Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Bye Bye Sayadaw

For foreigners unaccustomed to the style of Burmese names, it can be confusing to understand the best way to refer to a monk, as well as to keep track of the different names used to reference a single person. It is most polite within Burmese society to use an honorific prefix before the name when referring to people. Burmese people-- including lays-- may also be known to change names more often than in other cultures. While it is not common to do so upon marriage (since family names are usually not employed), one may do so in order to change one’s luck. Then, ordination gives the aspirant a new Pali name. This is also the case for monks who reach a high level of renown, when their formal Pali name becomes superseded by the name of a place or region in which they achieved their attainments or spent extended periods of time. Indeed, at that point, it is usually considered slightly inappropriate to use their Pali-given name because it sound too personal for a monk who has become so venerated. There is no set point at which the monk’s name formally changes from the Pali name to one that includes the site or regional inference, but rather it is an organic process conferred by the followers and other monks. In such cases, many devotees who come later may never learn the name of the monk at all.

This was true of U Nyanadhaja, who spent time in Ledi forest; U Kumara, who resided in Webula Hills; and U Vimala, who spent the Japanese occupation in Baw Ba Tant Caves near Mogok. Some titles have a less clear origin, such as U Sobhana, who took the name of the monastery where he was residing, which itself was named after a famous “big drum” (or Maha Si); or the monk who was a former royal tutor and later went to live in the wild Sagaing Hills, eventually living in seclusion in a “cave of birds”, and becoming known at Hngettwin Sayadaw. Others, such as U Āciṇṇa in the Pa Auk tradition, may take on the name of their lineage, and he is commonly known today simply as Pa Auk Sayadaw; or U Aindarwanthais, who is referred to as the tenth Ledi Sayadaw (according to Mendelson, this started only in the 19th century). This was even so of U Lawkanatha, who during his lifetime was known commonly as “Italy Sayadaw,” referencing his place of birth. This is perhaps better than the name given to an American monk who would communicate the only words of English that village novices knew when seeing them, saying “bye bye.” Eventually they came to calling Bhikkhu Cintita the Bye Bye Sayadaw.

From a Western perspective, say that a relatively unknown monk has traveled to Eugene, Oregon, and here he begins to practice seriously in the forests surrounding the town. As he begins to get known throughout the state and beyond, some may refer to him in a short-handed way as “the Eugene Sayadaw.” Eventually he may become so renowned that the definite article “the” is dropped and “Eugene Sayadaw” begins to be used a proper name. When rendered in English, different authors choose to use or omit the definite article, and today some consider the use of the definite article to be more formal.