Buddhism during the reign of King Anawrahta in Myanmar
First Contacts with Buddhism
The Sasanavamsa (chronicles) mentioned several visits of the Buddha to Myanmar and 1 other important event; the arrival of the hair relics in Ukkala (Yangon) soon after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Tapussa & Bhallika returned and enshrined 3 hairs in a 27-ft high stupa which is today the great Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Missionaries of Buddhism sent by King Asoka after 3rd Buddhist council brought in Buddhist teachings into Myanmmar.
Buddhaghosa was considered the greatest commentator on the Pali Buddhist texts. His influence led to great religious activity in the kingdoms of Lower Myanmar.
Theravada Buddhism Wentto Pagan(Upper Myanmar)
Pagan (Bagan) was believed to be founded in 849-850 CE by the Burmans. King Anawrahta united the region by subjugating chief-tans and gave the then Burma a sense of being a nation.
The crucial event in the history of Myanmar is Pagan’s acceptance of Theravada Buddhism in the 11thC CE. The religion was bought to the Burmans by a Mon bhikkhu named Shin Arahan.
The religion prevailing was some form of Mahayana Buddhism which had probably found its way into the region Bengal. Buddhism amongst the Mon in Suvannabhumi (Thaton) was on the decline in 11thC as people were disturbed by robbers and raiders, by plagues, and by adversaries of the religion.
Shin Arahan must have feared that monks would not be able to continue to maintain their religion practice and the study of scriptures under these circumstances. He, therefore, went upcountry where a new, strong people were developing, prosperous and safe from enemies.
Shin Arahan Converted King Anawrahta
Shin Arahan arrived near Pagan and was discovered in his forest dwelling by a hunter. The hunter who never saw a monk thought he was some kind of spirit and took him to the king Anawrahta. Having arrived at the palace, Shin Arahan naturally sat down on the throne as it was the highest seat. When asked where he came from, Shin Arahan told the king that he came from the place where the Order lived and that the Buddha was his teacher.
Then he gave the king the teaching on mindfulness. Shin Arahan then told the king that the Buddha had passed into Parinibbana but his teachings, the Dhamma, enshrined in the Tipitaka, and the 2-fold sangha remained. King Anawrahta must have felt that he had found what he has been missing in his life and a genuine alternative to the superficial teachings of the Ari monks. He built a monastery for Shin Arahan and, according to some sources, stopped all worship of the Ari monks and forced them to serve in the army.
Anawrahta Acquired the Scriptures
Through Shin Arahan, Anawrahta had now found the religion he had been yarning for. He set out and procured the scriptures and the holy relics of his religion for he wished his kingdom to be secured on the original teachings of the Buddha.
He did not limit his quest only to Thaton, he searched among the Khmer in Angkok, in Tali the capital of Nanchao (modern day Yunnan-China) but everywhere he was refused. He then went to Thaton, where his teacher Shin Arahan came from to request a copy of the scriptures.
According to the tradition of Myanmar, Anawrahta’s request was refused. Unable to endure another refusal, he set out with his army in yr 1057 to conquer Thaton and acquired the Tipitaka by force.
Before conquering Thaton, he had to subjugate Sri Ksetra, the Pyu capital. From there, he took the relics enshrined in King Dwattabaung’s Bawbaw-gyi Pagoda to Pagan. Anawrahta returned with the King of Thaton and his court, with Mon artists and scholars and about all of Thaton’s bhikkhus and their holy books, the Tipitaka.
Anawrahta’s Contributions to Buddhism in Myanmar
In Bagan, the Bhikkhus were accorded the greatest respect and their master, the Buddha Gotama, was honoured with the erection of pagodas and shines. Nevertheless, the king and his court continued to pray to their traditional gods for worldly gain as the new religion was considered a higher practice. Theravada Buddhism does not provide much rites and rituals. But a royal court could not do without them. So the traditional propitiation of the Nagas continued to be used for court ceremonials and remained part of the popular religion.
Anawrahta is mentioned in the Myanmar, Mon and Khmer, Thai and Sinhalese chronicles as a great champion of Buddhism because he developed Pagan into a major regional power and laid the foundations for its later glory.
He built pagodas wherever his campaign took him and adorned them with illustrations from the Jatakas and the life of the Buddha. He left behind innumerable clay tablets adorned with imagines of the Buddha, the King’s name and some Pali and Sanskrt verses. A typical aspiration on these tablets was: “By me, King Anawrahta, this mould of Sugata (Buddha) has been made. Through this may I obtain the path to Nibbana when Metteyya is awakened.” Anawrahta aspired to be become a disciple of the Buddha Metteyya (the future Buddha), unlike many later kings of Burma who aspired to Buddhahood.
Notes with courtesy from Sister Jean Lau from Pali College