Buddhism in Myanmar (by Dr. Rewata Dhamma)

Myanmar Buddhism in the present day

The last few decades have seen Buddhism spreading and flourishing in the Western world, and becoming established in the lives and hearts of many people from cultures very different from where the teachings originally came. Many of these people feel the need to have contact with teachers and practitioners from the East and, as part of the process of deepening their own spiritual development, want to have some understanding of the culture and traditions of the countries where Buddhism began.

One such country is Myanmar. But due to the political situation there it had been closed to Westerners for over three decades, opening up again only as recently as 1990. So although there are many Myanmar teachers in the West, still Westerners have not been able to go and see for themselves and consequently they have little real understanding for how Buddhism is actually practiced there. I firmly believe that people visiting Myanmar from the West will be astonished at the vibrancy that Buddhism has there, and how sincerely the ordinary people integrate its practices and ideals into their everyday life in a natural harmony that seems almost effortless.

In Myanmar today there are over 400,000 monks and 75,000 nuns, 6,000 viharas and countless pagodas. About 1,000 of the viharas serve as educational institutions for the monastic community. Some of the larger monasteries have over 1000 monks studying the Buddhist scriptures and meditation practices.

It is interesting that nuns in Myanmar have a much higher status than in some other Eastern countries. Myanmar has the largest number of nuns of any country in the world. They are well respected by their own people and have their own monastic and meditation centers; these being independent institutions in their own right. Many nuns have an equal or greater level of spiritual and scholarly attainment as the monks.

One monastery in Mandalay has 2,600 monks devoted to the study of the Pali Canon, The Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries. Monastic institutions of this type and size are unique in the world today and exist only in Myanmar. There are also several meditation centers, for both lay people and monastics, which can each cater for over 1,000 meditators. The ordinary people of Myanmar are very much involved in supporting all this. They support the existing institutions with great joy and generosity and every day new religious buildings are constructed. How Buddhism came to them originally and why it became so established in their hearts makes interesting reading.

 The Buddha's Teachings spread to Myanmar

According to Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Emperor Asoka of India sent missionaries to nine countries in the III Century BC. It is said that the Venerable Sona and the Venerable Uttara were sent to propagate and teach Buddhism in Suvanabhumi (the 'Golden Land') - present day Lower Myanmar and Thailand. According to Myanmar tradition there were two merchants from Okkala (modern Yangon) who had the privilege of offering the Buddha his first meal following his enlightenment. This was in the seventh week after the enlightenment and the two merchants were traveling to Rajagiri when they passed close to the Bodhi Tree.

They offered the Buddha rice cakes and honey, and asked him for something they could remember him by. The Buddha gave them eight pieces of his hair, which they brought back to their homeland with great respect. The king of Okkala welcomed them with great honor on their return, and the relics were enshrined in a pagoda, and on this site today stands the greatest pagoda in the world - the Shwedagon golden pagoda of Yangon.

The extent of the spread of Buddhism in Myanmar during the first few centuries A.D. is not accurately known. We know for certain though that by the V Century A.D. it was well established and flourishing. But given that Myanmar is so close to India and that good land and sea trade routes did exist, it is possible that Buddhism was becoming established long before this.

Many people migrated from Southern India to Lower Myanmar, bringing wit them both Hinduism and Buddhism. They developed into a race called Mon-Talaing. The Mons were of Mongolian origin and were mixed with the Telagu who were from India. Another group of immigrants to Myanmar originated in Tibet, migrating to the Yunan province of China, and then to Myanmar in the VIII Century A.D. They established a powerful kingdom with its capital at Pagan (Bagan) and gave their name to the whole country in the X Century A.D. At that time Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) was already established. But the king Anawratha the Great was converted to Theravada Buddhism, which he received from Lower Myanmar. Due to his devotion and that of his successors Theravada Buddhism became the main religion of Myanmar. Today Myanmar is recognized as the main centre for Abhidhamma studies and meditation practice. Many western scholars have said that Buddhism in Myanmar is far stronger than in any other country, although since Myanmar reopened to foreigners in 1990 many have still hesitated to visit.

A visit to Myanmar in December 1998

I traveled to Myanmar on 24th November at the invitation of the Myanmar Government, to attend the opening ceremony of the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon on the 9th of December. I welcomed Ven. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche from Scotland with his students, and conducted them on a tour at Yangon and other places. Ven. Lama Yeshe Rinpoche told me that he was very happy to be in Myanmar because he could feel the life and energy that Buddhism has there. Everywhere there are temples and pagodas, and devotees practicing either meditation or rituals according to their temperament and background. Although Myanmar is known as a Theravada country it is not quite the same as Thailand or Sri Lanka.

This is because of the Vajrayana practices that continued in upper Burma (Pagan) up to the XI Century. So even today Vajrayana culture continues alongside the Theravada practices. Ven. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche (who is himself a Tibetan) said many of the things he saw were just like in his homeland: special mudras while meditating, the use of mandalas as meditation objects, the recitation of mantras with rosaries. Also many of the yogis he saw are of the same lineage as the Vajrayana tradition. For these reasons Ven. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche and his disciples felt very happy in Myanmar, and said they would like to return there. One of these, a monk from Spain who had ordained in the Tibetan tradition under the name of Kunsal, decided to remain in Myanmar to study Theravada Buddhism and Abhidhamma. He was given the name Ven. Kunsal Kassapa (and up to 2006 he stayed in Myanmar); where he was allowed to continue his Vajrayana practices alongside with Theravada meditation.

One of the places to which I took Ven. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche and his group was the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, one of the wonders of the world. Kyaiktiyo means “a pagoda shouldered on the head of a hermit”, and a celebrated shrine is on the crest of the Paunglaung ridge. The diminutive Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is just 18ft high. It is built on a huge boulder which balances on a projecting tabular rock. The rock itself is separated from the mountain by a deep chasm which is spanned by an iron bridge. According to legend, at the time of the Buddha, hermits lived in the mountains and after obtaining sacred hairs from the Buddha enshrined them in the pagoda on their respective mountains. But the hermit from Kyaiktiyo, reluctant to part with his share of the sacred relic, treasured it in his hair-knot. Only after finding a boulder resembling his head did he enshrined his cherished share in a pagoda built on it. You can push the boulder and feel it move, but it never falls. The pagoda is situated some 200 miles south east of Yangon.

On the way we stopped at a monastery where over 1000 monks study the Buddhist scriptures. Ven. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche was very pleased to see so many monks. We stayed overnight at the Pagoda which was crowded with visitors, including several Europeans.

We returned to Yangon for the opening ceremony of the new university that took place on 9th of December. This was a state occasion and took place in a vast man made cave built in 1954 for the VI Buddhist Council. Over 2,500 monks took their specially arranged places and about 40 invited senior monks sat on a stage at the front. Ven. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche and his disciples were invited as special guests. Senior government ministers and diplomats also attended. The ceremony was held very much in the Myanmar tradition, which was of great interest to the foreigners attending. The new university has had applications from more than 200 foreign students applying for admission from 17 different countries. Of these, 54 have been accepted this year.

I have been appointed Visiting Professor, and so from time to time I will be helping with teaching there. Of all the Buddhist countries Myanmar is the only one to have monasteries of over 1000 monks. In particular one monastery in Mandalay has 2600 monks. This, together with the innumerable temples and pagodas, makes Myanmar a worthy place of pilgrimage and many people from Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan visit to make offerings.

Some of the Buddhist holy sites in other countries are perhaps valued mainly for the archaeological and cultural aspects, as well as being places of pilgrimage. But in Myanmar the veneration of the ordinary people and their interest in meditation practice, is more tangible. Many people start their day by meditating, chanting and offering prayers and rituals in the temples. Groups of men and women learn chanting of the Dharma and recite these chants on special days. The fabric of people lives is everywhere interwoven with their love of and respect for the teachings of the Buddha.

When you drive through the countryside you will see young boys and girls collecting donations to give to the temples and monasteries not for their own personal benefit. It is popular that young children, boys and girls, ordained as novice monks and nuns during their school holidays and stay in viharas and meditation centers, learning about Buddhist principles and ethical values and meditation practice. In some areas, schools organize mass ordinations of hundreds of young children.

There are many organizations and groups that conduct Buddhist classes for the younger generation. Examinations are held and those who do well are given prizes and certificates.

People from outside Myanmar have often said to me that they regard Myanmar as one of the very poorest countries. But when I meet Westerners who have actually visited Myanmar, I hear a different story. They say they found a lot of happiness among the people there and everywhere people offer much of their earnings to the temples and monasteries with great joy. Yes, materially they are poor by modern western standards, but they are content and happy and they have great spiritual riches. Many senior Mahayana monks who visit Myanmar from Taiwan and Korea and even Tibet have told me how moved they are by what they see. Even though Myanmar is of the Theravada tradition still these monks can see so much that is worthwhile that has been preserved.