Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Native Son of Ingyinbin


Located about 60 kilometers northwest of Mandalay, the small village of Ingyinbin is deeply connected to Webu Sayadaw, one of the most revered Burmese monks of the 20th century. It is here where the venerable monk was born, ordained as a novice, began his studies, took full bhikkhu ordination, and established a groundbreaking new monastery dedicated wholly to the teaching and practice of meditation. Most importantly, it is widely believed that it was in this small village where Webu gained the ultimate liberation from suffering.

Ingyinbin takes some effort to get to, and the travel is not entirely easy to reach what is essentially little more than a small village and two large monastic complexes set in a hot, dry, featureless flat plain. In former times, however, this humble region drew a steady stream of yogis and monastics, including several heads of state and some of the top VIPs of Burmese society. Interestingly, Ingyinbin tends to be better off regarding electricity than other similar, small villages in Myanmar. Given its prominence due to Webu Sayadaw’s fame, a senior monk once went to the Prime Minister’s Office in Yangon and stated that it was not acceptable for the village monasteries of the great monk to not have adequate power.

The spirit of Webu Sayadaw continues to loom large in this special village. It manifests through a depth of veneration and gratitude towards the Saṅgha that stands out even amidst this vast Dhamma land. For the Ingyinbinite, Webu will always be the loyal native son who, even after reaching the greatest spiritual heights and having every worldly possibility thrust before him, continued to spend much of his life in this remote village. And did so, in fact, annually during the summer season, in a scorching region that stands out in an already hot country. Some believe that the impoverished state of the village was an indication of akusala kamma that had been committed in previous times, and so Webu Sayadaw’s decision to stay and help the villagers get established in Dhamma was understood as an especially considerate gesture to help those suffering.

The deep reverence was once shown to Webu Sayadaw seems to have scarcely diminished in the four decades since his passing, as any visiting yogi will soon observe. And today, nearly every corner of the two monasteries and village vibrate with some great event from its noble past.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

An Unlikely Place to Start a Revoluion

Travel 85 miles west of Mandalay to a merchant town of nearly 200,000 people, and the pilgrim is welcomed by a humble yet honest sign announcing: “Capital of the Northwest, Monywa Must do Better than Other Towns.” For the yogi willing to look past its inhospitable terrain and hot climate, he travels back in time to a land where an unlikely confluence of events came together that would ultimately transform the monkhood and the faith— for this pilgrim, Monywa certainly does “do better!” In his essay, “Chindwin,” David Lambert captures the unusual opposing dynamics that characterize Monwya, writing that “beyond the conventional radar, this is the heart of yogi tourism, where foreign meditators, carrying tourist cash dollars, come to explore the heartland of their spiritual souls. For some, this is the area ‘where it all began.’ ”

Whether lay or monastic, a certain resilience was always needed to survive here. It has long been a very hot and dry region, something that even the later colonial irrigation projects did little to alleviate. Monks first came out here nearly a millennium ago during the Bagan Era, when the region was full of thickly wooded forests, and functioned as a kind of forest refuge for paṭipatti-minded monastics who wished to put some distance between themselves and the royal capital. As Michael Charney notes, the “harshness of the Chindwin environment and its relatively low population base may have dissuaded all but the hardiest monks.” More monks began to stream in the mid-18th century, when the region was spared the wars then taking place elsewhere in the country. As greater civilization came to settle in this area, the competition between city and forest monks (gamavasi and aranyavasi) eventually became so fierce that at least once even spilled over into violence.

And yet, still prior to the British arrival, Monywa was little more than a village. The town’s rise to worldly prominence can be traced to when the British named the town the Headquarters of the Lower Chindwin District in 1886. 
The British had originally chosen nearby Ahlone, but had to move following local unrest. Recently, Monywa was named the capital of the Sagaing Division. 

This happened to be around the same time that a young monk named U Nyanadhaja would venture into the Ledi Forest, to continue his scholarly work and meditation practice in the quiet that the vast wilderness provided. He would remain there for the following thirteen years, and would forever be known afterwards as the Ledi Sayadaw. 

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Maha Gandyon Monastery in Amarapura

The Maha Gandyon Monastery grounds in Amarapura were initially offered to the first Maha Gandayon Sayadaw in the early 20th century. At this time they were far from “civilization,” and only those monks intent on seclusion would venture out here. The first Maha Gandayone Sayadaw was one of the great, respected forest monks of the day, and a close friend of Ledi Sayadaw. Being an ardent partipatti master, the First Maha Gandayone Sayadaw spent most of his life in serious practice in secluded regions of the Sagaing Hills, and so did not take the time to visit this Amarapura site or look after its development. Over time, however, and through his successor Sayadaw U Janaka, it would come to grow in both size and renown, ultimately playing a major role in Burmese Buddhism and gaining the lasting respect and admiration of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and becoming the home of a rigorous and unique monastic study culture.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

S.N. Goenka, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, and Maha Gandayone Sayadaw U Janaka

Sayagyi U Goenka was one of the many who were greatly enamored with Maha Gandayone Sayadaw, and the monk was one of his very early influences. He often invited him to his Rangoon home on Mogul Street, and remembered being “highly influenced not only by his great intellect, but also by his simplicity, humility, and capacity for hard work.” He admired the “scores of books on Dhamma in simple Burmese” that the monk had written, although he still “did not have even a trace of ego. I observed not one iota of intellectual pride. I found him to be the incarnation of simplicity, honesty, and egolessness.” He was also one of the monks favored by Sayagyi U Ba Khin, who encouraged his meditation students to study with the Amarapura Sayadaw.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Dhamma Mahimār

This meditation center regularly runs 10-day retreats in the Sayagyi U Goenka meditation tradition. The name of the center translates to “The Excellence of Dhamma,” and was established in 2002. While there is no pagoda built here as yet, the small and friendly confines make for a very pleasant and peaceful course experience, particularly if one happens to be in the country during hot season. The center can accommodate a maximum of one hundred yogis, although it is usually only at capacity during Water Festival. It is located on Shou Road, just off to the right as one heads out towards Mandalay.

Significantly, Pyin Oo Lwin played a special role in the biography of the center’s primary teacher, Sayagyi U Goenka. As a youth, he traveled here from his hometown in nearby Mandalay, and would always recall how “the enchanting mountains and plateaus in that region left a lasting memory.” Then later, as a meditation pupil of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, his teacher asked U Goenka to accompany him to Pyin Oo Lwin to assist in giving a retreat. This was the first time U Goenka would do so outside of the near-perfect conditions of IMC, and he realized that he “was being given a preview of what I should soon have to face and deal with”… that is, when U Goenka would start leading courses on his own across India.

Resistance to Bowing in Burma

Each yogi approaches the act of paying respects in a unique and deeply personal way. For some Westerners, there is no conflict whatsoever, and they feel deeply grateful that they have the privilege of encountering living members of the Saṅgha and sacred statues before them to which they can bow. Others have shared that while they don’t know how much it affects their practice, they understand it is part of the culture, and on that basis are happy to embrace it. However, it is not uncommon for some foreign meditators (and even meditation teachers) to feel quite challenged by this practice, and who question its value during their time in Myanmar.

There are several possible reasons, some cultural and some personal, for yogis to feel resistance towards this practice. Some Western yogis feel comfortable with the idea of bowing towards those whose character they know and respect, but are uncomfortable bowing before a person that they do not know well— and respect-- in advance. Such obeisance is not common in Western countries, and is not stressed as a practice at many meditation centers—in fact, when meditation first spread to these countries, some teachers made a conscious effort not to include this aspect out of fear for this very resistance. Yet other yogis have mentioned that the physical act of bowing down and showing deference is to them a sign of weakness and submission, perhaps due to their ethnicity, culture, history or religious background. For example, some Jewish yogis have shared that they find it hard to bow because, for many Jews, bowing before another brings back painful anti-Semitic memories of when their ancestors were forced to bow down as a people before a foreign power. A different sentiment may be felt by some American yogis, who come from a culture where the self and the individual are so pronounced and a part of its historical narrative.

Prekhemma Sayadaw addresses these concerns in a beautiful way. He notes that the proper attitude for bowing should always be out of genuine respect and deference, and never out force, fear, capitulation, or even custom. Interestingly, in Saving Buddhism, Alicia Turner tells how Burmese themselves revolted at the idea of using the shikho as a sign of submission. In 1903, John Van Someren Pope, Director of Public Instruction for Burma, demanded that all Burmese pupils perform a formal shikho to their students each day. Students at the Rangoon Collegiate School, however, refused to do so, arguing that “shikoing was… reserved for religious objects of respect,” and not something that should be done by force or represent submission. The standoff ultimately resulted in a protest involving hundreds of students and which shut down the schools entirely for a period, and even some Europeans suggested that if these secular “teachers really wanted to be shikhoed, they should ordain as Buddhist monks.”

Prekhemma Sayadaw adds that regardless of one’s culture or religion, having— and manifesting— respect for those living a noble life is an important human quality to develop. For without having even a trace of humility or reverence for such living examples of purity, the Sayadaw cautioned that it becomes much more difficult to develop any such qualities within oneself. And for this reason, he felt that the specific form of bowing is not as important as cultivating the appropriate mental qualities. It is important to note, however, that this should not be taken as advice that can be applied in every Buddhist context. In some sites, bowing down in a formal and precise way is an integral part of the practice.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Dry the Paddy While the Sun is Shining!

Ne pu done, saba hlan (ေနပူတုန္း စပါးလွန္း) means “Dry the paddy while the sun is shining!” When used in a Buddhist connotation, this proverb urges the devout that when there is an opportunity for spiritual development, one must not let it slip away. Sun Lun Sayadaw often used this expression as an exhortation for yogis to meditate and to strive to reach nibbana in this very life, instead of merely doing good deeds and hoping to come back when the next Buddha arrived, as some Buddhists of his day were wont to do. 

Sun Lun Sayadaw explained that just as people had lost their chances to become liberated during previous Buddha Sasanas, one should not waste the opportunities in the present Sasana. A similar proverb is Ne win hma, saba hlan (ေန၀င္မွ စပါးလွန္း), or “at sunset one dries the paddy,” which refers to someone acting even after a precious opportunity has been lost.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

"There Is No Liberation for One Without Saṃvega.”

The Buddha on the left side is the one that Saya Thet Gyi was sitting towards when he saw the inscription bearing his daughter's name. This inscription can still be seen today

As U Po Thet (as he was known then before his more common name of Saya Thet Gyi) progressed in meditation after returning back to his native village of Pyaw Bwe Gyi, a series of significant events happened. At one point, while meditating in front of one of the large Buddha statues inside the tazaung, he happened to open in his eyes and saw before him the inscription on one of the statues, in which donor names were listed. His eyes happened to alight upon the name of his departed daughter, and he suddenly found himself overcome by tears. The exact inscription reads: “Father U Thein, Mother Ma Thuzar, Ko Po Thet, Ma Hmyin, Daughter Ma Hla Nyunt, we donate and share our merits.” A date is given according to the Myanmar Era, which translates as November 22, 1907 in the Western calendar. Such donor inscriptions were, and continue to be, customary for Burmese Buddhists.

Seeing her name brought back the acute grief that had been the initial catalyst for him leaving home so many years prior. Feeling this same sharp pain yet again, he became disappointed, feeling that even after all his years of practice, his heart was still afflicted and he was still burdened by this debilitating pain, causing him to redouble his efforts towards full liberation. Seeing his daughter’s name again brought about the realization of saṃvega, which Jotika Khur-Yearn describes as “literally [meaning to be] stirred, moved, and inspired by awe. It is the ‘spiritual shock’ that prompts people to seek a way out of saṃsāra… The Buddha has said that there is no liberation for one without saṃvega.” And one of the eight objects of saṃvega is “the misery caused by saṃsāra in the past, present & future stages,” of which this reminder of his daughter’s death most certainly was.

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Poetic Ode to Saya Thet Gyi

Before each meditation
course that he conducted, Saya U Than led yogis in reciting 12 verses he composed, four of which have been reproduced here. Respectively, these are the first, third, sixth, and tenth verses. The great reverence towards Saya Thet Gyi may be seen with these lines, and they help to further flesh out his character as a teacher.

“Agreeable abode in the village of Pyaw Bwae,
There’s the teaching of the Buddha through Saya Thet;
Alive to the law of inevitable, existing and execution, within seven days;
Assuredly the road of freedom or Maggan as the crow flies.

In transition to the fifth day,
The road of bhāvanā—higher stage,
Especially appeared with mind and matter,
Shattering in phosphorescence,
Felt by oneself as one euphoria [after] another.

Continual itchy sensation in torrent, in two extremes of appearance and disappearance,
Hustling, surging, moving and flutter,
Clearly seen as fireworks in your [body].

Merging and crashing in entity,
The soul knows its flimsiness,
While in meditating that lightens to the wisdom,
As these codes, the scriptures show one is at the stage of sotapanna.”

Thae Inn Gu Sayadaw and Meditation Monastery

Born in March 1913, U Aung Tun married young and had three daughters. His first wife died, and subsequent two wives left the marriage to become nuns. U Aung Tun’s first profound awakening occurred upon reading Sun Lun Sayadaw’s biography. Like him, this highly revered monk had little educational background, and yet achieved the greatest spiritual heights— prompting U Aung Tun to wonder, “why not I?” This, combined with having received a sharp blow to the head while attempting to rob a house, prompted the 46 year old man to travel to his sister’s home in Kyaung Ga Lay and follow nine precepts for nine days. Here, from 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day he practiced ānāpāna meditation in the sitting position, not changing his posture unless having to meet the calls of nature. He developed profoundly during this time, and this determination and perseverance would go on to characterize his future teaching style.

Following this period, he continued his practice, in later months moving to his nephew’s home, where it is believed he attained the third state of enlightenment. Once, he described viewing his past lives “in his vision… like a television series.” He later decided to go to Twante to meditate alone in a forest, and accepted an offer to have lunch at the home of U Su Ya in Hmawbi, and it is here where he is believed to have become fully liberated—nearly 21 months after beginning his ardent practice. Sayadaw U Okkatta, as he was now known, came to establish himself here, and soon thousands of Burmese disciples were coming to pay their respects and learn from him. The Sayadaw also started to travel and give Dhamma talks, where audiences numbered as much as 3,000.

Thae Inn Gu Sayadaw drew particular inspiration from the Buddha’s vow at the time of his enlightenment, Ayoo kye kye, ayay khan khan lu yin thay ma thay yin tayar ya, or “I will try [either until my] bones dry up [or until] the case is accomplished,” and he exhorted his monks, too, to work until enlightenment or until their bones broke apart. In his teachings, this translated into encouraging longer periods of sitting without changing posture, starting with a minimum of two hours and building up from here.

The Sayadaw passed away at the age of 60 on July 8th 1973, after which the body was kept in state for three years. Disciples say that despite not being embalmed, the body did not become rotten during this time, but “dried up,” and eventually left seven relics, two from the eyes, four from the bones, and one tooth. They were once taken to a jeweler to be examined without prior explanation, and the jeweler thought they were real precious gems! However, when looked at more closely, it became apparent that vein-like lines were also present. These are on display annually in April and are believed to emit light from the pagoda. 

Thae Inn Gu Sayadaw has influenced many great monk of today, including the Thabarwa Sayadaw in Than Lyin. Discourses of the great monk can be found here.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

The "Buddha Museum" in Nyaungshwe

Although today called a “Buddha Museum” and managed by the Ministry of Culture, historically this was a Shan haw (In Shan language, this refers to the residence of a Saopha, and is often translated as “palace.”) Located in the northeastern part of town, it once belonged to the head of the entire Shan federation and the eventual first president of the Union of Burma, Sao Shwe Thaike, who would become a great supporter of Webu Sayadaw and Sayagyi U Ba Khin. 

Built in the 1920s, the architecture successfully combined Western and Burmese styles. Nowadays, one can only imagine the beautiful peacocks that once roamed the grounds and resided under its temple, and the lavish Buddhist festivals and town ceremonies which were once hosted here. In The Moon Princess, Sao Sanda—the daughter of the saopha-- speaks to this odd transformation: “Tour groups are now taken round the large rambling palace, with its numerous halls and rooms, in which I grew up and which I loved so much.” During World War II, while being occupied by the Japanese secret police, the compound was partly damaged by a British bomb that fell but did not detonate. Later, local residents credited the nats for preserving the significant site.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Sketch of an Excellent Man: Pa Auk Sayadaw

From Settie Wessels:

"In the Pa Auk Forest Monastery in Myanmar over a thousand people from all over the world are first taught 40 concentration techniques to be able to analyse the ultimate realities of Mind and Matter (Nāma and Rūpa) at subatomic particle level by 'their own direct experience.' They then proceed to practise Dependent Origination (Paticca-samuppāda) and Insight Meditation (Vipassanā) as described in the “Path of Purification” (Visuddhi Magga), a 1,500 year old summary of the Pāli texts: the legacy of the profound practical knowledge as originally taught by Gotama the Buddha.

For people in search of the truth it can be a life changing experience to learn about 'the wisdom light' produced by a concentrated mind found in the heart base - the sixth sense - described in detail. 

Rare footage of the Most Venerable Pa Auk Tawya Sayadaw explaining Vipassanã and Dependent Origination in English, illustrated by an artist/architect (watercolour, animation) make this subtle and profound knowledge enjoyable to watch even by non practitioners. 

How often can one get a glimpse into what dedicated meditators experience following complex teachings that are over 2,500 years old, thought by many to be lost to the world?
For those familiar with the Abhidhamma and other Pāli texts, it will be impossible to imagine a film that is not only "quite complete" as an introduction to - but also a fascinating watch for people unfamiliar with - the deeper teachings of the Buddha. 

The use of watercolour drawings, animations and special effects opens up this deep knowledge in a surprising and contemporary way, emphasising the role of the 'wisdom light' found in the heart base: the sixth sense."