The World’s Most Devout Buddhist Country 

A reclining Buddha and unfinished sitting Buddha complement a giant standing Buddha at Bodhi Tataung.

The headlines are jarring. In account after account, they report incidents of jailed journalists, ethnic genocide, and other appalling human rights violations. They’re grim snapshots of Myanmar, Southeast Asia’s most mystical, least understood land—a country of more than 100 ethnic groups that opened its doors to foreigners less than a decade ago, after years of diplomatic isolation and military dictatorship. 

Yet reports about atrocities in an isolated region of Myanmar belie the truth about the gracious and gentle people of the world’s most devout Buddhist country. With 80–90% of its population practicing Buddhism, the nation formerly known as Burma is a spiritual land with the highest proportion of monks and nuns of any country on Earth. 

A Land of Monks and Nuns 

A young monk prays at Hsinbyume Pagoda near Mingun, about an hour from Mandalay.

Boys form a brotherhood of close connections as they live, play and learn together in Myanmar’s monasteries.

It’s a reverent land that spares no expense on building shrines of devotion, many maintained by monks who survive on rice, vegetables, and other donations from local villagers. In cities barely touched by tourism, barefoot monks with shaved heads, clad in neck-to-ankle vermillion robes and clutching black alms bowls, are as ubiquitous as golden pagodas. 

Photographer Nathan Horton shares portraits with novice nuns at the Aung Myae Oo School in Sagaing.

In Myanmar, every Buddhist boy is expected to join a monastery sometime between the age of seven and 13. As a novice monk, he receives training for a few weeks to several months. At any time during his training, he can return to secular life or choose to stay on as a monk. 

Rows of monks with their alms bowls in hand are as ubiquitous as golden pagodas in Myanmar.

Growing up together in ancient monasteries, novice monks eat, pray, learn and play together, forming a close brotherhood. Many come from poor and rural families that send daughters, as well as sons, to monastic schools to take advantage of the free education these locally-supported institutions provide. 

Merit Through Good Deeds 

The whitewashed waves of Hsinbyume Pagoda are said to represent Mt. Sumeru, the mountain at the center of the Buddhist cosmos.

Most Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism in conjunction with nat worship, which involves placating spirits who can intervene in worldly affairs. This spiritual path recognizes accumulating merit through charity and good deeds, in hopes of an honorable rebirth. In sharp contrast to jarring headlines, it’s a path that should convince anyone about the peaceful spirit of this reverent land.   

If You Go

Myanmar... The World's Most Devout Buddhist Country