The Buddhist Revival in Burma

by Arjanyai,, Published on the Buddhist Channel, June 4, 2012

Rangoon, Burma -- Burma under British rule was not so much subject to religious suppression as Ceylon. Europeanization was not so great there as to affect much the cultural life of the Burmese, since the British administered Burma only as a part of India and the British colonial period there was much shorter than in Ceylon.

There was little to be called a Buddhist revival directly resulting froth the reaction to the colonial rule. Still there was an identification between Buddhism and nationalism. This was caused by an attachment to and pride in the historical religion as the national heritage on the one hand, and by political advantages on the other.

There were cultural conflicts with Europeans, especially the “no footwear controversy,” which led Buddhist monks to more violent political actions. However, there was a division between the monks. It was the younger monks, not the older Sayadaws, who involved themselves in politics. These monks joined in the uprisings against British rule.

Burmese political leaders, meanwhile, relied heavily on Buddhism to support their leadership and unify the country. The people of Burma belong to many races and speak many languages. Besides the Burmans and the Mons, there were such sizable minorities as the Karens, the Chins, the Kachins and the Shans, who were largely mountain people and occupied fifty percent of the Burmese land.

These minorities made up twenty-five percent of the population, while the Burmans who lived in the other fifty percent formed seventy-five percent. Political leaders had to find ways of telling the people that they were a nation. As 85 percent of the people were Buddhists, they found in Buddhism this unifying element.

In contrast to Ceylon, Christian missionary work in Burma not directly supported by the colonial power made considerable progress among animistic tribal peoples, especially among the Karens. The conversion of these peoples even more alienated them from the Burmese majority. Postwar political events convinced the Burmese Buddhists that Christianity was a religion hostile to the Burmese state.

They believed the religion brought with it foreign intervention and caused political and economic oppression. Marxism or Communism was also condemned as state capitalism which was far worse than ordinary capitalism. This led the leaders of the Burmese revolution to advance a form of Burmese state socialism based on the principles of Buddhism.

Though monks played a prominent part in the early days of the independence movement, later they faded into the background. On achieving independence in 2489/1946, the revolution leader even declared a policy of not mixing religion and politics. But in post-independence years the pongyis (monks) appeared again on the political scene as political leaders tried to win their support. By promising to amend the constitution to make Buddhism the state religion and with his programme of Buddhist socialism, U Nu saw a number of pongyis actively campaigning for him and he won a landslide victory in the election of 2503/1960.

U Nu’s great contribution to the Buddhist revival in Burma was the holding of the Sixth Buddhist Council in Rangoon in 2497-2499/1954-61. The World Peace Pagoda called Kaba-Aye and the Great Cave called Mahaguha (as a reproduction of the Maha Pasanฺa Guha where the First Council met), capable of seating 10,000 people, were built along with the International Institute for Advanced Buddhist Studies2. a new library, a publishing house and other large buildings providing lodging for pilgrims and living quarters for researchers.

Among the chief purposes of the Council were to provide for the recension of the Pali texts, to have them printed and put in worldwide distribution, and to encourage missionary work by establishing a worldwide Buddhist mission and directing the work particularly to Europe and America. After opening on May 17, 1954, the Council concluded on May 24, 1956, the full moon day of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s Great Decease. About 2,000 monks from various Buddhist countries came to attend this Council.

The Council roused in Burmese Buddhists a new zeal for the restoration of religious glory and has achieved the publication in Burmese (Maramma) script of a complete set of the Pali Canon and the Commentaries, and a large number of other post-canonical works.

The voluminous Pali-Burmese Dictionary, the biggest of the existing Pali dictionaries, is also a great achievement of the Burmese Sangha and it, too, is published by the Buddha Sasana Council at Kaba-Aye in Rangoon. Induced by the Council, some Burmese monks went to Thailand to preach the Abhidhamma and to teach some methods of meditation as practised in Burma, while a number of Thai monks and novices, mostly from Wat Mahadhatu, came to Burma to study and practise the same.

It should be noted that Burma has been famous for the study of the Abhidhamma. The tradition of Abhidhamma study still continues and all are encouraged to sit for government examinations in the Abhidhamma. Great emphasis has also been placed on the practice of meditation and many meditation centres for laymen have been set up, especially in Rangoon and Mandalay.

Among the learned monks of Burma who have specialized in the Abhidhamma and meditation practice, the name of Ledi Sayadaw stands foremost. After him, Mahasi sayadaw (U Sobhana Mahathera) is an international figure, well known in the meditation circle, through whose efforts the Burmese method of insight meditation (Vipassana) has spread to Thailand (with a centre at Neat Mahadhatu) and Sri Lanka.
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