Around 90 per cent of Burmese are Buddhists, and the faith permeates every aspect of life in the country. Originally brought to Myanmar in the 3rd century BC by monks from India, the Buddha’s teachings – known as the Pali Canon or Tipitaka – intermingled with the worship of nats, or local animist spirits. This gave rise to a distinctive form of Theravada Buddhism that bears close similarities to forms of worship practiced by the Thais, but which is in many respects unique. The Burmese believe that Buddhism underpins the strength of the individual, family, and nation, and that right action accrues merit for this life and lives to come.
The oldest surviving branch of Buddhism, Theravada emerged after the third Buddhist Council of 250 BC. Missionary monks first introduced it to the Mon and Pyu kingdoms of ancient Burma, before Shin Arahan evangelized the Bagan Empire in the 11th century.
The Three Jewels
The triratna or Three Jewels of Buddhism – the Buddha (the Great Teacher), the dhamma (his teachings or the law), and the sangha (the monkhood and those who follow the teachings) – are the cornerstones of the faith.
The Pali Canon
The core Theravada scriptures are a group of texts known as the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka (literally “three baskets”). Along with rules for monks and works on metaphysics, these also include accounts of the Buddha’s teachings and disclosures.
The Four Noble Truths
A conceptual framework for all Buddhist thought, these teachings delineate the nature of suffering. The fourth truth describes the path leading to the cessation of suffering and is considered to be the essence of Buddhist practice.
Practices and Rituals Buddhism is, in essence, an esoteric philosophy and ethical system whose goal is to liberate human beings from suffering, and thereby from the cycle of rebirth. Theravada in Myanmar emphasizes core practices that help an individual on this spiritual path. Rituals mark key moments in a person’s day, year, or life, and provide chances to gain merit or to petition higher powers for intercession.
Applying gold leaf
Gold leaf is among the favorite donations of Burmese Buddhists. In some famous shrines, it is applied directly by pilgrims. However, only men are allowed to do this.
Literally “seeing through the veil of ignorance,” Vipassana is a form of meditation aimed at pro mot- ing insight and concentration. It had a great revival in Burma in the early 20th century.
Merit (punya in Sanskrit) derives from all good thoughts and actions, and contrib utes toward a person’s spir itual liber- ation. It has three bases: giving, virtue, and mental development. The giving of alms to monks and donations to stupas are com mon forms of merit making in Myanmar, and laypeople can often be seen pouring uncooked rice into monks’ bowls and bags.
Monks and nuns
Myanmar has around half a million monks and 75,000 nuns, divided between nine legally recognized mon as tic orders. Monks wear wine-colored robes, while nuns wear pink.