Who was the first Vipassana Meditation Teacher?
Ven Ledi Sayadaw born in 1846 in Saing Pyin village, Dipeyin township in the Shwebo district (Monywa) northern Burma (now known as Myanmar), he was the first vipassana meditation teacher and was the foremost Burmese Buddhist monks of his age. There is a lot to tell and read about Ven Ledi Sayadaw so its best you grab a cup of tea before we embark on this journey.
Some of the intriguing facts and amazing stories about Ven Ledi Sayadaw that you will read are
=> At the young age of 18 he mastered the Vedas and that too in only 8 months
=> He was not only praised by common people and monks for his knowledge of Tipiṭaka, Abhidhamma and oral recitation but he was also honoured by the King who awarded him the title of Pathama Sācha (First Great Lecturer)
=> He was known for his absolute control of self and ego, Ledi had spent 16 years in Sankyaung Taik in Mandalay where he buried his life in the service of the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. He always cleaned the whole monastery and compound, washed all the toilets in the morning and daily fetched drinking water, bathing water and toilet water for all the monks and he did this for 16 years!!!
=> In order to free the Ledi jungle of various ogres, ghosts, giants, spirits who were threatening and frightening the people Sayadaw meditated alone in the forest and developed deep Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness meditation) toward them. They immediately became the Sayadaw’s friends and attendants and never frightened the people again. This bound the creatures to him with a spirit of love and kindness and also attracted the locals
=> At the age of 40 Sayadew founded “Ledi Monastry” in Monywa and began practicing and teaching intensive meditation. From this monastery he took the name Ledi Sayadaw, which refers to "respected teacher of the Ledi forest”
=> Ledi is know to have levitated 3 feet off the ground while meditating a sight witnessed by Kappiya (his attendant) Maung Sa Mon
=> Ledi once also calmed a herd of wild elephants by meditating and sending mettā. This incident was similar to when the Buddha with his mettā tamed the rampaging elephant which Devadatta had sent to kill him
=> In 1911 British government of India, which also ruled Burma, awarded him the title of Agga Maha-pandita (foremost great scholar)
Famous Quote by Ven Ledi Sayadaw:
“Ignorance is like an eclipse. When the sun is eclipsed there is no sunlight. When the moon is eclipsed there is no moonlight. Likewise, when the mind is shrouded by ignorance, no knowledge can arise.”
Let’s now begin going deeper into the above mentioned facts and stories
Parents & Given Name
Ledi Sayadaw’s parents' names were U Tun Tha and Daw Kyon. Ledi’s Childhood name was Maung Tet Khaung (Maung the Burmese title for boys, Tet means "climbing upward" and Khaung refers to "roof" or "summit"). Explanation of his name:
Ledi = Leti
The actual term is leti but it is pronounced as ledi in Burmese. Ledi is the name by which the Saydaw, his monastery and his region is known outside Myanmar.
Saydaw = Sayataw = Saya+Taw
Saya = Teacher
Taw = great, respectable
Ledi’s Early Days
At the age of 8 Sayadaw attended the traditional monastery of “Sayadaw U Nanda” his first teachers who lived in ‘Kyaug Ma Taik’ the principle monastery of Saing Pyin Ki village where monks who taught children to read and write in Burmese as well as reciting many Pali texts: the mettā Sutta, Mangala Sutta, Jataka stories, and so on.
At the age of 15 he was ordained as samanera (novice) and took the name Nyanadhaja (the banner of knowledge) given by his teacher “Sayadaw U Nanda''. Nyanadhaja’s monastic education included various texts from the Pali canon with a specialty in Abhidhammattha-sangah, Pali grammar and a commentary. During his days as a samanera (novice), in the middle part of the 19th century he joined the bhikkhus (monks) and other samaneras in recitation and mastered the Abhidhamma texts.
Later at the age of 18 Nyanadhaja decided to return to his life as a layman. He had become dissatisfied with his education, feeling it restricted to the Tipitaka’s. Later after about six months his first teacher “Sayadaw U Nanda'' and another influential teacher, “Myinhtin Sayadaw”, advised him to return to the monastic life; but he refused. Myinhtin Sayadaw suggested that he should at least continue with his education and then Sayadaw agreed as he was bright and eager to learn. Then under the guidance of “Gandhama Sayadaw” (a veda expert in Thwet village), at the age 18 he mastered the Vedas in 8 months and continued his study of the Tipitaka.
In 1866 at the young age of 20, Nyanadhaja was ordained as Upasampada (the higher ordination) in the Sima (ordination hall) named Sāsana Vuddhi Sāsana Vepulla Sāsana Sobhini of Myin Tin Monastery, Saing Pyin Kyi Village, to become a bhikkhu under his old teacher “Sayadaw U Nanda”.
At the age of 20 (1866) U Nyanadhaja left his preceptor and set out from his village to win a place in Mangala Sankyaung Taik in the northern part of the city Mandalay at Thanjaun, one of the most prestigious monasteries in the land. King Mindon established over 400 monasteries surrounding his capital in Mandalay with over 2,000 monks living in each monastery. Monks at Thanjaun were some of the most powerful in Burma and seeking admission there was difficult for an unknown monk. Both religious and political power were needed to stay in the Thanjaun. U Nyanadhaja made it very early. He quickly came to the attention of the abbot; one of the king’s (Mindon) closest advisors, as a bright and ambitious young monk became a leader in chanting ceremonies. According to the rules of Sankyaung Taik every student-monk (bhikkhu) must learn and recite the Patimokkha (227 rules of conduct) every evening at the time of homage to the Buddha. It is said that he got noticed because he sang out in a loud voice and sought out extra teachings on the dharma. During this period he learned all of the Piṭakas including the Atthakatha and Tikas (Commentaries and Sub- commentaries) completely and expertly.
In this great Sangha reciting assembly, held in the Golden Royal Palace, U Nyānadhaja recited orally, without any aides, the Kathā vatthu Abhidhamma. He was cheered and greatly honored by the Kings, Saṅgha and laymen. Based on this assembly of oral recitation, the great, pious, and righteous King (Mahadhammarājā) had the entire Tipiṭaka inscribed onto 729 slabs of marble and housed in the Kuthodaw Pagoda below Mandalay Hill. Collected into one big heap like a book, the collection would surely be the largest book in the world!
Ledi Sayadaw gave lectures on the Tipiṭaka to the 2,000 student monks and was considered as the most skillful in teaching the Abhidhamma and Pāli grammar. After the Sangāyana (the fifth Saṅgha Council), in the 10th year of his monkhood, his great skill at lecturing was recognized by the King, who awarded him the title of Pathama Sācha (First Great Lecturer).
At a point later in life U Nyānadhaja overheard a discussion among Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) scholar-monks who were visiting Mandalay at the time. They said, “Burmese monks do not understand Abhidhamma and Pali grammar correctly because they are studying and teaching the Abhidhammattha Vibhavani Tikā in which there are many mistakes in both theory and grammar. Have they not discovered and realized these mistakes?” So U Nyānadhaja firmly resolved to someday write a new Abhidhamma Tikā and new Pāli grammar texts.
He had spent 16 years in Sankyaung Taik in Mandalay: 9 years as a student and 7 years as a teacher. As long as he dwelled there, he buried his life in the service of the Bhikkhu Saṅgha. He always cleaned the whole monastery and compound. He washed all the toilets in the morning and daily fetched drinking water, bathing water and toilet water for all the monks during those 16 years.
In 1245 B.E., he spent his rainy retreat (Buddhist Lent or vassa) at a bamboo vihāra near Mar- ajina Pagoda, near Monywa. During the rainy retreats of 1246 – 48 B.E., U Nyānadhaja stayed at U Wine Monastery, donated by Thangyo U Wine, a merchant from Monywa. At the end of the rainy retreat in 1248 B.E. (1887 C.E.), Sayadaw withdrew into Ledi jungle. Sayadaw’s disciples searched for him for many days. Finally, they found him sitting alone under a huge tamarind tree with only three robes and one black bowl in the middle of a thick jungle, called Ledi, to the northeast of Monywa. This marks the beginning of the era of Ledi Sayadaw and of his monastery called Ledi Kyaung Taik.
Ledi Monastery & Ledi Jungle Cleanse
In those days, in the Ledi jungle, various ogres, ghosts, giants, spirits, etc., were threatening and frightening the people who came there. These creatures were frightening even to the Sayadaw as he meditated alone in the forest. In response, he developed deep Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness meditation) toward them. This bound the creatures to him with a spirit of love and kindness. They immediately became the Sayadaw’s friends and attendants and never frightened the people again. Because of this, Sayadaw’s fame and high esteem spread among the people, and he became known as “Ledi Sayadaw”.
Soon As the students and monks attending him gradually increased, Sayadaw’s devoted and pious laypeople extended the accommodations at his monastery. When learned monks from many places began coming to Ledi Sayadaw to study scriptures and meditation, the pious laypeople built many residential monasteries, various halls, secluded huts, stupas, Buddha images, water wells etc. He designated the Ledi Monastery as Sādhujanapāsādikārāma (meaning “the monastery for the gladdening of good people”) and named the ordination hall Sāsana Sobhini Simā (meaning the consecration for the courtesy of dispensation). These names were insignificant in the legend of Ledi Sayadaw. The monastery and the Sayadaw became renown throughout the world as Ledi, the name taken from the forest near his birthplace.
Later at the age of 40 in "Ledi forest" Sayadew founded “Ledi Monastry” in Monywa and began practicing and teaching intensive meditation. From this monastery he takes his name Ledi Sayadaw, referring to "respected teacher of the Ledi forest. He consequently spent the next 9 rainy season retreats at Ledi Monastery and taught Tipiṭaka to student-monks who came to him from many places. He preached the Dhamma to laypeople, answered many questions, wrote many books, and practiced Vipassana Meditation continuously.
Amongst his many activities and obligations, Ledi Sayadaw was also able to accomplish a task he had set for himself many years before at Sankyaung Taik in Mandalay. Remembering the Sinhalese commentary on the Abhidhamma, the Abhidhammattha Vibhāvani Tikā, Ledi Sayadaw discovered and corrected over 230 errors in it. From his studies and lectures, he compiled a new commentary on the Abhidhamma, entitled the Paramattha-Dīpanī Tikā
When Ledi was 50 years old, Sayadaw entered the Sapagan Tawtankyi Forest, Twante Township, Hansāvati District, and stayed at Sapagan Forest Monastery. Here he retreated to practice kasina meditation and attained the fourth jhāna. Then, Sayadaw began Ānāpāna meditation. He consequently wrote “The Lion’s Roar”, a poem which he gave to his senior disciple and well-known dhamma preacher, Ledi Vannita. In this poem Ledi Sayadaw mentioned that he had attained the fourth jhāna and that he would surely be reborn in the Brahma world.
In the Oak Mountain Forest Monastery, Ledi Sayadaw taught meditation privately to his disciples: U Tiloka, U Nandamālā, U Visuddha, U Javana, U Sobhana and U Sandara. He meditated diligently along with them day and night. One evening, Kappiya (his attendant) Maung Sa Mon went to Ledi Sayadaw’s meditation cottage to bring him a drink, stood at the door and saw Ledi Sayadaw sitting in the air 3 feet off the ground!!!. Maung Sa Mon stared in amazement at his Sayadaw and told the other monks about this wonderful event. U Tiloka, U Nandamālā ,U Visuddha,U Javana,U Sobbana and U Sundara, who were all senior disciples, came to witness this marvelous event. They paid their respects to their great teacher for his excellent qualities and agreed not to tell anyone about what they had seen.
When Sayadaw went to visit Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda, which was in a mountain forest, a herd of wild elephants came running toward Sayadaw and his followers. The group of disciples ran away and scampered up trees to get out of the way, but Sayadaw stood firm, sending mettā. As he did this, the wild elephants slowed their stampede and approached Sayadaw in a gentle manner, paid their respects to him and quietly departed. This incident was reminiscence of when the Buddha with his mettā tamed the rampaging elephant which Devadatta had sent to kill him. This further increased Ledi Sayadaw’s renown.
During the years 1263-64 B.E., Ledi Sayadaw moved to Shwe Taung U Mountain on the bank of the Ctaindwin (Sallāvāti) River near Alon Town, and resided in a stone cave. At that time he wrote three books: (1) the Āhāra Dīpanī, (2) the Annata Dīpanī, and (3) the Dhamma Dīpanī. Sayadaw grew seriously ill during his stay at the mountain monastery. One day, a very old and peculiar white person appeared to pay his respects to Sayadaw and gave him some strange medicine for his illness, which Sayadaw took. His illness immediately disappeared. This strange white person was believed by many people as a Celestial being.
Poem to the Prime Minister
In 1265 B.E., Ledi Sayadaw moved to Latpantaung Mountain, on the north bank of the Chindwin River, three miles to the west of Monywa. Here, Sayadaw meditated with strong determination and also wrote the following five books:
- Sammāditthi Dīpanī (Manual of Right Understanding)
- Catusacca Dīpanī (Manual of the Four Noble Truths)
- Kammatthāna Dīpanī (Manual of Meditation)
- Paramattha Sankhepa (stanzas in Burmese)
- Nirutti Dīpanī (in Pāli)
Near the end of 1265 B.E., Ledi Sayadaw wrote a long verse called “Profound Poem” and had it sent to Kinwonminkyi U Kaung, the former prime minister of King Mindon. U Kaung was very impressed upon reading this poem, and he invited Sayadaw to come to Mandalay and stay at his residence. The King had been avid students and supporters of the Dhamma. Since the British annexation of Burma and the exile of the monarchy, there had been a “teaching vacuum felt among the remaining echelons of court society. Ledi Sayadaw was destined to fill that vacuum by delivering Dhamma lectures at night and in the daytime by answering the many questions that arose among the royal family and the educated audiences who heard his discourses. On certain days he taught Ānāpāna meditation to these same audiences and authored a book on this technique, the Ānāpāna Dīpanī, while staying at U Kaung’s house in the Old Royal Palace. During his sojourn at the Mandalay Palace, Ledi Sayadaw’s Dhamma preaching became widely celebrated throughout the capital city, and his fame spread. This began the striking of the Ledi Dhamma drum throughout the country. When people heard the deep, resonant sound of this kettle drum of Dhamma, they began to invite Ledi Sayadaw to travel all over Burma to teach this excellent Dhamma.
For many years, Sayadaw had been teaching and expounding the complex metaphysical analysis contained in the seven volumes of the Abhidhamma Piṭaka, one of the three main divisions, or “baskets”, of the Theravada Buddhist Cannon. These seven volumes include:
- Dhammasangani - Classification of Dhamma
- Vibhanga - Analysis of Dhamma
- Dhātukathā - Discussion with Reference to Elements
- Puggalapaññatti - Designation of Individuals
- Kathāvatthu - Points of Controversy
- Yamaka - Pairs of Dhamma
- Paṭṭhāna - Causal Relation of Dhamma
To further facilitate the dissemination of the Dhamma to the people, Ledi Sayadaw organized and established “Paramattha Sankhit Associations”, or Digest Associations. These associations became so widespread that they brought Abhidhamma study to all levels of Burmese society, whereas before it had been the domain of scholars only. Later, a commentary called Paramatha Sankhitta Tikā was composed by Ledi Panditato further aid in the spread of this wonderful teaching. It is this combination of great erudition and deep compassion for the education of the common person that makes Ledi Sayadaw so important to the spread of the Dhamma.
At times, Ledi Sayadaw travelled continuously throughout the country to teach meditation and Dhamma study to all levels of society. He not only travelled to drought areas, but also to plague-infested areas and to feuding villages. Sayadaw’s visits to these places were known to bring rain to dry places, the cessation of disease to plague areas and peace to feuding villages.
In 1268 B.E., Ledi Sayadaw spent his vassa at a Vipassanā meditation center near the ancient capital of Prome, the Vipassanakone Tawya. He also returned to Mandalay for a visit. While in Mandalay, he stayed at Masoeyein Kyaung Taik and delivered Dhamma talks on Vipassanā and other meditation techniques in many parts of the city.
In 1270 B.E., Sayadaw spent his vassa at Mawla Myaing. During the years of 1270 – 1272 B.E., the plague spread throughout the country, and many people died. A book called Rogantara Dīpanī was published by Ledi Sayadaw in which he instructed people how to protect themselves from disease.
In 1276, while Sayadaw stayed at Ratanāsiri Monastery, he wrote the Vipassanā Dīpanī (The Manual of Insight Meditation) during the annual meeting of the Society for Propagating Buddhism in Foreign Countries. The Vipassanā Dīpanī was dedicated as an “Outline of the Exercises of Insight for the Buddhists of Europe” and was written as a compendium of Buddhist doctrine for those in Europe who wanted to practice Vipassanā meditation.
The Last Few Years
In 1900 he gave up control of the monastery and pursued more focused meditation in the mountain caves near the banks of the river Chindwin.
Ledi Sayadaw also founded the “World Buddhist Missionary Association'' in Mandalay. This association worked closely with the Pali Text Society of England in answering many questions and translating these answers and many commentaries and Dīpanīs into English for the Pāli Text Society. The World Buddhist Missionary Association (W.B.M.A.) also published a newspaper, the Ledi Tayār Tha Tinsar, or the Ledi Dhamma Newspaper.
His reputation as a scholar and meditation master had grown to such an extent that in 1911 British government of India, which also ruled Burma, gave him the title of Agga Maha-pandita (foremost great scholar). Ledi Sayadaw declined the invitation to accept this award and did not attend his award ceremony. However, 3 of his disciples attended the ceremony and accepted the seal of Aggamahāpandita on his behalf. Ven Ledi Sayadaw was the first person who received the title of Agga Maha-pandita. He was also awarded a Doctorate of Literature (D. Litt) by the British Government at the the grand opening ceremony of Rangoon University. The Chancellor of Rangoon University went to Ledi Sankyaung near Zetawan Pagoda in Sagaing Hills and presented the title of D. Litt. to Ledi Sayadaw’s disciples.
During the last 2 years of his life, Ledi Sayadaw dwelled at Ledi Sankyaung in Pyinmana, between Mandalay and Rangoon (Yangon), one of the monasteries that had been founded in his name as a result of his travels and teaching all over Burma.
Ven Ledi Sayadaw died in 1923 at the age of 77 (in the 57th year of his monkhood), on the full-moon day of Waso.
Following is a list of monasteries where Ledi Sayadaw spent his rainy season retreats:
- Saing Pyin Kyee Village (his birth-place), Dipeyin Township
- Mahajotikarama Sankyaung Mandalay (as student and teacher)
- At a small monastery near Lokamārajina, Monywa
- U Wine Monastery, Monywa
- Ledi Forest Monastery, Monywa
- Sapagan Forest, Dala Township
- Mahamyaing Forest, Dipeyin Township
- LeSin Village, Monywa Township
- Shwetaung U Forest, Ah Lon Township
- Lapantaung Mountain, Monywa
- Kyin Myaing Forest, Pyinmana
- Myingyan Town
- Bhavanakon Mountain, Prome (Pyi Myo)
- Phat Tan Forest Monastery, Min Hla Town
- Kyaiksanlan Pagoda, Mawlamyaing
- Thapaung Town (near Pathein)
- Nyaungkon Monastery, Rangoon
- Leti Sankyaung, Sagaing Hills
- Leti Sankyaung, Mandalay
- Myit Thai Town
- Kyauk Wine Monastery, Rangoon
- Ka Tun.Monastery
- Ledisankyaung, Pyinmanar
Below are some of the commentaries (Tikās), manuals (Dīpanīs), essays, letters, poems, books, verses and answers to questions written by the Venerable Ledi Sayadaw.
- Paramattha Dīpanī Tikā (Manual of Ultimate Truths)
- Paramattha AnuDīpanī
- Nirutti Dīpanī or Vuttimoggallana Tikā
- Vaccavāca.ka Tikā
- Pattānudessa Dīpanī (Buddhist Philosophy of Relations)
- Sammāditthi Dīpanī (Manual of Right Views)
- Sāsanasampatti Dīpanī
- S~sanavipatti Dīpanī
- Niyāma Dīpanī (Manual of Cosmic Order)
- Vipassanā Dīpanī (Manual of Insight)
- Yamaka Pucchā Visajjanā
- Pancanga Dīpanī
- Upasampadaduanada kammavācā
- Parivāsa kammavācā
- London Pāli Devi (Questions and Answers)
- Exposition of Buddhism for the West
- Niyāma Dīpanī Tikā
- Mūlapariyā Sutta Tikā
- Padhāna Sutta Nissaya
- Lakkhana Dīpanī (Manual of Characteristics of Existence)
- Mahāsayana Dīpanī (Manual of Great Lying Down)
- Vijjāmagga Dīpanī (Manual of the Way to the Holy-Path- Knowledge)
- Dalhikamma Dīpanī
- Bodhipakkhiya Dīpanī (Manual of the Factors Leading to En- lightenment)
- Anatta Dīpanī (Manual of Impersonality)
- Somanassaupekkhā Dīpanī (Manual of Joy and Equanimity)
- Sammāditthi Dīpanī
- Āhāra Dīpanī (Manual of Nutritive Essence)
- Bhayavināsaka Dīpanī
- Āloka Dīpanī
- Kammatthāna Dīpanī (Manual of Meditation— Subjects)
- Anattanisamsa Dīpanī
- Sukumāra Magga Dīpanī
- Gambhira Dīpanī
- Rūpa Dīpanī (Manual of Material Characteristics)
- Saccatha Dīpanī
- Ānāpāna Dīpanī (Manual of Exhaling and Inhaling)
- Bhāvanā Dīpanī (Manual of Mental Concentration)
- Magganga Dīpanī (Manual of the Constituents of the Noble Path)
- Nibbāna Dīpanī (Manual of Nibbāna)
- Uttama Purisa Dīpanī (Manual of the Real Superman)
- Dāna Dīpanī
- Paticcasamuppāda Dīpanī (Manual of Dependent Origina- tion)
- Pārami Dīpanī (Manual of Perfections)
- Niyāma Dīpanī
- Catusacca Dīpanī (Manual of the Four Noble Truths)
- Vipassanā Dīpanī
- Sāsanasampatti Dīpanī
- Sāsanavipatti Dīpanī
- Sāsanadāyajja Dīpanī
- Gonasurā Dīpanī
- Rogantara Dīpanī
- Dhātu Kammatthana Dīpanī
- Dhamma Dīpanī
- Paramnattha Dīpanī Nissaya
- Nirutti Dīpanī Nissaya
- Āvenkaguna Vinicchaya
- AnuDīpanī Nissaya
- Asankhāra-Sasankhāra Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Sikkhā-gahana Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Cetiyangana Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Upasampada Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Nibbāna Vinicchaya (Vissajjanā) Dīpanī
- Sotapanna Vinicchaya (Vissajjanā) Dīpanī
- Punnovada Kammatthāna Dīpanī
- Mangala Sutta Dīpanī
- InaparibhogaVinicchaya Dīpanī
- Virati-sila Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Dighāsan Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Sarana-gamana Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Maha Sarana Gamana
- Atthavisa Buddha Cakkaparitta
- Khandā Āyatana Dhātu Saccā Āloka
- Paramattha Sankhitta
- Vinya Sankhitta
- Sadda Sankhitta
- Anatta Dīpanī (second)
- “Alphabets” Sankhitta
- Prosody Sankhitta
- Alankā Sakhitta
- Spelling Sankhitta
- Rūpa Pariccheda Sankhitta
- Vassavāsika Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Samphapalapa Vinicchaya Dīpanī
- Gambhira-kabyā-kyan (Manual of Profound Verses)
- Open Letter for Abstention from Taking Beef
- Epic on Alarm (Samvegakabyā)
- Ajivatthamakasila Vinicchaya
- Answers for Questions on Christianity
- Answers for Questions of Pāli Devi
- Answers for Questions on Hinduism
- Answers for Questions on Heaven
- Answers for Questions on Nibbāna
- Answers for Questions on the Idea of the Soul
- Answers for Questions of the London Pāli (Devi)
- The Vipassanā Dīpanī (the Manual of Insight)
- The Patthānuddesa Dīpanī (The Buddhist Philosophy of Rela- tions)
- Sammāditthi Dīpanī (The Manual of Right Views)
- Niyāma Dīpanī (The Manual of Cosmic Order)
- The Catusacca Dīpanī (The Manual of the Four Noble Truths)
- Bodhipakkhiya Dīpanī (The Manual of the Factors Leading to Enlightenment)
- Maganga Dīpanī (The Manual of the Constituents of the Noble Path)
- Alin-Kyan (An Exposition of Five Kinds of light)