Myanmar Snapshots 3: A Theravada Tradition
Having been conditioned for many years to the rigid security arrangements in Papua New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, I was very careful when I first explored the streets of Yangon, Myanmar‘s commercial capital (see Yangon – A First Glimpse). But that mild paranoia quickly changed. The people of Myanmar are some of the kindest I’ve ever met and my fellow foreigners were also quick to confirm the observation. For example, I handed 3000 Kyats (Myanmar’s currency) to a taxi driver for a short trip within Yangon but then got a pleasant surprise when he returned 1000 Kyats to me, saying 2000 was enough (Taxi cabs in Yangon do not use meters). If I did that somewhere else, the driver would have been happy to drive away with an extra 1000. But I was in Myanmar where the religion strongly emphasizes merit-making and the accumulation of good deeds and charity to obtain a favorable rebirth. My friends were quick to confirm those observations too.
Myanmar is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Some 89% of the ‘s population practice Buddhism, predominantly of the Theravada tradition. . Adherents are most likely found among the dominant ethnic groups in the Burmese society. Monks, collectively known as the sangha, are venerated members of Burmese society. The whole Myanmar landscape is basically dotted by Buddhist temples and a substantial portion of the population is composed of monks.
Theravada is a branch of Buddhism that uses the teachings from a collection of the oldest recorded Buddhist texts as its doctrinal core but also includes a rich diversity of traditions and practices that have developed over its long history of interactions with cultures and communities. Aside from Myanmar, Theravada Buddhism is also predominantly practiced Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.
It is good to notice that young generations are trained in Buddhist ways at a very early age but it is also worrisome to notice that, with the Myanmar society having recently opened its doors to the rest of the world, commercialism is on the rise. And soon that taxi driver might be swayed to give priority to earning profits over gaining merits. Early and sustained training is still the best defense against rapid erosion of values.