Event — Buddhist Studies Lectures

A Buddhist “Heresy” in Myanmar: The Doctrine of the Sky-Blue One as the Original Teaching of the Buddha

A lecture by Dr Niklas Foxeus, Associate Professor at the Department of History of Religions, ERG, Stockholm University, Sweden.

This lecture will take place in the IIAS conference room from 16:00 to 17:00 p.m. (not online). 

All are welcome. Please register, as seating is limited. 

Just so you know, we will record the lecture, but only the speaker will be recorded, not the participants. If you cannot attend but would like to receive a link to the recording after the lecture, you may choose this option in the registration form.  

The Lecture

This lecture will examine the case of the Burmese dissident, blue-robed monk Ashin Nyāna, whose doctrinal and moral reform of Burmese Buddhism has been stamped as a “heresy” (adhamma) by monastic courts and declared illegal by the state. He was convinced that he had rediscovered the real and original teaching of the Buddha that preceded the allegedly later and corrupt Theravāda Buddhism. Rejecting anything metaphysical, supernatural, and transcendent, Ashin Nyāna claimed – although without rejecting rebirth – that the Buddha did not preach about rebirth and that his teaching was only concerned with this life. It is a radical this-worldly form of Buddhism. Ashin Nyāna has been imprisoned three times since the 1980s. The problem of Buddhist heresies is linked to the transformation and crisis Burmese Buddhism underwent during the British colonial period.

This lecture is about conflicting views of Buddhist orthodoxy and heresy within the Sangha, the monastic community. Ashin Nyāna questioned many of the key Buddhist concepts and practices of traditional Burmese “Theravāda” Buddhism. The lecture will explore how Ashin Nyāna’s conflict with monastic authorities emerged in the early 1980s, and how his reinterpretation of Buddhism has served as a provocative counter-discourse to the officially sanctioned fundamentalist, scripturalist discourse on Theravāda Buddhism. His teaching was seen as a kind of mockery, or a blasphemy, and he was considered a disloyal apostate, and a pertinacious heretic that must be subjugated.

Since 1980 in Myanmar, monastic authorities have – in what they perceive to be a protection of the Buddha’s dispensation (sāsana) – conducted a kind of Buddhist inquisitions against alleged cases of heresies seeking to criminalize doctrinal deviations from the officially sanctioned Theravāda Buddhist orthodoxy. This is a scripturalist, fundamentalist form of Buddhism that has served as a source of national identity in the state’s nation-building projects. Many of the cases accused of heresy were shaped by modern developments that began during the British colonial period. A variety of novel, creative reinterpretations of Buddhist doctrines emerged that were to various degrees shaped by Orientalism, Victorian values, global Buddhism, Western science, Western ideologies, and text critical approaches. These novel interpretations could be described as forms of Buddhist modernism. While Buddhist reforms were mainly focused on monastic disciplinary matters (vinaya) in the premodern period, now official concerns for the preservation of the Buddha’s dispensation came to focus on doctrinal issues – a transformation from orthopraxy to orthodoxy.

The Speaker

Niklas Foxeus, PhD, Associate Professor (Docent), Dept. of History of Religions, ERG, Stockholm University. He received his PhD from that department with a dissertation about Burmese Buddhist esoteric congregations (2011). Thereafter, Foxeus has conducted research on Buddhism in Burma/Myanmar within three postdoctoral projects: one project about “prosperity Buddhism” and Buddhist possession cults (2013-2015, funded by the Swedish Research Council); one project about Buddhist nationalism and tensions between Buddhists and Muslims (2015-2020, funded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities); and, lastly, one project about doctrinal Burmese Buddhism, Buddhist heresies, and conflicts with the state (2020-2023, funded by the Swedish Research Council). Foxeus is currently a visiting scholar (funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation) at the Institute of Anthropology, Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies, Heidelberg University.


This is a lecture in the framework of the Buddhist Studies Lectures Series, jointly organised by the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and the Leiden University Institute for Area Studies (LIAS).

Registration (required)

If you would like to attend the lecture, please register using the web form on this page so that we can reserve a seat for you, and we may know how many guests to expect.

Please also use this form if you cannot attend but would like to receive a link to the recording after the lecture.

Select one
4 + 4 =
We're fighting spam submissions. Please solve this simple calculation and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.