Adherents are most likely found among the dominant ethnic Bamar (or Burmans, from which the country's name is derived), Shan, Rakhine (Arakanese), Mon, Karen [unique mountain indigenous natives found across various countries], and Chinese who are well integrated into Burmese society.
Monastics, collectively known as the Sangha (Buddhist Monastic Order), are venerated members of Burmese society. Among many ethnic groups, including the Bamar and Shan, Theravada Buddhism is practiced in conjunction with nat (fairy) worship, which involves the placation of elemental spirits who can intercede in worldly affairs.
With regard to "salvation" or "liberation" in the Buddhist sense, there are three primary paths in Burmese Buddhism: merit-making, insight meditation (vipassana), and the weizza path (an esoteric form of wizardry that involves the occult). The first two can lead to rebirth in heaven, which would not be considered "salvation" in any way. Insight meditation is the path to nirvana, which is liberation, emancipation, or ultimate "salvation."
Merit-making is the most common path -- leading to a good human condition as well as rebirth in lesser celestial (space) worlds -- undertaken by Burmese Buddhists. This course of conduct involves, at a minimum, the observance of the Five Precepts and accumulation of good karma (merit) through charity and good deeds in order to obtain immediate benefits and a favorable rebirth.
The insight meditation path, which has gained ground since the early 1900s as it became as a mass movement no longer limited to monastics, is a special form of meditation believed to lead to enlightenment. It must be accompanied by some measure of serenity and concentration, usually to the level of absorption (jhana) or access concentration.
The third and least common route, the weizza path, is an esoteric system of occult practices, such as the recitation of spells/mantras, serenity meditation, and alchemy. It is believed to lead to life as a weizza (also weikza or deva), a long-lived, supernatural angelic being who awaits the appearance of the Buddha-to-com, Maitreya (Arimeitaya).
The history of Buddhism in Burma extends nearly a millennium. The Sasana Vamsa, written by Pinyasami in 1834, summarizes much of the history of Buddhism in Burma.
According to many historians, Sohn Uttar Sthavira, a royal monk delegate representing the Indian Emperor Ashoka the Great, came to Burma, at that time called Suvarnabhumi or Suvannabhumi, around 228 BC with other monks and sacred texts, including Buddhist books.
The Ari Buddhism era included the worship of bodhisattvas (people who vow to strive toward becoming teaching-buddhas) and dragon kings/serpents/reptoid rulers (nagas) and was also known for corrupt monks.
A history of Burma in cartoons
King Anawrahta of Bagan (also called Pagan, now an amazing part of Burma with thousands of temples and altars built as acts of merit) was converted by Shin Arahan, a monk from Thaton to Theravada Buddhism.
In 1057 AD, Anawrahta sent an army to conquer the Mon city of Thaton in order to obtain the Threefold Buddhist canon (Tipitaka). Mon culture, from that point, came to be largely assimilated into the Bamar culture based in the capital of Bagan.
Despite attempts at reform, certain features of Ari Buddhism and traditional nat (deva) worship continued, such as reverence of Avalokiteśvara (Lawka nat), a bodhisattva famous around the world as the early male Indian version of Kwan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion.
Successive kings of Bagan continued to build large numbers of monuments, temples, and pagodas in honor of Buddhism -- motivated by the belief that building a monastery was one of the most valuable mundane acts of merit one could perform. Burmese rule at Bagan continued until the invasion of the Mongols in 1287.
The Shan, meanwhile, established themselves as rulers throughout the region now known as Burma. Thihathu, a Shan king, established rule in Bagan by patronizing and building many monasteries and pagodas.
Monastics continued to be influential, particularly in Burmese literature and politics.
The Mon kingdoms, often ruled by Shan chieftains, fostered Theravada Buddhism in the 14th century. Wareru, who became king of Mottama (a Mon city kingdom), patronized Buddhism, and established a code of law (Dhammathat) compiled by Buddhist monastics.
King Dhammazedi, formerly a Mon monk, established rule in the late 15th century at Inwa and unified the Monastic Order in Mon territories. He also standardized ordination of monks set out in the Kalyani Inscriptions.
Dhammazedi moved the capital back to Hanthawaddy (Bago). His mother-in-law, Queen Shin Sawbu of Pegu, was also a great patron of Buddhism. She is credited for expanding and gilding the Shwedagon Pagoda giving her own weight in gold.
The Bamar fled to Taungoo before the invading Shan established a kingdom there under the reigns of Tabinshwehti and Bayinnaung, who conquered and unified most of modern Burma. These monarchs also embraced Mon culture and patronized Theravada Buddhism.