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Buddhist Revival in Burma
Phra Rajavaramuni

I. Politicizing while Invigorating Burmese Buddhism

Burma under British rule was not so much subject to religious suppression as Ceylon. Europeanization was not so great there as to affect much the cultural life of the Burmese, since the British administered Burma only as a part of India and the British colonial period there was much shorter than in Ceylon. There was little to be called a Buddhist revival directly resulting from the reaction to the colonial rule. Still there was an identification between Buddhism and nationalism. This was caused by an attachment to and pride in the historical religion as the national heritage on the one hand, and by political advantages on the other. There were cultural conflicts with Europeans, especially the "no footwear controversy," which led Buddhist monks to more violent political actions. However, there was a division between the monks. It was the younger monks, not the older Sayadaws, who involved themselves in politics. These monks joined in the uprisings against British rule.

Burmese political leaders, meanwhile, relied heavily on Buddhism to support their leadership and unify the country. The people of Burma belong to many races and speak many languages. Besides the Burmans and the Monks, there were such sizable minorities as the Karens, the Chins, the Kachins and the Shans, who were largely mountain people and occupied fifty percent of the Burmese land. These minorities made up twenty-five percent of the population, while the Burmans who lived in the other fifty percent formed seventy-five percent. Political leaders had to find ways of telling the people that they were a nation. As 85 percent of the people were Buddhists, they found in Buddhism this unifying element.

In contrast to Ceylon, Christian missionary work in Burma not directly supported by the colonial power made considerable progress among animistic tribal peoples, especially among the Karens. The conversion of these peoples even more alienated them from the Burmese majority. Postwar political events convinced the Burmese Buddhists that Christianity was a religion hostile to the Burmese state. They believed the religion brought with it foreign intervention and caused political and economic oppression. Marxism or Communism was also condemned as state capitalism, which was far worse than ordinary capitalism. This led the leaders of the Burmese revolution to advance a form of Burmese state socialism based on the principles of Buddhism.

Though monks played a prominent part in the early days of the independence movement, later they faded into the background. On achieving independence in 2489/1946, the revolution leader even declared a policy of not mixing religion, and politics. But in post -independence years the pongyis (monks) appeared again on the political scene as political leaders tried to win their support. By promising to amend the constitution to make Buddhism the state religion and with his programme of Buddhist socialism, U Nu saw a number of pongyis actively campaigning for him and he won a landslide victory in the election of 2503/1960.

U Nit's great contribution to the Buddhist revival in Burma was the holding of the Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon in 2497-2499/1954-6.[1] The World Peace Pagoda called Kabaa-Aye and the Great Cave called Mahaaguhaa (as a reproduction of the Mahaa Paasaa.na Guhaa where the First Council met), capable of seating 10,000 people, were built along with the International Institute for Advanced Buddhist Studies,[2] a new library, a publishing house and other large buildings providing lodging for pilgrims and living quarters for researchers. Among the chief purposes of the Council were to provide for the recension of the Pali texts, to have them printed and put in world-wide distribution, and to encourage missionary work by establishing a world-wide Buddhist mission and directing the work particularly to Europe and America. After opening on May 17, 1954, the Council concluded on May 24, 1956, the full moon day of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha's Great Decease. About 2,000 monks from various Buddhist countries came to attend this Council. The Council roused in Burmese Buddhists a new zeal for the restoration of religious glory and has achieved the publication in Burmese (Maramma) script of a complete set of the Pali Canon and the Commentaries, and a large number of other post-canonical works. The voluminous Pali-Burmese Dictionary, the biggest of the existing Pali dictionaries, is also a great achievement of the Burmese Sangha and it, too, is published by the Buddha S5sana Council at Kabd-Aye in Rangoon. Induced by the Council, some Burmese monks went to Thailand to preach the Abhidhamma and to teach some methods of meditation as practised in Burma, while a number of Thai monks and novices, mostly from Wat Mahaadhaatu, came to Burma to study and practise the same.

It should be noted that Burma has been famous for the study of the Abhidhamma. The tradition of Abhidhamma study still continues and all are encouraged to sit for government examinations in the Abhidhamma. Great emphasis has also been placed on the practice of meditation and many meditation centres for laymen have been set up, especially in Rangoon and Mandalay. Among the learned monks of Burma who have specialized in the Abhidhamma and meditation practice, the name of Ledi Sayadaw stands foremost.[3] After him, Mahaasii sayadaw (U Sobha.na Mahaathera) is an international figure, well known in the meditation circle, through whose efforts the Burmese method of insight meditation (Vipassanaa) has spread to Thailand (with a centre at Wat Mahaadhaatu) and Sri Lanka.

II. A New Trend or a Readjustment

It is said that under the monarchy of the 19th century when Buddhist studies flourished, monks were strict in discipline. The king appointed a hierarchy headed by a Sa"ngharaaja to regulate the affairs of the Order. Under the British rule, no new patriarch was appointed. Eventually, the British ruler made arrangements for the monks to elect a head for themselves. Since then, discipline in the monasteries has become lax. Many younger monks became involved in politics. There were even small groups of monks who formed gangs demanding protection money from theaters in Mandalay. The monkhood did not receive direct government support. Their influence on the political parties was the only tie they had to the state.

In August 2504/1961, Buddhism was made the state religion by a vote of 324 to 28. The event, however, did not please some minority groups in the hill country, especially the Kachins and the Karens who had been converted to Christianity. Uprising problems developed at the time when economic conditions had become worse. On March 2, 2505/1962, General Ne Win seized power, suspended the constitution and proclaimed a new anti-Communist government under a Revolutionary Council. Its policy and social and economic ideas were outlined in the document called "The Burmese Way to Socialism," in which Buddhist thought and Marxism could join. But the new leading role was to be played by the socialist military, not the pongyis. Ne Win returned to the policy of the leader of the Burmese independence movement, that is, to separate religion from politics.

In August 2507/1964, a number of pongyis attacked and destroyed the printing press and the office of a Mandalay newspaper which published an article "A reminder to keep the Saasana pure." Then, the Ne Win government issued a statement, saying, "from now onwards the revolutionary government will have to defend itself against bogus sanghas who have merely adorned the yellow robe to oppose the government at every available opportunity." At the end of the year, senior monks agreed to formulate a new code of conduct and form a hierarchy to enforce the strict rules of monkbood.

In 2508/1965, young pongyis in many parts of Burma condemned the revolutionary government as anti-religious and urged its overthrow. On April 27, ninety-two pongyis were arrested by the government. By showing public evidence of the corruption of the arrested monks, the government prevented popular opposition and won the approval of the monkhood. As the government action was proved to be an effort to purify the Sangha, the political role of the pongyis was crushed. This was followed by many meritorious activities on the part of the government to show that it supported Buddhism only in a non-political role. To a great extent, the government has met with success.

The above story may be summed up in Mr. Schecter's words, "In Burma the monks have failed to serve as anything more than a critical and negative force; since their contribution to independence, they have spent their efforts in holding on to past prerogatives rather than offering initiatives . . .It (the Ne Win government) has tried to apply Buddhist principles to social, economic and political change, leaving the clergy behind."[4]

To many people, however, the attitude of the Ne Win regime towards Buddhism has been negative or doubtful. At least, it is apparent that the rich government support to Buddhist activities formerly given by U Nu has been reduced to a deficiency. The majestic work of publishing Buddhist texts and translations, though not brought to a complete stop, has hardly continued. The advancement of Buddhist studies and propagation has been barely encouraged or even checked by some government restrictions, though there is now a sign of some improvement.

Before World War 11, there were about 800,000 monks and novices in Burma. Today the number may lie between 80,000 and 120,000 or, according to some private source, 350,000. Of this number about 33,000 are novices. Among the several sects of Theravada Buddhism, the Thuddama sect is the most numerous, while the Shwegyin sect, though smaller, is an important and influential branch.

Standards of monastic discipline and learning vary considerably from monastery to monastery. Since the Sixth Buddhist Council, the focus of religious life has gradually been moving from Mandalay in Upper Burma to Rangoon in Lower Burma, where Buddhist centres of higher learning have been founded.


[1] Or 2498/1954-6 according to the Burmese calendar.

[2] Its cornerstone was laid by Prime Minister U Nu on April 3, 2497/1954.

[3] Other notable scholars are Abhidhaja Mahaa Ra.t.tha-Guru Nyaungyan Sayadaw (a Sangha-naayaka), Ven. Mingun Sayadaw (U Naarada), Z. Aung, Prof. Maung Tin and Rev. Pa~n~naaloka.

[4] Jerrold Shecter, The New Face of Buddha (Tokyo: John Weatherhill, 1967), 00.128-9.


[Originally published in Rajavaramuni, Phra Prayudh Payutto. Thai Buddhism in the Buddhist World. (Bangkok: Mahachulalongkorn Buddhist University, 1st Ed. 1984), pp. 72-77].


Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 3-5-2000

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