Buddhism and animism in Myanmar: why ecology matters for religion and beliefs?

Engaging a country in sustainable development requires a good understanding of cultural beliefs, acting as prominent triggers for action. In Myanmar, religion and beliefs are integrated in daily life and are articulated around Buddhism and traditional animism. Practised by over 90% of the Myanmar population, Theravada Buddhism directly stems from the original doctrine of Buddha and is presented in the Pali Canon. Going along with Buddhism, traditional beliefs in supernatural beings (witches, ghosts, Nats) occupy a central place in the imagination of Burmese people.

1. A sacralization of nature

As Buddha was conceived, reached enlightenment and died under a tree, nature is a space of spirituality for Buddhism. Forests have always been considered as preferential places for meditation by Arhats and centres of training were often located in natural remote area, supposed to be more peaceful to realize nirvana. In urban or rural area, strong spiritual power exudes from Bodhi trees (Ficus religiosa or nyaungbin), honoured and considered as offerings’ places. Nats, divinities representing historical figures okings, emperors or soldiers often associated with a tragic fate, are highly incorporated in population’s beliefs and also worshipped under the Bodhi trees.

Nats are indeed invading different natural places and are usually feared by the population for the potential injury or curse they may cause in punishment to non worshipper. Thus, twigs of a thabyé tree are attached to cars or buffalo carts to conciliate encountered spirits or offerings of rice are made by the forest hunter to imposing trees, where Thippinsaung Nats or Taw-saung Nat, the demon presiding the forest, can reside. In the trees, Akathaso, Yokkaso, Bumaso lives respectively in the top, the trunk and the roots, and are often associated with witches or other spirits, which indicate their presence by trembling the leaves. On a more broader scale, Nats rule over the whole nature and ensure its protection, as guardians of all its components : forests, fields, hills, mountains, fields and streams. Nature constitutes, as a consequence, a sacralized space, dominated by spirits and spirituality.


2. Reincarnation and immanence of nature

The Buddhist principle of karma considers that every action and intent have effects on present and future life, related to the repeating cycle of life (samsara). According to the quality of their actions, individuals will reborn among different planes of existence of the Buddhist cosmology. What is important for us here is the existence of different divisions for hell (Niraya), ghosts (Préta), fallen angels (Asurakaya), animals (Tiracchana), man (Manussa) and nats (Chatummaharajika) and the interconnection of these divisions basedon the concepts of karma and samsara.Indeed, the integration of all sentient life forms on a karmic continuum, creates a network of existence’s forms with a shared condition. At the difference of creationist religions, humans and other natural beings, such as animals for instance, become interrelated and constitute a same set of existences. Such a systematic world-view echoes with the principles of ecology, where all different elements are integrated and interdependent. Evidences of these connexions of existences may be present in the Burmese society, with vegetarianism among monks (and prevention of life destruction as a first Buddhism prescription) or associated days with animals (from Sunday : garuda, tiger, lion, elephant, rat, guinea pig and naga).

3. Path for action : an ethic of responsibility for Buddhism

The Pali Canon, and specially the part on Abidhamma, exposes a list of rules for Buddhists, underlining the existence of an important morality in individual behaviour. Values such as greed (Lobha), wrong view (Ditthi), envy (Issa), conceit (Mana), jealousy and selfishness (Macchariya) are strongly discouraged and moral fear (Ottappa), generosity (Alobha), good will (Adosa) and compassion (Karuna) are on the contrary encouraged. These different values associated with meritorious actions such as charity (Dana), morality (Sila), sharing merits (Pattidana) and right belief (Ditthijukamma) form in many cases the conditions of an individual respect of nature, environmental protection and sustainable development. Moreover, by considering cause and consequence principles, directly implied by a karmic conception, it is easy to understand that the depletion of natural resources and polluting activities translate into environmental degradation and, vice-versa, that a positive behaviour and individual actions may contribute to solve the environmental crisis. Such ideas were confirmed by our meetings with monks and religious practitioners and their conception and actions in response to environmental issues. We can also find similar ideas in the teachings of the Buddha, when he exhibited to the eyes of Ananda an immense forest in conflagration and a female monkey mutilated to appeal its emotional resentment.In a word, holistic, non-anthropocentric, egalitarian and ecofriendly world-views are promoted by Buddhism, acting as a ground for individual and societal action and supported by a karmic reasoning process.

As a conclusion, ecology and environmental protection matters for different reasons in Myanmar’s religion and beliefs systems, ranging from a sacralization of nature and a systemic connexion of existences to an ethic of responsibility and a causal apprehension of the issues. We should not forget that thesereligious dimensions of environmental issues can have an important impact on decision-making, by appealing different narratives and beliefs.


Lucas Brunet (25th of June 2014)


Those rocky heights with hue of dark blue clouds

Where lies embossed many a shining lake

Of crystal-clear, cool waters, and whose slopes

The herds of Indra cover and bedeck

Those are the hills wherein my soul delights.

Ode to nature’s beauty, The Therigatha, an early Pali Sutta