The Teacher of my Teachers passed away on Thursday March 17, 2011; he was 99 yrs old.
He ordained my principal Teacher (Namgyal Rinpoche/Anandabodhi) in the late 1950s, and my senior Teacher (Sonam Senge/Bodhinanda) in the early 1980s.
I took students to his monastery in Burma to study with him in 2003, 2005+06.
He was an extraordinary being.
There is a gross misunderstanding that some Mahayana Buddhists have about Theravidin Buddhists, claiming that Theravadin Buddhism is focused too much on the individual attaining his or her own personal liberation (and forsaking the well-being of all).
Sayadaw was a living refutation of that view. Saying things like: “You students have little small greed, you have desire for a house maybe… but Sayadaw has Maha-Desire, Maha-Desire for all of you to have shelter, for all of you to attain enlightenment.”
Sayadaw’s Last Teaching
Here is my last conversation with the Ven. Sayadaw U Thila Wanta; it took place on the balcony of his monastery in Burma in December 2006. At that time I had spent almost two weeks near his monastery coming over with two other students to meditate on the grounds once a day and share in the daily meal offered to Sayadaw (which he then passed on to his 40 or so meditating cats–“Better meditators than you!” he sometimes said— and then to the Western visitors—in that order).
But all in all, very little appeared to be happening.
Truth be told I was a bit disappointed; I guess I kept expecting some kind of lightening bolt, a profound teaching from him to come out of the blue. But every day he just sent us off to eat his (and the cats’) leftovers….
On the final morning, as the taxi to the airport waited down below, we went up for a final goodbye.
At this point I remembered that I had promised Bodhinanda (my senior teacher, who had been ordained as bhikkhu by Sayadaw 25 years before) that I would pass on his best wishes to Sayadaw and specifically his wish that Sayadaw have a long life (Sayadaw was already 94 or so).
Smiling and expecting a simple exchange of pleasantries I repeated Bodhinanda’s request:
“Sayadaw, Bodhinanda asked me to wish you a long life.”
I was blindsided by Sayadaw’s response.
There was a pause as the translator passed on the message—and then Sayadaw’s frown deepened and suddenly he spat in his spitoon and he barked out (half in English and half in Mon, via the translator):
”Long life not important! Ha!”
He waved his hand dismissively,
“If want liberation for one person, for you, alone, then—short life good enough!”
Spitting again, he repeated,
“Short Life good enough—Ha!”
A pause, and then a long stare into my eyes–
“Long life only if wish liberation for all beings!”
“If, if want help all beings, then…. OK… Long life. OK.”
Here I’ve patched together some wonderful biographical notes about Sayadaw from a Kagyu website and from the ClearSky website: http://www.clearskycenter.org/about-us/history-of-the-lineage
Sayadaw U Thila Wunta (1912-2011)
U Thila Wunta, the teacher of Namgyal Rinpoche, came from the Mon State of Burma. He was born 28 June 1912. He began his training at a monastery school in 1919. At the age of 15 he took the vows of a monk. In May 1932 he received full ordination as a Bhikshu in the Theravada Order under the direction of Kyaw Sayadaw.1
U Thila Wunta settled for some time near the great Shve Dagon Pagoda, in Rangoon. It is generally believed by Buddhists that certain holy sites or “power spots” are especially conducive for progress in meditation. Experience has shown that meditation is not only easier, but that insight dawns much faster, when practice is carried out at such places. Further, because many beings over the centuries have themselves realized Enlightenment at these special holy sites, it is felt that a residue vibration of their presences remains there. The Shve Dagon Pagoda at Rangoon is one of the world’s most special power places.
In 1948, U Thila Wunta traveled to Popa to meet Bodaw Aung Min Gaung, a fully realized Burmese saint.
Bodaw Aung Min Gaung was a great meditator in the Weizzer forest-tradition of Burma. In Burma “weizzers” are known as persons having wisdom, masters of Wisdom (Skt: vidya), or the “Wise Ones”. 2
Bodaw Aung Min Gaung was a master who not only knew how to teach meditation but one who had himself acquired full realization. He was a truly liberated being.
Meeting Aung Min Gaung brought about a radical change in his understanding. To fully focus on his practice, he went into solitary retreat in the forest, wandering from village to village for food but otherwise living entirely alone.
Upon U Thila Wunta’s eventual return to Rangoon, a pious layman named U Pho Nweh donated five acres of land in the hope that U Thila Wunta would restore an ancient, broken stupa (pagoda) on the property. Initially U Thila Wunta thought that this would distract him from his meditation practice, but his guru Bodaw Aung Ming Gaung advised him to go ahead and accept the gift.
Today, surrounding the reconstructed central pagoda, there are now some 174 smaller pagodas. Buildings for monks and lay meditators have also sprung up throughout the grounds. The original five acres has been transformed over the years into a thriving monastic complex, known as Dat Pon Zon Aung Min Gaung Monastery, firmly centered in the Weizzer meditation tradition.
U Thila Wunta spent 1950–55 in meditation at the base of a tree on the grounds of Dat Pon Zon Monastery.
After U Thila Wunta attained awakening, he began a number of extensive trips around the world. Starting in 1955 the venerable Sayadaw visited Thailand, Nepal, and India. In India he went to Lumbini, Sarnath, Jammu, Sravasti, Kusinara, Darjeeling, and again Bodh Gaya, the holiest site of all. At Bodh Gaya he performed an intensive 49 day meditation retreat. He then returned via Thailand to his native land. In the meantime his little monastery had grown to accommodate twenty monks.
In 1956, during the Buddha-Jayanti celebrations of 2,500 years of Buddhism, he visited the London Buddhist Society, where he met the young Canadian, George Leslie Dawson (Anada Bodhi/Namgyal Rinpoche), who was immediately drawn to the Sayadaw as his teacher. The Sayadaw invited Dawson to follow him to Burma. Travelling overland to India that year, Dawson re-joined the Sayadaw in Buddhagaya where he received Novice ordination as Samanera Ananda. Continuing on to Burma, he received Higher Ordination at the Shwe Dagon Temple in Rangoon and was given the name Ananda Bodhi Bhikkhu. There he studied the Vinaya and Abhidhamma.
Under Sayadaw’s guidance, Ananda Bodhi received meditation training in all of the 40 classical Samatha practices and later studied the Vipassana (insight) meditation system under Mahasi Sayadaw. After more than 5 years of intensive training in the East, the Venerable Ananda Bodhi received the title of ‘Samatha-Vipassana-Kammathan-Acariya’ — teacher of both the calm and insight meditation practices — and he was given the red belt of a meditation master.
The Sayadaw U Thila Wunta dedicated his life to teaching the profound method of meditation that he learned under the compassionate guidance of Bodaw Aung Min Gaung.
His fame in Burma, where he was looked upon as a living Arhat, an enlightened Master, was very great indeed. Many miracles were attributed to him. The impersonal goodness, compassion and wisdom that radiated from his presence were tangible. Everyone who had the blessed fortune to meet U Thila Wunta felt that they were in the exceptional presence of an extraordinary human saint.
Namgyal Rinpoche’s teacher U Thila Wunta was an austere, old man of great presence and power. The depth of his wisdom was written all over his aged face, and the intensity of his love was like a tangible force.
1 The title Sayadaw (Skt: Upadhyaya, Tib: Khenpo) means “preceptor” or “abbot”. When one goes for ordination in the Buddhist tradition, of the five or more monks necessary for an ordination service, the two of most importance for the applicant is one’s Preceptor, or Upadhyaya, and one’s Teacher (Acharn or Acarya).
2 The term “weizzer” derives from the Pali word “vijja” meaning wisdom or awareness, according to L. Olmstead. It was the weizzer tradition that Bodaw Aung Min Guang passed on to the venerable Sayadaw U Thilawunta.