In Myanmar the vast majority of people are Theravada Buddhists, which is the same strand of Buddhism followed in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, sometimes referred to as 'Southern Buddhism'. The name means 'the doctrine of the elders', and followers of this strand consider it to be the closest to the original Buddha teachings.
Buddhism does not worship a creator or deity such as God or Allah. The Buddha (awakened one) was simply a man who attained enlightenment. Theravada Buddhists see Buddha's teachings as tools to help them to make their own way to enlightenment.
I will talk about The Buddha himself in a moment, but first let's cover the issue of heaven and hell and rebirth - at least as best as I can understand it and explain it briefly. Buddhists believe in rebirth. They consider that you will constantly be reborn after you die, (not always immediately, but we needn't worry about technicalities like that,) but whilst your new life will be determined by your past lives, you will not remember anything about them. In the human life, the way that you behave and the choices that you make will determine how much good or bad karma that you have, which will in turn decide how you will be reborn.
You can be reborn into any of 31 planes of existence. Actually if you read up on this, you will see conflicting accounts of how many levels and what they are, but I am going with what our local guide told us and what the Big Buddha that we saw in our trip reflected.
Level 5 is human life, it may not be a heaven, but it is a good place to be, because it is the only plane from which you can reach enlightenment. Some accounts say that it is rare to be born into this level, but I am not clear why!
Anything below human is because you have a bad karma account. Level 4 is Asura, where you are always in conflict. Level 3 is the Hungry Ghost, always in a state of deprivation. Level 2 is an animal, perhaps because you have harmed an animal in your last life, and Level 1 is hell, of which there are a number of different forms.
On the up side, if your karma is good, you can reach any of the 26 levels of heaven, which are equally complicated, and you can read up on them yourself if you are interested. Obviously as an animal or human, you stay until you die. In the other realms, in very basic terms, you stay until you have been sufficiently purified of your bad karma, or your have drained your balance of good karma. The timescale for this appears to equate to hundreds of human years. Then you are reborn again.
The only escape from this perpetual rebirth is to achieve enlightenment, which will secure your passage to Nirvana, where you are freed from whatever binds you, and achieve a permanent blissful and peaceful state.
The Buddha was the first man to achieve this enlightenment. He was born in Nepal about 2,500 years ago. His name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he was a prince in a small kingdom, or maybe the son of a chieftain. Although he was a man, he still is believed to have had some supernatural aspects. For example, the night that his mother conceived him, and I am still unsure whether this is supposed to be a sexless conception or not, she dreamed of a white elephant. This is why white elephants are revered in Buddhism.
With his privileged upbringing, his father protected him from the harsh realities of life such as old age, illness and death, by ensuring he never came in to contact with them. Buddha trained as a warrior, married at 16 and he and his wife had a child. But when he was 29, he went out to see some of their people, and for the first time, he encountered old age, illness and death.
On seeing these things, he started to think about the meaning of life. He left the palace and became a wandering man, learning to meditate in search of the truth. Although he became very good at meditation, that was insufficient, so he practised denying the body in hope of freeing the spirit. In doing so, he almost starved himself to death.
When this didn't work either, he decided to follow a Middle Path, neither self indulgence nor extreme self denial or harm, and to look into himself for true understanding. He therefore sat under a Bodhi tree and looked into his own heart and mind, vowing to stay there until he gained enlightenment. Finally, after forty days and nights, at the age of 35, he achieved it.
I'm not sure how it can be good karma to just abandon your wife and child while you try to fulfil your own desire, but apparently we can gloss over that!
Buddha now gained many insights. He was able to recall his previous lives - all 547 or so of them - and he used them as the basis for many of his teachings, each story, or jakata, containing a lesson or moral. In case you are wondering, Buddha's previous lives were roughly 12% as a God, 23% as an animal, and 65% as a human.
He also realised the Four Noble Truths, which form the basis of Buddhism. These are: 1) The truth of suffering, which is that life is suffering, made up as it is of such things as birth, aging, illness, deprivation and death; 2) The cause of suffering, which us that suffering is caused by craving something; 3) The cessation of suffering, which is achieved when you stop craving anything;and 4) The pathway to the cessation of suffering, which is the Noble Eightfold Path, to lead you to Nirvana.
The Noble Eightfold Path is a simple concept, you just have to get everything right; specifically you need to have the right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
Having achieved enlightenment, Buddha could now ascend straight to Nirvana, or choose to remain on earth. Initially he was reluctant to stay to preach to others, as he believed that people were incapable of achieving enlightenment, but he was persuaded by Brahma that it was attainable with his teaching, so he remained. He spent the next 45 years, until his death at the age of 80, travelling and teaching the dharma. Controversially at the time, Buddha included people from the lower castes and even women amongst those he preached to. Whilst most accounts suggest he travelled around India only, Burmese legend has him appearing in Myanmar too, so we'll just go with that when appropriate.
It is important to note that whilst Buddha teaches the Path to Enlightenment, every person has to find their own way there. How each individual makes their journey is up to them, although it is generally considered that the best way is to become a monk.
So what does it mean to be Buddhist. Well to start with there are the Five Precepts. These are the five key 'rules' that everyone should abide by if they want any chance of a happy rebirth. That said, they are not absolute rules and lay people (ie not monks or nuns) can choose to ignore them and take their chance at rebirth. These five rules are to refrain from: 1) destroying living creatures; 2) taking that which is not given; 3) sexual misconduct; 4) wrong speech, or lying; and 5) taking intoxicating drinks and drugs that lead to carelessness.
So if you are not a monk or nun, you should be following these rules, but it's up to you. Certainly many people do drink, although not excessively so. And most Burmese are not vegetarian, which is a point of debate in Buddhism about whether eating meat is acceptable given rule number one.
What is expected of you as a lay person, is that you will spend one day of each week during August, September and October at a monastery, when you will be expected to abide by the Eight Precepts for the whole of that day. These eight rules, which must be strictly adhered to for the relevant days are the the same as the first five, except that it precludes any sexual activity, and then the addition three are to refrain from: 6) eating after midday; 7) dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, using perfumes, and beautifying the body with cosmetics; and 8) sleeping on a high or luxurious bed.
Lay people are also expected to provide for the monks and nuns. Monks are only permitted to take food that is given to them, so they will do a daily alms walk around the local community, and the people will provide them with food. Technically the monks cannot ask for food - or anything else - but it is expected that people will provide it to them. People will also turn up at monasteries to deliver food and other necessities. This is a key part of the spirit of openhearted giving that is considered a fundamental aspect Buddhism.
The other expectation is that all boys must spend a short period of time at a Monastery, where they live as a monk and are taught by the monks.
Life is not so simple for the monks, who have to do daily prayers, meditation and chores, and as well as having to strictly observe the eight precepts all of them time, have a total of 227 rules to be followed, (there are even more for a nun). And no, I can't list them all here, but I do know that they are not allowed to climb trees, handle money or own a vehicle. It seems that owning a camera is OK though, presumably because there was nothing of that kind around to be banned in Buddha's day.
Just to complicate matters slightly, Myanmar does still retain some old pre-Buddhism religions superstitions. King Anawrahta, who united the country into Buddhism in the eleventh century, could not persuade his people to give up all of their old beliefs in God's and spirits, so he incorporated 37 nature spirits, or Nats, into Burmese buddhism. Images of these Nats can be seen throughout palaces, temples and monasteries.