According to militarynous, earlier travelers have called Burma the “Buddha’s Favorite Land”. In hardly any other country do the buildings and the representatives of this religion, the monks, shape the image of the landscape and everyday life. The symbol of the symbiosis of Buddhism and society is the alms bowl, through which lay people and monks exchange spiritual and worldly goods. The spiritual gift conveyed by the monk by accepting the food, the religious merit that promises an advancement in the cycle of rebirths, is more valuable than the material donation. The construction of numerous pagodas, other religious buildings and the setting up of Buddha images also serve to earn merit.
The close interweaving of material and spiritual life can be seen in almost all pagodas, in which something is always offered for all needs of human life. The following picture series shows this using the example of some scenes that the visitor encounters when he climbs the Mandalay Hill on foot. (There is also an elevator, escalator, and transportation to get near the top of the hill).
The 2008 Constitution “recognized” Buddhism as the religion professed by the vast majority of the Union’s citizens. Christianity, Islam and Hinduism are also “recognized”. Support for each individual religion is possible, but any use of religion for political purposes is punishable. This takes into account the importance of Buddhism for the culture and society of Myanmar, which can hardly be underestimated. At the same time a problem of the dominance of Buddhism is indicated. Both Buddhism and Christianity have been used for political purposes in the past, which has exacerbated ethnic tensions in the country.
The traditional political model of the country is the ideal of the Dhammraja, the ruler who is guided by the Dhamma, the teaching of the Buddha, and on this basis ensures a good life for his subjects as well. One problem with this concept is that a virtuous king, in principle, rules until his demise. So, unlike in Western democracies, there is no clear regulation for the transition from one head of government to the next.
There are innumerable of these animism-born “spirits” that dwell in buildings, trees, bodies of water and other places. The best known are the 37 Nats. They represent people who have been violently killed and who – like saints in other religions – can be asked for advice and help. Media play a role here, which establish the connection to the nats. Large festivals are often celebrated in honor of the Nats. They represent the world of daily worries and problems and also of political disputes, while the Buddha overriding them shows the way out of the suffering of this world.
The Sangha, the community of monks
Since the monks are supposed to limit their activities to the spiritual level according to the rules laid down in the Tripitaka (three basket) of the Buddhist scriptures, their worldly order is a matter for the respective government. Among other things, this has to ensure that the unity of the monastic community is not permanently damaged, since the teachings of the Buddha are indivisible and this unity in conservative Theravada Buddhism must also be reflected in the unity of the Sangha. In the times of kings there was a supreme patriarch who confirmed the legitimacy of his rule to the king and advised him on the welfare of the Sangha. This also included advice on how to counteract excesses in the community of monks. This dual role of the regent, to protect and at the same time purify the Buddhist religion, has also been continued in modern Burma / Myanmar.
With the last religious law of 1980, the number of groups that can form within the Sangha was limited to nine. There are currently around 500,000 monks, with the number increasing sharply during the Buddhist Lent between July and October due to the admission of novices. The individual monasteries largely organize themselves in exchange with the lay people who support them materially. The interests of the respective abbots play a special role. A supreme monastic council represents the unity of the Sangha. In 2007 he decided that the monks’ demonstrations did not agree with the teachings of the Buddha and thus justified the violent, albeit relatively mild, intervention of the state power. Nonetheless, this intervention severely damaged the image of the military among the population.
Monks are drawn in at the turning points in life. Visitors to the country will particularly notice the Shin-byu ceremony. It takes place when a boy aged 11-15 goes to a monastery for a while to be introduced to the basics of Buddhism. The ritual imitates the path of the future Buddha, who was born as a prince, who left his family and cut his hair on his way to homelessness in search of the cause of worldly suffering and its overcoming. At the beginning of the ceremony, the young man is dressed like a prince and escorted to a monastery. There his hair is cut off and he is given a monk’s robe.
This ceremony is the crucial rite of initiation for a young Buddhist Burmese and brings a great deal of merit to him and his family. In addition, a lot of money is spent on such a celebration.
Astrology and help in life
Visitors to the country’s large pagodas will notice the ornate pillars in front of which Buddha statues are doused with water.
There are eight of these pillars, which correspond to the 7 days of the week, with Wednesday being divided into two parts. Every Burmese knows the day of the week they were born and uses this knowledge to have a beneficial effect on their life. The days of the week are assigned cardinal directions, planets and animals, with a threefold system of cosmology, astrology and psychology, from which statements about the future can be derived. For example, marriages between people, one of whom was born on Saturday (Naga – Dragon) and on Thursday (Rat), are considered unfortunate because the two animals do not get along.
Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism
While Buddhism has integrated elements of the animistic belief in spirits, the relationship of Buddhism to the other “high religions” is tense. This is largely related to the country’s recent history. Christians have only existed in significant numbers since animist residents of various ethnic groups were converted by western missionaries under the British occupation.
Adinoram Judson(1788-1850) played a special role in this. He was an American Baptist who arrived in Burma in 1813. He learned the language to write tracts, translated the Bible into Burmese (although his wife could speak more fluently) and wrote the first Burmese-English dictionary. Conversions among the Buddhist Burmese were rare. In the first 12 years, 18 Burmese were baptized. Missionary success came after the first Anglo-Burmese war. During the war he was in prison (see picture), after the end of the war he interpreted during the peace negotiations and the drafting of the peace treaty (which was headed “Friendship Treaty”). In the province of Tenasserim (Tanintharyi) left to the British, numerous animist Karen were converted. This laid the foundation for an ethnic-religious conflict that continues to this day. The 200th anniversary of Judson’s arrival in Burma was marked by Burmese Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination, and their foreign friends in the year of 2013.
Muslims and Hindus came to the country as merchants in earlier times in the country’s history. Their number increased sharply from the middle of the 19th century due to the immigration of numerous migrant workers to Burma. In addition, many Indians were employed by the British in the colonial administration, in the security apparatus and in the army. In the Second World War, many Indians tried to flee to India. Around 100,000 of them died. During the socialist period, numerous Indians left the country after the private sector was nationalized.
Since the colonial era, Muslims in particular have been attacked as scapegoats for failed government policies. Buddhist monks play a central role in this, as demonstrated in the demonstrations against the Rohingyas in 2012. In view of the attempts by various authorities in Myanmar to spread Buddhism across the country, freedom of religion in Myanmar is often viewed as severely restricted, with Buddhist nationalism being seen as a major problem. External observers advocate a differentiated view of the situation.