Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Ledi Sayadaw: The Abhidhamma "Gives Delight to the Scientific Men of other Religions"




Eric Braun's stunning biography of Ledi Sayadaw shows how the great Burmese monk empowered lay people to practice in ways that led directly to the patipatti post-WWII explosion and today's Mindfulness Movement. In the following passage, Braun discusses the Manual of Insight Meditation, and how it written not for Burmese Buddhists, but with the foreigner explicitly in mind, and how it stresses Ledi's belief that study of Abhidhammic concepts was vital to anyone interested in the Dhamma. It is a powerful reminder of how adept and innovative Ledi was in reaching Westerners long before there was an interest in the Dhamma there. Today, all foreign meditators may feel gratitude at this forward-thinking Burmese monk.

"As I noted above, the book was written for Europeans. It was printed in English translation in Burma in 1915, the same year it was written. It is not clear to me how extensively, if at all, it was distributed in Europe, but it gained notice in Burma and came to be published in Burmese numerous times. Certainly, the intended Western audience did not cause Ledi to change his presentation of meditation in any fundamental way. On the contrary, based on his conception of Westerners, he only sharpens his preexisting approach to it as a plausible part of Buddhist lay life, rooted in study. In the decade prior to writing this work, Ledi had corresponded regularly with Westerners, mostly about matters of Buddhist doctrine and philosophy. The Westerner with whom Ledi corresponded most frequently and at the most sophisticated level was Caroline Rhys-Davids—he called her 'the London Pali Devī.' He discussed with her a wide range of complex Abhidhamma topics, involving such matters as epistemology and the mind’s role in causality. His answers to her questions about the Yamaka, the second book of the Abhidhamma, were printed in the 1913–14 volume of the Journal of the Pali Text Society. In addition to his communications with Rhys-Davids, he also corresponded at some length with Edmund J. Mills, a chemistry professor in London who was chairman of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the organization which distributed Ledi’s texts in Europe. The questions Ledi received from these interlocutors and others likely impressed upon him the idea of a Western inclination toward analytical analysis that prompted him to say... that the Abhidhamma 'gives delight to the scientific men of other religions.'"