The Book

Demons, Gods, and Faith:
Religion in Myanmar


In Myanmar, the Indians practice Hinduism or Islam and many of the Karen, Kachin, and Chin are Christians, but Buddhism is the main religion and it is omnipresent. It pervades politics, society, art, education and, most important of all, the daily lives of the Burmese men and women. An estimated 80 percent of the total population practice Buddhism; some 95 percent of the indigenous Burmese, Shan, and Mon are Buddhists.

The Buddhists of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia follow the Theravada school ("the Doctrine of the Elders"), whereas Mahayana ("the Great Vehicle") Buddhism has its adherents principally in Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Viet Nam, and Japan. Of the two, Theravada Buddhism is considered the orthodox form, more austere, even ascetic, and more difficult to practice. To achieve nirvana, the ultimate goal in Buddhism, believers must take responsibility for all their actions and work toward this goal with diligence and sacrifice, following strict rules that offer a clear but narrow path. This school places great emphasis on individual conduct, and through service to others one's chances for attaining nirvana can be enhanced.

This is not the place to offer a complete review of the origins and attributes of Buddhism, which is available elsewhere; however, to say that a basic knowledge of Theravada Buddhism is necessary if one wants to understand the Burmese, their society, and culture is not to exaggerate. The general account that follows describes some essential aspects of Buddhism as a way of offering some insights into the Burmese ethos.

Buddhism has no central figure called "god"; therefore, the religion is not centered on an almighty being. The person we know as "Buddha" lived in Nepal and India in the sixth century B.C., and although born into nobility as Siddhartha Gautama, married, and the father of a son, he renounced his worldly position and possessions to enter a monastic life. While traveling through the countryside, he sought the counsel of many teachers, seeking answers to myriad questions on the meaning of life, suffering, and death. After a period of practicing harsh austerity, he adopted a path of moderation-a middle way between self-indulgence and asceticism. At last, while meditating under a banyan tree, he reached a state of profound understanding, or Enlightenment. He would spend the rest of his life traveling the country and teaching his system of philosophy and ethics. The sacred literature of Buddhism, originally an oral tradition, was not set down until long after the Buddha's death. Eventually codified in several languages, the texts in the Pali canon are the earliest and most complete. The Pali scriptures (Pali is a Sanskritic language) eventually reached Burma around A.D. 400.

According to the Buddha, all forms of life, including humans, animals, and plants, are part of a perpetual cycle of samsara, or rebirth. Life is suffering, and the few moments of happiness are more like illusions. All suffering is caused by our own ignorance and desires-by our overly strong attachment to the sensate world, to kin, to worldly pleasures, to career and possessions, to society in general, and to ourselves. The stronger the attachment, the stronger the suffering. But an escape from this endless cycle of suffering and rebirth can come through strict adherence to the dharma, the Buddha's teachings. The canon tells us that all things are part of the whole and no life exists apart from it; therefore, there cannot be something like an individual soul. The faithful will develop a conscience that evolves spiritually, and eventually the ultimate goal of supreme enlightenment may be attained-nirvana, the oneness with the all. Nirvana is not akin to Christian salvation; it is neither heaven nor annihilation. It is the highest quality of existence-complete removal from worldly desires and endless suffering.

In reincarnation, the sum of one's Karma, one's conscience, and one's merits and demerits determine the next existence. The form of the rebirth is determined by the quality of one's previous life. Given that the average Burmese can scarcely hope to escape the cycle of suffering and rebirth by reaching nirvana, the aim instead is for a better rebirth. The monks, whose lives are guided by 227 rules, can practice a much purer and stricter form of Buddhism.

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           Part III
           Back Matter

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