Thursday, 11 August 2016

Ledi Sayadaw at Shwezigon Pagoda in Monywa

According to pagoda trustees, Shwezigon’s origination story goes back to the fourth century B.C., when King Widadapua attacked the Sakyan tribes (Siddhartha Gautama’s clan). Some Sakyans were said to flee all the 
way to Hpo Win Daung, on the west bank of the Chindwin River. From there, a great beam of light was seen arising from the east, which was taken as a good omen. 

Even given this august past, it is the events of about 150 years ago that give Shwezigon its current renown. It was on these grounds where the future Ledi Sayadaw first stayed after his Mandalay library burned in 1883, when he withdrew back to the solitude of rural Monywa. Here at this pagoda he continued his scholarly work and writing, residing at the invitation of Sayadaw U Nyanawuntha. About a dozen monks followed him, joining the other dozen or so monks who were already studying here. U Nyanadhaja, as he was known before heading out into Ledi Forest, resumed his teaching duties. According to U Candida, it was also here that U Nyanadhaja came to believe he could fulfill his two “latent wishes”; “to respect and pray to the Buddha regularly [and]] to fulfill Sangha needs.”

Ledi’s days here quickly fell into a routine. Sitagu Sayadaw describes what a day in the life may have looked like. “Sayadaw swept the shrine halls, terraces, open spaces, and stairways of Su Taung Paya and Shwezigone Pagodas. He swept the whole campus of the monastery, cleaned all the toilets (usually at night), filled all the water pots with fresh water, [and] attended and nursed sick monks.” In those days, sticks were used to clean oneself after a bowel movement, and U Nyanadhaja would take care even to clean these sticks after use. In addition, as the monastery complex had hollows up to ten feet deep, U Nyanadhaja personally carried earth from other areas to make the ground more level. Finally, he helped the Sayadaw complete the construction of a new Dhamma Hall.

His pupils became discomfited by the many menial tasks that their great teacher undertook, most on their behalf, and some felt unworthy to even drink the water he poured for them (yet another task U Nyanadhaja undertook, sometimes at three a.m., so as not to wake anyone). But he eased their concerns, declaring that in his past incarnations, his wives and children had benefited from the use of his body and limbs, and now finally as a monk he had the opportunity to fully serve the Buddha’s teachings. He added that one’s body is like a hired cart, and that one can make use of it while we are in possession of its functions, but eventually it, too, will be taken away.

An important event occurred while staying here that would affect U Nyanadhaja’s future plan, and which would have major implications in the worldwide spread of the Dhamma. One day, while engaged in his cleaning duties, he met the renowned Sayadaw U Thila, a forest monk whom many at the time believed to be fully enlightened. U Thila’s commitment and spiritual attainments, both of which were borne from his solitary practice, inspired U Nyanadhaja’s eventual decision to venture forth into Ledi Forest in the coming years.

In terms of the pagoda’s physical layout, the entryway is approached off of one of Monywa’s busiest streets. The pilgrim leaves the hectic worldly activity in turn for a quiet, colonnaded concrete hall, whose most prominent feature is the central stupa. Fashioned in the “diamond bud” style in pure gold, the top reaches upwards of 135 feet, a pair of ogres perching near the top. No less than 35 smaller stupas are scattered across the expansive compound, including many Buddha images, some of which go back to the 18th century. Several statues depict Ledi Sayadaw, honoring the historic role that the pagoda played in his development. The earliest Buddha image is listed from 785, and the donor list includes many of the great Bamar kings.

Also on the grounds is a Bodhi tree, a large Dhamma Hall, and an artificial cave structure, inside which are various statues of well-known nats and hermits. Perhaps most suitable for meditation is the smaller room to the right of the shrine area, featuring two pristine Buddha images… and also where there are explicit signs requesting visitors not to make any noise that may disturb a yogi’s meditation. And unusual to the Burmese pagoda landscape are a diverse host of tropical trees and professionally manicured bushes and hedges. A dusty monastery is connected via a blue gate, although it is uncertain if these are the original monastic grounds dating back to Ledi’s time. Today its courtyard doubles as the Royal Shwe Myint Badminton Club.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Why did Saya Thet Gyi Give White Scarves to Meditators?

Marie Byles, Australian author of Journey Into Burmese Silence, visited Maha Bodhi Meditation Center in 1957, and was taught for several months by Saya U Thein, one of the main disciples of Saya Thet Gyi. 

Byles recalls that on at “1 p.m. on Christmas Eve… U Thein placed a white scarf over my shoulders, saying that I was now a Yogi and should always wear the scarf when meditating.” Byles’ description almost seems to imply that the white scarf encouraged a formal spiritual transformation, not dissimilar to a monk’s ordination. 

Interestingly, Saya U Than wrote about how Ledi Sayadaw had instructed Saya Thet Gyi to wear a white scarf once he became a meditation teacher. Then, later on, many yogis at the International Meditation Center took up the practice of wearing a white shawl when studying under Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Although it is not clear where the garment originates from or its underlying meaning, it may relate to the brown shawl, or yawbut tin thi, that Burmese pilgrims and meditators wear today and that indicates their spiritual intent. However, U Sarana is doubtful about this, for he notes that “the brown scarf for ladies was an attempt to ‘label’ them with a ‘recluse mark,’ thus to differentiate them from the monastery workers and non-yogis.”

Buddhist history may also shed some light on this wearing of white. Dating back at least to the 3rd century B.C.E., the Sri Lankan laity would dress entirely in white to indicate their adherence to following eight or ten precepts. Some monastic traditions request that samaneras dress entirely in white before their ordination, and still in Sri Lanka today, lay yogis routinely dress entirely in white when visiting monasteries for uposatha, during meditation retreats, or on pilgrimages. It is uncertain if Ledi’s preference of a white scarf was contextual to his time, historical, or a unique innovation that he encouraged himself.

Note that the photograph above depicts a statue of Saya Thet Gyi at his meditation center in Pyaw Bwe Gyi, and the painting below shows him wearing the white scarf in a painting at the same site.  In the latter painting he is shown holding beads, suggesting that he may have used this in his meditation practice, as his teacher Ledi Sayadaw was also photographed with beads.