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Theravada Buddhism and Shan/Tai Regions

(Mar. 28, 2005)( S.H.A.N. & Burma's News Published by Burma's Chinese) by Maung Chan

   Early Buddhism 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.

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