Biographies: Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw
The Burmese master Mahasi Sayadaw (Bhadanta Sobhana Mahathera, 1904-1982) was a major figure in the recent revival and worldwide promotion, especially throughout the Theravada Buddhist nations of Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Sri Lanka, of the Buddha’s original method of anapanasati (‘mindfulness of breath’) meditation. Mahasi Sayadaw was one of the meditation teachers to have a significant influence on Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche.
Mahasi Sayadaw was born in the year 1904 at Seikkhun, a village in Upper Burma. His parents were U Kan Taw and Daw Oke. At the age of six he was sent to receive his early monastic education under U Adicca, the senior monk of Pyinmana Monastery in Seikkhun.
Six years later, aged 12, he was initiated into the Theravada monastic Order as a novice monk (samanera) under the same teacher and given the name of Sobhana. He was an excellent student and made remarkably rapid progress in scriptural studies.
Later he continued his studies under Sayadaw U Parama of Thugyi-kyaung Monastery. At the age of nineteen he had to decide whether to continue in the Monastic Order and devote his life to the Spiritual Path, or return to lay life. He decided on the former. Consequently he was ordained as a Bhikkhu on the 26th of November 1923 under Sumedha Sayadaw Ashin Nimmala. By the age of 22 he fully graduated in Pali Studies, passing all three grades of examination.
Mahasi Sayadaw’s life (he was, at this point, still known as Bhikkhu Sobhana) changed after he was invited to the Taik-kyaung Monastery in Taungwainggale to help in a program for teaching children there. It was while at Taik-kyaung Monastery that he first began to make an independent study of the Mahasatipatthana-sutta, the scripture in which the Buddha outlines the anapanasati-method of meditation.
Meditation at this time in Burma and other Theravada countries had for quite some time been superceded either by fastidious adherence to the Vinaya (‘monastic rule’) or else by scholastic study of philosophy and metaphysics (‘abhidhamma’). The aim of the former was ‘purity of life,’ the aim of the latter, ‘knowledge.’ Neither aim promised enlightenment in one’s present lifetime. Therefore the regeneration of a genuine meditation tradition in Theravada Buddhism was at that time of paramount importance.
The Sayadaw’s personal but unusual interest in meditation took him to neighboring Thaton, where a rare anapanasati meditation-master named Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw was teaching. Under this enlightened teacher, the Mahasi Sayadaw began to take up intensive meditation practice. We are told that within four months he had attained sufficient realization to receive permission to teach Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw’s method to three other disciples at Seikkhun, while on a visit there in 1938.
Although immersed more and more in meditation practice, the Sayadaw did not give up his scholastic studies, for which he remains duly famous. After returning from Thaton to the Taik-kyaung Monastery in Taungwainggale (owing to the grave illness and subsequent death of the monastery’s aged abbot, Taik-kyaung Sayadaw), in June of 1941 the Mahasi Sayadaw sat for and passed with distinction the Government-held Dhammacariya examination.
On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Burma, Mahasi Sayadaw returned to his native Seikkhun. He welcomed this as an opportunity for him to devote himself wholeheartedly to the practice of satipatthana meditation. The Mahasi Monastery at Seikkhun (whence he became known as Mahasi Sayadaw) fortunately remained untouched by the brutal fighting of the Second World War. It was during this period that the Sayadaw’s disciples prevailed upon him to write his famous ‘Manual of Mindfulness and Insight Meditation (Satipatthana Vipassana)’, an authoritative explanation of meditation technique based on the Mahasatipatthana-sutta.
It was not long before Mahasi Sayadaw’s reputation as a skilled meditation teacher spread throughout the entire Shwebo-Sagaing region. He thus came to the attention of a devout and wealthy Buddhist named U Thwin. U Thwin had for some time wished to promote the Dharma by setting up a genuine ‘Practice Centre’ for meditation in the capital city of Rangoon, and he had, therefore, been looking for a qualified teacher of meditation to guide such a centre. After listening to a discourse on anapanasati meditation given by the Sayadaw, sometime early in March of 1947, and observing the latter’s serene and noble demeanour, U Thwin decided to patronize the work of the Sayadaw. This resulted in the happy circumstances whereby Mahasi Sayadaw’s profound understanding of the path of meditation would eventually be communicated to the world at large.
On the 13th of November 1947, the Buddhasasana Nuggaha Association was founded in Rangoon with U Thwin acting as its first President. U Thwin donated a plot of land on Hermitage Road, in Rangoon, measuring about five acres or so, for the erection of the first buildings for the proposed Meditation Practice Centre.
On 4th December 1949 Mahasi Sayadaw personally instructed the first group of twenty-five meditators in anapanasati meditation. The initial group proved extremely successful, and soon more and more people were requesting instruction.
As the meditators grew in number, it became too demanding for Mahasi Sayadaw to give the introductory talks to all of the new meditators. Consequently he began training suitable students to act as assistant meditation-teachers on his behalf. Within a few years of the establishment of the original Practice Centre in Rangoon, branch meditation centres began to sprout up throughout Burma, with Mahasi-trained assistant teachers guiding the students.
Eventually Mahasi Sayadaw’s practice centres spread to the neighboring countries of Thailand and Sri Lanka, Cambodia and India. According to a 1972 census, the total number of individuals studying and practicing meditation at these various far-flung Practice Centres was to exceed seven hundred thousand.
Soon after attaining independence, the Government of Burma began plans to hold the ‘Sixth Buddhist Council’ of the Theravada Order in Burma, with four other Buddhist countries (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) participating. For this purpose the Government dispatched a mission to Thailand and Cambodia, composed of Nyaungyan Sayadaw, Mahasi Sayadaw and two laymen. The mission discussed the plan with the spiritual leaders of the Buddhist Sangha of those two countries.
At the historic Sixth Buddhist Council, inaugurated on 17th May 1954, Mahasi Sayadaw played an eminent role. A unique feature of this Council was the editing of the commentaries (Atthakatha) and sub-commentaries (tikas), as well as the canonical texts.
A significant result of the Sixth Buddhist Council was the revival of interest in Theravada Buddhism amongst many Mahayana Buddhists. In 1955, while the Council was in progress, twelve Japanese monks and a Japanese laywoman arrived in Burma to study Theravada Buddhism. The monks were given Theravada ordination, while the laywoman received the vows of a Buddhist nun. As a result of that, in July 1957, at the instance of the Buddhist Association of Moji, the Buddha-sasana Council of Burma sent an official Theravada Buddhist mission to Japan. Mahasi Sayadaw was one of the leading representatives of the Burmese Sangha in that mission.
At the request of the Government of Sri Lanka, a special mission headed by Sayadaw U Sujata, an eminent deputy of Mahasi Sayadaw, went to Sri Lanka in 1955 to promote anapanasati meditation. The mission stayed in Sri Lanka for over a year, setting up twelve permanent and seventeen temporary Practice Centres. This was followed up by a larger mission led by Mahasi Sayadaw, which left Burma for Sri Lanka on 6th January 1959, and traveled via India.
The Mahasi mission arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 29th January 1959. On 1st February, at the opening ceremony of the Practice Centre named ‘Bhavana Majjhathana’, the Sayadaw delivered an address in Pali in which he emphasized the importance of the meditation tradition in the practice of Buddhism. Traveling around the island, Mahasi Sayadaw gave many discourses on anapanasati meditation. He also made acts of devotion at many famous sites of Buddhist pilgrimage, such as Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy. This historic visit of the Burmese mission under the inspiring leadership of Mahasi Sayadaw was of great benefit to the meditation movement in Sri Lanka.
As early as 1952, at the request of the Thai Minister for Buddhist Affairs, Mahasi Sayadaw sent U Asabha and U Indavamsa to Thailand for the promotion of satipatthana meditation. By 1960, many meditation centres were established and the number of Mahasi meditators exceeded a hundred thousand in Thailand alone.
It was characteristic of the Venerable Sayadaw’s single-minded devotion to the cause of the Dharma that, regardless of his advancing age and feeble health, he undertook three more missions to the West (Britain, Europe and America) and to India and Nepal between the years 1979, 1980 and 1981.
Mahasi Sayadaw's meditation method found a lot of new followers in the Kingdom of Nepal. The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw's mission to Nepal and India started on 24th February 1981. Along with the Sayadaw, there was Kammatthanacariya U Samvara, Mya Thein Tan Sayadaw U Sobhana, the Nepalese Sayadaw U Nanaponika, Vice-President U Ba Galai, Mangala U Aung Myint and Kappiya U Mya Thein.
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw stopped in Kathmandu for three days to make devotion at several sacred sites. The Sayadaw was greeted in Kathmandu and at Boudhanath by many followers. In a field in Patama, fifteen thousand people gathered to hear Mahasi Sayadaw's discourse. After giving practical instructions on satipatthana meditation, he led a short meditation session in silence, which had a profound effect on the entire gathering.
The venerable Mahasi Sayadaw passed away on the 14th of August 1982 shortly after returning from another tour of India and Thailand. His legacy has since been continued by his followers, each of whom have been renowned practitioners of his anapanasati method of meditation. Among the most important of these we may name: Sayadaw U Pandita, Sayadaw U Lakkhana, Sayadaw U Janaka and Sayadaw U Silananda.
The Buddha-Sasana Nuggaha Association (founded in 1947) in Burma (now Myanmar) is non-profit in character. It operates the Mahasi Meditation Center with voluntary donations (dana) from devout Buddhists throughout the world. It is located on approximately twenty acres of quiet pleasant garden land at Sasana Yeiktha (Hermitage) Road, Bahan Township of Rangoon (now Yangon), off of Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. There are over one hundred buildings on the grounds for housing Meditation Teachers and Yogis, both Bhikkhus and laity, men as well as women.
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