Brahmavihara Dhamma

Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw
Mahasi Sayadaw
Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma

A Biographical Sketch

The late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw was born in the year 1904 at Seikkhun, a large, prosperous and charming village lying about seven miles to the west of the historic Shwebo town in Upper Burma. His parents, peasant proprietors by occupation, were U Kan Taw and Daw Oke. At the age of six he was sent to receive his early monastic eduction under U Adicca, presiding monk of Pyinmana Monastery at Seikkhun. Six years later, he was initiated into the monastic Order as a novice (samanera) under the same teacher and given the name of Shin Sobhana (which means Auspicious). The name befitted his courageous features and his dignified behaviour. He was a bright pupil, making remarkably quick progress in his scriptural studies. When U Adicca left the Order, Shin Sobhana continued his studies under Sayadaw U Parama of Thugyi-kyaung Monastery, Ingyintaw-taik. At the age of nineteen he had to decide whether to continue in the Order and devote the rest of his life to the service of the Buddha Sasana or to return to lay life. Shin Sobhana knew where his heart lay and unhesitatingly chose the first course. He was ordained as a Bhikkhu on the 26th of November 1923, Sumedha Sayadaw Ashin Nimmala acting as his preceptor. Within four years Ven. Sobhana passed all three grades of the Pali scriptural examinations conducted by the Government.

Ven. Sobhana next went to the city of Mandalay, noted for its pre-eminence in Buddhist learning, to pursue advanced study of the scriptures under Sayadaws well-known for their learning. His stay at Khinmakan-west Monastery for this purpose was, however, cut short after little more than a year when he was called to Moulmein. The head of the Taik-kyaung monastery in Taungwainggale (who came from the same village as Ven. Sobhana) wanted him to assist with the teaching of his pupils. While teaching at Taungwainggale, Ven. Sobhana went on with his own studies of the scriptures, being especially interested in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. His deepening interest in the satipatthana method of vipassana meditation took him next to neighbouring Thaton where the well-known Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw was teaching it. Under the Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw’s instruction, Ven. Sobhana took up intensive practice of vipassana meditation. Within four months he had such good results that he could teach it properly to his first three disciples at Seikkhun while he was on a visit there in 1938. After his return from Thaton to Taungwainggale (owing to the grave illness and subsequent death of the aged Taik-kyaung Sayadaw) to resume his teaching work and to take charge of the monastery, Ven. Sobhana sat for and passed with distinction the Government-held Dhammacariya (Teacher of the Dhamma) examination in June 1941.

On the eve of the Japanese invasion of Burma, Ven. Sobhana had to leave Taungwainggale and return to his native Seikkhun. This was a welcome opportunity for him to devote himself wholeheartedly to his own practice of satipatthana vipassana meditation and to teaching it to a growing number of disciples. The Mahasi Monastery at Seikkhun (whence he became known as Mahasi Sayadaw) fortunately remained free from the horror and disruption of war. During this period the Sayadaw’s disciples prevailed upon him to write the ‘Manual of Vipassana Meditation’, an authoritative and comprehensive work expounding both the doctrinal and practical aspects of satipatthana meditation.

It was not long before the Mahasi Sayadaw’s reputation as a skilled meditation teacher had spread throughout the Shwebo-Sagaing region and came to the attention of a devout and wealthy Buddhist, Sir U Thwin. U Thwin wanted to promote the Buddha Sasana by setting up a meditation centre directed by a teacher of proven virtue and ability. After listening to a discourse on vipassana given by the Sayadaw and observing his serene and noble demeanour, Sir U Thwin had no difficulty in deciding that the Mahasi Sayadaw was the meditation teacher he had been looking for.

On the 13th of November 1947, the Buddhasasana Nuggaha Association was founded at Rangoon with Sir U Thwin as its first President, and with scriptural learning and the practice of the Dhamma as its object. Sir U Thwin donated to the Association a plot of land in Hermitage Road, Rangoon, measuring over five acres, for the erection of the proposed meditation centre. In 1978, the Centre occupied an area of 19.6 acres, on which a vast complex of buildings and other structures had been built. Sir U Thwin told the Association that he had found a reliable meditation teacher and proposed that the then Prime Minister of Burma invite Mahasi Sayadaw to the Centre.

After the Second World War, the Sayadaw alternated his residence between his native Seikkhun and Taungwainggale in Moulmein. Meanwhile, Burma had regained independence on 4th January 1948. In May 1949, during one of his sojourns at Seikkhun, the Sayadaw completed a new nissaya translation of the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. This work excels the average nissaya translation of this Sutta, which is very important for those who wish to practise vipassana meditation but need guidance.

In November of that year, on the personal invitation of the then Prime Minister, U Nu, Mahasi Sayadaw came down from Shwebo and Sagaing to the Sasana Yeiktha (Meditation Centre) at Rangoon, accompanied by two senior Sayadaws. Thus began Mahasi Sayadaw’s guardianship of the Sasana Yeiktha at Rangoon. On 4th December 1949 Mahasi Sayadaw personally instructed the very first batch of twenty-five meditators in the practice of vipassana. As the meditators grew in numbers, it became too demanding for the Sayadaw to give the entire initiation talk to all the meditators. From July 1951 the tape-recorded talk was played for each new batch of meditators with a brief introduction by the Sayadaw. Within a few years of the establishment of the Sasana Yeiktha at Rangoon, similar meditation centres were inaugurated in many parts of the country with Mahasi-trained members of the Sangha as meditation teachers. These centres were not confined to Burma alone, but extended to neighbouring Theravada countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka. There were also a few centres in Cambodia and India. According to a 1972 census, the total number of meditators trained at all these centres (both in Burma and abroad) had exceeded seven hundred thousand. In recognition of his distinguished scholarship and spiritual attainments, Mahasi Sayadaw was honoured in 1952 by the then Prime Minister of the Union of Burma with the prestigious title of Aggamahapandita (the Exalted Wise One).

Soon after attaining Independence, the Government of Burma began plans to hold a Sixth Buddhist Council (Sangayana) in Burma, with four other Theravada 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 Primates of the Buddhist Sangha of those two countries.

At the historic Sixth Buddhist Council, which was inaugurated with every pomp and ceremony on 17th May 1954, Mahasi Sayadaw played an eminent role, undertaking the exacting and onerous tasks of Osana (Final Editor) and Pucchaka (Questioner). A unique feature of this Council was the editing of the commentaries (Atthakatha) and sub-commentaries (tikas), as well as the canonical texts. In the editing of this commentarial literature, Mahasi Sayadaw was responsible for making a critical analysis, sound interpretation and skilful reconciliation of several crucial and divergent passages.

A significant result of the Sixth Buddhist Council was the revival of interest in Theravada Buddhism among 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 initiated into the Theravada Buddhist Sangha as novices while the laywoman was made a Buddhist nun. Then, in July 1957, at the instance of the Buddhist Association of Moji, the Buddha Sasana Council of Burma sent a Theravada Buddhist mission to Japan. Mahasi Sayadaw was one of the leading representatives of the Burmese Sangha in that mission.

Also in 1957, Mahasi Sayadaw undertook the task of writing an introduction in Pali to the Visuddhimagga Atthakatha, to refute certain mis-statements about its famous author, Ven. Buddhaghosa. The Sayadaw completed this difficult task in 1960, his work bearing every mark of distinctive learning and depth of understanding. By then the Sayadaw had also completed two volumes (out of four) of his Burmese translation of this famous commentary and classic work on Buddhist meditation.

At the request of the Government of Sri Lanka, a special mission headed by Sayadaw U Sujata, an eminent deputy of Mahasi Sayadaw, went there in July 1955 to promote satipatthana meditation. The mission stayed in Sri Lanka for over a year doing admirable work, setting up twelve permanent and seventeen temporary meditation centres. Following the completion of a meditation centre on a site granted by the Sri Lankan Government, a larger mission led by Mahasi Sayadaw left Burma for Sri Lanka on 6th January 1959, via India. The mission was in India for about three weeks, during which its members visited several holy places associated with the life and work of Lord Buddha. They also gave religious talks on suitable occasions and had interviews with Prime Minister Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, President of India Dr. Rajendra Prasad and vice-president Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. A notable feature of the visit was the warm welcome received from members of the depressed classes, who had embraced Buddhism under the guidance of their late leader Dr. Ambedkar.

The mission flew from Madras to Sri Lanka on 29th January 1959 and arrived at Colombo on the same day. On Sunday 1st February, at the opening ceremony of the meditation centre named ‘Bhavana Majjhathana’, Mahasi Sayadaw delivered an address in Pali after Prime Minister Bandaranayake and some others had spoken. The members of the mission next went on an extended tour of the island, visiting several meditation centres where Mahasi Sayadaw gave discourses on vipassana meditation. They also worshipped at famous sites of Buddhist pilgrimage like Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura and Kandy. This historic visit of the Burmese mission under the inspiring leadership of Mahasi Sayadaw was symbolic of the ancient and close ties of friendship between these two Theravada Buddhist countries. Its benefit to the Buddhist movement in Sri Lanka was a revival of interest in meditation, which seemed to have declined.

In February 1954, a visitor to the Sasana Yeiktha might have noticed a young Chinese man practising vipassana meditation. The meditator in question was a Buddhist teacher from Indonesia by the name of Bung An who had become interested in vipassana meditation. Under the guidance of Mahasi Sayadaw and Sayadaw U Ñanuttara, Mr Bung An made such excellent progress that in little more than a month Mahasi Sayadaw gave him a detailed talk on the progress of insight. Later he was ordained a bhikkhu and named Ven. Jinarakkhita, with Mahasi Sayadaw as his preceptor. After he returned as a Buddhist monk to Indonesia, the Buddha Sasana Council received a request to send a Burmese Buddhist monk to promote missionary work in Indonesia. It was decided that Mahasi Sayadaw, as the preceptor and mentor of Ashin Jinarakkhita, should go. With thirteen other Theravada monks, Mahasi Sayadaw undertook such primary missionary activities as consecrating simas (ordination boundaries), ordaining bhikkhus, initiating novices and giving discourses, particularly talks on vipassana meditation.

Considering these fruitful activities in promoting Buddhism in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, we might describe Mahasi Sayadaw’s missions to these countries as ‘Dhamma-vijaya’ (victory of the Dhamma) journeys.

As early as 1952, at the request of the Thai Minister for Sangha Affairs, Mahasi Sayadaw had sent Sayadaws U Asabha and U Indavamsa to Thailand for the promotion of satipatthana vipassana. Thanks to their efforts, Mahasi Sayadaw’s method gained wide acceptance in Thailand. By 1960, many meditation centres had been established and the number of Mahasi meditators exceeded a hundred thousand.

It was characteristic of the Venerable Sayadaw’s disinterested and single-minded devotion to the cause of the Buddha Sasana 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 in the three years (1979, 1980 and 1981) preceding his death.

Abhidhajamaharatthaguru Masoeyein Sayadaw, who presided over the Sanghanayaka Executive Board at the Sixth Buddhist Council, urged Mahasi Sayadaw to teach two commentaries to the Sangha at Sasana Yeiktha. Ven. Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga Atthakatha and Ven. Dhammapala’s Visuddhimagga Mahatika deal primarily with Buddhist meditation theory and practice, though they also offer useful explanations of important doctrinal points, so they are vital for prospective meditation teachers. Mahasi Sayadaw began teaching these two works on 2nd February 1961, for one and a half or two hours daily. Based on the lecture notes taken by his pupils, the Sayadaw started writing a nissaya translation of the Visuddhimagga Mahatika, completing it on 4th February 1966. This nissaya was an exceptional achievement. The section on the different views held by other religions (samayantara) was most exacting since the Sayadaw had to familiarise himself with ancient Hindu philosophy and terminology by studying all available references, including works in Sanskrit and English.

Up till now Mahasi Sayadaw has to his credit 67 volumes of Burmese Buddhist literature. Space does not permit us to list them all here, but a complete up-to-date list of them is appended to the Sayadaw’s latest publication, namely, ‘A Discourse on Sakkapanha Sutta’ (published in October 1978).

At one time, Mahasi Sayadaw was severely criticised in certain quarters for his advocacy of the allegedly unorthodox method of noting the rising and falling of the abdomen in vipassana meditation. It was mistakenly assumed that this method was an innovation of the Sayadaw’s, whereas the truth is that it had been approved several years before Mahasi Sayadaw adopted it, by no less an authority than the mula (original) Mingun Jetavan Sayadaw, and that it is in no way contrary to the Buddha’s teaching on the subject. The reason for Mahasi Sayadaw’s preference for this method is that the average meditator finds it easier to note this manifestation of the element of motion (vayodhatu). It is not, however, imposed on all who come to practise at any of the Mahasi meditation centres. One may, if one likes, practise anapanasati. Mahasi Sayadaw himself refrained from joining issue with his critics on this point, but two learned Sayadaws brought out a book each in defence of the Sayadaw’s method, thus enabling those who are interested in the controversy to judge for themselves.

This controversy arose in Sri Lanka where some members of the Sangha, inexperienced and unknowledgeable in practical meditation, publicly assailed Mahasi Sayadaw’s method in newspapers and journals. Since this criticism was voiced in the English language with world-wide coverage, silence could no longer be maintained and so Sayadaw U Ñanuttara of Kaba-aye (World Peace Pagoda campus) forcefully responded to the criticisms in the pages of the Sri Lankan Buddhist periodical ‘World Buddhism’.

Mahasi Sayadaw’s international reputation has attracted numerous visitors and meditators from abroad, some seeking enlightenment for their religious problems and others intent on practising meditation under the Sayadaw’s personal guidance. Among the first meditators from abroad was former British Rear-Admiral E.H. Shattock who came on leave from Singapore and practised meditation at the Sasana Yeiktha in 1952. On his return to England he published a book entitled ‘An Experiment in Mindfulness’ in which he related his experiences in generally appreciative terms. Another foreigner was Mr. Robert Duvo, a French-born American from California. He came and practised meditation at the Centre first as a lay meditator and later as a bhikkhu. He subsequently published a book in France about his experiences and the satipatthana vipassana method. Particular mention should be made of Anagarika Shri Munindra of Buddha Gaya in India, who became a close disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw, spending several years with the Sayadaw learning the Buddhist scriptures and practising vipassana. Afterwards he directed an international meditation centre at Buddha Gaya where many people from the West came to practise meditation. Among these meditators was a young American, Joseph Goldstein, who has written a perceptive book on insight meditation titled ‘The Experience of Insight: A Natural Unfolding’.

Some of the Sayadaw’s works have been published abroad, such as ‘The Satipatthana Vipassana Meditation’ and ‘Practical Insight Meditation’ by the Unity Press, San Francisco, California, USA, and ‘The Progress of Insight’ by the Buddhist Publication Society, Kandy, Sri Lanka. Selfless and able assistance was rendered by U Pe Thin (now deceased) and Myanaung U Tin in the Sayadaw’s dealings with his visitors and meditators from abroad and in the translation into English of some of Sayadaw’s discourses on vipassana meditation. Both of them were accomplished meditators.

The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw is profoundly revered by countless grateful disciples in Burma and abroad. Although it was the earnest wish of his devoted disciples that the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw might live for several more years and continue showering the blessings of the Buddhadhamma on all those in search freedom and deliverance, the inexorable law of impermanence terminated, with tragic suddenness, his selfless and dedicated life on the 14th of August 1982. Like a true son of the Buddha, he lived valiantly, spreading the word of the Master throughout the world and helped many thousands and tens of thousands onto the Path of Enlightenment and Deliverance.

U Nyi Nyi (Mahasi Disciple and Meditator)

Member of the Executive Committee Yangon, Myanmar Buddhasasana Nuggaha Association 18th October 1978