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Buddhadharma : Winter 2013
32 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY WINTER 2 0 1 3 scholastic study (pariyatti in Pali), particularly on the difficult philosophical texts known as the Abhidhamma. Such texts describe reality from an “ultimate” (paramattha) perspective. In this system, all things are analyzed in terms of the continual arising and passing away of moments of mind and matter that cause the deluded per- son to see the conventional world as solid and real. It is, then, a deconstructive system that seeks to break down reality into its insubstantial and ever-changing parts, revealing, finally, the imper- manent, essenceless, and suffering-infused nature of all beings’ experiences. Meditation was present in the curriculum but only as another topic of study, often pre- sented in relation to Abhidhamma philosophy. Ledi Sayadaw saw how his teachers used such theoretical thinking about meditation—but not its practice—as a way to understand the world in Abhidhamma terms. Few monks meditated, and those who did typically lived far from the bustle of the royal capital. The lack of emphasis on meditation in the monasteries sometimes sur- prises people, especially when it comes to Burma, where insight meditation is so prominent it has, at times, seemed to be the country’s number one export. Ledi Sayadaw’s time ensconced in the rarefied scholastic atmosphere of a royally supported monastery in Mandalay would not last. His life was turned upside down with the collapse of law and order that accompanied the reign of the next and last Burmese king, Thibaw (1878–1885). During Thibaw’s rule, lawlessness increased and society became destabilized. A huge fire broke out in the capital in 1883, razing Thanjaun along with the entire northern quarter of the city. Ledi Sayadaw lost his home, and his teachers and stu- dents were scattered. He also lost the extensive notes to a book he’d been working on for years. Suddenly unencumbered by position or duty and perhaps shocked by such an event, he returned to his family village. But his return was the monks did their morning ablutions. But he quickly came to the attention of the abbot as a bright and ambitious young monk. It is said he got noticed because he sang out in a loud voice during every recitation and sought out extra teachings on the dharma. It was not long before he was studying under the abbot and other high- placed officials—and sleeping in a better (and drier) place. At Thanjaun, the route to recognition was not meditation but scholarly ability. How well do you know the canonical texts? The commen- taries? The sub-commentaries? The sub-sub- commentaries? These were the questions that mattered. A promising scholar, Ledi Sayadaw came to prominence and was soon appointed a student teacher, and later a full teacher. During that time he did not have any achievements in meditation. In fact, there is no record that he seriously medi- tated at all during his years in Mandalay, from 1867 to 1883. Instead, Ledi Sayadaw focused on In the path proposed by Ledi Sayadaw, the layperson became a sort of lineage holder. Whether intentionally or not, this highly democratic move has had profound implications for Buddhism in the modern age. Burmese people greet the arrival of British forces on the shores of Mandalay, 1885 PHOTOBYPHILIPADOLFEKLIER©THEBRITISHLIBRARYPHOTOGRAPHERUNKNOWN