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MyanmarTravel.Info  - amigo tour, myanmar travel, myanmar travels, myanmar tour, myanmar tours, myanmar tour operator, myanmar tour guideReligion

Around 87% of Burmese are Buddh ist. During the U Nu period Buddhism functioned as a state religion of sorts - as embodied in such catch-phrases as 'the Socialist Way to Nibbana' . Nowadays there is complete freedom of religion, though within the government Buddhists tend to attain higher rank more easily than non-Buddhists, simply because Buddhism is considered a key element in bama hsan-jin.

An appreciation of Buddhism and its history in Myanmar is a prerequisite for outsiders wishing to better understand the Burmese mind.

Burmese Buddism

Early Buddhism & Theravada Reform

The Mon were the first people in Myanmar to practice Theravada Buddhism, called the Southern School since it took the southern route from India, its place of origin. King Asoka, the great Indian emperor and devout Buddhist convert, is known to have sent mossions during the 3rd century BC to Suvannabhumi, or the Golden Land - an area taken to be the fertile river deltas of what are today Myanmar, Thialand and Vambodia. A second wave is thought to have arrived in South-East Asia via Sinhalese missionaries from present-day Sri Lanka, sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries.

By the 9th century the Pyu of Upper Myanmar were combining. Theravada with elements of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism brought with them from their homelands on or near the Tibetan Plateau. When the Bamar of Bagan supplanted the Pyu they inherited this amalgamated form.

During the early Bagan era (11th century), Bamar king Anawrahta decided that the Buddhism practised in his realm should be 'purified' of all non-Theravada elements, a task he set for Mon monks captured by his armies in Thaton, Lower Myanmar. Although rid of Mahayana, Tantric, Hindu and animist elements, his efforts were remarkably successful in bringing the Burmese around to a predominantly Theravada world-view.

History & Tenets

Strictly speaking, Theravada Buddhism is not a theism like Hinduism, Judaism, Islam or Christianity, since it is not centred around a god or gods, but rather is based on a psychophilosophical system. Today it covers a wide range of interpretations of the basic beliefs, which all start from the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince-turned-ascetic, in northern India around 2500 years ago. Gautama was not the first Buddha, nor is he expected to be the last.

Neither Buddha (The Enlightened) nor his immediate pupils ever wrote the dhamma (Buddhist teachings) down, so a schism developed a thousand years after Gautama's death and today there are two major schools of Buddhism. The Theravada (doctrine of the elders) school holds that to achieve nibbana (nirvana), the eventual aim of every Buddhist, you must 'work out your own salvation with diligence'. In other words it is up to each individual to work out his or her own fate.
The Mahayana (large vehicle) school holds that individuals should forego the experience of nibbana until all humankind is ready for salvation. The goal is to become a Bodhisattva (Buddha-to-be), rather than a fully enlightened Buddha. From this perspective, no one can enter nibbana without the intervention of a Bodhisattva.

The Mahayana school have not rejected the other school, but claim they have extended it. Hence Mahayanists often refer to Theravada as Hinayana (small vehicle) Buddhism. The Theravandins, on the other hand, see Mahayana as a misinterpertation of the Buddha's original teachings. To those who would choose, Mahayana offers the 'soft option' (have faith and all will be well), while the Theravada is more austere and ascetic, and, some might say, harder to practise.

In the Buddhist world today, Theravada Buddhism is followed in countries such as Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. Mahayana Buddhism is practised in Vietam, Japan, China, Taiwan and Singapore. There is also a variety of more esoteric divisions of Buddhism such as the Hindu-influenced Tantric Buddhism such as the Hindu-influenced Tantric Buddhism of Tibet and Nepal, and the Zen Buddhism of Japan, all of which are forms of Mahayana in general principle, since they adhere to the Bodhisattva ideal.

Today the majority of Buddists in Myanmar belong to the Theravada sect; those who profess Mahayana Buddhism comprise fewer than 1% virtually all of whom are of Chinese descent.

Buddha taught that the world is primarily characterised by dukkha(unsatisfactoriness, infelicity), anicca(impermanence) and anatta (insubstantiality), and that even our happiest moments are only temporary, empty and unsatisfactory.

The ultrapragmatic Buddhist perception of cause and effect - kamma in Pali, karma in Sanskrit, kan in Burmese - holds that birth inevitably leads to sickness, old age and death, hence every life is insecure and subject to dukkha. Through rebirth, the cycle of thanthaya (Pail: samsara) repeats itself endless as long as ignorance and craving - the remote and proximate causes of birth - remain.

Only by reaching a state of complete wisdom and nondesire can one attain true inward and master one's own mind through meditation, most commonly known to the Burmese as bhavana or kammahtan.
Buddha preached four noble truths:
1. Life is dukkha.
2. Dukkha comes from tanha (selfish desire).
3. When one forsakes selfish desire, suffering will be extinguished.
4. The 'eightfold' path is the way to eliminate selfish desire.

The eightfold path is divided into three stages: sila (morality), samadhi (concentration), and panna (wisdom and insight). The eightfold path consists of:

1: Right speech
2. Right action
3. Right livelihood
4. Right exertion
5. Right attentiveness
6. Right concentration
7. Right thought
8. Right understanding

This is an evolutionary process through many states of spiritual development until the ultimate goal is reached - death, no further rebirths, entry to nibbana. To the western mind this often seems a little strange for most westerners death is the end, not something to be looked forward to but something to be feared.

In addition to the four noble truths and the eightfold path, devout Burmese Buddhists adhere to five lay precepts, or moral rules (thila in Burmese, sila in Pali), which require abstinece from:

1. Killing
2. Stealing
3. Unchastity (usually interpreted among laypeople as adultery)
4. Lying
5. Intoxicating substances.

Along with the moral and philosophical tenets outlined above, Buddhism emphasises love, compassion, nonviolence and tolerance of other belief systems. This tolerance has often resulted in its assimilation into other religions, as eventually happened in India with Hinduism, or in its absorption of already extant beliefs, as happened with the Burmese nats. The personal experience one has of Buddhism remains similar from country to country despite local adaptations, changes, amalgamations and inclusions: an overriding impression of warmth and gentleness, and a religion practised by sympathetic people who are always eager to explain their beliefs.

Rebirth vs Reincarnation

In Myanmar the Buddhist concept of rebirth has been corrupted over the years into a common belief in reincarnation. If you're good, some say, ' women can be reborn men, poor men as rich men, non-Burmese as Burmese - it's all very logical'. Actually Buddha taught that there is no part of a person that can be called the soul, and that rebirth is the continuation of a mental or physical process rather than the transfer of a spiritual entity from one life rank to another.

Nibbana - liberation from the mundane world of mental and physical bondage - is the only goal worth pursuing, since all lives, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, are forever subject to suffering, impermanence and lack of meaning. Effectively, nibbana is an end to the cycle of rebirth (both moment to moment and life to life) that define existence.

Kan is central to the doctrine of rebirth, but it's not fate, as sometimes described, but rather the ultimate law of causation. Not only does rebirth result from actions we have committed in a previous life, but each moment in our lives is the result of previous moments - during each of which we made conscious or unconscious choice that determined our current lot. At each and every moment one has the opportunity to improve one's kan; thus, in Theravada Buddhism each person alone is responsible for his or her destiny, not only from life to life but from moment to moment. Buddha did not claim that his way was the only way, simply that no one can escape the natural laws of causation.

In spite of these obviously profound truths, the most common Burmese approach is to try for a better future life by feeding monks, giving donations to temples and performing regular worship at the local paya. For the average Burmese, everything revolves around the kutho (merit), from the Pali kusala (wholesome), one is able to accumulate through such deeds. One of the more typical rituals performed by individuals visiting a stupa is to pour water over the Buddha image at their astrological post (determined by the day of the week they were born) - one glassful for every year of their current age plus one extra to ensure a long life. Asked what they want in their next life, most Burmese will put forth such seemingly mundane and materialistic values as beauty and wealth - or rebirth somewhere beyond the reach of the military regime.

Monks & Nuns

Socially, every Burmese male is expected to take up temporary monastic residence twice in his life: once as a samanera (novice monk between the ages of 5 and 15) and again as a pongyi (fully ordained monk, sometime after age 20). Almost all men or boys under 20 years of age participate in the shinpyu (novitiation ceremony) - quite a common event since a family earns great merit when one of its sons takes robes and bowl. A samanera adheres to 10 precepts or vows, which include the usual prohibitions against stealing, lying, killing, intoxication and sexual involvement, along with ones forbidding: eating after noon; listening to music or dancing; wearing jewellery, and accepting money for personal use. A novice usually lasts a week or two - nine days is an auspicious number.

Later in life a male should spend three months as a hpongyi at a monastery during Waso (the Buddhist Lent), which begins in July and coincides with the rainy season.. For many men the post-rice harvest, hot-season hiatus between January and April is a more convenient time. Some men spend as little as three to nine says to accrue merit as monks. Others may enter the monkhood a third time, since there is considered an especially lucky number.
There are currently an estimated 250,000 monks in Myanmar; this number includes the many monks who have ordained for life as well as those undergoing temporary ordination. Of these a significant percentage become scholars and teachers, while some specialise in healing, folk magic or nat exorcism.

All things possessed by a monk must be offered by the lay community. Upon ordination a new monk is typically offered a set of three robes (lower, inner and outer), costing around K2000 for a standard grade cloth of cotton or dacron, a bit more for the thick acrylic robes worn during the cool season. Bright red robes are usually reserved for novices under 15, darker colours for older, fully ordained monks. Other possessions he is permitted include a razor, a cup, a filter (for keeping insects out of drinking water), an umbrella and an alms bowls made in Inwa or Sagaing; monks carry them to gather their daily food from householders in their monastery precincts.

At one time the Theravada Buddhist world had a separate Buddhist monastic lineage for females, who called themselves bhikkhuni and observed more vows than monks did - 311 precepts as opposed to the 227 followed by monks. Started in Sri Lanka around two centuries after the Buddha's lifetime by the daughter of King Asoka, the bhikkuni tradition in Sir Lanka eventually died out and was unfortunately never restored.

In Myanmar, the modern equivalent are women who live the monastic life as dasasila (' Ten - Percept' nuns ), often called thilashin (possessor of morality) in Burmese. Burmese nuns shave their heads, wear pink robes, and take vows in an ordination procedure similar to that undergone by monks. Burmese nuns don't go out on daily alms-food rounds but they do collect dry food provisions every 15 days in most locales, or as often as once a week in some places.

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