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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
M ore than a century ago, as the British were taking over his country, a Bur- mese monk named Ledi Sayadaw grew concerned about the impending threat to the nation’s precious and fragile Buddhist tra- dition. He believed the Burmese people were not doing enough to protect Buddhism in the face of colonialism, and that the discipline of monks, who were charged with upholding the teachings, was weakening. Ledi Sayadaw resolved to take action. And in doing so, he sparked a revolution no one could have anticipated: the widespread practice of vipassana, or insight meditation. Although little known in the West, Ledi Say- adaw was responsible for making the practice of insight meditation, based on the mindful observation of one’s experience, accessible to all kinds of people—not just monks or nuns, but fishermen, hunters, and farmers. As a result of his influence, today many more people have been introduced to insight meditation: business executives, software developers, teachers, and schoolchildren, to name a few. Such practice is now in deep dialogue with nearly all Buddhist traditions—including those of Tibet, China, and Japan—and it forms an integral part of research, experimentation, and reflection in the fields of psychology, neurology, and Western philosophy. The boy who would become Ledi Sayadaw was born in 1846 in a jungle village some eighty miles from Mandalay, which at that time was still the capital of an independent kingdom that covered the upper half of today’s modern Myan- mar (the name the present government uses for Burma). British territory and influence, however, surrounded the realm. The king of Burma, Min- don (1853–1878), and his subjects were well aware of their precarious position. Ledi Sayadaw certainly was, too, and he shared with other Bur- mese a sense that time was not on their side. Indeed, from the Burmese Buddhist perspective the flow of history rarely is, because it is com- monly understood by Theravadan Buddhists that Buddhism will inevitably disappear from this world, not to reappear for “incalculable eons.” Now, in the face of colonialism, they could see clearly how that end might come. Ledi Sayadaw meant to make the most of his time—“To spin cotton,” as the Burmese put it, “while the moon is bright.” Alone and just twenty years old, he set out from his village in order to try and win a place in Mandalay at Thanjaun, one of the most prestigious monas- teries in the land. Any monk wishing to be admit- ted as a resident there had to sit at its entrance and perfectly recite, from memory, the rules of training for the ordained. For an unknown monk from a family of farmers, seeking admission was a bold move. Monks at Thanjaun were some of the most powerful in Burma. The abbot was one of the king’s closest advisors, and he and others in the monastery sat on the royal advisory coun- cil. To be at Thanjaun was to stand at the heart not just of religious power but very near the apex of political power as well. Ledi Sayadaw made it in. At first, he had to sleep on a rough mat in front of a water pot, getting out of the way every morning when ERIK BRAUN is the author of The Birth of Insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw, published by University of Chicago Press, November 2013. He teaches religious studies at the University of Oklahoma. NICOLEHAGERPHOTOGRAPHY Determined to save Buddhism in Burma during colonial rule, Ledi Sayadaw popularized the teachings of the Abhidharma and introduced thousands of laypeople to the practice of insight meditation. As Erik Braun tells us, he set in motion a revolution in Buddhist practice still being felt around the globe. (Opposite) Ledi Sayadaw, early 1900s the Insight Revolution WINTER 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 31