The overwhelming majority of Myanmar’s population practices Theravada Buddhism—around 88 percent. Christians make up just 6 percent of the population, 4 percent of the population is Muslim, 0.8 percent is animist, and 0.05 percent practice Hinduism.
Buddhism in Myanmar
Buddhists seek to achieve a state of divine enlightenment called Nirvana. Nirvana comes with an absence of human urges and desires.
Like Buddhists everywhere else in the world, Buddhists in Myanmar believe in reincarnation. A person’s actions, or karma, shape the next life. If you have bad karma, you could end up as a lowly vulture in the next life. Good deeds mean your reincarnation will bring you closer to enlightenment. Building a pagoda is considered excellent karma, which helps explain the prevalence of these buildings in all of Myanmar’s cities and villages. The Shwedagon Pagoda Festival is one of Myanmar's many festivals and holidays you can experience during your trip.
When Buddhism first arrived in Myanmar, it blended with native animist beliefs. Anawrahta, the first Buddhist king of the Burmese empire, declared that the King of the native deities would serve as the guardian of Buddhism. These native gods are called nats. In Buddhist temples, you’ll see depictions of nats co-mingling with Buddha himself.
Today, Burmese people still make offerings to their favorite nats, often in the form of flowers, colorful fabric, and fruit. These shrines and offerings may appear purely decorative to an outsider, but even these small symbols can have intricate meaning.
Buddhist Monks and Monasteries
There are hundreds of thousands of monks across Myanmar, and Mandalay havs the greatest concentration.
When children join the monastery, or kyaung in Burmese, they not only bring honor to their family, but also receive a solid education. Monks are usually happy to practice their English with Westerners. If your conversation goes well, it’s even possible that monks will offer you a tour of their monastery.
Monasteries, along with pagodas and temples, are always the most ornately decorated and beautifully maintained places in Myanmar. They stand out because of their bell-shaped towers.
Early each morning, monks walk the streets barefoot and in a single file line. A young monk walks in front and rings a bell. Residents come out to donate rice or fruit to the monks. This daily ritual is a way to worship as well as socialize.
Rakhine State is home to the Rohingya, which is Myanmar’s largest population of Muslims. Many citizens of Myanmar believe Rohingya Muslims to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many Rohingya have lived in Rakhine for many generations.
There is strong anti-Muslim sentiment throughout many layers of Myanmar society. Some of the loudest voices come from Myanmar’s prominent Buddhist monks. Some Rohingyas have fled persecution to Bangladesh, and there is a faction of Myanmar that would like to see all of the Rohingyas relocated.
Although Buddhism has blended with native animism over the years, folk religion still persists in some corners of Myanmar. Wizards proclaim to practice a form of magic that they have blended with mainstream Buddhism. Some of these sorcerers have attracted journalistic attention because of their exorcism rituals.
19th-century missionaries successfully converted 80 percent of the population in the sparsely populated Chin state to Christianity. Most Christians in Myanmar are Protestant, with a small number of Catholics and a tiny number of independent churches as well.
Though diverse, religious factions are simply one facet of Myanmar's people and culture—you can learn more Burmese society here.
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