Close to 90% of people in Myanmar today are Buddhist, and virtually all of them practice Theravada Buddhism. This branch of Buddhism adheres most closely to the oldest texts in the Buddhist tradition and generally emphasizes a more rigorous observance of the monastic code than other schools of Buddhism. Theravada Buddhists ultimately aim to be released from the cycle of suffering, samsara, and to achieve nirvana. To achieve success in this world—and to advance to enlightenment in subsequent rebirths—they must build positive karma, or merit.
Lay people accumulate merit by making offerings to the Buddhist monastic community, or Sangha. This is done during monks' morning procession through neighborhoods to collect alms or in the form of donations to temples and monasteries. The Sangha is also capable of granting legitimacy to state power, and sometimes of opposing state power. In particular, monks’ capacity to refuse donations—denying someone merit—grants them a powerful symbolic veto that they have exercised to express their dismay with the Burmese government.
Buddhism had been the state religion of Burma beginning with the Kingdom of Pakan in 1044, and was briefly reinstated as the state religion under Prime Minister U Nu in 1961 until the military coup in 1962. With Buddhism closely affiliated with Burmese identity, particularly Burman identity, nationalism took on specific Buddhist associations. Buddhist Burmans rallied behind slogans such as “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” Buddhist monks who opposed colonialism, some dying in prison, became powerful symbols for the nationalist movement. Though opposition has never been uniform among the Sangha, thousands of monks have engaged in political activism over the past century, most recently in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Lastly, a unique aspect of Buddhism in Myanmar has been the growth of meditation movements among laypeople. Traditionally, meditation practice was reserved for monastic elites; lay religious practice consisted largely of making offerings to monks who went on alms-rounds. Under British colonialism, however, meditation was taught to laypeople in large numbers for the first time, a practice that continues into the present day. Prominent Burmese meditation teachers have also influenced the practice of Buddhism throughout America and Europe, particularly in the style of meditation known as vipassana, or insight meditation.
Juliane Schober, Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).
David Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
David Steinberg, “’Legitimacy’ in Burma/Myanmar: Concepts and Implications,” Myanmar: State, Society, and Ethnicity, eds. N. Ganesan and Kyaw Yin Hlaing (Singapore: ISEAS, 2007), pp. 109-142.
Stephen McCarthy, “Losing My Religion? Protest and Political Legitimacy in Burma,” Griffith Asia InstituteRegional Outlook Paper, No. 18 (2008).