Buddhism in Belgium
By Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Of all the peoples of Europe, Belgians are some of the worst informed about Buddhism. The image that Buddhism conjures up in the mind of a Belgian is generally not a very positive one — but on reflection it is not because of shortfalls of Buddhists per se (of which there are surely some) –but because the word ‘Buddhism’ is generally associated with many imposter ideas that are not Buddhist or representatives of Buddhism at all.
The sight of a Buddhist monk, like the sight of a Buddha image is one of the more important symbols of the presence of Buddhism in any place. As a Buddhist monk who travels widely in Belgium, I am forced to conduct a sort of private research each time I appear in the street, observing the trends in mistakes in the vocal remarks of the general public to my own appearance. (I hope these observations will point to some possible room for improvement in the religious education at secondary school level.) To give some examples of some of the more common mistakes. Let us start our talk on Buddhism in Ieper by clarifying what Buddhism in Ieper is not:
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The Origins of Buddhism
In conclusion, our general image of Buddhism in Belgium is a little confused — but it is no surprise because Buddhism has a long history and that long history has given us a lot of variety. In that variety it is hard to see the ‘forest for the trees’. In other words, it is hard to see what Buddhists (with all their differences) around the world have in common, that we can call it a world religion. Harder still is it to describe what we mean by mainstream Buddhism. In order to throw some light on this matter, let us briefly try to put Buddhism in its historical perspective.
Let me first ask you to picture Europe as it was in the period 2000B.C. to 500B.C.. Religiously and culturally it was a time of pagans, burial mounds and druids. People lived in primitive dwellings made of wood and thatch. They made weapons out of bronze with which they hunted. They traded with one another but had not yet learned agriculture, let alone the finer nuances of Greek or Roman culture. So much for western progressiveness and supremacy!
While Europe still had nothing to write in its history books, civilization in Asia and the Middle East was already culturally and materially about 2,000 years ahead. Bronze had already been discovered and used since 4,500 B.C. People lived in stone houses, ziggurats and castles. They organized themselves into constitutional monarchies and even republics. Their knowledge of medicine even allowed them to heal patients by surgery. India at that time was a cradle of new religious cultures in a way that had never before or never since been witnessed in the world. Society at that time was characterized by simplicity, but was economically prosperous. The population was of a fairly high degree both of average general intelligence and of gentle manners. Indian religious thinking was marked by a strong fund of common sense, a widespread feeling of courtesy and liberality.
In Middle Ages Europe, it was the ‘Strolling Students’ who supported themselves by begging who heralded the new ideas of the Reformation. In Ancient Greece it was the wandering sophists who were responsible for spiritual reform. In the same way, it was the wandering students and teachers of India (1,000 years earlier than in Europe) who ushered in the new spiritual diversity, lived upon providence, supported by the alms food of well-wishers. In India too, it was the almsmen or spiritual seekers who were held in such high esteem by Indian society and who were to effect progress in spirituality.
Kingly households and the aristocracy would build ‘alms houses’ and accommodation to make the lives of ‘spiritual seekers’ more convenient. They built debating halls where those seekers could gather to publicly debate their views — and this was one of the main sorts of intellectual entertainment of the time. It was this spiritual vitality that was the precursor of the arising of Buddhism in India. It was from this source that the earliest Greek philosophers who we credit as the fathers of our own western cultures, got their ideas. It was also from this background that 2,500 years ago, in India arose in the world.
I wonder whether spiritual ideas look to you like something which never changes, or whether you look upon spiritual ideas as something that grow in just the same way as science or technology have their way of progressing? The background to the development of Buddhism was certainly that of an evolution in the complexity of spiritual practices. In India there was a clear progression in religious speculation, similar to the spiritual evolution of the West but preceding it by about 1,000 years. Let’s look at some of these previous practices, so that we can see the newer features which distinguish Buddhism from other Brahmin or Hindu practices. We will now look at some of the milestones in this evolution:
At later times, this point in the religious speculation was reached in China and in Greece too, but less clearly — but only in India, was religious thinking taken a step further to a synthesis which lacked a soul altogether and to build up a new philosophy where a soul or souls played no part at all, that is, the teachings of Buddhism:
Now, to be old or original doesn’t necessarily mean that something is good. It might even mean that it is outdated; however, the character of Buddhism is one of never-going out of date. Buddhists are not those who have difficulties with scientific and technological progress. Although the monks might dress in an old fashioned way, in fact our way of thinking could not be more modern. This is perhaps the origin of Alfred Einstein’s quote which you find on the front of your handout.
Thus, Buddhists have a strong sense of spiritual identity complemented rather than at odds with the changing world around us. We are not the sort of religious people who ban our children from watching television or who are afraid that our children might learn about other religions. For as long as people practice Buddhism to the point of understanding, there are ever-new and relevant lessons we can learn from Buddhism for our present age — lessons which don’t cause us to refuse our material progress, but allow us to incorporate it soberly into our way of life.
Enlightenment: The Highest Refuge of Buddhism
So what exactly did/does Buddhism teach? Buddhism dealt explicitly with the quality of the mind — and maintained that positive or unpolluted quality of mind is prerequisite to one’s salvation. It maintained that the mind can only be occupied by one thing at once. If it is occupied by negative thoughts then the quality of the mind will be negative. If it is occupied by positive thoughts then the quality of the mind will be positive. Therefore, the most important aspect of Buddhism is finding ways to keep our mind in a positive state and to avoid any negative aspects (like greed, hatred or delusion) from taking hold in the mind the whole of the time. The practices of Buddhism incorporated practices some of which were attitudes, some were rules of morality, some were moral duties — but all ultimately designed to raise the quality of the mind towards the personal attainment of enlightenment.
Buddhists maintained their positivity of mind by constant mindfulness of the highest recollection of the tradition — the state of enlightenment. Thus was Buddhism any different from other religions? Had it simply replaced the worship of a god or gods by the worship of the abstract concept of ‘Enlightenment’? The answer is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ depending on the intellectual capacity of the people practicing….because there are three levels at which ‘Enlightenment’ is meaningful to a Buddhist: a historical level, a cosmic level and an experiential level:
- Historical level of meaning: Buddhism had its knowledge at a certain time and place in history (i.e. in India 2,500 years ago). Therefore when some people speak of ‘Enlightenment’, their main association and object of faith is with the historical personage of the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama who became enlightened under a bodhi tree. Such people usually consider Buddhism as a religion. They rely on faith in historical personages to bring them comfort and overcome their fears. Their faith is placed outside themselves and indeed, their refuge is in factor no more ‘known’ than in any deified religion. It is Buddhism as a religion which is based on ‘belief’ in something unseen and often no more than adherence to scriptural remnants.
- Cosmic level of meaning: A second group of Buddhists take a slightly more intellectual approach to Buddhism. They look beyond the historical origins of contemporary Buddhism to see that the Enlightenment of the Buddha 2,500 years ago was not unique. There have been not one, but many Buddhas through the ages. They see that there are similarities in the characteristics of ‘Enlightenment’ down the ages and as a result they deduce ideals and values by which they can guide their lives. Such Buddhists tend to see Buddhism more as a philosophy of human development than a religion.
- Experiential level of meaning: A third and final group of Buddhists take a yet more intellectual approach to Buddhism. They consider what the Enlightenment not as something outside us but as something which is already latent within the minds of everyone in the world but which needs to be attained through meditation practice. Such Buddhists tend to see Buddhism more as a way of life rather than being a philosophy or a religion.
From what we know, the original Buddhism of ancient times was a way of life rather than being a religion or a philosophy. In the beginning Buddhism consisted of nothing more than the teaching of meditation and related culture. However as Buddhism spread and incorporated the beliefs and customs of other cultures (in a process of what is called ‘syncretism’) religious and philosophical features were added on.
Thus in later years Buddhism has come to mean many things to many people in different parts of the world. Some of those things relate to religion, some to philosophy and others to lifestyle. Thus although meditation is still the core of Buddhism in the present day, there are many other facets which we also know as Buddhist culture in the present day.
Varieties of Buddhism in the Modern World
Buddhism originated in India, but now is almost dead there. All that is left is the ruins. (Buddhism was ousted mostly by Moslem invasions of about 1000AD.). Thus we have to look outside India to understand modern Buddhism, and there is certainly a huge variety. The variety can be explained by:
- the long history
- the habit of Buddhism not to crush the different cultures with which it came into contact, but to incorporate them (syncretism). Monks tended to go where they were invited rather than ‘forcing’ Buddhism on others. In fact Buddhism, unlike some religions, doesn’t set its target to convert the whole of the world to its own religion. It accepts that Buddhist teachings are likely to appeal only to people with a certain affinity for its teachings. That the majority fail to see the use of Buddhist teachings is expected. Thus Buddhist missionary policy has always been gentle and has certainly never led to wars.
Buddhism spread out of India in two directions: to the north and to the south.
The Southern tradition spread to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was called Theravada Buddhism (the teaching of the elders). Its scriptures are almost all in the Indian language of Pali. It is considered the most ‘orthodox’ form of Buddhism. The tradition emphasizes personal enlightenment by meditation. It contains an organized lineage of monastic tradition unbroken since the time of the Buddha. My own tradition, a Thai one, comes from the Southern tradition, and hence the Buddhism practiced in Ieper is representative of Theravada Buddhism.
The Northern tradition spread to China, Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, Korea and Japan. It was called Mahayana Buddhism (the great vehicle) and later split into Mahayana and the Tibetan form (Tantrayana [Tantric] or Vajrayana [sudden-enlightenment]) Buddhism. Chinese Tradition is characterized by monks who wear trousers. Their texts are mostly in Sanskrit or Chinese. They tend to be vegetarian. The monks of Shaolin and Zen monks belong to this tradition.
The Tibetan Tantrayana tradition, has its texts all in Tibetan. Many of the schools of Tibetan tradition subscribe to characteristic traditions of hereditary hierarchies of monastic government. The Dalai Lama belongs to this tradition.
Although there are obvious differences of color and culture between the practices of the Buddhist traditions in the different parts of the world, they never deviate far from the central tenets of progress towards Enlightenment. Whether they follow these tenets as a religion, a philosophy or lifestyle is a matter of the personal emphasis of their teachers.
How Buddhists came to be in Europe and Belgium
The teachings of Buddhism were known to Europeans long before Buddhists arrived in Europe. In the Netherlands, a fable containing the story of the Buddha, in Christian disguise appeared in a book published by Peter Van Utenbroek as early as the thirteenth century. Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism, was first described in Europe by Simon de la Loubère who visited Siam in 1687.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Buddhism appeared to western travelers and colonists in Asia more as a geographic phenomenon than a religious one. They did not see Buddhism as a single phenomenon which extended from India to Japan, and unlike Islam, it was not considered as a rival to Christianity. By the 1800’s the focus of interest in the European study of Buddhism had turned to Buddhist texts.
Burnouf (French) wrote his Introduction à l’histoire du Bouddhisme in 1845. A chair in Sanskrit was set up at the University of Lieden (the now Kern Institute) in 1882. By 1900, the Pali Text Society of London had translated most of the Buddhist Texts into English (about 45 times the size of the Bible). At that time, Europeans knew the theory or Buddhism but did not pay much attention to the practice.
For a long time the practice of Buddhism was seen as being to a greater or lesser extent culturally degenerated, mostly due to the western attitude of cultural supremacy. The first influential ordination of a European was that of Englishman Allan Bennett who ordained as Ananda Metteyya in 1902. The Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland was established in 1907. Post-war unrest in many countries of Asia caused Buddhist growth to be supplemented by immigrant populations. There was a Diaspora of Buddhists from their home countries, whether it be Laos, India, Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam, China or Tibet. They made their homes in Europe and brought their Buddhist practices with them. Temples were set up in Europe mainly for the benefit of those immigrant populations. By their example practicing Buddhists became more common in most European countries picking up on the cultural liberality of the mid 1960’s.
Belgium is comparatively slow in the absorption of Buddhism compared with other countries in Europe — perhaps because in its constitution it has no clear separation between Church and State — or perhaps because it has had less influx of immigrant populations than its neighbors. Belgium has remained wary of new religions (even though in many cases they are historically much older than Christianity) and the general attitude has been illustrated by the Government publication of a blacklist of 189 organizations (including two Buddhist ones) in its ‘witch hunt’ for sects of 1997 and in the ongoing attitudes especially in the French-speaking community of Belgium (c.f. ‘Gourou – gare à toi’ Lesoir 6/3/99). Nonetheless, there are now about thirty active Buddhist organizations and centers in Belgium alone, representing all traditions of Buddhism. There is even a Belgian Buddhist Federation — However, Buddhism is not yet officially recognized in Belgium as a religion. That it exists at all in Belgium is due to the work of charitable and private organizations because, unlike Catholicism, Protestantism, Greek Orthodox, Judaism and Islam in Belgium, it receives no support from the government. The Belgian Tibetan temples have estimated that there are 10,000 Buddhists in Flanders alone. However from my knowledge, the numbers of Buddhists, even in the immigrant population exceed this. Thus I would say that the likely number is more likely to be in excess of 20,000. (The different tiers of Buddhist practice)
Buddhism as it is Practiced in Ieper
It is now for almost three years that Buddhism has been part of the lives of the people of Ieper. The Dhammakaya International Society of Belgium, which has Buddhist monks as its resident teachers, was established in 1997 in response to an appeal by a group of Ieper people to the Dhammakaya Foundation in Thailand, for meditation instruction in their locality. Since October 1997 the meditation center has been offering courses and retreats of meditation training. Sometimes, when the demand is sufficient, it offers courses about Buddhism in particular. It also has ongoing study activities for people in the area of Ieper who consider themselves Buddhists but probably more than half of the members who attend the activities of the center do not consider themselves Buddhists.
It is not every organization that comes from a Buddhist background that is so liberal in its outreach to those who don’t profess themselves to be Buddhists. Because in Buddhism, the culture of respect for one’s teacher is strong, many Buddhist centers simply do not accept students who are not prepared to make a complete cultural transformation. To be a Buddhist monk, you have to follow strict rules of conduct. Unlike the regulations of most Christian monks the regulations in Buddhism allow monks to go out into society and teach, but there are limits to how flexible monks can be in mixing. We are still almsmen (are not allowed to buy and prepare our own meals) we follow strict celibacy (are not allowed to touch or to be left alone with women) to give two examples. For the purity of their own discipline, most Buddhist monks simply cannot be bothered to take the risk of moving in non-tradition societies at all. Buddhists don’t publicize themselves in the way expected by western society and they don’t try to learn new languages — so for the most part they remain completely unknown. If not unknown, they are either inarticulate or shy.
The reason why the Dhammakaya Foundation, of all the Thai Theravada organizations has succeeded in opening now fifteen meditation centers outside its mother country is that the president, my teacher, has the very broad-minded attitude towards foreign students of meditation to the degree, that in a recent interview with Time (Asia) magazine, he even stated that his aim in opening meditation centers outside Thailand was not to convert people to Buddhism at all, but simply to raise public awareness as to meditation. He encourages his monks to study foreign languages, to integrate with society (as far as monastic discipline allows) and to make the things taught relevant to the needs of people in the modern-day world. Therefore, the sort of Buddhism that comes over in our meditation in Ieper has jokingly been called ‘light Buddhism’ because we have tried to dissociate, as far as is possible, the kernel of practice towards enlightenment, from its Asian cultural allusions.
You might wonder what we, the organizers get in return for taking a lot of time and effort to teach people and maintain a center, which doesn’t seem to increase the numbers of Buddhists in the world? To any businessman, such a proposition would certainly make no sense. However, if you return to our president’s objective of ‘raising the public awareness of meditation’ we have the conviction that individual peacefulness of mind underlies the collective potential for harmony and peace in the world. We work for peace in the world, and even co-operate with the Non-Governmental Organizations of the United Nations in this respect. We don’t think that world peace depends on everyone in the world becoming a Buddhist — we don’t expect everyone in the world to become monks — but we believe that world peace depends on everyone in the world having a peaceful mind — and this is irrespective of spiritual belief. We don’t see ourselves as competitors for the adherents of other religions. Thus throughout the world our centers have organized small and large pockets of people who gather to meditate and train themselves in peaceful ways of life, which we all hope contribute towards world peace.
Some people see that we try to adapt our teachings to make them accessible to westerners, and assume that our teachings must be diluted or lax as compared to the ‘real Asiatic’ varieties. Well — that is a matter of opinion. In our center, we subscribe to the most ‘intellectual’ form of Buddhism, that is, actually practicing for our own Enlightenment. We don’t have many ceremonies and we try to minimize any aspects of Buddhist culture that are excess to training. However, the kernel of what we teach is tough. We teach people to meditate every day. You need quite a lot of self-discipline to do that — even to sit still on the floor for half-an-hour a day is more than most people can bother with. For those who want to further the stability of their meditation experience, we emphasize morality in everyday life: not killing, stealing, not being unfaithful to one’s spouse, not telling lies and not drinking alcohol. We teach social responsibility. We teach people to take responsibility for the upbringing of their children and be compassionate to parents in their old age. We teach people to be generous and forgiving. It is not everyone who can or who wants to live up to such standards — but it makes us happy to see those who do. When it comes to aspects of lifestyle, changes for the better can be accomplished only with the willing participation of the student. We can only point the way and set an example — we don’t interfere with how people run their lives. However, meditation and life style, inevitably, are inextricable.
In the present day, the center has come to serve two distinct communities in Belgium: The local Dutch- and English-speaking community who are primarily interested to learn meditation as a way to enhance the quality of their everyday lives. The overseas Thai-speaking population who are primarily interested in meditation and related culture. Since this year, most of the Thai-language activities have been shifted to a second center in Antwerp. About 2,500 visits are made each year to the center.
How can you find out more on Buddhism?
Buddhism is not something for everyone, but it is everything to some. If you are interested to learn more about Buddhism or to compare the different approaches, you can address yourself to any of the thirty organizations you find on the back of your handout.
For those who would rather read something about Buddhism, we have prepared a bibliography of Dutch-language publications which is available for the price of the photocopying, from the registration desk. A word of warning about books on Buddhism however: most of the books are written by those who like writing books, not by those who practice, and the tendency is to lean more in the direction of Buddhism as a philosophy. Even myself, I find the more I read on Buddhism, the more confused I become — so read selectively! There is a lot of accessible material on the internet too — but I guess that it is mostly in English — and has a tendency to superficiality. However, it may save you time in selecting an approach to Buddhism that suits you. Again, Buddhist practitioners tend to sit for meditation rather than making homepages, so sometimes what you find on the internet is not a very good representation of actual opportunities for study. Finally a direct and local way to learn more about Buddhism is to join one of the courses we offer at our meditation center in Ieper. At present there is a Beginners course on meditation which runs on Thursday nights for those more interested in meditation than Buddhism. There is also a course on Wednesday nights that deals specifically with Buddhism. If you indicate you interest soon, you are still not too late to catch up with either of the courses. The brochures are available at the registration desk.
For today this brings us to the end of our lecture on Buddhism as one of the religions in Ieper. If at this stage there are any questions from the floor, I will do my best to answer them.
The Highest standard of Abhidhamma learning in Myanmar by Rohan Jayetilleke
« The Abhidhamma Pitaka, or the Philosophical collection forms the third great section of the Buddhist Pali Canon (Tipitaka). In its most characteristic parts it is a system of classifications, analytical enumerations and definitions, without discursive treatment of the subject. Particularly, its two most important books, the Dhammasangani and the Patthana, appear like huge collections of systematically arranged tabulations, accompanied by definitions of the terms used in these tables.
According to the Theravada tradition the Abhidhamma is the domain proper of the Buddhas (Buddha-visva), and its initial conception in the Buddha’s mind (manasa desana, i.e. exposition in mind – Atthasalini) is traced to the time immediately after the Great Enlightenment. It was in the fourth week, of seven spent by the Buddha in the environment of the Bodhi-tree (Buddha Gaya) that the Abhidhamma was conceived. These seven days were called, by the teachers of old, ‘The week of the house of gems’ (ratanagharasattaha).’ The house of Gems’ is indeed a very fitting _expression for the crystal-clear edifice of Abhidhamma thought in which the Buddha dwelt that period ».
Thus late most Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera, (German national), indeed an Arahant, the founder of Buddhist Publication Society, Sangharaja Mawatha Kandy, the leading Buddhist publication organization spreading the teachings of Buddha world-wide and who in my opinion reached Nibbana at the age of 94, writing on ‘Abhidhamma Philosophy – Its Estimation In The Past And Its Value For The Present’ in the Maha Bodhi Society (India) journal ‘The Buddhist’ in its Volume 59 September 1951 pp. 383-396). This emphasis on Abhidhamma in general and the Patthana in particular has survived in Myanmar to the present day. The popularity in Myanmar of Abhidhamma is great that even little children learn to recite the twenty-four conditions along with the suttas of protection Mangala Sutta, metta Sutta, Ratana Sutta and the other parittas, as well as basic literacy in Pali, which enable every Buddhist of Myanmar is able to converse in Pali. In Sri Lanka, although, we claim to be the center of Theravada Buddhism, I have never come across a single even a bhikkhu able to converse in Pali fluently.
The young monks of Sri Lanka are not interested in Pali, and their disciplines at universities are Sanskrit, Economics, Sociology, Political Science, Micro-biology, Law and other secular disciplines unconnected with the study of Buddhism, solely for the purpose of gaining gainful positions as teachers in government schools, or to be tuition vendors not free under a fee. Their second penchant to yearn for scholarship whenever they meet a foreigner, for further studies in foreign lands as a pretext but for sight-seeing.
These observations I make without fear of contradictions, on personal experience. Though they wish to visit abroad, they do not have even an iota, at least conversing or understanding in English, nor do they ever make an effort to study. The seventeenth century was a period of dynamic growth in the history of Buddhism in Myanmar, which standard of dynamism is being maintained even to date. Many outstanding developments took place, and the principal among these were the numerous translations of texts in Myanmar to Myanmar language, which continued to the State language even under the British rule.
These translations were Atthasalini, Sammohavinodani, Kanakhavitarani, Abhidhammatthavibhavani, and Sankhepavannana. Of these five only the Kankhavitarani, the Buddhaghosha’s commentary on the Patimokkha, is no concerned with Abhidhamma. In the second half of the century Ven. Aggadhammalankara translated Kaccayana’s Pali grammar, the Abhidhammatthasangaha, Matika, Dhatukatha, Yamaka and the Patthana into Myanmar tongue. Later the Nettippakarana too was also translated. Thus in Myanmar today Pali is not a dead language and even little children could speak fluently in Pali. The salient characteristic is that nine out of the twelve translated works were texts of the Abhidhamma or its commentaries. The motivation for this scholarship was the developing interest in the psychology of Buddhism, expressly distinct from studying European psychology among the Buddhist clergy and the laity being able to read, understand and converse in Pali. Every boy and girl with great devotion attended and even now attends monastic schools, whose curriculum is a legacy from the distant past. The students had to memorize protective parittas and in addition a number of the Abhidhamma texts.
Thus the word of the Buddha permeated into the Myanmar Buddhist culture, which presently is being threatened to be torn asunder by the diabolical western powers financed and instigated ‘pro-democracy’ movement, similar to what is happening in Islamic Afghanistan and Iraq.
In the latter half of the century, venerable Devacakkahobhasa designed a system for the study and teaching of the Patthana, the last book of the Abhidhamma, which in Myanmar even today is accepted as the highest teaching of the Buddha. The king at the time was so impressed by the Bhikkhu’s high proficiency in these sublime teachings and by his systematic syllabi, that he ordered the Patthana be studied in all the monasteries of Myanmar, which order still persists in Myanmar. The king himself too mastered Abhidhamma accordingly.
This emphasis on Abhidhamma in general and the Patthana in particular, with the passage of time gathered momentum, has survived to the present day. The Patthana, for instance, like the air is ubiquitous in Myanmar the twenty-four conditions of the Patthana can be found printed on the fans (avanpath) of the Bhikkhus, on calendars and on posters. In some pagodas (monasteries), the Bhikkhus are woken every morning by twenty-four strokes on a hollow tree trunk, while the Bhikkhu striking the tree trunk has to recite that twenty-four conditions as he does so. Even little children learn to recite the twenty-four conditions along with the Suttas of protection. To my great dismay and wonderment, a fairly senior monk when questioned about Patthana he was non-pulsed, a university undergraduate at that. As Patthana is the higher and most difficult teaching of the Buddha, it is believed that it will be the first to be lost with the ever turning wheel of time and samsara. In order to arrest successfully the decline of the Buddha Sasana, almost all the Buddhist laity of Myanmar, and Bhikkhus, novices and highly ordained, memorize the patthana. In the sila observances on poya days Patthana takes precedence over all discourses and other ritual offerings and pujas. It is so popular that bhikkhus and laymen at dawn and dusk, daily recite the Patthana. It is true seeing and believing the religiosity of Myanmar people and their commitment to learn Pali, Dhamma especially Abhidhamma and its highest section Patthana.
The currency of Abhidhamma in Myanmar is so great, the wealth of translations from Ahidhamma and the Myanmar language has been developed by a cross lingual fertilization by Pali terms. Thus it could be concluded civilization of Myanmar has matured with the study of Abhidhamma. The Buddha in the Maha Mangala Sutta (Great Blessings) revealing the Great blessings said, ‘Putassa lokha dammesu, cittan yassa nakampati, asokan virajan khemam etam mangalamuttamam’ (If a man’s mind is sorrowless, stainless and secure, and does not shake when touched by worldly vicissitudes of gain, loss, richness, poverty, blame, praise, suffering and happiness – this is the Highest blessing.
Thus the people of Myanmar both lay and clergy study the analysis of mind, and are mindful of the transitoriness of life, that they would as now even in the future, withstand any diabolical machinations of the western powers. This resilience they have gained through the zealous and devoted study of Abhidhamma and Abhidhamma became an essential culture in their livelihood.
Abhidhamma in ancient Sri Lanka
The Mahavihara established by Arahant Mahinda in the third century, according to Samantapasadika had three degrees covering a studentship of fifteen years. (bhhussuto nama tividho (pp.577-578). The monks of the highest grade known as Bhikkhunovadaka (Adviser to Bhikkhunis), should learn the three Pitakas with their Commentaries. Among the abhidhamma seven texts he would master commentaries of four. There were groups specialized in the Abhidhamma known as Abhidhammika-gana. In Sri Lanka from where Abhidhamma learning went to Myanmar in the 11th century.
Sri Lanka Maha Sangha too believed that at the expiration of the sasana in 5000 years (sasanaantaradhana) Abhidhamma Pitaka will be lost first prior to Sutta and VinayaPitakas. Abhidhammika Dodatta Thera’s qualification to be raised virtually to the position of Chief Justice of Sri Lanka by King Bhatiya (38-66 A.C.) was his knowledge of Abhidhamma. This scholar monk was from the Maha Vihara at Anuradhapura The king was greatly elated with the judgement given by the Maha Thera in a dispute, about the Maha Sangha.
The king issued and edict by beating a drum declaring « As long as I live, judgements given by Abhidhammika Godatta Thera, in cases either of monks, nuns or laymen, are final. I will punish the one who does not abide by his judgement » (Samantapasadika p. 221).
King Jettha-Thissa III, who was one of the three kings who ruled at Anuradhapura between the years 626-641 A.C., others being Aggabodhi III, Dathopatissa I, requested his queen to become a bhikkuni and study Abhidhamma, which she did. (Mahavamsa Xliv 107 ff). Kings like Kassapa II (641-650 A.C.,) and Mahinda II (772 – 792 A.C.) made special efforts to broadbase the knowledge of Abhidhamma. (Ibid Xliv 150; Xlviii 141 – 142). Incidentally king Jetthatissa was skilled in ivory carving and taught the craft to many people. (Mahavamsa xxxvii 100 – 101). Sinhala kings made payments to monks who taught Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma as well as the chief incumbents of viharas and of these payments highest was to the teachers of Abhidhamna. (EZ I. pp. 85. 87). King Sena II (851 – 885 A.C.) on his ascension to the throne at Polonnaruwa, sent a Sinhala army to invade the South Indian Pandya kingdom. The army defeated the king who plundered Sri Lanka, and out on the throne a Pandyan prince brought back all the treasures that had belonged to the Sinhalese. Thus he made Sri Lanka one unitary state, happy and prosperous.
He restored viharas, monasteries, granted endowments liberally, held religious festivals, such as pirit ceremonies, and a Vesak festival. He had the Ratana-sutta written on a gold plate and made offerings to it. He also conducted an Abhidhamma recital. (Mahavamsa li, 73 – 85). Interestingly, Mihintale Inscription of king Mahinda IV lays down that five shares (vasaga) should be given to the teacher of the Vinaya Pitaka and seven shares should be given to the teacher of the Abhidhammika Pitaka. (van vala kiyana biksang-himiyanat kandin pindin vasag pasak isa sulatvala kiyana biks ang-himiyanat vasag satak isa bidamvala kiyana biksang-himiyanat vasag dolosak isa diya yutu’ EZ I, p.85) The term ‘vasag’ is not yet quite clear.
The teacher of the Vinaya was in the third grade in the scales of remuneration of the king while the Abhidamma teacher was in the first grade. It is most heart rending, Pali which we learnt at school from grade six upwards up to the Higher School Certificate Examination (University Entrance) is now expunged from the school curriculum.
That was under British rule and continued till around 1960s, though our studies were in 1 subject in the English medium. We studied Dhamma (including Abhidhamma) and Pali in the English medium and we became equally proficient in English, Sinhala and Pali.