Revival (III). Burmese Buddhism
89% of Myanmar’s population practices Buddhism, and is predominantly of Theravada tradition. It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and the proportion of income spent on religion. It is very likely that Buddhists are among the dominant Bamar people, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Karen, Zo and Chinese who are well integrated into Burmese society. The monks, known collectively as the sangha, are revered members of Burmese society. Among many ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in conjunction with nat worship, which involves the appeasement of spirits who can intercede in mundane affairs.
With respect to the daily routines of Buddhists in Myanmar, there are two most popular practices: doing merits and Vipassanā. The weizza way is the least popular; it is an esoteric form somewhat linked to the Buddhist aspiration that involves the occult.
Merit is the most common path undertaken by Burmese Buddhists. This path implies the observance of the Five Precepts and the accumulation of good merits through charity and good works (Dana) to obtain a favorable rebirth.
The vipassana path, which has emerged locally in the twentieth century, is a form of meditation that is said to lead to enlightenment.
The Weizza path is an esoteric system of occult practices (such as spell recitation, samatha and alchemy) that is believed to lead to life as weizza (also written weikza), a semi-immortal and supernatural being that awaits the appearance of the future Buddha , Maitreya.
According to the Mahavamsa, a legendary Pāli chronicle of the fifth century of Sri Lanka, Asoka sent two bhikkhus, Sona and Uttara, to Suvarnabhumi around 228 BC with other monks and sacred texts, including books (it should be noted that the scriptures were not written for the first time until more than a century later).
An inscription by Andhra Ikshvaku from about the 3rd century CE refers to the conversion of the Kiratas to Buddhism, which is believed to have been Tibetan and Burmese peoples of Myanmar. The first Chinese texts of about the same date speak of a «Kingdom of Liu-Yang», where all people worshiped the Buddha and there were several thousand Samaṇas. This kingdom has been identified with a region somewhere in central Burma. A series of epigraphic records in Pāli, Sanskrit, Pyu and Mon datable to the 6th and 7th centuries, has been recovered from central and lower Burma (Pyay and Yangon). From the eleventh to the thirteenth century, the Bamar kings and the queens of the Pagan Kingdom built innumerable stupas and temples.
The age of Ari Buddhism, of the Mahāyana tradition, included the worship of bodhisattvas and nāgas.
Theravada Buddhism was implanted in Bagan for the first time in the 11th century by King Bamar Anawrahta (1044-1077). In the year 1057, Anawratha sent an army to conquer the mon city of Thaton to obtain the Tipiṭāka of the Canon Pāli. He was converted by a bhikkhu mon, Shin Arahan, to Theravada Buddhism. Shin Arahan’s advice led to the acquisition of thirty sets of pāli scriptures from King Mon Manuhal by force. The Mon culture, from that moment, became widely assimilated in the Bamar culture based in Bagan.
Despite attempts at reform, certain characteristics of Mahāyana Buddhism continued, both Ari and traditional native worship, such as reverence for the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara (Lawka nat).
The successive kings of Bagan continued to build large numbers of monuments, temples and pagodas in honor of Buddhism, and there is evidence in no inscription of a Theravadin monastery for nuns since 1279.
The Burmese government in Bagan continued until the first Mongol invasion of Burma in 1287. Towards the end of the 13th century, Buddhism declined due to the invasion of the Tatars.
In the 14th century, another lineage was imported from Sri Lanka to Ayutthaya, the capital of the Thai Ayutthaya Kingdom. A new line of ordination, a revival of the Thai forest tradition, entered Myanmar.
The Shan, meanwhile, established themselves as rulers throughout the region now known as Myanmar. Thihathu, a shan king, established the government in Bagan by condescending and building many monasteries and pagodas.
The Mon kingdoms, often ruled by Shan chiefs, fostered Theravada Buddhism in the 14th century. Wareru, who became king of Mottama, sponsored Buddhism and established a code of laws, the Dhammasattha, compiled by Buddhist monks. King Dhammazedi, formerly a bhikkhu Mon, established the government at the end of the 15th century in Inwa and unified the sangha in the territories of Mon. It also standardized the ordination of monks established in the Kalyani Inscriptions. Dhammazedi moved the capital back to Hanthawaddy (Bago). His mother-in-law, Queen Shin Sawbu, was also a great patron of Buddhism. She is credited with the construction and gilding of the Shwedagon Pagoda, giving her own weight in gold.
The Bamars, who had fled to Taungoo before the invasion of Shan, established a kingdom there under the reigns of Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, who conquered and unified most of modern Myanmar. These monarchs also adopted the Mon culture and patronized Theravada Buddhism.
In the reigns of later kings, the Taungoo dynasty became increasingly volatile and was overthrown by the Mon.
The Mon is an ethnic group of Myanmar that lives mainly in the state of Mon, in the Bago region, in the Irrawaddy delta and on the southern border of Thailand and Myanmar. One of the first peoples to reside in Southeast Asia, the mon were responsible for the spread of Theravada Buddhism in Indochina. The Mon were an important source of influence on the culture of Myanmar. They speak the Mon language, an Austro-Asiatic language, and share a common origin with the Nyah Kur people of Thailand.
The current royal family of Thailand are of Mon lineage.
The Mon were assimilated into Thai culture long ago, however, the real women of the Chankri dynasty make and keep alive their Mon inheritance in the Thai court. The western Mon of Myanmar was largely absorbed by the Bamar society. They have worked to preserve their language and culture and to recover a greater degree of political autonomy. The Mon of Myanmar are divided into three subgroups based on their ancestral region in Lower Myanmar.
In the mid-eighteenth century, King Alaungpaya defeated the Mon, expanded the Bamar kingdoms and established the Konbaung dynasty.Under the Bodawpaya government, a son of Alaungpaya, a unified sect of monks («Thudhamma») was created within the kingdom. Bodawpaya restored ties with Sri Lanka, allowing mutual influence on religious matters. During the reigns of the Konbaung kings that followed, secular and religious literary works were created. King Mindon Min moved his capital to Mandalay.
After Lower Burma had been conquered by the British, Christianity began to gain acceptance. Many monks from Lower Burma had resettled in Mandalay, but by Min Min’s decree, they returned to serve lay Buddhists.The schisms arose in the sangha; they were resolved during the Fifth Buddhist Synod, held in Mandalay in 1871.
The fifth council was convened in Mandalay in Myanmar on the first shrinking day of Tazaungmone, 1232 Era of Myanmar, 2415 BE (November 1871). The scriptures inscribed on the palm leaves could not last long. In addition, there may be many variations in the rewriting of writings from one copy to another. Therefore, the scriptures were inscribed on marble slabs to dispel these disadvantages.
Two thousand four hundred bhikkhus led by the Venerable Jagarabhivamsa Thera (Tipitakadhara Mahadhammarajadhirajaguru) of the Dakkhinarama Monastery, Mandalay, met to recite and approve the Scriptures. King Mindon initiated and supported the Fifth Great Council until the end. The scriptures were first inscribed on seven hundred and twenty-nine marble slabs) in the Lokamarajina pagoda precinct, at the foot of the Mandalay hill.
From 1860 to 1868, the Tipitaka was engraved on 729 marble slabs and assembled in the Kuthodaw pagoda. Seven years, six months and fourteen days went by to finish this work. Then, the bhikkhus recited to approve the inscriptions for five months and three days. In 1871, a new hti (the golden umbrella that crowns a stupa) inlaid with crown jewels was also donated by Mindon Min to the Shwedagon now in British Burma After the Fifth Great Council. the Pāli Texts were translated into the Myanmar language, and the Doctrinal Order was promulgated throughout the country for the purification and propagation of the Buddha’s Teachings.
During the British administration of Lower and Upper Burma, also known as Birma Proper, the government’s policies were secular, which meant that the monks were not protected by law. Nor was Buddhism frequented by the colonial government. This gave rise to tensions between the colonized Buddhists and their European rulers.
There was much opposition (including by the Irish monk U Dhammaloka) to the efforts of Christian missionaries to convert the Burmese, Bamar, Shan, Mon, Rakhine and the Karen plains, with one exception: hill tribes.Today, Christianity is most commonly practiced by the Kuki, Kachin and Kayin. Despite the traditional avoidance of political activity, monks often participated in politics and the struggle for independence.
Since 1948, when the country gained its independence from Great Britain, the civil and military governments supported Theravada Buddhism. The Constitution of 1947 states: «The State recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the vast majority of the citizens of the Union.» The Ministry of Religious Affairs, created in 1948, was responsible for managing Buddhist affairs in Myanmar. In 1954, the Prime Minister, U Nu, convened the Sixth Buddhist Synod at the Kaba Aye Pagoda in Yangon, attended by 2,500 monks, and established the World Buddhist University.
During the military government of Ne Win (1962-1988), he tried to reform Myanmar under the Burmese Path to Socialism, which contained elements of Buddhism. In the 8888 Uprising, many monks participated and were killed by Tatmadaw soldiers. The following military regime, the State Council of Peace and Development (SPDC) sponsored Buddhism, although the persecution of Buddhists opposed to the regime persists, as well as people of other religions, such as Islam and Christianity.
The Buddhist monks, revered throughout Burmese society, are approximately 500,000 strong. The nuns form an additional 75,000. The monks belong to one of the two primary monastic orders Thudhamma Nikaya (88% of the Buddhist monks) and the more orthodox Shwegyin Nikaya (7% of the Buddhist monks).
The Burmese monastic orders do not differ in the doctrine but in the monastic practice, the lineage and the structure of the organization.
Other minor monastic orders include the Dwara Nikaya in Lower Burma, and Hngettwin Nikaya in Mandalay, which have a few thousand member monks. There are nine monastic orders legally recognized in Burma today, under the 1990 Law on Sangha organizations. There are also esoteric or weizza Buddhist sects not recognized by any authority that incorporate non-Buddhist elements such as alchemy, magic and occultism.
The overwhelming majority of Burmese monks wear brown robes, while others wear ocher, unlike neighboring Theravada countries such as Thailand, Laos and Sri Lanka, where monks usually wear saffron robes.
The Rohingyas are a Bengali Muslim ethnic group from the north of the Rakáin State (formerly Arakan), in Western Burma. The Rohingya population is mainly concentrated in two municipalities of Rakáin bordering Bangladesh (Maungdaw and Buthidaung), and extends into three municipalities, Akyab, Rathedung and Kyauktaw.
According to Amnesty International, Rohingya Muslims have suffered human rights violations under the Burmese junta since 1978 for their opposition to the formation of a Buddhist state in Burma, and as a result many have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.
As of May 2012, they were victims of anti-Muslim violence instigated by the 969 movement led by the Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu. The attacks began six days after three Rohingya men raped and murdered a young Buddhist woman in the state of Rakáin. Although the defendants were quickly detained – two were sentenced to death and the third committed suicide – exalted Buddhists assaulted a bus carrying ten Muslim leaders who were beaten to death, without any arrest. Since then the attacks have happened with the result of more than three hundred deaths. In addition, the 969 Movement has proposed that a law prohibiting marriages of different creeds be approved, alleging that Muslims, when they marry Buddhist women, force them to embrace Islam as established by sharia, and has called for boycott of stores owned by Muslims.
The Government of Burma has supported this anti-Muslim policy and has detained more than 140,000 people in the ghetto of Aungmingalar, located in the center of the city of Sittwe and in the dozen camps of internally displaced persons in the State of Rakáin. There they live in subhuman conditions and without anyone being able to enter or leave them without the permission of the authorities. They survive thanks to the rations distributed by the World Food Program and the work of various international NGOs, which have suffered the attacks of extremist Buddhists. The Rohingya leaders have denounced the apartheid they are being subjected to.
What is happening is a full-fledged ethnic cleansing, with the connivance of the Government and the silence of the international community. There are numerous documents that attest to the existence of the Rohingyas since the 8th century. Since then there have been confrontations, but most of the time we have lived in peace. If now the situation has exploded, and it does not seem that it is going to improve, it is for electoral reasons. And the problem is that it is not even an exclusive conflict of the Rohingya and Rakáin ethnic groups, but a war between Muslims and Buddhists.
In August 2017, the Burmese army began an operation of «ethnic cleansing» -as the UN described it- for which the Rohingyas were expelled from their homes – and their belongings and land burned – and they were forced to flee to the neighboring country of Bangladesh, where they were welcomed in makeshift and huge refugee camps. Humanitarian organizations deployed in the area estimated that there were some 700,000 people affected by the exodus that occurred in the following months and continued in early 2018. In January of that year Human Rights Watch reported that the Burmese security forces had demolished At least 55 Rohingya villages. For its part, the Burmese army justified the operation against the Rohingyas as a response to the violent acts perpetrated by the rebels of the Rohingya Salvation Army of Arakan.
After the exodus that began in August 2017, around half a million Rohingyas remained in Burma in April 2018, of whom some 120,000 were interned in concentration camps and several tens of thousands were living in their villages, according to the UN.