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Buddhism and education in Burma: Varying conditions for a social ethos in the path to "nibbana".


This is a comparative study of pedagogy in the various educational settings in which Buddhism is taught to lay persons in modern Burma: formal and non-formal, governmental and non-governmental, and lay and monastic- led. Findings suggest that the simultaneous development of faith and critical thinking skills is integral to motivating Buddhist ethics in the world. In present day Burma, it is the meditation monk teachers who can best provide that sort of education. They provide the educational conditions in which lay persons can aim for nibbana, the ultimate salvation, release from the cycle of rebirths, even as one lives and moves in the world. Central to the meditation monks' pedagogy is the instilling of a "conscience" of the Buddha, the ability of a people to remember and be moved by ethics as embodied in the Buddha (Obeyesekere 1991). The Buddha did not create the world, has passed on into nibbana, and no longer exists. Therefore, he cannot be propitiated by prayers. As such, Buddhist ethics entail much self-responsibility and critical thinking. The Buddha modeled this path to wisdom through his practice of vipassana or insight meditation. His path to wisdom was motivated by moral awareness. In his life as the Buddha and in his many past lives, the Buddha fulfilled moral perfections including self- sacrifice. Hence, a conscience of the Buddha entails faith in his perfections and a willingness to develop one's own ability to judge right from wrong. The monks' pupils not only become acquainted with stories of the Buddha's astounding deeds, but also gain the practical means to verify for themselves the value of the Buddha's ethics in the world. Through awareness of the material body, feelings, consciousness, and other mental objects, they learn to gauge for themselves the wholesome or unwholesome quality of conducts and motives, their own and that of others. By helping to transform the "conscience collective (Durkheim 1933)" of the Buddha in the larger society into an ethical "conscience" of the individual, the meditation monk teachers help to prevent notions of the Buddha's greatness from becoming a mere nationalist symbol or propaganda tool of the state.