Sacred Statues in the Museum of Chiang Mai, North Thailand
 
 
 

How Buddhism was brought to Burma

 
 

Tapussa & Bhallika met the Buddha

 
 
Venerable S. Dhammika explained: “During the Buddha’s eighth week at Bodhgaya, as he sat in the shade of the Rajayatana Tree, he was approached by the merchants Tapussa and Bhallika. These two men were leaders of a large caravan that was passing through Magadha.”1 They “made an offering of rice cake and honey to the Buddha and took the two refuges, the refuge in the Buddha and the refuge in the Dhamma (the Sangha, the third object of refuge, did not exist yet).”2
 
Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma wrote, “The Burmese proudly claim that the Buddha's first meal was offered by Tapussa and Bhallika. According to Buddhist literature they came from Okkala - presently known as Rangoon - on their way to Rajagiri and saw the Buddha at the foot of the Rajayatana Tree in the seventh week after His Enlightenment. After they offered the Buddha rice cakes and honey they requested Him to give them something to remember Him by. The Buddha gave them eight pieces of His hair, which were brought with respect and honour back to Burma. The king of Okkala welcomed them with great honour on their arrival and the hairs were enshrined in a pagoda, which is now the biggest and highest pagoda in the
world, the Shwedagon golden pagoda of Rangoon.”3
 
 
 
The standing Buddha in Myanmar is associated with travelling and with leaving a footprint for followers. His right hand makes the mudra that symbolizes peace, protection, and the dispelling of fear and his left hand makes the mudra that symbolizes generosity and accomplishing the benefit of others.
 
 
 

The Great Elder, Maha Thera Shin Gavempti invited the Buddha to Thaton in Lower Burma

 
 
“The first Indianized peoples in Burma were the Mons, an honour shared with their northern neighbours, the Pyus. The Mons, a people of Malayo-Indonesian stock, are related to the early inhabitants of Thailand and Cambodia, who also spoke Mon-Khmer languages. The Mons, who are considered to be the indigenous inhabitants of lower Burma, established their most significant capital at Thaton, strategically located for trade near the Gulf of Martaban and the Andaman Sea.
“Little is known of the early history of the Mon people, how long their various kingdoms flourished and the extent of their domains. For example, it is not definitely known if it was the Mon or the Pyu who controlled the lower delta region. Descriptions in Chinese and Indian texts specify their settlement area as being around the present day cities of Moulmein and Pegu in the monsoonal plains of Southeast Burma. This area was first known as Suvannabhumi (‘Land of Gold’) and later as Ramannadesa (‘Land of Ramanna’), Ramanna being the word for the Mon people. The area known as Suvannanbhumi was often connected with the historical Buddha in the later Burmese chronicles, which credits the Mons with first establishing the Buddhist religion in Burma. Although little is known about actual religious practice, trade connections through the Mon port city of Thaton can be traced to the Indian kingdom of the Buddhist King Ashoka from as early as the 3rd century BC.”4
 
TriplegemNet records that Maha Thera Shin Gavempti was one of the Buddha’s main disciples but he is not frequently mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures. It was believed according to purely Mon tradition that the Buddha himself visited the Kingdom of Thaton after having been entreated by Maha Thera Gavempti, who was later invited to participate in the First Buddhist Council.5
 
The Pali Online Dictionary wrote that after the conversion of the people of Ramanna to Buddhism there was a constant exchange between the Kingdom of Ramanna and Ceylon to establish the Sangha in Ceylon. The King of Ramanna is said to have made gifts of an elephant to every vessel bringing goods from foreign lands.
 
 
 
Metal casts of Lord Buddha’s footprints
worshipped in a temple &
 
 
 
exhibited in the museum in Chiang Mai, North Thailand
 
 

 

Maha Punna from Sunaparanta invited the Buddha to Pagan in Upper Burma

 
 
In the chapter entitled, “The Buddha’s Visits to the Region” (in the article Buddhism in Myanmar) Roger Bischoff tells us, “Punna, a merchant from Sunaparanta, went to Savatthi in India on business and there heard a discourse of the Buddha. Having won faith in the Buddha and the teachings, he took ordination as a bhikkhu-monk. After some time, he asked the Buddha to teach him a short lesson so that he could return to Sunaparanta and strive for Arahatship. The Buddha warned him that the people of Sunaparanta were fierce and violent, but Punna replied that he would not allow anger to arise, even if they should kill him.
“In the Punnovada Sutta (‘Advice to Venerable Punna’) the Buddha instructed him not to be enticed by that which is pleasant, and Punna returned and attained Arahatship in his home country. He won over many disciples and built a monastery of red sandalwood for the Buddha. According to some chronicles of Myanmar, the Buddha made the prediction that at the location where the red sandalwood monastery was, the great king Alaungsithu of Pagan would build a shrine. He then sent flowers as an invitation to the Buddha and the Buddha came, accompanied by 500 Arahats, spent the night in the monastery, and left again before dawn.”6
 
Bischoff continued, “The Buddha stopped at the river Nammada close to Saccabandha Mountain. Here the Blessed One was invited by the Naga King Nammada to visit and preach to the Nagas, later accepting food from them.”7 Furthermore, “Namanta Naga and his friend Hermit came to pay homage to the Buddha and requested to have some kind of his representation for them to worship. Thus, the Buddha left two footprints, one at the foot of the Minbu Hill Range and the other a little higher up on the hill. These footprints are well known far and wide as Shwe Set Taw (‘Golden Footprints’).”8 Bischoff reports that these “footprints, still visible today, were worshipped by the Mon, Pyu, and Myanmar kings alike.”9
 
 

Maha Thera Sona & Uttara taught in Thaton

 
 
Go Ye, O Bhikkhus, wander forth for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, for the welfare of gods and men. Proclaim, O Bhikkhus, the Doctrine glorious, preach ye a life of holiness, perfect and pure.10 -- The Buddha
 
Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma wrote: “Two and a half centuries after the passing away of the Buddha, according to the tradition preserved in the Sri Lankan chronicles, Emperor Asoka sent missionaries to preach the teachings of the Buddha outside India. At that time his son and daughter went to Sri Lanka to teach the Buddha-Dhamma. Also two monks named Sona and Uttara were sent to Suwanabhumi (Thaton) to spread the teachings.
“Buddhism was introduced to central Asia 234 years after the passing of the Buddha into Nibbana, i.e., in 240 BC. China received Buddhism for the first time in the first century BC and within a century it was officially recognized as a religion by the state. Buddhist monks began going to China from the end of the first century BC, and Buddhism arrived in Korea and in Japan in the fourth and in the sixth century CE respectively. Tibet received the Teachings of Buddhism in the seventh century while the Buddha-Dhamma has flourished in Thailand from the first or second century CE.
“According to Chinese chronicles and archaeological findings, Cambodia became a Buddhist country from the end of the fifth century CE. A large number of inscriptions discovered in different parts of Malaysia are written in Sanskrit and show that Buddhism was already flourishing in this part of Asia at this time. From this it can be seen that these Buddhist monks travelled to many strange countries without any financial support, facing many hardships during their journeys. They did not know anything about the countries where they were going and relied only on a strong confidence in the teachings of the Buddha.”11
 
 

The Tipitaka was translated & presented to the King of Thaton

 
 
Maha Thera Buddhaghosa stayed in Sri Lanka at the invitation of his mentor Maha Thera Revata in order to translate the Tipitaka.12 Having completed the translation, Buddhaghosa returned to Myanmar and presented King Dhamapalla of Thaton the translation of the Tipitaka. This event marks the arrival of the Buddha’s Words in Myanmar.13
 
Who was Maha Thera Buddhaghosa? “Bhadantācariya Buddhaghosa was a 5th century Indian Buddhist Theravadin commentator and scholar. Buddhaghosa means ‘Voice of the Buddha’ in the Pali language. He translated extensive Sinhalese commentaries on the Pali Buddhist texts into Pali. Certain commentaries are also attributed to him, including one on the Vinaya and one on the Dhammapada that includes 305 stories for context. His Visuddhimagga (Pali, ‘Path of Purification’) is a comprehensive manual of Theravada Buddhism that is still read and studied today. The book is divided into sections on Shila or ‘Ethics,’ Samadhi or ‘Meditation,’ and Pranna or ‘Wisdom.’ This is a traditional division in Buddhist teachings, which suggest that ethics are essential to meditation, and that meditation is essential to developing wisdom. From the Buddhist point of view, this is the ‘path of purification’
because it purifies the mind of the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion.”14
 
 
 

 

 

 

Shin Arahan converted the King of Pagan, who unified Upper & Lower Burma

 
 
It is said that the troops of King Anawrahta, who ruled from 1044-77, invaded Thaton in order to acquire the Tipitaka Scriptures and thereby the kingdom was broadened beyond the present-day boundaries. Home Bagan wrote: “The Mon-Myanmar War came about like this. In those days, Lower Myanmar was more advanced in some aspects than Upper Myanmar as it is closer to the sea and had more international contacts and trade. Pure, Theravada Buddhism also flourished there first while Upper Myanmar was following the religious teachings of quack-priests called Aris (who believed in animism). To give an example of the religious practices taught by the Aris: a bride had to offer herself to the Aris on the night of her wedding! A learned monk from Thaton by the name of Shin Arahan went to Bagan – probably to propagate the true Buddhist religion. King Anawrahta did not like the teachings and practices of the Aris and therefore welcomed him with open arms.
“The king was pleased with Shin Arahan’s introductory sermons on Buddhism and
expressed his desire to introduce it to his kingdom. The venerable monk informed him that the propagation of Buddhist religion in Bagan would be facilitated if the king could obtain a set of the Three Pitaka, the complete teachings of the Buddha, from Thaton. Accordingly, King Anawrahta sent a mission bearing appropriate gifts to the kingdom of  Thaton to request for a set of the Three Pitakas. Regrettably, King Manuha of Thaton turned down the request in undiplomatic terms. As a result, the Myanmar forces of Bagan marched on Thaton, conquered it and took back to Bagan not only sets of the Three Pitakas, but also the royal family and many Mon artisans as prisoners of war.  The culture of Bagan was enriched by this infusion of Mon arts and crafts, no doubt, for the Mons are an enterprising race well-known for their industry and creativity.  But Thaton's greatest contribution to the culture of Bagan was without any doubt pure; Buddhism.”15
 
As a result, “The Mrammas or Myanmas established a powerful kingdom with its capital at Pagan and gave their name to the whole country in the tenth century CE. At that time Tantric Buddhism was already flourishing amongst them, but King Anawratha was converted to Theravada Buddhism. Since that time, “Burma has been known as a Theravada Buddhist country. It always had a good relationship with Sri Lanka and there was a constant exchange of monks between the two countries to study Buddhist literature and to strengthen the Buddha-Dhamma. There were numerous Burmese contributions to Theravada Buddhism and to Pali literature.”16
 
Tradition reports that the King of Ceylon presented Lord Buddha’s holy tooth to King Anawrahta. He also obtained the sacred collarbone of Gotama Buddha from Thayekhittaya. Chronicles say that when the sacred relics arrived, King Anawrahta descended knee-deep into the river to receive them. Shin Arahan advised the king that for the benefit of men he should enshrine the relics within a stupa so that it might be worshipped for as long as what is called a sasana in Pali, i.e., 5000 years. The king placed the relics on a jewelled white elephant and vowed, “Let the white elephant kneel in the place where the holy relics should rest.” And it was there that the Shwezigon Stupa was built.
 
 
 
 
 
 

Then & now

 
 
Venerable Dr. Rewata Dhamma wrote, “Nowadays Burma has become a very popular centre for the study of Abhidhamma and the practice of Vipassana meditation. As a result, many western investigators have exclaimed that Burmese Buddhism is far stronger than Buddhism in any other Theravada nation.
“There were many religions born in India, but only Buddhism was flourishing all over Asia within a few centuries. Teachings of the Buddha are suitable for all kinds of human nature and applicable to people of all ages without changing their cultures or abandoning their traditions. The Buddha invited people to investigate his teachings before accepting them and allowed freedom of thought to his followers, unlike the founders of many other religions. Because of this, Buddhism can be adopted easily by everyone as a way of life.”17
 
 
 
The Irrawady River originates in the high ranges of the Himalayas and flows down
between the mountains and hills of Burma before spreading out into one of the largest river deltas in Asia.
 
 
May virtue increase!
Compiled by Gaby Hollmann, May 2006 
(photos taken in Birma & Thailand by gh in 1985)


1 Ven. S. Dhammika & BuddhaNet, Sacred Places. Tiriyaya, in: BuddhaNet, online 2006. 
2 Moments of Inspirations, in the site: TipitakaNetwork, May 2006; also History of Myanmar, in: Wikipedia, online 2006. -- See especially, To Tapussa. Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, PTS A iv 438, Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, 1997 & 2005, with access to the Insight Edition, online 2006.
3 Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma, The Buddhist Missionaries, Nibbana.com, 1985, in the site: Ukonline, 2006. – See Myanmar Digest, The Shwedagon Pagoda, recommended in the site of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period and the 84 Mahasiddhas. The Library of Member Essays, in: The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, 2006.
4 Seaside.niu.edu/Burmese, 2006.
5 See TripleNet, online 2006. -- See especially the very detailed account of the Buddhist Councils presented by Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche, The Three Buddhist Councils. How the Arhats authentically preserved the Buddha’s Teachings, in the site: Simhas.org, Teaching No. 31, 2006.
6 Roger Bischoff, Buddhism in Myanmar, in: The Wheel Publication No. 399/401, Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, 1995, with access to the Insight Edition 1996, online 2006. -- Quoting “Punna” in G.P. Malalasekera, A Dictionary of Pali Proper Names (PTS 1937-38) and the Sasanavamsa Sutta, Roger Bischoff wrote that these sources state that the Buddha stayed for seven weeks and converted eighty-four thousand beings to the Dhamma.
7 Roger Bischoff, ibid.
8 Website of Myanmar Travel Information, ibid.
9 Roger Bischoff, ibid.
10 Quoted by Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma, ibid.
11 Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma, ibid.
12 Resorting to a definition of Tipitaka according to a western source: “The Tripitaka (Sanskrit, lit. Three baskets), Tipitaka (Pāli) (…) is the formal term for a Buddhist canon of scriptures. Many different versions of the canon exist throughout the Buddhist world, containing an enormous variety of texts. The most widely known version is the Pali Canon of the Theravada school. The Tipitaka behaviour problems with the monks. The second category, the Sutra Pitaka (literally ‘basket of threads,’ Pali: Sutta Pitaka), consists primarily of accounts of the Buddha's life and teachings. The Sutra Pitaka has numerous subdivisions: it contains more than 10,000 sutras. The third category is known to the Theravada school as the Abhidhamma Pitaka. It is a collection of texts in which the underlying doctrinal principles presented in the Sutra Pitaka are restated and explained in more a systematic framework.” Wikipedia Encyclopedia, Tipitaka, online 2006.  
13 See Myanmar Travel Information, ibid. 
14 Wikipedia Encyclopedia, Buddhaghosa, online 2006.
15 Home, Bagan, online, 2006.
16 Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma, ibid.
17 Ven. Dr. Rewata Dhamma, ibid. -- For an account of the Forest Monk Tradition of Burma see the site of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Monastic Buddhism in the Medieval Period and the 84 Mahasiddhas. The Library of Member Essays, in: The Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, 2006.