Although it is unclear as to the exact year Buddhism was introduced into Burma, it is generally thought by scholars to be between the 3rd and 5th century, there are however a few who would say earlier, although there has been no defining proof. A small number of Buddhist relics excavated from the Pyu sites in Sri Ksetra and Beikthano show that there was at least a Buddhist influence, dating from the 5th to 6th centuries.
The earliest practicing Buddhists in Myanmar were the Mon and Pyu peoples. Early Buddhist artifacts and Buddhist art in Burma show that the people of those times worshiped a mix of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, as well as Tantric and animist practices.
The Pagan period between 11th – 14th century is undeniably the most significant period in the history of Buddhism in Burma after the first Burman King, King Anawrahta of Pagan converted to Buddhism through his interaction with Shin Arahan, a visiting Buddhist monk, and native of Thaton, who practiced Theravada Buddhism and later his interactions with monks from Sri Lanka who also practiced Theravada Buddhism.
At the beginning of Anawrahta’s reign the presence of the Ari monks who practiced a form of Mahayana Buddhism combined with nat and spirit worship, tantrism, naga worship and Hinduism was the main form of worship.
Anawrahta wishing to convert his people to the purer form of Buddhism, attempted to ban the worship of nats and spirits, but Nat and spirit worship was so entrenched among his people he agreed to a compromise by legitimizing thirty-seven of the most popular nats.
Today it is more factual that many of these chosen thirty-seven Nat’s have been replaced by others coming into existence much later during the reign of King Mindon (1853-1878) after he revised the list of chosen nats.
In Burma today the thirty-seven nats are still respected and celebrated each year. Around August or September, a large Nat festival is held in the Taung Phone village outside the city of Mandalay. Buddhism in Burma today is still very much intertwined with Nat and spirit worship and is reflected in much of their art and culture.
The Theravada school of Buddhism is the main form of Buddhism practiced in Myanmar today and is second to the Mahayana school of Buddhism which originated in India, and today is the most widespread form of Buddhism practiced in many parts of Asia, China, Mongolia, Japan, Korea, and Tibet, excluding Thailand and Laos who practice the Theravada form of Buddhism, which is considered the purest form of Buddhism practiced today.
Monasteries, Temples & Stupas
Most old monasteries in Myanmar are made from teak wood, with many being no more than two hundred years old, whereas the ancient temples and pagodas seen in historic Bagan and Mrauk-U in Rakhine State are mostly made with bricks or stone, with many several hundred years old.
Burmese Buddha, Buddhist Iconography
The Burmese Buddha statue, their Buddhist art, and Buddhist iconography was influenced initially through their interactions with India during the first millennium. During the Pagan period a new style of Buddhist iconography developed which is now referred to as Pagan style, and has since evolved into what is now uniquely Burmese, with variations in style relevant to the periods in which they were crafted.