Pali Buddhism


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Buddhism in the Pali language refers to the school of Buddhism whose scriptures are rendered in the Pali language. Pali Buddhism is also known as Southern Buddhism or the Southern Theravada.

Pali was a local dialect of ancient India. Without any written form, it has been rendered in different written languages. Thus the Pali scriptures of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar are written out in the various alphabets of these countries, but the pronunciation is largely the same.

Pali Buddhism is popular in the southeast Asian countries as well as in the Dai-inhabited areas of Yunnan Province of China. Opinions differ as to when it found its way into Yunnan. An analysis of different historical accounts leads to the conclusion that Pali Buddhism first spread from Myanmar to present-day Xishuangbanna, Dehong, Simao, Lincang, and Baoshan areas in Yunnan some 1,300 years ago, roughly between the sixth and seventh centuries. This school of Buddhism is popular among the ethnic minority Dais, De’angs, Blangs, and some of the Vas.

The development of Southern Buddhism in Yunnan also falls into two stages. The first stage, from the seventh to the 12th century, saw the dissemination of this school of Buddhism from Myanmar. The first Buddhist temple in the province, the Wabajie Temple in Xishuangbanna, was erected in 615. Some simple prayer rooms also emerged at that time. During this period there was no written form for the Dai language, and the Buddhist sutras were preached and memorized by rote. The population of followers was small. They stayed together indoors during the rainy season and engaged in preaching in other seasons.

A large-scale war broke out between the Pugan Dynasty of Myanmar and Thailand in the 12th century. The ceaseless war forced the inhabitants of Xishuangbanna and neighboring areas to flee their homes, leaving their farmlands in waste. Pali Buddhism thus went into decline. The 12th century marked the end of the first stage of development of Southern Buddhism in Yunnan.

Pali Buddhism staged a comeback in Xishuangbanna after the 12th century. But the source of this was no longer Myanmar, but Chiengmai in present-day Thailand. The preachers from there brought Thai editions of the scriptures, and began the construction of temples, thereby enabling Buddhism to be fused with the local culture. A ritual system was formulated as well. Local scholars translated and annotated large numbers of Pali scriptures into Thai, which gained popularity among people who spoke the Dai, Lolo, and Lao dialects.

Southern Theravada consists of four sects: Run, Baizhuang, Duolie, and Zuodi. The Run sect is divided into the Baiba and Baisun subsects, and the Duolie sect comprises the Gongdan, Suteman, Runjing, and Mianzuo subsects. The difference between these sects lies in the degree of strictness with which the commandments are enforced, and the loudness or speed in which incantations are recited. Some of the sects originally came into being because members wanted to be different – they were not separated by controversies over religious concepts. Thus this division of the Southern Theravada of Yunnan into various sects is devoid of practical meaning. The following is an interpretation of the names of the four major sects.

The Chinese character “run” is a term of address used by the Dai people for the Lanna people living in the area around Chiangmai in ancient Thailand. They call that area “Mengrun,” the people there “Thai-run,” and the sect of Buddhism that spread from there the “Run sect.” Having the largest following, the Run is the most influential of all Buddhist sects in Yunnan.

The word “baizhuang” in the Dai language means “monastic sect.” But because the Dai transliteration of the word for “sect” is pronounced “bai,” which sounds like the Dai word for “flee,” the residents of the Dehong area call the Baizhuang sect the “fleeing monastic sect” – a misunderstanding caused by the similarity of pronunciation between the words “sect” and “flee” in the Dai dialect.

The word “duolie” is Myanmese, and is translated into the Dai language as “zhizhu,” meaning “stop it.” Legend has it that the founding father of the Duolie sect once violated the commandments, and his guru punished him by ordering him to hang a pot filled with water from his neck and to keep walking. A tiny hole the size of a needle point was bored into the bottom of the pot so that the water could slowly leak out. The poor monk was allowed to stop walking only after the pot ran out of water. It is said that he was walking in a grove of trees when the pot was drained of its last drop of water. He settled down there, built a monastery, and established the sect known as “Duolie,” meaning “Stop it.”

The word “zuodi” is the Chinese transliteration of the Myanmese word that means sincerity. Legend has it that the Zuodi sect broke away from the Duolie sect and became known for its strictness in observing the commandments.

The monasteries of Theravada Buddhism in Yunnan are of three levels. At the top level is the general temple of an administrative area, such as the general monastery of Xishuangbanna. At the middle level are the central monasteries of Bannas and Mengs, and at the bottom level are the village temples. For a long time these temples served as both religious sanctuaries and cultural centers where local people went to learn how to read and write from the monks. This situation changed after the establishment of schools. However, though the temples have retained only their function as religious sanctuaries and monk’s abodes, they remain as centers for the dissemination and preservation of traditional culture, and as such retain their popularity in local communities. During Buddhist and folk festivals, followers make it a point of assembling in local temples to worship and celebrate. Different from their counterparts elsewhere in China, the temples in Yunnan are enshrined only with the likenesses of Sakyamuni.

The people living in areas in Yunnan where Theravada Buddhism is a popular religion follow more or less the same customs as the people in Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos. For example, boys are obliged to spend some time in a monastery before returning again to secular life. In a minimum, the duration of their stay is three months, but a boy may choose to stay in a monastery for his lifetime, which means he has to forsake marriage and dedicate himself to the Buddha for the rest of his life. Few people today, however, make this choice. Monks in Yunnan fall in two categories as they do elsewhere: sramaneras (novices) and bhiksus (mendicants). It was not until modern times that a tiny number of sramanerikas (female novices) joined the local religious ranks. There are as many as ten monastic or honorary titles for eminent bhiksus and abbots.

The Theravada’s canonical classics are known as the Pali Tripitaka and consist of scriptures, commandments, and treatises. The title is the same as that in Chinese Buddhism, but the content is vastly different. The Pali Tripitaka furnishes valuable materials for a study of primitive forms of Buddhism and sectarian Buddhism and for the comparative research of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism. Since ancient times quite a few scholars of the Dai-inhabited areas have been transliterating, translating, and annotating books of the Pali Tripitaka into their native language, leaving behind a major cultural heritage that, if systematically sorted out, could be of major importance for academic research and international cultural exchanges.

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