Friday, 2 January 2015

Ledi Sayadaw: "His fervour and fiery zeal effected real revival..."

Sir Herbert White was a British administrator who spent much time in Burma in the late 19th and early 20th century. His highly engaging memoirs, A Civil Servant in Burma from 1913, offers a rich collection of anecdotes, history, and observation from an official who was perhaps more open-minded and inquisitive than many of his peers. In the following remarkable passage, Sir White comments on having heard about the great works of-- and later meeting-- the venerable Ledi Sayadaw.

“One of the most striking personalities in modern Burmese Buddhism is the Ledi Sadaw [sic]. This remarkable man devoted some years of his life to travelling through the country preaching and exhorting. His passionate eloquence drew immense congregations. Wherever he went he was greeted by enraptured throngs. Men and women vied in adoration of this saintly personage, women loosing their hair and spreading it as a carpet for his holy feet. His fervour and fiery zeal effected real revivals, whether lasting or transitory I dare not say. Besides addressing public assemblies, he obtained leave to enter jails and preach reformation to the prisoners, apparently with good results. In spite of the extraordinary enthusiasm which he inspired and the honours thrust upon him in his triumphal progress, he preserved unstained and flawless, simplicity and humility of character. We are not wont to regard with favour errant monks preaching here and there. Too often their exhortations have tended to sedition, their liberty has been a cloak for licence. Never for a moment did the Ledi Sadaw fall under a shadow of suspicion as to the purity of his motives and conduct, or the good intention of his pilgrimage. The ethical part of his sermons consisted of fervent denunciations of intemperance, drinking, gambling, opium-smoking, the pleasant vices most devastating among Burmans. In no way inspired by any Government officer, he did not hold aloof from the authorities, but desired to be on good terms with them. Speaking to Colonel Maxwell, who more than most of us won the intimate confidence of Burmans, in all simplicity he said: ‘I am not sure that Government will approve my preaching. There will be much loss of revenue; for when I have finished, all liquor and opium shops will be closed for want of custom.’ With a clear conscience the Commissioner bade him go on and prosper, assuring him that Government would be well pleased if so desirable a result... A travelling set of the Buddhist scriptures was the only mark of Government's appreciation. I had the privilege of one interview with this extraordinary man. What chiefly impressed me was his weary expression, as though the working of the fiery spirit had worn out the frail tenement of the body. I am glad to hear that the Sadaw still lives, and that his preaching days are not over.”

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