Buddhism in Burma, Part 1

Overview and History

Buddhism in Burma (or Myanmar) has made news in recent years. The monks of Burma and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi resisted the military junta that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. More recently, a faction within the monastic sangha has incited violence against the Muslim minority in Burma.

Nearly 90 percent of the people of Burma are considered Theravada Buddhists. Of Burma's 60 million people, it is estimated that at least 500,000 are Buddhist monks and another 75,000 are nuns.

Buddhism in Burma tends to be conservative and more focused on ethical conduct than on metaphysics. Devout Buddhist families maintain altars in their homes and expect the sons of the household to enter the monastic sangha for at least a little while.

For centuries Buddhism has permeated Burmese culture. Indeed, Buddhism is credited with binding together the diverse ethnic groups within its borders and making them one nation. For centuries monks were the chief educators of Burma, spreading knowledge and literacy.

Early Buddhist Legends

Burmese legends say the historical Buddha visited Burma four times. During one visit he left a footprint in the rock of the Saccabandha Mountain in central Burma, and on his return journey he left another footprint by what is now called the Narmada River in India. These impressions are visited by pilgrims to this day.

On another visit, it is said the Buddha left behind an image of himself that was an exact likeness.

A statue believed to be this same image, called the Mahamuni image, is enshrined in a temple near Mandalay. It is also believed that three hairs of the Buddha were enshrined in a Emperor Ashoka of India (304-232 BCE), although no archaeological evidence supports this.

According to the archaeological evidence we do have, it is most likely that Theravada Buddhism was first adopted by the Pyu people of what is now southern Burma during the 4th century CE.

There the dharma flourished for several centuries.

Meanwhile, another ethnic group, the Mranma, moved into what is now northern Burma in the 9th century. The Mranma may have practiced a form of Vajrayana Buddhism.

In the mid-11th century, King Anawratha of northern Burma was converted to Theravada by a prominent monk named Shin Arahan. King Anawratha' desired copies of the Pali Canon to share with his people. When the king of southern Burma refused to share any part of his collection, Anawratha invaded and conquered southern Burma in 1057. Thus Burma was unified, with Theravada Buddhism as its official religion.

A Note About Nats

Nats are guardian spirits from Burmese folklore. King Anawratha wanted to put an end to nat worship, but this proved to be so unpopular that he allowed nat worship to continue. Anawratha designated 37 official nats, which are the Great Nats, although there are a host of lesser nats.

Thus nats came to be incorporated into Burmese Buddhism. Images of nats adorn Buddhist temples, and people make offerings to nats to ask for favors.

Other Burmese History

Although the dynasty founded by King Anawratha fell in the 13th century, Burma would remain a predominantly Buddhist country to the present day.

In the 19th century three Anglo-Burmese wars brought Burma under British control, and in 1886 Burma became a province of British India. Britain separated Burma from India in 1937 and made it a crown colony. Burma became an independent nation in 1946.

In 1962 a military coup ousted the elected government. In 1987 waves of anti-government riots began, and Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a leader of the opposition to the government, even though she was under house arrest for most of the next several years.

In 1988, the government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar.

In 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks took to the streets in nonviolent protests against the government, an action that came to be called the "Saffron Revolution." In September 2007 the junta cracked down. Monks were exiled or arrested; many disappeared and were presumed to have been killed.

Pressured by sanctions and world opinion, the military junta reluctantly allowed elections to be held in 2010 that gave Burma an ostensibly democratic government, although the fairness of the election was much disputed. More reformers were elected into government in 2012; Aun Sang Suu Kyi herself became a member of Parliament.

Part 2 of Buddhism in Burma looks at the ongoing violence between Rohingya Muslims and Burmese Buddhists.

For more on the nation of Burma, see "Myanmar (Burma) | Facts and History."