Buddhism in Myanmar (Burma)

The ancient faith permeates the everyday lives of the people, placing great emphasis on individual achievement. Get up to speed on Burmese Buddhism, with this in-depth examination of this age-old religion...
Novices in Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock
Novices in Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock

Although Christianity and Islam are practised by some minority communities in Myanmar, the overwhelming majority of the population – around 90 percent – are Buddhists. Judged by the proportion of monks in society and the amount of money given as alms or donated to other religious causes, Myanmar may fairly be claimed to be the world’s most fervently Buddhist country, and the influence of the faith is all pervasive. Moreover, the brand of Buddhism practised is unique, blending the precepts of the ancient Theravada school (which adheres most closely to the Buddha’s original teachings) with indigenous forms of spirit, or nat, worship, inherited from the animistic beliefs of the hill tribes as well as by the Hindu-Brahmanism of early traders.

Burmese Buddhist cosmology has also been shaped by millennia of influences from other cultures, particularly that of India. According to the Burmese, the European-Asian continent is called Jambudvipa. It is the southernmost of four islands situated at the cardinal points surrounding Mount Meru, the centre of the world. This southern island is considered to be a place of misery compared to the other abodes of this universe, and the only place where future Buddhas can be born.

Simplifying Buddhism

King Anawrahta, founder of the first Burmese empire in the 11th century AD, devoted his attention to simplifying his kingdom’s spiritual beliefs. When he introduced Theravada Buddhism into Upper Burma as the national religion, he was unable to eliminate the animistic beliefs of his people. Despite his best efforts, the country’s countless folk gods and godesses, or nats, continued to be venerated, serving a similar purpose to the saints of the Catholic Church, to be called upon in times of need. Rather than directly confront the entrenched beliefs of his subjects, Anawrahta chose to incorporate the nats within Burmese Theravada Buddhism, establishing an official pantheon comprising 36 of the most popular nats under the leadership of a 37th figure – Thagyamin – Anawrahta’s new king of the nats. Images of the royally sanctioned 37 Nats were installed around the stupa of his massive new Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan and their worship tolerated within the overall framework of Burmese Theravada Buddhism. A thousand years later they remain as popular as ever, and images of at least one or two nats can be found in every Burmese Buddhist temple right up to the present day.  

Shin Arahan: the great reformer

Legendary in the annals of medieval Burma, Shin Arahan is the missionary monk who, through his influence over four successive Kings of Bagan in the 11th and early 12th centuries, ensured Theravada Buddhism became the state religion at a time when it was fast declining elsewhere in Asia.

Shin Arahan was born in 1034, in the southeastern Mon Kingdom of Thaton. The local rulers had long since embraced Buddhism, but its beliefs and practices were increasingly under threat from Hinduism, which is why Shin Arahan, then a monk in his early 20s, fled north up the Ayeyarwady to meditate in a forest near the capital of Bagan.

Bagan in the mid-11th century the most powerful, prosperous city in central Burma, but its religious life was a wild mix of nat nature spirit worship, Tantricism and Tibetan-influenced Mahayana Buddhism promulgated by an order of forest monks known as the Ari, who were rumoured to engage in debauched rituals strongly disapproved of by Bagan’s King Anawrahta. 

After meeting the hermit, Anawrahta appointed the 22-year-old monk as his chief spiritual adviser. Shin Arahan’s brand of traditional, pure Theravada Buddhism quickly spread across the kingdom, and, by the time of the great reformer’s death at the age of 81, had taken took root in the neighbouring states of Siam (Thailand), Laos and Cambodia, where it remains the predominant school.

Umin Thounzeh caves in Sagaing, Myanmar. Umin Thounzeh caves in Sagaing, Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock

Teachings of the Buddha

The division between the Theravada and Mahayana styles, while already developing for some time, actually occurred in 235 BC when King Ashoka convened the Third Synod at Pataliputra, India. The Buddhist elders (Theravada means “the way of the elders”) held tight to their literal interpretation of the Master’s teaching. They were opposed by a group which sought to understand the personality of the historical Buddha, and its relationship to one’s salvation. The Theravada branch of Buddhism is actually a more conservative, orthodox form of Buddhist thought. The latter group became known as the Mahayana school. It established itself in Tibet, Nepal, China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan and Vietnam, where its further development varied greatly from region to region. The Theravada school, meanwhile, has thrived in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

The Buddha denied the existence of a soul. There is no permanence, he explained, for that which one perceives to be “self”. Rather, one’s essence is forever changing. The idea of rebirth, therefore, is a complicated philosophical question within the structure of Buddhism. When a Buddhist (or any person, for that matter) is reincarnated, it is neither the person nor the soul which is actually reborn. Rather, it is the sum of one’s karma, the balance of good and evil deeds. One is reborn as a result of prior existence. A popular metaphor used to explain this transition is that of a candle. Were a person to light one candle from the flame of another, then extinguish the first, it could not be said that the new flame was the same as the previous one. Rather, in fact, its existence would be due to that of the previous flame. The Noble Eight-fold Path, therefore, does not lead to salvation in the traditional Judeo-Christian sense. By pursuing matters of wisdom, morality and mental discipline, one can hope to make the transition into nibbana (nirvana), which can perhaps best be defined as the extinction of suffering, or cessation of desire. It is not heaven, nor is it annihilation – simply a quality of existence.

Three Jewels, Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path

As there is no true form of worship in the Theravada style of Buddhism, the only true ritual to which both monks and laity submit themselves is the recitation – three times a day – of the “Three Jewels”, or the Triratna: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dhamma. I take refuge in the Sangha.”

The formula of the “Three Jewels” offers solace and security. These are needed for strength, if one understands the “Four Noble Truths” expounded upon by Gautama Buddha in his first sermon:

Life always has in it the element of suffering

The cause of suffering is desire

In order to end the suffering, give up desire and give up attachment

The way to this goal is the Noble Eightfold Path. This consists of right view, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavour, right mindfulness and right meditation. This “path” is normally divided into three areas: view and intent are matters of wisdom; speech, conduct or action, and livelihood are matters of morality; and endeavour, mindfulness and meditation are matters resulting from true mental discipline.

Burmese Buddhist terms

Gyo-daing – small Buddha shrines found in temples. 

Kyaung – a Buddhist monastery.

Pagoda – the English translation of the term “paya”, generally used to describe any Burmese Buddhist temple 

Parabaik – folded palm-leaf manuscript.

Paya – generic term for a Buddhist temple.

Pahto – another word for a temple, generally used to refer to the “hollow” Indian-style temples of Bagan (with interior shrines) as opposed to temples constructed around a solid stupa 

Pongyi – a Buddhist monk.

Pyat-that – multi-roofed pavilions, usually made of wood.

Samsara – cycle of birth and death (rebirth).

Sayadaw – Abbot of a Burmese monastery.

Tazaung – a Buddhist shrine.

Thabeik – a monk’s bowl.

Thilashin – a Buddhist nun.

Zedi – a stupa.

he Shwezigon Pagoda, a famous Buddhist temple in Nyaung-U, Myanmar. The Shwezigon Pagoda, a famous Buddhist temple in Nyaung-U, Myanmar. Photo: Shutterstock

The monk

There are no priests in Theravada Buddhism. But the faithful still need a model to follow on the path to salvation and this is provided by monks. In Myanmar, there are about 400,000 monks (and 50,000 nuns). Most of these are students and novices who don the saffron robe only temporarily; nearly all male Burmese devote a period – from just a few weeks to several years – to the monkhood (sangha).

There are three fundamental rules to which the monk must subscribe. First, the renunciation of all possessions, except eight items: three robes, a razor for shaving, a needle for sewing, a strainer (to ensure that no living thing is swallowed), a belt, and an alms bowl. Second, a vow to injure no living thing and to offend no one. Finally, the vow of complete sexual celibacy. The monk must make his livelihood by seeking alms, setting out two hours before dawn and going from door to door. The food received is the monk’s only meal of the day. A young Burmese begins his novitiate at around the age of nine. For the majority of Burmese, this does not last long. Most would have left the monkhood before their 20th birthday.

Shin Pyu

The most important moment in the life of a young Burmese boy is his shin-pyu – the initiation as a novice in the order of monks. 

Until a Buddhist has gone through the shin-pyu ceremony, he is regarded as being no better than an animal. To become “human”, he must for a time withdraw from secular life, following the example set forth by the Buddha when he left his family to seek enlightenment. Unlike his illustrious predecessor, the novice will probably carry his alms bowl for a short period, then return to his normal lifestyle. But his time spent studying scriptures and strictly following the code of discipline makes him a dignified human being.

During the period between his ninth and twelfth birthdays, a boy is deemed ready to don the saffron-coloured robes of the sangha and become a “son of the Buddha”. If his parents are very pious, they may arrange to have the shin-pyu staged on the full moon day of Waso (June/July), the start of the Buddhist Lent. Once the ceremony has been arranged, the boy’s sisters announce it to the whole village or neighbourhood. Everyone is invited, and contributions are collected for a festival which will dig deep into the savings of the boy’s parents.


The night before a shin-pyu, a feast is prepared for all the monks whose company the young boy will join. The following morning, the novitiate’s head is shaved in preparation. The boy’s mother and eldest sister hold a white cloth to receive the falling hair, and later bury it near a pagoda. This head-shaving is a solemn moment; when completed, the boy looks appropriately like a “son of the Buddha”.

In the weeks before the ceremony, the boy would have been familiarised with the language and behaviour befitting a monk. He would have learned how to address a superior; how to walk with decorum, keeping his eyes fixed on a point 2 metres (6ft) in front of him; and how to respond to the questions put to him at the ceremony. During his novicehood, he will not take any food after noon, sing or play, use cosmetics, sit on any elevated seat, possess any money, interfere in the business of other monks or abuse them. He must not kill, steal, lie, get drunk or have sex. He must not blaspheme or listen to heretical doctrines.

When the boy’s request to enter the monkhood is approved, he prostrates himself three times. He is robed, and now he is ready to walk the path of perfection first trodden by the Buddha. If he is steadfast enough, he might even reach nirvana. Once the sayadaw – the abbot who has presided over the ceremony – hangs the novitiate’s thabeit alms bowl) over his shoulder, the boy’s childhood is left behind. He has been accepted as a monk. During his time in the monastery, his parents must address him in honorific terms. He will call them “lay sister” and “lay brother”, the same names he calls others not in the monkhood.

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