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. 


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