Arakan's imagined place in the Theravada world Between Burma, Sri Lanka and the debate on the continuity of the sasana by Jacues P. Leider

Both in the East and the West, and for a long time, textbook knowledge nurtured a perception of Theravada Buddhism as a monolith that had been little eroded by time. But anthropological and historical studies of eighteenth and nineteenth century institutional reform, intellectual flexibility and homogenizing processes that were shared inside the Theravada world demonstrate change and have opened up new perspectives, especially in Sri Lanka and Thailand, less so in Burma, though.

The present paper’s subject falls into this broad theme of the complex relations between Theravada countries during the early modern period and the representation of these relations. It focuses on Arakan, a previously independent Buddhist kingdom that forms Burma’s northern Bay of Bengal rim. Arakan is an admittedly marginal quarter on the map of Southeast Asian Theravada lands, but has its own history of Buddhism that did not attract any scholarly attention. It was conquered in 1785 by the Burmese and soon its sangha was caught up in the monastic reformation process started by King Bodawphaya (1782‐1819) (Leider 2004c). What we may call the “reform movement” was a drift among leading monastic circles and by Buddhist courts to put greater emphasis on the observation of the vinaya rules and the textual acquisition of the scriptures by the monks. In Burma, the inclination for more discipline and higher textual knowledge produced court‐supported policies in the field of monastic education, new gaings and campaigns of monastic re‐ordination. The reform movement developed in various forms in Sri Lanka, Burma and the Tai countries and it took on quasi‐nationalist colors reflecting the pride of one’s own brand of excellence in the adherence to Buddhist orthodoxy.
Among Burmese monks and laity, the pride of having well preserved the true dhamma nurtured the well‐known and extremely common belief that Burma was a mainstay of the sasana and a country that had been favored by the Buddha. In the Sasanavamsappadipika (The Light of the Buddha’s Religion; Law 1959, hereafter SV) written in 1861, the Venerable Paññasami (third Maung‐daung Sayadaw) was just one in a row of Burmese authors to demonstrate the unfailing continuity of the sasana in Burma. An interesting view on the frontline of monastic discussions during the reign of King Mindon (1853‐1878) is provided at its beginning where the author states that he wrote it in Pali for Sinhalese monks to make it clear that the sasana had not only been well preserved in Burma, but rather better than in Sri Lanka.


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