingdom succumbed to Shan incursions in the later thirteenth century; Dhammazedi, reigning in Pegu (1472-1492), who instituted a reform of the Sa"ngha; Bodapawya (1782-1819), reigning from Amarapura near Mandalay, the last empire builder, who regularized the Sa"ngha and promoted Buddhist learning;[3] and Mindon (1853-1878), ruler over a Burma diminished by British conquest, who sought to make Mandalay a great center of a renewed Buddhism and had all the scriptures and some of the commentaries engraved on stone. Variation in the strength and extent of central rule throughout these centuries caused frequent disorganization and consequent undiscipline among monks. Under a strong king, who appointed a primate (such as Shin Arahan under Anawrahta), the Sa"ngha was kept in order; the king seldom intervened directly, but the primate had the prestige of royal backing. Sa"ngha reforms nearly always looked to a model in the past. In 1192 Chapta, a Burmese monk trained in Sri Lanka and convinced that Buddhism there was more "orthodox," persuaded King Narapatisithu (1173-1210) to reform the regnant Thaton Buddhism by having many monks reordained. These monks formed the Latter Order, in contrast to the Former Order. In 1474 King Dhammazedi sent twenty-two monks to Sri Lanka for reordination and enforced reform and reordination on all monks in his realm. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Sa"ngha was split by the robe dispute: should monks in public cover both shoulders or only one? Under pressure from King Bodapawya the dispute was settled in favor of both shoulders. Most of the present sectarian divisions stem from the indecision of King Mindon. Shwegyn Sayadaw, prot'eg'e of the king and trainer of his sons, called for a return to the Vinaya rules: no sandals, no umbrellas, no monks' attendance at worldly festivals. Mindon recognized the Shwegyn sect, but did not disestablish the existing Thudhamma sect; the division continues, the Thudhamma being the larger of the two. Other sects are the Dwaya, which is close to the Shwegyn, the small Hrigetwin group which frowns on such popular lay practices as worship of Buddha images, lighting of candles, and food offerings, and the highly conservative Pakokku sect, which prides itself on its monks' learning. In addition to these there are many evanescent subsects, each with its special traits but all claiming to be pure Theravada.

British rule (1885-1948) was a misfortune for Buddhism. It ended state support for Buddhist institutions; no provision was made for Sa"ngha supervision by a primate; and missionary or government schools replaced the traditional monastery schools. The Sa"ngha became disorganized and undisciplined, and children were weaned from their Buddhist upbringing. In the restive 1930s the British made a belated effort to authorize national supervision of the Sa"ngha, but it was ineffective. Protests against Britishers wearing shoes within pagoda precincts developed into a strong pro-independence movement in the Sa"ngha, producing a martyr or two. Independence did not bring immediate improvement, for U Nu, though helping Buddhism in every way he could, was preoccupied with the survival of his government. In his final premiership (1960-1962) he sought to make Buddhism the state religion: a Buddhist calendar was instituted; Buddhist institutions were given state support, as were those of other religions in due proportion; monastic schools for the early years were strengthened; a "Buddhist socialism," neither capitalist nor communist, was attempted at state level. The holy experiment lasted only two years. After the military takeover in 1962, the state was secularized and the monks sent back to their monasteries. Lay practice was not greatly affected. A novel feature of contemporary Burmese Buddhism is the popularity of lay meditation, stimulated by U Nu; this is the primary offering of Burma's new missionary outreach to the West.


[1] Buddha images, introduced in the last centuries B.C.E., are probably a Mahaayaana innovation, with no warrant in the P9i Canon, yet they have taken an unshakable hold on the popular imagination in Theravaada countries.

[2] See Maung Htin Aung, Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism, 73-75.

[3] He hoped to be designated a Future Buddha, as Alaungsithu (1112-1167) and Alaungpaya (1752-1760) had been, but was refused the honor. See Mating Htin Aung, A History of Burma, 89.


Aung, Maung Htin. Folk Elements in Burmese Buddhism. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Aung, Maung Htin. Burmese Monks' Tales. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

Aung, Maung Htin. A History of Burma. New York: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Aung-Thwin, Michael. Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, 1923. Translated by Pe Mating Tin and G. H. Luce. Rangoon: Burma Research Society, 1960.

King, Winston L. A Thousand Lives Away - Buddhism in Contemporary Burma, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

King, Winston L. In the Hope of Nibbaana. An Essay on Theravaada Buddhist Ethics. LaSalle: Open Court, 1964.

Mendelson, E. Michael. Sangha and State in Burma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975.

Ray, Niliar Ranjan. An Introduction to the Study of Theravaada Buddhism in Burma. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1946.

Ray, N. Theravaada Buddhism in Burma. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1956.

Sarkisyanz, E. Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1965.

Spiro, Melford E. Buddhism and Society - A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.

Spiro, Melford E. Burmese Supernaturalism - A Study in the Explanation and Reduction of Suffering. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967.


[Originally published in Buddhist Spirituality - Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, edited by Takeuchi Yoshinori (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), pp. 102-8.]


Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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