University of Chicago, 2014
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
On December 24, 1846, Ledi Sayadaw was born near Mandalay, Burma. Soon after his birth, the British would conquer first Lower and then Upper Burma, integrating the country into its vast colonization of India. Decades later, Ledi Sayadaw’s response to the colonization resulted in the modern global movement of Vipassana meditation, the idea that meditation is intrinsic to Buddhist practice, and the notion that lay people as well as monks can study advanced Buddhist scripture. Or at least this is the essential point of Eric Braun’s The Birth of Insight, a biography of Ledi Saydaw’s rise to prominence and his subsequent legacy.
Contrary to what we might expect, mass meditation by both monks and laypeople is a modern invention, born in Burma in the early twentieth century. Previously, Buddhist monks mainly chanted prayers and studied scripture, memorizing as much as possible. Lay Buddhists focused on upholding of morality (sila)—abstaining from taking life, stealing, sexual misconduct, speaking falsely, and the use if intoxicants—and showed their religiousness by giving donations (dana) to monks and monasteries. That was all that was expected. Meditation was considered too difficult for most people, monks included. There was also the widely believed idea that, in this age of decline in Buddhism, it was no longer possible to achieve arahantship, or full enlightenment, which further discouraged the practice of meditation. Ledi Sayadaw changed this way of thinking.
As is custom for Burmese males, Ledi Saydaw—whose birth name was Tet Kaun— ordained as a novice Buddhist monk at age fifteen. At age twenty, when most males leave monasteries to resume responsibilities of a householder, he took full ordination. Already at that young age, the monk showed his ambition. Rather than staying in his village monastery, he chose to stay at the prestigious Thanjaun monastery in Mandalay.
There he made an effort to stand out, first by simply chanting louder than the others. Then he turned to writing. Cunningly, he bothered a minister and literary figure named Hpo Hlaing so much that the minister became his mentor. Hlaing advised the young monk to break the traditional verbose style of writing found in commentaries for one much more succinct and clear. Then, during the Fifth Buddhist Council in 1871, Ledi Sayadaw—with Hlaing’s grooming, encouragement, and arrangement—recited one of the most abstract philosophical books of the Theravada Buddhist canon, the Kathavatthu of the Abhidhmma Pitaka. This cemented Ledi Saydaw’s reputation as a leading scholar, and shows that even for Buddhist monks in the nineteenth century it’s not necessarily what you know, but who you know.
From there, Ledi Sayadaw began writing a series of books that would become famous throughout Burma and the Buddhist world. This was made possible by the arrival of the printing press, which provided mass distribution and very affordable prices, thereby allowing an audience much larger than anything previously possible. The most controversial of Ledi’s works, and that which made him the most famous monk in Burma, was his Paramatthadipani, a criticism of the traditionally authoritarian commentary called the Abhidhammatthasangha. Ledi wrote with a highly uncommon audacious tone that bordered on arrogant, which is why its publication caused the so-called “Great War of the Commentaries” that dominated Burmese culture in 1901, when there was an uproar of attacks and defenses of Ledi’s writings. With his position of top monk established, Ledi then turned to revolutionizing Burmese Buddhism.
The reason for Ledi’s quiet revolution was his belief that Buddhism was dying. Under British rule, the Burmese had no king to promote Buddhist morality, and without a foundation of morality, there is no Buddhism. Further, the Burmese language was discouraged in favor of English, and Christian schools were drawing students who wanted to work in government, rendering the traditional Buddhist monastery education irrelevant. Buddhism needed to be protected, and the way to do this was to put it in the hands of each Buddhist.
It was the duty of each Buddhist, Ledi argued, to study the Buddhist scriptures—not just the Vinaya (disciplinary rules for monks and nuns) and the suttas (Buddha’s discourses) but also the Abhidhamma, the “higher teachings,” which is a highly systemized and scientific analysis of reality. Ledi said Buddhists should focus on the noble aspects of their religion and fight colonialism non-violently. This is what led him to promote Insight meditation, otherwise known as Vipassana, as a daily practice crucial for being a Buddhist.
Ledi Sayadaw said it is not necessary, as previously thought, to master the scriptures before learning to meditate—one can have only a basic understanding of Buddhist doctrine and still get benefit from meditation. Nor was it necessary to master calming and trance-like absorption meditations before practicing Vipassana. With a little training in concentration, he said, one can go right to practicing Vipassana.
Ledi wrote that meditation did not have to be practiced in a monastery or in special circumstances, but awareness of the breath and bodily sensations could be practiced while doing household chores or going to the movies, thereby bringing what was once considered the esoteric to the mundane. Women were previously discouraged from study or meditation, but Ledi strongly encouraged women to take an active role in both. Traditionally, only monks learned and taught meditation, but Ledi taught meditation to laymen and laywomen. He even had his lay disciples teach meditation to monks, completely upending the traditional hierarchical structure of Burmese religious society.
The most famous of these lay teachers was the farmer Saya Thetgyi, who taught Vipassana to U Ba Khin, the Accountant General of the newly independent Burma. Ba Khin would in turn modernize a “practical Buddhism” With a focus on teaching foreigners. In 1952, he founded the International Meditation Center in Rangoon, divorcing Vipassana meditation from its Buddhist context by simplifying and standardizing a disciplined meditation routine. He claimed this routine would allow anyone to perceive the truths of Buddhist doctrine through practice, even if they “had no book knowledge whatsoever of Buddhism.”
This secularizing trend was pushed further by U Ba Khin’s most famous student, S.N. Goenka. A Burmese Hindu of Indian descent, Goenka positioned meditation “explicitly as the fundamental teaching of the Buddha.” In the 1960s and 1970s, Goenka brought Vipassana out of Burma and organized meditation centers around the world. Both U Ba Khin and Goenka’s teachings focused on benefits arising from meditation that are perceived and enjoyed on a daily basis, on the here and now, in this life, rather than the traditional focus on future incarnations.
Today, Vipassana is considered a nonsectarian and universal practice available to all religious adherents. Hundreds of thousands of people practice the meditation technique, and have improved the well being of their lives by the Buddha’s teachings. And all of this is due to one Burmese monk: Ledi Sayadaw.