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council that the Buddhist era was fixed to begin on the
first day of the waxing moon of Tabaung (March) of the



year in which Gaudama died. This era is to last five
thousand years, which is the period assigned by Gaudama
himself to the duration of the religion taught by him.
The second Buddhist council was held exactly one
hundred years later (443 B.C.), in order to counteract the
deterioration and correct the laxity which had gradually
found its way into the Assembly. It was attended by
seven hundred of the "religious" most celebrated for
their learning and knowledge. Some of the ten relaxa-
tions which were claimed by a considerable portion of the
Assembly seem quaint to Western ideas, as, for example,
the wish to be allowed to add condiments to the food
received as alms and to preserve salt for more than the
sanctioned seven days, to perform religious ceremonies in
private instead of in public, to drink whey after noon
(though the drinking of whey was forbidden), to sit on
seats covered with cloth instead of on bare wood, and to
accept proffered alms of gold and silver (the use of which
was prohibited). But those who wished to relax the
severity of the religious life were thwarted, and the
council, after sitting for eight months, decided against
the schismatics and punished them with degradation.

The third or greatest of all the religious councils
was held at Palipatra, near the modern Patna, about
241 or 243 B.C., during the seventeenth year of the reign
of King Asoka, and lasted into the following year.^
It was attended by 1,000 selected "religious" of the
Assembly, who made a careful and exhaustive revision
of the Buddhist scriptures {Bidagat) and restored their
original purity. These sacred books, written in Pali,
are subdivided into three sections, viz., the instructions
{Tkid) for the laity, the instructions [Wim) addressed
to the religious, and the metaphysical portion {Abid-
amnid) relating to the Nat and the Brahma of the lower
and the higher celestial regions.

This third council was the great apostolic synod at
which it was resolved to spread abroad the doctrines of

^ The Burmese legend asserts that this council was held in 306 to
307 B.C. But, as it is known that Asoka's celebrated " edict pillar "
near Ferozabad was erected about the middle of the third century b.c,
this statement is obviously incorrect.



Buddhism over a much larger area than that to which
it had hitherto been extended. Until then it had been
confined to the limits of Magada in Nipal. But at the
conclusion of the third great council it was determined
to send forth apostles or missionaries in all directions to
disseminate the most excellent teaching of the eternal
law enunciated by the all- wise Buddha. Under the
patronage of King Asoka, whose arms were then every-
where triumphant and who was at that time the most
powerful ruler throughout India, the propagation of
Buddhism was rapid and extensive.

Two of these apostles, Thawna and Uttara, were sent
south-eastwards to the Siwana-Bami (Suvarna-Bhumi),
or " Golden Land," by which name Burma appears then
to have been known in Upper India. They landed at
Thaton, the capital of the Mon kingdom of Ramanya
(Pegu and Martaban), now the headquarters of a civil
district in Lower Burma and situated about ten miles
distant from the Gulf of Martaban, though at that time
on the sea coast on a tongue of land between the Salween
and the Sittang rivers. From this central point it spread
northwards into Upper Burma and eastwards into the
Shan States and Siam. Some of the Burmese legends
assert that Gaudama visited Burma and introduced his
new religion in person, while others state that it was
brought direct by Thawna and Uttara across the hills
of Assam and Manipur to Tagaung, the oldest known
city in Upper Burma, now a small jungle town on the
left bank of the Irrawaddy between Mandalay and
Bhamo. The former of these statements is known to be
incorrect, and well founded doubt exists about the latter,
as these hills were, and still are, inhabited by fierce and
uncivilized tribes of spirit worshippers. Other legends
of Burma, collated with those of Ceylon, seem to estab-
lish the more probable statement that the two mission-
aries, Thawna and Uttara, reached Thaton by sea from
Ceylon about the year 241 B.C. This is all the more
probable as Burmese Buddhism distinctly belongs to the
southern or Cinghalese school, whose scriptures were first
of all transmitted orally for over two centuries and then
written down in the Pali language. Otherwise it would



have belonged to the Thibetan or northern school, whose
sacred writings are in Sanskrit.

It was not until the beginning of the fifth century a.d.
that any copy of the Buddhist scriptures [Bidagai) was
brought to liurma. From the time of the introduction
of Buddhism into Ramanya by Thawnaand Uttara down
to that date the Pali teachings had been transmitted
orally from generation to generation. But in 400 a.d.,
according to the legend, a priest named Buddha-Ghosa,
or " the voice of Buddha," went across to Ceylon, where
he occupied himself for the next thirteen years in trans-
cribing the Pali text of the Bidagat and the other sacred
books. His task completed, he returned to Thaton,
bringing with him the fruits of his diligence. Here these
scriptures remained for over six and a half centuries, till
Anawratazaw, King of Pagdn (now a subdivision of the
Myingyan civil district), having made war upon the Mon
country and overthrown the Talaings in 1058 a.d.,
sacked the capital, Thaton, and carried off the whole
collection of scriptures brought by Buddha-Ghosa from
Ceylon, together with the most learned of the Raha7i or
" religious." With thirty-two elephant loads of scrip-
tures and 1,000 monks thus said to have been transferred
to Pagdn, this city became the head-centre of Burmese
Buddhism until 1365 a.d., when the capital of the King
of Burma was established at Ava. During these 300
years a great revival of Buddhism took place, and from
this era most of the great monuments date whose
remains still rouse the admiration of visitors to the
ruined city of Pagan.

According to the Buddhist idea a state of existence
(Bawd) consists of three worlds or divisions — a past, a
present, and a future. Each universe or world comprises
three sections, namely, one region (Ka^na) in which there
is form, desire, and sensuous gratification ; another (Ricpd)
in which there is form, without desire or sensuous grati-
fication ; and a third [Arupd), a state of unconsciousness
without either form, desire, or sensuous ^ratification.
In each such universe the ladder of existence consists of
thirty-one rungs (Bo7i)} Of these thirty-one divisions
^ Strictly speaking, however, these thirty-one ^^/; or "abodes" consist



it may be said that eleven belong to desire [Kama), six-
teen to matter [Rtipa), and four to immateriality [Arupa).

In order to account for the presence of man in this
world, the Burman presumes the existence of Brahma in
a previous world. This world having been destroyed
through the action of the laws regulating changes in
matter, some of the Brahma descended in all the glory
of their bright resplendence from the sixteen higher
celestial regions. For some unknown reason these
almost ethereal beings ate of a coarse kind of rice
{Thald), through the evil influence of which desire and
passion germinated in their hitherto passionless souls.
So great was this deterioration that these Brahma
descended in the scale and became men, beings tyran-
nized by passionate desires and blinded by the mists of
ignorance, who are tossed hither and thither in the
whirlpool of existence according to their individual
merits or demerits during this probationary stage of

Whether a man, according to the debit balance of his
demerits in this life, may be relegated to one or other of
the eight stories of hell, there to suffer unspeakable
tortures, or may have to expiate his offences in a scarcely
less terrible manner as a monster of hideous form,
suffering far more than Damoclean tortures in any of
the sixteen inferior hells surroundino- each of these main
regions, or may become incarnated in the form of one or
other of the lower animals or brute creation, yet he will
always, after punishment and expiation commensurate
with the nature of his demerits, be given another oppor-
tunity ^ of acquiring sufficient merit [Ktitho) to entitle

of (i) Ape or four states of punishment {Ngaye or " hell," Athurake or
" gruesome monsters," Pyeitta or " fabulous animals," and Tareiksan or
" brute animals ") ; (2) Kama or seven stages in which desire and
passion are felt (including man, and the Nat inhabiting the six lower
celestial regions) ; (3) Rupa or sixteen stages of visibility and materi-
ality, including the Brahma or beings superior to men and to the Nat,
insensible to heat or cold and entirely free from passion or desire,
inhabiting the sixteen higher celestial regions ; and (4) Arupa or four
stages of invisibility and immateriality, in which the beings have no
bodily form but rejoice in the contemplation of abstract truth.

^ To re-obtain this opportunity is not always, however, an easy thing,

VOL. II. 113 I


him to a seat in the celestial abodes of Nat and Brahma,
and to reach the Mag, the four paths leading to Neikban.
Sorrow is like a disease ; the cleaving to existence is like
the cause of that disease ; Neikban is like the curing of
the disease ; and the four paths, each of which is divided
into the two grades of perception of the course of duty
and fruition or enjoyment of the same, are like the medi-
cine which causes the cure. Even the Brahma of the
higher celestial regions — though the aggregate elements
forming their bodies be different from our common clay,
and though they have only attained their exalted position
by the exercise of soul-purifying rites — may, when the
age allotted to them as Brahma has passed away, be
born again into this world as men or as animals, or may
be born into any other world.

The greatest demerits are those incurred by the non-
observance of the five great religious duties {Pyinsa
Thila) incumbent upon the laity, and binding on all
creatures, namely, (i) not to take life; (2) not to steal;
(3) not to commit adultery; (4) not to lie ; and (5) not
to touch any intoxicating drink. In the case of the
Rahaii or " religious " the ten obligatory duties (Datha
Thila) forbid (i) the taking of life; (2) the taking of
what is not offered to them ; (3) sexual intercourse ; (4)
the saying of that which is not true ; (5) the use of
intoxicating drinks ; (6) the partaking of solid food after
midday; (7) attendance upon dancing, singing, musical
festivities, or dramatic performances ; (8) the adorning
of the body with flowers, and the use of perfumes or
unguents ; (9) the use of seats over the prescribed height
of one and a half cubits; and (10) the receiving of gold
or silver. These vows must be taken by every candidate
before he can be admitted to the priesthood. All ten
precepts should be observed even by the laity on the
four ceremonial days {Uboksaujtg) occurring in each
lunar month, and also throughout the whole of the three
months of Lent {Wa) in each year — from the full moon

for the Dunlaba-nga-ba or five things difficult of attainment are (i) being
a Buddha, (2) hearing the law, (3) becoming a priest, (4) becoming a
righteous man, and (5) becoming a human being.



in June or July to the full moon in September or

The mere observance of all the five precepts by the
layman cannot immediately raise him, on the cessation
of his existence as a man, beyond the sphere of the six
lower celestial regions occupied by the spirits [Nat)
and full of sensual pleasures and enjoyments. More
illustrious merit is obtainable by the further influence of
the five great acts of renunciation i^Sungyingyi-nga-ba)
through surrendering one's children, property, life, wife,
and whole individuality for the purpose of searching
more eagerly after truth and perfect rest. Promotion
from spirit-land to the blissful sixteen seats of the
Brahna and the four states of immateriality is obtain-
able only through intellectual efforts such as the thorough
comprehension of the three principles or "appearances"
— {Aneissa, Dokka, Anatta ; Letkand-tkon-ba or imper-
manence, misery, and unreality) — and the exercise of
profound meditation regarding truth. The studies of
the five parts of meditation and contemplation {Zan)
include the careful examination of no less than six
hundred objects connected with the regions of materiality
[Rupa) and of immateriality {Arupa). Demerit by non-
observance of these duties, however, plunges the Buddhist
into one or other of the depths of hell, there to undergo
punishment commensurate with the amount of the minus
balance of his personal account, until he may be born
again in the condition of man after due expiation of
his misdeeds. Whenever the evil influence created by
the demerit becomes exhausted the punishment ceases,
and the miserable tortured sinner ascends again from
the depths of the earth to the abode of man in order
to acquire the merit that will translate him to the country
of the Nat. The same laws apply to women as to men.
From the religious point of view there is no difference
between the sexes, except that a Buddha must be born a
man. A woman invariably prays that she may become
a man in her next relegation to this world.

The five great precepts (Pyinsa Thila) are always
repeated when Burmans proceed to the pagoda for
religious exercise, and reference is also made to the



"three precious gems" of Buddhism — {Payd, Tard,
Thinga ; Yada7td-t/t07i-da) — the Buddha, the Law, and
the Assembly of the ReHgious. It is to these that the
Burmese Buddhist looks for an escape from the horrible
potentialities to which he is exposed in this whirlpool
of existence. As previously remarked, the Burman
does not pray to Gaudama, the Buddha, who has by the
attainment of Neikban absolutely ceased to exert any
direct or indirect personal influence on human life save
through the enunciation he left behind him of the law
of existence and the path of truth. Nor does he pray
to either of the two remaining gems. He merely
venerates the Law and the Assembly of the Religious ;
but he neither prays to them nor worships them.

There is indeed no such thing as prayer at all in
Buddhism. When Burmese men and women — most of
them old, it may be remarked, and evidently anxious to
secure a balance on the proper side of life's account — are
seen kneeling reverently before a pagoda or other holy
shrine and making respectful obeisance, with perhaps a
sacred flower or a votive offering clasped between the
palms of their hands, and more especially when one
hears them repeating what sounds extremely like invoca-
tions to the deity, it might naturally be supposed that
they are engaged in prayer. Of course, not all of
those seen will be equally devout and absorbed in
meditation. While some are earnest, others will be
looking around and performing their religious duties as
mechanically as the ordinary British church - going
Pharisee. But prayer in the form of an invocation to
a Supreme Being, has no meaning to the Buddhist.
What might be mistaken for prayer on his part is what
he considers meditation, aided by the repetition of
stereotyped precepts and formulae used for the purpose
of fixing his thoughts on the contemplation of the afore-
said " three precious gems."

The Assembly {TJiinga), as the Buddhist priesthood
is called, is no more homogeneous than the Church of
England. Previous to each of the three great councils
of 543 B.C., 443 b.c, and 244 b.c, even although the
first of these was only held sixty-one days after



Gaudama's death, dissensions had already occurred in
the Assembly, for the removal of the causes of which
the latter was in each case called.

Again, later on, when Burmese Buddhism had for
centuries firmly established itself as an independent
branch of that religion, similar dissensions begun in
Pagdn were continued in Ava, where the rival schools
of Tongaing and Vongaing, roughly corresponding to
High Church and Low Church, each asserted the
orthodoxy of their respective manner of celebrating the
religious observances. Hence Bodaw Payd, the son of
Alaung Paya, who reigned from 1781 to 18 19 and trans-
ferred the capital from Ava to Amdrapura, considered
it advisable, as head of the Church — for the headship
of both Church and State was combined in the royal
person of the King — to convoke a meeting of the
Assembly in order to discuss the religious variances in
public. The end of this fourth council was that the
King sided with the Yongaing or Low Church party,
and caused the leader of those holding opinions differing
from his own to be stripped of the yellow priestly robe
{Thingan) and thrust out from the Assembly.

During the last seventy years, however, dissensions of a
similar nature have again made their appearance, causing
the Assembly to be divided into a High Church party
and a Low Church party. These two parties have
various names in different parts of the country, but they
are best known respectively as the Sulagandi, or Dwaya
{lit. "a hole or aperture"), and the Mahagandi, or Kan
(lit. "a deed, an action"). Each sect differs slightly
from the other both in doctrine and in dress. The Sula-
gandi or High Church party are more careful and strict
in their religious observances and in their adherence to
all that is laid down in the ritual, while they also main-
tain that man is endowed with free will in accepting the
knowledge of the external world conveyed to him through
the conscious operation of the organs of sense, i.e. through
the holes or apertures forming the organs of sense. The
Mahagandi or Low Church party, on the other hand, are
less rigid and exact in the performance of the priestly
rites, while they deny that there exists such a thing as



free will, but hold that everything is brought about by
Ka7i, the secret influence of an action on one's future
destiny. The former maintain that the merit of a good
deed (KiUho) depends on the intention of the doer,
whereas the latter argue that the influence {Kan) of any
good deed per se becomes potent for good irrespective
of the intention of the doer.

To smooth away these dissensions the late King
Mindon (1853-78) convoked another Assembly at Man-
dalay, and added to his many grandiloquent titles that of
" Convener of the fifth Buddhist Synod." This Council
practically came to nothing. Though the King sided
with the Kan or Low Church party, yet his Chief Queen
was in favour of the Dwaya ; and like a prudent hus-
band, knowing the value of domestic peace, the head of
Burmese Buddhism just allowed matters to go on as
they were.

The differences between Sulagandi and Mahagandi
are in reality comparatively slight and trivial, so far as
the religious philosophy itself and its influence on the
daily life of the people are concerned. When a lay-
man of the High Church party has built and endowed
a monastery (Kyaung), and the priest living there has
died, the founder {Kyaungtaga) very naturally objects
if a monk [Pongyi) of the Low Church party enters and
takes possession of it. Sometimes such things cause
heartburnings and bickerings in the villages, but on the
whole the differences are far more nominal than real. In
proof of this the statement may be made that it is not
easy to find any one in a jungle village who can explain
what differences really exist between the doctrines of the
two parties. The village monks always belong to one
or the other rival schools, and the villagers accordingly
consider themselves adherents of the same sect. Beyond
the fact that the Szdagandi -dx^ stricter in the performance
of religious duties and in the observance of ritual and
rubric than the Mahagandi, the people in general really
know little and care less.

Owing to the fact that Burmese Buddhism is in reality
but a superimposed layer upon a hidden, though more or
less perceptible, foundation of belief in the efficacy of



spirit worship, it is difficult to estimate correctly the
influence that the purely Buddhistic religious philosophy
exerts on the national character and on the daily life of
the people.

If one examines any of the thousands of bell-shaped
pagodas or stupas with which the whole of Burma is
studded, it will be found that such monuments have at
their core a central relic chamber and that they maintain
their solidity not only from the bricks of which they are
built, but also from the mortar used in cementing these
together, the result being a structure capable, with due
care and attention, of lasting for centuries.

And it is very much the same with the religious belief
of the Burman. He professes himself to be a Buddhist;
and he would indignantly repel any insinuation that he
is perhaps not really a Buddhist, but more or less of
a spirit worshipper. But without this intermingling of
animistic worship it is highly improbable that Buddhism
would have maintained itself so long as the avowed
national religion of Burma. In youth and manhood the
Burman goes frequently to the pagoda on the sacred
seventh day ( Uboksaung Ne) indicated by each phase of
the moon, and as old age approaches he becomes quite
regular in attendance. He then even goes every evening
about twilight to worship at some sacred place. Here
he lights up tiny candles or decorates a favourite shrine
with flowers or little flaglets in honour of the revered
memory of the omniscient Gaudama ; and here he makes
small offerings of fruits or of boiled rice for the benefit of
the poor, and for the satisfaction of the carnal appetites
of those who are now expiating their demerits in the
form of crows, or dogs and like animals. Here, too, in
an attitude of lowly obeisance, he devoutly repeats the
religious precepts and formulae learned as a small boy at
the monastery, and declaims the veneration and profound
respect with which he adores the " three precious gems"
of the Buddhist philosophy.

These are the bricks with which his spiritual pagoda
is built up within the recesses of his heart, but they are
cemented together and strengthened by the mortar con-
sisting of a more or less definitely conscious belief in the



power of good and evil spirits to influence his daily life,
his health, his happiness, and his future state. And
deeper still, forming the very core of this religious edifice,
there rests the original animistic belief serving as the
actual basis upon which the whole philosophic structure
ultimately rests.

This intermingling of superstition with Buddhism is of
course more distinctly noticeable among the rural popula-
tion than in the towns. In these latter, indeed, and more
particularly in Rangoon, contact with Christians, Jews,
Hindus, Mohammedans, Parsis, and Taoists unfortu-
nately seems to be gradually weakening the hold of any
religion upon the Burmese. The vast majority of those
who come to venerate the three precious gems at the
foot of the world-famed Shwe Dagon Pagoda are country
people, and not residents in Rangoon. Throughout the
country at large, however, the Burman still endeavours
to propitiate the spirits of the earth and the air, the
dryads of the forests, etc., by offerings and various little
attentions. He venerates the Buddha, he performs the
Law, and he respects the Assembly ; but along with this
there are simultaneous veneration and propitiation of the
spirits (Nat), which almost amount to worship. Even
in Pagan, for centuries the centre of Burmese Buddhism,
an ancient Nat temple still exists as a survival of the
older cult.

Three main causes have led to this. These are, firstly,
the primitive spirit worship which formed a good soil for
the sowing of Buddhism, with its six lower celestial
regions forming the abode of the Nat\ secondly, the
tolerance of the Buddhistic religion ; and thirdly, the
temperament and the natural characteristics of the Bur-
mese themselves. Bearing this in mind, it will readily be
understood that true Buddhism really has now but little
effect on the daily life of the Burmese. As the work of

Online LibraryJohn NisbetBurma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) → online text (page 11 of 41)