Buddhism in Burma

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In Burma (aka Myanmar), the Theravāda form of Buddhism is practiced by nearly 90% of the population.[1][2] Buddhism has been the official state religion of since 1961.

Buddhist adherents are most likely found among the dominant Bamar people, Shan, Rakhine, Mon, Karen, and ethnic Chinese. Among many ethnic groups, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in conjunction with the worship of nats, which are spirits who can intercede in worldly affairs.

Regarding the origins of Theravada Buddhism in Burma, Richard Gombrich states:

Like Ceylon, Burma (now known as Myanmar) has a tradition that it is the Theravādin country par excellence, and being a Theravāda Buddhist is as central a part of the Burmese as of the Sinhalese national identity. Like Ceylon, Burma has a national chronicle (the Sāsanavaṃsa) which claims that the Buddha himself visited the country and foretold its future as a stronghold of his Sāsana; the chronicle then presents the history of Burma as that of a Buddhist kingdom (though it is far briefer than its Ceylonese counterpart). However, while archaeological and literary evidence proves that the Ceylonese historical account of Buddhism in the island, from Mahinda’s mission on, is substantially true, there is reason to be sceptical about the early history of Theravada in Burma.
The Sinhalese chronicle refers to a mission sent by Tissa Moggaliputta to Suvanna-bhūmi, ‘The Land of Gold’. This name has been applied to various parts of southeast Asia, and Theravadin tradition could be correct in identifying the monks’ destination as lower Burma, though some modern scholars think it more likely to have been central Thailand. However, the earliest archaeological evidence for an Indian writing system in Burma is not older than the second century CE, and for Pali, the hallmark of Theravada, not older than the fifth century.
Though there is plenty of evidence for Buddhism in Burma in the succeeding centuries, it is largely in Sanskrit. There is evidence dated c. 600 ce for Pali, and hence for Theravada, in the kingdom of Dvāravatī in central Thailand, and this civilization may have extended into lower Burma. To upper Burma, however, Theravadin ascendancy came only in 1057, when King Anuruddha (Burmese: Anawrahta) captured Thaton, capital of the Mon kingdom in lower Burma, and took back to his own capital of Pagan both Theravadin monks and manuscripts of the Pali Canon.[3]

Regarding the more recent history in Burma, Peter Harvey states:

The great Burmese ruler King Mindon (r. 1853–78) gave much support to Buddhism and presided over the ‘fifth’ Great Council (1868–71). At this, different editions of the Pali Canon were cross-checked, and an orthodox version was inscribed on 729 stone slabs. The British conquered lower Burma in 1853, and in 1885 they took over the whole country, leading to some weakening in monastic discipline, due to the ending of the royal prerogative of purging the Sagha. The 1920s saw both the development of more accessible forms of vipassana meditation..., to teach to the laity, and agitation by monks in favour of independence. While monastic leaders saw political activity as against the Vinaya, it was difficult to prevent some of the younger monks from developing a taste for it. Discontented urban monks have therefore been active for or against certain parties or policies since this time. Leaders of the independence movement drew on a mix of socialism and nationalism, due to the dislike of Indian capitalists and landlords introduced by the British. After being ravaged by Japanese–British fighting in the Second World War, independence was gained in 1948, and U Nu, the first prime minister, favoured a form of socialism as a means to the Buddhist goal of a just and peaceful society which did not encourage greed.
In 1956, Southern Buddhists celebrated ‘Buddha Jayanti’, seen as 2,500 years since the Buddha’s death, when a Buddhist revival had come to be expected. U Nu presided over the ‘sixth’ Great Council (1954–6), held to commemorate this. Monks from a number of Theravda countries attended, a new edition of the Pali Canon was produced – the ‘Chaha Sangyana’ one – and efforts were made to stimulate Buddhist education, missionary endeavours and social welfare activities. Many ‘meditation centres’ for monks and laity were established, and this development later spread to Sri Lanka and Thailand. Of particular note was U Ba Khin..., a layman who was a prominent and respected government official. Even in his seventies, he energetically combined his government work with the running of an International Meditation Centre, teaching vipassana meditation to laypeople from Burma and abroad.
In 1962, a coup brought a semi-Marxist military government to power, which has expended much energy on warfare with various minority ethnic groups fighting for independence from the Burmese...[4]

The military junta has not been overtly anti-Buddhist,[4] but the junta has sought to control all aspects of the society, leading to discontent and instability in the society.

A number of Westerners studied with Burmese masters in the 20th century, including the founders of the Insight Meditation Society (Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield).

Further reading


  1. "The World Factbook". 4 October 2022. 
  2. "Burma—International Religious Freedom Report 2009". U.S. Department of State. 26 October 2009. Archived from the original on 30 November 2009. Retrieved 11 November 2009. 
  3. Gombrich, Richard F (2006), Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, Routledge, Chapter 6 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Book icoline.svg Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism (Second ed.), Cambridge University Press , Chapter 12
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