Buddhism in Myanmar

Buddhism in Myanmar was very early spread into Myanmar. Buddhist missionaries from Gangetic India who reached Upper Burma through Bengal and Manipur. Others, amongst whom is Rhys Davids, supposed that Buddhism was introduced from China. It is not unlikely, however, that the Burmese obtained both their religion and their alphabet through the Talaings. The Burmese alphabet is almost the same as the Talaing, and the circular form of both strongly indicates the influence of the Singalese, or the Tamulic type of letter.   The history of the Buddhist Church in Ramanna or the country of the Talaings begins with the third Buddhist Council convened by Asoka in 309 B.C (According to Burmese Chronology, the Buddha’s Nirvana took place in 544 B.C., and the Third Buddhist Council was held 235 years after that event, i.e., in 309 B.C). At the conclusion of this Council, missionaries were sent forth to various countries to propagate the Religion. Mahinda was despatched to Ceylon, and Sona and Uttara were sent to Suvannabhumi, which land both Talaing and Burmese writers agree in identifying with Thaton, the Talaing kingdom conquered by Anawrata in 1057 A.D. An account of the despatch of these missionaries, and of the miraculous conversion of the countries visited by them is given in Mahavamsa edited by history compiled in Ceylon by Mahanama, a Buddhist Monk, in the fifth century A.D. Doubts have been expressed by European scholars as to the authenticity of this account, and there is an inclination to treat the whole tale as a monkish legend. In the inscriptions of Asoka, Ceylon is referred to only twice and no mention is made either of Suvannabhumi, or of the mission of Asoka’s son Mahinda, or of his daughter Sanghamitta . Nor have any inscriptions in the Asoka character been found at Thaton or Pagan, whither it is supposed the Burmese conquerors removed their spoils of war.

Suvannabhumi as one of the countries situated to the north-east of India. That the Islands between China and India are the Islands of the Zabaj, called by the Hindus, Suvarnadvipa, “because you obtained much gold as deposit if you wash only a little of the earth of that country.

The conversion of a country to a foreign religion is necessarily the result of a long and continued intercourse, and of sustained and strenuous missionary effort; and the statement in the Mahavamsa that, on the arrival of Sona and Uttara in Suvannabhumi, 6o,ooo people suddenly embraced the new faith, that 2,500 men and 1,500 women were admitted into the Order may be summarily dismissed as beyond the range of credibility. Judging, however, by the splendid ruins of Cambodia, and the numerous Sanskrit Inscriptions found there it seems to be highly probable that that Kingdom was the chief radiating centre of Buddhism in Indo-China, and that the expansion of its power to Thaton and Malaya was accompanied by the spread of Buddhist influences. Cambodian supremacy in the Salween valley lasted till the eleventh century and Cambodian influences in the valleys of the Salween and Irrawaddy ceased with the foundation of the kingdom of Siam in 1350 A. D. It may, therefore, be safely assumed that the religious traditions of the Cambodians, regarding especially the introduction of Buddhism, were inherited by the Siamese as well as the Talaings, by whom they were passed on to the Burmese.

At the same time, Burmese writers are not willing to acknowledge their indebtedness to the Talaings, whom they had conquered, for their knowledge of Buddhism. They say that Sunaparanta, the classic name of their country, should be identified with Aparantaka; That the Buddha himself visited Sunaparanta during his life-time, and there established his Religion; and that, at the end of the Third Council, missionaries were sent to Aparantaka to propagate the Faith. They add that, as early as 443 B.C., Buddhism was established at Prome as attested by the ancient Pagodas still in existence, and that, if they are at all beholden to the Talaings, the revival of the faith is certainly due to the Buddhist scriptures brought from Thaton to Pagan in the 11th century A. D. The establishment of Buddhism at Prome in the 5th century B. C., cannot as yet be proved or disproved, because the ruins of that ancient capital have not been systematically explored; nor can Burma’s claim to be identified with Aparantaka be admitted. that Aparantaka is the konkan of the present day. “Aparantaka” means the ” Western Country” and cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be identified with Burma, whose relative position towards India prima facie vitiates the identification.

If, before the foundation of Pagan in the second century A. D., Buddhism prevailed at Prome, it appears to have been of the Southern School, which was probably corrupted, later on, by the tenets of the Northern School as well as by Saivaism and Vaishnavaism. Burmese history relates that,. on the accession of Thaiktaing, the 13th King of Pagan, who began his reign in 513 A.D., the Naga-worship, with the Aris as its priests, arose at Pagan. It lasted for over five centuries, till it was finally suppressed by Anawrata. There is not much information available about the Aris or the system of faith taught by them. About the same period, i.e., 6th century A. D., in Northern India, Buddhism had lost its vigour of expansion,** and Indian Buddhists had migrated to China and neighbouring countries. Buddhism itself had been corrupted by the Tantric system, which is a mixture of magic, witchcraft and Siva-worship; and this Tantric Buddhism apparently percolated into Burma through Bengal, Assam and Manipur, and allied itself with the Northern School prevailing at Pagan. Indeed, Wilson observes in the preface to his Vishnu Purana: “it is a singular and as yet, uninvestigated, circumstance that Assam, or at least the north·east of Bengal (i.e., Kamrup) seems to have been, in a great degree, the source from which the Tantrika and Sakta corruptions of the religion of the Vedas and Puranas proceeded.” All that we know about these priests is that they called themselves ‘Aris’ or ‘Ariya,’— the ‘Noble’ that their robes were dyed with indigo.

“Buddhism began to decay soon after the commencement of the Christian Era. In 400 A. D., when Fa Hian visited India, he found Buddhism still flourishing, though scarcely maintaining its ground. Hiouen Thsang. who visited India two centuries later, found Buddhism at a very low ebb. In the 8th and 9th centuries, a great persecution arose, and Buddhism, was expelled from India.

Under Burmese Rule, three percent of the population of Upper Burma, including the Cis-Salween Shan States, were pongyis (monks) and in Mandalay itself there were 13,227 members of the Order or about eight percent, of the total population.

The Fourth Buddhist Council in Kashmir in the first century of the Christian era, had the Tripitaka arranged in Sanskrit, and did for the Northern School what Asoka had done for the Southern. Further, terra-cotta tablets bearing Sanskrit legends have been found at Pagan and Tagaung; marked preference shewn for the Sanskritic form of certain words in the Buddhist books of Burma. The most remarkable fact, however, is the existence in the Burmese language of words importing terms in religion, mythology, science and social life, which are derived directly from Sanskrit. In the domain of religion, the Burmese always employ partially Sanskrit forms like Dhammacakra, Sariputtara, Kramma, Sakra, and Samuddara, instead of the Pali forms, Dhammacakka, the wheel of Law; Sariputta, the right-hand disciple of Buddha; Kamma, the principle of Karma; Sakka, the Recording Angel of Buddhism; and Samudda, the ocean. This fact and the internal evidence afforded by the Inscriptions of Pagan appear to indicate:-

  • (i) that the form of Buddhism first introduced into Burma · proper was that of the Mahayana or Northern School
  • (ii) that the Buddhist Scriptures when first introduced were written in Sanskrit, which is the language of the Northern School;
  • (iii) that the Southern school or Hinayana, the language of whose Scriptures is Pali, subsequently absorbed and assimilated, by its stronger vitality, the Northern School, which, through intermingling with the Tantric doctrine of Assam .

There are two words in the Burmese language, which, above, all, seem to point to religious intercourse both with Tibet and Nipal. The Pali word ‘ bhikkhu,’ a monk, always appears in Burmese as ‘pongyi’ or ‘rahan ‘. Now th…e word ‘pongyi’ is evidently connected with ‘bonze’, a priest of the Bon religion of Shamanism, which still prevails in Eastern and Southern Tibet, with which Burma must have had frequent intercourse in prehistoric times, and the Burmese word must be referred to the Tibetan compound made up of ‘Bon’, the Bon religion . Again, the word ‘rahan’ can only be referred to Arhana or ‘Arhanta’ under which designation monks are known in Nipal. These two words, ‘pongyi’ and ‘rahan’ must have already been in the Burmese language before the word ‘bhikkhu’ was introduced together with the Pali Tripitaka in the eleventh century A.DThe latter may be a Bhikshu, Sravaka, Chailak or Sakyavamsika (Sakya-puttiya); he is bound for only ten days by the primitive rules of the Order, is then released from them, and marries though tonsured. Ostensibly he is a monk, but really he is a layman.

At Pagan, the primitive system of faith was the Bon religion with its animistic worship and devil-dancing. The Burmese Pantheon of the 37 Nats, whose images are in the Shwezigon Pagoda at Pagan, only dates from the reign of Thinligyaung (344-387 A.D.) The Bon religion was superseded by the Mahayana School with its Sanskrit Scriptures, which, in its turn, had to give way, in the sixth century A. D. to the Tantric system with its immoral professors, the Aris and the form of Naga-worship. It was not till the 11th century A.D., that the Hinayana doctrine of the Southern School was introduced from Thaton. Possibly, there was also an admixture. of Jainism, Saivaism and Vaishnavaism. Vaishnava temples have been discovered at Pagan, and traces of the Siva cult have been found at Prome and in Arakan.

The stratification of these various systems of faith can only be elucidated by the exploration of ancient ruins in Assam and Manipur, the excavation of ancient sites in Burma, and a close study of the architecture, sculpture, and frescoes at Pagan. The frequent political upheavals and the exterminating wars between Burma and the adjacent countries have, in a great measure, obliterated the chief landmarks of religious and ecclesiastical history, and no satisfactory account can be obtained from native records alone.

Burma received her Buddhist impulse, not from the adjacent province of Kuangtung, where Buddha is called ‘Fat’, nor from the maritime Province, where the Amoy dialect is spoken, in which the Sage is called ‘Put’, but from some Province, most probably, Yunnan, Ssuch’uan or Central China, where the Mandarin dialect was spoken, the evolution of this last dialect being ascribed to the period 300-900 A.D., when old Chinese intermingled with the languages of the Tartar tribes.

The introduction of the eras, now in use among the Burmans, constitutes one of the principal landmarks in the history of Buddhism in Burma; but native records are silent as to the reasons for their introduction. There are two eras in use, and are both of exotic origin: the Era of Religion or Anno Buddhae, reckoned by the Burmans from 544 B.C., and the Vulgar Era or Sakkaraj. The earlier era used in Burma seems to have been the Era of Religion. It was abolished by Samundari, King of Prome,

 In this sketch of Buddhism we must not omit a reference to Buddhaghosa, the great scholar and divine, who was the reputed apostle of Buddhism to Burma. Talaing historians claim him to be their fellow-countryman and state that he crossed over to Ceylon in 402 A. D., and thence brought back to Thaton a complete set of the Tripitaka together with its commentaries. This claim is vitiated by the Mahavamsa and other Sinhalese records, which say that he visited Ceylon during the reign of Mahanama (412-434 A. D.) and that he returned, not to Thaton, but to ‘Jambudipa, to worship at the Bo-tree at Uruvela in Magadha.Further, the Kalyani Inscription erected by Dhammaceti, King of Pegu, in 1476 A. D., is absolutely silent regarding the celebrated Buddhist divine. If the story about Buddhaghosa’s advent to Thaton be historically true, the event would have been considered to be an important epoch and would certainly have been mentioned in this inscription, which gives a resume of the vicissitudes of Buddhism in Burma and Ceylon, and which was erected by a king, who was called from the cloister to the throne, and to whom every kind of information was accessible. Considering that the identification with the Suvannabhumi of the ancients has been urged in favour of three countries, namely, Ramannadesa, the Malay Peninsula, and Cambodia, in all of which gold is found, one cannot help being sceptical as to the historical accuracy of the account relating to the mission of Buddhaghosa to Thaton. Such scepticism becomes somewhat confirmed, when it is borne in mind that there is no paleographical affinity between the Talaing and Sinhalese alphabets and that Cambodian writers affirm that the great divine came to their country.

 A history of Buddhism in Burma. The influences exerted by China, Tibet, Nipal, Magadha, Assam, Manipur and Cambodia on the one hand, have to be distinguished from those exerted by Southern India and Ceylon on the other. The intermixture of the Bon religion with the Tantric doctrine and Naga-worship, the evolution of Shamanism or Nat-worship and the part played by Brahmanism, Saivaism, Vaishnavaism and Jainaism in the religious development of Burma have still to be described. Above all, the Talaing literature, which forms the connecting link between Southern India and Burma proper still remains to be explored.

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