The culture of Burma (or Myanmar) has been heavily influenced by Buddhism and the Mon people. Its neighbours, particularly China and Thailand have made major contributions to Burmese culture. In more recent times, British colonial rule and westernisation have influenced aspects of Burmese culture, including language and education.
Islam reached Burma at approximately the same time, but never gained a foothold outside the geographically isolated seaboard running from modern-day Bangladesh southward to Irrawaddy Delta (modern Rakhine State, formerly Arakan, an independent kingdom until the eighteenth century). The colonial period saw a huge influx of Muslim (and Hindu) Indians into Yangon and other cities, and the majority of Yangon’s many mosques and temples owe their origins to these immigrants.
Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Downtown Yangon is the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in Burma.
Christianity was brought to Burma by European missionaries in the 1800s. It made little if any headway among Buddhists, but has been widely adopted by non-Buddhists such as the Chin, Karen, and Kachin. The Roman Catholic Church, Myanmar Baptist Convention and the Assemblies of God of Burma are the largest Christian denominations in Burma. Burma is home to the second largest population of Baptists in the world, after the United States, the result of American missionary work.
The Chinese contribution to Burma’s religious mix has been slight, but several traditional Chinese temples were established in Yangon and other large cities in the nineteenth century when large-scale Chinese migration was encouraged by the British. Since approximately 1990 this migration has resumed in huge numbers, but the modern Chinese immigrants seem to have little interest in religion. Some more isolated indigenous peoples in the more inaccessible parts of the country still follow traditional animism.
Burma has nominal guarantees of freedom of religious expression, although religious minorities (Christians and Muslims), particularly those in the countryside are subject to discrimination. Sporadic riots between Burmese Buddhists and Burmese Muslims are not uncommon, and tensions between the two religious groups are high, particularly in major cities. In 2001, after the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, religiously motivated riots broke out between Buddhists and Muslims across major cities in Burma, including Sittwe, Pyay, Taungoo and Bago.The current regime’s nationalistic policy of Bama san-gyin, which considers Buddhism a key element of Burmese-ness, does provide a systemic bias in favour of Buddhists in terms of preferment in the armed forces and other State structures.
Aspects of Burmese culture are most apparent in religious sites. The country has been called the “Land of Pagodas” as the landscape is dominated by Buddhist pagodas or stupas. The four most important Burmese Buddhist pilgrimage sites are Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Mahamuni Buddha in Mandalay, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Mon State, and Bagan, an ancient capital by the Ayeyarwaddy River where thousands of stupas and temples have stood for nearly a millennium in various states of repair.
Pagodas are known by their Pali terms zedi or pahto , but are also commonly called hpaya which is synonymous with “Buddha”. Monasteries are known as hpongyi kyaung , hpongyi meaning monk, and since they have traditionally been places of learning where village children are taught how to read and write including and more importantly Pali, the language of the Buddhist scriptures, school also came to be called kyaung in the Burmese language.
Buddhism in Burma (also known as Myanmar) is predominantly of the Theravada tradition, practised by 89% of the country’s population It is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Adherents are most likely found among the dominant ethnic Bamar (or Burmans), Shan, Rakhine (Arakanese), Mon, Karen, and Chinese who are well integrated into Burmese society. Monks, collectively known as the Sangha, are venerated members of Burmese society. Among many ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in conjunction with nat worship, which involves the placation of spirits who can intercede in worldly affairs.
With regard to “salvation” in the Buddhist sense, there are three primary paths in Burmese Buddhism: merit-making, vipassana (insight meditation), and the weizza path (an esoteric form of Buddhism that involves the occult). Merit-making is the most common path undertaken by Burmese Buddhists. This path involves the observance of the Five Precepts and accumulation of good merit through charity and good deeds (dana) in order to obtain a favorable rebirth.
The vipassana path, which has gained ground since the early 1900s, is a form of insight meditation believed to lead to enlightenment. The third and least common route, the weizza path, is an esoteric system of occult practices (such as recitation of spells, samatha meditation, and alchemy) and believed to lead to life as a weizza (also spelt weikza), a semi-immortal and supernatural being who awaits the appearance of the future Buddha, Maitreya (Arimeitaya).