Buddhism in Burma (or Myanmar) is predominantly of the Theravada tradition or the southern school. About 89% of Burmese practice Buddhism. It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Adherents are most likely found among the dominant ethnic Bamar (or Burmans), Shan, Rakhine (Arakanese), Mon, Karen, and Chinese who are well integrated into Burmese society. Among ethnic Bamar, Theravada Buddhism is practised often in conjunction with nat worship. Monks, collectively known as the Sangha are venerated members of Burmese society.
Early Acceptance of Buddhism
The Buddhism was first transmitted by the The Third Buddhist Council in the rule of Emperor Asoka. Then, Buddhism was descended to The Mon and Pyu kingdoms in the lower Myanmar.
The Mon civilization was started from the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati in the South of Thailand. Accepting the Theravada Buddhism, Mon did not only influence people in Burma but also in large parts of what is now Thailand. There was Buddhaghosa, who was of Mon origin and a native of Thaton. He greatly influenced the translation of the Pali Buddhist texts which were later regarded as authoritative by Theravada scholars. He led to an active religious activity in the kingdoms of Lower Myanmar. Lower Myanmar was also settled by another ethnic group, the Pyu, who were closely related to the modern Myanmar. Their capital was at Sri Ksetra (Prome) and they were also followers of the Theravada Buddhism. Their interaction with Asokan religious centers in India happened in the second century AD. Buddhism was continuously prospered by Mon and Pyu kingdoms from the 5th century to 11th century. Both Buddhist cultures in the south of Myanmar, the Mon and the Pyu, were declined by the armies of Myanmar. The leader of the armies was Anawratha, the champion of Buddhism.
Arrival of Pagan (11th Century) and Controversy about Buddhism
Myanmar established Pagan 849-850 AD. Anawratha began to unite the area by defeating one chieftain after another and finally succeeded in making Myanmar a larger community. The most critical event in the history of Myanmar is its admission of Theravada Buddhism in the eleventh century. It was brought to the Myanmar by a Mon bhikkhu, called Shin Arahan. King Anawratha acquired the Scriptures, developed Pagan into a major regional power and laid the foundation for its glory. The first controversy about Buddhism occurred during the contacts with Sri Lanka. The interaction with Sri Lanka was very important for the prosperity of the religion in Pagan. It started with the friendship of Anawratha and Vijayabahu. They aided each other in their endeavors and then re-established the Theravada doctrine together. The constant contact between them was beneficial for both. Bhikkhus visiting from one country were led to look at their own traditions critically and to reappraise their practice of the Dhamma as preserved in the Pali texts. Uttarajiva, who was succeeded by Mon bhikkhus, travelled to Sri Lanka with Chapada, a beginner who remained behind on the Sri Lanka to study the scriptures in the Mahavihara, the orthodox monastery of Sri Lanka and the guardian of the Theravada tradition. Thinking the tradition of Myanmar bhikkhus impure, he returned to Pagan with four elders who had studied with him. Also, the Myanmar king Narapati seems to have agreed with the superiority of the Mon bhikkhus. Therefore, Chapada and his friends refused to accept the ordination of the Myanmar bhikkhus as legitimate in accordance with Vinaya. They established their own ordination. After Chapada's death, the reform movement soon split into two groups, and finally each of the four remaining bhikkhus went his own way.
Theravada Buddhism was strengthened by many Kings, such as King Dhammazedi. There was not a conflict among the branches of Buddhism, but a conflict among the different tribes. Since they used Theravada Buddhism to attract people to support them, the Buddhism was more firmly settled in Burma.
Other Articles on Buddhism in Myanmar
G.P. Charles, "The Resurgence of Buddhism in Burma," Indian Journal of Theology 7.2 (April-June 1958): 61-68.
Buddhism and Burma by D. Guha The Light of the Dhamma, Vol. IX, No.4 , 1963. http://www.nibbana.com/
THE INFLUENCE OF THERAVADA BUDDHISM ON MYANMAR SOCIETY By Khin Win Thanegi, “The Influence of Theravada Buddhism on Myanmar Society” (paper, International Conference on “Religion, Conflict and Development,” Southeast Asian Studies, Passau University, Germany, 25–27 June 2007),
Buddhist Meditation in Burma - A paper read by Dr. Elizabeth K. Nottingham at Harvard to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in November 1958. Published by International Meditation Centre, 31A, Inya Myaing, Rangoon. January 1960.
The Role of Monkhood in Contemporary Myanmar Society By Sylwia Gil Specialist on South East Asia and Theravada Buddhism, Warsaw, Poland, September 2008 (on behalf of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung)