Merit Making

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Thomas Bruhn—Earning Merits: An Ancient Practise of the Citizen of Myanmar Applied in Modern Myanmar Society

About 90% of the population in Myanmar follow the Theravāda Buddhist religion. Earning merits is traditionally the basis for the day to day behaviour and is therefore not only of high religious importance but also pervades the Myanmar culture and has social effects for the present society. “Of all the concepts central to Buddhism, merit (puñña) is one of the least known and least appreciated in the West.” (Thānissaro Bhikkhu; Merit: A Study Guide, Earning merits can be seen as the heart of ethics for lay persons in Myanmar. The main reasons why to earn merits is important for lay persons are given according to their priority. The great majority of the Buddhist accepts generosity and moral behaviour as the basis for meditation. These three factors are seen as three grounds for merit-making. Especially meditation has a very high appreciation in Myanmar. Different reasons for meditation and also resisting factors are enumerated. Critical observation may raise the question whether misuse of the three grounds for making merits is possible. Could they also sometimes be considered as a way to increase personal power by raising personal fame?

Clara Rellensmann—‘How to make merit in modernity? Authenticating Bagan’s rebuilt landscape’

Bagan is one of Asia’s most important Buddhist sites. Up until today, this sacred landscape of about 25 square kilometers remains an important center of Theravada Buddhism. The site comprises more than 3.000 Buddhist monuments ranging from small stupas and temples to monastic complexes and several enormous stucco-covered structures originally built during the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was flourishing as a capital of a large kingdom. While few key temples and pagodas of major spiritual significance were maintained over the centuries, the bigger part of the religious buildings fell into complete disrepair. However, from 1995 to 2010 the Myanmar military government ran a programme under which more than 1.000 pagodas and temples were reconstructed and about 600 partially restored. In some cases, where only the footprint of a structure could be identified and data about the original form of it was lacking, the part to be reconstructed was built in a hypothetical design.

International media as well as the international expert community have repeatedly scolded the Myanmar government for what is perceived as anachronistic construction and unprofessional restoration work at the historic site. The reconstructions continue to spark off debates, especially, as the Myanmar government is preparing a World Heritage nomination dossier for Bagan and is seeking the most accommodating narrative for the site and its recent modifications in order to meet World Heritage requirements, particularly the condition of authenticity.

Other than the recent technical debates observed on Bagan’s conservation planning that often consider the reconstructions as a mere problem that has negatively impacted the archaeology of the site, the research will provide a more nuanced assessment. Its investigation aims at authenticating this reconstructed landscape as a recent time layer in Bagan’s planning and construction history, a spatial manifestation that reflects past and present religious and cultural practices as well as heritage politics and nation-building strategies.

The presentation will give an overview of the PhD research project ‘How to make merit in modernity? Authenticating Bagan’s rebuilt landscape’ (working title) and present initial findings from archival and field research conducted in Myanmar from January to March 2017.


The research briefly presented in this abstract is undertaken by Clara Rellensmann who currently works as Academic Assistant at the Department of Architectural Conservation of the Brandenburg University of Technology (BTU Cottbus). The initial phase of research was carried out in association with the SNSF project “Holy Spaces in Modernity. Architectural Transformations and Manifestations” at the Institute of Art History of the University of Zurich. The research is being completed in association with the DFG Graduiertenkolleg “Technological and Cultural Values of Historic Buildings” at the BTU Cottbus.

Clara holds a M.A. in World Heritage Studies (BTU Cottbus, Germany) and a B.A. in European Studies (University of Passau, Germany). She has several years of professional experience in the cultural heritage sector having worked for museums and cultural institutions in Costa Rica, Bahrain, Germany, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. From 2011 to 2016 she worked for the UNESCO Offices in Bangkok and Yangon.



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