May 28, 2015  Tai |Thai 
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Buddhism in Shan State

Buddhism and Tai people

Sao Sukham

Tais who are living across Asia since the time of immemorial are the people with freedom of thoughts and beliefs in various religions, and therefore they are Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. However, the majority of Tai populace is the followers of Buddhist traditions. Surprisingly, more or less, about 90 per cent of them claim that they are Theravada Buddhists. It is, however, a general estimation that they are Theravadins, in Asia. The history of Hsenwi states since the reign of King Khun Oum Ting1, also known as Utena, a lay disciple of the Buddha, the King of Kawsambi (Mong Mau), that the Tais were the followers of the Lord Buddha.2 The ruing sites of the palace of the king can still be seen on the northern side of Ruili (Shweli) River in China in the present day. In brief, according to the Hsenwi history, the Tais were the Buddhists since the immemorial times.

During the Tai empire, Tai kings and Saophas (literally, the Lord of the Sky; the regional ruling Tai Princes) claimed that, by religion, they were Sakya descendants. According to sources available in the earliest Tai history that Tai were being ruled by Sakya descendants of Majjhima country (India) long before 300 years before the emergence of the Buddha.3

Tagaung4 or Takaung (8 A.D?), (now in upper Myanmar), is historically and culturally important in relation to this paper. It is said that the Sakya kings were ruling at Tagaung, in the northern part of Burma at that time. It is interesting what mentions in the ancient Tai literatures and historical sources is that Tagaung was a Tai city, ruled by kings or warlords who had connections or lateral-relationship with one or the others in India. Tagaung, however, has its origin from the Tai dialect: “Ta” meaning harbour” and “Kaung” meaning “Drum”; therefore, “Takaung” means “Drum ferry5 city. It is said that during the Buddha’s life time, Sakya kings were invaded by Vitatūpa,6 the king of Savatthi and as a result, they fled to Tagaung, where they settled and built up their stronghold. That was how Buddhism came to be the religion of the Tai.

The history of Mongmit states that, in 425 BC (101 Buddha Sasana Era), king Sur Hom Fa of Mongmit gave his daughter, princess Sao Myawadi married to the Pyu King, Duttabaung of Sriketthara for lateral relationship between the Tai and the Sriketthara Kingdom. The princess, being a very beautiful and graceful woman, she was given priority in the palace. This made other junior queens and lesser wives jealous and envy of her. Consequently, king Duttabaung misunder-stood her by the time when she was about to give birth to an heir. As a result, she was expelled from the palace. On reaching Mandalay, she bore a son. In memory of her new born son, she built a pagoda in which she enshrined her gold and jewellery. She resembled it as Thatawya Pagoda.7 With this evidence, we can safely conclude that the Princess Sao Myawadi, her father, great grand father and their ancestors were originally Buddhists.

Mahayana Buddhism am ong Tai People

In the Buddha Sasana Era of 518-554 (24 BC to 12 AD) Sur Si Hpa, son of Sur Saung Hpa ascended the throne of Mongmit State. During his rule, in 538 BE (4 BC), ten Mahayana Buddhist monks from Tibet came to Mongmit. They preached and taught the life of the Buddha and his teachings to the king and his people. The king and his countrymen, in turn, paid homage and offered some gifts to those monks.8 It is believed that in or before 8th century AD, Mahayana Buddhism could have been spread into Nanchao, the most well-known Tai kingdom, since it shared a common border Tibet.9

Still further, according to the history of Laos, in the year of the Buddha Sasana Era 612 (69 AD), during the reign of King Khun Li Mau of Aik Lao Dynasty of Naung Se (a) Nanchao, Mahayana Buddhism was adopted by Tai people already. They claimed that this religion was first initiated by King Ke Ming Ti of the Chinese Han Dynasty10

Tai People and Theravada Buddhism

Among the Tai ethnic groups, Thai were foremost who found and adopted Theravada Buddhism. In 329 BC, King Asoka, the great empire of India sent nine Buddhist missionaries, to propagate Theravada Buddhism to nine different regions. Hence, a mission, which arrived and laid its root at Nakhonpathom, the capital of the Mon Kingdom (now in Thailand) was the foremost Theravada Buddhist mission. In 700 AD, King Siri Vijaya of peninsula (Sumatra Island) sent Mahayana Buddhist monks to propagate Mahayana Buddhism into Thailand again. This was the second time that Mahayana Buddhism reached Thailand. However, in 11th Century, after conquering the northern part of Thailand, King Anawratha of Pagan spread the teaching of Theravada Buddhism in that area again. In 1253, some Thai monks went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to study Buddhism. After studies, they brought the Buddhist Scriptures and the Ceylonese monks with them to Nakorn Siridhamaraj (Nakhon Si Thamarat). King Ramkhamhaeng (1239-1298), the third descendant of Thai Kingdom, Sukhothai, brought those Ceylonese monks to his capital to teach the Buddhist way of meditation and to conduct the religious functions in the kingdom. Since then, the kings of Thailand recognized the Theravada Buddhism as the national religion of their Kingdom.11

Since the 10th century, Tai people of Mau Kingdom were the practitioner of adopted Buddhism. The evidence can be seen in the inscription at the Shwe Sar Yan Pagoda, built in 1053, by Princess Sao Nang Mon La, of Tai’s Mau Kingdom who was given to be a queen of king Anawratha of Pagan for lateral relation.12 Further, King Bayinaung (1551-1581) of Taung Oo dynasty, the second Burmese empire, invaded all Tai Kingdoms and made Theravada Buddhism spread among the Tai people again.13

However, Buddhism is said to have reached Tai people by two main ways: first, by the ancient Mon Kings of Nakorn Pathom made Buddhism to spread among the Thai people and later spread among all Tais who lived along the valley of Salween and Mekong River. Next, Theravada Buddhism reached the Tai through King Anawratha (reigned 1044-1077) who conquered Thaton (Mon Kingdom) and King Bayinnaung (reigned 1551-1581), who made Theravada Buddhism to permeate among Tai People during their reigns.

At the course of time, there, emerged two Buddhist sects among the Tai people: the Yun Buddhist Sect which originated from Thailand and the Myanmar Buddhist Sect from Burma. We have witnessed from the mentioned sources that the majority of Tais are Buddhists and their tradition, culture and their way of life are deeply rooted in Buddhist background and its principles.


End Notes :

  1. Khun = King/ Master. Oum = to cradle. Ting = harp
  2. Sai Mong Mangrai (Sao), The Shan State and The British Annexation, New York, August 1965. p. 37, Sanyi (Lewun), The History of Hsenwi, (Written in Shan) pp. 1-2
  3. Khemida (U), The History of Mongmit, (Written in Myanmar) Tunggyi, Shan State,1948, pp. 33-4
  4.   Burmese tradition says that Tagaung was founded by Abhiraja, a prince of Sakyans, the tribes of the Buddha, who migrated to Upper Burma from 9th century BC. [Bischoff, Roger. “Buddhism in Myanmar: A Short History, p. 3]. During king Anawratha’s reign at Pagan, there is mention that Tagaung was the capital of Kadu people. [Hall, D.G.E, A History of Southeast Asia, p. 168]
  5. Cochrane (W.W), The Shans, pp. 46-7.
  6. Vitūtapa, in the Sinhalese literatures.
  7. Kheminda (U), op.cit, p. 72.
  8. Kheminda (U), ibit, PP, 103-4.
  9. Cochrane (W.W), op.cit, p.151
  10. Vera Wome (Maha Si-Lah), The Supremacy of Laos, (in Lao language)
    1996, p.19
  11. Luang Suriyabongs, M.D (Dr), Buddhism in Thailand, Bangkok, 1954,  p.38
  12.   Myanmar Encyclopedia Vol 11, Shwe Sar Yan Pagoda, p.420
  13. Hsen (Khur), The origin of Tais and a short history of Shan State,
    (written in Shan) 1996. p.250





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