To be Shan is to be Buddhist, so the saying goes. But this is not entirely true for two reasons. First, the Buddhist religion came to the Shan through the Burmese and the Mon. Second, as is the case for almost all people groups in South East Asia, the religion practiced by the Shan is not pure Theravada Buddhism (the Buddhism of the Ancients). Perhaps, the majority of Shan people could not even explain to you the major tenets of Theravada Buddhism. The practiced religion is rather a complex patchwork of Buddhist philosophy, folk practices, and animism within a Theravada Buddhist framework – or simply put, Folk Buddhism.
Buddhist philosophy serves to inform the theoretical and abstract thought of the Shan people. This aspect of the belief system provides pivotal ideas such as Dharma, Karma, Reincarnation, Enlightenment, Heaven, Hell, and Nirvana.
Folk practices generally center around the temple cult, a very strong element of the Shan belief system. The temple serves the felt needs of the Shan community by providing tradition and instruction concerning monks, merit, novices, Boy Sang Long, Buddhist Lent, life extension and funerals.
Animism seems to fill in all the gaps within the Shan worldview that Buddhism does not address. These beliefs likely preceded Buddhist ideas and ideals, but have not lost veracity within the Shan belief system, though Buddhism has forced contextualized forms. Animistic practices include spirits, spirit houses, territorial spirits, spirit doctors, spirit shelves, tattoos, amulets, Ja Rey, and dreams.
How the three aspects of the Shan belief system actually fit together is unclear. In fact, in many instances it is quite blurry. Even experts argue about the degree of connection that exists between these elements. The following three possibilities describe how some experts explain the different element’s relationship:
First, they can be understood as three separate religious systems blended together. Therefore some elements of the Shan belief system correspond to each of the three aspects while others only correspond one or two of the elements, contradicting the others. Such an understanding would stipulate a great degree of tension within the Shan belief system, at least at the theoretical level if not at the practical level.
Second, they can be understood as a corresponding whole in which each aspect informs the other. The debate here would center on which aspect is the core of the belief system, i.e. the one that informs and directs the other aspects. Some would claim that Buddhism is the core belief, from which animism and folk practices are derived. Others would hold that animism is at the heart of the belief system, Buddhism being a thin veneer overlaying these more potent beliefs.
Third, they can be seen within a structural framework. Buddhism would serve as the foundational belief structure upon which folk practices are built and through which animistic practices are interpreted. Folk practices would come next, functioning as a bridge between Buddhist ideals and animistic traditions. Animistic practices would form the pinnacle of this triangle, as they are the most visible aspect of every-day Shan religion. Also, they display more integration with folk practices, though they are not contradictory to Buddhism in their contextualized forms.