The Arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar
Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt ,
Theravada Buddhism flourishes in Myanmar. But when and how Buddhism came to Myanmar and by who was this Sasana brought to Myanmar are the questions which history tries to answer.
There are many legends, oral histories as well as written records such as stone Inscriptions, palm leaf inscriptions, folding paper ink writings and court chronicles giving an array of answers to these questions. They all tell us that Buddhism arrived in Myanmar not once but many times. Buddha Sasana did not thrive at once and very quickly after the first and second arrivals. It grew off and on. Only after Myanmar received Tipitaka (the three Repositories of Buddhist Scriptures) the growth of Buddha Sasana became continuous.
The First arrival of Buddha Sasana
The first arrival of Buddha Sasana was associated with the legend of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Accordingly to this legend, Buddhism arrived in Myanmar in the lifetime of the Buddha. In the Maha Sakarit year 103, on the fullmoon Day of Kason (May), the Buddha attained Supreme Enlightenment. While the Buddha was in phalasammapatti meditation at the foot of Rajayatana Lin Lun Tree in the Uruvela Forest near the Nerajara River, two merchant brothenrs Taphussa and Bhallika of Ukkalapa village of Ramannadesa came to worship the Buddha. The brothers offered the Buddha honey cakes and the Buddha preached the Dhamma to them. At their request the Buddha gave them eight sacred Hairs of His Head as His relics to venerate. On their return home, they enshrined the sacred Hairs in a ceti they built on the hill then called Tampaguta. That ceti is the ceti we now call Shwedagon Pagoda. This legend is mentioned in the Shwedagon stone inscription, set up by King Dhammazedi (A.D. 1472 - 1492) of Hanthawaddy Kingdom. You can still see and read the inscribed stones located in the precinct of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Myanmar Buddhists believe that the Shwedagon Pagoda and the stone inscriptions of King Dhammazedi are the historical evidences of the first arrival of Buddha Sasana in Myanmar in the lifetime of the Buddha.
The Second arrival of the Buddha Sasana
The evidences of the second arrival of the Buddha Sasana in Myanmar are extracted from King "Dhammazedi's Mon Inscription, the Shwedagon Ceti Inscription, Kelasa Taung Inscription at Taung Zun in the Thaton District, Sasana Lankara Sadan (Treatise) and Vamsadipani (Treatise). These inscriptions and treatises give the following account:
"In the Maha Sakarit year 111, in the 8th Vasa of the Buddha, Arahat Maha Thera Shin Gavampati entreated the Buddha to visit Thaton (Sudhammapura) in the Kingdom of Ramannadesa. When the Buddha came to that place with His disciples, the people received them with warm welcome and after hearing the Dhamma, the people became Buddhist. To each of the six hermits the Buddha offered a Hair from His Head to worship as His Relic. Thirty seven years after the above date, the Buddha entered Mahaparinibanna (Demise) and when His remains were cremated, thirty three unburnt tooth relics of the Buddha were taken away by Maha Thera Shin Gavampati to Thaton and were given to King Thin Nathawka. The king enshrined each Tooth Relic in one of the thirty three cetis he built.
The Third arrival of the Buddha Sasana
In the Maha Sakarit year 123 in the 20th Vasa of the Buddha, while the Buddha was residing in the Jetavana Vihara in the Kingdom of Savatthi, one Maha Thera named Maha Punna came and requested the Buddha to visit Suaparanta Vaniccagama. The Buddha with His 500 disciples came to that place. A monastery built of sandal wood was offered to the Buddha to reside. Namanta Naga and his friend Hermit came to pay homage to the Buddha whom they requested to leave some kind of His Representative for them to worship. Thus the Buddha left two Footprints, one at the foot of the Minbu Hill Range and the other on a little higher up on the hill. These two Buddha's Footprints have been the sacred objects of veneration for the Buddhists. They are well known far and wide as Shwe Set Taw. On the site of the sandal wood monastery the Buddha had resided during His sojourn, a commemorative ceti was built. It is well-known as Kyaung Taw Ya ceti. When the Buddha and His disciples left, Maha Thera Maha Punna remained in Sunaparanta Vaniccagama to propagate the Buddha Dhamma.
Old Rakhine Chronicles also claim the visit to Rakhine of the Buddha in the 20th of His vasa. With 500 disciples the Buddha visited Dannyawaddi. The king of Dannyawaddi named Chandasuriya after hearing the teachings of the Buddha became a Buddhist and also the entire people of his kingdom embraced the Buddha Dhamma. The King entreated the Buddha to leave His Replica to venerate. An alloy image in the likeness of the Buddha was cast. This image is wellknown as Maha Muni. In the reign of King Bodawpaya (A.D. 1782 - 1819) his son Crown Prince brought the Maha Muni Image to the Capital Amarapura. The Image is now housed in a sumptuous temple at Mandalay. It is the sacred object of veneration to the Buddhists the world over. References to the Buddha's journey to Sunanparanta Vaniccagama are found in Uparipannsa Athakatha and Punnavada Sutta.
Here is a point to note that three arrivals of the Buddha Sasana to Myanmar just described took place during the lifetime of the Buddha. The first arrival took place in the very same year of the Buddha's Supreme Enlightenment. The two merchant brothers who brought eight sacred Hairs of the Buddha to Myanmar may be regarded as the first Buddhist missionaries. At that time the Sangha Order was not yet founded, so there was no monk missionary at that time. In the second and the third arrivals of the Buddha Sasana, we notice that the Buddha Himself led the Dhammaduta (the religious mission) to Myanmar and He Himself preached the Dhamma, thereby converting the kings and the people. and He left His Representatives to venerate such as sacred Hairs, Footprints and Image of His likeness.
Archaeological remains, inscriptional and literary and canonical evidences stand witness to these three arrivals of the Buddha Sasana to Myanmar They are open to historical research and academic investigation.
The Fourth arrival of the Buddha Sasana
The Third Buddhist Synod was held with the patronage and support of Emperor Asoka of Pataliputtara, in the Buddhist Era 235. The Arahats led by Ashin Moggaliputta Tissa attended the Third Buddhist Synod. Foreseeing that the Buddha Sasana would spread to the far off places and flourish there, Buddhist missionaries were despatched to nine countries and nine places.
Emperor Asoka sent his monk son Ashin Maha Thera Mahinda to Sri Lanka to propagate the Buddha Dhamma. In the Buddhist Era 235, Maha Theras Sona and Uttara accompanied by Maha Thera Anuruddha and Maha Thera Tissagupta and Maha Thera Soneyya came to Suvannabhumi (Thaton) In Ramannadesa to carry out missionary work there. The King of Suvannabhumi at that time was Siri Ma. Three Buddha Sasana that arrived there during the lifetime of the Buddha, the Buddha Sasana that arrived there after Maha parinibanna of the Buddha and the Buddha Sasana that arrived there after the thirty three sacred Tooth Relics of the Buddha brought by Maha Thera Gavampati were enshrined in thirty three Dhatu Cetis, had declined.
The people of Suvannabhumi after hearing the Dhamma from Maha Theras Sona, Uttara and the accompanying Maha Theras came to know that they were the disciples of the Buddha. Their Maha Theras instructed the people on moral precepts to observe and practise. After hearing the Dhamma from the Maha Theras, sixty thousand became Arahats, three thousand and five hundred men and one thousand and five hundred women entered monkshood
The Fifth arrival of the Buddha Sasana
In the Buddhist Era 930 or A.D. 386 (circa) during the reign of King Mahanama of Sri Lanka who was a contemporary of King Thilygyaung of Bagan of Myanmar, Maha Thera Buddhaghosa who was a native of Ghosa village in the Kingdom of Rajagaha came to Sri Lanka at the invitation of his mentor Maha Thera Revata. Maha Thera Buddhaghosa resided in Maha Vihara and he translated into Magadha, Tipitaka written in Sri Lankan language. He brought to King Dhammapala of Thaton in Ramannadesa his translated work. That is the fifth arrival of the Buddha Sasana in Myanmar in the form of written Tipitaka.
Arrival of written Tipitaka in Tampadipa (Bagan)
Buddha Sasana flourished in the Pyu City Kingdoms. Artifacts excavated from the archaeological sites such as Sri Kestra, Beithano and Hanlin show that at that time Mahayana Buddhism co-existed with Theravada Buddhism. There are figures and statues of Mahayana Buddhist type such as Lokanatha deva (Bodhisata), Avalokestra and Taya Devi printed on terra cotta votive tablets and stone plaques with carvings of Vishnu and Lashmi devi and three headed and four headed Brahma found among the excavated artifacts. Other places where Buddha Sasana flourished were Rakhine Vesali and Ramannadesa
Buddha Sasana which Bagan first received was of Mahayana type which arrived there by land from the north. It was tinged with Hindu Brahminism. Besides, there were Aries or forest monks who lived a loose or undisciplined life. They practised and propagated a debased form of Buddhism.
When Anawrahta became king in A.D. 1044, He was intent upon purifying Buddhism which was prevalent at Bagan. In A.D. 1053 Shin Arahan a Maha Thera from Thaton arrived in Bagan with the noble intention of introducing pure form of Buddhism. It was at the advice of Shin Arahan that King Anawrahta brought to his Capital written Tipitakas, Buddha's relics and missionary monks from Suvannabhumi in A.D. 1057.
The arrival of Shin Arahan in Bagan in A.D. 1053 and the arrival of Tipitakas and missionary monks in 1057 are the important events that make turning points in Myanmar religious and cultural history. From these dates onwards Buddhism in pure form or Theravada Buddhism or Buddhism as preached by learned monk Elders with written Tiptakas from reference has been firmly established in Myanmar and it has been flourishing till to-day.
The Fifth and the Sixth Buddhist Synods
Since the time of the Buddha's Mahaparinibanna (Demise) till today there had been held six Buddhist Synods. Of them the last two, the Fifth and the Sixth Synods took place in Myanmar. It was King Mindon (A.D. 1853 - 1878) the second last Myanmar King, patron, supporter and promoter of Theravada Buddhism who held the Fifth Buddhist Synod at this Capital Mandalay in A.D. 1871. Eighty three years after the holding of the Fifth Synod, the Sixth Synod was held in Yangon in 1954 in the man-made colossus Cave named Maha Pasana Grotto. Heads of State, Heads of Government and eminent monks from Theravada Buddhist countries the world over attended the Sixth Synod.
Seven hundred and twenty nine large marble slabs bearing on both faces inscriptions of Tipitaka, setup in the spacious precincts of Maha Marasein Pagoda at Mandalay in the reign of King Mindon, and Thiri Mingala Kaba Aye Pagoda, Maha Pasana Grotto and all appertaining religious monuments and buildings in Yangon stand till today as the historic monuments of the last two Buddhist Synods held in Myanmar.
Emergence of International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University
Subsequent Myanmar Governments continue promotion of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar. With the guidance of Ovadacariya Sayadaws and urgent support of the Buddhist devotees a resounding success was achieved in the unification of the nine Buddhist Sects. To commemorate this great achievement a stoupa known as Maha Vijaya Ceti was built on the Dhamma Rakkhita Hill near the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Sangha, the Government and the people in unison fervently and ceaselessly carry out the purification, perpetuation and propagation of Theravada Buddhism.
Among several religious works that have been carried out by the present Government the building of the two identically designed Pagodas, one in Yangon and the other in Mandalay named the Buddha's sacred Tooth Relic Pagoda may be mentioned. These two religious monuments were erected to commemorate the auspicious event of the two visits of the Buddha's sacred Tooth Relic from the People's Republic of China in the years 1994 and 1996 to Myanmar at the request of the Myanmar Government for public worship and veneration.
Inspired by the spread of Theravada Buddhism not only within the country but also in the world the Myanmar Government and the people feel the imperative need to set up an institute of higher learning for training missionaries for propagating Theravada Buddhism at home and abroad. The result of the joint effort of the Sangha, the Government and the people is the establishment of International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University, Yangon which we ceremonially open to-day.Buddhasasanam Ciram Titthatu
Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt