Mass Lay Meditation Movement: From Myanmar to Serbia (1)


On 9 May 2019, religious landscape of Serbia changed in an unexpected way. Buddhism became the first religion, not professed traditionally in Europe, to be recognized by the state. This state recognition marked one more step in the long process of transplanting Buddha’s Dhamma to Europe. For at least a half of the century in Western Europe, this process was clearly visible even through mainstream media, and East of the continent started to catch up recently, with more and more local groups and meditation centers—associated to a variety of traditions, lineages and teachers—established. Serbia is not an exception. In order to understand such a transmission of the Buddha’s Dhamma to the land of Orthodox Christianity, it is helpful to find when and where all this started, and who were the main proponents so that we can perhaps have better understanding of the trajectory of this process.

Mass lay meditation movement as a part of a wider effort towards building the modern Burmese nation was a very complex process, which can be analyzed from religious, social, political or historical perspectives.1 It is said that this movement was initiated by a number of prominent monks such as Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923), Jetavana Mingun Sayadaw (1869-1954), Sunlun Sayadaw (1878-1952) and Mogok Sayadaw (1899-1962),. They were followed by innumerable cohorts of lay teachers of Dhamma (dhammakatika) and lay meditation teachers. In addition, many lay communities organized for the preservation of Sāsana—such as Buddha Thathana Noggaha Association, established in 1901 in Mandalay, and a Young Man Buddhist Association, set up in 1906 and modeled on the YMBA in Sri Lanka, which was organized eight years earlier—played an important role. Finally, it included newly emerging ways of Buddhist education or information dissemination, e.g. printing presses, and newspapers such as Maha-Bodhi News or the Hanthawaddy Weekly Review, which had an important role in popularization of the ideas of the movement.

To cover all of this myriad of persons, events and social processes is beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, we limited ourselves to the meditation lineage started by Venerable Ledi Sayadaw, who “proved to be one of the earliest and most influential monks to teach vipassana meditation”.2 By tracing the developments in Ledi’s lineage, we explore a wider social, religious and political processes which came to be known as the mass lay meditation movement.

The end of an era

King Thibaw with Queen Supayalat
and Queen Supayalay (1885)

The historical processes that led to the rise of the mass lay meditation movement may be actually traced back to the 19th century colonial era in Myanmar, then Burma, where after three Anglo-Burmese wars the country lost its independence in 1885. After this final defeat and occupation of the whole country, the last Burmese king Thibaw was taken into custody in India, thus marking the end of an era and the world as the Burmese had known it until that time. Since traditionally the king symbolized not only unity of the country, but also strength. purity and protection of the Dhamma, being the highest patron of the Sangha, all this had far-reaching consequences for Buddhism in Burma. First of all, this sequence of unfortunate events significantly strengthened traditionally existing narratives among the Buddhists on the total destruction of the Buddha’s Sasana in near future. Therefore, without the king as a protector of the Dhamma and someone who guarantees its existence and the prosperity in the long run, general feeling among devoted lay Buddhists and monastics in Burma was that the Buddha’s Teachings was in sharp decline and would soon disappear. Old forms of teaching and practice seemed to lose their foothold and the new ones had to be created.

Thus the new tools and strategies for preserving Dhamma were gradually introduced, among others, due to the exceptional work of one of the most respected monks in Burmese history, Venerable Ledi Sayadaw and his leading disciples. Through his writings, preaching activities and organizational skills, these strategies gradually emerged and developed, thus radically changing the face of Buddhism as practiced in Burma up to that time.

Sage from the Ledi forest

Bhikkhu Nyanadhaja, later known as Ledi Sayadaw, was born on December 1, 1846 in Saing-pyin village, some 80 km north-west from Mandalay. After getting basic education in the local monastery, as a bright young monk, in 1869 he moves to Mandalay, the main center of Buddhist learning of that time. There, incessantly acquiring new knowledge and later sharing it with his students, he will stay at the Mingalasankyang Pali University for the next sixteen years. After nine years there, he will become a lecturer of Pali and Tipitaka, but this was also opportunity for him to meet other learned teachers and prominent personalities of that time. Among them, the minister U Pho Hlaing had a very important role, as he taught him Burmese and became his mentor.3

On the occasion of the Fifth Buddhist Council, held in 1871 in Mandalay, Bhikkhu Nyanadhaja’s role, together with the other students from the Mingalasankyang University, was to recite Abhidhamma Piṭaka. So, in presence of King Mindon, other royal dignitaries, ministers, learned monks and great crowd of laypeople, he recited Katāvattu (Points of Controversy). For such a young monk, it was quite an achievement and certainly contributed to his growing reputation. The next milestone in his career came in 1880, when Sankyang Sayadaw, then head of the University, posed a set of very difficult questions on the perfections of the Buddha, Pacceka Buddhas and noble disciples. The young Bhikkhu Nyanadhaja was the only one among 2000 student-monks at the university to answer satisfactorily to these. His observations and comments were so deep that they were soon published in his first book Pārami Dīpanī (The Manual of Perfection).4

Two years later and three before British troops would enter Mandalay for the coupe de grâce for Burma, came another turning point in the life of the Bhikkhu Nyanadhaja. Following the great fire which almost destroyed the city, but also a part of University, he left the capital and moved to the town of Monywa, on the eastern bank of Chindwin River, the largest town in the Sagaing Region. There he started spending more and more time meditating in the nearby Ledi forest:

In those days, in the Ledi jungle, various ogres, ghosts, giants, spirits, etc., were threatening and frightening the people who came there. These creatures were frightening even to the Sayadaw as he meditated alone in the forest. In response, he developed deep Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness meditation) toward them. This bound the creatures to him with a spirit of love and kindness. They immediately became the Sayadaw’s friends and attendants and never frightened the people again. Because of this, Sayadaw’s fame and high esteem spread among the people, and he became known as ‘Ledi Sayadaw’.5

It was quite natural for a monk of such reputation, well versed in canonical texts, as well as in meditation practice, to gradually attract numerous disciples. This led to the establishment of the new monastery, which got a name Sādhujanapāsādikārāma(The monastery for the gladdening of good people). But all this was just a preparation for his intensive literary work, first and foremost on Abhidhamma commentaries, and endless preaching tours throughout Burma that followed. In parallel, his meditative efforts with kasina (colored disk) and ānāpāna meditation, allegedly brought to him the fruit of the fourth jhāna (absorption) attainment around 1896. On that occasion he wrote his “lion’s roar” poem, predicting to be reborn in the Brahma world. With all that and many subsequent supernatural feasts he supposedly performed, his fame grew steadily. To this he also contributed with a series of dīpanīs (manuals) on various Dhamma topics he wrote at that time, but especially Paramattha Sankhitta (Summary of Ultimate Truth), an instruction for laypeople on how to study the Dhamma, based on Abhidhammatthasangaha.

Virtue, study and meditation

Early in his career as a teacher, Ledi Sayadaw understood that not only cultivating virtue, but also studying the canonical texts is among the key components of a life for any Buddhist. In order for the Teachings to be better known and thus safely preserved, he insisted on Abhidhamma studies to be extended from the domain of scholars to the wider circle of ordinary people. In that way, an Abhidhammic understanding of reality could safely guide an insight practice. Towards that goal and combining his great erudition and deep compassion, starting from 1905, in many places throughout Burma he organized Paramattha Sankhit Associations.6 Those were the first organized lay groups to study Abhidhamma and an important tool for spreading the Dhamma. These centers became so successful and widespread to the extent that they brought Abhidhamma study and regular meditation practice to all levels of Burmese society. Especially appealing to lay people was his claim that at least the first stage of awakening (in Burmese thaw-tha-pan) is possible “in this life”.7 Thus he expanded the scope of the Dhamma practice for liberation from the otherwise narrow group of meditators even among monastics to practically every individual, lay or ordained. Everybody also became responsible for his own salvation. For example, in his Manual on the Factors of Awakening, he invites every Burmese to take up the burden of practice and thus in the best way use this rare opportunity of being born as a human.8 To even more encourage his lay followers, he claimed:

There is no distinction whatever between bhikkhus and laymen in the practice of the Teaching. Both bhikkhus and laymen have to practice the Teaching properly and correctly according to the Teaching; and all those who practice it are called suppaṭipanno, ujuppaṭipanno, ñāyappaṭipanno and sāmicipaṭipanno.9

These ideas of empowering laity to work their own way toward liberation fell on the very fertile ground. The response was enthusiastic and soon the focus of the Buddhist practice among many lay Burmese Buddhists shifted from exclusively merit gain activities like giving (dāna) and cultivating virtue (sīla) toward striving for the insight wisdom through vipassana bhāvana. This ideal of a lay person using its own everyday life as an unlimited field of practice is well described in Vipassana Dīpanī (Manual on Insight Meditation), the last Ledi’s work on meditation, intended for Burmese, but also for the Western readers.10

The Insight exercises can be practiced not only in solitude as is necessary in the case of the exercise of Calm or Samatha, but they can be practiced everywhere. Maturity of knowledge is the main, the one thing required. For, if knowledge is ripe, the Insight of Impermanence may easily be accomplished while listening to a discourse, or while living a householder’s ordinary life. To those whose knowledge is developed, everything within and without oneself, within and without one’s house, within and without one’s village or town, is an object at the sight of which the Insight of Impermanence may spring up and develop. But those whose knowledge is yet, so to speak, in its infancy, can accomplish this only if they practice assiduously the exercise in Calm.11

The developed knowledge the author is pointing out here, thus confirming tight connections between study (pariyatti) and practice (paṭipatti), is in the first place Abhidhammic one. It seems that vipassana, according to Ledi, is seen as a unique Dhamma tool for a meditator in relating his everyday experience (sammuti sacca) to the ultimate truth (paramatta). He is supposed to continually observe ever changing flow of eighty-one building blocks of conditioned reality (dhammas), arising and passing away in every moment. In the long run, this would lead him to understanding of the impermanence, suffering and impersonality of all conditioned phenomena. Further on, this would lead him to realizing the last, eighty second dhamma in the Abhidhamma list – the unconditioned one, nibbāna.

Although in essence not departing from what one can find in the Pāli Canon, this was quite a new approach for his time, especially with lay meditators, who were now expected to devote equal time both to textual study and meditation. The good deal of that study meant memorizing and then reciting the texts, as in Burmese society memorization was traditionally highly valued (as it is up until today). And for those who are not capable of such an intensive study, Ledi Sayadaw in Manual on the Factors of Awakening has another advice: “At the present time, those men and women who find themselves unable to contemplate and investigate at length into the nature of rūpa and nāma dhamma, should, throughout their lives, undertake the task of committing the four Great Primaries to memory, then of contemplating on their meaning and of discussing them, and lastly of seeking insight into how they are constituted in their bodies.”12

Because his lack of respect for the well-established line of division and hierarchy between genders in the traditional Burmese society, it is characteristic for Ledi Sayadaw to address not only men, but also women in the quote above. Therefore, it is characteristic that his career as a meditation teacher to the laity started by teaching a woman in 1894, at her request. Few years later, sermons he gave on this occasion were collected in the publication entitled Puṇṇovādakammaṭṭhān (Meditation Object of Puṇṇovāda). From then on, women will be an important part of his educational mission, which is at the same exceptional and far-reaching, knowing that usually women haven’t received any education. Thus, it was not uncommon for a women to become a teacher in one of the lay societies for the study of Abhidhamma which Ledi Sayadaw had established.13

Myanmar nun sitting for meditation in Shwenyaungbin myanmar temple , yangon , myanmar

Apart from Dhamma study for laity, another important innovation introduced by Ledi is a more accessible approach to meditation practice. Until his time, meditation was considered too demanding and difficult for a busy lay person and a domain for the most ambitious monks, as it involved achieving highly concentrated mind, even four jhānas. Only after attaining jhānas, it was taught, one was ready to turn to insight practice. Contrary to this view, Ledi in Manual of Breath Meditation, his commentary on the practice of ānāpānasati, allows for simpler method as an equally valid path to liberation. As it is known, the standard ānāpānasati practice consists of four tetrads. The first of them starts with paying attention to the breath at the nostrils, as it enters and leaves the body, often using counting as a help to keep focus. This helps in stabilizing the mind, before a meditator goes through the rest of that tetrad and deepen concentration up to jhānas. After that starts the practice of pure insight. But here Ledi Sayadaw divert from the traditional interpretation of the Ānāpānasati Sutta and allows for the meditator to make a cut, avoiding thus the greatest obstacle for progress, which is attaining jhānas:

As the Ānāpānasati Sutta and its Commentary explain the order of practice in mindfulness of breathing, one is to take up work in the fourth tetrad only after one has attained the four jhānas. If one can adhere strictly to this order of practice, that is ideal, but if one cannot follow this sequence one may proceed to vipassanā, or insight, from the third jhāna. It is also permissible to proceed to vipassanā from the second jhāna, or from the first, or from the access stage prior to full attainment of jhāna, or from the connection stage, or even from the counting stage after one has overcome the wandering tendencies of the mind.14

By allowing, as one among various options, that meditator do not have to go through all the stages of concentration practice, from counting the breath to entering jhānas, before he starts the practice of insight, Ledi made the path of vipassana meditation accessible for much wider spectrum of potential meditators. At the same time, opening the possibility of observing breath and then immediately switching to analyzing its nature, the method called “dry insight”, as we will see, the latter had a huge implication for the acceptance and practice of vipassana meditation in the West.

On the initiative of Ledi Sayadaw, prior to 1915 the Society for Propagating Buddhism in Foreign Countries was established. The idea for this must have been prompted by the genuine feeling of the Buddha’s teachings’ universality, but also by the work of Christian missionaries in Burma during the colonial times. Apart from this, it is known that Ledi Sayadaw had intensive correspondence with some of the Western Buddhists. The most prominent among them were Caroline Rhys-Davids15 and Edmund J. Mills, chairman of the Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Such interest in the West must have been also a factor in his reasoning about the establishment of such an organization.

Based on the previous brief review of the Ledi Sayadaw’s work, one is able to recognize what a tectonic shift inside Burmese Buddhism occurred due to his systematic work. That manifested through mass popularization of the Abhidhamma teachings, making it available to non-monastic audience and encouraging them also to meditate. As we have seen, starting with the few isolated spots, the whole project of his gradually turned into a mass movement, the heirs of which later became, in one or another way, such well known contemporary teachers like Sayagyi U Ba Khin, Mahāsi Sayādaw, S. N. Goenka and Pa Auk Sayādaw, among others.

A duty of an ideal citizen

Following the development of the mass lay meditation movement in Burma, we come to the second phase, which starts with country gaining independence in January 1948, when this movement became an important part of the new nation-state formation. As the motto of the day became: “To be a Burmese means to be a Buddhist”,16 it is no surprise that one of the first actions of the Burmese government after independence was to plan the Sixth Buddhist Council (1954-1956):

…the government used the event as a way to promote itself on the world stage as a preeminently Buddhist country. At the same time, policies were established to fund meditation centers and allow government workers unpaid leave in order to meditate. Insight practice was officially promoted nor just as a means to one’s personal awakening or a way to preserve the Sasana, but as a patriotic endeavor and source of national identity. In less than 75 years, from 1886 to the mid-1950s, meditation had grown from a pursuit of the barest sliver of the population to a duty of the ideal citizen.17

Among the members of the Executive Committee of the Buddhist Council from its establishment in August 1950 was Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971), a well-known lay meditation teacher and disciple of Saya Thetgyi (1873-1945). In brief, Saya Thetgyi was one of the first Ledi’s lay disciples entitled to teach meditation not only to other lay people, but also to the monastics, which was previously unimanginable. Admittedly, Thetgyi lived separated from his family, in a kind of semi-monastic way, so he could lead a celibate life and devote as much time as possible to meditation.

On the other hand, U Ba Khin was a family man, with six children and an important position in the government of the newly independent Burma. At the Sixth Council he was also appointed a Chairman of the Subcommittee for Practical Buddhist Meditation, which testifies of his high reputation as a meditation teacher. Among Council’s guests were several Westerners, who together with a number of other delegates and guests used the opportunity to attend a Vipassana meditation course in the International Meditation Center, established by U Ba Khin in 1952. After returning home, they obviously served as a kind of dhammadūta, since after that a steady flow of the visitors to the Center from the West started.18

But the Sixth Buddhist Council also put into the spotlight one more key figure in the Vipassana movement and that was Mahasi Sayadaw, disciple of Mingun Sayadaw (1870-1955), arguably the most renowned meditation monk of his generation and a protégé of U Nu, the first Prime Minister of the new Union of Burma. As a devoted Buddhist, U Nu spearheaded rebuilding of Buddhist national identity after the British colonial period and the important step in that process was the establishment of Mahasi Thathana Yeiktha in 1950, with Mahasi Sayadaw as a Principal Preceptor. From there, up to today, sprung hundreds of branch centers throughout the country, as well as abroad. Thus, connected to Ledi Sayadaw through his disciple Mohnyin Sayadaw, Mahasi continued the same line of institutionalization of the new relationship between Sangha and the laity, by establishing the whole network of lay centers, governed by lay committees, where pariyatti and paṭipatti converged.

Mahasi’s view of the history of Buddhism was that at the time of Buddha it was enough just to hear several words of the Teacher and gain direct insight into the real nature of this world. Nowadays, due to degradation of the direct path to enlightenment and diminishing of understanding of the Dhamma, that wisdom is not possible to gain in the old way. Something more is needed and that is the intensive meditation practice. According to Mahasi, at least two months of such practice are indispensable for those “who are ripe” to arrive at the threshold of sotāpanna, the first stage of enlightenment.19 The role of his centers was exactly to provide right opportunity for monastics, as well as for laity, for this kind of intensive practice. But its precondition or the basis is virtue:

“If you want to practice insight meditation with a view to attaining the Path, Fruition and Nibbāna, the least qualification you need is to be of pure moral habit. If you don’t even have pure moral habit, you can’t hope for the higher conditions of concentration and wisdom.”20

Once this foundation is set, comes the actual practice of insight, which is in short explained as meditating on the five aggregates:

“If you want to be a Stream-winner and never to be reborn in the four lower states, you have to meditate on the five aggregates of grasping to realize their impermanence, suffering, and not-self nature… Mind and matter are impermanent things. These impermanent things you have to meditate on to see them as they really are, as being impermanent.”21

From this brief review of the historical and cultural contexts in which mass lay meditation movement in Myanmar emerged, we can see how practice of insight meditation was progressively laicized and made available to the widest audience. Lion share in this popularization of insight meditation belongs to U Ba Khin’s disciple S. N. Goenka (1924-2013). Born in a wealthy Indian family in Mandalay, in 1940 he took over family business and managed to develop it considerably, by opening several new manufactures. This brought him reputation of a very capable businessman and propelled among the leaders of the local large and quite influential Indian community. In 1956 he took his first ten-days vipassana course under the guidance of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Unfortunately, coup d’état in 1962 changed everything, as his business was nationalized by the new military government. As difficult as this measure was materially for the whole family, it also allowed Goenka to spend much more time with his teacher and thus progress spiritually. Finally, in 1969 he moved to India, soon to lead his first course. His exceptional work there was one more avenue by which vipassana movement started to spread outside of Myanmar. This expansion especially took off with many Westerners on a “hippie trail” coming to India in the 70s and attending Goenka’s meditation courses in Bodh Gaya and elsewhere.22

(Part 2 here)

1 Research in these areas was conducted by scholars such as Bechert (1984), Houtman (1990), Jordt (2007), Ikeya (2011), Turner (2014), Braun (2016), and Schober (2017).
2 Houtman (1990), p. 22.
3 Braun (2013), p. 22-23.
4 Ashin Nyanissara (1996), p. 10.
5 Ibid., p. 12-3.
6 Braun (2013), p. 95-98.
7 Ledi Sayadaw (1960), p. 45.
8 Ibid., p. 11.
9 Ledi Sayadaw (unpublished), p. 87. Suppaṭipanno, ujuppaṭipanno, ñāyappaṭipanno and sāmicipaṭipanno (“those who are practicing the good way, the straight way,the true way and the proper way”).
10 As it was stated in the Foreword by the translator U Nyana.
11 Ledi Sayadaw (1965), p. 30.
12 Ledi Sayadaw (1960), p. 10.
13 Braun (2013), p. 120.
14 Ledi Sayadaw (1999), p. 28.
15 He fondly called her “London Devi”. Part of Ledi’s clarifications on Yamaka, sent to Mrs. Rhys-Davids, was published in the Journal of Pali Text Society, 1913-14, p. 115-169. In the JPTS volume for 1915-16 was also published Ledi’s article “On the Philosophy of Relations”, p. 21-53. See also two Ledi’s letters, later published in the JPTS, 2012, edited by Eric Brown and William Pruitt.
16 Schober (2017), p. 158.
17 Braun (2014).
18 Sayagyi U Chit Tin (1991), p. XII.
19 Mahasi (2000): “Q: ‘Venerable Sir, how long does it take a yogi to accomplish his or her progress of Vipassana insights?’ – ‘It depends. Only a few people can describe their accomplishment of insight knowledge within a week or so, while most people usually mention their complete set of insight knowledge after one and a half months, or two.” p. 184-5.
20 Ibid., p. 45.
21 Mahasi (2000), p. 16 and 20.
22 Parvati Markus, Love Everyone.

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