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Myanmar Buddhism

Myanmar TheravadaBuddhism 

Myanmar TheravadaBuddhism 
For Myanmar Buddhism the popularly accepted tradition is that it came to Burma through two Talaing merchants the religion was brought to the country by Taposa and Palika, who were converted by the Buddha and to whom he gave eight hairs of his head which he instructed them to deposit at the The Uttara Hill beside the relics of the three Buddhas who preceded him.

They came back and searched far and wide for Theinguttara Hill, which was finally pointed out to them by the aged Sule nat. Here they enshrined the hairs in a sacred monument which came to be later known as the Shwedagon, one of the most sacred Buddhist shrines in the East.

A pagoda was later built to commemorate the rat who had pointed out the sacred site ; this is the present Sule Pagoda which stands in the centre of the city of Yangon. A more probable tradition is that, that Buddhism was brought to Burma by two monks, Sona and Uttara, who were sent out by the Third General Council, summoned under the patronage of the great Emperor Asoka, who flourished in India about 250 B.C. After his victorious war against the Kalingas, in which 150,000 men were killed, Asoka filled with remorse and horror was converted to Buddhism. Shortly afterwards he entered the Sangha and for the rest of his reign ruled on philanthropic principles.
After the third Buddhist Council

missionaries were sent out to Kashmir, Ceylon, Egypt, Greece and Syria. The monks Sona and Uttara are said to have landed at Thaton, which was then a seaport, though now some twenty miles inland south of Bago.

Little more is known of the progress until the first century A.D. when it was so flourishing there, historic data tell they had thirty sets of Pali Scriptures in the royal library. Meanwhile a decadent form had penetrated into Central Burma, probably one of the Tantric magic-working sects which had sprung up in India during the period of decline and had entered the country by the overland route from Tibet. The priests of this degenerate faith were called Ari and indulged in superstitious and immoral rites.

The King of Bagan

The King of Bagan, Anawrahta,

had been greatly influenced by a monk, Shin Arahan, who presented himself at his court and before long became the King's chief religious adviser. At Shin Arahan's suggestion Anawrahta sent to the King of Thaton asking for copies of the scriptures, and when this request was insultingly refused, attacked and sacked the kingdom after he carried off all the sacred books as well as much other booty.

King of Bagan Audience

It must have been a triumphant procession when returned to Bagan with thirty-two white elephants loaded with the scriptures as well as many sacred relics. The writings or tripitaka were housed in a library, which may still be seen at Bagan. The result of studying them, combined with the pressure of Shin Arahan, was that Anawrahta decided to adopt the pure version as the state religion. The superstitious Ari were given the choice of joining the orthodox Sangha or of becoming lay officials of government. From that time on Anawrahta became like Asoka and, ably aided by Shin Arahan, set in motion a whole era of religious reform, temple-building and philanthropic projects.

The Bagan period, 1044-1287,

was the golden age of both secular and religious. Numerous monuments were built which for architectural design and strength rivaled the cathedrals which were being built at the same time in Europe, and in the opinion of some equaled them in beauty. Even today deserted though it is, with its sixteen square miles of religious buildings this is one of the wonders of the world.

In 1071, the King of Ceylon, whose country had been ravaged by a bitter Hindu persecution, sent to Anawrahta for a set of the scriptures and for monks to secure a chapter for valid ordination. He sent these, and in return asked for the sacred Buddha Tooth, Ceylon's priceless relic. This was not unreasonably refused, but his messengers were given a duplicate, of the original tooth. Its arrival at Bagan was the occasion of another triumphant procession : the king himself waded out into the river and bore the sacred relic on his head to be enshrined in the "Shwezigon Pagoda" with other relics. Anawrahta's action in sending monks to Ceylon was repaid more than once in, for when the number of genuinely ordained monks became so low as to threaten the true succession, missions were sent from Ceylon to ensure its unbroken continuance.

Anawrahta's successors continued his policy of religious patronage and temple-building. His son Kyan­sittha, 1084-1112, was as fortunate as his father in having for the whole of his reign Shin Arahan as Primate and adviser.

A mission was sent to India to restore the shrine at Buddha-gaya, where grows the sacred Bo tree under which the Buddha had become enlightened. Kyansittha also built the lovely "Ananda Temple", in the Western aisle of which can still be seen two life-size figures of himself and Shin Arahan kneeling at the feet of a gigantic statue.

Shin Arahan died in 1115 at the age of 71 ;

it is to him more than to any other person that we owe the establishment of the pure form of "Hinayana Buddhism", and the era of monument-building and inscriptions which he inaugurated was the most creative age.

The Bagan kingdom broke up in 1287,

for years it had been weakening and none of its later kings had been men of any great note, but the immediate cause was the invasion of the Chinese to whom Bagan had been nominally tributary for some time. Harvey pays the following inspired tribute to this dynasty of temple-builders : 'The legacy of their fleeting sway enriched posterity for ever. It was they who made the sun-scorched wilderness, the solitary plain of Myingyan, to blossom forth into the architectural magnificence of Bagan. . . . To them the world owes in great measure the preservation of Theravada Buddhism, one of the purest faiths mankind has ever known. Brahmanism had strangled it in the land of its birth. In Ceylon its existence was threatened again. The east was not yet free from priestly corruptions. But the Kings never wavered, and at Bagan the stricken faith found a city of refuge. Vainglorious tyrants build themselves sepulchers, but none of these men has a tomb. These men's magnificence went to glorify their religion, not to deck the tent wherein they camped during this transitory life.'

The breakup of the kingdom was followed by a Shan invasion. These were years of confusion. Religion languished, the clergy split up into sects. It was not until Dammazedi, 1472-1492, that a revival came. He built some beautiful shrines at Pegu (Bago), modeled on the temple at "Buddha Gaya" to which he sent a mission.

But his most important work was the mission of twenty-two monks which he sent to Ceylon in 1475. These monks receive valid ordination of the ancient Maha-vihara monastery founded in 251 B.C., and on their return they transmitted these orders to the clergy throughout Burma, thus giving some measure of unity to the Sangha as well as reviving religion. Among the monks who went on this mission was Buddhaghosa, who translated the earliest Burmese law-book the Wareru Dhamma-That, based on the laws brought by Hindu colonists centuries before. He also wrote various commentaries.

Historians have identified him with the famous Buddhaghosa who translated many of the scriptures and commentaries from Singalese into Pali, the author of The Path of Purity. But local historians have a naive way of identifying places and personalities mentioned in the scriptures and commentaries with places and personalities without much real foundation. The truth is that the early writings have been lost, and writers convinced of its long standing in the country have sought to make good the lack.

As the golden land unfolds itself with its continuous internal wars and its periodic invasions of Siam and Arakan, the religion still retains its influence. Kings build monuments, dedicate slaves, endow monasteries with paddy land ; sometimes under the influence of the philosophy a king will abandon some cruel custom, as when Bayinnaung, 1561-1581, after conquering the Shan States suppressed the custom of slaughtering two men and women, two horses and elephants to be the retinue on his last journey of any sawbwa who died.
With the 16th century came adventurers and traders from the West,

first the Portuguese, then the Dutch, French and English. Captain Alex Hamilton, who visited Syriam in 1709, pays a striking tribute to the humanity and hospitality of the old-time priesthood : 'When shipwrecked mariners come to their Baws, they find a great deal of hospitality, both in food and raiment, and have letters of recommendation from the Priests of one Convent to those of another on the road they design to travel, where they may expect vessels to transport them to Syriam ; and if any be sick or maim'd, the priests, who are the chief physicians, keep them in their Convent, till they are cured, and then furnish them with letters, as is above observed, for they never enquirer which way a stranger worships God, but if he is human, he is the object of their charity.
In 1784-5 King Bodawpaya

invaded Arakan and brought away the great Mahamuni sculpture. It was taken on rafts to Sandoway and thence over the Taungup pass to Padaung below Prome, after up the Irrawaddy to be enshrined in the Arakan pagoda at Mandalay, a tremendous triumph of transport.

Bodaw­paya also acquired what he believed to be the Buddha Tooth from Ceylon.

At home he attempted to reform the monks. His religious and secular triumphs evidently turned his brain, for he thought himself destined to be a world conqueror, and not content with this claimed to be the final warrior. This latter claim however was firmly rejected by the monks.

In 1871 King Mindon summoned 2,400 clergy

to Mandalay to attend the Fifth "Buddhist Council". The Fourth had been held in Ceylon nineteen centuries previously. The assembled monks following the custom of the earlier councils, recited the scriptures, and the accepted text was engraved on 729 marble slabs erected in the Kuthodaw pagoda.

Kuthodaw pagoda in Mandalay

Although only the clergy had been invited Mindon received the proud title of `Convener of the Fifth Great Synod'. As a memorial of this council King Mindon presented a new spire to the Shwedagon pagoda, coated with gold and studded with jewels, costing £62,000.

With the annexation of Upper Burma in 1885 it ceased to be the state religion of any part in the country. Harvey in Cambridge has the following interesting and pungent paragraph : The King was head of the Church. His chaplain was a primate who prevented schism, managed church lands, and administered clerical discipline, through an ecclesiastical commission appointed and paid by the King.

They prepared the annual clergy list, giving particulars of age and ordination, district by district, and any person who claimed to be a cleric and was not in the list was punished. In 1887, the thirteen bishops met the commander-in ­chief, Sir Frederick Roberts, offering to preach submission to the English in every village throughout the land, if their jurisdiction was confirmed.

The staff trained by the English in Lower Burma for two generations.

But English administrators, being citizens of the modern secularist state, did not even consider the primate's proposal ; they merely expressed polite benevolence, and the ecclesiastical commission lapsed. Today schism is rife, any charlatan can dress as a cleric and swindle the faithful, and criminals often wear the robe and live in a monastery to elude the police. As Sir Edward Sladen, one of the few Englishmen who had seen native institutions as they really were, said, the English behavior was not neutrality but interference in religion.