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Theravada Buddhism and Shan/Thai/Dai/Laos Regions

(Mar. 28, 2005)(BOXUN Received S.H.A.N. & Burma' s News Published by Burma’s Chinese)

by Maung Chan

Early Buddhism (boxun.com)

Theravada Buddhism is the earliest Buddhism preached by Sakyamuni and his followers around 600-500 B.C. in India.

His followers called him Sakyamuni. Sakya is Buddha’s race-name, Muni means "holy person". When he was a prince, he was called Gaotama (name) Siddhartha (family name).

The Buddha called the religion he founded Dhamma-vinaya, "the doctrine and discipline".

As early as the first turning Damma-wheel, Buddha already declared that life is suffering and circulation, everything is changing. The reality and universality is suffering.

He pointed out 4 truths:

1. dukkha (suffering);

2. samudaya (attachments and desire, the cause of suffering);

3. nirodha ( the cessation of suffering);

4. eight pathways to Nirvana: right speech, right action, right livelihood (sila or virtue cultivation ), right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration (samadhi or concentration and mental cultivation), and right view and right resolve (panjna or wisdom to nirvana) .

The Trisiksa: sila (virtue cultivation); samadhi (concentration and mental cultivation); and panjna (wisdom to Nirvana) runs throughout his teachings.

The Buddha established the order of the Sangha, (bhikkus: monks and bhikkunis: nuns) who have continued to this day, to pass Buddha’s teachings on to subsequent generations of laypeople and monks.

Shortly after the Buddha's passing (ca. 480 B.C), 500 senior monks convened to recite and verify all the sermons they had heard during the Buddha's 45 year teaching career. Most of these sermons were memorised by Buddha’s cousin, Ananda, and therefore always began with the disclaimer, "Evam me sutam...", meaning "Thus have I heard...".

The teachings were passed down orally within the monastic community.

Within 200 years after the Buddha's passing, the Dhamma spread widely across India.

But different interpretations of the Buddha's original teachings arose and led to schisms within the Sangha creating 18 distinct sects of Buddhism.

The Mahasanghika, one of these sects, reformed and developed itself into Mahayana (the "Greater Vehicle").

Theravada, the teachings of elders, is the sole surviving school of these early non-Mahayana schools. This keeps the essential teachings of the Buddha, rules for monastic life and philosophical and psychological analyses. Through the sangha (monks and nuns, the Buddhist community), the basic doctrines and practices are preserved. Both samatha and vipassana are practiced within this school, but vipassana is more emphasized. The emphasis in Theravada Buddhism is on perfecting one's life, and thereby reaching enlightenment, the 'arahant ideal'.

By 250 B.C. the Buddha's teachings had been systematically arranged and organized into three basic divisions:

1. the Vinaya Pitaka (the "basket of discipline"; the texts concerning the rules and customs of the Sangha),

2. the Sutta Pitaka (the "basket of discourses"; the sermons and utterances by the Buddha and his close disciples),

3. the Abhidhamma Pitaka (the "basket of higher doctrine"; a detailed philosophical and psychological analysis of the Dhamma).

These three are known as the Tipitaka: the "three baskets".

In 275-232 B.C, the king Asoka Maharaja led people to believe in Theravada Buddhism, and spread it with all his force, nationally and internationally.

In 274 B.C., Asoka Maharaja sent his son Mahinda to Singhala (the Tais called it Mong Lanka, and the Burmese called it Sri Lanka) to preach Theravada Buddhism. The king of Singhala donated his royal garden to be rebuilt, becoming the Mahavihara Monastery. He helped the cause of Theravada Buddhism as much as he could.

Later the sister of Mahinda, Sanghamitta, brought the branch of the Mahabodhi tree, (under which the Buddha attained enlightenment) to the Mahavihara Monastery to strengthen the message. Within 200 years the Mahavihara Monastery became well-known as the centre of Theravada’s culture and education.

About 100 B.C., the Tipitaka was first transcribed in Singhala (Sri Lankan)writing. Later, the Sri Lankan monks began compiling a series of detailed commentaries on the Tipitaka in Singhala writing .

Singhala script at that time was used to write and preach Theravada Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism spreads southwards to Burma

During the first century A.D. the Tipitaka and its accompanying notations,written on pei-leaves in Singhala script, began to be spread southwards by sea to Suwannabumi (Mon-Khmer kingdoms: Dvaravadi in Thailand and Thaton in Burma etc.).

In 403-432 A.D., (during the Mananama reign in Sri Lanka) the Brahmin Ghosa created a new era for Theravada Buddhism. He was born into a Brahman family but subsequently converted to Buddhism. He changed his name to Buddha Ghosa.He followed the famous monks Sanghapala and Buddha Mita to learn Tipitaka and its annotations at the Mahavihara Monastery.

In 430 A.D. Buddha Gorsa translated the Tipitaka and it's annotations from Singhala script to Pali script. Pali, spoken by the majority in middle India, was originally a dialect with no alphabet of its own. Buddha Ghorsa translated the Tipitaka into Pali phonetically in Singhala alphabet. Modern scholars suggest that Pali was probably never spoken by the Buddha himself.In the centuries after the Buddha's death, as Buddhism spread across India into regions that spoke different dialects, Buddhist monks increasingly depended on a common tongue for their discussions of Dhamma and their recitations of memorized texts. It was out of this necessity that the language we now know as Pali emerged.

Soon all of these texts were written on Pei-leaves, and spread by sea to the Mon-kingdom of Thaton. Thaton then became the holy-land of Mahavihara’s true Theravada Buddhism. Many Buddhists from Upper Burma and South East Asia came here to learn Theravada Buddhism.

The Mon-Khmer empire once ruled most parts of present day Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. The talented people of the Mon-Khmer empire emerged generation after generation. The famous monk, Sanghapala, went to China (506-518 A.D.)to translate a lot of Buddhist scripts into Chinese.

Based on the old Indian scripts Brahmi, Sanskrit, Pali and Sri Lanka’s Singhali, the Mon-Khmer script was created. The transcription of Mon script took place in 600 A.D., and that of Khmer in 609 A.D.

Theravada Buddhism, Pagan Dynasty and the Shan People

In 1044 A.D., Anawratha became the king of the Pagan Dynasty. At that time Ari-Buddhism flourished in Pagan. Ari-Buddhism was a mixture of Mahayana Buddhism, Brahmanism and native religion. Some scholars said it was a branch of Tantrism, related very closely to Asarya-Buddhism of Nan Chao and Dali kingdoms in Yunnan.

In order to defeat and replace the power-threatening Ari-Buddhism, king Anawratha first appointed Arahan, the famous Mon monk of Thaton kingdom, as State Monk, to preach " real Buddhism" . He then attacked and destroyed the Mon kingdom of Thaton in 1057 A.D., accusing the kingdom of Thaton of,“refusing to lend Tipitaka in Pali canon”. He brought the war booty, Tipitaka, and the war prisoner, the Mon king Manuha, back to Pagan.

In 1057-59 A.D., Anawratha brought an army to the kingdom of Yunnan's Nan Chao-Dali, for a relic of Buddha’s tooth. On his way back to Pagan, Shan chiefs met and swore their allegiance to him. He was married to Saw Monhla, the princess of the Shan chief of Mogaung, for the sake of good relations with all Shan people. Wherever he was, he preached Theravada Buddhism by force.

In 1071 A.D. king Anawratha of the Pagan Dynasty introduced, directly from Sri Lanka, the complete Tipitaka, and tried his best to move the centre of Theravada Buddhism from Mon Thaton in South Burma, to Pagan in Middle Burma. At that time, not only the Buddhists of the Shan (Burma) ,Thai (Thailand)and Dai (Yunnan and Laos) regions, but also Buddhists from India (Buddhism there had been totally oppressed) came to Pagan to study Theravada Buddhism.

King Anawratha’s contribution to Buddhism; he introduced early-Theravada Buddhism to the whole of Burma, and let it flourish nationally and internationally.

In 1192 A.D. King Narapatisithu of the Pagan Dynasty introduced, again from Sri Lanka, the post-Theravada beliefs of Sri Lanka (Singhalasanghanikaya), which later caused a lot of religious disputes between the new and the old.

In late 13th century the Mongol Kublai khan invaded and weakened the Pagan Dynasty, resulting in the rise of the "Great Shan Era" . The Shan people then established the Ava Dynasty and the Pinya Dynasty. They conquered Manipur and Assam in the west and Lower Burma in the south. They succeeded in establishing the greatest power of the Shan people, the Mao Shan Kingdom. The two brothers, Sao Hso Hkam Hpa and Sao Hsam Long Hpa, were the most famous Shan leaders.

At that time Ari-Buddhism still ruled strongly in the Shan region. Under the efforts of two great Shan monks, Theravada Buddhism gradually began to dominate.

Another Shan tribe established, in 1287 A.D. the Wareru dynasty in South Burma. The Wareru’s Buddhist sutras, pagoda construction, the Wareru laws and regulations reached so high a level that even the Sri Lankan monks were highly admired. King Damazedi came to the throne in 1472, and introduced in 1475 the latest Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka, so as to strengthen the monk's discipline and cleanse Theravada Buddhism.

Theravada Buddhism spreads to Thailand

Mon-Khmer kingdoms ruled and influenced some parts of Thailand before 12th century. During 12th -13th century the Thai Era came, and they established the kingdoms of Lanna, Sukothai and Ayudaya.

Mengrai, the king of Lanna Thai (Chiangmai Dynasty, the former Yonnok Dynasty), established Chiangmai as his capital city in 1296 A.D. . He was a Theravada Buddhist, and so he preached Theravada Buddhism. In 1367 king Kue-Na ascended to the throne, and invited Vdumbanmahasvami from Sri Lanka to be the State-Monk and to preach Theravada Buddhism.

At the request of Sri Lanka, King Boromakos (1733-1758) sent senior monks to Sri Lanka to preach Thailand’s Theravada Buddhism.

Based on the Mon-Khmer, Champo, Sri Lankan and Pali scripts, Thai people from Thailand created the Thai script in 1283 A.D..

Theravada Buddhism spreads to Laos

In the 7-8th century Mahayana Buddhism had already spread to Laos through the Nan Chao Dynasty of Yunnan. However, it was strongly resisted by the native religions and Brahmanism.

Theravada Buddhism penetrated later into Laos through Burma, Thailand and Cambodia.In 1353, Fa Ngoun, the Buddhist prince, helped by the Cambodian king, defeated his grandfather and established the Kingdom of Lang Chong. The queen Nang Keolot, the daughter of the Cambodian king, helped him by introducing Theravada Buddhism from Cambodia to be preached by force in Laos. Theravada Buddhism was prescribed by law as the state religion of Laos too.

In 1501-1520 king Visoun ordered the translation of the Tipitaka from Sanskrit and Pali into Laotian. His son king Phothisarath banned all religions to make way for Theravada Buddhism. During king Sethathirath’s rule, Theravada Buddhism and Buddha images from Chiangmai were especially introduced and worshipped.

In 17th century Laos became another centre of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Many foreign Buddhist monks and scholars went there to study.

Theravada Buddhism spreads to Yunnan

As everyone knows, Yunnan’s Dai region, Thailand’s Chiangmai, Shan’s Kengtong and Laos are all neighbours. Their culture is similar and their languages are closely related. In 1367-1444 the Theravada Buddhism of Chiangmai migrated via Kengtong to south Yunnan.

In 1551, the Burmese king Bayinnaung came to the throne of the Taungoo Dynasty. He suppressed the rebellions of South Burma in 1552, wiped out the Ava Dynasty in 1555, went on punitive expeditions, and several times occupied Thailand between 1559-1581 (Chiangmai Dynasty and Ayodhya Dynasty).From 1604-1606, he conquered some Shan states, including Mongyang, Monggong and Mongmit. From Mongyang he subdued Mongmao. All Shan regions were soon under his control.

By force he preached Theravada Buddhism, published laws and regulations, and built Buddhist pagodas in his ruling area and sphere of influence. To rule and influence Shan Thai and Dai regions, he built Pagodas in Thailand and Shan states including Shweli. It is said that he traced the Shweli River to Yunnan’s Dai region (Dehong) in 1562 and there preached Theravada Buddhism.(N.B.: according to Shan people, Buddhism spread into Shan society nine years after the Lord Buddha attained His enlightenment (Mong Mao Chronicle).Buddha came to Loi Seng monastery to teach Darmma and Vinaya for the Shan (Dai/Thai) people. The Loi Seng monastery is still in its original place, situated near the Mong Mao district town, known today to the Chinese as Ruili.)

The Development of Theravada Buddhism

Through the efforts of Thai/Dai people, furthered under the forceful preaching of the Pagan and Taungoo Dynasties of Burma, Theravada Buddhism took roots and grew full of vim and vigour during the 13-16th century in Tai/Dai/Shan regions of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Eastern Burma and Southern Yunnan.

Under the State preaching to Burma, Thailand and Laos, Theravada Buddhism has become the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka was revived by Southeast Asia, especially by Burma and Thailand.

Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism

When religious circles, especially the Northern Buddhists talk about Buddhism, they often say that:

1. Mahayana is a great vessel, great transport for all living beings to Nirvana, and Hinayana is a small vessel, personal transport for oneself to be arahant in Nirvana,

2. Mahayana believes that all things including Buddhism are empty or devoid of self-nature.

3. Mahayana’s ideal is the bodhisattva, the potential “Buddha hood” which is distinguished from arahant by the vow to postpone one's entry into nirvana until all other living beings are enlightened and saved.

Theravada Buddhists feel such an explanation contains derogatory judgments, so most of them refuse to name, or accept themselves, as Hinayana Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is willing to call Mahayana- Northern Buddhism, and Theravada- Southern Buddhism.


We must point out also that the Burmese, the Mon and Shan nationalities ofBurma, the Thai of Thailand, the Khmer of Cambodia and the Laotian of Laos believe deeply in Brahmanism too. They, especially the royal families, request up to present day, the supernatural power’s will or advice when they meet natural calamity, disorder in the country or on royal festivals.

There is peaceful co-existence between Theravada Buddhism and Brahmanism.

(Maung Chan, a Burma’s Chinese, born in 1941 in Irrawaddy-Delta of Burma,B.Sc of Rangoon University, Promoted by TU Dresden ,TU Berlin and Berlin Food Control & Research Institution to Registered Foodchemist of EU ,Honorary Consultant of China Import & Export Commodity Inspection Technology Institute, Teacher of Nan Yang High School of Rangoon, Member of Burma’s Industrial Development Cooperation, Translator and Editorist of Annual Magazine “Fighting Peacock” as well as S.H.A.N. & Burma’s News Published by Burma’s Chinese). (boxun.com)

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