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Southern Buddhism In South-East Asia


According to the chronicles of Ceylon, Buddhism was introduced to Goldenland (Suvannabhumi) in the third century B.C. It is not clear where exactly is meant by the name Goldenland but it may  well refer generally to the area of modern Burma and Thailand, especially their coastal areas.  There is no independent confirmation of this, but at all events it is clear that already in the early centuries A.D. the Sinhalese believed Buddhism to have been long established there.  Archaeological evidence does not
present indisputable evidence of the presence of Buddhism until the third or fourth centuries A.D., although there are possible indications even earlier than this.  What archaeology does show is the presence of definite trading and cultural links with South India from the early centuries A.D. and indirect links even before that.  It is likely then that some form of Southern Buddhism was introduced on a small scale at this time.

The Buddhism of the Pyu

     The finds of gold plates and reliquaries containing inscriptions in Pali dating from the fifth century A.D. at Sri Ksetra, the capital of the Pyu, demonstrate the predominance of a form of Southern Buddhism in central Burma, already at this date.  There seems little reason to doubt that some form of Buddhism closely related to that in Ceylon remained influential there throughout the first millennium A.D., although other forms of Buddhism were probably also present.  Influences from Ceylon in the latter part of this period would no doubt have included Mahayanist and even Tantric elements.  Probably the incoming Burmese whose language subsequently replaced that of the Pyu were initially a ruling class dominating a mixed population.

The Buddhism of the Mon

     It is likely that the coastal Mon people of Southern Burma and Northern and Central Thailand had adopted Southern Buddhism even before the Pyu, but this has not yet been confirmed archaeologically.  Certainly the Mon kingdom of Ràmanna  (in Lower Burma or Pegu) was a major centre of Pali Buddhism in the second half of the millennium and the same must have been the case for the Mon territory of Dvaravati in Central Thailand.  No doubt too the Southern Buddhist tradition was extant in the Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya (8th-13th century) in Northern Thailand.

     During the first half of the second millennium A.D. the Mon of  Ramanna maintained very close connections with Ceylon and appear to have adopted the latest developments in Sinhalese Buddhism.  There can be little doubt that many older South-East Asian traditions also continued.  The climax of Mon Buddhism was perhaps the reign of Dhammaceti in the fifteenth century.  Subsequently the Mon came more and more under Burmese suzerainty and with the suppression of their last attempts at independence in the eighteenth century much of their culture and history has been lost.  They now number only some half a million.

The Buddhism of the Burmese

     In the ninth century the Burmese took over control of the territories formerly controlled by the Pyu in Upper Burma.  It is likely that the Southern Buddhist tradition was already well-established among their subject peoples, but when the Burmese kings were able to extend their suzerainty over the Mon kingdom of  Ramanna, they imported much of the prevailing Buddhist tradition there.  Despite the presence of Mahayana and other Buddhist influences from India, the Southern tradition rapidly became dominant at court.

     By the thirteenth century the Burmese monastic order was divided into two traditions: the Mramma-sangha or Burmese monastic order, descended from the earlier Buddhist traditions of the Pyu and the Mon and the Sihala-sangha or Sinhalese monastic order, based upon the twelfth century reforms of King Paràkramabàhu of Ceylon.  These were certainly not monolithic institutions but rather groupings of monastic institutions of similar orientation.  The following centuries saw a number of further introductions from Ceylon.  Similar developments also took place among the Mon in Lower Burma.  The subsequent history of the Burmese order is complex but it appears that by the end of the eighteenth century an 'orthodox' Sinhalese tradition had established at least a nominal dominance.

     The British conquest of Burma in the course of the nineteenth century was a considerable shock to Burmese national confidence and was perhaps influential in the development of new forms of insight meditation based upon textual traditions.  None the less Buddhism remains strong in Burma and plays at times a central role in the polity of independent Burma.

The Buddhism of the Khmer

     Earlier Khmer culture appears to have been more influenced by Brahmanism and Mahayana Buddhism.  Still the Khmer Empire seems to have extended at times into the territories of the Mon and was eventually influenced by the Southern Buddhist tradition dominant there.  Not until the beginning of the fourteenth century do inscriptions in Pali appear in the Khmer capital of Angkor, but it is likely that more eclectic branches of Southern Buddhism had been present on a small scale for some time. From this period the Khmers come gradually under the influence of the Siamese kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya and their Buddhist traditions seem to have been similar to those of the Siamese.

     In the early twentieth century they were less influenced by modernizing tendencies and under French rule retained a rather conservative form of Southern Buddhism.  After independence Buddhism held a predominant place under Sihanouk but with the establishment of a rather extreme form of Communist rule under the Khmer Rouge suffered severe persecution for a short period and continuing restrictions even later than that.


The Buddhism of the Tai peoples

     At the beginning of the first millennium A.D. the various peoples speaking Tai languages begin to emerge into prominence in the area of Indo-China.  It is possible that they were initially immigrants from areas now part of Southern China, where in fact some still remain.  Eventually, most of these peoples adopted Theravàda Buddhism from the Mon and Khmer or later from the Burmese.

     Tai principalities emerge across much of present-day Thailand, Laos and parts of modern Burma during the course of the thirteenth century.  Eventually three major kingdoms emerge in Chiengmai, Sukhothai and Lan Xuang (Laos).  All maintained Southern Buddhist traditions of complex origins. The thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the introduction of various reforms modelled on the centralizing orthodoxy created in twelfth century Ceylon.  It is likely however that many earlier traditions continued and probably remained more numerous.

     Under the Siamese Empire based at Ayutthaya which replaced Sukhothai during the late fourteenth century and dominated much of the area of modem Thailand for much of the period from then until the eighteenth century these trends continued.  Probably both traditional groups, variously localized and of diverse origins, and, on a smaller scale, reformist groups coexisted in some overall context supervised by the monarchy.  Some influences from Europe were probably also present.

     The nineteenth century saw a new reform with the formation by king Mongkut in 1829 of the Dhammayutika fraternity.  This was partly based upon the earlier reformist trends and partly involved the creation of a new modernized approach to Buddhism.  The emphasis was mainly study-orientated and initially little concerned with meditation practice but placed great emphasis on strict observance of monastic discipline.  An important feature of its appeal was a rationalist element, discounting traditional cosmology and supernatural elements in favour of a return to the texts interpreted in a manner considered to be more orthodox.  Most other fraternities of the monastic order, although of diverse origin, were grouped into a single (much larger) fraternity known as the Mahanikaya.  Because of strong support from ruling circles in Bangkok the reformed fraternity has exercised great influence even upon the larger body, but it remains a minority tradition.

     Overall, Southern Buddhism remains the established religion of modern Thailand.  Among the other Thai peoples too, it continues for the most part as the major religious expression: in Laos, in parts of Burma and Assam and in Chinese Yunnan.


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