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Buddhism in South-East Asia

Buddhism in South-East Asia. SE Asian Buddhism is mostly Theravāda and historically related to the Sthaviras (i.e. elders) who emerged in the 3rd cent. BCE, in what is now Śri Lankā. During the following centuries monks carried the teaching of the Tripiṭaka to Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, where it flourished, though not without substantial accommodation to popular Hinduism and animism.

A major reason for the rapid spread of Buddhism in SE Asia was its acceptance by monarchs. Thai Buddhism, for example, owes much to King Mongkut (1804–68). He founded a new branch of the saṅgha known as the Dhammayutika Nikāya (‘those who adhere to the Dhamma’). The older group subsequently became known as the Mahānikāya (‘the great branch’).

The Dhammayutika monks became popular among the educated élite, and a parallel group came into being in Cambodia. The former remained subject to a single patriarch, whereas the latter had one for each branch. Mongkut's insistence on the Vinaya, the first of the Tripiṭaka (Skt.), as the cornerstone for reform, influenced Thai, Cambodian, and to a lesser extent Laotian monks by making them more careful to observe its detailed rules.

Nuns are rare in SE Asia, though provision exists for women to ordain to the level of anāgārika, which is intermediate between the five precepts for a lay Buddhist, and the ten undertaken by the novice. They wear white robes. In Thailand they are known as mae chii, and their role is gaining in importance.

In Laos and Cambodia the political events of the 1970s have severely curtailed the activities of Buddhist monks. In Burma, pongyis (‘great glory’) played a prominent role in the movement for independence from Britain, and supported U Nu in his 1960 election campaign. But more recently, since the advent of Ne Win, saṅgha and State have parted company.

Thailand's continuous tradition of monarchy and saṅgha unchecked by colonial powers produced some important manifestations of Buddhism. Mongkut's rejection of supernaturalism has encouraged educated members of the saṅgha to present Buddhism in modern scientific dress. Buddhadāsa (Skt.; Putatāt, Thai) has reformulated cardinal doctrines.

Other leading monks share the progressive outlook of Buddhadāsa, but are famous primarily as meditation teachers (Achan Mun) or practitioners of development (Phra Maha Narong Cittasobhano).

Vietnamese Buddhism differs from that of other mainland SE Asian Buddhist countries in that it was both Theravādin and Mahāyānist from an early stage, and has been heavily influenced by Confucianism and Taoism. The comparatively high proportion of Theravādins in the south is the legacy of the Cambodian presence between the 15th and 19th cents. Vietnamese monks have been heavily involved in politics, and in 1963 Thich Quang Duc, a 73-year-old monk, performed self-immolation as a protest against the Diem regime. The United Vietnamese Buddhist Church, which came into being during the religious and political ferment of the 1960s, united Theravādins and Mahāyānists in a single ecclesiastical structure. Thich Nhat Hanh is representative of the moderate political wing of the Church.

Cao Dai and Hoa Hao are even more syncretistic than their parent Vietnamese Buddhism. The former, founded in 1926 by Ngo Van Chieu (1878–1932), tries to draw together Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Christianity into a single religion of the Way (Tao). Hoa Hao, founded by Huynh Phu So in 1939, is more distinctively Buddhist and reformed in its opposition to religious rituals.

Thus SE Asia Buddhism is a highly complex system of interlocking historical, geographic, political, and cultural traditions. Although common features exist, such as the role of the monarchy and accommodation between Buddhism and pre-Buddhistic animism and Hinduism, there is an enormous diversity which characterizes not only the differences between countries in the region but also significant distinctions which exist between the Theravāda Buddhism of SE Asia and its historical parents in Śri Lankā and India.

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