Saturday, 1 February 2020

Insight Myanmar Podcast #1: Thabarwa Sayadaw

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This inaugural talk with Thabarwa Sayadaw focuses on the teacher’s biography and the origins of his monastery. With the Thabarwa mission starting as a local phenomenon and now becoming an international one, this is an important discussion in illuminating where it all came from. 

Despite being born in Myanmar, Sayadaw did not have full rights of citizenship because of his family’s Chinese ancestry. This prevented him from pursuing his dream of higher education, so he instead embarked on a business career by opening a convenience store franchise. Although he became quite successful—and at a time when entrepreneurs were extremely rare in Myanmar, no less—the stress led to a series of mental breakdowns that ultimately brought him to meditation (27:30). After initial experiences in the Mogok and Thae Ingu traditions, it was the vipassana courses he took at the Dhamma Joti Vipassanā Center, in the tradition of S.N. Goenka, which propelled him to seek full ordination and become a monk. 

Thabarwa Sayadwa’s initial meditation center occupied just half of a residential apartment building in downtown Yangon (58:20), before he eventually moved to some undeveloped land that had been offered to him in Than Lyin, across Yangon River. He was followed by a small number of disciples, who under Sayadaw’s leadership had begun caring for a growing number of refugees as well as others living on the margins of society. This group would eventually number in the thousands and became wholly reliant on the care provided by Thabarwa volunteers. This non-conventional approach on the part of a Burmese abbot, coupled with the development of a non-prototypical Buddhist monastery, ultimately resulted in a tense stand-off between him and senior members of the Saṅgha, along with government authorities who wanted them evicted (1:29:00). Ultimately it was the opening of the country and especially the freedom of the press that ended Thabarwa’s existential fears and opened a new chapter in their development. 

At the end of the podcast, Zach Hessler, a former forest monk in Myanmar, joins Joah to reflect on the Thabarwa story (1:40:00). They note how the Sayadaw’s critical nature sets him apart in a culture where conformity and mimicry is often the standard. Joah compares Sayadaw’s hunger for wisdom with that of a 19th century Burmese monastic, Ledi Sayadaw, and Zach comments on the deep faith that Sayadaw holds about the power of good deeds. 

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