The last few decades have seen Buddhism spreading and flourishing in the Western world, and becoming established in the lives and hearts of many people from cultures very different from where the teachings originally came. Many of these people feel the need to have contact with teachers and practitioners from the East and, as part of the process of deepening their own spiritual development, want to have some understanding of the culture and traditions of the countries where Buddhism began.
One such country is Myanmar. But due to the political situation there it had been closed to Westerners for over three decades, opening up again only as recently as 1990. So although there are many Myanmar teachers in the West, still Westerners have not been able to go and 'see for themselves' and consequently they have little real understanding for how Buddhism is actually practised there. I firmly believe that people visiting Myanmar from the West will be astonished at the vibrancy that Buddhism has there, and how sincerely the ordinary people integrate its practices and ideals into their everyday life in a natural harmony that seems almost effortless.
In Myanmar today there are over 400,000 monks and 75,000 nuns, 6,000 viharas and countless pagodas. About 1,000 of the viharas serve as educational institutions for the monastic community. Some of the larger monasteries have over 1000 monks studying the Buddhist scriptures and meditation practices.
It is interesting that nuns in Myanmar have a much higher status than in some other Eastern countries. Myanmar has the largest number of nuns of any country in the world. They are well respected by their own people and have their own monastic and meditation centres; these being independent institutions in their own right. Many nuns have an equal or greater level of spiritual and scholarly attainment as the monks.
One monastery in Mandalay has 2,600 monks devoted to the study of the Pali Canon, The Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries. Monastic institutions of this type and size are unique in the world today and exist only in Myanmar. There are also several meditation centres, for both lay people and monastics, which can each cater for over 1,000 meditators. The ordinary people of Myanmar are very much involved in supporting all this. They support the existing institutions with great joy and generosity and every day new religious buildings are constructed. How Buddhism came to them originally and why it became so established in their hearts makes interesting reading.
The Buddha's Teachings spread to Myanmar
According to Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka, the Emperor Asoka of India sent missionaries to nine countries in the 3rd. Century BC. It is said that the Venerable Sona and the Venerable Uttara were sent to propagate and teach Buddhism in Suvanabhumi (the 'Golden Land') - present day Lower Myanmar and Thailand. According to Myanmar tradition it was two merchants from Okkala (modern Yangon) who had the privilege of offering the Buddha his first meal following his enlightenment. This was in the seventh week after the enlightenment and the two merchants were travelling to Rajagiri when they passed close to the bodhi tree. They offered the Buddha rice cakes and honey, and asked him for something they could remember him by. The Buddha gave them eight pieces of his hair, which they brought back to their homeland with great respect. The king of Okkala welcomed them with great honour on their return, and the relics were enshrined in a pagoda, and on this site today stands the greatest pagoda in the world - the Schwedagon golden pagoda of Yangon.
The extent of the spread of Buddhism in Myanmar during the first few centuries AD is not accurately known. We know for certain though that by the 5th. Century AD it was well established and flourishing. But given that Myanmar is so close to India and that good land and sea trade routes did exist, it is possible that Buddhism was becoming established long before this.
Many people migrated from Southern India to Lower Myanmar, bringing with them both Hinduism and Buddhism. They developed into a race called Mon-Talaing. The Mons were of Mongolian origin and were mixed with the Telagu who were from India. Another group of immigrants to Myanmar originated in Tibet, migrating to the Yunan province of China, and then to Myanmar in the 8th. Century AD. They established a powerful kingdom with its capital at Pagan and gave their name to the whole country in the 10th. Century AD. At that time Vajrayana (or Tantric) Buddhism was already established. But the king Anawratha the Great was converted to Theravada Buddhism, which he received from Lower Myanmar. Due to his devotion and that of his successors Theravada Buddhism became the main religion of Myanmar. Today Myanmar is recognised as the main centre for Abhidhamma studies and meditation practice. Many western scholars have said that Buddhism in Myanmar is far stronger than in any other country, although since Myanmar reopened to foreigners in 1990 many have still hesitated to visit.
A visit to Myanmar in December 1998
I travelled to Myanmar on 24th. November at the invitation of the Myanmar Government, to attend the opening ceremony of the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon on 9th. December. I welcomed Ven. Lama Yeshe from Scotland with his students, and conducted them on a tour of Yangon and other places. Ven. Lama Yeshe told me that he was very happy to be in Myanmar because he could feel the life and energy that Buddhism has there. Everywhere there are temples and pagodas, and devotees practising either meditation or rituals according to their temperament and background. Although Myanmar is known as a Theravada country it is not quite the same as Thailand or Sri Lanka. This is because of the Vajrayana practices that continued in upper Burma (Pagan) up to the 11th. Century. So even today a Vajrayana culture continues alongside the Theravada practices. Ven. Lama Yeshe (who is himself a Tibetan) said many of the things he saw were just like in his homeland - special mudras while meditating, the use of mandalas as meditation objects, the recitation of mantras with rosaries. Also many of the yogis he saw are of the same lineage as the Vajrayana tradition. For these reasons Ven. Lama Yeshe and his disciples felt very happy in Myanmar, and said they would like to return there. One of these, a monk from Spain who had ordained in the Tibetan tradition under the name of Phunsok, decided to remain in Myanmar to study Theravada Buddhism and Abhidhamma. He was given the name Ven. Kassapa and is now staying in Myanmar; he is allowed to continue his Vajrayana practices alongside with Theravada meditation.