“Mingalaba!”, is how a person is greeted in Myanmar. Literally translated, this means: “May blessings come upon you!”
In no other country is everyday life so closely connected with Buddhism as in Myanmar. Over half a million people are Buddhist monks or nuns, supported by all population strata with generous donations. At dawn you could see them go through towns and villages receiving meals from devotees. Monks are allowed to eat only once a day at eleven a.m. Usually, the villagers wake up to the sound of temple bells, Buddhist prayers and songs, which are echoed from loudspeakers. Soon, women across the country would begin preparing rice and other food donations for the monks. Gifts are given with both hands, and thanks are not to be expected. Rather, the donors must be grateful for their gifts to be accepted. With alms you can earn merit for the next life, which is why wealthy folk often build monasteries or pagodas. Ordinary folk generally donate food, saffron coloured robes, towels, flip-flops, umbrellas, meal bowls (pathra) and toiletries.
Myanmar’s culture is very closely intertwined with Buddhism, but other religions have also left their mark. Thingyan, also known as the water festival, has its origin in the Hindu tradition. Even the small Christian population participate in Buddhist worship. Only Muslims have had problems in recent years, especially in the Rhakine state, which borders Bangladesh. Members of the Rohingya community have encountered state sponsored persecution and discrimination for years backed by the Buddhist clergy. Observers believe the differences between population groups and religious groups have always existed, but the military has interfered with all disputes. With dictatorship waning old fault lines have resurfaced.
Monks are a moral authority and often interfere with politics. During the so-called saffron revolution of 2007 they gave leadership and led demonstrations against the government in their traditional robes. The reason for the uprising was the abolition of subsidies for gasoline and rice, which rapidly worsened the living conditions of the population. Confident in their unassailable status, monks quickly formed the spearhead of the movement and refused to accept alms from the military. In the bloody suppression that eschewed they were arrested by the hundreds and even tortured in prison.
Buddhism is a kind of state religion in Myanmar with almost ninety per cent of her people committed to the Theravada school. Theravada is the oldest tradition of Buddhism and originates from the first followers of the Buddha, who had followed his teachings. The emphasis of Theravada is on the liberation of the individual by himself. Everyone must strive for enlightenment on their own, which is why Theravada has only one Bodhisattva – Maithri Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhism, numerous Bodhisattvas take a central role. Bodhisattvas are people who are already enlightened and remain mortal on earth to help others in their path to enlightenment.
Women are not allowed in the conservative Theravada tradition as ordained priests. They have only a life as a bikkhuni. A bhikkhunī (Pali) or bhikṣuṇī (Sanskrit) is a fully ordained female monastic. Male monastics are called bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and bhikkhus live by a code of conduct called Vinaya. Female monastics have traditionally belonged to Mahayana Buddhism and thus are prevalent in countries such as Tibet, Japan and Korea. But in recent years the Theravada tradition has begun ordaining females as bikkhunis.