INFLUENCE OF BUDDHISM ON THE BURMESE PEOPLE
Vol. IV, No. 4, 1957
Correspondents have often asked what has been the influence of Buddhism on the people of this country. To really evaluate the effect of Buddhism on the people of Burma, one would have to perform the impossible and peep back through time— twenty five centuries of time—to see what the Burman was before he became a Buddhist. Even then, one would only see what the Burman was before he became a Burman, for to separate a Burman from Buddhism is another impossibility.
Therefore one well may ask: 'Did the Burman accept Buddhism so long ago because he was fitted temperamentally or is the temperament of the Burman the result of centuries of Buddhism?' There would be a deal of truth in either proposition.
If we look at our blunt and sturdy citizens on our northern borders, 'the rough wood from which the Burman has been carved' as one fanciful western writer termed some of them, we find them somewhat like Shakespeare's soldier 'Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel' but with an innate sense of decency and of justice under a rough exterior, and with a high degree of logical common-sense also. These are Buddhist virtues and I am thinking, nevertheless of some of these brothers who have for centuries been animists but to whom now, with the extended facilities of our newly-won freedom, we are taking the Teaching of the Omniscient Buddha.
Though it is something new and strange to them it nevertheless jibes in well with their own temperaments and it changes their natures not so much to a different kind, though it does that too, but to a higher degree. All Burmans must have been very much like that in the olden days.
Before discussing the Buddhist virtues which are in many cases now the Burmese virtues, I should at once avoid the charge of flattery by saying that, like all peoples the Burmese have their failings as well as their good points. As was first remarked very many years ago, they are practically all Buddhists but not yet all Buddhas.
The Buddhist Teaching is so very much a part of the Burmese Way of life. Even in folk-lore we find elements of the Buddhist Jataka stories intertwined, and centuries of sitting at the feet of pious and learned monks have given even the humblest a little of the flavour of the Great Teaching. The Order of Buddhist Monks, the Sangha, is a great democratic body, the first real democracy (using the word in its best sense) that the world has known; and every Burman at some time in his life, be it for a shorter or a longer period, takes the vows and dons the Yellow Robe.
Small wonder is it then that in every dwelling, be it in rich man's house or peasant's hut, there is some evidence of the Master. It may be a more or less elaborate shrine with gold images, or a cheap lithograph pasted to the bamboo wall. It may be well-kept and tended with loving care or not so well looked after, but always the Buddha's benign Teaching is evidenced by some token. Small wonder then is it also that in every Burman's life there is some practical evidence of the influence of that Teaching.
On the weekly Buddhist Fast-days many of the elders go to monasteries and pagodas to take special fast-day vows. The younger people go less often, nevertheless quite a few do go; and all, for all of these reasons, are influenced by the Buddhist virtues.
Although only a percentage of the people of Burma are able to discuss Buddhist Philosophy, nevertheless the philosophy of Buddhism has had an influence on all, and basic to this is the great Teaching, first given to the world by the Omniscient Buddha: "As I am, so are they; as they are, so am I" thus one should identify oneself with all that lives, and should not kill nor hurt any living being. That was given more than 2500 years ago; and we find the same idea exactly 2000 years ago, enunciated in Palestine by the great and saintly Rabbi Hillel: 'Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you' and repeated by Jesus Christ some decades later.
It is this teaching that has influenced Burma greatly. Fielding Hall in his 'Soul of a People' notices the great tolerance of Burmans, and this is to be attributed largely to philosophy, Buddhist philosophy, and self-culture and the following of this 'Golden Rule'. Fielding Hall says 'A remarkable trait of the Burmese character is their unwillingness to interfere in other people's affairs. Every man's acts and thoughts are his own affairs, think the Burmans; each man is free to go his own way, to think his own thoughts, to act his own acts, as long as he does not too much annoy his neighbours. Each man is responsible for himself and for himself alone, and there is no need for him to try and be guardian also to his fellows. And so the Burman likes to go his own way, to be a free man within certain limits; and the freedom that he demands for himself, he will extend also to his neighbours. He has a very great and wide tolerance towards all his neighbours, not thinking it necessary to disapprove of his neighbours' acts because they may not be the same as his own, never thinking it necessary to interfere with his neighbour as long as the laws are not broken.'
Fielding Hall goes on to say 'We Westerners are for ever thinking of others and trying to improve them. We are sure that other people cannot but be better and happier for being brought into our ways of thinking, by force even if necessary. We call it philanthropy. But the Buddhist does not believe this at all. Each man, each nation, has, he thinks, enough to do managing his or its own affairs. Interference, any sort of interference, he is sure can do nothing but harm. You cannot save a man. All dispositions that are good, that are of any value at all, must come spontaneously from the heart of man. First he must desire them, and then struggle ,to obtain them; by this means alone can any virtue be reached. This, which is the key of his religion, is the key also of his private life. Each man is a free man to do what he likes, in a way that we have never understood This tolerance, this inclination to let each man go his own way, is conspicuous even down to the little events of life. It is very marked, even in conversation, how little criticism is indulged in to wards each other. Of all the lovable qualities of the Burmese, and they are many, there are none greater than these — their light-hearted-ness and their tolerance.
I've quoted that at length because there has been some misunderstanding of their attitude in the West and because I think Fielding Hall came very close to finding the key to their religion and their way of life.
Another Westerner who was struck by Burmese tolerance and goodwill, Allan Bennett, who became the Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya, quotes a verse of the Dhammapada which is also well known among all people in Burma: 'To abstain from all evil; to fulfil all good and to purify the mind— this is the Teaching of the Buddhas'.**
He sees in this Teaching and their under standing of it, the key to much of their character. He points out that the first truth herein: 'To abstain from all evil' is the negative side, the adherence to and following of the Precepts to abstain from killing, from taking what is not given, from sexual impurity, from lying or harsh speech, from partaking of intoxicants; and the second truth, 'to fulfil all good' is the positive. He says: 'Never was there a people more generous, more full of charity than this; it has been the wonder of every author who has truly gained an insight into the hearts and lives of this most fascinating race. All the land is covered with tokens of their charity, from the golden glory of the vast fabric of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda at Rangoon — gilded all over at intervals of a few years, at a cost of lakhs of rupees, by voluntary offerings of the people—to the village well, or Monastery, or rest-house for chance travellers; down to the little stand containing a few vessels of clear, cool water, which even the poorest can set up by the roadside and keep daily replenished for the benefit of thirsty passersby'.
He, and other Westerners are struck, too, by the truth of the closing sentence of the Text, 'To purify the mind. Here is some thing in which Buddhism differs from every other religion and system of thought. To purify the mind, without thinking of any permanent unchanging 'self' and without thinking in terms of 'after death nothing', is to put the onus for everything squarely on a man himself. This makes him, or tends to make him, self-reliant and individualistic in the best sense. This it is that tends to preserve the Burman against materialist, regimented ideologies.
Under the heading of 'to purify the mind' we have the three signs characteristic of all being as our starting proposition. These are Impermanence, Suffering and Impersonality. Every Burman repeats this formula if not daily then at frequent intervals. They cannot fail to have impressed the national character, as indeed they have, with a clearer, wider vision of the universe. Superficially it might appear and has appeared to some superficial observers, as gloomy. Actually it has made them the happiest people in the world. There is a goal which we all may reach, by our own efforts, sooner or later. Morality brings us closer, immorality sets us further back. But all depends on ourselves. This accounts for much of their attitude, their helpfulness and at the same time refusal to interfere, their lovingkindness to all. It comes out in their welcome to all, of any class or creed or colour, to come and eat with them, in the water-vessels for thirsty passersby, in the good wishes towards all. They have their murders, mainly crimes of sudden passion, they have their thefts—they have their crimes, they are but humans like all races—but running through their lives are golden threads of love and knowledge, the knowledge that the other fellow is like them and suffers like them, and these threads make their life really a 'many-splendoured thing'; and it is Buddhism that has given them these threads to weave into their lives.
* Dhammapada, 129, 130; Samyutta Nikaya, Velu-dvara-vagga.
** Dhammapada. 183. Quoted in "THE RELIGION OF BURMA ".