Buddhism Buddhism in Myanmar
by
Erik Braun
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0142

Introduction

The nation-state of Myanmar is the westernmost and the largest in mainland Southeast Asia. (The country was formerly called Burma, and, as the sources here reflect, that name is still often used; this article will use both names interchangeably.) The overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s population of approximately 55 million people is Theravada Buddhist. Indeed, so closely aligned do Buddhists in the country see their religion and their identity that it is often said that “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” Such a claim, even though it excludes significant and vibrant non-Buddhist minorities, captures the truth that Buddhism has long comprised the dominant, if shifting and evolving, worldview that has bound together disparate ethnic and cultural groups in the region. Traditional Burmese sources date the arrival of Buddhism to the time of the historical Buddha, but, even limited to historical evidence, the record suggests that the dynamic and powerful role of Buddhism in the region stretches back at least to the early centuries of the Common Era. Developments over this extensive period of time have been complex and multilinear, with many transformations in beliefs and practices at different moments and in different areas. In short, Buddhism has never been monolithic in the country. As the sources in this article indicate, Buddhist ethnic and cultural minority groups, such as the Shan, Mon, and Wa peoples, have developed distinctive forms of belief and practice. Trade, cultural relationships, and conflicts with other kingdoms and countries, especially India, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, profoundly affected Myanmar’s forms of Buddhism, too, as did the arrival of modernity and British colonial incursions in the 19th century. Although, as this bibliography attests, much good work has been done on these intertwined civilizational and religious developments, much is still needed. The closing off of the country after the military coup of 1962 abruptly ended serious anthropological study that had only begun after World War II, and the relative inaccessibility of the country for much of the latter half of the 20th century meant that sustained scholarly attention in all disciplines from those outside the country was scant. At the same time, the Myanmar government’s self-induced isolation and impoverishment impeded Burmese scholars’ research. In recent decades, however, with the relaxing of travel restrictions and with relatively easier access to informants and historical records, study and research have begun in earnest again on all fronts, with, as this bibliography also shows, valuable results.

General Overviews

No single source can serve as a complete overview of Buddhism in Myanmar. Although not focused on Burma, Swearer 2010 provides perhaps the best initial introduction. Ray 2002, though useful, is dated and extends its survey only to the arrival of colonialism in the 19th century. Harvey 1925, Cady 1958, and Charney 2009 can be used together to cover the general history of Myanmar up to the present day. These works do not focus on Buddhism, but, given Buddhism’s important role in Burmese society, discuss it extensively. Bechert 1966–1973 provides much valuable discussion of Burmese Buddhism in the 20th century. Although old, Scott 1910 contains excellent descriptions and explanations of a wide variety of Buddhist practices and beliefs. Guillon 1999 provides an overview of the history of the Mons, an ethnic group of profound importance to Burmese history, who, at times, controlled large portions of the region and contributed much to its forms of Buddhism.

  • Bechert, Heinz. Buddhismus, Staat und Gesellshaft in den Ländern Theravāda-Buddhismus. 3 vols. Franfurt: Metzner, 1966–1973.

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    A detailed study from a comparative perspective of developments in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, particularly in the 20th century. The second volume focuses on Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The third volume (see Bibliographies) has a thorough annotated bibliography, along with historical documents.

  • Cady, John. A History of Modern Burma. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1958.

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    An in-depth history that provides much information on Buddhism’s role in Burmese society. It has a focus on the colonial and postcolonial periods but includes extensive discussion (pp. 1–121) of Burma (and its Buddhism) prior to the British takeover.

  • Charney, Michael W. A History of Modern Burma. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

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    A recent work that begins with British colonial rule. Focuses mostly on politics, but with mention of Buddhism within its analysis. Useful to supplement earlier histories and bring the discussion of Buddhism up to recent times.

  • Guillon, Emmanuel. The Mons: A Civilization of Southeast Asia. Bangkok: Siam Society, 1999.

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    Part One surveys Mon language and beliefs, and Part Two covers Mon history from the earliest known “protostates” up to the present day, covering both Thailand and Burma.

  • Harvey, G. E. History of Burma: From the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824, the Beginning of the English Conquest. London: Longmans, Green, 1925.

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    Although dated, a work of wide scope, drawing on Burmese sources, with much valuable information on Buddhism’s part in Burma’s history up to the early decades of the 19th century.

  • Ray, Niharranjan. An Introduction to the Study of Theravāda Buddhism in Burma. Bangkok: Orchid, 2002.

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    Covers the sweep of Theravada Buddhist history from Pagan to the arrival of British colonialism. Originally published in 1946, but still a useful overview that draws from Burmese chronicles and inscriptions.

  • Scott, James George. The Burman: His Life and Notions. London: Macmillan, 1910.

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    A good resource by Scott (Shway Yoe) for understanding a wide range of Buddhist beliefs and practices within Burmese culture in the early 20th century.

  • Swearer, Donald. The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010.

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    Although it has an emphasis on material drawn from Thailand, the book provides significant coverage of Buddhism in Burma.

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