If you are travelling to Myanmar you will naturally come into contact with Buddhism. Everywhere you see the monks, nuns and pagodas. Approximately 85% of the population are followers of Theravada Buddhism. Buddhism is not religion in the strict sense of the word. Buddhists are followers of the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a prince and spiritual teacher from the Indian subcontinent, on whose teachings Buddhism was founded.
Following the Buddha Hinduism claims that everything is an eternal succession of generation and corruption, which in principle nothing can escape, not the gods, not the universe, not the people. The Buddha however teaches to escape to nirvana, a state of timeless tranquility and oneness with everything.
The first great Buddhist truth is that all life is suffering. This suffering is the result of our desires. By eliminating those desires we can bring an end to suffering. The last great truth refers to the way that we can eliminate desires, namely by walking the right path. This correct path consists of a system of thoughts and actions that causes the karma of the person who walks it, to improve. Karma (or Can in Burmese) is a kind of summation of all the good and bad thoughts and actions in this and previous lives, a justification for the life lived. As the karma improves by walking the right path, one reincarnates in purer forms. Finally one reaches the stage of Bodhisattva, when one desires nothing more than the happiness of all others. Then they dissolve in to nirvana, the state of enlightenment where people know that everything is an illusion; only a mirage of an indivisible unit in himself alone.
Most Burmese Buddhists are not setting out to reach Nirvana. They assume that nirvana is taken by some monks and is not for ordinary people. By doing good, they try the to influence the cycle of rebirth. This can be done by building a pagoda, feeding mendicants, helping a Sangha (monastic order) or (temporarily) entering a monastery.
Buddhism takes up an important place in everyday life in Myanmar. This is evident during the religious holidays and festivals, usually with a full moon. Rich or poor, everyone helps the mendicants to scoop rice, they regularly visit the pagodas and have in their house an altar to worship Buddha or the 'nats' (spirits). Burmese men are expected to at least 2 times in their lives temporarily withdraw to the monastery. A couple of weeks as a samanera (or novice) if they are somewhere between 5 and 15 years old. Then when they are mature they return for a minimum period of 3 months as a fully initiated monk (hpongyi). Myanmar also has a large number of women who have retired to monastic life. These nuns (dasasila) shave their heads and wear pink dress.
Buddhism in Myanmar is mixed with the origin of animistic worship of the nats. The nats are spirits that guard a certain place or person. The word is derived from wet natha which in Sanskrit translates as guardian. Mount Popa is considered the principal residence of the 37 nats. Many temples place next to images of Buddha, statues of nats.
Besides the Buddhists there are followers of Islam, Hinduism, animism and Christianity in Myanmar.