Vol.2 No.1 January, 1992
Words of Dhamma
Dullabho purisājañño na so sabbattha jāyati Yattha so jāyatī dhīro taf kulaṃ sukhamedhati.
- Hard to find is a person of great wisdom: such a person is not born everywhere. Where such a wise person is born, that family thrives happily.
- Dhammapada 19
Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971)
- by S. N. Goenka
Sayagyi U Ba Khin was born in Rangoon, the capital of Burma, on 6 March 1899. He was the younger of two children in a family of modest means living in a working class district. Burma was ruled by Britain at the time, as it was until after the Second World War. Learning English was therefore very important; in fact, job advancement depended on having a good speaking knowledge of English.
Fortunately, an elderly man from a nearby factory assisted U Ba Khin in entering the Methodist Middle School at the age of eight. He proved a gifted student. He had the ability to commit his lessons to memory, learning his English grammar book by heart from cover to cover. He was first in every class and earned a middle school scholarship. A Burmese teacher helped him gain entrance to St. Paul's Institution, where every year he was again at the head of his high school class.
In March of 1917, he passed the final high school examination, winning a gold medal as well as a college scholarship. But family pressures forced him to discontinue his formal education to start earning money.
His first job was with a Burmese newspaper called The Sun, but after some time he began working as an accounts clerk in the office of the Accountant General of Burma. Few other Burmese were employed in this office since most of the civil servants in Burma at the time were British or Indian. In 1926 he passed the Accounts Service examination, given by the provincial government of India. In 1937, when Burma was separated from India, he was appointed the first Special Office Superintendent.
It was on 1 January 1937, that Sayagyi tried meditation for the first time. A student of Saya Thetgyi - a wealthy farmer and meditation teacher - was visiting U Ba Khin and explained Anapana meditation to him. When Sayagyi tried it, he experienced good concentration, which impressed him so much that he resolved to complete a full course. Accordingly, he applied for a ten-day leave of absence and set out for Saya Thetgyi's teaching centre.
It is a testament to U Ba Khin's determination to learn Vipassana that he left the headquarters on short notice. His desire to meditate was so strong that only one week after trying Anapana, he was on his way to Saya Thetgyi's centre at Pyawbwegyi.
The small village of Pyawbwegyi is due south of Rangoon, across the Rangoon River and miles of rice paddies. Although it is only eight miles from the city, the muddy fields before harvest time make it seem longer; travellers must cross the equivalent of a shallow sea. When U Ba Khin crossed the Rangoon River, it was low tide, and the sampan boat he hired could only take him to Phyarsu village - about half the distance - along a tributary which connected to Pyawbwegyi. Sayagyi climbed the river bank, sinking in mud up to his knees. He covered the remaining distance on foot across the fields, arriving with his legs caked in mud.
That same night, U Ba Khin and another Burmese student, who was a disciple of Ledi Sayadaw, received Anapana instructions from Saya Thetgyi. The two students advanced rapidly, and were given Vipassana the next day. Sayagyi progressed well during this first ten-day course, and continued his work during frequent visits to his teacher's centre and meetings with Saya Thetgyi whenever he came to Rangoon.
When he returned to his office, Sayagyi found an envelope on his desk. He feared that it might be a dismissal note but found, to his surprise, that it was a promotion letter. He had been chosen for the post of Special Office Superintendent in the new office of the Auditor General of Burma.
In 1941, a seemingly happenstance incident occurred which was to be important in Sayagyi's life. While on government business in upper Burma, he met by chance Webu Sayadaw, a monk who had achieved high attainments in meditation. Webu Sayadaw was impressed with U Ba Khin's proficiency in meditation, and urged him to teach. He was the first person to exhort Sayagyi to start teaching.
U Ba Khin did not begin teaching in a formal way until about a decade after he first met Webu Sayadaw. Saya Thetgyi also encouraged him to teach Vipassana. On one occasion during the Japanese occupation of Burma, Saya Thetgyi came to Rangoon and stayed with one of his students who was a government official. When his host and other students expressed a wish to see Saya Thetgyi more often, he replied, "I am like the doctor who can only see you at certain times. But U Ba Khin is like the nurse who will see you any time."
Sayagyi's government service continued for another twenty-six years. He became Accountant General on 4 January 1948, the day Burma gained independence. For the next two decades, he was employed in various capacities in the government, most of the time holding two or more posts, each equivalent to the head of a department. At one time he served as head of three separate departments simultaneously for three years and, on another occasion, head of four departments for about one year. When he was appointed as the chairman of the State Agricultural Marketing Board in 1956, the Burmese government conferred on him the title of "Thray Sithu," a high honorary title. Only the last four years of Sayagyi's life were devoted exclusively to teaching meditation. The rest of the time he combined his skill in meditation with his devotion to government service and his responsibilities to his family. Sayagyi was a married householder with five daughters and one son.
In 1950 he founded the Vipassana Association of the Accountant General's Office where lay people, mainly employees of that office, could learn Vipassana. In 1952, the International Meditation Centre (I.M.C.) was opened in Rangoon, two miles north of the famous Shwedagon pagoda. Here many Burmese and foreign students had the good fortune to receive instruction in the Dhamma from Sayagyi.
Sayagyi was active in the planning for the Sixth Buddhist Council known as Chaṭṭha Saṇgāyana (Sixth Recitation) which was held in 1954-56 in Rangoon. Sayagyi was a founding member in 1950 of two organizations, which were later, merged to become the Union of Burma Buddha Sāsana Council (U.B.S.C.), the main planning body for the Great Council. U Ba Khin served as an executive member of the U.B.S.C. and as chairman of the committee for paṭipatti (practice of meditation).
He also served as honorary auditor of the Council and was therefore responsible for maintaining the accounts for all dāna (donation) receipts and expenditures. There was an extensive building programme spread over 170 acres to provide housing, dining areas and kitchen, a hospital, library, museum, four hostels and administrative buildings. The focal point of the entire enterprise was the Mahā Pāsāṇaguhā (Great Cave), a massive hall where approximately five thousand monks from Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Cambodia and Laos gathered to recite, purify, edit and publish the Tipiṭaka (Buddhist scriptures). The monks, working in groups, prepared the Pāli texts for publication, comparing the Burmese, Sri Lankan Thai, and Cambodian editions and the Roman-script edition of the Pāli Text Society in London. The corrected and approved texts were recited in the Great Cave. Ten to fifteen thousand lay men and women came to listen to the recitations of the monks.
To efficiently handle the millions in donations that came for this undertaking, U Ba Khin created a system of printing receipt books on different coloured paper for different amounts of dāna, ranging from the humblest donation up to very large amounts. Only selected people were allowed to handle the larger contributions, and every donation was scrupulously accounted for, avoiding any hint of misappropriation.
Sayagyi remained active with the U.B.S.C. in various capacities until 1967. In this way he combined his responsibilities and talents as a layman and government official with his strong Dhamma volition to spread the teaching of Buddha. In addition to the prominent public service he gave to that cause, he continued to teach Vipassana regularly at his centre. Some of the Westerners who came to the Sixth Council were referred to Sayagyi for instruction in meditation since at that time there was no other teacher of Vipassana who was fluent in English.
Because of his highly demanding government duties, Sayagyi was only able to teach a small number of students. Many of his Burmese students were connected with his government work. Many Indian students were introduced by Goenkaji. Sayagyi's students from abroad were small in number but diverse, including leading Western Buddhists, academicians, and members of the diplomatic community in Rangoon.
From time to time, Sayagyi was invited to address foreign audiences in Burma on the subject of Dhamma. On one occasion, for example, he was asked to deliver a series of lectures at the Methodist Church in Rangoon. These lectures were published as a booklet titled "What Buddhism Is." Copies were distributed to Burmese embassies and various Buddhist organisations around the world. This booklet attracted a number of Westerners to attend courses with Sayagyi. On another occasion he delivered a lecture to a group of press representatives from Israel, who were in Burma on the occasion of the visit of Israel's prime minister, David Ben Gurion. This lecture was later published under the title "The Real Values of True Buddhist Meditation."
Sayagyi finally retired from his outstanding career in government service in 1967. From that time, until his death in 1971, he stayed at I.M.C., teaching Vipassana. Shortly before his death he thought back to all those who had helped him-the old man who had helped him start school, the Burmese teacher who helped him join St. Paul's and, among many others, one friend whom he had lost sight of over forty years earlier and now found mentioned in the local newspaper. He dictated letters addressed to this old friend and to some foreign students and disciples, including Goenkaji. On the 18th of January, Sayagyi suddenly became ill. When his newly rediscovered friend received Sayagyi's letter on the 20th, he was shocked to read Sayagyi's death announcement in the same post.
Goenkaji was in India conducting a course when news of his teacher's death reached him. He sent a telegram back to I.M.C., which contained the famous Pāli verse:
Aniccā vata saṇkhārā,
tesaṃ vūpasamo sukho.
Impermanent truly are compounded things,
by nature arising and passing away.
If they arise and are extinguished,
their eradication brings happiness.
One year later, in a tribute to his teacher, Goenkaji wrote: "Even after his passing away one year ago, observing the continued success of the courses, I get more and more convinced that it is his mettā (loving-kindness) force which is giving me all the inspiration and strength to serve so many people… Obviously the force of Dhamma is immeasurable."
Sayagyi's aspirations are being accomplished. The Buddha's teachings, carefully preserved all these centuries, are still being practised, and are still bringing results here and now.
Questions and Answers
Student: Are there forces that support us as we develop our pāramīs (wholesome qualities)?
Goenkaji: Certainly-visible forces as well as invisible ones. For example, people tend to associate with those of similar interest, background or character. When we develop good qualities in us, we naturally attract people who have those qualities. When we come in contact with such good people, naturally we get support from them.
If we develop love, compassion and good will, we will get tuned up with all beings-visible or invisible-that have these positive vibrations, and we will start getting support from them. It is like tuning a radio to receive waves of a certain meter band from a distant broadcasting station. Similarly, we tune ourselves to vibrations of the type we generate; and so we receive the benefit of those vibrations.
It is not a matter of seeking the intervention of a more powerful being to achieve one's desires. You have to work hard, with the understanding that your work will enable you to benefit from the good vibrations of others. As the saying goes, the Lord helps those who help themselves.
Student: Will mettā get stronger as samādhi (concentration) gets stronger?
Goenkaji: Without samādhi the mettā is really no mettā. When samādhi is weak the mind is very agitated, and it is agitated only when it is generating some impurity, some type of craving or aversion. With these impurities, you cannot expect to generate good qualities, vibrations of mettā, of kāruṇā (compassion). It isn't possible.
At the vocal level, you may keep on saying "Be happy, be happy," but it doesn't work. If you have samādhi then your mind is calm and quiet, at least for that moment. It is not necessary that all the impurities have gone away; but at least for that moment when you are going to give mettā, your mind is quiet, calm, and not generating any impurity. Then whatever mettā you give is strong, fruitful, beneficial.
Student: Is the generation of mettā a natural consequence of the purity of the mind or is it something that must be actively developed? Are there progressive stages in mettā?
Goenkaji: Both are true. According to the law of nature-the law of Dhamma-as the mind is purified; the quality of mettā develops naturally. On the other hand, you must work to develop it by practicing mettā-bhāvanā. It is only at a very high stage of mental purity that mettā is generated naturally, and nothing has to be done, no training has to be given. Until one reaches that stage, one has to practice.
Also, people who don't practice Vipassana can practice mettā-bhāvanā. In such countries as Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand, mettā-bhāvanā is very common in every household. However, the practice usually is confined to mentally reciting, "May all beings be happy, be peaceful." This certainly gives some peace of mind to the person who is practicing it. To some extent good vibrations enter the atmosphere, but they are not strong.
However, when you practice Vipassana, purification starts. With this base of purity, your practice of mettā naturally becomes stronger. Then you won't need to repeat these good wishes aloud. A stage will come when every fibre of the body keeps on feeling good for others, generating good will for others.
Student: How does mettā help in the development of muditā (sympathetic joy) and kāruṇā (compassion)?
Goenkaji: Muditā and kāruṇā naturally follow as one develops mettā. Mettā is love for all beings. Mettā takes away the traces of aversion, animosity and hatred toward others. It takes away the traces of jealousy and envy toward others.
What is muditā? When you see other people progressing, becoming happier, if your mind is not pure, you will generate jealousy toward these people. "Why did they get this, and not I? I'm a more deserving person. Why are they given such a position of power, or status? Why not I? Why have they earned so much money? Why not I?" This kind of jealousy is the manifestation of an impure mind.
As your mind gets purer by Vipassana and your mettā gets stronger, you will feel happy when seeing others happy. "All around there is misery. Look, at least one person is happy. May he be happy and contented. May he progress in Dhamma, progress in worldly ways." This is muditā, sympathetic happiness. It will come.
Similarly, when you find somebody suffering, kāruṇā automatically arises if your mind is pure. If you are an ego-centred person, full of impurities, without the proper practice of Vipassana, without mettā, then seeing someone in trouble doesn't affect you. You don't care; you are indifferent. You try to delude yourself saying, "Oh, this fellow is suffering because of his own karma. How can I do anything about it?" Such thoughts show that the mind is not yet pure. If the mind becomes pure and mettā develops, hardness of heart cannot stay; it starts melting. You see people suffering and your heart goes out to them. You don't start crying; that's another extreme. Rather, you feel like helping such people. If it is within your means, you give some tangible help. Otherwise, at least you help with your vibrations: "May you be happy. May you come out of your misery. "Even if you have no material means to help somebody, you always have this spiritual means.
Love, which alone is a means for the unity of mankind, must be supreme, and cannot be so unless the mind is transcendentally pure.
-Sayagyi U Ba Khin
Three New VRI Publications (Now available through VRI Dhamma Giri)
Sayagyi U Ba Khin Commemorative Journal
Twenty years have elapsed since Sayagyi U Ba Khin passed away on 19th January 1971. In commemoration of this anniversary the Vipassana Research Institute has prepared a new journal containing short biographical sketches of the chain of teachers, the writings of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, reminiscences about Sayagyi by Goenkaji and other writings by Goenkaji and students.
Guide to Tipiṭaka
by U Ko Lay
Written by one of Sayagyi's foremost students, this book gives brief summaries of all the suttas. It provides an interesting and clear reference guide to the Tipiṭaka and is suitable for newcomers and scholars alike.
Vipassana Meditation: Healing the Healer
The Experience of Impermanence
Two essays by Dr. Paul Fleishmann
The first essay discusses the therapeutic role that meditation can have, its scientific basis, and its relevance to practitioners of healing professions.
The second essay explains how Vipassana meditation can be understood through Western psychology, and why it leads the meditator away from narcissism to mature, social love.