Saturday, November 3, 2007
The Theravadan Buddhism of Burma
In the classical Buddhist tradition that has its roots in the Vedic traditions of India, there are two principal streams. The Theravadan school is the older one, the "Way of the Elders" that claims the most direct lineage from the original Buddha Dharma and emphasizes the need for a lifetime of study (indeed for eons of lifetimes) for enlightenment, and also, therefore, the spiritual authority of the monks. Later the Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") movement, revolting against some of the social consequences of this essentially Hindu doctrine of the immortality of the soul, stresses the idea that the Boddhi path is open to ordinary people and that spiritual progress can be made during an ordinary lifetime. The Tantric Buddhism of the Tibetan Renaissance and (for somewhat independent reasons) the Zen Buddhism of the east are basically Mahayanic in their attitude towards spiritual authority (and this no doubt helps to explain the popularity of these doctrines in North America). But a rich Theravadic tradition lives on as well, in Southeast Asia. Around 250AD King Tissa of Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism. (The Tamil nationalists are Hindus originally from Tamil Nadu in India.) From Sri Lanka this older, more conservative school of Buddhism colonized what are now Burma and Thailand. The monks are a very important part of the cultural infrastructure among the Buddhist people there. It may be that the pressures of global culture have made the monastaries vulnerable to attack from secular forces. It may be that like great rainforests, great repositories of culture and language are doomed to be wiped off the map. Or perhaps the monks and the people will together draw the strength to assert themselves once more.