Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Long Ago Sayadaws of the Sagaing Hills

One of Shwe Lan's volunteer artists made this illustration of a stone walkway deep in the forested Sagaing Hills 
The Taung Lai Lon Sayadaw was one of many deeply revered monks who came to live in the Sagaing Hills. Born in 1726, his monk name refers “four mountains,” and he was also known as the Satu Giri Sayadaw, which has an identical meaning in Pali. He was highly venerated by King Bodawpaya, and he wrote books specifically at the request of the king as well as his younger brother. He was also a prolific writer, and as Ledi Sayadaw would do many years later with the term dipani, the Taung Lai Lon Sayadaw applied the words “Shu Bwe” at the end of many of his titles. This can be translated as meaning “to read” or “to look”, and they were unique in that they were written in Burmese rather than Pali, allowing for a broader lay audience. He was also said to have written a meditation guide for his father and a book on the ethics of rulers that could be used for the king and other leaders. The great monk was known for never retaining any of the dana or items offered to him for long before passing them to other monks, and he was revered as well for his stainless sila. In his old age, he requested his supporters to make two coffins for him. As they arrived, he got in one to see how it would fit, and promptly passed away once inside. Soon after this event, another monk came and surveyed the scene, noticed the empty coffin, and laid inside, whereupon he too passed away. It was later determined that this was the brother of the Sayadaw, also the brother he had written a book for, and both were later cremated in the coffins.
In his earlier days, the Ngettwin Sayadaw was frequently called on to consult with King Mindon and acted as a tutor to his Chief Queen, and he lived at a large monastery that the queen had constructed for him. However, he became dissatisfied with his life and chose to join the small migration of monks to the Sagaing Hills. Here, he found a place so inaccessible and overgrown with forest that it was known as ngettwin, which can be translated as “cave of birds” or “cave of malaria.” His teachings soon began to gravely challenge the accepted conventions of his day. He felt that meditation was essential to the Buddhist life, and that dana and sila alone were not enough without sati and correct volition. He even criticized the traditional practice of presenting offerings before shrines, as he said this attracted vermin and dirtied a site that should be used primarily for meditation. His emphasis on patipatti practice was especially unique for his day, as he suggested that lay people meditate on Sabbath days and that it should even be a prerequisite prior to any potential ordination. Once one was a full monk, he went on to caution that it was important to spend a large part of the day in meditation practice, and not devote too much time to study alone. As was befitting his own recluse life in the Hills, he also insisted that monks should not reside in any one place longer than a year or two.