knowledge was transmitted in a wide variety of ways. Burma was once highly literate,
and this is amply demonstrated by the extensive numbers and types of manuscripts
in existence. Often produced in monastery workshops, parabaik (an illustrated
manuscript on paper), lacquer books such as kammawaza, and works on gold, ivory,
copper, and palm leaf described and portrayed many of the canonical and Burmese
concepts of Buddhism. The expense of producing manuscripts made such objects
highly valuable, and manuscript chests (sadaik) and stands were made to house
and protect the written texts. Monasteries throughout the country kept such
items, and functioned as repositories of Buddhist knowledge.
Burmese monks played an extensive role in the transmission of Buddhism throughout
the country. Not only were monks sent by the court to standardize the Buddhism
practiced in Burma, but some traveled abroad to other religious centers to ensure
the standardization of the religion. Manuscripts would have been carried to
different Buddhist areas by the monks, thereby enabling the exchange of ideas
and visual images, as well as the consolidation of religious beliefs. Specific
monks traveling through Asia, such as Shin Upago and Shin Thiwali, have been
mythologized by the Burmese, and they are now also attributed with protective
and other beneficial functions. These figures have been reproduced in paintings,
wood carvings, and sculpture.
Stories were one of the main ways in which Buddhist concepts were transmitted
to lay people and monks. These narratives popularly consisted of tales of the
life of the Buddha and the Jataka stories (the Buddha’s previous lives).
The Buddha’s last ten lives where he perfected the ten virtues necessary
for enlightenment, including the Vessantara and Temiya Jatakas, were frequently
represented in art in such diverse forms as lacquer, paper, textile, ceramic,
and wood. Functioning as a reminder of how the Buddha reached enlightenment,
these stories would have provided the viewers with information on the appropriate
behavior for eventually achieving enlightenment.