Burmese - Religion and Expressive Culture



Buddhism is a pervading force in Burmese society. The hillsides dotted with pagodas, the hosts of saffron-robed monks, and innumerable monasteries all proclaim the breadth and depth of Buddhist belief and practice in Myanmar. Almost all Burmans (more than 95 percent) are Buddhist. There are also Christians, chiefly among the Karen, Kachin, and Chin, and a sprinkling of Muslims and Hindus. Buddhism is Theravada, although this distinction is only meaningful to the learned or sophisticated monk or abbot. The religion of the ordinary Burman is boda hatha, the way of the Buddha.

Burmese Buddhism is characterized by consensual elements of knowledge, belief, and practice that are separate from the more specialized knowledge of the Pali Canon and the commentaries known to some learned monks. The ideas of kan (related to karma) and kutho (merit) underlie religious practice. Kan is the moral nucleus earned throughout many lives that goes on from life to life in the never-ending chain of rebirth, until the very remote end of nirvana, when rebirth ends. Rebirth, in form and place, is determined by the accumulated merits and demerits earned in previous existences. A person can be reborn in one of the three levels of existence: this world, the hells below, or the various heavens above. The whole worldview of Buddhism is summed up in the continually heard refrain: aneiksa (change, the impermanence of everything), dokhka (life is suffering), and analta (no self, the ego is an illusion). The next most common summary of the belief system is the repetition of the triple jewel: I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the teaching, and I take refuge in the monkhood. The monkhood ( sangha ) is loosely organized into two principal sects without significant doctrinal splits. Monks ( pongyi ) are highly honored, and most Burmese boys spend some time in a monastery after an induction ceremony ( shinbyu ) mimicking the Buddha's renunciation of secular life.

Supplementary to the Buddhist worldview are belief systems involved with crisis management, prediction, and divination. Nats are the most important of these systems. These spirits are mainly malevolent and must be propitiated at stated times and places to avoid harm and evil. There are also ghosts, demons, spirits, and goblins in the forest, caves, and natural features capable of causing trouble to people.

Alchemy, astrology, and horoscope casting are employed in attempts to read the future disposition of forces toward the affairs of individuals. There is a system of curing and healing depending on notions of a balance of elements in the patient.

Arts. The pwe (a play, or a song and dance performance), often lasting several days and nights, often accompanies the ritual calendar.


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