Myanmar is popular for Buddhist meditation. Indeed, the meditation movement in Myanmar started in the early 20th century. However, due to many conditions it became popular in 1930s. Despite the claims of different meditation lineages, but from the survey there are mainly two meditation lineages predominant in Myanmar. The insight meditation technique is most popular among the people in Myanmar compared to the tranquility meditation methods. Reader will find that the same lineage of meditation masters changes over a period from teachers to disciples. Hence, this paper will make an attempt to show the meditation movement in Myanmar, particularly the linages and their techniques with the founder short biographies.
The Buddhist history of Myanmar is mixed with legendary and historical. They claim Buddhism arrived over two thousand five hundred years ago. Since then, both learning and practice have been flourishing until present. A clear representation of early arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar is the glorious Shwedagon Pagoda, in Yangon. There are different claims regarding the arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar. They believe the Buddhism arrived during the time of the Buddha when Tapussa and Bhallika enshrined the hair relics of the Buddha in Shwedagon Pagoda. According to Myanmar well-known historian and archeologist Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt ‘subsequently Buddhism arrived for five times from first time of hair relic of the Buddha to the last arrival of Venerable Buddhaghosa in Thaton in fourth century AD’. However, Sāsanavaṃsa gives up to six arrivals of Buddhism in Myanmar both from India and Sri Lanka. Since, the writing has not intended to focus the detail history of Buddhism in Myanmar, therefore, it will not discuss further details.
Kings and people support Buddhism from the introduction of Buddhism in Myanmar. Due to the pious support of the Myanmar kings, the propagation of Buddhism keeps flourishing. Many great kings had dedicated for Buddhism namely Anawratha, Bodhawpaya, Alungsithu, Bayinnaung, Mindon, and Dhammaceti, who will remain forever in the heart of Myanmar people. Moreover, there are also contributions from devotees towards pariyatti learning that plays an important role in the meditation movement in Myanmar.
Pariyatti (teaching) is the Teaching of the Buddha, (i.e. Tipiṭaka), and is the foundation for the survival of paṭipatti (practice). Hence, teaching (pariyatti) and practice (paṭipatti) are comparable to the ground floor of a building, which depends on support of the earth. With the existence of both, there is the possibility of realisation (paṭivedha) of supramundane states. In the Mahāparinibbāna sutta, the Buddha states, “If the monks dwell rightly, this world will not be empty of Arahants.” In order to practice dhamma rightly, one has to learn pariyatti comprehensively. Therefore, pariyatti is the main foundation for practice (paṭipatti) which will be conducive for penetration (paṭivedha) of the things as they really are (yathābhūtaṃ).
From ancient times Buddhism has been handed down through the linage. It is the teaching handed down from masters to disciples without any interruption. Lineage can be classified into twofold namely ordination lineage and meditation lineage. Ordination lineage is a disciple ordains under a teacher and receives higher ordination under him. Whereas, meditator lineage is the lineage under a meditation master, a disciple, who is trained in meditation technique either by laypeople or monastics. For emphasizing the revival of meditation in Myanmar, meditation lineage is concerned whereas the ordination lineage is not related in the discussion.
Moreover, in order to understand the meditator lineage, it is important to know the brief biographies of meditation masters. Therefore, it will provide the relevant information regarding the places they practiced, under whom they practiced, and when they practice. Those great meditation masters could not be talent if they had not the support of pariyatti as well as support of the people. Therefore, it will show the underlying reasons behind the revival of meditation in Myanmar that have been continuing until now.
Although there are two main lineages of meditation masters, some lineages do not start with the same mediation object. Nevertheless, it also needs to emphasise how the meditation masters progress from tranquility meditation to insight meditation. Moreover, the revival of meditation masters is important from a historical perspective for identifying the lineages. A brief revival of Buddhist Meditation in Myanmar and the historical revival of meditation movement beginning from early 20thcentury to the present will be emphasised.
Meditation Masters’ Lineages in Myanmar
Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw’s Lineage
The historical background of the revival of meditation in Myanmar maintains from early 20th century until today. The history of the revival of meditation would be incomplete if Venerable Ledi Sayadaw and Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw are not mentioned.
Venerable Mingun Sayadaw (1869-1954) founded the first meditation centre with the help of supporters in 1911 in Myo-Hla. He was the first monk to have the idea of organising group meditation courses. Gustaaf in his dissertation of ‘Traditions of Buddhist Practice in Burma’ (p-89) states that Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw was descended from Thee-Lon/Thi-Lon Sayadaw (1786-1860). He was one of the many disciples of Aletawya Sayadawgyi. In the same dissertation, again Gustaaf states that the Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw ordained under Venerable Aletawya Sayadaw in 1896, who became a meditation teacher in 1908 at the age of forty. When we trace back how Venerable Mingun Sayadaw taught meditation, we discover that it was through learning Pāḷi Texts, Commentaries and Ṭīkā thoroughly. From that assumption, Aletawya Sayadaw was the ordination lineage of Venerable Mingun Sayadaw.
Ashin Sobhaṇa alias Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw (1904-1982) is one of the greatest vipassanā meditation masters. He trained under Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw for four months in 1932. He learned the technique of contemplating of the rising and falling of the abdomen. By paying attention to the four elements within the body one can gain insight into their characteristics. This movement (of the abdomen) is the element of motion (vāyodhātu), which comes from the section “On the Contemplation of Elements” (dhātumanasikārapabba) in the Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta. The starting point is rising and falling of the abdomen. Then mindfulness in each posture of the body, and to know all kinds of feeling and thought of mind. In this way, Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw taught meditation at home and abroad. Moreover, Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw acted as the Questioner (Pucchaka) in the Sixth Buddhist Council. Currently, some of his well-known disciples are leaders of vipassanā meditation in Myanmar and abroad.
Venerable Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa Sayadaw (1921-2016) is one of the foremost vipassanā meditation masters. He was a successor of late Mahāsi Sayadaw. He taught to western teachers and students according to Venerable Mahāsi’s style of vipassana meditation, both nationally and internationally.
Venerable Kuṇḍalābhivaṃsa Sayadaw (1921-2011) was a notable disciple of Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw, who is well-versed in pariyatti knowledge. After practicing meditation under Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw, he taught meditation in Myanmar and foreign countries. He remarked that satipaṭṭhāna vipassana gives two beneficial results, one is eradicating of unwholesome states (lobha (greed), dosa (aversion), and moha (delusion)), which lead to woeful planes (apāya), and the other is strengthening the concentration that leads to the attainment of Nibbāna.
Venerable Sīlanandābhivaṃsa Sayadaw (1927-2005) was one of the competent meditation teacher. He acted as the Chief compiler of the Tipitaka Pāḷi-Burmese Dictionary and one of the distinguished editors of the Pāḷi Canon and Commentaries at the Sixth Buddhist Council from 1954 to 1956. Venerable Sayadaw is well-versed in Ṭipitaka, Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries. Due to his expertness in Buddhism, Sayadaw conducted numerous dhammaduta missions teaching either abhidhamma courses or vipassanā meditation courses in Mahāsi way in Myanmar as well as other countries.
Venerable Chanmyay Sayadaw Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa (1928- ) is also one of the distinguished living disciples of Mahāsi Sayadaw. He is also well-versed in pariyatti. Moreover, he has been teaching insight meditation since 1967 until now. He is well known even overseas needless to say in Myanmar. He accompanied Mahāsi Sayadaw until 1980; from then onwards he has been doing his own missionary work on insight meditation.
Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw Ashin Nandiya (1896-1986) is famous for pariyatti and paṭipatti sāsana. Venerable Sayadaw learnt Texts, Commentaries, and Sub-commentaries under various learned Sayadaws. Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw guided him for two years in 1937-1938 the Mahāsatipaṭṭhāna Meditation. Thus, Sayadaw is of the lineage of Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw. One of his current leading disciples is Venerable Mahāmyain Sayadaw, U Jotika (1947- ), who is good at other religions, philosophy and psychology. He has been teaching dhamma discourses at home and abroad until today.
Ledi Sayadaw’s Lineage
Venerable Ledi Sayadaw, U Ñāṇa (1846-1923) senior than Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw (1869-1954), was one of the greatest masters and contributors of pariyatti and paṭipatti in Myanmar. He introduced meditation to laity by establishing vipassanā organisations throughout Myanmar. He taught in clear and simple method both tranquility (samātha) and insight (vipassanā) meditation. His fame spread not only within Myanmar but also across the world through his well-known compilation treatises on various fields in Buddhism. Among his well-known treatises “Paramattha Dipanī” a criticism of the ‘Abhidhammatthavibhāvinī Ṭīkā’ is his magnum opus. During British colonialism, Venerable Sayadaw was the first to be awarded Aggamahāpaṇḍita and D.Lit. from Yangon University. He was one of the two founders for the revival of meditation movement in Myanmar.
Venerable Mohnyin Sayadaw, Ashin Sumana (1872-1964), was another successful successor of Venerable Ledi Sayadaw. He followed Ledi Sayadaw’s footsteps after meeting him in 1922. He delivered number of dhamma talks on vipassanā and conducted several meditation retreats on a large gathering. Moreover, he instructed that learning the Abhidhamma is a prerequisite for a meditator. His teachings come not only from the mastery of insight meditation, but also from his scholarship as a teacher of the Abhidhamma. Although Venerable Ledi Sayadaw did not teach group meditation, his lineage is teaching in groups. Following are some of his disciples who have been handing down his techniques:
Venerable Ñāṇacāgī Sayadaw (1901- unknown) was a meditation master who practised under some meditation teachers. Later in 1938 when he read a book on Anagan Saya Thetgyi meditation instruction, he followed and found a suitable technique. Thus, he is the lineage of Venerable Ledi Sayadaw.
Anagan Saya, U Po Thetgyi (1873-1946) was perhaps the most influential of Burmese lay insight meditation teacher. He approached Venerable Ledi Sayadaw in 1931. Moreover, he taught the Ledi meditation method to many monks and lay meditators including Sayagyi U Ba Khin in 1937.
Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971) was the disciple of Saya U Po Thetgyi. He practised meditation after learning ānapāna meditation from Thetgyi in 1937. He experienced good concentration (samādhi), which impressed him very much which made him resolved to complete a full course. He states, “Dhamma eradicates suffering and gives happiness. Who gives this happiness? It is not the Buddha but the Dhamma, the knowledge of anicca within the body, which gives the happiness. That is why you must meditate and be aware of anicca continually.” During his time, he taught to local and foreign meditators including his colleagues at his office.
Sayagyi U Goenka (1924-2013), among the Ledi lineage, he was well-known meditation lay-teacher. He “started to teach vipassanā meditation in Myanmar from 1969”. According to S. N. Goenka, vipassanā techniques are essentially non-sectarian in character, and have universal application”. He taught vipassanā meditation on contemplation of feeling (vedanānupassanā) through scanning from head to toe with non-judgmental. He stated that reaction on sensation is creating new kamma or generating new formations, as a result one will reborn repeatedly until no old formations are remaining.
Venerable Sunlun Sayadaw, Ashin Kovi (1878-1952) has practised Ledi Sayadaw’s method of ānāpana meditation through vipassanā from U Ba San. Later he met U Shwei Lok, a pupil of the Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, who explained him how `noting’ (‘ sati ‘) was important and produced merit. In the absence of a teacher, he mixed the two methods. Moreover, he was pleased with the technique, and practiced the contemplation of feeling (vedanā). Thus, he inherited both the meditation founders’ lineages of Venerable Ledi Sayadaw and Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw.
Venerable Webu Sayadaw, Bhadanta Kumara Kassapa (1896-1977) is popular for giving all importance to diligent practice. He is rather a practioner than a scholastic. He taught meditation from 1927 to 1977. Moreover, he travelled and preached all over Lower Burma during in his career. The method he developed is based on the teachings of the Sunlun Sayadaw, both of whom paid mutual respect.
Mogok Sayadaw’s Lineage
Venerable Mogok Sayadaw (1900-1962), a senior to Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw was another well-known master in Myanmar. He is famous for his Abhidhamma lectures around Myanmar. After teaching Dhamma discourses, i.e. Abhidhamma for twenty-five years, Venerable Sayadaw devoted himself to practice meditation. There is limited information to trace back the lineage of Mogok Sayadaw. However, Venerable Sayadaw is either directly or indirectly belong to the lineage of Venerable Ledi Sayadaw. Further, at the same time Venerable Mogok Sayadaw followed along the footsteps of Ledi Sayadaw as noted by Jack Kornfield. Venerable Sayadaw is also a well-known Buddhist scholar especially for Abhidhamma. His vipassanā instruction through Dependent Arising (paṭiccasamuppāda) is widely accepted. Mogok Sayadaw taught insight meditation on contemplation of feeling (vedanānupassana) and contemplation of mind (cittānupassana). Sayadaw greatly emphasised on Dependent Arising (paṭiccasamuppāda), which has great impact on the application of insight meditation on understanding of reality. Beside Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw, Venerable Mogok Sayadaw was also one of the Revival of Meditation masters in Myanmar.
Pa-Auk Sayadaw, Venerable Aciṇṇa (1934- ), is currently one of the popular leading meditation masters in 21st century. He learned the Pāḷi Texts, Commentaries and Sub-commentaries until his tenth year of monkhood under various learned Sayadaws in Myanmar. Pa-Auk Sayadaw practised under the guidance of Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw and Venerable Paṇḍita Sayadaw. Although Sayadaw has practiced meditation under various masters, he was not satisfied. Therefore, he practiced according to the Buddha’s teaching particularly in accordance with the classical Theravāda treatise of “Path of Purity” (Visuddhimagga). From 1989 onward Sayadaw has been conducting meditation courses at home and abroad. In his technique, at first, breathing meditation (ānāpānasatti-bhāvanā) is recommended for a beginner meditator. The technique is tranquility meditation (samāthabhāvanā) and then changes into insight meditation (vipassanā-bhāvanā) according to the “Path of Purification” (Visuddhimagga). Beside teaching meditation, Sayadaw is also an authorative Theravāda Buddhist scholar, who compiled his magnum opus, ‘Nibbānagamini’ (“The Path Which Leads to Nibbāna”) in five volumes. It is a comprehensive mediation manual for realisation of Nibbāna.
Among many of the aforementioned Buddhist meditation teachers, Venerable Ledi Sayadaw and Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw are the foremost meditation masters. They started the revival of meditation by teaching meditation lectures and conducting courses. However, their disciples became well-known especially for conducting meditation courses even for general audiences. Regarding Venerable Ledi Sayadaw’s lineage, two of his disciples namely Anagan Saya Thetgy and Mohnyin Sayadaw are prominent. For Venerable Jetavan Mingun Sayadaw, Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw and Venerable Taungpulu Sayadaw were eminent.
Meditation Techniques followed by Great Meditation Masters in Myanmar
Meditation through Ānāpānassati Meditation object
Venerable Ledi Sayadaw’s meditation guideline is at first to undertake tranquility (samātha) meditation then change to insight (vipassanā) meditation. Beside that, Sayadaw also states, “one can switch to insight meditation. That is after the attainment of absorption (jhāna) or access concentration (upacarasamādhi) or even from the beginning stage of the counting method of ānāpana meditation after calming down the mind”.
Sayagyi U Ba Khin also taught according to the guidelines of Venerable Ledi Sayadaw. Howver, among many options, he has chosen the “method after the attainment of the access concentration (upacara samādhi) to vipassanā meditation”.
Similarly, S.N. Goenka taught as Ledi Sayadaw, who seemed to be more relaxed (loosen to followed as Ledi Sayadaw) compared to his teacher. Particularly, in the case of practising tranquility (samātha) meditation to switching into insight meditation. Sayagyi U Ba Khin taught tranquility meditation up to access concentration (upacara-samādhi) before changing to insight meditation. However, Goenka’s taught the tranquility meditation to insight medition, which some might not attain in that stage due to scheduled time. According to the timetable of specific setting day (i.e., if the course is ten days then from 4th day onwards the meditator has to practice insight meditation), all meditators have to switch to insight meditation from tranquility meditation.
Venerable Mogok Sayadaw imparted his meditation method by giving “either ānāpana meditation subject or the movement of the body subject”. However, the meditator should be “with jhāna attainment not more than that”, then switch (change) to insight meditation. The meditator has the choice of contemplation of feeling (vedanānupassana) or contemplation of mind (cittānupassana).
Venerable Sun Lun Sayadaw followed both breathing meditation (ānāpānassati) and meditation subject on abdomen movement (rising and falling of abdomen).
Venerable Pa-Auk Sayadaw instructs tranquility meditation (samātha) first up to absorption (jhāna) attainment then changes to vipassanā However, Sayadaw instructs either ānāpana meditation or four elements meditation (dhātumanasikāra). Generally, Sayadaw encourages practising all forty tranquility meditation subjects. But if a meditator does not want to practise them all, it is up to the practitioner to change to vipassanā meditation. But to do so, a meditator should attain absorption (jhāna). When a meditator practises four elements meditation, he should attain at least access concentration (upacāra-samādhi).
Venerable Sīlananada Sayadaw taught breathing meditation. He might be the only disciple of Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw who offers optional meditation subjects, either the breath object (ānāpānassati-bhāvanā) or the rising and falling of abdomen. According to him it is totally depends on the suitability of the meditator.
Meditation through rising and falling of abdomen
Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw
According to Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw’s biography, Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw taught the rising and falling of the abdomen as a meditation object. Therefore, his leading disciples, like Venerable Sayadaw Paṇḍitābhivaṃsa and Venerable Janakābhivaṃasa Sayadaw, also teach in the same way.
Apart from these two mediation lineages, there are also several meditation teachers who claim different lineages. Among them, Venerable Mogok Sayadaw is well- known as Venerable Mahāsi Sayadaw. They were contemporary leading revivers of meditation. Venerable Sunlun Sayadaw and Venerable Webu Sayadaw are also popular meditation masters who contributed extensively on experiential aspect of meditation rather than scholarly works. Beside them, there were also several unknown meditation masters in Myanmar who either practised by themselves or conducted meditation courses.
Reasons for revival of meditation movement in Myanmar
Having discussed meditation methods followed by meditation masters, now we will focus on the underlying reasons for the revival of Buddhist meditation in Myanmar. The law of cause and effect explains that nothing happens without a cause. Whatever effect happens is due to its cause. Similarly, there should be relevant reasons for the revival and continuity of meditation in Myanmar until today. According to the study and analysis of data, these are the following reasons behind the meditation movement in Myanmar:
The teaching of the Buddha is pariyatti, or Tipitaka. Pariyatti in Myanmar is very important for the continuity of the meditation movement. Generally, Buddhism accepts that pariyatti is the foundation for paṭipatti. Due to this, many meditation teachers have appeared, like Venerable Ledi Sayadaw, Venerable Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, Venerable Mogok Sayadaw, Venerable Mohnyin Sayadaw, and many more who either have direct meditation lineages or not. Venerable Ledi Sayadaw and Venerable Jetavan Mingun Sayadaw did not have any direct lineage masters. But based on Pāḷi texts, Commentaries (Aṭṭhakathā) and Sub-Commentaries (Ṭīkā), they practised successfully and revealed the path. It is true that the experienced meditation master could be able to make clear a particular point related to the practical aspect of Buddhist meditation. At the beginning, few manuals on vipassanā were composed. But gradually many works on vipassanā came out such as Gambhīrāgambhīra Mahānibhuta dīpanī by the first Venerable Shwegyin Sayadaw. During the period of Venerable Ledi Sayadaw, he wrote many dīpanī on vipassanā and the paṭipatti sāsana become popular. Therefore, it is clear that pariyatti is important for the continuity of the meditation trend at present and in the future in Myanmar.
The first wave of popularity in vipassanā meditation in Myanmar occurred after the major economic depression from 1927-1930. Due to that the price of rice reduced and the peasant population in Lower Burma especially, lost their lands, which had been mortgaged to the Indian chettyar. This problem was due to British policy and as a result, many people suffered in Myanmar. During the Japanese occupation, “monks suffered forcible indignities at the hands of the soldiers, monasteries used for the stabling of horses, shrines desecrated, and pagoda treasures stolen. Such behavior was utterly offensive to most of the Burmese Buddhists, lay and ordained.” (Ling Trevor 1979, 102)
Through deep reflection of suffering it can lead to the solution of suffering. As we could see during the second world war, the brutality, arrogance, and racial pretensions of these men remained among the deepest Burmese memories of the war years. The periods of Japanese military rule lasted only three years, but to the Burmese people it was more irksome than some sixty years of British rule. In Upanisa Sutta, Saṃyutta Nikāya the Buddha states: “suffering is the supporting condition for conviction; conviction is the supporting condition for joy;………..dispassion is the supporting condition for emancipation, and emancipation is the supporting condition for the knowledge of the destruction (of the cankers)”. (S II 29) The people got more interested in practising meditation and participation increased after the Japanese Occupation. In order to confirm the fact, Gustaaf asserts the statistical dates of the establishment of mediation centre in Myanmar (Gustaaf 1990, 301) as follows:
Unifying the country
Myanmar is a multicultural country where diverse races dwell. However, through the British policy of “divide and rule”, lead to the diverse idea of a multicultural society in Burma. Myanmar got independence on January 4th, 1948 from British-India colonisation. “Armed opposition and demands for independence by various ethnic groups soon threatened the elected government.” When Burma was newly independent of British rule and was going through severe internal political and ethnic troubles, the Buddhist Council served to focus attention on the great traditions and past splendours of the Buddhist world. It promoted the Burma Hill Tracts Buddhist Mission, seeking to `bring about unity and co-operation between the peoples of the plains and the people of the Hills. The first prime minister of the Union of Burma U Nu ought to have in his mind to bring all the people into unity as a result he showed the best way to bring them into unity is through the introduction of Buddhist meditation. Since, he and the one rich man during the independent Burma strongly supported the Mahāsi Meditation Centre in Bahan. Therefore, it is presumed that the purpose of establishing meditation centres were to calm down the people’s heart. Consequently, due to the benefit of meditation the number of meditation centres gradually increased around Myanmar.
Generous support of the people and government
Myanmar people strongly support Buddhism. Since the Bagan period, Myanmar kings supported Buddhism and until today. the government is still supporting it enthusiastically. Beside the government, the contribution of Myanmar devotees is unsurpassable for the development of Buddhism in Myanmar. Therefore, generous support of the people and government is also one the reasons for the meditation movement in Myanmar
On meditation technique there is a famous maxim of the Myanmar people on meditation masters and techniques. That is slogan on famous insight meditation and their efficiency as forwarded by the people. For preaching, the Mogok method is well-known. For guided meditation, the Mahāsi method is the best. This may true for some but not for others. However, it is believed that according to meditators’ experiences, this slogan is used in Myanmar society.
The revival of Buddhist meditation from early 20th century became popular not only to the silent meditators but also among the people in Myanmar in general. In Buddhism nothing conditions without anything. Hence, the revival of meditation movement has many conditions that eventually made interest to the people. Thus, it has been flourishing untill today.
The present meditation traditions claim that their methods were handed down from different teachers. However, from a historical point of view, there are only two main meditation traditions, namely Ledi Sayadaw and Mingun Jetawan Sayadaw. Even though they were handed down from the same lineage, they have changed in their own ways by later disciples among the living meditation traditions until today. Another interesting point it comes to the conclusion is that there are no records on popular Buddhist meditation practices in Myanmar before early 20th century.