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Burmese Buddhism

Burma (Myanmar)

The earliest written evidence of Theravada in the country in Pali dating from about the 5th century AD. In the 11th century AD King Anawrahta (1044-77) converted to Theravada and made Theravada the national religion in 1056. Within two centuries this form of Buddhism became predominant in the region.

When Theravada Buddhism was first introduced, it did not provide much in the way of rites and rituals, but a royal court. King Anawrahta realized that banning the original animistic cult would turn people away from Buddhism, therefore he introduced Nats to Buddhist pantheon. The word Nat originally means "master" and Nat is a spirit that has supremacy over a certain area, group of people or a particular object. And so Nats still present the iconographic foundation of Buddhist pagodas and people still build them temples in villages, under trees, on rice fields.

In the first half of the seventeenth century, Manirathana Thera translated the following texts into the Burmese language: Atthasalini, Sammohavinodani, Kankhavitarani, Abhidhammatthavibhavini, Sankhepavannana. In the second half of the century Kaccayana's Pali grammar was translated. The Abhidhammatthasangaha, Matika, Dhatukatha, Yamaka, and the Patthana were also translated into the Burmese tongue. Later, the Nettippakarana was also translated. In the later half of the century, the bhikkhu Devacakkhobhasa designed a system for the study and teaching of the Patthana, the last book of the Abhidhamma, which in Burmese is believed to be the highest teaching of the Buddha. The twenty-four conditions of the Patthana can be found printed on the fans of the bhikkhus, on calendars, and on posters.

The controversy concerning the correct manner of wearing the robes came up for arbitration for the last time under Bodawpaya (1782-1819). He decided in favor of orthodoxy and all bhikkhus had to cover both shoulders on the daily alms round. This ruling created one unified sect throughout Burmese under the leadership of a council of senior bhikkhus appointed by the king. These were called the Thudhamma Sayadaws and the Thudhamma sect has survived in Burma down to the present day. Bhikkhus who transgressed were taken before religious courts and punished according to the code of discipline.

More Pali texts were translated into the Burmese language during the first half of the nineteenth century. Almost the whole of the Suttanta was now available in Burmese and many commentaries and sub-commentaries on Suttanta, Abhidhamma, and the Vinaya were composed in it. This not only made it easier for bhikkhus to study the texts, but also made them readily accessible to the laymen.

The Okpo Sayadaw (around 1855) assembled the bhikkhus around himself teaching that the Sangha needed no protection from the secular power if it observed the rules of the Vinaya strictly. This movement challenged the authority of king Mindon's (1852-1877) Council of Sayadaws, the leaders of the unified Thudhamma sect. He stated that much of the Buddhist practice had become a ritual and that the essence had been lost. In about the same time, the Ngettwin Sayadaw, together with many other bhikkhus, left the royal city and went to live in the forest near Sagaing. The Ngettwin Sayadaw started to preach that meditation was essential for all bhikkhus and he required an aspirant to novicehood to prove that he had practiced meditation before he would ordain him.

The fact that the Sangha felt more and more independent of King Mindon's Thudhamma council of senior mahatheras eventually force the king to react through the calling of a great Synod, a Sangayana - or Buddhist Council, in the royal city of Mandalay. This is now called the Fifth Buddhist Council, during which all the canonical texts were recited and the correct form was established from among any variant readings. The task took more than three years to accomplish, from 1868 to 1871.

The British annexed lower Burma in the 1820s and finally took over the whole country in 1885. At independence in 1948 Buddhism once again began to receive state support and today about 90% of all Burmese are Buddhists. The country is often described as the Land of Pagodas.

The practice of collecting alms food is a discipline practice by the ordained Sangha, that is monks (bhikkhu - which means a mendicant) and nuns in all Theravada countries. The daily alms-round was practiced by the Buddha and is continued to this day as a means of making merit, by developing generosity, by lay Buddhist and for the material support of the Sangha.   The monks set out each day at first light with their alms-bowls and wander silently through the village or town collecting the food for the day. On returning to the monastery they will share the food and usually eat communally finishing their meal - for some monks their only meal - before midday.

There are five worldly rules or moral principles that every Buddhist should follow. These principles are:

  1. Prohibition of killing.
  2. Prohibition of stealing.
  3. Prohibition of fornication (above all it refers to conjugal adultery).
  4. Prohibition of lying.
  5. Prohibition of consuming narcotic substances.

Every Burmese man is expected to enter a monastery for a shorter period for at least twice in his lifetime. The first time as samanera, a novice monk, the second time as pongyi, i.e. an accomplished monk. Almost all the men and boys under twenty attend a ceremony called Shinpyu, which is organized by a family when their son puts on a monk's frock. All the things, owned by a monk, must be given to the monastic community. At the ordination the new monk is given a suit of three covers - the under, inner and upper one. The light red covers are usually reserved for the novice who are younger than five, while the older monks wrap themselves up in darker covers. A monk must not have any personal belongings except a razor blade, a cup, a water filter, an umbrella and a bowl for alms.

The Theravada Buddhism has also an independent monk branch for women, called Dasasila or "the nuns of ten regulations". They shave their heads, wear pink frocks and respect similar rules as male monks.

Four titles are being awarded to the successful Buddhist monks if they can recite 16000 pages of the Buddhist Canon, i.e., Tipitaka, and also pass the written examination, covering the same as well as the Commentaries and Sub-commentaries. The aim of the examination was to promote the emergence of the outstanding personalities who can memorize and recite the whole of the Tipitaka (7983 pages or about 2.4 million words in Burmese Pali). There are:

    1. Tipitakadhara: Bearer of the Tipitaka ('recitation'),
    2. Tipitakakawida: Bearer of the Tipitaka ('oral' and 'written'),

    3. Maha Tipitakakawida: Passing the 'oral' and 'written' with distinction,
    4. Dhammabhandagarika: Keeper of the Dhamma Treasure.

The first successful candidate was Venerable U Vicittasarabhivamsa, who was later known as the 'Mingun Sayadaw'. He passed the Vinaya part in the 1950 Examination.


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