Research Project


Prognoses of Decline – Coping with the Future. Reforms in 19th Century Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar

Prof. Dr. Andreas Nehring

Since the early 20th century, mindfulness has been gradually accepted as a philosophical concept or meditation exercise in the west. Moreover, far beyond religion, the concept and its practical experience are currently attracting interest in the fields of medical science, psychotherapy, science, education management training and popular culture. Without any exaggeration, mindfulness can now be called the most popular buzzword when it comes to the education of consciousness. However, the recent articles on mindfulness often disagree about the reference to Buddhism. Whereas some stress that mindfulness actually does not relate to Buddhism and that meditation is a practice that has to be conceived as independent of religion, others insist on referring to the Buddhist traditions. Sometimes, emphasis is placed on the notion of Buddhism with the intention of legitimating the need for a practice which comprises all religions and cultures. On the other hand, diverse approaches derived from Buddhist traditions – such as Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Vipassanä and Samatha – are intermixed with each other. Finally, there are also schools of mindfulness meditation which draw on a certain orthodoxy and orthopractice, and clearly attach themselves to one tendency or the other. In any case, we dealt with the formation of a religious field (Bourdieu) in a global context (Appadurai), the limits of which remain notably diffuse. How this modern phenomenon occurred is, however, only explored to some extent and, in particular, it remains controversial how the modern forms of Buddhist practice could have been engaged in the popular discourses to such an extent that mindfulness can be referred to as a global phenomenon today. I analysed how Vipassanä-meditation, which is a movement often labelled “reformed Buddhism, Buddhist modernism, Buddhist renaissance or Protestant Buddhism”, first spread among laymen in Myanmar. In Burma, Buddhist modernization, associated with the introduction of the meditation of laymen must not be perceived as rationalisation or secularisation in terms of differentiating and repressing religion, and the monastic orders’ influence on society. It is rather to be considered as a collective expression of a new awareness of the “fear of influence” and of new strategies for coping with contingencies. Predictions that Buddhism would decline, which had become virulent under colonialism, facilitated the establishment of a meditation practice as a mass movement in Myanmar which was then transferred to other countries of South Asia and finally to the west at the beginning of the 20th century.

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